In the three months since we left my house, nothing was getting better. Sure, we had some good days mixed in with the daily horror that had become our life and our planet. And by good, I mean we had days that we got to eat more than a handful of food each and we only came kind of close to dying as opposed to really, really, really damned close to dying.
I had one less finger than I had started my life with and was missing half of an ear. The girl was missing some flesh and chunks of hair, but nothing that wouldn’t grow back. The boys were faring better than either of us, probably because we always put their safety first and that’s how we tended to take the brunt of the violence. I’m not complaining, mind you, just stating the facts.
We were, of course, doing better than most of the people on the planet. The fact that they died and we didn’t was the bar we used for measuring this sort of thing. Not a very high bar to be sure, but we had to have standards, didn’t we?
We met one family in the first week. I don’t want to sound harsh, but within moments of meeting them, I knew they wouldn’t be with us for the entire trip. Two of the three were woefully out of shape and the third was woefully out of their mind after seeing the new world order. They had no willpower to ration their food and most demons could run faster than they could. It took less than a week for the family to become a distraction that saved us from a pack of demons we ran in to.
One of our top survival rules was that we protected our family first. The four of us were now together, bound by the galvanizing force of surviving together during the first few days of the change. That’s what we were calling it, the change.
This rule didn’t mean that we wouldn’t help other people—we would, and as much as we could in any given circumstances. It was important that we didn’t turn into monsters ourselves. However, if someone couldn’t keep up, couldn’t deal with the situation, or was just generally a weight that was holding us down, we cut free from that weight and moved on. If someone was a contributing member of the group and they needed our help, we would move mountains to do so.
But this first family was just one big weight that held us back from the moment we met them. We had to stay overnight in the house we found them in because of the time it took to explain and re-explain everything to them. And then they tried to pack to leave but they had packed an unreasonable number of things that we couldn’t possibly bring with us. The list went on and on. So when we got mobbed at the edge of the next town, we had to cut them loose or we all would’ve died.
The second town was fairly deserted other than the large group of demons we met at the beginning. We were also lucky enough to find bi-wheels, one for each of us to ride. We learned early on that cars were no good in the congested landscape that was now our roadway system. But the bi-wheels got us farther, faster than we had planned. We were ecstatic to say the least. Unfortunately, they got stolen by a small group of survivors who were not as magnanimous as we were.
We actually met a lot of survivors along the way. Some were really nice and I had hoped they would join us, but they had their own survival plans. Others weren’t very friendly but only a few of those were criminally unfriendly. The few who had joined us ended up dying in one gruesome way or another. I guess those who hadn’t joined us may have lucked out.
As I was mulling this all over in my head, I felt a nudge on my shoulder. The girl, who I was now referring to as the Angel, was trying to get my attention. “Hey. You in there?” she teased. “I scraped together our leftovers and it’s your turn to get them.”
It hadn’t taken me too long to come up with nicknames for my family. The girl was always helping everyone and trying to make us feel better, no matter what. She also tended to our wounds, and always before taking care of her own. So in my eyes, she was nothing short of an angel.
Her oldest brother was the Hero. I had always wanted to be a hero but he truly was. He never backed down from a fight and tried to protect everyone, even when it wasn’t the best idea to do so. His actions reminded me of all those scenes from movies where someone says, “That’s so crazy, it just might work.” His ideas were and they did. I think after he broke down in the park that first day, something changed in him, something that gave him strength. He didn’t ever want to be a burden to the group again. Maybe seeing what happens to burdens after the change helped to solidify his resolve to not be one.
The younger brother was the Prince. Not that he acted like a spoiled brat or anything, but we all treated him differently. We kept him safe above all else and tried to baby him. He wasn’t a little kid, at least not anymore, but at ten years old, he was still the baby of the group and we treated him like it, in a protective way.
And me? Who am I? If not the hero I always wanted to be, then I was the geek that I always knew I was. Not the geek who gets killed in the first half of the movie, but the geek who proves himself useful and becomes the beloved underdog who outlasts everyone. That last part scared me just a little.
I tried to force a smile. “Thanks.” I took the less-than-spoonful of food that had been leftover on the edges of our bowls and I ate it like it was dessert.
“Are we almost ready to move out?” I was still keeping watch at the window to the storefront.
“Yes, but the boys don’t want to leave.” The Angel was looking more like a woman now. Not for the first time, I wondered just how old she was. Maybe she was close to her birthday that would make her a woman as mine had made me a man. But there were things I still hadn’t asked any of them. Things I didn’t really want to know. Just in case.
“I don’t either,” I replied as I looked around the store. “This furniture store is the most comfortable place we’ve found so far. But we’re close, so very close now. Maybe only a few days.”
“I know.” She looked down. “I’ve been thinking about that, though. It’s a few days for us on foot but so much less for someone in a vehicle. If the government or military or whatever had gone to the hospital and made it safe, don’t you think we’d see signs of them by now? Wouldn’t they have found us or us them?”
I hated it when she was right, but this was something I had been thinking about myself. We had made more than one detour during our trip and a couple of those had taken us way outside any of the paths we had chosen at the start. But here we were, so close.
“Honestly, I think you’re right. They aren’t there. Or they were and left. Or they were and they lost. Otherwise, we probably would’ve seen something by now.” I sighed heavily. “But, what else are we going to do? Where else are we going to go? Can you think of any place that’s safer or better? Because if you can, I’ll go with you, I promise.”
The Angel thought about it for a moment but her silence was my answer. I continued, “I want to finish this. Worst-case scenario is that we find nothing there.” I omitted the part that worst-case scenario was we were killed by demons, but that was just a given at this point and didn’t need to be said or factored into our decisions anymore.
“If that hospital was ground zero, I’m sure some agency of some sort went there at some time. If that happened, then maybe we can find some gear, resupply and make a new plan.” That was the extent of my reason for going. She was either going to agree or alter our entire plan with the next words she spoke. And I was prepared to agree with her, whatever she decided.
“Okay. We finish this.” She stood and walked away from me. “Boys, get your stuff. We’re leaving.”
Within minutes, the gang was gathered near the front door. The boys looked like little soldiers from some other world lost in time. They were dirtier than any little boy should be, but I was pretty sure they loved that part of this whole thing. Their clothes were ragged and had a smell that could never be washed out of them, even if they had the time to stop and try. Each had knives attached to their bodies in various places, a club slung over their backs and a longer edged weapon that they carried as their primary defense.
I looked everyone over before giving the speech. It had become customary for me to give the speech before we left any place of comfort or safety. A reminder that we were entering back into a world that wanted nothing more than to kill us.
“We are alive because we stick together and look out for each other. We watch each other’s back and we don’t let anyone go anywhere alone. Nothing is worth splitting up for. Nothing is worth dying for.” It wasn’t the most inspirational thing ever said before battle, but it seemed to work for us. The boys nodded their understanding and then we left the relative safety of the store.
“Here we go.” My voice was no louder than it needed to be for everyone else to hear it. We had become experts at keeping our voices low, even in the heat of battle. We never wanted to draw any more attention to ourselves than we needed to.
“I see him,” the youngest voice in the group came from my left.
“There are three more behind the car up there but they haven’t spotted us yet.” The Angel was edging out and taking the Hero with her.
The lone demon was walking towards us. Sometimes they ran; sometimes they walked. We still had not determined what caused one action over the other but we were always grateful for the walkers. His throat had been torn out at some point so he issued no sound from his lifeless mouth. That, too, was good for us.
We knew that with only one of them focused on us, the task would be easy. We split into two groups and divided its attention. It would eventually go after two of us and disregard the other two, who would then come up behind the demon and put some tool or instrument through its skull. Easy work, really.
The runners were more difficult. They still focused on one set of hunters (oh yeah, we were calling ourselves hunters now) but the ones it went after couldn’t simply stand there and wait for the demon to be dispatched. The two hunters would have to impale the demon with their longer weapons and hold them off until the other two came up behind and finished it. Of course, if they could impale the head, so much the better. But we tended to discourage head-on fighting, even if it seemed like an easy kill, for the simple reason that the mouth was on the front of the head and the mouth was bad.
How did we know all of this? Trial and error. Really big trials and very horrible errors. Some of our tactics came from a few of the groups we encountered. When we met nice people, the new social custom was to exchange survival and fighting advice. I was always proud of my family when we had more advice to give than we received.
Other tactics were things we had found on the data connection that last night in my house. Some tactics were rapidly evolving around the change and others were from posts by people who were just discussing theoretical tactics for different doomsday possibilities. I’m sure if there was still a data connection, someone was writing an “I told you so” post that said there was no way to tell how the world would end until it actually happened. No one saw this coming.
The walking demon was getting closer to its prey and now completely ignoring the two of us behind him. I simply stepped up and put a spike through its skull and tried to lower the body to the ground as quietly as possible. Once it was on the ground, I removed my weapon and saw that everyone else was facing outward from the kill, keeping an eye out for what was going on around us.
“Let’s go.” I made sure everyone was moving before I fell into the back of the group. The three demons behind the car were still oblivious of our presence but I had a bad feeling about it.
“I think they’re going to see us.” The Prince’s intuition was sharper than any of ours. “The way they’re moving, we either need to hide or get ready for them. We won’t make it to the end of the street before they come for us.”
It was true. We had all come to be able to see patterns in the demons’ movements. You could just kind of feel or predict how their random wandering patterns would eventually turn them this way or that. And I had to agree with the kid; they would wander around and see us before we were beyond this street.
“Should we attack first?” The Angel was more aggressive than she seemed.
“We don’t know what’s in the store or alleyway behind them,” I observed. “There could be a whole lot more where those three came from. Let’s let them come to us. Besides, they may miss us.” I didn’t believe that last part at all.
As we continued down the street, we tried to move faster, tried to avoid their eventual pattern that would bring them to facing us. The problem was, with the world devoid of living people, it was a much quieter place. If we took to a full run, we would be easily heard in the otherwise silent ghost town. So we hurried as quickly as we dared.
“They see us,” the Hero said with only the slightest trace of disappointment in his voice. “Three-way spike line?”
“Sounds good to me.” I had already tapped the Prince on his shoulder and pointed to the area behind us, the area he would be covering and be responsible for.
The rest of us got in a line shoulder-to-shoulder and then spread out just a few inches from one another. The demons would attack us head-on as they always did, with no regard for tactics or their own safety. The three of us would impale the attackers and then from there decide who was in the best position to disengage and then go around and get them from behind. As with a lot of our tactics, we had figured this one out by accident but it worked nonetheless.
“Ready,” I said from the middle.
“Left ready,” the Angel said.
“Right ready,” the Hero said.
The demons descended on us and were easily caught in our trap. Fewer than six at a time wasn’t too bad for the four of us to handle. We had found out that generally speaking, one more demon than the number of people we had in our group was a manageable amount of demons. Go over that number and things tended to get rough. If there was ever a two-to-one ratio against us, we were definitely going to lose people.
In these moments, I often took too much time empathizing with the demons we were fighting. Here in front of us, impaled on our weapons, were three things that used to be like us. Living people who had hopes and dreams. Living people who spent the last moments of their lives in fear and more than likely, unimaginable pain. I sometimes couldn’t help but think about what the last moments of their lives were like; the thoughts were gut-wrenching and I tried to avoid them.
Here I saw a young woman; so much of her flesh was gone that I could barely tell she was a woman. Most of what shown was muscle tissue and a little bit of bone. Once you change, the demons stop eating you. You have become one of their own and unappetizing to them. Keeping that in mind, this poor woman had been stripped of most of her skin from head to toe while she was still alive. I almost retched at the image that produced in my thoughts.
The second demon had been an extremely old man. This poor man had made it through a long life and was ready for whatever peaceful and uneventful end was waiting for him before the change happened. Instead of that ending, he got this one. An agonizing end where his eye had been eaten straight from his head, his intestines spilled out in view of his good eye, and his right arm ripped off. This was no way to treat your elders.
The third demon was the odd one of the group. He was dressed in nice clothes without any sign of an injury anywhere on him. He was dirty and nasty smelling, with blood caked around his mouth and chest, but that wasn’t his blood—it was from an untold number of victims he had consumed since his change. Maybe he had been bitten and didn’t change right away and had time to clean up and prepare? More likely he had been bitten in some obscure place and then got away before parts of him had been eaten.
All three were ghastly and smelled of putrefied meat. I could see pieces of hair and tissue hanging from their mouths and teeth. Foul, disgusting bits of rancid something splattered here and there on their bodies. I saw an eye still clutched in the fist of the woman demon and thought to myself, What are you looking at?! I giggled inwardly at my own stupid joke.
“Um, what’s so funny?” The Angel looked perplexed at my momentary lapse of sanity.
I snapped out of it. Looking to both sides, I realized that all three of us were in no position to disengage and get behind the monsters. Looking over my shoulder, I said, “Hey, we need you to finish this.”
The Prince looked back at us over his shoulder. “Are you sure?”
Of course I was sure, but I understood his hesitation. “We’re going to have to break rear security this time. Just make it fast. And you can look over our shoulders while you’re taking care of things; you’ll be facing that direction anyway.”
“Okay.” He turned around and then got behind the demons, giving them a wide berth as he went around them.
Three quick hits to the monsters’ skulls and the whole thing was over. We were just about clear of the town and the dangers its buildings contained. But we weren’t clear yet and the three demons we had just dealt with had been louder than we thought.
Their moans and other pointless noises had brought others to storefront windows and the edges of the alleyways. The rest of the crowd was still looking around and trying to determine, in their own mindless instinctual way, where the noise had come from. And there was always one bastard, in a group of demons this size, that would spot you. Always one, and he did.
We were all slowly walking backwards after having retrieved our weapons from their impalement in the demons. “If they spot us, we’re making a run for it.”
I got nods from everyone but no one was happy about it. I had found out on the first day of the change that I could outrun the demons without too much effort. However, that was when I was wearing normal clothes and shoes and not carrying survival gear, weapons, food, and water. Not to mention I wasn’t tired from fighting for my life every day for months and I wasn’t malnourished either. Things were different now.
On a good day, we could keep pace with the demons if they were chasing us. As long as we had a head start, they wouldn’t catch us. But it was much harder to lose them when we couldn’t really gain that much ground on them. The only other thing in our favor was not every demon was in running condition. Broken bones and torn or eaten muscle tissue slowed them down.
I wasn’t sure whether they were decaying or not—they looked horrible right from the start, so who knew? I could tell that their skin was getting more taut over their bodies, just as our own was. At first I thought they were starving like us, but being face to face with them so many times, I changed my mind. Their blood wasn’t really blood anymore, sort of a congealed, nasty sludge. And without blood or the need to drink water, I was guessing that their skin was becoming stretched and tightened through dehydration and not necessarily decomposition.
The thought that they might not be decomposing was scary. The idea they would go on forever until they were destroyed on purpose, was almost worse than the fact they even existed in the first place. They sure smelled as if they were decomposing but that smell could’ve been from all of the non-reanimated corpses lying around. Not everyone turned; sometimes the demons ate their prey’s head and brains, which stopped the process right there. Not only that, but those who did turn would sometimes leave hunks of flesh or body parts behind them and those pieces of meat would start to decay. An even more disgusting thought was what happened to the flesh they did consume? Was that rotting in their un-working stomachs or were they passing it in some sort of foul demon shit?
Regardless of whether or not they were decaying or going through some other form of unseen breakdown, they were about to be chasing us. The one bastard I wasn’t even paying attention to saw us from a roof. He probably had been bitten and then ran to the roof before he changed; he was now the town sentry, looking for a meal.
The sentry began to moan and create other hideous noises that I won’t ever be able to describe or recreate. As the first sound reached my ears, my body instinctively tingled and tensed up. I knew by now the tingling sensation was my body dumping hormones into my system to prepare me for battle. The tensing was nervousness: a normal reaction, I told myself, even though it always made me feel a little ashamed that I still got scared before a fight.
The Prince was the first to start moving away just as the Hero pushed out between his sister and me to take up a point position on our fighting spear formation. The Angel hissed at her brother to get back—always protective of the boys—but she only received a dismissing wave of his hand, signaling her to start backing up. I was looking around us, trying to pick out points of escape in case we got herded in a direction we didn’t want to go. It wasn’t looking good for us; we were in a horrible area that was not at all conducive to fighting or even hiding.
As the sentry continued to issue forth his cry of discovery, something wonderful happened that we hadn’t before encountered. The sentry was on the roof, so all of the other demons looked up towards his howls instead of to the area he was looking. They all started moving towards him and not us. They wanted to know what he had and what all of the fuss was about. I laughed inwardly at the thought that the sentry was thinking to himself, if he were capable of such a thing, “No, you idiots! Don’t look at me! Look over there! They’re getting away!” M-O-A-N.
Of course, no such thought process or communication between them was possible, so none of them heeded his call to arms. No demon was looking our way for now, which made this precisely the right time to get moving.
“We’re leaving,” I whispered to my family. “No running. Just backing away as fast as we can walk.” I looked around to make sure everyone was on the same page. “Quietly,” I added, though I probably didn’t need to.
Once we were over the first set of hills away from the town, we began to talk freely once more.
“We were lucky it wasn’t nighttime.” The Prince was now acting like a kid again and taunting his older brother by poking him repeatedly.
“Stop it!” The Hero angrily swatted at his brother’s gestures. “But he’s right—that would’ve been worse at night. You think they would’ve seen us?” He kept going after his rhetorical question. “I think they would’ve seen us. Probably would’ve gotten at least one of us.” He punctuated his last statement by jumping in front of the Prince and putting his arms out wide and making demon noises before grabbing him in a vice-like hug.
I just smiled as we walked. If my sister were here, I’m sure we’d be acting in a similar fashion. I was finally at a point where I could think of my family and not get sad. In fact, thinking of my family made me smile and sometimes even giggle out loud as I remembered the good times we had. I still had images of them at the end, during the change, but those only came to mind when I slept and thankfully not as much as they used to.
“Why do you think they hunt better at night?” The Angel was now close beside me. We had gone over this question so many times that we already knew that we had no idea why. But I was guessing she was using the moment as an excuse to get near me. Her voice, barely a whisper, gave her a reason to get nice and close to me.
I tried not to make it obvious that I knew what she was doing, lest it stop her from continuing to do it. So I looked away for a brief moment so she couldn’t see the smile on my face get ridiculously larger. I tried to make myself seem thoughtful in that moment rather than visually evasive.
“Well,” I began, “maybe it’s because at night everything is so much quieter than during the day. I mean, we all know that things are REALLY quiet at night now that the noises of the world have ceased. But even before the change, it was always quieter at night. Sounds travel farther and easier in the night air. We know they are very auditory driven.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t explain how they hunt in a coordinated effort at night.” The Hero joined our conversation as well as our private, personal space. The former wasn’t a problem but the latter caused his sister to distance herself just a bit. I think the little shit did it on purpose; at least, that’s what his grin told me.
“We’re not sure they are actually hunting together at night.” I honestly wasn’t so sure that they were. “We could just be seeing their random patterns as what we want to see them as instead of what they really are. Random.”
“Maybe that first night in the park it looked like organized hunting to us, so now that’s just what we think it is. Is that what you’re saying?” The Angel was moving towards me again.
“Yes. Exactly. If we had never before seen them move at night until say, tonight, I think it would be different now that we’ve had so much experience with them. We would see them in a totally different way.” I would still be scared out of my head, but just not for the same reason.
Speaking of night, we needed to plan our shelter for the evening. We had been walking for quite a while after having left the town. With no demon encounters so far, we had gone farther in this one day than we had altogether over the last several.
The Prince grabbed his sister’s hand. “C’mon. Let’s go scout ahead. We need to find a place to sleep.” Again, his spot-on insight had us moving.
The two siblings held hands and marched ahead of me and the Hero, who was content to walk in silence. This suited me just fine; it gave me time to go over our plan. With so much ground covered today, I thought we might be able to get to the city by tomorrow night. Once we got settled in tonight, I would pull out my maps and see if I could figure out where we were. Sometimes we found signs and that made things easier, but these roads were made to be driven on, not walked, so the signs were fairly far apart from each other.
I had so many things going through my mind, I was afraid I was going to forget something or not have everything in order. We were going to be entering one of the largest cities in our region and that meant there would be a lot of demons. More than we had ever encountered before.
I had been so eager to get to the hospital to find answers or salvation that now I wasn’t sure what my true motivation was. Were we still going there because it was a good reason or just because it was what we had planned and now we, or maybe just I, had to finish the quest? With all that we had been through up to this point, if we quit now, would we be able to deal with it? To deal with the decisions we had made along the way in order to complete the plan? I didn’t know but I decided that should be my main focus of thought right now. Before we got into a position we couldn’t get out of, I needed to be sure we were moving forward for the right reasons.
“What are you thinking about?” the Hero queried.
“Hmmm.” I barely heard his question. “Oh, um, just stuff, I guess.”
“You’re thinking about my sister, aren’t you?”
When wasn’t I? “No. I’m not.”
“You like her.”
“I like all of you.” Stupid answer, I know.
The Hero rolled his eyes. “Um, sure.” He walked ahead of me and spoke again without looking back. “That’s too bad. That you don’t like her, I mean. Because she sure does like you.”
“Really?!” My response was way too eager but I couldn’t take it back now. “Why do you think that? Has she said something?” I caught up to him as he continued to play coy.
“No.” Then he looked at me with a genuine smile. “I can just tell.”
Neither of us spoke again until later that evening. We just walked together in silence, me with a huge grin that wasn’t going to leave my face anytime soon. I suddenly felt a stronger brotherly connection to the Hero. He hadn’t been trying to tease me—well, maybe at first he was—but in the end, I felt as if he was trying to give me his blessing. Now I felt kind of bad for thinking of him before as the psycho kid with a shovel. Though at the time, it was a dead-on accurate assessment.
We got close enough to the city that night that we could see the tips of the tall buildings on the horizon. I remember from school, that due to the curvature of the planet, a person could only see so far before the horizon curved away and took the planet with it. I couldn’t remember the exact distance that was, but seeing the tops of buildings made me think we were definitely a day or less away from our goal. We were all very excited and nervous at the same time.
Another clue that we were getting close was the road we were on was getting more and more congested with dead vehicles. Vehicles were even scarier than buildings. Demons were sometimes under vehicles, with their never-ending patience, just waiting for a meal to walk by. Demons hid inside of the vehicles, too. They didn’t possess the thinking abilities needed to open the doors after they changed, so those who turned inside a vehicle were doomed to remain a passenger forever unless someone set them free.
Vehicles were something to fear but also something to covet. Along with their dangers, they carried untold riches, waiting for a brave soul to find them. When the change happened, people were trying to leave the cities and towns en masse and they were taking everything they could with them. Had they been smart, they would’ve grabbed a bunch of water and food and left right away. That would have let them get ahead of the traffic jams that would block and ultimately kill most of those who fled in vehicles. Subsequently, vehicles tended to have a lot of useful gear stuffed in them.
We still had a bit of light left, so we decided to chance looking through a few of the vehicles. We had met a group of survivors who came up with a fairly decent tactic for dealing with raiding vehicles. First, we got as close as we thought was okay and then we all spread out from one another and got on our bellies. We looked under the cars for any demons before we got too close. If there weren’t any, we moved closer and then one of us resumed the belly position to watch out for any ankle biters.
Getting closer to the vehicles, we tried to single out one that was closest to us and approach that one first. The idea was if the first car was empty of danger, we could loot it before moving on to the second. But if we looted more than one vehicle at a time, we risked encountering a demon, which we would then have to fight and we may end up not getting anything out of any vehicle. So we chose to go one at a time to maximize our possible returns.
The vehicle was average size, blue, and not too badly damaged. The windows were broken out, which didn’t bode well for us—there was less chance of something still being inside. The Prince was lying down on the road, pulling ground security. The Hero approached first and looked in through the back window that was facing us.
As long as he didn’t give us any warning signals, we continued to follow him at a safe distance. For us, a safe distance wasn’t a distance that kept the followers safe; it was a distance that kept the person on point safe. See, if you’re too close to the point guy and something jumps out at him, he can’t back up or move out of the way fast enough because you’re in his way. You have to give the guy on point some reactionary distance but stay close enough and out of his way to back him up if he suddenly needs your help.
The Angel was on his left; I was on his right. We had our long weapons out that would let us stab into the car from outside of reaching distance of anything that might be in there. My long weapon was simply a shovel handle without the shovel; it had fallen off a while ago. But with the end of the composite handle sharpened, it made a really nice spear. The Hero had a pitchfork and the Angel had a long metal pipe with a sharpened end. We had tried to make fancy weapons at one point, but they all were pieces of shit and broke easily. We found out early on that simple pointy things worked best.
The Hero put one of his hands up to signal we needed to stop. No sounds came from the vehicle, so whatever he saw hadn’t seen him yet. He tentatively moved forward a few steps and then I saw him waver—almost fall, really—but he caught himself and managed to stay upright. I almost rushed in, but not knowing what he was seeing, I didn’t want to crowd him in case he needed to react quickly.
I saw the Hero start to tear up and he waved me forward. His sister began to follow me but he looked her dead-on, “No, not you. Just him.”
I was a bit shocked. This was something new. His reaction had me more worried than I had been in quite a while. Turning to the Angel, I lied, “Don’t worry, I’m sure everything is fine.”
As I approached the vehicle, I felt the need to move more urgently but I was scared. Looking back, I wasn’t scared for my safety—we would be fighting already if there was something dangerous in the vehicle. I was really scared for my sanity. I feared the Hero was looking into some sort of emotional abyss that would suck my soul dry if I looked into its heart as he had.
As I stood next to him, I knew there wasn’t enough therapy on the planet—hell, in the universe—to reclaim the parts of our psyche that had just been claimed by the black hole of our lives that I often referred to as holyfuckingshit. This was the name of the emotional black hole that randomly sprang up around us, consisting of a new and even more unfathomable situations that we weren’t prepared for, and swallowed pieces of our spirit. Given time, I think all of us could recover emotionally from most of what we have seen and dealt with since the change. But whenever holyfuckingshit showed up, I knew a small piece of that recovery was lost forever.
On the back seat of the vehicle, I saw an infant. One of his arms was missing and most of one of his legs had been eaten. A small portion of his face was also missing, providing a window into his still developing mouth that was devoid of teeth.
In the safety restraint next to him was a woman, most likely the infant’s mother, with a small hand tool shoved through her head. The tool had been used on her after the change had taken place. That much was evident based on the fact that her baby’s removed arm was still in one of her hands and a few of the unattached fingers still dangled from her mouth.
I looked in the front seat area and saw it was empty. Where did the father go? Insane I would guess, but after that, where?
I realized something just then. In all of the weeks we had been traveling and fighting, we had yet to see a single infant. A lot of kids, sure, but no babies of any age. Maybe they were so small that they were eaten quickly and there weren’t any identifiable remains left behind. Maybe babies were so precious that their parents killed them as gently as possible before they could be torn to shreds by the demons. Maybe because of their size, they were easier to hide from the demons and there were babies stashed all over the place, left to die by parents who truly thought they would come back and save them at some point. All of these thoughts made me shake uncontrollably.
But even those thoughts were nothing compared to what happened next. The baby’s head turned towards me and his lifeless eyes looked directly into mine. A small baby demon moan gurgled out of his destroyed mouth. Holyfuckingshit had just opened, and its overwhelming gravitational pull reached out, draining my soul into it freely.
I now knew why the Hero had stopped in his tracks. Why he didn’t want his sister to see this. Why he didn’t know what to do next.
“There’s nothing in the vehicle that we need,” he finally said without even looking at me.
“No, there’s not,” I weakly replied.
“So. Do we…?”
He let the question hang. There was no need to finish it. It didn’t even need to be asked aloud at all. I looked around us, trying to figure out the best course of action. I knew what I was going to do, what had to be done, but I needed to do it in a way that was best for the Hero and me. I wasn’t sure that was possible but I had to think it through first.
“Take your sister and brother to the other side of the traffic jam.” I pointed to an area that was away from us, separated by several vehicles. “I’ll catch up in a minute or two.”
“But,” he began to protest, “we are alive because we stick together and look out for each other. We watch each other’s back and we don’t let anyone go anywhere alone. Nothing is worth splitting up for. Nothing is worth dying for.”
My own speech, thrown in my face. If I made an exception now, I would be setting a dangerous precedent that might be used against me in the future. Might be used by the Hero to do something, well, heroic.
“Okay. Watch my back then.”
“My sister is already watching our backs. That’s why she’s back there.”
“Look!” I whisper-yelled louder and more angrily than I had ever done before. I knew we were both going through the same thing so I felt bad for raising my whisper to him. But I had made all the concessions I was going to make with this situation. I changed my voice and my face to a plea. “Please, just watch my back for me, okay? I… I just need you to watch my back on this one.”
His mouth opened to respond. I could tell that whatever he was going to say wasn’t another argument, but he still closed his mouth without saying a word. He just turned around, faced his sister, and gave her a little hand signal—Almost done.
I tapped the Hero on his shoulder, letting him know that we were moving out, and I followed him back to his sister.
“What’s going on?” The Angel knew something really bad had just gone down.
“Nothing.” A guilty answer said in unison was seldom convincing.
“Let’s go.” The Angel turned and just started walking towards the area I had pointed to moments ago when I was talking to her brother, trying to make him leave. She walked by the Prince and tapped his shoulder, signaling that he was to follow her.