Chapter One, Caroline Thomas
I'm soaked, starving, and so tired that I'm beyond feeling any emotion but stale pessimism. I've been pummeled by hail as I stumble through a slough of wreckage and the twisted remains of military machinery. I crossed a highway a while back and recognized it as the one my family and I would drive down on our annual weekend trip to the mountains.
And now that same highway we drove down at least thirteen times is littered with tanks and skeletons. I'm sure every highway in the country is the same. There were no organized evacuations in any state. Roads would become so jammed that, when the soldiers came, they just walked down the median and shoot people in their cars. Those people seem the most pitiful to me. I always imagined each one of them as honking their horns at each other, too dumb or too scared to just open their doors and run. The war made them illogical. It made everyone illogical.
I try not to look into the cars as I walk past them. There are not as many of them now as I get deeper into the city, but there are enough to disturb me. People are still in them. Car seats hold babies while their parents stay locked in a final embrace, as if they might be able to save each other in death.
The rain comes harder. The patter of little drops on collapsed buildings harmonizing with thunder floods my ears. I'm crossing through a neighborhood now. This area used to be a beaten down part of Phoenix, Arizona where no respectable, or at least sane, person would ever walk through alone. It was a haven for drugs and violence. Four years ago, before the war ended it all, my mom would have been furious if she had known I was here. She would have been furious if she knew of anything her little girl had done lately. Perhaps it's better this way, for both of us.
A high pitched sequel rips me from my memories. It comes from about two hundred feet behind me but I don't bother to find out more than that. I've long since learned what anyone should have learned from watching any horror movie ever made: one must never, under any circumstances, investigate a strange noise. The thought occurs to me that I'll most likely die here no matter what. It's within my power to get the ordeal over with by approaching the source of the squeal. In the great scheme of things it would really make no difference whether I'm killed now, in an hour, or in a year. No one would end up remembering an insignificant eighteen year old girl. I might as well save myself the trouble of living, walk a few feet back, and wait for the approach of blackness, light, or nothingness.
But my instincts drive me like those of an animal. That fading desire for survival is still stronger than my own will power. I watch as my hand slips around a long shard of glass. I begin walking again, imagining all the ways I could kill someone with my new weapon. Listing all the methods of killing has always made the action much easier for me. Once I had gone over the scene of shooting a man through the head enough times, the actual event of pulling the trigger began to take on a surreal quality, detaching me from reality enough to numb all remorse. This shard of glass pressed in my shaking palm is no different. When I stab the source of the squeal the glass will slip into their stomach like a scalpel cutting through a dissected frog. There may or may not be a lot of blood but I hope there is. Seeing a person bleed out ensures me that they're actually dead. Bloodless deaths freak me out because I don't know whether they'll come back or not.
As I pass crumpled houses, the silence overwhelms the patter of rain. It's an unnatural quiet, one which is rarely noticed but never goes away once it is. I'm sure I'm being followed and the more I think about it the more I realize the follower must be a real idiot. They've given away their position, but instead of coming out and doing something about it they're pretending it never happened. Maybe my follower is just messing with my mind and they want me to know they're there. But if they were then they would have made a noise a bit more scary than a squeal. Of course, that could be how they're messing with me; drawing me into a false sense of security just so they can shock me. But what if they have a hostage and that's who squealed? Am I obliged to help that person? Am I obliged to help any defenseless person?
I quicken my pace as what-if's buzz around my head. Keep calm, I order myself, think clearly and you'll figure this out. I keep telling myself that, until I realize I've been so busy telling that I haven't actually done any thinking. That realization panics me and I start telling myself to calm down, then the cycle repeats until I've gotten myself into a tangled, panicked knot. Tears stream down my dirty cheeks. Unable to take it any more, I wheel around and scream,
"Come on out! Just get out, now!"
I would say more but I'm in such a frenzy that I've begun to stutter. Eloquence has never been my strong suit and my threats usually devolve into a useless stream of cursing. It's better if I save my breath for the coming brawl. I plant my feet and wait for the soldiers.
A person emerges from behind a burnt out car but it's not a soldier, not even a man. It's Arianna. My heart sinks a little at the site of that petite, Hispanic woman. I had been expecting, almost hoping for, a fight. Instead I'm now chained down to the one person who manages to make any situation into an emotion hurricane. From the moment I met her three years ago, she has been encouraging me to "express" myself and "open up". She wants me to address my fears. Sure. I'd like to see her address her own fears of abandonment and rejection first. If I ever see her actually deal with an issue then maybe I'll humor her. Until then I'll just grit my teeth and power through my seemingly endless time with the world's worst wanna-be psychologist.
I raise my voice, "What the hell are you doing?"
She doesn't reply. Instead she wades through a pile of bricks and mangled metal. I could help her, sure, but all I feel towards her at this moment is hatred, not pity. She's going to survive and I'm not. I don't think I'm worth more than she is or that I deserve any more. If one of us is going to die then it might as well be the less capable, less smart one. That is to say, me. And I don't usually feel this much spite towards her. She irks me but not enough to make me feel what I am now. This hatred is something new and as bestial as my instinct to survive. I look at her and see that, unlike me, she's not shivering to the point of convulsion. She's not even cold. Her thick jacket, her heavy sweater, and her jeans are all in peak condition. Her gun is slung across one shoulder and she carries a light backpack. I don't even have a weapon besides this shard of glass. Her shoes are clean. Mine are plastered in mud, full of holes, and disintegrating. I don't know if my pants were originally jeans, khakis, or trousers, and my shirt hangs off my skeletal frame like an over sized sack. While I can hardly keep standing, she has the energy to flash that disgustingly fake smile. She's going to survive. And it's not like I deserve it but it'd be nice if she could give me a little more comfort than just words in my final hours.
When she reaches my side she replies, "I followed you, Caroline." She looks around, her hazel eyes flickering over our surroundings. I wonder what she's expecting to see. There's nothing much different about here than anywhere else.
I drop the glass, sit, and stare at the ground, "Why? Do you think I'm incapable of packing bags with food?"
She slips off the backpack and tosses it to me. I flinch, expecting it to be heavy but to my surprise, it weighs near nothing. It's empty. As I stare at it she sits next to me. "You forgot to bring anything to carry it in."
I blink, "What?"
"You can't carry anything if you have nothing to carry it in." she explains, "So I followed you to give you this. You're going to need it."
There has to be something else. Arianna never does anything without a solid reason. Although she wont deem me mature or stable enough to handle that reason, two things can be certain: One, it involves Jonathon, and, two, I really don't care. Not exactly sure where to go from here and feeling incredibly stupid for the fact that I forgot to bring a bag, I bite my lip until I finally mutter, "Thanks."
Arianna gives me a condescendingly sympathetic gaze, "I can't believe you forgot. I told Jonathon to make sure you had everything you need before you left but he thought you could handle it. I'm sorry."
I sling the backpack over my shoulders and stand, "Well, I have it now so you can go." I turn away and, of course, Arianna follows. She's always following. As she stumbles along I can tell that she's struggling to maintain her composure.
"I didn't follow you just to go back!" she gasps, "I'm coming with you. And if you don't like it then that's too bad because you can't do this alone. You need me."
"What's Jonathon got to say about that?" I hiss.
Arianna crosses her arms over her buxom chest. I've always been jealous of that chest. "What's that supposed to mean? God, you're so judgmental! I mean...look, you don't know the whole story. He doesn't know I'm gone. He fell asleep a couple hours after you left and that's when I went. I left him a note so he knows what I'm doing." she puts a hand on my back and I immediately shake it off, "Listen to me, Caroline, I've been meaning to talk to you about something. To be honest, that's kind of why I followed you."
I groan, "So there's nothing I can do to convince you that I don't want to hear it, right? Because I really don't have the time or energy right now to deal with your love life. I think we'd both be happier if you just let me do my job."
"Let you do your job?" Arianna's voice is sharp and, to my delight, anger breaks through her mask, "You do realize that you have passed plenty of stores and gas stations, right? And what about forgetting the bag? And your knife? You can afford to be a decent person for a few minutes. Trust me, it wont hurt your stellar performance."
"I know what I'm doing!"
"You're wasting time! Nobody's making you take so long!"
"Nobody made you follow me either! I was doing fine until you showed up. I don't need you here!"
"Yes, you do!"
"No, I don't!"
Instead of replying, Arianna breaths deeply. She's done with the argument and, at this point, nothing I do will convince her to raise her voice again. It was good while it lasted, probably the most fun I've had in weeks. Not like didn't mean what I said. In fact, the honesty made for a nice bonus. I smile inwardly as the silence continues for over five minutes.
When she speaks again she's quiet, her tone gentle, "I'm sorry for getting angry at you. It's just so hard to put up with you sometimes. But I forgive you. Do you forgive me?" when I don't give a response she continues, "I really want to talk to you and now's really the only time I can do it. It's about Jonathon."
Jonathon. My brother and I survived thanks to the help of that man. He came across us in an alley on the day Phoenix was taken and, after much pleading with him, he agreed to help us hide. He was a tall, vain man when I first met him, handsome with blonde hair and lethal gray eyes which judged and calculated with ease. Nothing much has changed about him in these past four years except for the fact that he's thirty now. I'm pretty sure he was in law school before the war but I didn't really care and still don't. Him, me, and Charlie stayed together because it was convenient and perhaps have remained together because there's no one else to go to.
A year after we met him we joined up with a group of guerrilla fighters and that was where we met Arianna Lamene. She escaped with us after the group was captured by enemy forces, forming our little band which has somehow managed to stay alive for this long. Jonathon acts as our leader and, although I don't especially like him, I have to admit that he's been invaluable. He's smart and physically strong, two traits that I know I'll never develop. Arianna is his right hand and they've made their affection for each other sickeningly obvious on far too many occasions. My brother, Charlie, despite his malfunctioning brain, is our brute force. He's a tall, broad shouldered man and hasn't lost the hard packed muscle he developed from playing football in high school. And me? I'm a leech, at least according to Jonathon. I have nothing going for me. I've tried to make myself useful but my attempts have only served to harm us. At this point I'm just trying to fade into the background and hopefully be forgotten.
Right now, however, that might be a little hard to do. We ran out of food two days ago, thanks to yours truly. It's not like I meant to screw everyone over. I just did. Jonathon had me carry the supplies as we crossed through a wash. The water was high and dangerously swift. I lost my footing halfway across and was pulled under. I managed to reach the other side safely but the supplies were gone. I was properly berated after that, as if I couldn't figure out my mistake on my own.
Then Jonathon sent me from the outskirts of town where we've been hiding for the past few days into the city to replenish our stock of food. I was supposed to go alone, an order which I knew made this a death sentence. Most of the major population areas are occupied by either soldiers or guerrillas both of whom, although rare by this time, have grown increasingly desperate. And I've learned by now that desperate men with weapons must be avoided at all costs. I was completely ready to accept that, if I didn't die of hypothermia in this storm or succumb to the starvation which has been eating away at me, I'd be murdered.
"I know you don't like him." she begins.
"Really, what gave that one away?"
"I need you to take this seriously!" Arianna begs, a strange desperation in her eyes, "It wouldn't hurt you to try to be caring sometimes."
"Trust me, Ari, I'm about as serious as I'm going to get."
Arianna smiles, "O.K., good. So...um, look, I know you don't like Jonathon that much. And that's fine. But you shouldn't make big judgements like that. He's a good person. And he's trying his best to help us. You can't keep being so unappreciative."
"I never said he wasn't doing a good job." in the distance I see the ruins of a supermarket. That should offer a decent distraction. I point to it, "Let's do it there. If it's empty we'll move on."
Arianna nods then continues, "You don't act like you think he is. You're always being so rude to him."
I glance at her and remind myself that she thinks she loves this man, "I just don't like him. I'm sorry."
"But why, after everything he's done!" Arianna pleads, "He's saved our lives and he's been so generous. You owe him."
"I know. I'm trying to pay him back."
"He doesn't have to help you, especially after the way you've been treating him. I don't want to sound mean but you don't deserve it. You have an obligation to repay him."
The store's still about half a mile away so I need to find a more convenient distraction. I can't take this conversation anymore. I try to change the subject smoothly. "It'll probably make him happy when I come back with food." that sounds so ridiculous. The only way he'll be happy is if this mission ends with its original goal: my death. Still, I press on, "It kinda sucks that I lost it."
Arianna laughs a little too hard, "It totally does. So will you think about what I said?"
"Yeah, sure." I shrug, knowing that there's something more to this, "I guess."
Neither of us say anything until Arianna, confirming my suspicions, blurts out, "I want to have his baby!"
I stop walking. I had expected drama but not on this level. I don't know what to decide the most bizarre thing about what she just said is: the fact that she's considering having a child with someone like Jonathon, or the idea of bringing something vulnerable and innocent into this world. Why would anyone subject a creature to the misery of living in these times? It's cruel. When we escaped from the enemy forces two years ago, I was afraid that I might have gotten pregnant. I didn't want a kid to have to go through those same things that I did so I tried everything I could to kill whatever life may have been inside me. Painful memories beginning to encroach on me, all I can do is stare at Arianna. She must be crazy.
"Yeah, I want to have his baby." her eyes sparkle but to me, there is only fear, "That's--that's what I wanted to talk to you about. And I've been thinking about it for a long time. I mean, why wait?"
"There's nothing to wait for." I say, blinded by a freshly unearthed darkness in my broken mind.
"Wont it be great? I've been thinking about this for a few weeks and I know I can do this. I'm so excited."
"This was what you wanted to talk to me about..." I begin walking again, faster this time. I need to get to that store. I'm desperate to get there. It's no longer a distraction; it's something else that I can't name. I need to be there. I don't know why. I need to be there.
But I can't escape Arianna's voice, "Yeah. I wanted to know what you think Jonathon would say. Do you think he'll say yes? I don't want him to hate the baby. I know he wont. It'll be good for us."
"You could help raise it."
"I don't think I'd be good at that. And I don't think Jonathon would want a kid."
"Of course he would!" Arianna cries, "Why wouldn't he?"
Because he's mean. Because how can a baby repay its father for taking care of it? Because it'll just end up rotten like the rest of us in this dead world. I want to scream at Arianna but I keep it all to myself. There's no point. At last we reach the store. It's not all that special, just a normal grocery store. All its windows are broken, cash registers gone, and most of the food is either rotten or has been stolen. But it's quiet, as if something's hiding among the shelves, waiting to find me, waiting to be found, or perhaps both. Normally, if I get that feeling of entering a place where I'm not alone, I go away. Ignoring intuition is just asking to be killed. But I came here expecting death, so why run? At least if I get killed then I wont be enabling Arianna's cruelty. I step through the doorway, chills running through me as I do.
The signs that we aren't alone are obvious. Arianna was either too distracted to see them or, for her own reasons, is ignoring them too. A wire hanging from the ceiling is swinging perpendicular to the direction of the breeze, a fresh set of footprints lead into an aisle, and an empty box lays freshly fallen on the floor. Arianna and I lock eyes,
"It's safe." I say.
We pause. Then with a quiet breath I release all hold I had on this charred earth and accept the coming of my own demise.