Being in the presence of imminent and inevitable death is the most frightening thing possible. It’s scarier than getting lost in the middle of Wal-Mart at the young age of five or enduring your first day of high school, the most judgmental place in the world. The fear I’m talking about is more gut wrenching, heart pounding, and hair rising than anything else in the whole world.
My feet pound hard against the cracked street and keep in tune to the fast beating of my heart, which now bursts from my chest. My muscles burn. I barely notice the scenery blurring past me. There isn’t much to look at anyway; everything is destroyed. Abandoned, shattered, and burned up cars litter the empty street. Glass shards crackle beneath my footsteps. I’m forced to leap over a rusty Honda that’s missing its doors and I hit the pavement edging myself to run even faster.
I glance over my shoulder. A group of impressively fast barely-human monsters are chasing me. Their mouths are agape in screams of agony and arms stretch out in front of them. Their fingers grasp at the air in front of them and muscles ripple under their burnt and swollen skin. The whites of their sunken in eyes are tinted red and brown.
I look ahead just in time to see a left corner coming up. I jump over another car and focus on the path I have to run. I need to get away I need to run away. A little parlor on the corner has a store window with a spray painted red bunny. I curse under my breath and reach for the gas mask rattling on my right hip. When my fingers manage to unhook it I place it over my face and readjust it. I turn around the corner.
I clench my fists; I am now in Zone 1. This is the area with the least radiation of the blast radius. I don’t need to look behind me to know the creatures are gaining me. I can feel it with every step, every breath I take I can smell them. My lungs burn and my heart hammers even harder in my chest. I begin to slow down, my vision turns fuzzy, and my legs seem to tangle with each other. The world swirls around me and the screams are right behind me. Claw-like fingers grab the back of shirt and dig into my flesh. I slip and fall to the ground. The gas mask slips off my face and I take my first breath of radiated air. Bleeding hands cover my body and I open my eyes to gaze into sunken red holes that never seem to blink. Pain bursts from everywhere on my body. Warm liquid gushes from my skin and hot musky breath covers every inch of skin. They’re eating me, they’re eating me, they’re eating me!
A high-pitched wail explodes into my mind and wakes me up. Cold sweat pours down my whole body and drenches my purple tank top causing it to cling to my skin. I hug my knees to my chest and bury my face in them, trying to make myself as small as possible.
“Zen! Are you okay?” Comes a concerned voice from the other side of the crimson bed sheet hanging from the concrete ceiling. I grumble a response, hardly trusting my voice to speak words. The bed sheet rustles as someone walks into the makeshift sleeping quarters. A hand appears on my shoulder and a quiet voice barely reaches my ears, “Hey, you okay?”
I lift my head up and can see a strong jaw clenched in concern, a proud chin, and the gleam of dark mysterious eyes. His coal black hair blends into the shadows caused by the dim lighting. Tears well in my eyes, I hate being so weak, but ever since that day, ever since that stupid day when chaos broke loose I’ve had nightmares or dreamless sleeps.
My head rises higher and I climb into the boy’s arms. I feel safe in here, safe in the arms of this human being who had stayed human unlike the monsters in my nightmares. I urge the tears to stop; I force them back to collect into an ocean in the back of my mind. Strong arms hold me close to his warm chest, a chest with a beating heart. I put my ear up against it and listen to the steady thrum. It calms me down enough for me to draw away. A gleam of white flashes and I can see he’s smiling. I offer him a small smile back.
“Thanks Luke,” I clear my throat, reinforcing it with the mark of strength. He nods, stands up, and offers me a hand. Without his assistance, I get up and wrap my arms around myself. The sweat had made me cold. Luke turns around and exits the sleeping quarters, holding the bed sheet open just long enough for bright light to pierce my eyes. Steadying myself with a deep breath, I follow suit.
The concrete floor sends a cold shiver up my spine. After adjusting my eye to the bright light, I look around taking in the familiar surrounding. Gray concrete walls just like the floor and ceiling wrap around the room and are adorned with shelves crowded to the edge and hooks supporting a mass number of objects. The shelves contain everything from books to bullets and blankets to boxes filled with unknown things. To the left of me is the front door and a broken washing and drying machine. Even if they weren’t broken we wouldn’t have been able to use them since all the electric power plants are either destroyed or abandoned. Across the room is a tall table covered with a white sheet. An old desk overflowing with medical supplies, sits next to the table. In the center of the room lies a thick rug cushioning the legs of the four different sofas and a black coffee table. To the right of me, which is the far right corner of the room when entering through the door, is crowded with four refrigerators and a dining room table grouped with six mismatching chairs. Two similar looking boys occupy two of those chairs. They both have blond hair, except that the younger twin’s is a bit darker. Both are the youngest in the family. The one closest lifts his green eyes from the mess of bottles, rags, and powder he’s working on, and gives me a great big smile.
“You doing alright Zenny?” Gale, thee younger twin with darker hair, asks in a quiet voice. I nod and sit down in a creaky wooden chair. I grab a water bottle from the middle of the table and take a sip. Stupid nightmares. Gale looks at me, concern practically written on his forehead. I laugh, “Jesus Gale! Why are you looking at me like that for? I’m fine!” He looks down and then, seemingly put at ease by my reassurance, gets back to helping his brother. The mess in front of them looks like as if someone dumped out half of our trash. I’m utterly confused and stare as their fingers work with everything. It must be some type of bomb they’re working on. After a few minutes I give up trying to make of the mess and take a sip of water as I look around the room, which is actually a basement. Luke is nowhere to be found and the other five sleeping quarters near the washing machine look empty.
Suddenly the door to the basement opens and a dark skinned man announces, “We got problems Zen!” He marches straight across to me with worry etched into his Venezuelan features.
“Spit it out Rio,” I order as I swish the water in the bottle around.
“We can’t find food in our normal circle any more. All of it is either gone, spoiled, or contaminated with radiation,” he blows out a puff of air and puts his hands on the surface of the table and leans on it. He turns his head to the right to look at me. I bite the top of my water bottle deep in thought. We’ve been surviving in this basement for almost seven months now, there’s no way all the food’s gone! It’s a pretty big neighborhood.
A redhead who had followed Rio in approaches the table and pulls up a chair, “There’s also an explosion in RADs lately. There’s more than usual. I think they're coming from LA.” She pauses, a look of barely contained terror shadowing her eyes. “And they’re hungry,” she whispers.
That statement reminds me of my nightmare and I try to hide the involuntary shudder that passes through me at the thought of RADs coming to eat us. Gale and his twin look up from their work, curious as to what the group’s next step to survive is. Even Luke appears from wherever he was.
There’s limited food left, an increasing amount of RADs, and my family to take care of. I’m left with only one choice.
“We go looking for the Free Zone.”
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