RICHIE AND SARAH
Sarah was lost in her past again, a coping mechanism that made her feel better only for a few minutes before the harsh reality of the present pushed its way back into her mind.
“They give out antibiotics for everything, you know, even to people who are sick with things antibiotics can’t fix. They shouldn’t, but it’s expected. You go to a doctor, you leave with a prescription. Even with all these warnings about how they’ll stop working, how these little microscopic beasties will get away from us one day. All these dangerous wee things everywhere, getting better at surviving while we get worse, and I don’t think anyone really believes any of it.”
“Because no-one ever really believes anything bad’ll happen. Even when bad things are already happening. People are too distracted. No-one listens. Just wait a few years, love. All hell will break loose.”
Her grandmother, never one to sugarcoat the truth, had been born in a different time. Things were not perfect then, and worse for some than others, but at least she had not lived to see the beginning of the end. Sarah was both blessed and cursed with a precision of memory that often left her languishing in conversations past, reminding her how much she missed the people who no longer walked beside her.
No time for this, she scolded herself as a slight wisp of grey fur and delicate bones wound around her ankles, hopefully. She bent to scoop up Little Cat in her arms and buried her face in the animal’s soft body. “We’ll bring food with us later, when we come back. And water. I promise.”
She set Little Cat down gently on the concrete floor and reached the can of deodorant up under her sweater because it was a better option than getting washed in ice cold water. She was still carefully rationing her supply of gas, especially as it was now being shared with two other people, and was happy to sacrifice a warm wash now for hot food later. She tied back her hair, wrapped herself in her battered old jacket and checked for the keys in her pocket before walking out the door, striding with purpose across the yard.
The Silver Bullet felt like her lucky charm, or it would have if she believed in that sort of thing. It still gleamed in understated perfection along one side but was badly scraped on the other where Marj hadn’t got around to repairing the cosmetic damage.
“Just a scratch. One day, when this is all over, I’ll finish fixing you up and we’ll make Marj proud,” Sarah said as she rested a hand on top of the car and wondered at what point she started talking to inanimate objects. Then she heard a whistle.
She turned around to see him heading towards Evan’s car, which now had one headlight missing since the only time Richie had been allowed to drive it. That incident had not helped Evan’s concussion, but at least he’d been fortunate enough to incur a head injury in a shop stocked with medical supplies, so he had fewer reasons to complain that he could have had.
As Richie reached up to close the boot of the car, Sarah noticed how loosely his trousers hung on his hips. Hers were getting the same way. She stood a little over five feet tall and had always been slender, but lately she had been reduced to something more resembling gaunt, looking considerably younger than her twenty-seven years.
“You ready to do this?” she asked.
“Yeah. And we’ll look for cat food too.”
“Aww, it’s so sweet of you to think of Little Cat,” said Sarah.
“I wasn’t,” replied Richie. “I just figured at least it’s in tins so it won’t have gone off. And the meaty flavours smell pretty good. You know, if things get really bad.” He winked.
“Eww. Gross,” Sarah shuddered. “My car or yours?”
“Mine. Well, Evan’s technically, but you should drive it. It can carry more. You know he actually gave me a list. A fucking shopping list. Seriously. Can you believe it? I am not getting him cigarettes, even if I could find them somewhere.”
Richie was, as usual, sparkling with bravado, but Sarah silently registered the deep sadness that clouded his features no matter how hard he fought against it.
She was worried. His reaction when Evan fell had shocked her. She had known Evan was hurt, but it didn’t even cross her mind that he might have been dead. Richie had immediately gone to pieces though, assuming the worst.
Even after Evan had regained consciousness and they’d ascertained that the split in his scalp wasn’t as serious as the bleeding suggested, even after they’d washed the blood from his hair and skin, Richie had been silent, shaken, pale.
Sarah had patched Evan’s head up as best she could with surgical staples found in the pharmacy they’d been looting at the time, trying to stop her stomach from lurching, trying to keep her hands from shaking, trying to smile reassuringly and pretend she had at least some idea what she was doing.
She had made sure she tucked the staple remover carefully into her pocket, not looking forward to the experience of using it, or to Evan’s inevitable reaction when she did. Richie had simply watched, quiet, withdrawn.
On the drive home, Sarah sat in the back seat with Evan, checking his pupils and keeping him awake. Richie was driving but kept glancing in the mirror. “Is he OK?” he asked Sarah.
“I can hear you,” said Evan, his voiced slightly slurred. “And will you both stop talking? My head is fucking killing me.”
“Don’t say that!” said Richie, voice on the verge of cracking. “About killing you. Just don’t, OK?”
“OK,” replied Evan, blinking and struggling to focus. “Richie?”
“Evan Myers, did you actually just apologise?” Sarah asked.
“No. Shut up, staple-girl.”
“You did!” said Sarah. “You said the word ‘sorry’ like an actual human being with functioning emotions. You should fall on your head more often.”
“Sarah, don’t!” said Richie. “No-one should fall on their head. No-one should get hurt. Everything’s going to be fine, OK?”
Because the universe has a cruel sense of irony, and also because Richie had never been the world’s most careful driver, that was precisely the moment the car mounted the pavement. It was only out of control for a split second, just long enough for a lamp post to get in the way.
“Fuck! Sorry! Fuck!” said Richie, shaking.
“Everything is not going to be fine if you do that again,” slurred Evan.
“Deep calming breaths, everyone,” said Sarah. “Richie, eyes on the road. Evan, don’t be an asshole.”
Evan had been on supervised bed rest since then, munching on the painkillers that he’d pulled down around himself as he fell, politely tolerating Richie’s anxiety about his well-being and Sarah’s compulsive practicality.
Little Cat had taken to sleeping next to him, glad to have found a human source of warmth that didn’t move very much. At first, Evan had ignored Little Cat. Too cool to notice, too tough to care. But he wasn’t fooling anyone.
“I don’t know why you’re still doing that face. I don’t have anything for you. You should know by now that look doesn’t work on me.”
Evan had a sudden flash of familiarity triggered by his own words, a memory that hovered at the edges of his consciousness before vanishing completely. For no reason he could make sense of, through a haze of painkillers and lingering concussion, he thought of Chance and the club.
“What do you reckon happened to that old bastard anyway? Probably got a few new scars to add to the collection, still kicking about strangling whatever poor fuckers get in his way, taking everyone’s money even when there’s nothing left to spend it on. You know what though? He was fucking hot. I definitely would have, if he’d been into it. Which he wasn’t, even though I’m basically irresistible. Heteros, eh? I’m generally up for a challenge but sometimes there’s just no point.”
Little Cat settled into Evan’s lap, purring.
“And here I am, talking to a cat. I’m not a cat person. I hope you realise that. I’m not any kind of animal person. You all require far too much responsibility and looking after for me. Richie said he’d bring food back for you later, you know. He was all smiles when he said it, like he thought I’d give a shit. I don’t, by the way.”
Little Cat pushed her head against Evan’s hand.
“And don’t go thinking I’m your friend just cause I’m letting you sit on me.”
Another push and and loud purring.
“Fine,” he said, trailing his fingertips through soft grey fur, “but don’t be expecting me to do this all the time. Once my head stops feeling like something shit in it, I’m not going to be sitting here all day doing nothing. I thought Richie was going to lose his mind last night. He drove my car into a fucking lamp post, he was that much of a mess. Knocked one of the headlights out. And he kept staring at me all night like he was waiting for me to drop dead. You’d probably eat my face if I died, wouldn’t you?”
Little Cat shifted and turned so Evan could stroke her other side.
“Well, maybe you’re not so bad. You lot know what you’re doing, being all tactile and adorable so gullible people give you what you want.” Evan experienced a moment of self-recognition. It was not entirely uncomfortable.
“What do you think of Richie? He’s alright, isn’t he? I only let him in the car with me in the first place cause I was bored and he seemed like good entertainment. Not the talking kind of entertainment. You know what I mean, right? I thought he’d annoy the shit out of me with all the chat, and he kind of does sometimes, but he’s OK. Some face on him anyway, and the rest isn’t bad either.”
Little Cat shifted and turned again. She paused for a moment, looking up at Evan.
“OK, I like him. Alright?”
Little Cat settled, satisfied with the answer.
“Sarah’s a good one too. Obviously my appreciation for her isn’t the same as it is for Richie cause I don’t swing that way, but she’s smart and she takes no shit, and I respect that in a person. You know she stapled my head up last night? I get the feeling she’d never done anything like it before but I was too busy bleeding and trying not to puke to start interrogating her about transferable skills. Worst thing is, she’s going to have to take the fucking things out again and I’m not looking forward to it.”
Little Cat stretched and moved, trying to make her way from Evan’s lap up the front of his sweater.
“I know, you don’t have a clue what I’m on about. I’ll let you in on a secret then. This hurts like hell. My head, I mean. I feel like death on toast. I know I’ve been telling them I’m alright, but I’ll be a lot better when I can see straight again.”
Evan shuffled down until he was lying on his back, wincing as his head made contact with the rolled up coat he was using as a pillow, then turned carefully onto his side, the world spinning in twenty different directions as he moved. Little Cat somehow managed to stay attached to his sweater the entire time.
Later, when Richie and Sarah arrived back at the farm with much-needed supplies, they paused for a moment in the doorway, taking in the unexpected sight of Evan fast asleep with Little Cat tucked between his chin and his arm, held tightly against his chest.
“He looks sort of angelic like that, doesn’t he?” whispered Richie.
“She,” corrected Sarah. “Little Cat’s a she.”
“I know.” Sarah nudged Richie with her shoulder.
“I really like him.”
“I know that too. Come on, let’s unpack and leave him to sleep for a bit.”
They crept back out of the bungalow and Little Cat head-butted Evan in the face, picking up on the subtle shift from asleep-breathing to awake-breathing, possibly wondering why he hadn’t opened his eyes yet.
CHANCE AND JAC
Lying awake, wrapped in the silence of 3am, Chance went over the available options again in his head. He was trying to make genuine choices these days, based on logic and rational planning rather than simply flipping a coin. It was hard to abandon the habit of a lifetime, but things were different now. The world was different. Or at least what was left of it was.
Bored of the unchanging view of the inside of the car, Chance opened the door, shrugged on his coat and went outside. The night sky was clear, an infinite realm of stars and possibilities. He remembered being told at school how the light from the stars took so long to reach Earth that many of the ones we see are long dead. He didn’t remember much else from school, possibly due to his tendency to avoid actually going. He’d left as soon as he could, a common theme running through his life. Foster homes had never lasted long either and while some of the people he’d lived with after his parents’ death had been unpleasant, at least none of them had broken his face open with a hammer.
As he paced around the field he and Jac were parked in, he let his mind wander back to the gym where he learned to box, where he’d met Mac, who introduced him to the world of personal security and a career in entertainment venue management. He smiled as he remembered Mac using those exact words, trying to make the whole thing sound more appealing than the reality of keeping dealers in check and looking after cash thrown over the bar by people who wouldn’t even remember how much they’d spent by the time they woke up the next day.
Chance had never learned to fight. It was something he’d always been able to do, something he’d always had to do. Boxing taught him how to harness it but it was the encounters outside of the gym that showed him what he was really made of. By Mac’s side, he’d learned how easy it was to inflict real damage when there were no real consequences. And there weren’t, in that world. Lurking just beneath the polished veneer of dance floors, well-stocked bars and ultraviolet bulbs was the truth of the environment he inhabited. Everyone had their hands in everyone else’s pockets and you watched your back, always.
When the second outbreak hit, the world around him had descended into panic while Chance sat back and watched the chaos unfold. He had nothing to lose, not really. He never had. Everything that happened was just another step along the road to wherever he ended up, and since he didn’t know where he was going, it didn’t matter what route he took to get there. All that mattered was that nothing got in his way.
Taking the coin from his pocket, he flipped it, not looking at how it fell, just craving the comfort of a familiar sensation. He was surprised by the gentle melt of springtime, when the land began to show signs of life again. He had half expected every system in the world to shut down simply because those run for and by humans had. Of course nature would survive. It would thrive without human influence. The planet would be better off without us, he thought. Maybe none of this is an accident.
He flipped the coin one more time, heard a car door open and shut, then footsteps, steady but soft on the grass.
“Are you thinking of going somewhere?” asked Jac, their voice gentle.
“No. Yes. Kind of. We can’t stay here forever, driving around in circles. We should move, try to find something more than this. What are you doing up anyway?”
“Same as you. Thinking. Trying to figure things out. And it’s not that easy to move, not with the people…you know, the ones we’ve seen and done our best to avoid cause we want to stay alive. We’re only driving around in circles because it’s the safest option, right?”
“Had any luck?”
“With driving around in circles?”
“With figuring things out.”
“Let me know when you do?”
“I won’t need to. We’ll figure it out together.”
“I’ve never been a together.”
“I know. But you are now.”
Chance’s brow furrowed, natural lines interrupted by old scars and recent contusions. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
“And none of it matters,” Jac reassured him.
“It would, if you knew.”
“Then I don’t need to know.”
“You’re getting better at that,” said Jac.
“At what?” asked Chance.
“Smiling. It’s almost like you don’t have to make a conscious effort to do it now.”
“Almost.” Chance took a deep breath. “OK, so you know how you said driving around in circles is the safest option?”
“What if safety wasn’t such an issue?”
“How could safety not be an issue?”
“If you were with someone who knew how to deal with the people who make things not safe.”
“But those people, they’re violent. And not like self-defense violent. Like actually terrifying would-definitely-kill-us violent.”
“I know. But what if you were with someone who was…like that too, only they were on your side?”
“Am I with someone like that?” Jac took half a step back and looked at Chance, not challenging as such, but with a directness that took him by surprise.
Chance took half a step back too, uncomfortably aware of his own presence and the effect it often had on other people. He looked at his hands, then at the ground, then at Jac. “If you need to be, then you are.”
“But some of the people I’ve seen, some of the things they’ve done, I couldn’t even have imagined it before. And there are groups of them. I’ve hidden from them. Before we met, any time I thought I’d found a road that might go somewhere, they’d already been there. I think maybe they were still there. There were bodies, Chance. And not people who’d died from the outbreak or killed themselves or anything like that. There were bodies that had been…people who had been murdered. Like, really badly. I know there’s no good way to be murdered but it was awful. I’m strong and fast but I wouldn’t risk going anywhere near the people who had done those things. Not unless I knew I could get past them. Or fight them and win. And the only way I’d know that is if I’d fought people before. If I’d killed people before.”
Chance looked at the ground again, then his hands. He curled his fingers into fists and then released them, relaxing the misshapen knuckles that were part of the landscape of his body and the story of his life. “I know.”
“You know what I mean, or you know you could do that?”
“Wow.” Jac’s eyes widened.
“When I said there was a lot you didn’t know about me and you said none of it mattered, how much does it not matter now?”
Jac exhaled, not noticing until that moment that they’d been holding their breath. “How many people have you killed since all this started?”
“I don’t know,” answered Chance. Point-blank honesty.
“And how many did you kill before?”
“I don’t know that either.” Chance felt a sinking feeling in his stomach, the dawning understanding that he was potentially about to lose something he hadn’t even realised he had. He was cold. He slid his hands into the torn pockets of his coat, shoulders tense.
“I guess the important thing is, how many are you going to kill from now on?”
“As many as I need to.” A pause. “As many as you need me to.”
“I don’t know what to do with that,” said Jac. They wrapped their arms around themself, partly to protect against the chill in the air and partly to contain the chill in their blood. “Chance?”
“What age were you when your parents died?”
“Eleven. Fuck. Thirty-three years ago. Why?”
“Were you sad?”
“Have you ever been sad?”
Chance thought for a moment, then nodded, slowly, the way people did when they were about to release a secret into the care of hands they trusted. “Once. Just before I met you.”
“Only once? What happened to you?”
Chance remembered tiny skulls, crushed. Fragile wrists, sliced open. Two blood-stained mugs, empty. The feeling of closing tissue-thin eyelids with leather-gloved fingertips. “It didn’t happen to me.”
Jac paused, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly. “If we could get away from here, like far away, where would we go?”
“I don’t know.” Chance shrugged, then noticed that a smile had happened, just a small one, but it was real, spontaneous. “You’re still saying ‘we’.”
“I am,” Jac smiled back, sunshine brightening the in-between hours of early morning. “Like I said, we’ll figure it out together.”