Five Months after Day 19.
CHAPTER ONE: Fresno, California.
Victoria breathed in two times, three times, before stepping once again into the light of day. The gun was heavy by her side, a reassuring weight pressed against her thigh; its nozzle stuffed in the green grass of the terrains morning dew covered grass grazed her bare feet frequently. The sun peaked out behind puffs of orange clouds, its rays hit the back of her head and her eyes and she hated that the sky would look more like morning had there not been so much smoke in the air. She could still see the long tufts of gray reaching towards the sky from miles away, she couldn't smell it, all she could feel in her oxygen was the freshness of the woods but it still upset her, but she could see it.
There had been a lot more of those lately; fires. They had begun about a week prior, too far away for the flames to be seen but close enough so Uncle Ben could just barely diocese the smoke tickling the then blue sky. The long expanse of trees covered most of the darkness and she turned away from the gray so she could search them, Victoria could hardly see into the breaking in the woods but she couldn't bring herself to walk closer to where the sunlight couldn't hit.
She liked the perimeter checks; she liked that they came really early in the day because she doesn't have to worry over whether it'd be dark soon, she likes the wind tugging at her hair and the dew at her bare feet and she likes the silence even more. It, like the gun and the walkie-talkie in her pocket, is reassuring. Leafs rustle against each other; the only noises besides those of nature are the footsteps she plants into the earth.
Uncle Ben's singing can be heard sparsely from the distance, the hum of a song long gone from these times drifts in her ears, she doesn't recognize the tune or the lyrics that manage to escape his lips every so often. Uncle Ben was really into the old classics, as he so called them. He taught her in the vast time of a month what "real" music sounded like; she hadn't liked it, she hadn't liked the too strong guitar solos or the raspy voices of some country singers he liked. She was more accustomed to the smooth voices of her times music, the rapid beat of an auto-tuned drum, the almost annoying chime of bells over and over, she can almost hear the voice of Beryl Canossa in her ears; she doesn't enjoy the constant sounds of Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult spilling into the night as she tried to sleep.
Surprisingly, Taylor had loved the rock music. She guessed it suited him, with the dark hair and the dark eyes and the very moody persona; she imagined that, perhaps, had he been born hundreds of years before, he would be singing along to the same songs—or, not singing along, but humming them under his breath when he thought no one was looking.
Victoria knew she had to stop thinking about all these things that didn't really matter, she should be stepping away from the clearing and into the forest, she shouldn't be focusing on Uncle Ben's clear voice as he washed the dishes; she should be checking for cannibals and she should be doing it now, while there was enough light for her to see and stay hidden at the same time.
And, despite the ever present fear in her bones and in her jittering hands, she really did like this alone time.
She could escape Taylor and Kennedy and Uncle Ben and Uncle Tim. She could stare at her hands when no one was looking and maybe let a few tears slip without feeling guilty about making them feel bad. It hadn't been there fault, and they seemed to be doing okay. Well, Taylor never looked okay, but he didn't stay up late at night to stare out the window, wondering whether she'd come back if he said that he missed her. Or maybe he did, she never bothered to check, really. She didn't talk to him all that much anymore.
Victoria takes the last few steps it takes to get to the shadows of the oak trees and lifts the gun from the ground, shifts the safety to 'off' and cocks her head to the right, where she thinks perhaps there had been a noise.
Except there wasn't, there never was anything but paranoia, superstition; it was her head putting possible sounds of snapping twigs and labored breaths in her thoughts. But she checks again anyway, behind trees and bushes and large fallen boulders. She manages to catch her foot a couple of times through vines on the forest floor; her Chuck Taylors are way beyond the point of novelty, they're ripped and scratched and dirty and stained with unrecognizable substances. She can see holes forming in the logo on the side, she's happy they've survived so far though; these extremely, almost extinct brand of shoes had been passed down so many times she finds it remarkable how long they've managed to stay intact. This is their last year, she thinks, and rubs at the hole on the tip of the blue shoe.
Victoria staggers through the area, running through the trees and over a little clutter of puddles from last night's rain; she jumps and skips around the piles of autumn leaves that have fallen on the ground and almost falls flat on her face when she manages to trap her foot in the curve of a trees' root. The gun falls instead, bouncing on the trunk of the tree before landing heavily by her foot.
She curses beneath her breath; the first rule they had out here was to keep quiet and a gun falling on the trunk of a tree—especially one as heavy as the rifle—wasn't exactly following that rule. She picks it up hastily by its strap and puts it on as quickly and as quietly as she possible can.
There are no noises for a couple of seconds, the sun creeps higher in the sky but it's still too dark for her to see more than twenty feet into the woods. Her brown eyes blink closed and then open and then again before she realizes that that noise she had heard just then—the crackling of a fire, the slight rustling of trees not deliberately made by the wind—had not been a figment of her imagination.
Her heart stops in her chest, climbs up her throat, over her tongue and falls flat on the floor; fresh and beating and so damn scared on the forest ground, free and living for whatever it is out there to take.
Uncle Timothy had taught her the basics; what to do if she happened to find one or if one happened to find her, she more or less knew how to harm someone with the gun, knew what the best places to shoot were. But now, everything she knew was failing her and the noise really was real, she could hear the flickering of a fire, the crisping or wood. She can't see it, but she moves in the general direction of it. Victoria wonders how she's even able to move her feet when every other part of her is frozen in place.
Flashes of faces she can't fathom any one to have flicker through her mind; images of things she can't process, black teeth and ashen tongues and long talons the color of dry lava; pictures of her dormant mother smiling, being dragged away by her hair, not shouting, not fighting, not doing anything but looking up at the creatures with features drawn in unconscious indifference. So much blood.
So much blood.
Her hands shake as she pulls the rifle at point-shoot and she can see the fire now. Purposeful, not accidental, there was still the sight of a lighter by the flames. Her legs beg for her to turn and run, to call Uncle Timothy or Uncle Ben or even Taylor but she can't. She can't make a sound because then they'd know she was there and she'd die before she gave herself to the monsters. She muffles her irregular breaths by pulling her lips tight over her teeth. The fear quickly takes place between her every bone, through every corner of her body.
And then through the clearing, a blur because she's crying—she hadn't even realized it when it started but the tears were hot roads down the sides of her face—, something creeps out, the sound of the fire stopped, the pale skin of something walking through the breaking in the woods is the only thing she can make out before she shoots.
The sound is so loud she's deaf for a period of three seconds and she realizes she's closed her eyes. The tears are fresh on her face and the rifle falls on the ground because her hands are shaking too hard to continue to hold it; the fire's gone, the gust of wind that the thing had managed to produce when he'd fallen had put it out. Her hiccups fill the silence, the sound of shooting still sounds so loud in her ears and she thinks about how she's dead now, she might as well be dead that noise had been so loud. If there's one, there's more, Uncle Timothy says.
The body on the ground groans, stirs, winces and cries out in pain and that's when she realizes that it was holding a gun of its own; or was, since she's running over and taking it from its spot on the floor before he realizes that he could easily shoot her.
"Don't speak! I-I'll shoot!"
He's drearily quiet afterwards; his eyes shut tight, arms pulled close over his body. She watches the blood on his shirt grow. I shot him in the heart, she thinks, he should be dead, he shouldn't be moving, it should hurt too much to even make a sound. She thinks about how strange it is that he doesn't resemble one at all, besides the moonlight pale skin and the feeling of danger that she can practically grab he looks normal.
The sun climbs higher in the sky and reflects on the things lean form, he groans beneath his breath, panting, tears streaming down his flushed cheeks.
"Adam!" The voice comes from behind her, in the woods, footsteps follow it and the sound of cocking guns accompanies them as well, "Did you get it!?"
The gun in her hands shakes so hard it almost falls; the tears keep coming, not in fear but in remorse. She's shot a boy. A human boy.
And then another—another very, very human—boy walks through and into the clearing, sunlight seeping into his yellow hair. He doesn't see him first, he sees her, with a gun, pointing at the ground, crying and shaking and asking to be forgiven because she didn't mean to.
"I'm s-so sorry! I didn't-I didn't know!"
Victoria doesn't know what to do and the boy staring down at her now looks so confused, he doesn't seem to understand what she's trying to say.
And then he looks down, at the patch of blood seeping from his shirt, onto the ground; at the look of pain on the boy's face; Victoria sees terror shadow over it, a desperate look of fear. Her stomach clenches into knots, jumps around in her stomach when she realizes that even if she's apologizing with every cell of regret in her body, the boy would still die. He'd lost blood already, the bullet was still lodged somewhere near his heart.
"Sean?" Victoria snaps her head back at the sound of another voice; this one is feminine, much smaller, and hesitant. The girl is almost as tall as her, with locks of short brown hair and eyes so light they looked violet; stained with surprise at the scene before her; like the sunny boy who'd come in first, she just doesn't fit in with what was going on. They were all so pretty. "What's happened?"
"Hurry and give me your water bottle, Jane. Where's Maddy? Never mind," He says, leaning over the body of the boy. "Adam? Can you hear me, idiot? You're gonna be alright."
Sean takes the bottle of dirty water from Jane and runs it over the front of his shirt, which he takes off and rubs over the wound. They're chests are covered in grime and dirt and other stains Victoria can't extinguish. One of them looks like a stain of old, dried blood but she can't be sure.
Adam screams suddenly, and the tears haven't stopped coming.
"Quit crying, you're responsible. The least you can do is call for help."
Her cries are silenced then because he's right, but the aircraft hangar is miles from here, at least four. There's nobody out there but them, no one to help.
Then she remembers the walkie-talkie.
She pulls it out from her overalls, clicks the receiver and says frantically, terrified, that she needs help and fast. "We're around four-four miles from there."
"You shot 'im?" Uncle Ben's voice crackles.
"Y-yes. I d-didn't know he was…"
"It's alright darlin', we'll be there as soon as we can."
The walkie-talkie falls from her hands as she leans down to try and help him lift Adam. But Sean pushes her away, his eyes are stony blocks of a blue so blue; she thinks about how it isn't the color that's intimidating, it's the way he uses the coldness in them that makes her step away.
There's a girl by Jane's side now, so small and frail looking; skinnier than she should be and crying slightly, her hands are pulled around a large back pack that she didn't look strong enough to carry. Without hesitation, she takes it from her hands and leans down to look into the honey in her eyes.
"He's gonna be alright." She promises, "It's gonna be fine."
Beyond the trees, beyond the border of sunlight and clouds and foggy morning dew, hunger resided like a plague.
Gusts of orange gas broke through the oxygen, tearing through the bodies of so many. Some hit the ground in mindless heaps; some threw up the contents of their stomachs before doing the same,
For Michael Birdy, the gas tasted like that medicine his mother had given him after he had told her about his throat hurting.
Well, his throat didn't hurt, not now, and his mother was not here.
He wondered where exactly she was.
Michael watched people fall to the ground like sacks of potatoes; watches them empty their stomachs, watches them cough and splutter until they too gave out and lay sprawled on the floor. Cars crashed into each other, a man on a bike riveted through the air before sliding his face into the cold cement.
He watched chaos all around him.
Cars honk, their alarms beep annoyingly, customers at restaurants peak out the window and run to the entrance, open the door and let the gust of orange inside the store. The filthy oxygen perturbs their lungs and does the same to the, ten people fall to the floor, glasses clatter, tables topple over. There are no screams; there are no calls for help; only the pathetic wheezes of trying to breathe.
Michael Birdy stands and watches the fingernails on his hands morph themselves into black tainted dagger; it doesn't hurt, but there's a tiny tingle on the tips of his fingers, a pinch on the ends of them.
There's a scratching over his skin, like rubbing a coiled sponge onto his back and his arms and his legs; he wonders if he's bleeding, if he'll have to ask his dad to wash his clothes again.
And then the hunger settles in his stomach, heavy and impossible to ignore. It gnaws at him from the inside out and all he can think about is food, food, food foodfood.
"No," he whispers into the vastness, "I don't want it."
Adam can feel the bullet in his chest; it's unfamiliar, cold, only about an inch deep. Whoever shot him was inexperienced; he was happy for that. He didn't like whoever shot him, but he's thankful that they were stupid enough to miss his heart. He shouldn't be talking about anyone being stupid but he can't help it.
It hurts though, a lot. Groans escape his lips every so often because he can't help it. He's never been shot before, he broke his arm once, tore his lip open once and got burned pretty badly on the left side of his arm but nothing really ever compared to this; all those wounds had been numbed by morphine, the best whoever did this had done was wrap a tight white cloth over the gun shot, bathed it in water and poisoned his stomach with pain killers. He could feel the sting as well as he could feel the fingers on his hands gripping the inside of his thigh, his cheeks biting through the flesh in his cheeks.
"Stop struggling, Adam, you're making it harder for me to work with you."
He instantly recognizes Sean's voice and he's so happy suddenly, because he thought he was alone or something; kidnapped somewhere far away from Madeline and Jane, far away from Sean. He can't help but smile; it hurts to do it but he does it anyway, until he can't and it falls into a grimace.
Had Sean shot him? Who did it? He can't imagine Jane doing it and Madeline couldn't even carry a handgun. There was no reason for any of them to point the gun at him anyway but who else could it have been? He knew Sean was maybe a little bitter towards him, still unfamiliar to him, but he was sure he wouldn't shoot him. Then who? If it had been any of the meats, he wouldn't be here healing; he'd be in their digestive tracks… if they had any.
"Where are we?"
"We're safe, far as I'm concerned. Somewhere in California, I think close to Fresno, but I'm not too sure," Sean's voice is soothing somehow, he thinks, and closes his eyes to listen to the rest he knew Sean had coming, "Lift your back a little, I need to change the bandage."
"I don't care if it hurts, just do it." So he does. It hurts so bad he sees white behind his eyelids but he does so long enough for Sean to remove the red-dyed cloth from his chest.
"Do you know who shot me?" He asks, hoping Sean would tell him and not belittle him about being stupid enough to forget who shot him.
"You don't remember?"
"…No, not really." He rubs his hands over his eyes, something his dad told him to stop doing; it was a habit now, he was stressed. He remembers his dad smacking him over the face for not listening to him and he feels a really strong tug at the center of his heart, right next to the bullet.
"A girl, she said she was just checking the perimeter for any meats and you scared her, so she shot you." Adam doubted she called them meats, but then again, maybe the Rebellion finally got on TV and decided that the nickname should be used all over the United States. He thinks about how Logan would be so happy to see himself on the screen but then he remembers that he wouldn't, technology wasn't something many people had anymore. It was banned in around thirty states, including Texas. He wasn't sure about California, but he'd ask Sean later.
He doesn't feel angry at the girl, despite the fact that the wound would slow them down. He'd do the same if someone snuck up on him, especially during times like this.
"And she's here? The girl?"
"Yeah, talking to her uncles or something; Jane's with her, and so is Maddy." Adam nods dully, wincing at the pain in his chest once again when Sean places a damp rag over the wound. "Why weren't you more careful? I swear to God, this could have been ignored if you would have just waited for me to say when it was alright to—"
"Sean, I don't wanna talk about it, alright?" Sean tightens his grip on the cloth, "It happened; we can't make it not happen. Seriously, get that stick out of your ass and accept it. We're stuck here because of my stupidity and there's nothing you can do about it."
Adam stares up at Sean, and he thinks about how happy he is that he's there; that it hadn't been cannibals to get them, that they were somewhat safe in California, far away from Fritch; that the bullet had barely missed his most vital organ. He's so grateful he feels tears prickle at the ends of his eyes. He turns away in case Sean catches his small moment of overwhelming emotions, he'd never live it down.
"Are you crying, dumbass?" Adam laughs behind his choked cries, "God, if you weren't injured, I'd punch you."
"Yeah," He says, smiling up at his brother, "me too."
They sit there in mutual silence, the small whispers of who he guesses are the girl and her uncles are the only noises for a while until Adam hears whimpers and sniffles that aren't his own; he can see the small tracks of tears making their way down Sean's tanned cheeks, the sight makes the tears in his own eyes to quicken, and the smile he has on his face hurts but he can't seem to get it off. He's not even trying.
"Shut up, don't look at me," Sean shoves a hand into his face and Adam laughs, his ears pink, "You realize we're not leaving here until you're better, idiot? You took us like ten steps back."
"I kinda got that, but hey," He smiles, rubbing the tears off the teens soft face, "We could use a rest, don't ya think?"
"Don't touch me." Sean shoves his hand away, frowning and even in his little show of weakness, Adam thinks about how indifferent Sean looks; his mouth slack, his eyes empty. For the billionth time, Adam wonders what happened to make him this way and his eyes soften subconsciously.
"What're they talking about in there?"
"How should I know? Personally, I'm not really paying much attention to them at all," Sean looks down at his hands, fiddling his thumbs. The action makes him look innocent, something no one ever associates with Sean usually; even his friends were intimidated by him. "They've got food and this… cave thing around a mile from the hangar in case something attacks. We'll be staying there for as long as we need, they promised not to bother us as long as we cooperated in the rounds and collected groceries whenever they needed us to.
"Can you believe they've been staying here for over a month? Nothing ever got them, not even one meat wandered here. I haven't gotten around to asking where exactly we were but it's pretty secluded as far as I can tell. There are no telephone poles or satellite dishes, there's a radio but other than that they have no connection to society. It's amazing."
"Are they like government officials or something?" There was no other way they could keep in hiding for so long if that wasn't the case; the government was set on depleting the population to an impossible (but quite possible) amount of one hundred million people, they wouldn't ignore such a large part of land.
Since the increase of the population after 2080, food had begun running out; woods were cut down to make room for homes and businesses and other things that suddenly became necessary. The average home held up to six people, jobs were scarce, the economy plummeted and the middle class became the low class; not even the richest people on the richest side of the richest towns could pay they're excessive bills.
He guessed this was bound to happen, it was the route the government was expected to take; the world was an ugly place with so many ugly people, he didn't blame them for wanting to get rid of them.
But it was still wrong, and the way they were going on about it was even worse. It was evil.
"No, idiot, we'd be out of here the second something pointed at that; the governments' almost worse than the meats."
Adam stares down at his hands, the wound is but a small hurt now; the hurt thumped against his chest. It stung to breathe, but it wasn't anything he couldn't take.
"I think her uncles were with the Navy, or the air force or something. Most likely the air force. Why else would they know the location of an aircraft hangar? I didn't bother to ask."
Adam was going to ask him whether he thought it okay to stay; he wanted to ask if Sean was okay, he wanted to tell him that despite all the crap going on—the bullet in his chest, their father dead, without a grave, Jeremy gone and dismantled, the world roaming in man eating monsters—they'd all be fine, he'd climb through hell and high water to make sure of it, but from the corner of his eyes he saw movement.
Sean turned when he noticed Adam no longer looked at him, but the other side of them room.
And Adam guessed this was Victoria.