Memoirs From the End of the World
Okay, most girls would call you a diary, but I don’t really need a diary so much as I need a killer survival instinct and substitute for all human conversation. Maybe as a 16 year old girl, I should have named you Romeo or some crap like that, but that story ended with death. I live with death every day. I don’t want to act like that’s the ending I’m trying for. So, I’ll go with Romero. Certainly not romantic, but if anything can get me through this, it’s the wisdom I picked up watching old zombie movies with my older brother Pete.
Too bad the survivalist knowledge didn’t get him very far.
Anyway, I know an alien occupation isn’t the same as a zombie apocalypse, but the principles aren’t all that different. I still have to hunt for food in hostile environments, I still have to dodge mortal enemies (though my enemies are the robots programmed to capture strays and relocate them to the meat locker), and it’s crucial to learn a number of ways to avoid detection. Unfortunately, the meat locker robots have a number of technological advantages to help them track us down. Heat-seeking tranquilizer darts, ultra-sensitive sound detection, and all-terrain capability makes it a formidable foe. Escaping from one of those badass bots is about as difficult as outmaneuvering a lawyer.
Now, I’m not disparaging all lawyers. Pete had just been accepted to law school when the dung hit the a/c vent and stunk up everything. He was one of the good guys, an idealist. He longed to use his knowledge to help others. Maybe he was naïve about how the world really worked, but our world would have stood a better chance if there were more like him. It’s too bad we had too many of the wrong kind when our invaders came.
The invasion of our world didn’t go like the ones you might have seen in the movies. You see, the movies about the end of the world usually showed mass explosions and body parts flying every which way. Our heroes were gallant men (and some women, though usually wearing skin tight outfits made of pieces of fabric the width of dental floss) who forced our enemies into retreat an through determination and sheer will of character. That’s a noble picture to paint of humanity, aside from the ridiculous outfits, of course.
Unfortunately, that isn’t quite how it worked. The nobility was more than lacking in our so-called leaders. Thanks to them, we participated in our own destruction, and I’ll never forgive them for that.
First off, the aliens came in massive spaceships. This much was at least similar to the movies. They made the cliché move of going to see our leader. Of course, given how many nations there are in our divided world, which leader do you pick? The United States ended up persuading the aliens that we were the ones to talk to, and this irritated a few of our adversaries to no end. They said we were conspiring with the aliens to get their technology so we could use it against them. Suspicion escalated beyond reason, and several nations were soon threatening to go to war over the matter. One nation even launched missiles, and that’s when it all fell apart.
The missiles never hit. They were incinerated in the air by the weapon platform the aliens left in orbit. The aliens then used that platform to destroy all the world’s defenses, or as the aliens dubbed them, offenses. Once it became clear we had nothing to use against them, the leaders of the world quickly cowered in fear and sold us out. The ones who didn’t, of course, were immediately killed.
Our overlords weren’t interested in enslaving our entire world, just parts of it. With the help of a few human lawyers they hired, the aliens made deals with nations around the globe to set up reservations and meat lockers. They worked within existing legal systems whenever they could, purchasing the land with promises of new technologies to make the lives of those living outside the reservations comfortable. The prizes were good enough to convince them to forget people like me who happened to live inside the newly drawn borders of the US reservation. We became the property of the alien overlords.
Most of us who live inside the reservation are left alone until it’s our turn to go to the meat locker. They take our men and women at 16. Once there, they are forced to breed continuously until age 30. Half of the babies are implanted with alien spores at birth. In these children, the flesh is all that remains human, a meat puppet for our intergalactic pimps. Raised by our overlords and brain-altered by the spores, these puppets are anything but human. As adults, they’re supposed to become our new masters.
The unimplanted babies are raised by the adults who are too old for breeding, and will one day be used as breeders.
The aliens say they lost the ability to produce long ago, and this is the only way they can propagate their species. They pacify us with gratitude, saying that we’re demonstrating our nobility by helping save their species. I don’t buy their bull. Nothing forced at the point of a gun can be noble.
Pete tried to resist. He was supposed to be taken to the meat locker for breeding, but he peacefully refused. He gave a terrific speech on the nature of freedom, and people watched as he pleaded for further negotiations.
It was inspiring.
More inspiring was the shot to the head that killed him afterwards. His words were too dangerous.
When I turned 16, I ran. I’d rather have my brains splashed across the side of a house than spend 14 years in a meat locker. I live on the fringes of society, scraping by with what I can get.
Romero, you’re all I have.
Memoirs From the End of the World
She tapped the yellowed page with the tip of the ballpoint pen, leaving blots of black ink in the margin. It had taken several seconds of furious scribbling in the margins to get the ink flowing again, and she knew she shouldn’t be wasting the ink like this. Yet the repetition of it helped her think. Was there anything else she needed to say?
Then it dawned on her. She had indeed forgotten something. At the bottom of the page, she scrawled a short addendum.
Romero, I was so busy giving you a name, I forgot to tell you mine. I’m Rose Carter, but Pete always called me RC. It sounds better than Rose, anyway.
She closed the notebook again, and the well-worn black cardboard cover stared up at her. This was the only friendly face she could count on. When she found Romero hidden away beneath a pile of tools in this garden shed, his first few pages were home to gardening notes. Since the original owners of this notebook were nowhere to be found, RC had torn them out and shoved them into her backpack. They would be useful for starting a cooking fire later on.
Already dressed for the day in threadbare jeans and stained white shirt, RC waited only for the morning’s first patrol bot to pass. She stationed herself beside the square window that faced the street. It wasn’t easy to see since the road was several feet higher than the shed due to a steep downhill slope. However, this would help since it seemed unlikely the bot would bother scanning anything at her level. It would have to stop and recalibrate its systems to broaden its scanning radius. That would simply take too much time.
While RC waited, she did a quick inventory. She’d already rolled up the tarp that she spread out to use for a bed. Her clothes were already stored in her backpack. All was ready to go. With nothing left to do but wait, she opened the notebook to the back cover. She pressed the pen extra hard against the white cardboard so the words would come out bold.
Tips for Surviving the End of the World
Carry your entire life on your back. Never assume you’ll be able to return to the place you slept the night before. That assumption is a luxury that no survivor can afford.
After she finished writing the words, she heard the distinctive hum of motors.
Through the dirty glass, she could just make out the sleek black body of The Scorpion as it flew low over the street. She didn’t know what the overlords actually called this model of bot, but she felt her nickname was appropriate. Like a scorpion, this bot had two long arms with claws on the end that could shoot out and hold a person in place. The tail shot tranquilizer darts that could bring you down from a distance. This was the creepiest security bot around. She might’ve tried to outmaneuver the lower level security bots, but not this one. Few tangled with The Scorpion and escaped the meat locker. Unless, of course, you considered the grave an acceptable escape.
The Scorpion soon disappeared from view, obscured by the house next door. She hesitated for a moment. The peace of this shed was the best she’d managed to find in months. Located on a side street far from the town center, the patrols were less frequent. She’d spent nights in ditches, trees, anywhere she could find. Between towns, she huddled in shrubs to avoid the police units. Yet, once she walked out, she couldn’t come back. Her general rule of thumb was to never, under any circumstances to stay in one place for more than three days. Last night had been number four. The time to move on had already passed.
RC took a deep breath. Shoving Romero in with her other supplies, she took one last look out the window. Confident it was clear, she yanked open the little wooden door and ducked outside.
The chill of the morning prompted her to pull her frayed gray jacket tight against her body. Sticking close to the houses along the street, she remained in the shadows and out of sight. If a random security detail moved through, which was bound to happen from time to time, she could take cover quickly.
RC made a mental note to write down Rule #2 when she got the chance: Keep your back covered, and map out an escape route everywhere you go.
Most of the homes in this area had been abandoned for months. Though the homes were unoccupied, there were still some canned goods to be found, along with other things that people going to a meat locker for 14 years wouldn’t bother bringing along with them.
It was too bad she couldn’t risk sleeping in one of these houses. They were randomly searched by security details. Fortunately, smaller buildings like the garden shed usually slipped under the radar. The aliens still didn’t seem to understand that some were willing to endure the draftiness and lack of a mattress to maintain their freedom.
That would be Rule #3. Avoid old patterns. Acting like you did in your old life will only make you predictable.
RC turned down an alley, intent on using rear entrances. The front entrances were visible from the road, and were therefore vulnerable.
Her stomach dropped when she saw a line of small security bots blocking her path. Their red indicator lights flashed as they registered RC’s presence.
Silently uttering every curse she could think of, she wished she’d added in her new Rule #4 earlier: Look for opposition before committing to a direction.
She was waiting for the sting of the dart when a pair of hands seized her from behind.
Memoirs From the End of the World
For now, 1 +1=2
I swore I’d travel on my own for a reason. Extra people only throw a wrench into the works when you can least afford it. Sure, when you pair up with people, you can split up the labor, and you can take turns with the watch. I understand that, but the risks aren’t always worth the benefit. After all, I’ve fed myself fine. I’ve clothed myself without any help. Why do I need anyone else to help me with the things I can already do?
Romero, I know what you’d want to say right now if you were real. You’d point out that I’m writing in a diary for company. Companionship isn’t without its perks. When you only have yourself to talk to, conversation can get boring fast. Yet, in having a diary as a companion, I can spare myself the indignity of talking to myself aloud. I might actually start believing that I’m crazy if I go too far down that road. This is as close as I can get to talking to a real person without incurring the icky strings that come attached.
Rule #5: Friends are a liability. People’s mistakes can kill you, and losing a loved one makes you weak and vulnerable to attack.
Remember, I lost my brother Pete to these creatures. That felt like a sucker punch in the gut. It seemed like I couldn’t breathe for days after that. I stumbled along through my daily life. Luckily, I was still 14 at that time, so I wasn’t running for my life yet. If I were old enough for the breeding, I would’ve been toasted by a security bot and thrown into the meat locker within seconds after Pete’s dramatic exit from the world of the living.
Anyway, I’ll summarize my latest harrowing escape from the security bots. I pulled a boneheaded move and turned a corner without checking it out first. Sometimes you’re in a hurry and you hotrod yourself into a hot mess. In my old life, any run in with the cops could be explained with a brief “Sorry officer, I was in a hurry.” (I’ll admit it, I had a tendency of skating super quick down crowded sidewalks, but I actually was in a hurry about 2/3rds of the time, I swear!) Yes, said officer would almost always dismiss what I had to say in my defense, but my punishment ranged anywhere from a warning to a modest fine. When you run straight into a security detail of techno monsters, there’s no such luck. The minimum fine is 14 years imprisonment.
So yes, I should have been more cautious. When those hands latched on to me from behind, I whirled around looking for some soft flesh to kick. In my panic, I assumed it may have been one of their spore infested minions. Some are green with bug eyes, some more squat and squishy, and others look more humanoid. With them, you never know what you’re going to get. Though none of our people are grown enough yet to be spore spawn (give it another ten years and you won’t be able to trust any child you see roaming the street), there are also those who help round up strays to curry favors with our overlords.
Rule #6: Presume that anyone might sell you out. Physical similarity does not necessarily indicate loyalty.
So, when I turned and saw a human about my age, I didn’t dismiss or assume anything. I couldn’t even assume gender, because when everyone you meet is wearing the same tattered street clothes and has the same unkempt hair that’s grown too long, it can be a challenge to differentiate. This stranger’s facial features also weren’t pronounced, and the dirt and general grime clinging to their skin obscured them further. However, when I heard the voice shouting “Run, now!” I could tell it was male. Not deep, but the sound was clear enough.
A fraction of a second later, the hands were pushing me down a set of stairs I hadn’t seen before. They led to a sidewalk that ran around the basement level of the house. My rescuer shielded me, so when the high pitch squeal associated with an identity scan went off, I know the beam hit his face instead of mine. The resolution of these scans is so high that the grubbiness that throws most people off the scent means nothing. I knew without a doubt this guy’s features were being matched up with an identity as I yanked open the basement door. We’d have to move fast to elude the inevitable pursuit.
Or so I thought.
When my knight in dirty cargo pants stopped just inside the door to catch his breath, I was stunned. “We can’t stay here,” I hissed in a low voice. “They know where we are!”
He shook his head. “They only scanned me, and they won’t bother coming after me. I’m useless to them, because I’m sterile. They may as well pick up an empty cardboard box for all the good I’d do them.”
“Lucky you,” I said. Those are honest words too. His lack of potency purchased him his freedom. And mine too.
I learned a lot about my rescuer while we moved on to another house. His name is Alyx (he made sure I learned to spell it right once he saw I’d be writing about him), and he’s searching for his brother. Apparently he wasn’t blessed with Alyx’s good fortune, and he’s been on the run. They got separated a couple of days ago. Since Alyx can pass by security bots without incident, he was gathering supplies for his fugitive brother. Then, one day, his brother wasn’t where Alyx last left him. He’s been looking ever since.
Anyway, Alyx may be handy just for his ability to circumvent the bots. So I’ll stick with him for a little while. Just not too long.
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC balanced the diary on her knees. Her back was pressed against a damp stone wall, her legs stretched out straight ahead of her. Her muscles ached from the brisk march Alyx had led her on through the back alleys of town, and she wished she had something more comfortable than a concrete basement floor.
The search for Alyx’s brother proved unsuccessful. They hadn’t seen evidence of anyone, and his spirits were suffering. He kept up his end of the conversation, but his words became quiet, subdued. Now he sat on an inverted metal bucket along the adjacent wall. The way he hunched over with his chin resting on his fist vaguely reminded RC of a statue that she’d seen in a previous life. The long silence, which she had filled with her thoughts as she transferred them to the page, finally began to bother her.
“You okay?” RC asked tentatively.
“It must be nice to have someone to vent to,” Alyx commented, his eye falling on Romero. “A diary’s better than I’ve had since Ollie disappeared.”
RC remembered that she forgot to mention Ollie’s name in Romero. She made a mental note to do that next time. Rule #7: Though people may not remain close to you, it’s still a good idea to remember everything about them you can. Information is at least as valuable as a good meal.
“I make do with what I have,” she replied dismissively. She definitely didn’t want to be the topic of conversation. Rule #8: The value of information means it can also be used against you. Don’t give away too much about yourself. “So, do you know where we are? I’ve never been in this area before.”
There was a reason for that, of course. This abandoned section of the city sat right on the edge of the central habitation area. Only a few blocks over, people went about their lives, living and working. Those who weren’t in the meat locker, anyway. If it weren’t for Alyx’s determination to look after Ollie, he could live a normal life there. He’d never be around anyone his own age, but he work in a nursery where the children who came from the meat lockers were raised. Or anything else the overlords didn’t want to do themselves, for that matter.
“I know this area fairly well,” Alyx replied cryptically. He ran his hand through his hair, which looked like it might be blond after a strong stream of water knocked all the caked dirt out of it.
“Any reason?” RC didn’t have a reason to be suspicious of him, other than good old Rule #6. Yet, if she let her guard down and was betrayed when she knew better than to let anyone get too close, she’d kick herself all the way to the meat locker. Then she’d be trapped. She couldn’t stomach the idea of sacrificing her freedom for someone else’s benefit.
He shrugged. “I knew people who used to live here. Since it’s familiar, I figured Ollie might have come here.”
That made some sense, but it also made RC cringe as her third rule came back to her. Avoid old patterns to avoid predictability. Yet the home field advantage couldn’t be dismissed entirely. Balancing these two contradictory ideas in her head, RC quickly drew up another rule. Rule #9: Operate in familiar territory with caution. Becoming too relaxed or lingering in an area for too long quickly negates any advantage gained by familiarity.
Returning her attention to Alyx, whose shoulders slumped so far forward it seemed a boulder must have fallen on them, she realized his hunch was more than a passing thought. “You really thought he would be here,” RC pressed.
“I’m worried about him. The longer he’s gone, the more I think he might’ve been caught.”
This had been the unvoiced essence of her thoughts for most of the day. “Even if he has, he’ll be useful to them. They’ll only hurt him if he resists.” Like Pete resisted, she added silently.
Alyx laughed wryly. “If you’re so sure of their good nature, why are you running too?”
A fire sparked in RC’s chest. “Hey, I hate those pisswads as much as anyone else ever could, but I was trying to make you feel better! That’s what a decent person does!”
He recoiled, analyzing her with startled green eyes. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t think I’d strike a nerve like that.”
“Well, you did,” RC spat, though her anger was already ebbing. Something about Alyx’s expression disarmed her fast, and a little alarm sounded in her gut. Be careful about getting attached, she warned herself.
A silent moment passed between them, and RC avoided his gaze.
Then the sound came. The rhythmic sound reminded her of a heartbeat pounding through the floorboards, but the reality was much worse. It was the sound of heavy footsteps.
“Ollie!” Alyx called as he leapt to his feet.
RC suddenly wanted to shake him. “Shhh! How can you possibly know that?” she hissed.
Alyx looked sheepish. “I know this neighborhood because we lived here. In this house. I figured if I was going to find him anywhere, it would be here.”
Now she wanted to slap him. “The security bots scanned you. For all you know, there’s a patrol coming in here to ask you questions about why you’re lurking in the restricted areas of the city.”
Alyx looked up, as if trying to see through the ceiling. The footsteps were traversing the floor above, but it was still only one set. “Stay down here. If it’s a patrol, I’ll make sure they don’t find you.” Then he bolted for the stairs.
Her stomach turned. If she were smart, and if her rules meant anything, she would listen. That’s why, when she found herself jumping up to pursue him and knocking Romero to the concrete in the process, she knew she was the one who needed to be slapped.
Memoirs From the End of the World
Alyx rushed up the wooden stairs as if the dangerous thing were behind him, not waiting for him beyond the old, loosely hung door. And as counterintuitive as it seemed, RC rushed up just as fast. When her companion carelessly flung open the door, forcing her to take a small step backward to avoid being smacked, it crashed into the banister. If the unknown guest hadn’t heard the pounding of their feet, they certainly heard that.
RC watched him disappear through the doorway, but she hesitated on the top step. Once she went through, anything could happen. Remember your rules! she silently chastised. You know damn well this is a stupid move on your part.
In spite of that, RC grasped the door frame and propelled herself through. If she went in fast, she might have the momentum to get out fast if it all went bad.
When she emerged into the kitchen, it took a long moment for the scene to make any sort of sense. Alyx stood by the stove, staring in horror at a human figure that loomed mere feet away. She couldn’t distinguish much about this person at first glance, other than general size. That alone would have been intimidating, too. The stranger stood several inches taller than Alyx, and the shoulders were broad enough to block off any doorway. The blood and dirt covering them erased all other features she might have been able to latch on to. Torn clothing exposed patches of pale skin that somehow escaped the bloodbath.
“Ollie?” Alyx’s voice trembled slightly. “Is that you?”
Those words seemed to break through the odd trance that had fallen over them all. “I thought I’d never see you again.” This guy’s voice was deep, though the relief leaked into his words, lightening them significantly.
“What happened to you?” Alyx demanded.
This question made Ollie jump, as if something clicked in his mind. He nervously looked behind him. “A patrol caught me, beat me when I tried to get away, but I managed to run. They shot me with a tracker, and they’ve been after me ever since. I can’t get it out. I don’t know how long it’ll be before they catch up.”
RC’s ears perked up the moment she heard the word “tracker.” Once hit with the rather monstrous dart, a small chip burrowed under the skin and transmitted data back to the patrol that shot it. It served a double purpose: it helped them to track down rogues, and it instilled a sense of futility. Once tagged, most didn’t bother to run. Luckily for Ollie, he had a free brother willing to look after him. Running made sense in his case.
She felt her stomach tighten into a lead ball inside her. Now that Ollie was red hot with a tracker, it wasn’t safe to be on the same city block as him, let alone the same room. You should just run for it, she told herself. This isn’t a safe place for you anymore. These people are a liability.
Yet, her feet remained where they were. She watched as Alyx, obviously uncaring about the messy state of his sibling, moved to give him a brief hug. “It’s okay,” he said with an inexplicable air of calm. “We’ll figure this out.”
Then Ollie turned to face RC, and she got her first glimpse of his green eyes as they surveyed her. “Who’s that?”
“Alyx saved me from a group of bots,” RC replied. The moment she said it, she understood why her feet weren’t carrying her away from the scene. She owed Alyx a debt, and leaving now would keep that debt hanging over her head. Once she repaid it, she could leave without guilt. She quickly declared a new rule in her head.
Rule #10: Exchange favors when possible. Though you shouldn’t form close friendships, you never know when it may be useful to have a friendly acquaintance to call on for another favor.
RC looked to Alyx. “If you keep an eye out for patrols, I can work on getting the tracker out of him. You’re the only one of us who can stall them if it comes to that.”
Alyx nodded. “We can do this,” he declared before he took off for the front door.
Within minutes, RC had searched the bathroom cabinets and uncovered a few things she would need. A mostly empty bottle of peroxide, a couple of stray gauze pads, and half a roll of medical tape. The aliens provided for these needs as an incentive to get people to come without a fight. Alyx and Ollie’s parents must have moved willingly, and the boys must have packed lightly when they ran.
Soon Ollie, shirtless and weary, leaned over the back of a kitchen chair. RC had already removed the dart from the middle of his back. It was no wonder he couldn’t deal with it on his own. The chip would be somewhere near the point of entry.
Somehow she’d managed to instinctively grab Romero and her backpack before flying after Alyx. That alone amazed her. It also assured her that, if she truly was programmed for survival, her decision to stick with the boys through this wouldn’t come back to bite her.
She pulled an old lighter from the bag. Rule #11: Always keep fire at your fingertips.
She used the flame to sterilize the blade of a small kitchen knife. While it was still hot, she palpated the skin around the dart.
“I’ve wanted to have a girl touch me for awhile,” Ollie said conversationally. “I was hoping it would be under different circumstances.”
RC ignored that. The last thing she wanted was for anyone to make a pass at her. She concentrated on the task instead. Within moments, she located a hard little ball beneath the soft, warm skin.
Just as she positioned the knife to make her cut, Alyx burst into the room. “The patrol’s coming.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC nearly stabbed Ollie out of panic. What in the world had she allowed herself to get pulled into? She found herself thinking that if she ran now, she could still get away. She didn’t have to go down with them.
“I’ll go stall the patrol, but you have to hurry!” Alyx announced before making a quick exit.
Her cheeks suddenly flushed a deep crimson. RC felt grateful that Ollie was unable to see her face. Alyx’s selflessness shamed her. If she left them now, Ollie would certainly be carted off to the meat locker, and Alyx might even be punished for harboring a stray. Leaving them to that fate wouldn’t be a suitable way to repay the young man who saved her from the bots.
Locking her jaw in grim determination, she rested the hot blade against Ollie’s back. “Let’s get this done,” she growled through clenched teeth.
Blood rushed up to meet the shiny metal as it burrowed through the skin. Ollie groaned, but he bit his lip, as if struggling to keep any other sounds from escaping. RC felt a wave of gratitude about this. If the patrol heard any of it, they were all finished. She continued to cut until she felt confident that the incision was long and deep enough to get the job done.
“How are you doing?” she whispered as she set the knife down on the dirty kitchen counter. It was probably a bad idea to encourage any conversation at all, but she needed the semblance of normalcy to keep her hands steady.
“About as good as I can be while someone’s carving me like a Thanksgiving turkey,” Ollie said quietly, his voice shaking.
As RC pushed the tracker toward the opening in his skin, she thought back to the family feasts she had growing up. Ham, turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, potatoes. All things she couldn’t imagine eating again. Then she shook her head, trying to rid herself of the intrusive imagery. Time was too precious to let such frivolous things distract her.
“Almost there,” she assured him as the shiny metal became visible. “This may sting.” With two fingers, she plunged into the wound and snagged the tracker. She started to pull it out, aware that she was inadvertently tearing the flesh. Ollie whimpered into the crook of his arm, but he didn’t outwardly complain.
Damn it, RC thought. I might have to find a way to stitch this up later.
Then it was out. Sitting in the palm of her hand, the spherical object looked like a squashed pea, the flat side adorned with a faintly glowing red light. That meant it was still active. Still dangerous.
Placing the tracker beside the knife, RC hastily slapped a bandage over the surgical site and taped it. “I’ll fix it up properly later. Right now, we have to go.”
She tossed the remaining medical supplies into her backpack while Ollie donned his shirt. “Stay here while I take a quick peek outside,” she hissed as she slung the bag over her shoulder. “I need to see how Alyx is doing out there.”
The living room had hardwood flooring, so she moved with extra caution. These floors didn’t exactly facilitate stealthy movements. The dusty sofa and side table testified to the length of time the family had been absent. It seemed strange that Alyx and Ollie grew up here. She couldn’t picture either of them casually sitting in that room watching TV. Nor could she picture them eating a meal in that kitchen. Then again, she could no longer see herself engaging in such mundane activities either. That all existed in another life.
Pulling back the heavy green curtain ever so slightly, RC saw a patrol of five soldiers standing in front of the house. Her hope plummeted past her knees. Alyx was out there with them, and he’d been forced to his knees. Five weapons were trained on his head, and she couldn’t doubt they were perfectly willing to kill. In fact, there wasn’t any reason why they hadn’t bypassed Alyx already, except she saw his mouth moving. He was talking at an astonishing pace, trying desperately to buy them time. And he succeeded in his mission.
Now RC needed to get him out of there. At first glance, it seemed like a hopeless situation. Her legs trembled with nervous energy, begging to do something.
When the revelation came over her, she was moving before she had time to realize how crazy her plan was. She nearly plowed into Ollie as she skidded into the kitchen.
“What is it?” he demanded. “Where’s Alyx?”
“The patrol has him, and they aren’t playing nice.” RC snagged the tracker and the knife. She hoped she wouldn’t need the knife, but it felt safer to have it. She shoved them both into her pants pocket. “You need to get to the old South Street Drugstore. Tonight.”
Ollie nodded. “That’s pretty far from here.”
She smiled ruefully. “That’s the point. We need to put some distance between us and the patrols right away.”
“How are we supposed to get there?”
“If they’re monitoring the tracker and I run with it, they’ll think I’m you and follow me. I’ll lead them away. Once you’re sure it’s safe, get to Alyx and head to the drugstore. If all goes well, I’ll be meeting you there soon.” Then she reluctantly shoved her backpack into Ollie’s arms. “In case I don’t make it there right away, Alyx should be able to finish cleaning your cut.”
Ollie looked stunned, but he didn’t protest as RC scrambled for the back door. She flew down the dark stairs and into the embrace of night.
She could hardly believe what she’d done. Handing over her pack, with all of her supplies and Romero, her confidant, stored inside seemed unthinkable. What was she doing?
Then she heard the shouts, the hurried footsteps, and she knew.
The patrol wasn’t far behind her.
Memoirs From the End of the World
Don’t let the patrol get a good look at you, RC thought desperately as she fled. If they see who you are, they might send someone back to look for Ollie too. Then we’re all screwed. The image of Alyx on his knees, surrounded by loaded weapons tugged at her mind, demanding attention she couldn’t afford to give. She feared the distraction would be her undoing.
Yet, if anything, that image urged her to run faster.
RC vaulted a chain link fence, the chill of the metal stunning her hands. Yet she kept moving, flying past the skeletal structure of an overgrown swing set. In the moonlight, it looked quite foreboding. The dead leaves and tall dry grass of late autumn crunched under her feet as she flew. Every time she made a sound, she feared some unknown force closing in on her would detect it.
Of course, that was an utterly irrational thing to fear. As long as she held on to the tracker, it wouldn’t matter what she did. They’d catch up to her. She could move with the stealth of a ninja, and the end result would be the same as it would if she knocked over every trash can and broke every window in her path.
Then she was jumping over the backside of the fence, her feet landing square in the middle of an alley. She took off through the yard straight across the way and through a row of evergreens. Just as she disappeared through the tree line, she caught sight of a light beam from the corner of her eye. She adjusted her heading accordingly. Having witnessed the actions of the patrols since going on the run, she could visualize their formation in her mind. They were undoubtedly fanning out in all directions, and they may have even called in reinforcements to cut off her forward advance.
One fact was inescapable. She had to get rid of the tracker soon, but had she given Alyx and Ollie enough time? There was no way to know. Either way, only one method of escape seemed reachable at this point, and she intended to take it.
The moonlight guided her around abandoned lawn chairs and grills as she adjusted her course once more. The river ran through this neighborhood, and Kleiner Trestle Bridge would only be a few blocks away. If only she could get there, she might have a chance to accomplish both her goals.
After what seemed like ages, RC caught sight of the abandoned railroad. The outline of the trestle barely stood out against the night sky, though it shone brightly in her mind as a beacon of hope. Unfortunately, it was still a hundred yards away, and the rest of the sprint would have to be done on open ground, right alongside the tracks. Nothing more to hide behind.
Still, with no time for hesitation, she bolted onto the tracks. Voices rang out from all sides now, chilling her blood, proving that she truly had nothing left. This was her one and only chance.
By the time she set foot on the bridge, which hadn’t seen a train since the overlords staked their claim, several beams of light were bouncing toward her from all sides.
Grabbing on to the vertical support beam, she realized the metal was covered in condensation. Damn! This is going to be tricky, she thought ruefully as she stepped past it and onto the small ledge. It was so narrow it scarcely accommodated her heels.
“Stop!” a voice shouted, amplified by a handheld speaker the patrols always carried. They liked to sound closer than they really were. Another form of intimidation. “Stay where you are!”
There was no way any of them had gotten a good look at her yet. For the time being, she was only a vague silhouette to them. If they got any closer, though, they’d be able to scan her. She had to move quickly.
Yanking the tracker out of her pocket, she clasped it tight in her palm as she stooped down and grabbed onto the ledge with her free hand.
“That water is freezing!” the voice called again. “You’ll never survive! Come with us, and we promise you’ll live.”
Fat chance of that, RC thought bitterly. A flash of rage swept through her. The men who made up the patrols were humans who rounded up their own kind in return for a comfortable lifestyle. They made her sick, and she’d rather die than have her capture bring them any kind of reward.
She pushed her feet out, and a sharp pain ran through her arm as she caught herself with it. Her fingers immediately flared with fire as she held on for her life. Suspended above the dark ribbon of rushing water, she unclenched her other hand and let the tracker fall. It was at least a twenty foot drop, and she didn’t doubt the lethality the patrolman warned about. In fact, she was counting on it.
Finally using both hands, RC located a steel support running under the deck. Slowly but surely, she crept along it, silently praising the elaborate understructure. With her arms growing weaker by the second, she worked her way to a sloped support. The incline was gentle, so she wrapped her arms and legs around it. The wind was cold, and the moisture nearly unbearable, but at least she could hold on while the patrol searched the area.
Assured that no one from the deck would be able to see her, she hoped the patrol members would presume her dead and move on to more important things. She listened to the voices that now came from above, though she couldn’t distinguish any exact words.
Please move on, she thought frantically. Please go away.
All alone against a large group, RC could only wait to see what would happen next.
Memoirs From the End of the World
I don’t recommend spending the night clinging to the underside of a bridge.
It seemed like I was down there for hours while the patrol searched the area for remains. Even after the flashlight beams disappeared and I couldn’t hear them chatting, I was still afraid to move. It wasn’t until I saw hints of sunlight on the horizon that I realized I waited too long. If they’d placed a watch on the bridge, I would’ve stood a better chance with the darkness on my side.
The water below looked just as dangerous in the early morning light. My arms hurt from the aerial gymnastics that got me to safety in the first place. My palms were split from where the metal dug into my skin, so I couldn’t open them all the way without it feeling like I was being cut all over again.
Let’s face it. My plan was insane. Getting there was impossible enough, but I had no idea how in the world I was going to get back to solid ground. When I thought about climbing back the way I came, I shivered.
The movies I watched with my brother were misleading. This was the point where the hero, who’d already been wounded in a way that should have been instantly fatal, miraculously musters the strength to swing their way back onto the bridge and karate chops twenty armed assailants.
Even in peak physical condition, I didn’t have the raw strength to pull that off. I guess that was the advantage of being a Hollywood actor with special effects teams to back you up. You could get paid to look like a god. There in the real world, clinging to that beam like a scared animal, I found myself hating those false images. I resented those actors even more when I remembered they lived far beyond the borders of the reservation and were still making millions to look amazing. I could have used a little of that magic.
Okay, Romero, you know I made it back safely. How else would I be writing in you, after all? Let me tell you, it was a close thing. Looking around, I was encouraged that the understructure was as extensive as it was. In theory, I should have been able to carefully crawl my way along the slanting beams until they came out above dry land. I’d have to drop from there.
The moment I started to crawl, I realized just how stiff my muscles were. The cold wasn’t helping, though the numbness that settled in overnight courtesy of the chilling winds at least dulled the pain. In spite of the damage done to my hands, which caused them to curl uselessly in on themselves, I shimmied along. I shimmied up, made a dicey transition around a vertical support before shimmying down along another beam. The downward slope got my heart racing as I tried not to slide too fast along the damp metal surface. Then I did it all over again.
When I finally looked down and saw dirt instead of a curtain of water, I sighed. The drop from that point was only about ten feet. I took one last look around to make sure there weren’t any patrols closing in on me. Then, sucking in my breath as if it could be my last, I let go.
The ground was even harder than it looked. When I landed on my back, the world exploded with stars. Though the fall knocked the wind out of me, I rolled to my knees and forced myself to move. It was far too dangerous to wait around.
Rule #12: If a patrol follows you, never assume you lost them. They know how to hide just as well as you do.
Yes, I’m making more rules now, and I know what you want to say, Romero. When I helped Alyx and Ollie, I broke most of my rules. Why should I bother to write any more of them? Well, rules are supposed to be flexible. That doesn’t make them invaluable.
Rule #13: Inflexibility can get people killed.
I limped along, avoiding streets as I made my way toward the rendezvous point. There was no hope of getting warm, though the trees and houses mercifully blocked the wind as I went. My stomach growled, and my mouth was horribly dry. That’s kind of funny considering how damp my clothes were.
I didn’t see a single soul on my route. When I finally saw the drugstore, it struck me how much had changed. It had been months since I last stood on that particular street. There were a couple reasons for that. It violated my rule about sticking too close to the familiar. My grandma lived less than a block away, and I used to visit her all the time. Then, when the overlords instituted their cleansing programs to get rid of older people with medical issues, she disappeared. We were never told whether those people were shipped out or killed.
Grandma Luci was one of them, and it hurts that I’ll never know what happened to her. That’s the real reason why I never come back.
The front windows of the drugstore were broken out. Shards of glass crunched under my feet as I approached. I didn’t see any signs of life at all inside.
Then Alyx crashed into me from the side. I jumped, almost sure something had to be wrong. When I realized that his arms were around me, squeezing me in a hug of relief, I relaxed. The noon sun had started to dry me out, but I still wasn’t warm. Yet an unexpected sensation warmed me from the inside, and I hugged him back. It was the strangest thing. I barely know him, yet I was so happy to see him there, and alive, that I almost forgot about everything else.
Whatever you do, Romero, don’t say that I’m . . . Gotta go!
Memoirs From the End of the World
The sound of the front door jarred RC from her writing fervor. Though it was about time for Alyx to be coming back, she wanted to be prepared for any eventualities. Shoving Romero under the squat side table she’d been using as a makeshift desk, she had to shove aside the memories associated with it. At three years old, she ran headfirst into that table and got her first set of stitches just above her right eye. The scar faded long ago, but the recollection ignited something painful inside her all over again.
Though RC knew seeking refuge in her grandmother’s old house went against her rule about predictability, she realized she could have hardly intended anything else when she selected this neighborhood as a meeting place. If she had more time to think about it the night before, she surely would have chosen another location. Yet, now that she was here, she really didn’t want to leave. Though the electricity was gone, and every surface had been coated in a thick layer of dust, this still felt more like home than anything she’d known since her world ended.
She shed the quilt from her shoulders and stood up from the old recliner. Listening closely, she discerned a single set of footsteps making their way across the kitchen, light enough that she knew the person behind them couldn’t be much larger than her. This fact helped her to relax considerably.
“I think I got you everything you need,” Alyx announced as he entered the living room. RC’s pack was slung over his shoulder, now brimming with a variety of items. “Needles, medicinal alcohol, and some thread. I hope it’s the right kind.”
“As long as the packaging has never been opened, I can make it work. We don’t want to risk infection.” RC grabbed the pack and started laying everything out on the table. “You should have let me come along. It would’ve made things easier on you.”
Alyx shook his head adamantly. “You needed your rest. After everything you did for us, it was the least I could do.” He looked down at the floor, as if recalling something that drummed up a feeling of guilt.
RC’s eyes fell on the gash in his cheek. Before the patrol took off to pursue her, one of them whipped him with the end of a rifle. The sight of the physical damage made her pause in her sorting. Fury filled her gut. Sure, the patrolmen hadn’t killed him or hauled him in, but hitting him like that was just plain spiteful. “That needs cleaned out,” she said, brushing the wound with a cautious fingertip.
He shied away a little. “You can help me with that after you stitch up Ollie,” Alyx replied adamantly. Then he paused, his eyes obviously focused on her hands. He’d helped her bandage them immediately after her return, so he certainly had an idea of how sore they were. “Are you sure you can do it?”
“Of course I am. I just had a date with Romero, and my hands were fine. They hurt less when I keep them moving. Less opportunity for them to get stiff.” She returned to her survey of the items Alyx brought back. In addition to medical supplies, he’d retrieved some food. A packet of beef jerky, some canned soups. Not exactly a feast, but certainly better than nothing.
“I could try,” he offered, though the hesitation in his tone was obvious.
She shook her head. “No. Neither of us are doctors, but at least I’ve had some practice with sewing. Stitching a pillow case, stitching human flesh. How different can it be?” This was meant as a joke, but the moment she said it, she realized just how morbid it sounded.
If Alyx had the same thought about her comment, he didn’t say anything.
When RC pulled a bottle of some kind of brown liquor out of her bag, she raised an eyebrow. “What’s this for?”
Alyx managed a little laugh. “It’s medicinal too. I figured Ollie should have something to calm his nerves while you stick him with that needle.”
RC nodded approvingly. “You’re a good brother.”
A few minutes later, the two of them were in the back bedroom where Ollie had gone to take a nap. It seemed neither of the boys slept the night before. It took them hours to get to the rendezvous point, and afterwards with no idea what might happen, rest hadn’t come easily. Ollie didn’t seem especially eager to wake now, though no one could blame his lack of enthusiasm about the needle and thread. He did, however, look a bit relieved when he saw the new choice of beverage.
Lying on his stomach, Ollie kept the bottle close to his lips while RC worked. After thoroughly cleaning the wound, which garnered enough moans of pain from her patient, she began the task of sewing the skin back together. The lack of blood surprised her a little, and once she became accustomed to the unpleasant sounds Ollie continued to make, it actually wasn’t as bad as she feared it might be.
By the time she finished her work and covered the wound with clean bandages, Ollie’d finished off a quarter of the bottle. RC wrenched it from his grasp amid slurred protests. “Just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean you get to hog it all.”
RC and Alyx wandered back to the living room and sat on the floor, their backs propped up against the wall. She took a small sip from the bottle, and her spine responded with a shudder. It was strong stuff. Maybe drinking should have been against the rules since it numbed the senses, but she’d never explicitly written a rule against it. And right now, after the stress and exhaustion, she really didn’t care.
Alyx reached out for the bottle. “I need some too.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
Only one sip of the unidentified alcohol followed before RC started to clean out the cut on Alyx’s cheek. He winced as she worked, but he bit his lip to keep the pain on the inside. “You’re going to have a scar no matter what I do with this,” she commented.
“Scars don’t bother me,” Alyx replied.
“I should stitch it up to prevent infection,” she continued, though it pained her to say it. Dealing with Ollie was bad enough. For some reason, though, she really didn’t want to hurt Alyx.
“Do what you have to.” Then he took one long swig from the bottle and sighed. “I could hold a lot of grudges against a lot of people if I wanted to. It wouldn’t make sense for me to hold this against you after everything else you’ve done to help me.”
Curiosity flared in RC’s mind, but she also noted how he looked nervously ahead, and the way he clenched his hands together in his lap. Whatever weighed on his mind at that moment clearly embarrassed him, and he had no reason to share such personal details of his life with her. After all, they’d only just met.
“We all have our demons,” she said as she peered out the window. It was approaching dusk. She had to finish fixing Alyx up before they lost daylight.
She went to collect a fresh needle from the bag, and after sterilizing it with the medicinal alcohol, threaded it. As she seated herself beside him again, he looked at her. “I think I have more demons than your average person.” He took a small drink. “I wasn’t even supposed to be here. My birth parents gave me up for adoption. I don’t know anything about them, other than that they lived out of state. If they’d kept me, I’d probably be living a relatively normal life outside the reservation.”
RC paused. Though Ollie and Alyx were built completely differently, she’d never questioned their relation. Given the way Alyx protected his brother . . .
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I love my parents. The ones who raised me, I mean. This is the only family I’ve ever known. It just hurts to know that I was tossed away like I meant nothing.”
The sadness saturated his words, and she found herself being pulled into the conversation. “I’m sure they had their reasons. It must be hard not knowing.”
Alyx’s cheeks flushed, and he visibly hesitated. “I actually know what the reason was. That’s half the problem.”
RC was stunned. Did she dare ask?
Those few moments of silence saw the window of opportunity close as Alyx shook his head. “Nevermind. There’s no sense in worrying about it. Let’s just get this over with.”
Grateful for the distraction, RC carefully mended the wound. While he dug his fingers into his knees so hard he had to be close to drawing blood, he never actually made any sound to indicate his discomfort.
Soon it was all over, and RC set the supplies aside. Rattled by all the events of the day, she took the bottle and sipped at the fiery liquid. The warmth started to settle into her bones, and the chill of the bridge seemed to be long gone. Exhaustion hung from her muscles like tethers that threatened to bind her to the floor. Her eyelids sagged. “I’m so tired,” she mumbled. “How did you trust me to fix you up?”
When there was no response, she looked over to see that Alyx had drifted off, his back still pressed against the hard plaster wall, his head resting on one shoulder. She sighed. Part of her was relieved for the excuse for the day to be over. Another part, though this part was hardly more than a whisper amidst the fatigue, lingered over their aborted discussion. The curiosity wouldn’t let go. What did he know about his adoption that bothered him so much? Why had he brought this up with her, whom he barely knew, only to abruptly change the subject? And why in the world did she care?
Shrugging it off, she went to the closet where her grandmother kept the clean blankets. Sure enough, they were still stacked there on the shelf, as if waiting for her return. Now they’d collected dust. A quick shake rid them of the worst of it, though the faint odor of disuse clung to the fibers.
RC tucked a blanket around Alyx while he slept on, oblivious to her attention. Then she curled up on the couch with her own blanket, and within moments, sleep had claimed her.
When everyone woke the following morning, the day had a much different feel. The openness that Alyx evidently felt when he started to confide in her was obliterated by a good night of rest. He only seemed concerned about gathering more food, and he insisted on going by himself. “I’m useless to them, so why in the world should you risk yourself?” he demanded when RC tried to follow him out the door.
Irritated by the abandonment, she spent the following hours shuffling about the house, examining every cabinet for things that could prove useful. Ollie helped where he could, but he was still too sore to do much. And she didn’t mind his company, though at one point she saw evidence that one part of Ollie liked her more than it should have.
What’s he thinking? I’m not avoiding the meat locker just to get mixed up with him. I can’t risk becoming a baby factory out here.
Each day for the next week went the same way. Alyx foraged, and RC went stir crazy. Ollie kept eyeing her, but much to her relief, he did nothing beyond that.
Then one day, as if the issues amongst the three of them weren’t enough, Alyx came home with a couple of strange children in tow.
Memoirs From the End of the World
Alyx’s face looked drained when he walked into the house with a little blonde-haired boy slung over his shoulder and a scrawny girl with dingy red hair dragging her feet behind him. The children were both covered in dirt, and one leg of the girl’s jeans was torn from the hem all the way up to her knee.
RC froze when she saw them, and a selfish thought crossed her mind. How are we going to feed them too? Then, shamed by the question, she pushed it down and hurried over to meet them as Alyx kicked the door closed behind him. “Where’d they come from?”
“I found them trapped in a net down by the river when I went to get water,” he replied. “It looks like the patrols are using a new tactic to catch strays.”
“Oh no.” RC flashed back to her time spent hanging off the bridge, and she couldn’t help but wonder if they set up that net in the hope of catching her.
Alyx must have read the horror in her expression, because he shook his head. “Don’t blame yourself. Staking out the river is a good strategy either way. No matter how stealthy a person is, everyone has to go for water at some point.”
He made a valid argument, but the guilt persisted nonetheless. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing you found them first,” RC replied. “Did you get enough food?”
He shook his head. “I got some, but I should go out to get more for tonight. I just wanted to get them back here safely first.”
“I’ll help you,” Ollie announced as he stood from the blue recliner in the corner. “You could use the help carrying it all. I’m going crazy being stuck in here anyway.” He’d spent most of the day up to that point flipping through old magazines that her RC’s grandmother collected over the years. This was also how he spent the last few days before that.
RC understood Ollie’s restlessness. By that point, she felt like a rat trapped in a cage. Yet, with these two exhausted children, it didn’t make sense for all of them to go, and Ollie did call it first.
Alyx looked at his brother, clearly recognizing the utility in the suggestion. Then he looked over at her, and she saw he felt bad about leaving her alone with their new charges.
“I’ll get the kids settled in,” RC volunteered, wanting to avoid being a sore loser about not getting to go gathering. Starting a fight wouldn’t help anything. She gently lifted the little boy, who was actually dosing peacefully, out of Alyx’s arms. He moaned softly as he was transferred, though he didn’t open his eyes. “Just be careful out there, you two.”
Now that she’d committed herself, RC took a look at the kids who were going to be depending on her. Judging by the girl’s appearance, she couldn’t be more than twelve. The boy had to be eight at most. And their frail frames proved they’d been strays for awhile.
The girl looked up at her with wide green eyes, and after a moment, she asked in a soft voice, “What’s your name?”
Something about the girl’s scared expression softened her, and for once she volunteered her actual first name. “I’m Rose, but everyone calls me RC.”
“So you actually do have a normal name,” Alyx commented, his mouth turned up in a grin.
She shot him a dirty look as her cheeks flushed. “I thought you guys were leaving.”
Now Alyx laughed. “We’ll be back soon.”
Ollie waved on his way out the door, but he didn’t pause long enough to say anything. In spite of the chill in the air and the potential danger, human beings can only be cooped up in the same place for so long. He was eager to roam free for awhile.
RC took the kids to the bedroom so she could put the boy down for a proper nap. “I’m Sheera, by the way,” the girl said as they walked. “He’s Peter.”
“Is he your brother?” RC asked conversationally.
Sheera shook her head. “No, but it seemed like a good idea to stick together. Safer.”
RC briefly reflected on the reasons why she was still hiding out with Alyx and Ollie. Though she hated to admit it, having the two of them around made life easier in a lot of ways. Alyx held up his end of the conversation, unlike Romero who, while technically being a terrific listener, couldn’t respond with any kind of feedback. It was also reassuring to know that she’d have backup in case they were ever cornered. “I can see that.” RC paused as she lay Peter down and gently pulled the blue and yellow quilt over him. He’d get the linen dirty considering how filthy he was, but that hardly seemed like a pressing concern. “Why are you out here anyway? You’re too young to be running.”
Sheera’s eyes darted around the room anxiously. “I ran with my parents. They were too old to be in the breeding facility, but they didn’t want any of their children going in either. When my sister Gwen was fifteen, we packed up one night and left. We eventually met up with some others, and they talked about forming a resistance group.”
A pang of hope rang through RC, but she tried to keep it under control. “Why aren’t you with them now? Surely they wouldn’t send you kids out to collect supplies.”
“No. They never did.” Tears filled the girl’s eyes. “They did everything they could to protect us. That’s why we’re still alive.”
Dread settled in RC like a lead weight as she realized how dark a turn this story was about to take.
Memoirs From the End of the World
The girls left the bedroom so Peter could get his rest.
Though it made little sense, the similarity between his name and her brother Pete’s name made her shiver. She knew it was ridiculous, but the odd feeling stuck with her all the same. People were bound to occasionally have the same name, and just because someone happened to share a name with her deceased brother didn’t mean they were alike in any other way. Yet, the knowledge that she’d have to use that name when the little boy woke up didn’t settle well with her. She voiced none of these concerns, though. Sheera’s story was far more important at the moment.
“We set up camp outside the city, and we even grew food in gardens, and the adults hunted,” Sheera continued once they reached the living room. She smiled, though her eyes were already damp with the impending tears. “Life outside the city was better than here, because we didn’t have to worry about patrols as much, though my parents were still super protective.”
“How did you even get out of the city?” RC asked. From what she knew, each road leading to the country was heavily guarded with patrols and artillery. No one was allowed to travel outside the city. The official reservation included the city plus several surrounding towns. Residents from these other towns were only brought in when it was their turn to breed, and after their term of service, they were shipped back out. By keeping the communities as separate as possible, the overlords made it more difficult to pool resources.
“My father worked for the city before the aliens came. He knew about a series of tunnels that were dug out by a local cult that believe World War III was coming. They planned to live underground. The aliens don’t seem to know about the tunnels.” Sheera looked wistful. “Secrets like that can be worth everything.”
That much was true. Secrets, food, and water. The only currency worth a damn to their survival. Her mind ran ahead to the possibilities. So far, she’d struggled for basic sustenance, but the hope of getting outside the city beckoned. There would be no way they could make it outside the official reservation boundary, but if they could find the right secluded place, they might actually be able to make a go of it for awhile. It certainly sounded better than keeping up with the same old routine.
Then an obvious, sinking reality hit her. “If you had it so good out there, why are you here?” RC asked.
“There were fewer patrols, yes, but only if you didn’t accidentally wander too close to a main road. A bunch of us snuck out one night to have a look around. We were sick of being so careful all the time, and we thought we could handle it.” Sheera’s shoulders started to shake. “It turns out we couldn’t. We were rounded up by a couple of soldiers when we strayed too close to the old highway. If that was all it was . . . it would have been better.”
RC felt awkward as she watched Sheera shrink in on herself in response to what must have been a powerful memory. Uncertain what to do, she guided the girl to the couch and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. “What happened?”
Sheera wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “Someone must have woken up and realized that we were gone. My dad and several other adults caught up to us as we were being forced into the van. They tried to fight, but they didn’t have any weapons. The soldiers killed them all within seconds. I saw my dad die, and I couldn’t do anything!” Then, with that admission behind her, she broke down completely. Sobs wracked her wiry body.
“I know it’s hard,” RC said softly. “I saw my brother die, too. They’re hoping these things will break us, that we’ll stop fighting to avoid the pain. No matter how much it hurts, we can’t give up. If we do, they win.”
Now Sheera studied RC’s face for several long moments. “You sound a lot like my mother.”
This admission threw RC off more than anything. She shook her head. “I’m no mother, but I do the best I can.”
“When we got back to the city, we were put in an orphanage. Since my sister was old enough to be a breeder, they sent her straight to the facility.”
“I call it a meat locker,” RC interjected. “You know, because people are treated like animals there.”
Sheera nodded. “That makes sense. Once my sister and another older boy from our group were taken away, our new caretakers said we were programmed with dangerous ideas by our parents. That’s why we had to be kept apart from the other children in town. They made us admit that our parents were traitors. When one boy refused, a caretaker shot him.” She lay back against the arm of the couch as she spoke, the exhaustion of reliving this nightmare having visibly robbed her of her strength. “After awhile, several of us escaped. We just couldn’t take it anymore. Then Peter and I got caught. I have no idea where the rest of our group is by now.”
“Why don’t you get some sleep? There’s nothing else we can do about finding your friends right now. I’ll be awake to keep an eye on things, so you don’t have to worry.”
Though it took almost an hour, the girl managed to relax enough to finally fall asleep. RC understood the apprehension. Being older, she accepted responsibility for Peter’s safety. Probably for several of the other children as well. Sleeping felt dangerous. Even irresponsible.
RC waited anxiously for Alyx and Ollie to return. They had a lot to discuss.
Memoirs From the End of the World
At dusk, the boys still hadn’t returned from their scavenging trip. Peter had woken, but he’d pulled the covers over his head, refusing to leave. Sheera went in to try to coax him out.
Meanwhile, RC went to each window and peered cautiously through the curtains. She moved about the house, gripping an old rag to make it appear as though she was dusting. This poor attempt at disguising her nervous pacing left a bizarre pattern of clean and dirty areas, making it all too obvious that she actually wasn’t focused on cleaning.
As RC absent-mindedly wiped the dirt off her grandmother’s abandoned toaster, which transformed from a dingy gray to a sparkling white (though in the fading light, it wasn’t actually doing any sparkling), a sound at the back door made her jump. She immediately froze after that, listening intently to what followed. Under most circumstances, she would hide or prepare to run in case it was a patrol coming to search the house, but this time, she couldn’t do anything but wait, her muscles tensed in anticipation.
Much to her relief, Alyx and Ollie appeared in the doorway.
“Good, you’re here. Now we can eat.” RC did the best she could to mask her relief.
Alyx dumped an armload of food on the counter before emptying the backpack while Ollie, whose arms were loaded with scavenged clothes, dumped his haul on the kitchen table. The size of their bounty was more than welcome. With the coldest months of the year fast approaching, and the increase in the group’s number, they’d need to store up all they could. It would make it harder to move if they were discovered, but they’d have to worry about that if and when the problem arose.
“We have food, at least, but I can’t promise a lot of variety,” Alyx replied apologetically as he rubbed his hands together. The cool air must have worked its way to the bone in the time he was out.
“No gourmet meal?” RC asked jokingly. “That’s a shame.”
Even though the last rays of sunlight streaming through the window were dimming fast, Alyx noticed the work she’d already done. “I guess it was nice of you to clean the toaster, but without electricity, I don’t think it’ll do us much good.” The attempt at humor was weighed down by something else, though RC didn’t know what.
“I just got bored,” she replied nonchalantly, though even she knew it sounded unconvincing. “Next time, I’m going with you. I don’t do well waiting around all the time.” That much was true at least.
“Ollie might fight you on that, but you’d probably make better company.”
“Better company than me?” Ollie demanded. “Impossible. I can carry more too.”
In spite of the teasing sound to his voice, RC also detected a hint of something else in his words. Was it protectiveness? Posturing? She’d certainly heard a similar tone from the men in her life before, but she certainly didn’t want to hear it from Ollie. Yet, even that didn’t seem to tell the whole story.
Alyx must have sensed it too. “Since we have kids in house now, we should probably feed them before we rip each other’s heads off.”
RC turned to the food and started to organize it on the counter, carefully selecting the things she thought could feed all of them. As she worked, she asked, “Did the kids tell you about where they came from?”
“Yes, they did,” Alyx said heavily.
“I think we should consider trying to get out of town,” Ollie jumped in. “If it really is better out there, I don’t see why we shouldn’t.”
“I agree, but we should wait until after winter,” RC said. “If we went out there now, we’d have nothing. At least here, we can find food for now.” Then she paused. “Do you think we should try to find the other kids they escaped with? I know it’s dangerous to have too large of a group, but they might have valuable information.”
“We already thought about that,” Alyx replied. A sorrowful note definitely hung from his words now.
RC’s insides went cold. Before she could ask him to elaborate, though, two sets of footsteps were moving to intercept them. “Are we going to eat soon?” A little boy’s voice.
Within an hour, they were all assembled over a dinner of beans, canned carrots, and biscuits fashioned from a box of pancake mix around a covert fire in the backyard. Everyone huddled around the flames while wrapped in the newly acquired clothes and thick blankets. The plates weren’t exactly overflowing with food, and the food itself wasn’t exactly fit for a king (or even for a simple meal pre-invasion), but to empty stomachs, it hit the spot. The flames offered just enough light for them to dine by.
Very little conversation passed between them while they ate. The kids were probably shy given their introduction to new people, but Alyx and Ollie’s silence said a lot more. That which remained unspoken hovered over them all, and she suspected whatever it was couldn’t be uttered in front of younger ears.
Once her plate was empty, RC turned to Ollie. “Can you keep an eye on the kids for a minute? I want to talk to Alyx alone.”
He hesitated for a moment before begrudgingly answering. “All right.”
Alyx and RC found some privacy inside the chilly, and now pitch-black, kitchen. They stood next to the window, the firelight from the yard barley illuminating their faces.
“Ollie and I went to check out the place where Sheera said they were hiding before being captured,” Alyx confessed. “It only seemed right to at least tell them their friends were okay, and to see if we could help them out with anything.”
RC’s stomach turned. “What did you find?”
“No one was there, but the basement they’d been using for shelter was covered with blood.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
The hardest part about being a stray is not knowing who to trust, and if you do open up to someone, how much to trust them with. In spite of myself, I’ve grown to trust my companions. Alyx is brave and honest, and Ollie is helpful. I still catch him looking at me in ways I don’t like, but he’s never tried to force the issue. If nothing else, he’s been dependable, and in a world like this one, that’s almost too much to ask for.
Ollie and I take turns going foraging with Alyx. I look forward to those trips outside the house. Yes, there’s a risk of being captured, but I didn’t flee the prison of the meat locker to be imprisoned elsewhere. While Alyx is cautious and insists on looking around each corner first, I try not to let that bother me. He’s only doing what makes sense under these circumstances.
We didn’t tell the kids about the bloody basement. No sense in worrying them until we know more about what happened to their friends. When Alyx and I venture out, we keep an eye out for any signs of recent activity. Not only does this keep us mindful of possible patrols, it lets us know if there have been any other strays in the area. So far no luck. Either these kids were collected, or they know how to cover their tracks.
It seemed like we’d gotten into a good pattern. The patrols through this part of town have been infrequent, and the ones we have seen come at predictable times. Nothing surprising. Just enough for us to get comfortable. As it turns out, getting too comfortable was a bad idea.
Tonight after Alyx and I returned from a trip, it started to rain. It’s late enough in the year that it was a freezing cold rain, but beggars can’t complain when we get such a rare gift. We set out my grandmother’s cookware to catch water, knowing it would spare us a hazardous trip down to the river. Then, in the cover of dark, we all used an old bottle of leftover shampoo to take advantage of nature’s shower. My own shower was quick. I could only stand the bone-chilling cold for so long, but afterwards, I felt amazing. You walk around with a layer of dirt on your skin for long enough, it almost becomes a part of you. Like a nasty candy coating. You can forget what it’s like without it.
Afterwards, dressed in some clean clothes from the stockpile, I felt like I could climb into my old bed and into my old life. Yet, when I wiggled into my pile of blankets on the couch (Peter and Sheera sleep in the only bed), it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t get settled in. Feeling so close to normalcy, then falling short of it, got to me more than anything else.
I sat up and wrapped my blanket around my shoulders. I don’t know how long I sat there thinking before I heard movements. “Can’t sleep?” I asked, though I couldn’t see anything well enough to guess who was there.
“I’m thirsty.” Alyx’s voice. I didn’t like how happy I was to realize that.
After getting his drink from the soup pot we’d filled with rain water, he sat next to me. It felt odd to sit that close to someone, especially when that someone smelled of fresh apples courtesy of my grandmother’s abandoned bathroom products. “I hope you don’t mind me sitting here a minute,” Alyx said. “Ollie’s snoring.”
The two of them typically slept on the floor in the old sewing room. The hardwood floor couldn’t be comfortable, but the boys didn’t usually complain. “Stay as long as you want,” I said. “My brain won’t slow down enough to let me sleep.”
“Anything you want to talk about?”
For some reason, I found myself opening up to him about things I’d managed to keep to myself. About how strange it felt to be in this house again, about the things I missed about my grandmother, and what I used to dream of as a kid. I actually told him I used to dream of being an astronaut, and that after graduating high school, I planned to go into the Air Force. I wanted to know every star, and every alien world. “Now that the overlords are here, it feels like the stars have come to me, and they aren’t anything like I hoped they would be,” I confessed.
When Alyx put a reassuring arm around my shoulders, I leaned against him. He was warm, human, and I couldn’t help but relax. “All of our futures changed when they came,” Alyx replied. “If it’s so hard for you to be here, we could leave. Find somewhere else to hide.”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t want any decisions to be based on my feelings. I’ll be fine.”
After a few moments of silence, Alyx asked the question I’d hoped would remain unvoiced. “Why do you go by RC? I like the name Rose.”
“What’s to like? I don’t want to come across as a weak little flower. How can you like it?”
“Simple. Roses are beautiful like you, and they can make you bleed if you aren’t careful with them,” he said with a laugh. “I think the name fits you perfectly.”
His response left me feeling warm inside. The idea of him calling me Rose suddenly didn’t bother me.
Somehow, we both fell asleep like that: wrapped together in my blanket, my head on his shoulder, and his arm holding me close. We woke just after dawn, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Ollie standing there. He looked awkward about seeing me with his brother, and maybe even a little angry.
This is why I’ve always avoided personal attachments like this. Things can get awkward, and when you’re fighting for survival, awkwardness can kill you.
Memoirs From the End of the World
I’m an idiot.
Ollie’s been snippy since he saw me with Alyx. Ollie never made a move on me, though I think he wanted to. He insisted on going scavenging with Alyx every day, even though we’d been happily alternating before that. Alyx didn’t seem to like the new reality either, but he didn’t argue about it. With everything else we had to worry about, he wanted to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, my feelings were growing. When I saw Alyx, my heart beat so fast I felt like I’d run a mile. I made excuses to be in the same room with him, and though Alyx was trying to avoid conflict with his brother, he wasn’t turning me away. Today Ollie and both kids fell asleep during the late afternoon, leaving me alone with Alyx. We worked together in the kitchen to organize the evening meal, and I found myself enjoying the privacy. It actually gave us a chance to talk.
“It’s been awkward around here the last few days,” I found myself saying. Part of me wondered why I even said this. After all, this would undoubtedly dredge up topics that I didn’t even feel comfortable talking about.
“Yeah, it has been.” Alyx sighed. “Ollie’s been as lonely as the rest of us, and he assumed a lot when he saw us that morning.”
This didn’t surprise me. “Look, I’m sorry Ollie’s upset about it, but it was nice talking to you. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that comfortable opening up to anyone.” It’s funny that while I talked about this comfort, I couldn’t quite look him in the eye.
“It was nice for me too,” he admitted. “Sometimes it seems like friends are one of the few good things we can have in this world.” He shook his head. “I won’t lie. I haven’t had that many close friends. I never quite fit in growing up.”
I put my hand on top of his as he reached for a can of soup. He stopped to look at me, and I forced myself to hold his gaze. “None of that matters now,” I told him. “What matters is that we’re alive, and you’re my friend. I care about you. I don’t like that it makes anyone else uncomfortable, but nothing is going to change it.”
“That must make you feel good about yourself.” Ollie’s angry voice took us both by surprise. He was awake, and he was pissed. His cheeks were flushed in spite of the cold that had pierced the house.
“Ollie, please . . .” Alyx started.
He shook his head. “No. You promised me it wasn’t like that.”
“How is it any of your business anyway?” I demanded. The fact Ollie felt like he had the right to butt in made me so angry I could have kicked him.
“Stay out of this!” Ollie snapped, even though I was clearly part of the mix as it was. “Alyx, you know it’s a bad idea for you to do this. No woman is going to be satisfied by what you have to offer them!”
This floored me. How could he say this about his own brother? Was he saying this out of jealousy, or was it something else? “Leave him alone! What could make you say something so horrible?”
Ollie laughed. “He obviously hasn’t told you. Let’s just say he isn’t man enough, and the fact that he hasn’t told you only proves it.”
I immediately connected his accusations with the day I first met Alyx. He told me then that he was sterile, and while many would have equated that with a lack of manliness, it was a bonus for me. If I was going to be with anyone, I couldn’t risk a pregnancy. Not in this world.
Either way, Alyx’s cheeks turned bright red, and he immediately fled the room. I glared at Ollie, who simply turned and walked out too. I kept working to get dinner ready, even though I wasn’t hungry. Sheera and Peter would need food when they too woke up.
Alyx never came back for his food. After everyone went their separate ways for the evening, I lit a candle and searched the house. I found Alyx sitting alone in my grandmother’s walk-in closet. I sat next to him, and I noticed the way the candle’s flame lit his face. He looked tired, withdrawn. “Ollie’s wrong, you know,” I told him softly. “You have plenty to offer.”
He shook his head. “You shouldn’t be talking like that, because he’s right. Ollie’s been upset, convinced that you feel a certain way about me. I told him that was ridiculous. How could I stand a chance when there’s someone like Ollie around?”
This stunned me. “Why is it ridiculous? With the world the way it is now, the rules have changed. You’re brave and dependable. That first night, you walked out and faced that patrol even though they could have killed you. I saw them point their guns at you, and you didn’t waver. You have more to offer than you know.” I leaned over and kissed his cheek. The wound I’d stitched for him was much better now, though it was still rough against my skin.
Alyx turned to look at me, and the world seemed to stop in that moment. Then, without warning, his lips were pressed against mine. The kiss was warm, gentle, and drove my heart rate through the roof. I ran a hand through his hair as I tried to savor every nuance of my first real kiss. I wanted it to last all night.
And, as quickly as it started, it was over. Alyx pulled away, panting. “I’m sorry, Rose,” he said. His voice was panicked. “I can’t do this.” He scrambled to his feet and was gone before I could say anything.
Now everything is going to be more awkward than before. I overcomplicated everything. That’s why I’m an idiot.
Memoirs From the End of the World
“How high do you think his temperature is?”
RC shrugged. When she placed her palm on Ollie’s forehead, the abnormal warmth told her only that he would be down for days. Sweat beaded on his skin, and he shifted restlessly in his sleep. “I’m no thermometer, but he’s definitely sick.”
Alyx ran nervous fingers through his disheveled hair. “Hopefully he’ll be okay. We don’t have any medicine if he isn’t.”
“Let’s just hope it’s a simple flu that’ll go away on its own.” As RC spoke, she kept her eyes on Ollie’s prostrate form. Though she saw him vomiting violently only a few minutes before, it was still easier to look at him than it was to meet Alyx’s eye. And when she did hazard a glance, Alyx certainly wasn’t looking at her. Considering the humiliation of the previous night remained so fresh in her mind, she felt it was just as well. “Obviously he’s not going to help with the hunting today.”
“No,” Alyx replied.
“I’ll go,” RC volunteered. “Maybe you should stay here to look after your brother and the kids.” She’d been awake most of the night, considering the possibility of simply slipping out the door and disappearing. It might help her escape the embarrassment to do such a thing, but in the end, she couldn’t leave them behind. Not when they had the kids to look after.
At least, that’s what she told herself.
Now Ollie’s illness gave her even more reason to stay, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t itching to escape for awhile. Dodging patrols seemed more appealing than remaining idle in the house.
“It isn’t safe for you to go out. If anyone’s going out there, it should be me,” Alyx insisted.
“I don’t care if it’s safe,” RC mumbled. Keeping her head low, she exited the room. She began to throw on the extra layers of clothing that would help her brave the cold. Why should I listen to anyone who tries to talk me out of what I want? she thought as she tugged on a pair of warm shoes. When I was on my own, I didn’t have to deal with other people’s opinions on what was best for me.
Approaching footsteps prompted RC to grab a coat and her backpack and make a break for the door. “Wait a minute!” Alyx begged. “You can’t go out there alone. If something happens, you won’t have anyone to back you up.”
“I can take care of myself. I’ve outwitted the patrols before.”
Just as she grabbed the doorknob, he grasped her shoulder, and the unexpected nature of the gesture punched a hole through her defensive barrier. She lifted her head and met his gaze. Immediately, she recognized how tormented he felt. Concern and desperation resonated in the way he looked back at her. “I know you can, but it’s always going to be safer with someone to help you. If we both go, we can get everything we need in half the time.”
She paused, wondering how a joint expedition with the two of them could possibly go well. It was bound to be one of the most uncomfortable experiences of her life. “Ollie’s sick. He shouldn’t be by himself,” RC argued.
“He wouldn’t be alone.” Sheera startled them both with her interruption. She sat on the couch, and young though she was, she was also confident. The scared girl RC comforted the first night was also a mature young woman in this world. “I’ve looked after people before. Neither of you are more qualified to take care of him than I am.”
RC couldn’t deny that logic, and she despised it.
“We’ll be back soon,” Alyx promised.
The biting cold of the day nearly took her breath away as they walked, and this worked out fine, since neither of them seemed eager to talk. She buried her hands deep in her pockets, though this did little to shield them.
Most of the foraging passed by in silence. They wordlessly took turns glancing around corners to be sure the streets were safe. They worked together to check each room in the homes they visited. The pickings weren’t as plentiful as they once were, so the two of them had to travel out further than they ever had before. RC wondered if they really could build up enough supplies to last them through the winter, or if they’d succumb to the elements partway through.
A couple hours into the expedition, they sat down to rest inside one of the homes. Like every other house they’d searched, the rooms were saturated with the cold, but the reprieve from the whipping winds provided some refuge.
“Rose, I know this is weird, but I . . .”
“Forget about it,” RC said sharply. “There’s nothing to say.” Part of her felt bad about being harsh with him. After all, he couldn’t help that his feelings were different than hers. Yet discussing that damned awkward kiss could only make her feel even worse.
Alyx shrunk away from her. “Right.”
By the time they made it back outside, tiny snowflakes were drifting to the ground. This was the first sign of snow they’d seen, and it was worrisome to say the least. “We need to get back soon,” RC said. “We don’t want to get stuck out here if it gets worse.”
Alyx nodded. “Hopefully we have enough food. Who knows how long the snow might last?”
They turned on to a road they hadn’t yet taken that day. It should have been a faster way back to the house, and they figured the quicker it was, the safer they’d be. Unfortunately, they only made it a couple of blocks before the sound of an agonized scream tore through the air.
RC froze while her heart doubled its pace. Somehow, Alyx’s hand now held hers as he whispered a question that undoubtedly had a dangerous answer. “What was that?”
Memoirs From the End of the World
After a long moment, RC’s heart seemed to migrate from her throat and back to her chest where it belonged. Should we even try to figure out what that was, or should we just run? she wondered.
Even as that question entered her mind, she began to edge forward, and Alyx was right there beside her. Another yelp of pain met their ears, but it sounded much weaker than the initial cry. This spurred RC to move faster. As she approached the brick fence that ran around the park’s perimeter, she was able to distinguish more voices. Some gleeful, some vicious.
Alyx placed a wavering hand on her back. RC leaned back slightly, feeling reassured by the connection. She gathered her courage and peeked over the top of the fence.
The sight was nothing short of appalling.
A human figure hung by its feet from the monkey bars, held in place by plenty of rope and a generous wad of duct tape. Blood pooled on the ground underneath, all of which flowed freely from a variety of lacerations. Angry red and purple welts made it impossible to distinguish whether the victim was male or female. All RC felt sure of was that this poor person didn’t have long to live. Injuries that severe required treatments well beyond her capabilities.
Standing in a circle around the scene were eight teenagers, each wielding a deadly instrument. One held a heavy wooden club with long nails poking through its surface. The tips of those nails were tinged red with flecks of white, the white undoubtedly representing shreds of flesh that had been torn away. Another held a large red gas can.
“This has gone on long enough,” the boy with the gas can declared. “Let’s finish this.”
“He still didn’t tell us where they are!” a girl holding a hatchet protested.
Gas Can Boy kicked the hanging body. No sound came out. RC squinted to get a better look, and it seemed like the throat had been cut. That injury must have accompanied the last cry she heard.
“I don’t think we’re getting anything out of him now. We’ll find them though. Don’t you worry.”
Who are they looking for? Why? And why resort to such brutality? RC had so many questions, but she didn’t dare voice these questions aloud, much as she wanted to. At least Alyx was there, and as she focused on this thought, he squeezed her hand. His grip threatened to cut off the circulation to her fingers, but she didn’t care about that. Instead, she squeezed back as she willed the horrific images to go away.
Hatchet Girl dutifully stepped forward and, with a couple of hard swings, cut the body loose. It landed with a dull thud on the frozen ground. Gas Can doused the motionless limbs with accelerant. When he seemed satisfied with his work, he waved to the others to step back. Then, brandishing a match, he lit it with a single skillful swipe and let it go.
RC had to hide her face as the flames swelled over the inert form. The snowflakes, growing in size and frequency with each passing minute, dissipated the moment they hit the hot air. The smoke wafted toward them, but RC covered her nose. She didn't want to smell it. She could tolerate a lot, but not this.
Alyx leaned over, so close his breath tickled her ear as he whispered, “We have to get out of here before someone sees us.”
She couldn’t have agreed more. Surely this group wouldn’t hesitate to lash out at anyone if it suited them. RC ducked down behind the wall again, the playground now mercifully obscured from view. “Let’s move,” she whispered back.
They shuffled along the wall, heads low to avoid drawing attention from those on the other side. If they could stay low and carefully make a break toward the shelter of one of the neighboring houses, they’d have a chance.
Unfortunately, their huddled position also left them blind. When Hatchet Girl rounded the corner ahead of them, they all froze. Hatchet Girl looked pale, even green in the face.
Does she regret what she helped her friends do? Did the act of killing get to her? RC wondered. If so, she might let us go . . .
Before RC could think beyond that, Gas Can Boy rounded the corner. He didn’t hesitate. “Hey guys! We have more fodder here!”
Several sets of footsteps followed that call, and RC feared the worst. How could they possibly get out of this one?
Spiked Club Boy hopped the wall, landing just in front of them. He smiled. “Well good. Maybe they can get us what we need.”
“What do you need?” Alyx asked. He put a protective arm out in front of RC, trying to keep her as far from danger as he could.
It was certainly a sweet gesture, but RC knew Alyx couldn’t possibly fight off all of these people. If either of them stood any kind of chance, they’d need to think their way out.
“We work for our overlords,” Spiked Club replied. “We need to know where all the strays are hiding. Too many of them out and about represent a security threat.”
“You’re killing on their command?” RC shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Why kill perfectly good breeding stock?”
“If you bring too many rebellious types into the breeding facility, it could sow the seeds of unrest” gas can boy replied. “Can’t have that either. It’s best to eliminate you, and the overlords selected us for that task. We have a certain something that the patrols don’t."
In one swift move, Spiked Club seized RC’s arm and forced her to the ground. Alyx dove forward, but someone seized him from behind and pressed a pocket knife to his throat.
“If you move an inch, you die now,” Gas Can announced with a grin. “Help us and you might live.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC looked on in horror. The knife was pressed so tightly against Alyx’s flesh that little beads of blood trickled away from the blade.
“All you have to do is lead us to any other strays that you know of,” Gas Can said with a lopsided smile. “Then we can deal with them instead.”
“I won’t help you hurt anyone,” Alyx announced defiantly.
“Those are brave words from someone who has a knife to his throat,” Gas Can growled. “What can possibly persuade you to reconsider?”
Spiked Club picked up on the cue. He yanked RC’s head up by the hair and, with a brutal hand, forced layers of clothing aside to reveal her collarbone. The cold air blasted her bare skin, but a knife was there soon enough. Running the tip along the ridge of bone, he sliced through the skin. The blood felt boiling hot in contrast with the cold as it flowed from the wound.
“Leave her out of this!” Alyx demanded. His voice sounded frantic. Almost crazed.
With those words, Spiked Club ceased his cutting, though he kept the blade in place. Awaiting further instructions, most likely.
“Why in the world should we do that?” Gas Can’s gleeful tone made RC’s anger flare even more. “We caught you together, so there’s no reason to leave either of you out of the fun.”
“I don’t care what you do to me,” RC insisted. The frosty air was already numbing the pain of her injury, thus adding to her bravery. “I’ve seen the kind of treatment you have to offer, and I’d rather die than help anyone like you!”
Gas Can’s eyes never left Alyx’s anguished face. He definitely enjoyed the pain he caused with his words almost as much as he enjoyed the physical violence he inflicted. “If you don’t cooperate with us, you’ll be helping us to justify hurting her even more.”
Spiked Club leaned over RC and, without moving the blade, ran his tongue up the side of her neck and across her cheek. The trail of saliva left her chilled as he proceeded to run his fingers through her blood, spreading it around so it covered her throat. He laughed in her ear as she whimpered involuntarily.
“If you haven’t already noticed, my associate is perfectly willing to follow through on our threats,” Gas Can noted with a glint in his eye. “In fact, if there’s anything left of her when he’s done, I wouldn’t mind doing my part too.”
Spiked Club ran his free hand down the side of RC’s body. “What if we got her pregnant? Could we turn her over to the breeder for a bonus?”
Hatchet Girl’s thin face was pale, her eyes wide and frightened. “Is this really necessary?”
Gas Can turned and slapped her hard across the face. Smack! The sound melded with the whoosh of the wind as she stumbled backwards. “Shut up, or we’ll do the same to you!” he warned.
The rest of the group started contributing their own colorful ideas for their captives, and RC had to tune them out. She looked to Alyx, hoping for some kind of reassurance. He was the only one she could trust, though he was equally helpless.
The falling snow dusted his hair, and for the briefest of moments, she remembered how magical the snow seemed when she was a child. Now, however, as they faced the possibility of death beneath the falling flakes, the element of wonder was gone. Instead, it was a cold, uncaring death shroud.
Unless the group selected a worse fate for them.
It took a moment for RC to realize that Alyx was silently mouthing something to her. She watched his lips closely, interpreting his message the best she could. It’s going to be all right. I promise, he seemed to be saying.
She doubted the truthfulness of his words, but she gave him a smile. Awkward though things were between them personally, she didn’t want them to end their association on bad terms.
No, she decided. I can’t think that way about him. Whether I planned for it or not, he’s my friend. Even after that damn kiss, he’s my friend.
Alyx’s captor suddenly pulled him to his feet. Gas Can stalked over and grabbed Alyx’s collar, pulling him close so their faces were mere inches apart. “Listen here. You have two choices. You can either give us what we want, or we’ll use your girlfriend over there any way we like while you watch. If neither of you break down from that, we’ll torture you until you talk or until you die. As you already know, we have no problem with killing anyone. Do you understand me?”
When Alyx stole another glance in her direction, RC saw the tears building, though he hadn’t yet let them fall.
“Don’t make him choose!” RC yelled as rage flooded through her, drowning the last of her good sense. “Take me and let him go!”
“No!” The word exploded from Alyx so forcefully that Gas Can jumped back. He must have been terrified they’d consider her offer. “I’ll take you to the rest of our people. I have to warn you, though. It’s a long way from here.”
RC lingered on the most important part of his promise. The house wasn’t far at all. It would take less than twenty minutes to get back from there. He’s taking them somewhere else. He has to be.
“We don’t mind a long walk,” Gas Can replied.
Alyx promptly pointed in the opposite direction of home. They set off, leaving fresh footprints through the snow that was already coating the ground. Cold winds whipped their clothes. The knives were pocketed, but Spiked Club still had an iron grip on her arm.
Alyx led the way with a knife at his back.
As they walked, RC fretted over one pressing question. Does Alyx have a plan, or is he only trying to buy us time?
Memoirs From the End of the World
The weather steadily deteriorated around them. RC could barely see the front of the group, where Alyx was still being marched along at knifepoint. As the temperature plummeted, her lungs started to burn with each breath. The cut on her collarbone had stopped bleeding, but she wondered if the blood clotted or just plain froze. Her feet were numb, and she worried how she would keep going. Would their captors simply get fed up with them and kill them on the spot if they insisted on stopping?
“Are we almost there?” The angry demand came from Gas Can.
“I don’t think so.” RC barely heard Alyx’s reply. “I doubt we can make it in a blizzard like this.”
“Maybe we should stop for the night,” Spiked Club said. This was the first reasonable utterance to come from his mouth. “We have a base not far from here. At least, I don’t think it’s far from here.”
Base? What does that mean? RC wondered.
“All right,” Gas Can agreed. “We’ll continue the moment the snow stops.”
After what seemed like another hour, the nearly frostbitten group stumbled into a house. RC was startled by the blast of warm air. For months on end, homes she stepped into were a similar temperature to the outdoors, with walls offering minimal shelter from the elements. This was an exception to the rule. A moment later, an overhead light blazed to life. “How does this house have power?” she dared to ask.
“Shut up!” Gas Can yelled. “No one gave you permission to speak!”
RC ducked her head, hoping the sign of submission would keep him from coming completely unhinged. She definitely didn’t want to provoke the kind of wrath he was obviously capable of unleashing.
“We have a generator.”
The whispered response from Hatchet Girl caught RC off guard. “Really?” she whispered back.
She nodded. “The overlords don’t want us to freeze to death. They have several fully stocked houses throughout the city so we always have a place to go.”
“Stop your yammering,” Spiked Club grumbled to Hatchet Girl as he shoved RC into the wall. With one hand pressed hard against her shoulder, he held her there. “We aren’t here to make friends with our prey.”
Being pinned to the wall by a violent pervert made RC feel anything but brave, but she did her best to put on a brave face. “Maybe you should keep your hands to yourself. We’re going to give you what you want, so you have no reason to hassle me.”
Spiked Club leaned so close RC could smell his rotten breath. “Don’t be silly. You’re going to be staying in our place of business, which means you need to pay a little rent. It’s only fair.” He started to unzip her coat.
A chill raced down her spine. “Get your hands off of me!” she demanded. Not that she thought her words would do any good. Even if it were just him, it would be extremely difficult to fight him off. But with all of them and their cache of weapons to choose from, it would be a hopeless fight. She just couldn’t stomach the thought of this creep touching her.
He knocked her coat onto the floor with a little flourish. “Who’s going to stop me?” Then he leaned forward, his bulky body holding her into place as he moved in for a kiss.
Spiked Club looked up to see Alyx standing there. “What did you say to me, shrimp?”
Alyx’s eyes were alight with fury. “You heard me. This wasn’t part of our deal. The deal was that I take you to the strays, and in exchange, you keep your depraved hands to yourself. If you can’t hold up your end of the bargain, I see no reason why I should follow through with mine.”
The smirk on Spiked Club’s face proved he didn’t take Alyx seriously. Not in the slightest. As if claiming a trophy, he seized her face with one hand, his other hand still wielding his deadly weapon. RC struggled to push him away, but he’d effectively pinned her. When he forcefully pressed his mouth against hers, she could only keep her lips firmly closed and wait for him to give up. His hands, his demeanor, everything about him repulsed her.
The unwelcome kiss ended abruptly when Spiked Club was knocked to the floor. RC whipped her head around in time to see Alyx standing there with his hands out, breathing hard from exertion. He’d managed to knock her attacker to the ground.
A moment of relief quickly turned to one of sheer terror as Spiked Club jumped to his feet. With club in hand, he moved menacingly toward Alyx. “You’re dead, little boy!”
RC had no doubt that one hit with that club could kill. With all manner of horrifying possibilities tumbling around in her head, she took a flying leap and plowed into Spiked Club’s side.
The world became a blur, and before she knew it, RC was lying on the ground beside Alyx, who now had a bloody nose. Spiked Club stood over them, ready to strike.
Gas Can’s shout was enough to make Spiked Club immediately back down. “I was only going to hurt them a little.”
RC sat up in time to see Gas Can shove Hatchet Girl at them. “Here, have Isabel to hold you over for the night. I’ll let you know when you can have the other one. For now, we’ll lock our guests away.”
One look at Hatchet Girl/Isabel showed how terrified she was, and RC felt a moment of overwhelming sympathy. Then several pairs of hands were on her and Alyx, and before she could even shout in protest, they were both being shoved through a dark doorway. As they landed together in a heap on the floor, the door slammed and locked behind them, leaving bathing them in darkness.
Memoirs From the End of the World
When RC stretched out, her feet touched one wall while her hands touched another. They’d been tossed into a modestly sized closet.
Then she remembered her backpack filled with foraged food, first aid supplies, and Romero. They’d surely be able to survive if their captors stole their food, but if they read Romero . . . RC couldn’t remember for certain if her diary entries would give away an exact location for their house, but the possibility was horrifying. She could only hope none of the goons liked to read.
“This is great,” she mumbled to herself.
“Try not to panic,” Alyx said in a soothing whisper. “We’re still alive. That’s worth something.”
This much was true, but she had her doubts about how long that would continue to be the case. “I was hoping you had a plan,” RC said. She was searching for something, anything to keep a flame of hope flickering.
“My plan hinged on not being locked in a closet,” Alyx replied. His voice betrayed regret. He clearly felt bad about this turn of events.
She wished she could offer him a smile, but there in the dark, such gestures would be pointless. After a moment of thought, she reached out. Though they were wedged tightly together, it took a moment of searching before she found his face. Resting her palm against his cheek, she tried to speak with the confidence she only wished she felt. “We’ll figure this out together. I promise.”
“I should have been able to get us out of this,” he mumbled. “What good am I to you if I can’t even keep you safe? And with Ollie sick, the others need us. If we don’t make it back, I’ve failed them too.”
RC might have been able to write that off as an understandable level of despair given their current predicament. It couldn’t be easy for him knowing that his actions could determine her fate as well as his. Yet, she sensed something that went far deeper. “You were brave out there. You tackled that jerk even though he’s twice your size, and you actually knocked him down. Not to mention that you’ve faced plenty of other dangerous situations, and you keep making it out again. That’s worth a lot. Why do you expect so much more of yourself than anyone else would?”
Alyx covered her hand with his. “The same reason why Ollie said I wasn’t man enough for any woman. If I can’t be enough on my own, I have to be even more in every other way. If I can’t do that, I’ll never be able to have any of the things I want from life.” His voice trembled as he spoke, and she knew he was on the brink of saying something that terrified him.
“If this is about you being sterile, a lot of women could deal with that.”
He sighed. “It’s more than that.”
Her heart jumped as she absorbed his apprehension. “How much more?”
“Alyx, you can trust me,” RC insisted.
He leaned his forehead against hers. “I know I can. It’s just difficult to talk about certain things.”
RC wished she could see his face. She wanted to read his feelings from the way he looked at her. As it was, she’d have to rely solely on nonvisual cues. Knowing he could only read her in the same way, she stroked his hair. “Take your time.”
Alyx nodded, as if giving himself permission to move forward. “I was born different. When my biological mother was pregnant with me, my body got confused. At least, that’s the best way I can think of to explain it. I’m male, but that part of my anatomy didn’t develop the way it should have. I went partway in between, mostly one way, but not completely. That’s why Ollie said I’m not man enough.”
She opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again when the words didn’t come. She needed to know more about the implications, though it felt awkward to ask. “Does that mean you can’t . . . at all?”
Wow, you can’t even say the word aloud, you dork, she chastised.
“What I do have is functional,” Alyx said hurriedly. “I just don’t look like most guys, and I can’t have kids. I . . . uh . . .” Then he pulled away from her. “This is so embarrassing. There’s a reason I don’t tell people.”
Though she couldn’t help wondering exactly what was different about him, hearing the pain in his voice forced her to focus on what was actually important. “If you’re ever going to be with anyone, you have to.”
“I know that.”
She wondered if she should even ask the question, but in the end, it nagged her too much not to ask it. “Is that why you walked away after we kissed?”
“Yes. Rose, you’re amazing. I like everything about you, but I was scared. My biological parents weren’t sure if they wanted me, and they didn’t want a child with any problems, so that’s what helped them decide to give me up. If they couldn’t take it, how would anyone else?”
So he did care about her. Right there, huddled beside him in that closet, she realized that was the only detail that mattered. They’d figure out everything else out later. Finding his face again with her hands, she pulled herself to him and pressed her lips to his. A feeling blossomed in her chest as he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back. This time, he didn’t pull away. He didn’t hesitate.
There, in the dark, they found comfort in one another. RC fell asleep in his arms, happy that at least one thing in life was still good.
Hours later, Alyx and RC woke to the sound of the door opening.
A bruised and bloody Isabel stood over them with coats in hand. “Come on,” she whispered. “We’re getting out of here.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC looked up at Isabel, hesitating as she remembered her wielding that hatchet. She’d only seen her cut the body down afterwards, but this still raised some doubts in her mind. Can I trust her?
Then a second thought came. Can I afford not to trust her?
Turning to look at Alyx, she saw that his hair was matted to his head. They’d both been sweating in their sleep. Great as the warmth of the otherwise horrific home felt, they were no longer accustomed to it. The cold of life on the outside had officially become their reality.
Apart from his messy appearance, Alyx’s eyes were alert and seemed to be forging ahead. He arrived at his conclusion before RC did. “That sounds good to me,” he whispered as he scrambled to his knees. He peered around the doorframe to get a view of the hallway. “Is anyone else awake?”
Isabel glanced anxiously at the staircase at the end of the hallway. “I don’t think so,” she replied after a few tense moments. “We need to move fast though. It’ll be dawn soon.”
When RC got to her feet, she noticed the blood in Isabel’s hair. “Are you all right?”
The girl didn’t meet her eye. “I’ll be all right when we get out of here.”
More questions asserted themselves as RC noted Isabel’s black eye and the blood embedded in her fingernails. Even so, they hardly had the time for such questions, and she didn’t need to hear the answers to know that Isabel had a bad night.
RC took her coat from Isabel and found her backpack still looped around one of the arms. “It’s here,” she whispered. It must have fallen off too while Spiked Club made his disgusting advances on her. A quick survey of contents made it clear that no one had even touched it.
Isabel nodded. “It was hidden under the coat. Even if they knew it was there, they would’ve searched through it while you watched. We don’t need the supplies, but they love making people watch while they take everything from them.”
“I gathered that,” Alyx said bitterly as he pulled on his extra layers of clothes, which he’d stripped off in the closet to avoid roasting entirely. “Do you have any idea what the weather is like now?”
Isabel shook her head. “No, but I can say it’s more dangerous in here than it is out there.”
No one could argue that point. With that in mind, the three of them tiptoed out the door, gently closed it behind them, and ventured into the dark. The cold bit back even more sharply than it had earlier. RC’s hair, which had also been dampened with sweat, soon froze as they made their way through drifts of snow.
Between the dark of night and the blowing snow, there was no hope of seeing where they were going. They had to stick together. Alyx gripped RC’s hand, though in the cold it was still hard to feel that connection. To preserve some warmth, RC slipped the sleeve of her coat over his, effectively shielding their bare skin from the wind. On the other side, Isabel linked her arm through Alyx’s.
As they pushed through the snow, the howling winds in their ears, RC struggled with more doubts. She couldn’t forget the tracking device she dug out of Ollie’s back when they first met. Would Isabel have something similar, or did the overlords trust their selected goon squad not to abandon their duties? If she was being tracked, was her breaking them out a rouse to get to their actual hiding place? Did Gas Can and the others suspect Alyx was purposely misleading them? Or even if Isabel was carrying a tracker, maybe she was genuine in her desire to escape. If that last one were true, RC didn’t know if she could turn her back on her.
No matter what she told Romero, RC realized she couldn’t be as cold as she told herself she needed to be. Alyx was living proof of that. And the kids. Also, though he could be a pain, she didn’t want anything bad to happen to Ollie either.
Yet, bringing Isabel home, right though it might ultimately be, could endanger them all.
If we can even make it back, RC added.
She had no idea which way they were actually going. Survival was primary. They couldn’t possibly make it to the house now. Finding shelter from the cold and disguising that shelter from anyone who might follow them had to be top priority.
At least the monstrous winds were disguising their tracks.
It seemed like they’d been walking forever when Alyx altered course. The faint light of dawn punched through the blizzard, turning pitch black to a world of whites and grays. In that faintly visible world, the structure of an old garage loomed. It was small, but it would shield them from the worst of the elements.
Soon they were slipping in through a wooden door that didn’t quite fit right in its rotting frame. A tiny window let in just enough light to reveal that a few discarded items were shoved against the back wall. They scavenged a tarp, which they secured over the door to help block out the cold air that leaked through. They also found an old, ratty sleeping bag. Alyx unzipped it and laid it so it covered all of them when they huddled into the warmest corner they could find.
RC felt somewhat comforted by the arm that Alyx laid across her shoulders. It reminded her of their time in that closet where she felt the tenderness of human companionship that she’d been missing. However, feeling it also reminded her of how much she now stood to lose. Some questions of trustworthiness needed to be addressed before they could move on.
“Isabel,” RC began, “I need to ask you something.”
Memoirs From the End of the Word
Isabel didn’t meet RC’s eye. She looked instead at her knees, which she’d drawn up to her chest. Something about being questioned was definitely setting her on edge.
The lack of a verbal response left RC feeling awkward, but she proceeded anyway. “Is there any way the others can track you? Were you ever injected with a tracking device? If you were, we need to deal with that before we go any further.”
She sighed. “They did, but I already took care of it.”
“What do you mean?”
Isabel held up her hands and displayed her bloody fingernails. “I dug it out of my back before I came to get you.” She shrugged her coat off of one shoulder to expose a jagged cut just beneath her shoulder blade.
RC was impressed and mildly horrified. It would have been extremely difficult for anyone to dig out something like that without help. The wound demonstrated her determination. Or maybe it proved that, after everything she’d been through, she wasn’t about to be deterred by the pain of such an operation.
“I can clean that out for you,” RC said, her suspicions forgotten. She searched her backpack and located the few remaining medical supplies. At the very least she could clean it out and get it covered. It was too dark and cold to do anything more than that.
While RC carefully wiped away the dried blood, Alyx started asking his own questions. “Are you okay? Last night, you were supposed to go with that one guy. He didn’t seem too gentle.”
“That’s an understatement,” Isabel replied. “He didn’t do anything worse to me than what he’s done before. I think he considered me his toy. He had his own room of the house where he liked to take me. He didn’t do it every night. Unfortunately, a couple of the others took advantage of those nights off.”
“How did you get away from him?” Alyx asked. “You must have been worried he’d asked questions if he saw you cutting your tracker out of your back.”
Isabel bit her lip. At first, RC wondered if she’d caused her any pain while tending to her injury, but the real reason for the gesture soon became clear. “I saw how violent he could be. I watched while he slaughtered a group of children when they refused to cooperate. Why would he show me any mercy if he caught me trying to escape? I couldn’t risk it. And I knew if I didn’t take advantage of a chance to get away, I’d regret it.”
RC stopped what she was doing and put a comforting hand on Isabel’s arm. “You can tell us what you did. It’s okay.”
A low, joyless laugh preceded Isabel’s response. “After everything he did to me, you’d think I wouldn’t feel bad. I just . . . I saw death everywhere, but I never actually killed me. Even after he fell asleep, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But then I saw that he left his knife on the table, and I knew if I would ever have a chance to get away, that was it. So I grabbed it and cut his throat.” She paused, her expression distant. “He died slower than I expected. There was a lot of blood, but it still happened much slower than I thought it would.” Her words sounded hollow.
Silence fell over them all. RC certainly didn’t like Spiked Club. She could still feel his rough hands and the forced kiss that left her feeling nauseous. Had he gotten his way and taken her for the night as he’d tried to do, she might’ve been the one to take his life. After some thought, she knew that she would have killed him to save herself. No question, and she hadn’t had to deal with him for nearly as long as Isabel. “It’s all right,” RC said as she proceeded with dressing the wound. “You did what you had to do. The world we live in makes horrible things necessary sometimes.”
“The only thing that matters now is that you’re okay,” Alyx added. “We’ll make sure you never see the others.”
“It’s odd,” Isabel added. “It’s obvious that what he did to me was wrong. It used to be called rape. Now, it’s no different than what happens in the breeding centers. More rough, maybe, but more honest. He never pretended to do it for any other reason other than that he wanted to do it.”
RC didn’t know how to respond, but she knew there was truth in Isabel’s words.
Once she was bandaged up, Isabel drifted off to sleep. She had every reason to be tired.
RC and Alyx, on the other hand, weren’t even remotely sleepy.
“The second the snow clears up enough, we need to move,” Alyx insisted. “They’ll be angry. I doubt they could find us all that easily, but I want to put as much distance between us and them as possible.”
Alyx sighed. “I can’t stop worrying about Ollie. He looked so sick when we left him, and if anything were to happen, I’m not sure if the kids can handle it.”
RC put her hand on his. “It’ll be okay. We’ll make it back soon enough, and you’ll see for yourself.” Of course, RC couldn’t be certain of this, but she didn’t want to add to his worries.
Hours passed, and they spent that time talking quietly while Isabel slept on. They avoided any further mention of the horrors they’d gone through. Instead they focused on life before the overlords. Back when life was uncomplicated. When you could be reasonably sure that you’d get up in the morning and make it through the day.
The wind eventually died down, and when Alyx went to peek out the door, he brought back the anticipated news. “Let’s wake Isabel up. It’s time to go.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
So, our group is one member larger than it was. Isabel’s past is certainly full of trauma, but she tries to focus on what she needs to do to survive. I admire that in her. If there are enough people with that same resilient nature, we might actually be able to overthrow the overlords one day and rebuild our lives.
If only the world outside the reservations weren’t so comfortable with sacrificing us for their own benefit. As it is, any uprising would likely be squashed by people who are supposed to be human beings.
When the three of us finally returned to the house, we were covered in snow and nearly frozen to the bone, but Isabel didn’t complain once. Compared to what she was used to, tromping through drifts of snow had to be paradise. She smiled warmly when Sheera and Peter nearly knocked us over in excitement. They’d all feared the worst for us when we didn’t return at the expected time. And while they certainly looked twice at the newest member of our entourage, their suspicion soon gave way to curiosity. Isabel glowed when she met them, probably because they helped her temporarily forget all the horrific things she experienced. Ollie lay in bed as he had when we left, but his head felt somewhat cooler to the touch. Sheera said he hadn’t eaten at all, but he at least took water at regular intervals. We took this as a good sign.
Isabel went to get some sleep not long after that. The small amount of sleep she got in that garage wasn’t enough to keep her going, so she retreated to one of the bedrooms. Sheera and Peter, who were up most of the night waiting for us to come back, also went to take a nap. That left me alone with Alyx in the front room. We sat together quietly, too exhausted for words. I leaned against his shoulder, relieved that the peril had passed and comfortable to be there with someone I trusted.
Romero, I once promised that I wouldn’t get emotionally involved with anyone. You know this, and by now you also know that I’ve failed in that regard. I know it sets me up to be hurt, but I can’t help it. Something about Alyx draws me in. I trust that he won’t purposely hurt me. He’ll do what he can to protect me, and I’ll do the same for him. Say what you will, but from now on, that’s the way it’s going to be. Rules can be revised.
Survival is more than making sure your heart is still beating. It’s also about not forgetting what it feels like to be human.
That gang of teenagers that rapes and kills for a living have obviously forgotten. I will never end up like them. I’ll die first.
After a couple more days, Ollie was starting to move about the house, and I could see right away that his eyes were drawn to Isabel. It didn’t help that when Alyx and I went out gathering, she stayed behind to help take care of him. She wanted nothing to do with gathering food, simply because she didn’t want to risk running into her old companions. Unfortunately for Ollie, those horrifying experiences made her reluctant to let him too close.
The close call we had also prompted me and Alyx to stockpile whatever weapons we can find. Hammers, knives, a bow and some arrows we found, a golf club. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but we have to be prepared. We have a number of people to defend, so we can’t be too careful.
I hate to admit that I still didn’t feel comfortable having knives around Isabel for the first couple of nights. I couldn’t stop picturing what she did to Spiked Club. I may not have seen it, but I didn’t need to. What can I say? I have a vivid imagination.
Still, my fears about Isabel died over the next several days. Had she intended to harm any of us, I figure she would have done it by now. Besides, if we can’t trust our own people, we’re as good as dead. Especially if we have to fight any well-organized groups in the near future.
That’s the other problem. I fear it won’t be long before we run into those creeps again. In the middle of the night last night, I awoke to the sound of howling. And it wasn’t an animal. They were human howls, from more than one person judging from the sounds of the voices involved.
Alyx was already awake. He sat beside me on the sofa, rigid as he strained his ears to hear. Since returning from that harrowing nightmare, we’ve shared the sofa, too afraid to be alone should anything happen. And last night, hearing those menacing calls in the distance, we held each other close, hoping we didn’t have to make a move for the weapons we’d strategically stashed away. I thought back to whether we’d adequately hidden our footprints. I wondered if we’d taken enough of a circuitous route in our gathering the day before to throw any hunters off our trail.
We didn’t have to go for our weapons after all. The sounds soon faded, and after more than an hour of terror, we were able to relax. I can only say that I’m glad Ollie is getting better, because we may need to move on soon. Maybe those boys are hunting us, hoping to get revenge for what happened to Spiked Club. Maybe they’re just tormenting us.
Even if they just happen to be in the area for other reasons and don’t know we’re here, they’re too close for comfort.
Memoirs From the End of the World
The winter passed agonizingly slowly in some respects. Trudging through the snow banks with an entire group of people in tow made avoiding detection that much more difficult. An ignored set of footprints could easily draw unwanted attention from the wrong people. They would also be that much easier to spot from a distance. They did what they could to alleviate this problem by traveling on windy days when they could count on the shifting snow to somewhat obscure the traces of their presence. A light snow also worked well for this purpose. Upon getting the group settled in their next temporary home, RC and Alyx would venture out to sweep over whatever else they needed to cover in order to feel safe for the night.
All in all, they spent those months freezing cold. There was no way to get warm, except during trips spent hunting for new sources of food, when the laborious nature of tromping through the snow drew out a sweat regardless of air temperature. This was actually one of the reasons why RC preferred to go on those little expeditions. Remaining sheltered only guaranteed a chilled existence.
At night, they sat together and discussed a variety of topics. Sometimes they told stories from their pasts. Sometimes they discussed survival strategies. And quite often, they talked of what it might be like when they finally escaped the city and didn’t have to worry about the constant threat of patrols, both robotic and human. RC often felt distinctly uncomfortable when this particular conversation would arise, because she didn’t like getting her hopes up. Not when the possibility of failure was so real. Not when they couldn’t even think of attempting such an escape until the weather improved in early spring. Isabel, on the other hand, glowed when this topic arose, and she was frequently the one to broach it. She clung to the hope of better things like a starving man might cleave to a loaf of bread.
Though Ollie’s progress was slow, he steadily recovered from the illness that took him down. The children also exhibited some signs of sickness as well, but they bounced back much more quickly. RC silently decided the old saying “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” might indeed be appropriate in this case. Either way, his recovery brought a sense of relief. At least, for the time being, no lives were in imminent danger.
Except, of course, for the constant fear that they would be spotted. One time, while RC and Alyx were out gathering, hoping with everything they had that they could gather enough supplies to last them for a couple days, they actually crossed paths with Gas Can and a couple of other guys from the group. RC’s heart almost leapt from her body when she saw them standing in the street. Fortunately, RC and Alyx saw them through a dirty window before exiting the building they’d just finished searching. Well hidden and reasonably safe, they huddled there until the boys moved on.
“That was too close,” RC breathed as she watched them disappear around a distant corner.
“Not nearly as close as last time, though,” Alyx replied.
RC laughed. “That’s true.”
Each month that passed also brought with it also brought a whisper of truth they all wanted to ignore. There was less food to find. The routine scavenging trips confirmed this fact. There weren’t that many strays left on the streets, at least not as far as RC knew, yet the need to eat daily guaranteed that the day would eventually come when they would find nothing. They had to carefully ration each meal, and they often tried to err on the side of caution in eating less than they thought they could get away with. After all, who knew when the weather might turn on them, making the next trip outdoors impossible? Or maybe Alyx and RC wouldn’t come back one day. No sense in the others starving while they waited.
If anything, this diminishing supply of food solidified the already rather solid conviction that they needed to eventually make it completely out of the city. If they didn’t, they would die.
Yet, that conviction wouldn’t feed them for the remainder of the winter. It might warm some of them with a spark of hope, yes, but that spark would surely die if they stopped gathering for mealtime.
One night, as they sat together by a window, basking in the light of a brilliant full moon, Alyx broke through a peaceful lull in the banter with an annoyingly obvious observation. “We can’t go on much longer like this. None of us has had enough to eat in weeks.”
RC gaped at him. Of course she knew this was true, but pointing it out would only make the hunger pangs more difficult to ignore.
“Do you have any bright ideas?” Ollie demanded. “Because I think we’d all like to have a full meal for a change.”
“I actually do,” Alyx replied, “though it might be a bit dangerous.”
This did nothing to reassure RC, who knew Alyx would insist on being at the forefront of whatever dangerous mission he had in mind. “What’s your plan?”
Alyx shifted his gaze to indicate both RC and Isabel. “Remember the safe house we were taken to?”
RC nodded. It was a safe house for their captors to go to, but it had been anything but safe for them.
“They were well-stocked with all kinds of things, and I’m sure that included plenty of food,” he continued.
Isabel shrank back. “Yes, of course, but it would be suicide to go back there.”
“Maybe, but we need more to eat,” Alyx insisted. “There are several safe houses, right? We’ll just go back to the one we all know and hope no one else is there that night.” He sighed. “I know it’s risky, but it’s better than starving.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC sat alone on the chilled porch of their current home. Not that she thought of it as home in any traditional sense. The fact that she shared this dwelling space with her fellow strays was about the closest to home she could manage.
This porch was a sorry sight to behold. Fully enclosed, it provided some shelter from the elements, as well as some kind of shield from the prying eyes of anyone who might happen by. The storm windows, cracked and filthy, drew attention to the structure’s disuse. Yet it also allowed enough light to spill through and onto Romero’s exposed pages. She balanced him in her lap, trying to drudge up the right words to express all that she was feeling.
The pen hovered over the page, motionless for many moments while RC tried to move beyond those perfunctory first words.
I won’t lie to you. I don’t want to go back there, though I understand why we have to do this. We go to bed a little hungrier each night. Maybe we are just in a bad patch of town, and maybe if we moved just a little in one direction, we’d stumble across a huge stockpile of food.
Unfortunately, with so many mouths to feed, we can’t take the chance of waiting and hoping.
She paused again, filled with shame about what she felt at that moment. Should she confess this unpleasant, spiteful thought as well? She did intend to be honest when she started writing in this diary, but putting words to paper meant someone could eventually see it.
Don’t be a coward, RC scolded herself. If you can’t be honest here, what’s the point of even writing in here in the first place?
If I were on my own right now, I’d be doing just fine in terms of food. I wouldn’t need to risk my life like this. It might be wrong, but there are times when these thoughts make me angry at the people around me. I almost resent them.
When I start to feel bitter, I remember that I was once so desperate for human contact that I named my diary. (Sorry Romero, you’ve been great, but you are, at the end of the day, incapable of responding to me.) I remember that I didn’t have anyone to watch my back. I didn’t have anyone to give me a much needed hug at the end of a long day.
Even with all the drawbacks to being part of a larger group, I know I can’t leave them. Isabel is living proof of how bad things could be, and yet she still managed to make a place for herself here. After a few weeks with us, she’s even started to smile and crack jokes. Her strength reminds me that I can also stay sane if I work at it.
Ollie’s been more pleasant too. Since recovering from his illness, he’s ceased making any kind of play for me. He even apologized for his bad behavior. I do wonder how much that apology has to do with Isabel’s arrival, though she certainly hasn’t expressed any romantic interest in him. Not that I know of, at least.
As for Alyx,
RC stopped abruptly. She nervously bit the end of the pen as she considered what the truth here might be. So much of their time together consisted of struggling to survive. They gathered, they cooked meals, they took the time to tend to the needs of the others. And yet, late at night after everyone else went to sleep, he was her greatest source of comfort. He’d put his arms around her and together they would fill the hours with personal stories and aspirations. RC didn’t feel comfortable talking about the future she feared she wouldn’t have with anyone else, but while alone with Alyx, it felt okay.
She pressed her pen to paper once more.
. . . I think I might love him. I’m not sure, because I’ve never felt anything like this before.
That’s part of why this mission is so scary for me. It’ll just be me, Alyx, and Ollie. (Isabel’s staying behind to look after the kids. She said right up front that she wouldn’t, under any circumstances, go back to that house. I honestly can’t blame her for that.) I know Alyx. He’ll do anything he can to protect both of us.
If anything happens to him
No, I won’t think about that. I can’t think about that. If we’re going to do what we need to do to survive, I can’t worry about what might happen until it actually does happen.
“It’s almost time to go.”
RC looked up to see Alyx standing in the doorway. She admired his long dark hair, which he’d tied back in a ponytail. Everyone had long hair at this point, but she thought his hair, being so smooth and soft, was perfect the way it was.
“I know.” She quickly signed a quick farewell to Romero and shoved him into her backpack. Then she stood and looked at him for a long moment. The emotions she’d worked up with her fruitless worries tugged at her.
If anything happens to him . . . That infernal thought wouldn’t leave her mind. Before she could stop herself, she’d closed the distance between them and firmly pushed him against the frosty wall. She had to stand on her tiptoes to kiss him properly, because this wasn’t going to be any normal kiss. This kiss was fueled by all of her fears, desires, and doubts about the world, all rolled up into one feverish emotion she couldn’t quite identify. And soon he was returning the kiss with the same fervor, his arms pulling her tight against his body, a welcome warmth flooding through her.
When she pulled away, she felt slightly unsteady. Looking into his eyes, she whispered, “Just in case.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
The house looked less menacing in full daylight without predatory thugs with weapons milling about. Nevertheless, the three of them approached with caution. If it hadn’t been for Isabel, RC and Alyx may never have made it out of there. RC understood this fact all too well. Who knew what may have happened the following morning, or what may have happened when their captors realized Alyx had no intention of leading them where they wanted to go?
Ollie, on the other hand, never had to see this place before that moment. He looked at it with fresh eyes, more focused on tactics because he wasn’t being crushed by the memories. “I don’t see any footprints in the snow. That means they probably haven’t been here for a little while.”
“That, or they’re carefully covering their tracks like we are,” RC pointed out.
“Maybe,” Alyx conceded, “but I doubt it. These guys didn’t seem like the type to tiptoe around when we met them. They operated through fear and intimidation. Hiding their tracks would work against that.”
RC nodded, relieved by this analysis. The plan was for them to get in, get what they needed, and get out again as quickly as possible. Ollie had agreed to cover the second floor to see what supplies he could find up there, Alyx would cover the main floor, and RC would check out the basement. According to Isabel, provisions had been hidden all over the house. Spiked Club always squirreled away food and things in his room.
Before Isabel slashed his throat, anyway.
Stepping through the front door set RC on edge. She remembered the numbness of marching through the blizzard, the sting of the fresh wound on her collarbone, the hopeless feeling of being forced in the closet. She glanced over and saw the closet. “Memories,” she muttered.
Alyx nodded. “Definitely.”
The house met them with the eerie creak of floorboards as they fanned out, peering around every corner. RC’s heart slowly returned to a more moderate pace as she saw more reassurance that they were the only ones in the house. That’s when she took the journey down the rickety wooden steps into the basement. While Ollie and Alyx would search without turning on any lights, she didn’t have that luxury. She’d never be able to find anything in that dark pit if she didn’t flip the light switch.
The damp scent, which closely mirrored the smells RC recalled from other basements, lingered with another smell that she couldn’t quite identify. This other smell wasn’t overpowering, but it lingered in her nostrils, driving her to discover the source. Anything remaining unidentified was something that could possibly harm her.
The lone, bare light bulb hung from the center of the low ceiling, casting shadows everywhere. Piles of boxes lined the walls. And these boxes looked new, wearing only the lightest coating of dust. This meant they couldn’t have been there long.
RC was about to pull back the flaps of the nearest box when she heard shuffling. She paused in her movements, straining to hear any sound that might follow.
It’s probably a mouse or a snake, she told herself. Odds are it’s nothing.
A moment later, more shuffling. Then a low groan.
She briefly considered flying back up the stairs without investigating further. She heard the comforting sounds of Alyx’s feet crossing above her head, reminding her that she wouldn’t have to go far for backup. Yet such an action seemed cowardly, and in this world, the last thing she could afford was cowardice.
Slowly, with knife drawn, RC tiptoed away from the safety of the stairs and deeper into the room. She crept past a rack packed with winter wear, snow boots and shoes lined up underneath. She noted the snow shoes in particular. They would make it easier to traverse the deep snow, as well as making their path through the streets less visible from a distance.
If Gas Can and the others are using them now that the snow is this deep, would we have noticed any footprints outside? Paranoia began to creep up on her, but RC pushed it back down. Of course we would have. We were thorough about our check before we came inside. We aren’t idiots.
RC came upon the hot water heater. Right beside that was a pole that ran from the floor to the ceiling. A human figure huddled at the bottom. Covered in bruises and blood, hair matted. Hands chained to the pole, feet chained to a hook buried in the floor.
A startled yelp escaped RC’s throat, and then figure’s head jerked up. The face looked male, but was deathly thin and covered with dirt. Wide green eyes bulged out of his eye sockets as he stared at her. “Who are you?” His voice wavered slightly, and his tone was untrusting.
“My friends and I came here to loot supplies,” RC replied. “We won’t hurt you.”
A hint of relief brightened his expression. “My sister is tied up over there.” He gestured with a nod of his head. “You need to let us go. We’ve been down here for weeks. They’ll kill us if you leave us here!”
“Why are you down here in the first place?”
“There’s a resistance movement,” he replied. “We’re a small group, but we’re determined. My sister and I were captured when we came here to sabotage equipment. They’ve been torturing us for information, and we have to go days without food and water when no one is here.”
One look at the sister, who must have been a few years older than him, told RC that they’d been much harder on her. Even if she let them loose, she had no idea how they’d fend for themselves. These two would slow them down significantly. And yet . . . she couldn’t bring herself to turn away.
“Alyx!” RC called. “I need your help!”
Memoirs From the End of the World
“We’re in danger,” the young man replied hurriedly as the sound of footsteps sounded above them. “They have surveillance equipment set up all over this house. The moment you stepped foot in here, you probably triggered an alarm. Someone may even be watching us right now.”
RC nearly choked as her throat tightened. “Are you sure?”
“That’s how we were captured,” he replied. “We’d raided their supplies before. I guess they got sick of it.”
Then Alyx flew into the room, foregoing the last three stairs completely in his haste. A second set of footsteps indicated that Ollie wasn’t far behind.
“How long do you think we have?” RC demanded.
He shrugged. “No more than a few minutes. Whoever was on the lookout when we were caught must have been ready to go, because we were only in the house about fifteen minutes before being hauled down here.”
Though Alyx didn’t hear the entire conversation, he clearly didn’t like the bit he did hear. “Maybe this was a bad idea,” he mumbled quietly as he started to search their surroundings. “Do you know where they hid the keys for the lock on that chain?”
The young man shook his head. “They’re not hidden.” Then he looked up.
Following his gaze, RC saw what must have been intended as a cruel joke. The keys dangled from a little hook in the ceiling. They were always right there, out of reach, taunting him. “That’s cold,” she remarked.
While Alyx worked to free him, RC returned to his sister. Another set of keys hung above her head. In this case, the reprehensible cruelty of this group would work to their advantage.
“What’s your name?” she heard Alyx ask.
“Tim. My sister’s name is Jill.”
By the time Ollie made it down, RC had already freed Jill, though she remained unconscious. “You’re going to need to help me with her.”
Ollie sprang into action, pulling one of the woman’s limp arms around his shoulders. He clutched her against him with his other arm. “Who are these people?” he asked.
“We don’t have time to answer that question now,” RC said dismissively. “We need to worry about getting out of here.”
Alyx had to help Tim in spite of the fact that he kept insisting he was fine. It took both RC and Ollie to move Jill, and that was anything but simple on those narrow, rickety stairs. Even so, all five of them made it to the main floor of the house.
“A patrol should be here any minute,” Tim lamented as he stared at the front door.
“Ollie, you’re going to have to carry her out of here by yourself,” Alyx said softly. “Rose, you’ll need to stick close and help Tim as much as you can.”
Stopping to glare at his brother, Ollie demanded, “What about you?”
“I’ll lag behind and keep an eye on things,” he replied. “I won’t be too far behind though. I promise.”
RC wanted to argue with him, and if it weren’t for the sheer lack of time, she would have happily done so until her voice gave out. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to try to convince him of anything. “Just be careful,” she barked.
With the few supplies they’d managed to gather strapped to their backs and the rest of their strength devoted to helping Tim and Jill, RC and Ollie moved quite slowly. Jill started to respond to her surroundings. She seemed to be only half awake, as if she were reacting to something happening to her in a dream. Her head rested awkwardly against Ollie’s shoulder as they moved.
Tim and RC trudged through the snow a little behind Ollie and Jill. The all tried to stick to a route where a layer of ice covered the snow. This helped them avoid making footprints. Even so, they found themselves occasionally sinking knee-deep into the snow.
RC kept looking back to make sure Alyx was okay. The first few times, she saw him several yards behind them, wielding a baseball bat he’d retrieved from the house. He might be able to take down a couple of people with that should anyone come after them, but any more than that, and they would all have a serious problem.
Then, when she looked back the last time, she saw Alyx falling into a snow drift. At first she figured he tripped, but he didn’t move. After several moments, she knew something had to be wrong. “Keep walking if you can,” she told Tim. “I’ll be right back.”
She reversed course. Though she tried to hurry, her progress was slow. Her feet kept punching through the icy surface of the snow drift.
As a result, she hadn’t quite made it to Alyx when they slipped out from behind a nearby house. Gas Can held a dart gun in hand. That’s when she saw the dart sticking out of Alyx’s back. They’d taken him down in one silent shot.
RC only had a knife, and she couldn’t throw a knife worth a damn. If she tried, she’d only be handing them another weapon. And Gas Can could bring her down in a split second.
When she felt the prick of the dart in her neck, her heart started to race. What would they do to her? To Alyx? Would they ever be able to escape a second time? Somehow, it seemed unlikely.
The warmth of the tranquilizer spread steadily from the wound, and her knees buckled. Her vision blurred as her whole body swayed. The snow cushioned her fall as her eyelids blotted out the last traces of light.
Memoirs From the End of the World
Confusion came first. What in the world happened? RC wondered. Why do I feel like I’ve been flattened by a train?
Pain. An intense ache had taken root in every part of RC’s body, though some parts were worse than others. She lay unmoving for several long moments, keeping her eyes closed. The drowsiness kept her immersed in a fog as she tried to remember what happened. All she knew for certain was that she didn’t feel right.
Nothing felt right.
Then she heard a voice. She couldn’t distinguish the words at first, but the sound sent her heart racing. Gas Can. He was close, and that knowledge alone sent her heart racing.
The memories began to return, and that certainly did nothing for her calm. Alyx. What happened to him? Where is he? Is he here? That question prompted her to open her eyes, though she peered through the tiniest crack between her eyelids. She didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention.
The room was dark. The warm air proved that they were indeed in an area friendly to Gas Can and his cohorts, but the stone wall that dominated her vision told her little else. She lay on her side less than a foot away from it, and she could smell its earthiness.
“You really are more trouble than you’re worth, aren’t you?” Gas Can demanded.
“If that’s what you think, fine by me.”
Tim! So they captured him too. Did Ollie and Jill get away, or were they squirreled away somewhere?
“You realize what I’ll have to do to you if you don’t cooperate?” Gas Can replied, his voice rising with his rage.
“You can’t use my sister against me now, so why should I cooperate?” Tim spat. “Get it over with. I’ve been waiting to die for weeks now.”
Okay. So Jill got away, which meant Ollie did too. She couldn’t have possibly been strong enough to escape on her own. Though this did little to help her personally, she took some comfort in knowing that someone would be all right.
A chilling laugh made RC shiver. “Very well.”
She heard a set of footsteps rapidly approaching, and she didn’t have time to react before rough hands were hauling her to her feet. Instinctively, she tried to resist, but she quickly learned that her wrists were firmly bound together, as were her ankles. Any efforts were only a waste of precious energy at this point.
“Oh look, she’s even awake,” Gas Can announced gleefully. “Now we can use her cries of pain as incentive. I know she isn’t your sister, but surely as a human being you’ll still feel something in witnessing her suffering.”
Though these words unsettled RC, she took the opportunity to note her surroundings. Tim was once again chained up in the same way he was when she first saw him. This time, however, he looked much more alert. His eyes pierced Gas Can like lasers. His body was beaten, even broken, but his spirit sure wasn’t. If anything, the knowledge that his sister was out of this monster’s hands had strengthened his resolve.
A situation Gas Can clearly wanted to remedy. He moved his hands from RC’s shoulders to her throat. “I could squeeze the life out of her, you know? It wouldn’t be hard at all.”
Tim laughed. It wasn’t a joyful sound, but a sound of mockery. Derision. RC had no doubt that Tim despised Gas Can in a rare way that only comes from intense suffering. Even as a human being, seeing her suffer, someone he’d barely met, might not even begin to rival his deeply rooted need to defy this person he despised so thoroughly. “I watched you torture my sister, and I still didn’t crack,” Tim announced coldly. “What makes you think I’ll give in now? Do you have any idea how many people I’ve seen die?”
Under normal circumstances (which she admittedly hadn’t found herself in for quite some time), she would have been furious about his casual dismissal of her. However, in that moment, she could hardly blame him. The rules had changed drastically since their alien overlords landed. People had to be cautious about their allegiances.
“Are you sure about that?” Gas Can still sounded smug as he tightened his grip around her throat.
RC’s heart beat so hard it felt like it was trying to break through her ribs. She tried to draw a breath, only to find the effort futile. The pain of strangulation shot through her body like a spider web, tendrils of pain exploding here and there. She wanted to scream, to kick, to punch anything, but her bindings held firm.
So this was it. This was how death would find her. In a stone room, tied up so she couldn’t lift a finger to fend it off.
Then, as she cast her eyes about the room as that was the only part of her body capable of movement, they landed on a welcome sight. Alyx lay against the opposite wall, bound up in similar fashion, only he was on his back. His face was swollen and bruised, courtesy of Gas Can’s hospitality, and his eyes were closed. Yet she saw that his chest moved with each breath, reassuring her that he was all right. At least for the moment.
I wish I could talk to you one more time, Alyx, she thought. I hope you don’t feel guilty for whatever happens to me. This isn’t your fault.
Her thoughts became less coherent. Her vision went fuzzy. She struggled to breathe as her body made one last desperate attempt to stay alive. All in vain.
Darkness descended on her like a curtain closing on the final act of a deranged play.
Memoirs From the End of the World
The muted light that passed through RC’s eyelids was unexpected, to say the least. The sensation of steely hands clamped around her throat came back to her like a punch to the stomach. Horrified by the memory, she opened her eyes, hoping against hope that the image greeting her would be better than the last.
First of all, she was no longer in the same room. Light streamed in through a couple of windows, making the world appear much brighter than before.
Frantic, she remembered her last view of Alyx lying unconscious on the floor. Though her vision was somewhat blurred for some reason she couldn’t quite understand, she could see well enough to decide he wasn’t in the room with her now. Tim, on the other hand, was sitting crumpled up in the corner.
“It looks like she’s waking up.” A woman in a gray jumpsuit leaned over RC, her bright green eyes intense as they scrutinized her. This woman’s breath smelled like mint as it cascaded over her face. Though the smell itself wasn’t at all unpleasant, the sensation sent chills down her spine.
“I told you I didn’t hurt her that bad.” Gas Can’s voice sounded abrasively self-assured as usual.
The woman’s eyes flicked down toward RC’s legs before she nodded. “Sure. She might disagree with you on that, but I guess it won’t make any difference for our purposes.”
RC’s stomach knotted. What had he done to her while she was out cold? Where was this woman looking, and what did she see? Yet there wasn’t really a question in her mind about what happened. Not really. After hearing about Isabel’s experiences and what she went through, she had no doubts about what Gas Can and the others were capable of doing.
“That was Leo’s handiwork,” Gas Can replied. “He’s still upset about what Isabel did to his brother. Since she helped Isabel get away, it’s the closest thing to revenge he could get.”
When RC concentrated, she started to feel more than the residual pain in her neck. Her thighs ached, and she felt what had to be a deep gash that left her skin caked with dried blood. That discovery triggered a wave of nausea that forced her to look away from them both. The last thing she wanted was for them to analyze her like an animal in a zoo.
“Well, I’ll leave that one for you.” The woman nodded at Tim. “I don’t care what you do with him. His self-inflicted vasectomy makes him useless to us, and I don’t think you’re going to get him to talk at this point. I’ll take her.”
Where’s Alyx? RC thought frantically. If they’re discarding Tim, what would they do to Alyx? After all, they already declared him useless every time the patrols ignored him.
“You’re going to live a much more comfortable life where you’re going, sweetheart,” the woman said softly, though she didn’t look RC in the eye when she said it. “I don’t understand why people like you run for so long. The breeding facility isn’t nearly as bad as you might imagine it to be.”
RC didn’t bother to refute these assertions or to explain her position. That would be futile. Only one thing mattered enough to make her speak up. “Where’s Alyx?”
The woman furrowed her eyebrow. “Which one was that?”
“That’s the one who spit on me,” a new voice added. RC caught sight of a tuft of blond hair.
“Yeah, he didn’t like Leo all that much,” Gas Can replied. “It probably didn’t help that you made him watch everything you did to her.”
“He was the one with the messed up leg,” Leo added. “A souvenir I was more than happy to provide.”
The woman nodded in recognition. “Oh, him. Our medic already took him out of here. He won’t be going to the same place as you, but the Constable requested him for something. I have no idea what they want with him, though.”
“He’s lucky,” Leo added bitterly. “If they’d left him to us, I would have killed him and forced her to watch.”
Gas Can laughed. “You do like to have an audience, don’t you?”
“Can’t let good art go to waste,” Leo replied.
“You can always finish him for her entertainment.” Gas Can pointed to Tim. “It won’t be the same since they weren’t traveling together, but I bet you anything that it will still have an impact on her.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Is this posturing really necessary?”
“Maybe we think it is,” Leo said defensively. “Now be a doll and sit her up for us.”
The woman sighed but did as they demanded. RC’s head swam as her body struggled to compensate for the sudden motion. Though she knew it was a bad idea, she quickly glanced down to see the damage firsthand. Her pants were gone, though they’d at least let her keep her underwear. Bruises were popping up all over her skin.
RC forced her eyes away from the injuries, biting her lower lip to keep the rage at bay. Exploding at them, justifiable though it might be, would in no way help her position.
Tim stirred when Leo grabbed him by the collar. “What do you want from me now?” he demanded angrily.
A look of undeniable relief came over Tim moments before the knife tore through his carotid artery. The blood came fast, but RC didn’t focus on that. She instead kept her eyes focused on his. Even as despair threatened to consume her, she focused on his relief, which remained firmly in place until the end.
As the woman yanked RC to her feet, she wondered if she should envy Tim. Would a swift death be better than what awaited her, or was there still hope to be found somewhere?
Only time would tell.
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC’s captor tossed her a worn blanket to wrap around herself and drug her to a car waiting outside. Even with the blanket, a lack of footwear and pants made the short journey many times more miserable than it needed to be. The driver waved impatiently at them to hurry. “They want us back as soon as possible,” he called. “There’s some kind of scuffle back at the breeding house. It seems like some of the so-called revolutionaries are getting pretty brave.”
The woman laughed. “Terrorists, you mean? They won’t be brave for very long. I’ll see to that.”
Revolutionaries? Do they stand a chance? RC wondered. Then another thought followed. Are these friends of Tim and Jill? Do they have enough people to make any kind of difference?
The woman shoved RC into the backseat and sat beside her. “You’ll be much happier sleeping in a real bed again. You may be tempted to resent me for taking you away, but in the long run, I’m doing you a favor. You’ll have regular meals, medical care. I honestly can’t understand why anyone would want to elude the breeding programs.”
RC couldn’t stand to look at the woman. Her mind was occupied by far more pressing concerns. Alyx was gone, and she didn’t even want to imagine what might happen to him. She didn’t want to imagine what Leo had done to her while she was unconscious, though her imagination provided plenty of unwanted speculative images. And had they actually made Alyx watch it all? Gas Can certainly had no reason to lie about that. A monster he may be, but that monstrous nature tended to at least be an honest one. He didn’t care who knew about his monstrosity.
This line of thought only led her back to Alyx as she wondered how badly it hurt him to see all that. The thought of him spitting in Leo’s face did ignite a warm feeling inside her, but she couldn’t get past the reason he did it. Alyx, I know you can’t hear me, but I promise I’ll find out what happened to you. I’ll do whatever it takes to rescue you if I can. Even as she made this silent promise, she couldn’t even begin to imagine how she would deliver on it.
She simmered with her thoughts for several long minutes, wishing above all else she could break free of this woman’s clutches. If she could get away, she might be able to get him back. Then they could rejoin the others and pretend this nightmare never happened.
Then the world exploded.
The sound reverberated down to the bone, the flash so bright she had to screw her eyes shut. The vehicle seemed to turn multiple times, and bursts of pain accompanied each revolution.
It took a few moments for RC to make sense of anything. Her eyes were open, but her vision was blurred at first. Everything seemed to be at an angle. Her head throbbed. Her knee felt too warm. When she looked down, she saw that the skin had been torn loose, allowing the blood to run freely down her leg. Her palms were punctured by shards of glass. The car now lay on its top, having dumped RC onto the broken sunroof.
A glance to her side showed that the despicable woman who’d taken her now lay unconscious in a pool of blood. RC could have checked to see if she was even alive, but she couldn’t afford to waste an opportunity. She scrambled to make it out of the window, which had also shattered in the wreck.
Yes, RC knew this might not be safe. She couldn’t be sure that whatever caused the car to crash wouldn’t also take her out, but in the absence of more appealing options, she had to take the chance.
Her legs were shaking when she straightened up in the street. The snow beneath her bare feet sent a powerful chill up her entire body. Smoke filled the area, leaving RC with a limited view of her surroundings.
When a powerful arm grabbed her from behind, she screamed. A hand immediately moved to cover her mouth. She considered biting through the exposed fingers, but then she heard a familiar voice. “Hey, it’s me. Ollie.”
She stopped struggling, and he immediately let her go. It didn’t even occur to her to be horrified by her lack of clothes, or her bloodied appearance. All she knew was that she was overjoyed to see him. “How’d you . . .” she started, but she didn’t know how to finish that sentence.
“Jill and I met up with her friends,” Ollie replied. “They agreed to help free you.”
“Alyx? Do you know what happened to Alyx?” she asked, urgency filling her words.
“Not for sure, no,” Ollie replied reluctantly. “We intend to find him though. In the meantime, we need to get out of here.”
RC gladly followed him away from the mangled wreck. Though her legs still wobbled, she was fueled by a new sense of purpose. She might be able to keep her promise to Alyx after all.
In the meantime, she had one more question to ask. “That stunt you pulled back there. You realize that could have killed me, right?”
Ollie shrugged. “We knew there was a possibility of that, but I figured you’d rather that than be stuck with them in the breeder.”
RC couldn’t find fault with his reasoning.
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC felt numb. There was no other way to describe it. Nothing had gone as they planned. Absolutely none of it. And now here they were.
After Ollie rushed in to drag her away from the wreckage, RC found herself thrust into a new world. The rebels were hidden away in a sizeable (to someone accustomed to hiding in nooks and crannies when needed, anyway) underground shelter. RC met the rebel leader Brock, who had to be at least in his mid-forties. He was ex-military and knew how to put up a fight. A series of scars on his face and neck, standing out bright against his dark skin, proved that he’d seen some kind of action and lived to tell about it.
Brock’s second in command was a woman named Becca. She was barely 5’3 and couldn’t have weighed more than 110 pounds, but her eyes let you know not to mess with her. She stood with a calm confidence that comes with the knowledge that you can stop any enemy that might try to mess with you.
Several others joined Brock and Becca in their various missions outside, while a few children and elderly held down the fort the rest of the time. RC had no idea this many people had been living under the radar of their overlords. It was almost enough to give her hope. Had Alyx been there with them, she would have actually been relatively happy, even knowing the things that had happened to her while they were held captive. As long as she could look forward, she could cope with it.
Jill was there amongst them, of course, but now she was actually conscious and capable of conducting a conversation. That also meant RC had to be the one to tell her what befell her brother Tim. She regretted having to be the one to break that kind of news to someone, but keeping it from her would have been worse. Jill didn’t look surprised, though her knees buckled, and after that she spent several hours sitting alone in the corner. Even after Jill started interacting with the group again, she never asked about the details of how Tim died. RC felt selfishly grateful of this much. She wasn’t in any mood to go over the morbid details. Seeing Jill’s face every day reminded her all too much of the terrible way she lost her brother Pete. She tried to drown out the vision of his head exploding against the house as their overlords exercised their wrath.
Ollie had the rebels retrieve Isabel and the kids from their hideout. The three of them seemed more than happy to be there. They clearly felt the hope and optimism that RC wished she could feel.
You’re alive. You’re free. You can do Alyx more good here than you could there, she tried to remind herself. Then the corresponding horror blew up in her mind like a billboard. It was too big, too distracting for her to ignore it. Unless they already killed him.
The rebels had already promised to investigate what happened to Alyx. They continued their excursions into the city center, creating mischief wherever they could to keep the alien overlords on their metaphorical toes. And each time they promised to keep their eye out for any sign of where Alyx might be. Not that RC got her hopes up. She understood the odds against finding him in this way. The rebels had their own priorities, and they were hardly likely to reevaluate those priorities over one person they didn’t even know.
One day while Brock and Becca were out, RC sat with her back to the wall. She chose this spot because she was by herself. She balanced Romero in her lap, which Ollie was sure to retrieve when he went to get Isabel and the others. Making a note to thank him for that, RC opened the book. Part of her wanted to write her feelings, as if hemorrhaging the poisonous feelings of pain might actually make a difference.
It’s been a long time since I felt this bad. This is why I was so determined to be independent in the beginning. I was terrified something like this would happen. That I might grow to love someone, then lose them, only to let a piece of myself go with that loss.
My fears have come true.
I love Alyx, but there’s a part of me that definitely wishes I didn’t. It would certainly make things a lot easier on me. I wish I wasn’t worrying about what they’re doing to him. I wish I didn’t have the gruesome images of what those monsters are capable of seared into my head. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be having nightmares about those things being done to him. I wouldn’t wake up in tears in the middle of the night.
Then I think about the good things. I think about the person he is, and I know I can’t wish my feelings away. I only wish things had turned out better.
RC paused in her writing, and she noticed Ollie looking at her from the other side of the room. Since losing Alyx, the two of them had been casting looks of pain and regret at one another, though they hadn’t spoken of it either. What was there to say?
As RC lamented the failure of words, several sets of footsteps echoed through the room. Moments later, Brock and the others appeared through a side door. He nodded to Ollie. “Hey kid, we have news for you about your brother.”
Ollie took a step forward, while RC leapt to her feet in anticipation.
“It isn’t good though,” Brock added. “He’s alive, but they’re planning a public execution two days from now. Apparently they want to make an example of him to keep others from going rogue.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC felt sick.
They were going to kill Alyx. The overlords had grown tired of his defiance, and for whatever reason, they felt he was more useful to them dead than alive. For one terrible moment, she found herself picturing all the methods they might use to kill him. A bullet to the brain was utilized most often, but they weren’t opposed to mixing it up every now and then. They’d also beheaded people, hung people. They even drowned someone who got caught using the river to send food to runaways hiding downstream. And who knew what other inventive ways they might have come up with since she’d become a stray?
It didn’t help matters when Brock revealed his hesitation about mounting a rescue operation. “Our resources are limited, so we focus mostly on creating diversions,” he insisted. “We scatter them. We hit them where we can. Helping your brother would require a direct confrontation, and I don’t see how we can handle that. A public execution is bound to be overrun with security.”
“You can’t expect me to sit back and do nothing!” Ollie protested.
“I never said you couldn’t make an attempt, futile as it might be. I cannot control what you do as an individual,” Brock replied calmly. “And I haven’t said for certain that we won’t help you. I just need you to understand how risky it is. They know who you two are.” He waved his hand to implicate RC as well. “They’ll be looking out for you, because they very well might expect you to try something. And young lady, given the way we got you away from your captors, they may even expect you to have reinforcements.”
RC ignored the fact that Brock called her a young lady, a title that she knew didn’t fit her at all anyway. After all young ladies didn’t live on scraps and live their lives covered in dirt. They didn’t typically team up with strange boys to go looting for survival. A young lady wasn’t generally supposed to usurp authority. And RC had no intention of giving these things up. The so-called authority of their overlords had to be usurped, no matter the cost. There was too much to lose by doing nothing.
So if she had to go it alone with only Ollie, then so be it. That wouldn’t stop them. And sure, the patrols would know to expect them. There was no way to avoid that fact as far as she could tell. How could the two of them hope to get close enough to him though? Then a possibility, albeit a dangerous one, began to take form in her mind. “If we know what they’re expecting, why don’t we take advantage of that?” she ventured. “We just need to catch them off guard long enough to grab Alyx and get back out again.”
Ollie’s eyes widened with hope. “We could create a little distraction and let them think that was our rescue attempt,” he said slowly. “Then, while they’re busy dealing with us . . .” He looked pleadingly at Brock.
“If we did it that way, we might be able to get Alyx out,” Brock conceded. “Unfortunately, if you use yourselves as bait, I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to get you both back.”
“Then we’ll have to make sure we have a couple of tricks up our sleeve so we can fight our own way back out,” RC said stoutly. She tried to sound confident, though her raw nerves still showed through the thin veneer.
Brock silently analyzed both of them as he considered the possibility. RC wondered what exactly was going through his mind. Did he see this as a hopeless cause, or was this something he simply didn’t care about because he didn’t know Alyx? Part of her didn’t blame him for his reluctance, but that didn’t mean she could accept it either.
“I’ll talk to the others,” Brock said at last. “If they’re planning to make a public example of him, it may be worth our while to use this to publicly embarrass them. But I can’t make you any promises yet.”
That night, RC reminded herself that the pledge to consider a rescue attempt left them better off than they were before. She lay back in her pile of blankets and stared up at the ceiling, imagining how scared Alyx must have been. Was he thinking of her too? Did he think there was any chance he could survive this? Did he blame himself for what happened?
The sound of soft footsteps pulled her from her speculations. Sitting up, she saw Ollie, though it was too dark to get a good read of his mood. “What do you want?” she asked quietly.
“I just need someone to talk to.”
RC nodded. She could understand it, because she felt the same nagging urge. “Have a seat.”
They sat together wordlessly for a couple of minutes. Even while RC felt the need to unleash her feelings, beginning that conversation wasn’t easy.
“I’m sorry,” Ollie said at last.
She glanced at him quizzically. “For what?”
“For being a jerk when you and Alyx started spending time together. For suggesting he wasn’t enough for you. I was jealous, and I didn’t mean any of it.” Ollie sighed, as if attempting to release the heaviness from his voice. “He’s looked after me, done so much for me, and you helped us both. I wish I could take it back now.”
RC remembered the incident, and while she was angry at the time, she couldn’t muster any ill-will over it now. “That was a long time ago. It’s forgotten.”
“I wish I could apologize to him.”
“You’ll get your chance soon,” RC promised.
The following morning, Brock made the crucial announcement to the group. They would attempt the rescue operation. When she heard those words, RC thought in a moment of gleaming hope that her promise to Ollie would remain unbroken.
Memoirs From the End of the World
The afternoon sun barely cut through the chill in the air. RC’s face was partially hidden by a faded black scarf. She pulled the hood of her coat tight over her ears, more to keep out the shouts of the crowd than to protect them from the cold.
The shouts were a mixed bag, though. Much as she didn’t like hearing the shouts for blood, which came from those who feared the punishments doled out to the general population in response to any perceived rebellion, she felt encouragement in some of the cries of the brave few who pleaded for mercy. Patrols scattered about the area were letting them be at the moment, but she had no doubt they were prepared to pounce. She made sure she wasn’t standing too close to any of the protesters for fear she could get swept up with them if the patrols decided to respond.
RC wondered where Ollie was, but she didn’t dare look for him. The last thing she needed to do was draw more attention to herself. Stay calm, out of sight, and keep your eyes peeled for anything threatening, she recited silently.
Though she stood toward the back of the crowd, she occasionally glimpsed the platform up front. The chopping stone had been set up in the center, and guards flanked it. Behind the block stood a human male dressed all in black. The executioner. The ultimate in traitors, this man killed his own kind at the behest of the alien overlords. He held a long sword, confirming RC’s suspicions. They had decided to decapitate Alyx.
The very thought of it made her nauseous. This method of execution was definitely one of the more brutal options they had at their disposal, at least for those watching. As long as the blade was sharp enough, it would be over so fast Alyx wouldn’t be able to feel anything. Not that it’s going to get that far, RC reminded herself. We will get him out of here in one piece.
RC’s stomach somersaulted when she heard the low rumble at the front of the assembly begin to swell. She moved slightly so she could have a largely unimpeded view of the platform. Sure enough, two guards escorted a slender figure wearing a black bag to obscure their face. She knew it was Alyx, of course, though she he certainly wasn’t moving the way he was the last time she saw him. There was a distinct limp to his gait as he favored his right leg. He wore the same clothes he had on when they were captured, only now they were torn to shreds, revealing festering wounds, the red and black of dried blood contrasting with pale skin. They’d worked him over good, presumably for information he was unwilling to provide.
The guards pushed Alyx to his knees before the block, and one of them unceremoniously plucked the bag from his head. Now that he stood in the bright light of day, the sun reflecting off of the piles of snow distributed about the area, forced him to squint. He bowed his head, his matted hair hanging limply and hiding his face.
One of the guards turned to face Alyx. “Prisoner #137, you are hereby sentenced to death for crimes committed against your leaders. Do you have anything to say before we proceed?”
Alyx slowly shook his head. It seemed he’d been through too much to bother with any final words, though RC had a few words for them all. More important than that though, she hoped Ollie was ready to make his move.
Their plans had changed slightly since they first started formulating this rescue operation. Ollie was tasked with creating the initial distraction, and he was armed just well enough to make a fuss without necessarily alerting the authorities to a larger attack. In theory, their comrades would come out and collect Alyx, and RC’s job was to then get Ollie out of any trouble that he would surely be in by that point. The rebels had provided Ollie with body armor that, hidden discreetly under his clothes, would protect him from most energy weapons and all projectiles. While this would do him no good should a guard opt for a headshot, it would give him a chance to do what he needed to do.
The executioner moved into place. She knew without a doubt that, should they fail, she would have to live with the image of this event for the rest of her life. Of course, odds were that wouldn’t be for very long.
A loud sound suddenly tore through the air. The crowd reacted immediately. Within moments, RC could see where Ollie stood as those surrounding him tripped over one another to get away. Looking back at the platform, she saw that the executioner had folded into a clump of black robes and red blood. The gun may have been antique and no match for overlord weaponry, but the element of surprise allowed Ollie to get off one perfect shot.
RC reached in her pocket, ready to brandish her own weapon. She watched as the guards moved toward Ollie, who quickly dove back into the crowd. Though RC didn’t see it happen, she heard the sound of another bullet tearing a path through the air, and it found a home in the leg of one of the guards. He dropped to his knees. RC’s gaze shifted to Alyx, whose eyes were wide with shock. He focused on the crowd, and she imagined he too was trying to locate the shooter.
The remaining guards left their wounded colleague behind and moved to pursue Ollie. That’s when several smaller pops went off in quick succession, and thick plumes of smoke swelled and filled the air. Much as she wanted to run to Alyx, she had to trust that the rebels would fulfill their part of the bargain.
Instead, she bolted through the crowd in search of Ollie.
Memoirs From the End of the World
The crowd ebbed, flowed, and reacted in bizarre ways as it tried to collectively figure out what was going on. Up to this point, RC hadn’t done anything to draw attention to herself. However, the act of running straight toward the perceived source of the disturbance was clearly arousing the suspicions of some. Whispers followed her as she pushed people out of her way, but she ignored them. If she slowed down for anything, something terrible could happen.
Of course, she glanced to the platform from time to time to keep tabs on what was happening to Alyx. She couldn’t help it. The first time she hazarded a glance, he was still standing there in shock. Part of her wanted to scream for him to run for it just in case a guard decided to come from nowhere and grab him, but she restrained herself. On her next glance, someone was grabbing him. It took a third frantic look to see that it was a couple of Brock’s rebels that were dragging him away from the scene. Relief flowed through her. Though she wasn’t yet out of danger, nor was Ollie, the main objective had been accomplished.
Just as soon as RC’s relief began, it was cut short by the sound of gunfire. One, two, three, four, five, six. Though she tried to keep track of the numbers in her head, she soon lost track. Who was shooting? Had the guards caught up to Ollie? Were they trying to stop the rebels from taking Alyx away? Neither of those options settled well. Or were the rebels the ones responsible for the gunfire?
Don’t worry about that now! RC scolded. Find Ollie first.
It seemed virtually impossible to locate a specific moving target in the chaos, but RC’s eyes finally located Ollie’s frantic face in a gap in the crowd. She pushed herself onwards with a renewed vigor, plowing through the little cloud puffs that her frozen breath left hanging on the air. She clamped her hand firmly on the gun hidden beneath her jacket, knowing that she might have to use it at any moment.
Though Ollie was moving fast, he was also zigzagging to throw off his pursuers, so he wasn’t covering all that much ground. He was currently heading in her direction, and the guards were moving to cut him off. One was raising his weapon, and it looked like he was in a position to get off a reasonably good shot. Resolving that this was the time to make her move, she whipped out the little pistol and took aim. Hasty though the shot was, the bullet buried itself in the guard’s wrist, forcing him to drop the weapon. It skidded along the ground and was soon lost as the hurried footsteps of those in the vicinity kicked it further into the horde. RC took another shot, this one piercing his knee. The guard dropped, exposing the guard immediately behind him to attack. This time, the guard aimed his weapon at her, and she only had a split second to disarm him the same way.
Ollie zagged again, and RC matched course.
More rapid gunfire ensued. This time RC’s ears told her that the sound was coming from just outside the area. Please let those be the rebels, RC thought, well aware that she could only successfully dodge so many shots.
Soon her path intersected with Ollie’s, and they were nearly running side by side. This clearly made them an easier target, but they were also nearing their escape route. Brock must have reminded them a hundred times. If they made it to the corner of Billson Avenue and 2nd Street, which was just outside the open area used for public executions, people would be there to clear off anyone who might still be after them.
Safety was in sight. Both of them were almost there . . .
RC’s leg went up in flame as something tore through her flesh. The sound of the shot arrived a fraction of a second later. She stumbled, and in that moment, she knew whoever shot her would be able to apprehend her within moments.
Another pain came, this time in her arm. Except this pain was caused by Ollie’s fingernails as he seized her arm and pulled her along. “Hurry!” he urged.
More shots rang out, except this time, RC knew for certain it came from the rebels, because one of them felled the person who shot her. This time when she hazarded a glance back, no one seemed to be following them. Surely reinforcements were on their way, but with any luck, she’d be on the way back to the rebel hideout by then.
And Ollie, of course. She definitely didn’t want anything bad to happen to him either.
Ollie pulled RC along, though she kept her legs moving in spite of the blinding pain. Soon they made it around the corner. A truck had already pulled up to take them away. It was aimed away from the mayhem to facilitate a quick escape.
RC and Ollie clambered into the back, followed by the last of the soldiers. The truck was in motion before the back doors were closed all the way. RC didn’t so much sit down as tumble into a seated position. Her heart was still pounding, though the panic associated with her mad dash to freedom was quickly being replaced by a far more pressing concern.
“Did we all make it?” she asked, unable to make out anything in the dark.
“All present and accounted for,” Becca replied.
A couple of heartbeats later, there was a hopeful voice. “Rose? Is that you?”
“Yes. It’s me.” She followed the sound of Alyx’s voice and found him leaning against the wall. She settled next to him and reached out. “I’m here.”
His hand emerged from the shadows and clasped hers. She could feel him trembling.
Memoirs From the End of the World
In order to ensure that it was safe to head back to base, the Brock ordered a couple of the rebels to sweep Alyx for tracking devices, though he insisted he didn’t have any. “My captors didn’t think there was any way I could escape, so they didn’t bother tagging me with anything.” And, after a thorough checkup, the rebels confirmed what they’d been told.
The medic, a middle aged man named Harrison, promptly got to work on Alyx the moment they made it back to safety. RC simply wrapped an old shirt around her bleeding leg, perfectly content to wait her turn. It was clear that, though the injury ached plenty, it was nothing more than a flesh wound. All it required was a good cleaning and some dressings to keep infection at bay.
Alyx, on the other hand, was beginning to run a fever. He lay on a clean blanket while the medic peeled back the denim that barely covered the wounded leg. This soon revealed the source of the problem. The skin was red and swollen, the gash itself forced open by the accumulation of dried blood and puss. Clearly tending to the festering wounds of those bound for execution wasn’t a top priority.
Sickening though the sight, and even the smell, of the wound were, RC could hardly be bothered by it. Instead she sat beside him and held his hand, astonished by how warm it felt to the touch. Ollie hovered nearby, clearly more repulsed by the infected leg than the rest of them.
“Can you take care of this?” RC asked. She had no medical expertise to speak of, but she knew something like this would require strong drugs.
“We’ve managed to steal enough medical supplies to keep ourselves alive,” Harrison replied. “That includes everything I need to treat this. He’ll probably be pretty sick for the next couple of days, but I don’t think we have much to worry about.”
Though Harrison sounded certain, RC still had her doubts. Maybe those doubts were based purely on her sense that things tended not to turn out as planned. In either case, she had no intention of voicing those doubts. Alyx had enough to worry about already without her piling on more. It didn’t take long for her to learn just how much guilt he’d already adopted.
“It was my idea to go back to that house,” Alyx said quietly. “Everything that happened . . . it was my fault.”
RC knew by the tone of his voice, and the weight that hung on the air as he hesitated, precisely what he was admitting fault for. Though she didn’t want to speak aloud about the assault committed on her in front of anyone else, she couldn’t leave him hanging. “I don’t blame you for anything that happened. Okay? The idea was a good one, because we really needed those supplies. It just didn’t work out. Everything those creeps did is their fault. They’re the ones to blame. Not you.”
“It wouldn’t have happened at all if we didn’t go,” he insisted.
“Thinking like that can drive you crazy,” RC replied.
Ollie winced as he watched the work being done on Alyx’s leg. Though it seemed as if he hadn’t been paying attention to anything else, he jumped in on the conversation. “We’re here now, and we’re safe, Alyx. There’s no point in beating yourself up for things you can’t change.”
This was sound advice, but easier said than done. RC had no doubt he would continue to flog himself for it all, and she couldn’t change that. She could only be there for him.
The conversation ended abruptly when the pain of Harrison’s work made it too difficult for Alyx to speak. Sweat beaded on his face, and he squeezed RC’s hand until her fingers started to turn blue. She didn’t complain.
After Harrison finished, Alyx fell into a restless sleep. After RC’s leg was tended to, she also lay down for a nap. The day had been so exhausting, both physically and emotionally, that she needed the downtime. And lying there next to Alyx, though he shivered with fever, was comforting. Even in this insane world, the good could survive. RC had felt the encroaching cynicism more than once, but having Alyx back held it at bay.
As the days passed, RC found reassurance in the fact that Alyx’s fever broke and his leg visibly improved. Her own wound healed nicely. The rebels came and went, going about errands that they seldom discussed with the rest of them. Ollie, however, went out of his way to make friends with Brock, and he even persuaded the man to let him accompany them on a couple routine supply runs.
Over the course of those first days, RC didn’t talk with Alyx about anything that happened to her while trapped in that house. Even though she didn’t remember any of it, just knowing it happened was enough to make her run from it. And Alyx, who knew far more about what took place than she did, never brought it up. He probably didn’t want to face it any more than she did.
Still, some realities rear their heads and demand you to take notice whether you want to or not. Though the scrapes and bruises that came from her time in that awful house faded relatively quickly, the consequences of her time there weren’t about to go away. As days turned to weeks, RC felt increasingly unsettled. She just felt . . . off. Not her normal self. It could have been attributed to a lot of things, of course.
Then she woke one morning, only to abruptly throw up. The nausea lingered, and she couldn’t escape the reality of what it meant.
Memoirs From the End of the World
RC sat alone on the cold concrete floor. The darkness swallowed her whole, and she it allowed her to pretend that no one else existed. The nausea had persisted all day, but she did her best to hide it. She didn’t want to voice her fears, because silly as her reasoning was, she didn’t want to make it real by speaking those fateful words.
If she spoke them, the others would know what happened to her. They would know what Leo did as she carried as she carried the constant reminder with her.
Even as she had these thoughts, she also experienced some guilt. If she was in fact pregnant, she couldn’t blame the child growing inside her for what happened.
Of course, if it were true, one fact was indisputable in her mind. She couldn’t let the overlords get their hands on her or her baby. If they did . . . This certainly wasn’t the kind of world in which she’d feel comfortable raising a child.
Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions, she told herself. Maybe you’re just being paranoid. Just give it some time, and you’ll see that it’s not true.
It took her forever to fall asleep.
The next morning, her first order of business was to find a private place to be sick. She carefully ducked outside, knowing that if any of the rebels saw her, she’d be in for a stern lecture about security. Luckily, there was no one in sight.
RC promptly vomited into a pile of snow, grateful that no one else could see her like this. The chilly morning breeze helped subdue the nausea, and soon she was done. Just as she was burying the evidence under the snow, she heard a familiar voice. “What are you doing out here?”
Alyx. How could she avoid telling him the truth? It had been easier to simply avoid saying anything. But actively lying to him about it? She didn’t think she could go that far.
She looked down, afraid to meet his eye. “I’ve been feeling sick the last couple of days, but I don’t have a temperature or anything like that. I think I might . . .” Her voice trailed off, lost on the breeze that chilled her to the bone.
Alyx didn’t need her to finish the sentence, though. He knelt down behind her, and she felt some warmth again as his arms surrounded her. “How sure are you?”
“Not 100% sure. I haven’t talked to the medic yet, but it seems like the most logical explanation.”
He sighed. “What are we going to do?”
That one sentence soothed her in a way that little else could have. His word choice spoke volumes. Instead of asking what she was going to do like so many others might, Alyx used ‘we’. Without even thinking about it, he included himself in the situation with her. She wasn’t going to be alone in this. Tears started to well up in her eyes, as if seeking to confirm her emotional instability.
“I don’t know,” RC admitted. She shook her head, burying her face in her hands. “I really don’t know.”
Alyx eventually helped her to her feet. “It’s going to be all right,” he whispered in her ear as they headed back inside. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure of that.”
Later on in the day, RC gathered the courage to talk to Harrison about her situation. As the medic, he was the only one who could help her figure this out. “The symptoms certainly fit,” he said solemnly after she told her story. “We’d have to get our hands on a pregnancy test to be sure. Either that, or wait to see how things go. If you are, I don’t have the equipment here to provide proper prenatal care. The only place around here that does . . .” Harrison winced. “Well, let’s just say you’ve already rejected that option by being on the run.”
RC nodded. “Yeah, and this is the reality I was trying to avoid by running.” She settled back against the wall, knowing that dwelling on this fact would do nothing to change the situation she now faced. “Either way, I will not hand myself over. I’m not going to let any child of mine be subjected to that future. If you could even call it a future.” And she meant every word of it. Any child born in the breeding facility had a 50% chance of being implanted with alien spores that would turn them into future overlords, and a 50% chance of remaining human but spending 14 years breeding continuously by force.
No. She would never stand for that.
“I need to know for sure,” she decided. “Can you get a hold of the test for me?”
Harrison nodded. “We’re going on a pharmaceutical raid in a couple of days. I should be able to snag one for you. I’ll also be sure to grab vitamins for you in case you need them.”
She managed a smile. “Thanks. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“Gossip isn’t part of my job description,” he assured her.
Thus began another waiting game. At least no one was in immediate danger this time around, though this was just as life altering as anything RC had ever been through. Aware that it was risky to say too much (they were living in close quarters, after all), Alyx simply held her hand whenever it seemed RC was having a difficult time dealing with it all. She felt grateful for that.
The day finally came. Harrison was as good as his word. Immediately after returning from the trip, he discreetly handed her the box.
Her body went numb. There was no doubt that the result of this one little test would determine the course her life would take.
It could change . . . everything.
Memoirs From the End of the World
The test was done. The results stared RC in the face. Though the test only confirmed what she suspected to be true, that didn’t make it any easier.
Her hands trembled as she attempted to go about her daily tasks. Harrison discreetly brought RC a little extra food for lunch, but he warned her discretion could only go so far. “I’ll give you some time to get used to this news,” he assured her, “but Brock will have to be told about this sooner or later.”
“I know.” RC simply hoped that she could put off that conversation indefinitely. Once the topic came up, she couldn’t begin to guess how Brock would react. Maybe he wouldn’t want to have a squealing infant around. The sound of a baby crying could attract all kinds of unwanted attention. Or maybe it wouldn’t even go that far. Maybe he’d decide that, due to a lack of medical resources on their end, it would be easier to drop her on the doorstep of the breeding facility. She shuddered at the thought of living in a meat locker until she turned thirty, being passed around to whatever males the overlords felt were genetically compatible enough to produce superior offspring. Having to hand over every child she ever had. She’d do anything before facing that fate. She felt certain of that.
Even so, the fear ate away at her, and she only had one person with whom she could share those fears without having to engage in awkward explanations.
Alyx listened to every word, and while he tried to maintain a calm expression, she could see the worry in his eyes. “No matter what happens, I’ll make sure you don’t end up at the breeding facility.” He looked around the room. Most of the rebels were out on a mission to raid a warehouse filled with food. Ollie had gone along with them. Isabel was watching Peter and Sheera, though Sheera resented the idea that she needed to be watched. “Maybe you don’t need to worry too much about Brock’s reaction. He had no problem bringing them in. Or us.”
RC sensed that Alyx wasn’t convinced by his own words, though he surely wished he could be. There was a clear difference between bringing young teenagers in and RC’s situation. Still, she didn’t say this aloud. She wanted to wrap herself in the delusion that everything would inexplicably turn out all right, even though it couldn’t possibly last long.
Later on in the day, RC balanced Romero in her lap. Though she trusted Alyx with her feelings, she needed to sort things out for herself first. Perhaps writing her thoughts on paper would make things more clear.
More than anything, I wish I could talk to my mom right now. Growing up, I trusted my older brother Pete with everything. After all, he always looked out for me. Still, I don’t think he’d understand this. Not really. Instead of comforting me, as if that were even possible anyway, he’d probably try to castrate the guy who did this to me. I think my mom would have known a way to make it all feel better.
Of course, after Pete died, all the fight seemed to go out of her. Maybe she wouldn’t have enough strength left in her to help me. My grandmother would have though. If the overlords had let her live, of course, she would have found a way to help me. She was never the type to quit.
I want to be like that, but right now, I wish I could pull a blanket over my head and block out the world. I wish I could go back to a time when life seemed to make sense. To a time when I had a family, and I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d still have my freedom when I woke up the next morning.
Maybe that’s why I’m so worried now. This might be the most disgusting way to end up having a family, but this child is going to be my family nonetheless. I’m just hoping
RC paused, almost afraid to write the rest. Did her lingering thoughts make her a bad person?
She shook her head. Her thoughts certainly couldn’t make her any worse than Leo, or Gas Can, or any of the others. Confident in that much at least, she put pencil to paper again.
that I don’t hate it. Will I be able to look at its face without remembering where it came from? Will I even be able to make it through this pregnancy without resenting it?
I won’t lie. If I could go back in time right now and undo all of this, I would. Yet here I am, living with a reality I cannot undo. So, I can only hope that I’ll be able to look at my child and love him or her. I hope I can look back on this one day and say I wouldn’t change it after all, because this is where I am now.
My life has changed forever.
She closed the journal and set it down beside her. Alyx, who had kindly averted his eyes while she wrote to respect her privacy, wrapped an arm around her shoulders. They sat in silence for a long time.
“What are you thinking about?” he finally asked.
RC bit her lower lip. “I’m thinking that while we may be safe here for a while, we need to make it outside the city. I can’t risk giving birth here.”
Memoirs From the End of the World
The next couple of months passed largely without incident. The rebels had to uproot twice within that time, moving their base of operations to keep any patrols, robotic or organic, from figuring out where they were hiding. The snow disappeared, then reappeared a couple more times before melting away for the last time of the season.
The largest indicator of the passage of time, however, came from RC’s body. A distinctive bump began to appear on her slender frame, and she knew her clothes would no longer be able to hide it. The time for full disclosure had come.
RC lay awake long into the night, struggling to work out what to say. Would there be questions about who the father was? Beneath the thin blanket, she rested her hand on her growing stomach. Alyx’s hand rested next to hers as they lay shoulder to shoulder in the dark. He didn’t fill the silence with platitudes, but he didn’t have to. Just having him there next to her in quiet solidarity steadied her.
As it turned out, RC’s worries were unjustified. When she approached Brock and Becca the following morning, Alyx and Harrison were with her. Alyx held her hand while she spit out the only words that would come out of her mouth. “I’m pregnant.”
Brock looked calmly at Harrison. “Have you confirmed this?”
Harrison nodded. “Yes sir.”
Brock glanced back at RC and shrugged. “All right. We’ll take care of you and figure things out as we go.” Then he looked at Becca. “We need to get going if we’re going to have those mines set up in time.”
That was it. No overt concern. No talk about handing her over to the overlords. No awkward questions.
That is, there were no awkward questions until the rebels returned later that night with Ollie in tow. He headed immediately over to confront RC and Alyx. Crouching down beside them, he didn’t waste any time with small talk. “Why didn’t you guys tell me? I had to find out from William.”
“I guess word has traveled fast since this morning,” RC grumbled.
“It’s a sensitive topic,” Alyx insisted. “This isn’t exactly what she’d planned on, you know.”
“So, whose baby is it? Since it’s obviously not yours,” Ollie said with a quick nod to Alyx.
“Obviously not,” Alyx replied, his volume rising in sync with his level of irritation.
Ollie sighed. “I’m sorry, Alyx. I didn’t mean to insult you, but it’s a valid question. I’m not hinting at anything but the simple medical reality that you can’t have kids.”
Which is one of the facts you used to justify getting romantic with him in the first place, she reminded herself. Still, she could have hardly expected everything to work out the way that she planned. And ignoring Ollie’s question would do nothing to change that. “It happened when Alyx and I were captured. Let’s just say that the person who did this to me didn’t ask my permission.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alyx turn away, and she assumed he did so to choke back the anger that still flared up from time to time.
Ollie seemed to deflate a little. He leaned back and bit his lower lip. “To be honest, I should have known by looking at you when we got you out of there. I guess I just ignored the obvious.”
The conversation dwindled after that, though plenty remained to be said. As RC once again dove into the safe embrace of Romero’s pages, she overheard Ollie whispering to Alyx. “What are you going to do about all this? This doesn’t have to be your responsibility, you know.”
“It may not have to be, but it is,” Alyx replied firmly. “I’m going to stand by her through this, and that’s final.” He paused. “Remember talking about leaving the city? How we wanted to find the group that Sheera and Peter came from?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“Rose and I have been thinking that would be the best option. She doesn’t want to have a baby here for obvious reasons.”
Ollie exhaled slowly. “That makes sense. Look, I can help you guys get there, but I won’t be leaving with you. I like it here, and I feel like I’m fighting for something important. You looked after me for long enough. It’s time for me to stand on my own.”
“But . . .” Alyx started to protest, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, he simply said, “You’re sure about this, aren’t you?”
“You’re sure about staying with her, aren’t you?” Ollie replied. That single question stopped any further inquiries.
“I’ll miss you.”
Ollie laughed nervously. It must have been a tad too much emotion for him to process. “I’ll miss you too.”
Over the next few days, plans fell into place. Brock seemed to have no problem with the departure plans, most likely because that would end his responsibility toward RC before anything became too complicated.
Sheera and Peter seemed anxious to accompany them, and understandably so. That would complicate matters slightly, but it hardly seemed right to deny them the ability to find something of their old lives again.
In the end, they decided to have Ollie and a few more rebel soldiers escort the four of them out of the city. The plans were carefully drawn up over the course of a couple of weeks. Soon the night before their departure arrived, and nerves mounted as they all considered the things that could go wrong.
RC could only hope their plans would unfold the way they’d anticipated. Not that they ever really had.