Chapter One

"La Maison Blanche e emeitte,"

"The White House has crumbled!"

It has been six days.

Ten.

Seven weeks.

Nine months.

'Fear', they write on the dirty broken walls of the inner city, in bright graffiti that seems to taunt the wreckage it looks upon. Perhaps it's to remind us of our terror, when we're too busy trying to stay alive to stop and think about the whys. Perhaps it's to give a name to the feeling we all know so well now, that tightening in the chest, to prevent us from falling prey to the beast. It is forced out into the open on these walls, snarling and spitting, shoved right in our faces.

"The end has passed,' they've written, but what comes after the end?

It was twenty-one months ago, and three weeks, and several days. Only six weeks back the White House fell, first standing monument to expire. Dimly, I remember wondering what they had left behind to make it cave in- bombs, drills, neglect? While survivors ran about shrieking like gore crows about it and promising a resulting chance for some mad, depressing reason, I concentrated on finding food, and counted the days until they again fell silent.

It didn't take long- five days.

I still keep track of time because it keeps me sane. I count the numbers of bodies on the street because no one else seems to bother; and believe me, there are many. Less now than before, when more American citizens perished than survived, but enough. The practice of leaving them out in the open to rot, developed when the number of dead rendered it impossible to bury every single individual, has carried on out of sick, selfish habit. You may jeer at me and call me senseless, but you're glad I count them, when you leave your mother and your father and your child to die because you don't have the choice to do otherwise.

Daemon Korray Atran. Date of birth: 8/1/83. Height: 5"10, Weight: 160 lbs. Caucasian, one of the last few in a dying middle class. This is what the government's record for me stated, before the end. Grey eyes; brown hair (although I've been dyeing it sapphire blue since the age of fourteen); and no criminal record to speak of, which doesn't particularly matter now.

It was the height of day, in late June, and God, the sun felt like firethrough my worn t-shirt. All winter we had waited through the feral cold, and the summer had hit like a wall, scorching. Hot. Hotter than anything we had experienced before, or so we told ourselves, like an oven spanning the entire looted shell of Washington DC. Trapping us with it's slow, predatory heat.

Us. We. They. The survivors, rare and common.

Foul, sickly, the very air seemed to amplify a feeling of crippling fatigue I couldn't afford just then; made my shirt cling more tightly to my sweat-plastered back, and exacerbated the scratching thirst in the back of my aching throat. It tasted of smoke, the air.

Walking in the relative safety of the alleyways, I searched out an empty building or a cellar- anywhere to stay. My bag wasn't as heavy as I would have liked, containing only half a tube of antibiotic ointment, a toothbrush, and some food and water. In one hand, I held a rusted crowbar; in the other, a flashlight.

Moving from place to place was the only way to stay alive. So many people, especially those with close friends or children, had tried to settle in the beginning. So many had died. Whether a Molotov cocktail thrown through the doorway at midnight or an abandoned apartment complex collapsing in on itself or a band of thieves as desperate as you yourself, there was nowhere safe.

My right-hand side. Movement-

The scalding summer day diminished my vigilance and my reflexes; I could have been killed had it been a foe in the building's shadow. Yet out through the broken-toothed mouth of its window stepped a petite girl, with blonde hair almost down to her shoulders, and familiar eyes like gleaming blue marbles in the insipid face of a porcelain doll.

"Claire," I croaked by way I greeting. My heart fluttered like a dove in my chest with relief. Wordlessly, she handed me a water bottle, which I accepted gratefully, making sure not to drink too much. My mouth and throat still felt coated with sand as I returned it to her.

"Follow me." she said quietly.

I pursued close behind her through the alleyway, until we reached the end where it flowed into open street. I hesitated.

Claire took the strap of my bag, heaving it onto her own narrow shoulders; a gesture reminiscent of the days we'd trek up the hill from school together, but so foreign in the world we'd grown into, or maybe inherited. She went on, and I had little choice but to follow.

Light washed over me like a tidal wave, momentarily blinding me and worsening my headache. How long had I been in the alleyways? Two bodies laid beside a red hybrid car, their bloated stomachs offered to the smog-filled sky and the malevolent scent reminding me of a brick warehouse I'd once broken into for supplies, only to find it full of putrid, rotting fruit. Another body was sprawled in the middle of the road, too small to have been an adult. Claire didn't look at them as I did, keeping her gaze ahead and picking up her pace. I took her hand.

After a while, my legs grew sore and each breath felt like the raw bite of an inferno, scarring my lungs. My own endurance was more than adequate after move than a year of this, but Claire, she was amazing. It was only after we'd ducked into the space between two dilapidated buildings, down stairs and past a shoddily-built wall of wooden boards- she seemed to now just which ones would be loose enough to act as an entrance- that she let her enervation show.

Slumping against the wall of the underground shack, she turned sideways at me.

"Haven't seen you in a while." she said.

I smiled grimly and, not knowing what to say, stared around. The air was much cooler here, walls made of splinters, wood, and gravelly stone that felt delicious against my swollen hands. In the corner was a pile of blankets, most of them patched or torn, in some manner of makeshift bed. Three neoteric-looking rucksacks sat along the wall, and- I noted with disbelief- a pile of books.

"You look as if you're planning to stay." I said, not believing the words even as I spoke them.

"I've been living here for days."

"D- Claire- days?"

"'Few days, maybe a week." she said far too nonchalantly.

I crossed to the books, picking one up. Lolita. Nabokov. The sort of novel she used to devour.

"Claire, do you have any idea how dangerous it is to- to-"

-I'm not stupid." she replied coldly, and I set the volume down. The pile spilled over, releasing a cloud of dust from the floor.

"I've been careful." she told me. "This place is well hidden. Fortified. I haven't had any trouble, and I don't plan on leaving unless it's for a very good reason." Her eyes, like pools reflecting a clear sky, bore into me like those of a hawk.

I stood.

Protectiveness battled with equanimity, neither side willing to give in. Admittedly, I was impressed at how she'd managed to survive like this for so long. And it wasn't like Claire to make irrational decisions; if she was going to remain there, she would make it as safe as possible.

What if she became another corpse on the street, a bullet hole like a rosette on her chest?

Claire was no fool.

And yet….

So prospective were the consequences that I couldn't help but feel solid, tangible panic for her.

I won't lose you.

So quiet was the hideout, so still. Ice. Emotions were frozen like autumn leaves beneath its thin surface, burning scarlet, awaiting the first crack of the thaw.

"I won't live the way I've been living." the cadence of her voice surprised me. So infrequently did she seem…. Weak. No. Claire was never weak.

But she pushed the hair out of her face, and went on, and her voice wavered like a reflection on disturbed waters. "If I survive, then just that…. I survive. But I'm not going to live this way- not for five years, or fifty. I don't want to forget-" she broke off before, with a deep breath, continuing. "I don't want to forget for to smile, how to laugh, at the most stupid things." She locked eyes with me, such fierce determination in them that I very nearly took a step back. "I won't let that happen to me."

I couldn't meet her eyes after that.

Turning, I noticed the amount of faded newspaper clippings on the wall. "Apocalypse", "destruction", "inevitability"- these words dotted each paper like an army of ants. One article had only random letters, a meaningless jumble posted by blood-thirsty 'revolutionists' who had sought after an establishment to control. It was dated back over a year ago.

"The Impending Doomsday," another read. Before the collapse, everyone had been obsessed with the apocalypse. The dooms dates they fabricated out of thin air increased in frequency as the economy and the government and the environment writhed in the throes of our poison's upshot, as if they could map out the fall that had happened less like the sudden impact of a meteor or the dreaded approach of a tsunami and more like the gradual conquerence of a disease. They'd wanted a doomsday, they'd wanted an apocalypse. They had broken the world, and they'd wanted to start over.

What intoxicating naiveté.

"Make the most of it, live off the land!" the extremists had cried. The land? There was nothing but rubble- the wreckage of civilization, the waste of plague and war and strife and advancement- as far as anyone could see. The Earth was so old, old enough to have withstood billions of years and certainly old enough to withstand the human curse. But any healing process would take ages, and here we were caught n the middle with the barren, wounded works of out own vicious hands.

"Apocalypse predicted." "End nears." "Hope Forsaken."

They were all foolish, blending into one another and melting into the wall; the ignorant words of a child that descend with more immensity and weight than a landslide when they pick up meaning out of sheer happenstance. Had Claire found these articles and pinned them up, or had they already been there?

A single sob wrenched me from my thoughts, and I realized my hands had furled themselves into ireful, spiteful fists.

Cautiously, I approached her.

Claire, who never wept, who never displayed it when she was upset, wilted against the side of the den. Claire…. Never cried. Yet tears glistened on her ashen cheeks, streaming from eyes lowered to the ground in apparent shame. I said nothing, only took her in my arms and held her until she stopped sobbing. She smelled like clean linen. Fresh air. Rain

How unlikely.

If I was being honest with myself, I had no reason to be angry. There was nobody to blame for what my world has become, what Claire's world had become, else everyone to blame, and myself as much as everyone else.

But not Claire.

"You can stay as long as you want." she choked into my shoulder. Was she begging? "You can stay with me, Daemon." My shirt was filthy, but I could easily replace it.

I tried so hard to speak levelly. "I will, I will. Don't worry, okay?" she looked up at me. I cracked a smile. "You're usually the one comforting me."

Claire laughed once, and buried her face in my grimy shirt, and together we calmly and slowly fell apart like the vestiges of dusk into full-fledges night.

La nuit est sans appel d'offres l'aube.