“They’re not going to hit,” Forest reassured as he gripped his black cell phone hard enough that the plastic creaked. “Every time the news says something is going to happen, it doesn’t. Think of the last snow storm we had.” Eight to ten inches, my ass. Not one flake fell that day.
“I don’t know, bro,” Sharon said, fear in her voice. “The news said they hit already in Europe a few days ago.”
“That’s around the globe, Sharon.” He clung to that thought. Things like that happened in South America and in Europe but not here, never in the good ole US of A. He swallowed. “Look, how about I pack a bag and head your way? If they do hit, we should stay around family.”
“You gonna stop by Mom and Dad’s?” his sister asked.
Forest nodded even though she couldn’t see him, his eyes glued to the cloudy skies outside his window. “Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If we get Dad riled up he’s likely to stick me in the bunker until he comes up with a tactical plan.”
As amusing as the image was, it wasn’t far from the truth. Their dad was an ex-military survivalist who was all about being “off the grid”. Forest scoffed. When Dad had asked him “what would you do if there were no more chicken nuggets?” Forest had replied that he would go get a burger instead. Even if something crazy like a meteor strike went down, there would still be some kind of infrastructure and that included fast food joints.
“How about I just come down there and we’ll weather this thing together?” Forest asked. “If things get crazy we’ll head to Mom and Dad’s.” He paused. “Is Jeremy with you now?”
“Yep. He took a day off at the gallery just in case. A lot of people are leaving town like there is a hurricane coming. It’s crazy.”
That was news. Most of the people who lived in Sharon’s neighborhood in the French Quarter weren’t afraid of much of anything other than storms since Katrina. “Well, I’ll be there in about twelve hours. I’m packing a bag now.”
He stuffed a few changes of clothes, his toiletry kit, protein bars, and some water bottles into his backpack before zipping it up. He hesitated as he opened his junk drawer. His dad had always taught him to be prepared for any situation but it seemed silly to grab a flashlight for a road trip.
What the hell, the old man’s paranoia is rubbing off on me.
He put the flashlight in his bag just in case.
“Forest, please be careful,” she pleaded.
He made his way into the kitchen, cradling the phone against his shoulder as he grabbed up his vitamins, Tylenol, and Ibuprofen. “Of course I will. I’m the only guy who was ever told to go faster in Driver’s Ed remember?”
He zipped up his bag. The last thing he needed was his iPad and he would be ready to go. He turned back toward the living room where he’d left it charging.
She giggled on the other end of the phone but it sounded the slightest bit forced. “Yeah. Yeah. Hit the road so you can hurry and get here.”
“Okay see you in a—“ His reply was cut off when his condominium’s building rocked, a noise like cannon fire sending him crashing to his knees. His phone leapt out of his hand and scuttled across the tile floor.
Forest swallowed. “What the hell?”
He watched in horror as a large crack made its way across his ceiling like a slow motion scene from a video game. Scrambling for purchase, he dove toward the living room, his cell phone forgotten.
The ceiling in the kitchen opened up and another crack made the floor bow up before the tile split under the pressure. Pulse pounding in his ears, Forest vaulted toward the door and the stairway beyond. The second his hand touched the door handle he jerked back as the scalding heat singed his palm.
“Mother fucker!” he cursed, shaking his hand in an effort to ease the sting.
Somewhere in his building someone screamed and sirens blared in the distant like wailing announcements that all wasn’t right with the world anymore. Smoke filtered through the bottom of his door and he stared at it in disbelief.
He turned and saw his backpack on the ground where he’d left it. He was trapped in his building. Panic threatened to surface as more smoke filtered in, clouding the room.
Calm down, Forest. His father’s voice in his head helped. You’ve got to get out of here. Think.
The kitchen and subsequently the bathroom weren’t options. However, the bedroom had a fire escape. He grabbed his pack and headed to his room.
My building is on fire. Why is it on fire?
He had to be in shock because he just couldn’t process what was happening despite the fact that he was going through the motions. Some instinct he had no idea about rose up and insisted that he keep moving, keep trudging ahead.
A squeaking sound from the other side of the room grabbed his attention. “Oh shit, Erwin!”
He circled his mattress before kneeling down on the floor beside his pet ferret Erwin’s cage, working the mechanism to release the front door.
“I’m so sorry, buddy.” In the mess he’d completely forgotten him. He was stocked up on ferret food for a few days but there was no way he was leaving him in this building.
Another crash had Erwin’s little black and grey body scurrying under one of his huts so Forest had to fish him out.
“Don’t be a butthead right now, you little bastard. We’re in big fucking trouble.” He normally didn’t cuss so much. Really. The situation just necessitated the expletives.
Finally, he grabbed him and managed to stuff his squirmy little body into the pocket of his bag that had his clothes. Sorry for the rough handling.
Forest straightened and then turned back toward the window, carefully sliding on his backpack.
Without thinking he snatched a picture of his family from last Christmas off his night stand and
clutched it tightly into his fist. He didn’t know if he’d get to come back once they cleaned everything up.
Insurance. He’d have to call them once he got to the ground.
He opened the window and maneuvered onto the ledge. It was then that he finally looked around at his surroundings. His mouth went instantly dry. Everything was burning. Red and yellow flames licked at buildings that had huge holes in them. Dust and ash flew through the air like snow from the churning grey sky. He covered his mouth as the smell of burning steel and meat assaulted his nasal cavity. He would not think of what that underlying smell of cooking flesh was.
Can’t lose it yet. You have to get safe. His internal pep talk was surprisingly helpful in motivating him to keep going. He put his shirt over his mouth in an attempt to make the air more breathable as he lowered the metal ladder and then began the slow climb down to the ground level. Luckily he was only on the third floor so it wasn’t that long of a climb.
When his feet hit the ground he couldn’t remember ever being so damn grateful for anything in his entire life. He would’ve kissed the broken pavement if he thought he could’ve convinced his trembling limbs to get back up again.
He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. He had to get out of here, had to get to his parents, his sister.
His mind blanked as he came across the unmoving shape of his next door neighbor. Mrs. Cohen and her husband, Frank, were only at their condo seasonally. They moved between here and their winter home in Florida. Mrs. Cohen was a really nice neighbor, always made sure to drop off goodies around the Fourth of July and always wore pastel pantsuits no matter the occasion.
He stared down at her, recognizing her pantsuit and her hair but little else.
She looked like a broken doll.
She wasn’t breathing.
She didn’t have a face anymore.
He pressed a hand to his mouth in an attempt to stop his gag reflex from engaging but it was too late. He turned from Mrs. Cohen’s body and vomited violently onto the rubble-filled street.
* * * *
Manny swung his fist and listened in satisfaction as the sound of crunching cartilage filled the air. This was the last time he was going to travel with anyone. His traveling companion groaned, grabbing the now-bloody nose that was gushing down his face.
“Sonofabitch!” Cody groaned, glaring at Manny.
Manny pointed a finger in Cody’s face. “That is the last time you steal from me.”
The mother fucker had taken the last can of preserved tomatoes and eaten it like the pig he was. Ever since the world had gone to shit and humans were on the way out shit like fresh vegetables were hard as fuck to find. Of course the survivors didn’t help matters. They were all thieves and prostitutes now.
Disgust rose up as Cody started to sob. The only reason he’d teamed up with the big lug was so he would have someone to watch his back while he slept. There were scarier things in the night’s nowadays than the occasional pickpocket. It had been a luxury to be able to sleep for an entire shift, confident someone else was keeping watch in the big bad world. However, Manny hadn’t eaten anything in three days now and hunger pangs were getting really old, really fast.
“I was so fucking hungry,” Cody sobbed, trying to stem the flow of blood.
“Yeah, well, you could’ve at least shared, jack ass.”
Manny could have counted on three fingers the number of fights he’d gotten into before the end of the world. He and Cody often fought or fucked nowadays just to get out some of their frustrations. This time was different though because Manny meant it when he swung his fist.
Manny sighed. “I’m sorry, man.”
“Me too,” Cody murmured, using a washcloth to wipe up the mess that was his face. “Next raid I’ll find you something swear.”
He was over Cody taking his food without asking first and he was very much over feeling like a babysitter to a man who was just as capable as he was. Cody was six four and three hundred pounds of muscle. He could find his own stuff.
“Nah. You find your own food and I’ll find mine. It’s fair.” Though if he didn’t get something in his belly soon he was going to pass out from sheer exhaustion.
The end of the world had revealed a hair trigger temper and a propensity toward violence. The fact would’ve horrified him in his old life. School teachers were not exactly seen as MMA fighters no matter if they did coach football, but now it was just what it was. When the chips were down, people got to see their true colors. He just never would’ve imagined that his were so barbaric.
The sound of scuttling trash drew his attention and they both froze. It was almost full night now, no time at all to be having a loud fight with one’s travelling companion.
“Did you hear that?” Manny asked, straining his ears to hear any other hint of movement.
Cody wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Yeah.”
The only sound was the drip of Cody’s nose as it ran unchecked as they listened. Manny shook his head.
It was too quiet.
“Get the stuff. We gotta go.” He grabbed his pack, not waiting for Cody to get his, and shrugged it onto his shoulders.
“Manny!” The strangled yelp had Manny whipping back around in time to see three of the bumps in the night, vaulting over a downed car, right on top of Cody.
“Shit!” Manny yelled, grabbing the aluminum bat he’d found and then swinging at them without thought.
The human-like beings with grey skin, big black eyes, and vicious animal intelligence were creatures straight out of a John Carpenter film in Manny’s eyes. They hunted survivors like wolves after sheep. Not zombies, not vampires, not weird monsters from the deep, but something entirely not human had decided that human beings were a fun and fancy free prey item.
A satisfying crunch sounded as the bat connected and the thing slumped over, dead or unconscious. Manny didn’t give a fuck which.
“Hold on, man. I’m coming!”
More of them vaulted over the car like ants over the opening of an ant hill. He skidded to a halt as they descended on Cody’s struggling body, now barely visible from underneath the swell.
Cody screamed as one of them sank its teeth into the muscle of his chest, pinning him down.
Manny waffled. There was no way he could get Cody out of there. Everything inside him rebelled at leaving Cody behind. While they weren’t friends exactly, he had watched Manny’s back countless times. But if he went into the fray he was dead. Period. End of story. Game over.
Survival instincts won out.
Tears blinding him, he ran, Cody’s screams haunting him long after he should have been out of hearing distance.
He ran until he collapsed against the wall of an old pool hall. As he panted for breath, trying desperately not to make a sound as he tried to figure out if they were still following him. The comfortable silence of the abandoned township told him they’d given up the hunt for now.
Pain lacerated his chest. He should’ve stayed. He should’ve tried to help Cody. He should have done something different. He shouldn’t have run away like a fucking coward. He bit into the back of his hand, inflicting the pain he knew he deserved. Everyone always thought they were going to be the hero in situations like this but Manny had just proved how unequivocally untrue that was. He’d left his traveling companion to die at the hands of those things.
Never again. He was never going to be responsible for someone else’s life. He shuddered as Cody’s screams replayed in his mind over and over again. He clutched the sides of his head, pulling at the hair there. He’d never forget that sound.
The problem was he had no idea where he was going to go from here. He and Cody were just going to wander around, surviving as best they could on whatever they could find. His parents were dead long before the meteors had hit and he had only a few living relatives. He supposed he could visit his cousin, Ricky, in Beaumont. Last time he’d seen Ricky the guy had an arsenal. Even if Ricky wasn’t there, there were bound to be some weapons at his place since it was pretty rural. Maybe he’d pick out somewhere around there and start over again.
His eyes drooped as the adrenaline from before faded in slow degrees. He needed sleep, food. Those things were far from optional. Despite his hunger, the thought of food twisted his stomach. He’d given Cody a hard time over eating a can of tomatoes. How stupid. Life was too damn short to get so angry about stupid things anymore.
He must’ve dozed off at some point because the chilled rain woke him up. His groggy mind managed to process that it was later than when he’d collapsed here and that summer rain was cold as fuck in the middle of the night. His stomach rumbled punctuating its protest with a hard cramp that seemed to kick in his backbone.
He grimaced, rubbing the offending area with his now damp hand. “Fuck my life,” he whispered to whatever gods were still left in this forsaken place. There were times when he wanted to just lay down and quit. As heartless as it was, the dead weren’t nearly as
bothered by their own presence as Manny was bothered by them. He closed his eyes. If he just stopped right here and didn’t get up, didn’t hunt for food, didn’t bother to survive, there would be peace.
Of course, there would also be death.
With a sigh he forced himself to his feet. If he was going to run away to save his own life, leaving someone to die in his stead, the least he could do was appreciate the sacrifice. As fucked up as that was.
Picking up his backpack was a real hassle but somehow he managed to get it onto his shoulders. He was knotted all to hell and back from sleeping in an awkward position but it wasn’t the first nor was it probably the last time he’d have an uncomfortable sleep.
The summer rain did its job of waking him up as he tried to get his bearings. Being from a larger city, small towns usually creeped him out and this one was no exception. Even post apocalypse the place looked too nice. Those things were probably still skulking around so he’d have to be careful.
There were three or four good options for possible food that he and Cody had scouted earlier with the hope of raiding them come morning. However, they would also provide a good place to crash because come morning they would be full of sunlight.
With heavy feet, he trudged onward. It was just what they did in this time, in this place with these challenges. He wondered if people would ever be able to settle down again. Everyone had taken the idea of growing up and laying down roots for granted. Hell, some people spent their entire lives avoiding those roots so they could pick up and move whenever and wherever they wanted. Those people probably weren’t fairing any better than he was.
He finally reached the ice cream shop on the next street. He barely had the energy to force a window open so he could slip inside. He didn’t expect to find anything substantial here and he imagined most other people wouldn’t think to look. The smell of spoiled cream nearly made him gag but he wasn’t after frozen goodies. He’d worked at a restaurant similar to this one in college and they always kept the extras in the back.
The storage closet was open and Manny went inside without preamble. There wasn’t much on the shelves but he did find two boxes of ice cream cones and a jar of pickles. It
was bittersweet to pop open the jar and fish one of the crunchy pickles out with his fingers.
He’d yelled at Cody over a jar of fucking tomatoes.
He’d probably gotten Cody killed over yelling at him over tomatoes.
Tears slid down his face as he stuffed more of the life-giving sustenance into his mouth. This world wasn’t like the one before it. This world was a nightmare and Manny was stuck in it. Alone.