Chapter 1, Unlikely companions wander through a post-apocalyptic wasteland seeking refuge.
I flipped through the last few indecipherable pages of my so-called journal. The cover was sordid but recognizable. Snow had melted some of the pages together, and some of the writing was too smudged to read. But, my memory was vivid enough to piece together a few illegible words.
It had been three months since I’ve been away from home. And, the cold isn’t much better. Every day seems to get worse and worse. There are moments, though, that seem more bearable than the rest…
* * *
“We can’t build a fire? Why not?” Aaron inquired, yelling at James at the top of his lungs.
“We’ll risk being found--”
“But, I’m cold, damnit!”
He tried to snatch the matches from James’ cold hands. Failing, the half-opened box fell in the snow.
“Now they’re damp and need to dry out… Are you happy now?” James said, wincing.
“I just wanted---”
“We know what you wanted,” a girl interrupted. Her name was Jessica or Jesse… Jess--? Something like that; I never cared to listen closely to the last few syllables of her name.
“You’re just so selfish,” she continued. “What would you do if those things find out where we were?”
“Run. That’s what you’d do. Stop making things so difficult for the rest of us.”
I agreed with everything that she had said, but wasn’t James talking first?
She quieted down and backed behind James’ shoulder. I guess it was her way of telling him that it was his turn to speak again.
“Don’t put everyone else in danger with your stupidity. If you wanna pull stunts like that, run off on your own and do it. Don’t pull us down with you.”
With that, he was done. And, the conversation was over. He clasped his gaunt fingers around his thin, black jacket and backed off into a corner. His faithful dog followed.
All of our eyes followed him into the darkness until we could no longer make out the outline of his willowy body. Subconsciously, though, I think we all understood that the black, bulging figure in the corner that never moved was James. And, we aren’t to bother him when he is upset.
We averted our eyes and left James to himself. He was so very irritable nowadays, and I couldn’t blame him. We were dirty, hungry, and scared. To top it all off, it’s freezing cold and, there are no real level-headed people in our group--well, none as level-headed and as quick on their toes as James.
I admit that I am only good for school books and exams, and when it comes to survival, I’m about as useful as a wet blanket in a snowstorm. And, I think James knows that. But, I try to do as much as I can to make up for it and James sympathizes. The others aren’t as forgiving, even though they are about as useless as I am.
We moved around over a dozen times since the first month. Now, we’re staying in a library, I believe… Or, it could just be a bookstore. Either way, it’s deserted and we’re here alone, left to fend for ourselves.
This is good enough for me, I guess… I like to read often, but my stomach doesn’t like brainwork when it’s hungry. I wandered around, straddling the complex mixture of shadow and light, which limited my search for food.
I stared off into the distance for a short while, and then felt a faint pang of hope flutter around in my stomach. There was a vending machine sitting afar off in the distance; I could tell. It was as perfect and still as if no one or anything had even discovered its existence yet. I had to have some food from that box.
I looked around, hoping to find a friendly face in the dimness. I fixed my eyes upon Aaron, but he seemed unapproachable… His expression was one of contempt and ire. So, I quickly diverted my attention to Jess; she looked up at me.
“Don’t even ask,” she said abruptly, whipping her short and curly, dark tresses back over her shoulder.
I frowned. I didn’t want to go into the darkness by myself, but I also didn’t want to starve. How could the two of them be so selfish at a time like this? Weren’t they hungry too? Were they actually too upset to be starving? Were they all really upset over a pack of damn matches?
I winced and knelt down. The hunger was growing and becoming unbearable. I held my stomach and peered around again.
The shadow in the corner was misshapen. It bulged once--twice--. Then a body slowly took form, aglow with the crepuscular light that poured inside through the upstairs windows. The thinning shadow then took shape, and a long, slender arm reached out to touch my shoulder.
“Tomorrow,” James said. “When there’s more light, we can look for food.”
Though reluctant, I nodded and tried to mentally prepare for the night of starvation that lay ahead of me. Well, I’d rather die starving than to die being ripped apart and eaten.
“Why do we always have to listen to you?” Aaron interjected, twirling a jade, varsity football ring upon his finger.
“Because, he knows what he’s doing… unlike you,” Jess said snippily.
“I’m serious… Pretty soon, he’s gonna be telling us where to piss!”
“I’d like to know whether the area’s safe before I pull down my pants…” I sarcastically mumbled under my breath.
“Okay, cut out the smartass remarks. This has nothing to do with either of you. This is between me and him.”
James didn’t say anything. He towered behind me silently and glanced sideways at Aaron in the dim light.
“Are you deaf?”
“Keep your voice down,” James said coolly.
“Or what?” Aaron boomed rudely.
“Or you’ll get us discovered,” James whispered in a stern voice.
Aaron sighed and walked behind us. He stopped at the distinct line of light that crossed over into darkness and looked back over his shoulder.
“Coming?” he called out, hoping someone would accept his hazardous invitation.
“I can wait…” I murmured, quickly stepping behind James’ long, skeletal arm.
“Humph, figures,” Aaron snorted. “What about you, Jess?”
Jessica looked a bit uneasy. “I’m not all that hungry, honestly,” she said. Then, she quickly looked away and started playing with a few invisible strands of her chocolate-brown hair.
“Fine,” Aaron answered. “But don’t look at me like a sad puppy when I have food and you don’t.”
After that, he took one giant stride out into the darkness. He hopped over what seemed to be a desk covered in books and magazines. Then he was alight again but only slightly. His face and torso was painted with pale-blue moonlight.
Oh God, no… What is he doing? I thought. Aaron rolled up the sleeve of his jacket and clenched his fist over and over again. The jade stone glimmered dully in the moonlight.
“James…” I whispered, “He’s not gonna--he’s not gonna actually break it with his bare hand, is he?”
James placed a narrow hand on my shoulder. “Come on,” he said, turning me away.
“What? But, what about--”
“If he’s so smart, he can figure it out himself.”
I looked up to catch a glimpse of his face. His eyes were still and fixed straight ahead. Jessica, confused, didn’t know whether to follow or to stay behind and wait.
“What’s goin on?” she asked nervously.
“Either you come or you stay,” James said, stalking past her with both hands now on my shoulders. “It’s up to you.”
He stopped for a moment and looked back at her. I took the opportunity to look back also. There was a loud crash, and she jumped to her feet. I glanced over in the corner where Aaron was standing, and his hands were slick with something… and dripping. Could it be blood?
His face looked pained as he drew the wet hand up to his face and examined it carefully. His fair hair was glowing, illuminated with soft, blue light.
I glanced quickly to the left of him; something else had caught my eye. A figure appeared, hobbling out of the darkness from across the street.
“Oh, my God,” I said in a gasp, and covered my mouth.
“Keep moving,” James said, putting his hands on my shoulders again.
Jessica had jumped to her feet by now, but before she could follow us, we had turned a corner. And she, along with Aaron, was lost in the darkness behind us.
Just after we had turned the corner, I heard a dull thud.
“What was that?” I managed to shriek out in a raspy whisper.
I quieted down as I was told. We reached a dead end. There was a door at the far end of the long, secluded hallway, but it was locked. And, James didn’t want to risk making noise trying to pry it open.
“Be quiet,” he whispered, placing a thin finger to my chafed lips.
I held my tongue and nodded my head. There it was again, that nauseating, dull-sounding thud, except it sounded farther away this time. I made up my mind. I knew what the sound was now, and why I had to keep quiet. It was the sick thumping of dead bodies being flung at thick glass.
I touched the skin of my arm. It was spiked like raised dots. I was terrified… And, we were all gonna die--all because Aaron didn’t like to be told what to do. Why did I have to mention being hungry!
Before long, I grew deaf. I couldn’t hear anything any longer. My heart, my pulse, my everything beat hard into my ears. And, I felt myself shrinking--shrinking back into the corner behind me.
I grabbed for a wall in vain and fell blindly through the air. My backside hit the cold, tile floor, but I didn’t scream. I scooted back into the corner, and pulled my knees up to my chin.
“What was that?” I gasped.
James backed into the corner and hovered over me for just a second.
“Is that the dog?”
James quietly knelt down beside me and put his long hand over my taut mouth.
There was a sound--a faint sound--of something skulking down the hallway. It was too faint, too stealthy to be one of those creatures. But, what if they could creep around like--like us?
“Hello?” a shaky voice whispered from around the corner.
We didn’t answer back. Instead, we crouched together in the darkness, breathing deeply into each others' chests. The voice said “hello” again, and still, we didn’t answer.
James tried to pull away, but I wasn’t having it. I couldn’t allow anything to happen to him. He was my only chance, my only hope for survival.
I clung to the sides of his shirt and tried keeping him still. He reached for my hand, then turned around and nodded to me that it was okay. So, reluctantly, I let him go.
He crept alongside the wall and spied beyond the corner that we had darted around. After a moment, he sighed and reached out into the darkness. To my dismay, that arm came back with something--someone attached to it. Jessica.
I felt my cheeks burning. I was somewhat glad of the dim-lighting and the vast pools of darkness surrounding us---because I was blushing with embarrassment. And, I found myself getting jealous.
I shrugged, and I leaned my head against the wall. What a silly emotion to feel in such a situation! But, I still couldn’t contain the thoughts--the feeling of the heat between our cold bodies when he crouched down beside me. I blushed again and put my head down.
* * *
Jessica explained to James--and to me I suppose--how Aaron had looked around just as we disappeared. He panicked, grabbed a few things from the machine, and ran out of the other side of the building.
He tried asking her to come with him, but she had told him that she’d rather take her chances trying to find us. She should’ve taken his offer, I thought. I was pissed… And, I had to piss… damn it.
I tried to suppress the stinging sensation by thinking of other things. And for a while, it helped. I don’t know how long I held it for, but it seemed like forever.
The absence of adequate light seemed to make everything last much longer, and that only made me have to go worse.
“Um… I have to use the bathroom…” I said in a hushed, timid voice.
“What?” James and Jessica asked simultaneously.
“Um…” I squirmed around and pulled my knees under me. “I said--I have to pee really badly.”
“Couldn’t have picked a better time, could you, sweetie?” Jessica inquired cynically.
I hated her tone of voice. And if I didn’t have to pee so badly, I would’ve slugged her right in the face--well, I would’ve hit her in the stomach. She was all legs and breasts. I wouldn’t be able to reach her face unless I tip-toed; and when you’re swinging, you don’t have much time to tip-toe.
“It’s not like I purposely have to pee…” I responded. “I’ve actually been holding it for a very long time.”
“Sure you‘ve been,” she said, with that same cynical inflection.
The pressure in my abdomen was building rapidly, and I could feel my muscles tightening. I looked up in James’ shadowy face. He frowned at me, and I blushed an embarrassed blush.
“Let’s see if we can find you somewhere to go,” he said compassionately.
He empathized with me, as if he’d had the same thing happen to himself once before.
I jumped up, and the weight of gravity wasn’t so kind. The pressure shifted and pressed directly down upon my tract.
I cringed; it wasn’t quite dark enough for me to grab the seat of my pants and hobble behind him without anyone seeing where that hand was resting. So, my knees sort of knocked together and my legs bowed out at the sides. He stepped forward, and I tried to step behind him, but--I couldn’t follow.
James looked at me again and shook his head.
“It’s okay, really,” he said, looking down at my trembling hands.
I winced and chewed at my bottom lip. Then without further hesitation, I raised one shaky hand and grabbed at the seat of my pants.
It helped significantly. The urgency of my little situation calmed down substantially. I glanced over at Jessica; she placed a hand to her lips as if she were suppressing a laugh. Oh, I hated her…
I quickly looked away and refocused my attention on James. He blushed a little and looked away. I looked down at my feet, indiscernible in the darkness, and blushed too.
He grabbed my free hand, and we turned the corner carefully. Jessica crept not too far behind. She held her breath and followed quietly. And soon, we reached the open space where we had fled from not too long ago.
The room was scarcely alight; there was morning light shining inside of the windows. It wasn’t bright, no; it was a kind of glowing, deep-blue light--the kind of hopeful, blue luminescence that shows in the sky after it rains.
Earlier, when the place was filled with shadows, I felt more restricted, but now that everything was illuminated with more light, the room seemed vacant and wide--much wider than it had seemed in the darkness.
© Copyright 2014Jennifer Brighton All rights reserved. Jennifer Brighton has granted theNextBigWriter, LLC non-exclusive rights to display this work on Booksie.com.