Chapter 7: Dark

Amy opened her eyes to the sound of a hacking cough. Heavily phlegmy, it emanated from deep in the owner’s chest and told of a raw throat and stomach sore with the racking convulsions. The sound of sickness; infection.

The cough was followed by a series of throat clearing noises that unnerved and nauseated Amy, causing her to cringe away before she even realized the import of what she was hearing.

Suddenly, it set in, and she was on her feet in an instant, flipping over in a tangle of blanket and jacket while searching the ground desperately for her backpack and the rifle. Neither were in sight.

Seeking an alternative route to safety, she scrambled to the opposite side of the fire to the point of origin of the coughing sounds, and sprinted away, putting a few trees between herself and her assailant.

The darkness consumed her quickly, and she found a large tree to hide behind and gain her bearings while she figured out how to get her backpack back.

No sound. No one is following me.

‘No sound’ wasn’t totally accurate. The fire was a good bit bigger than the one she remembered building before going to sleep, and it crackled and popped noisily with the heat. But there were none of the crashing and scrambling noises one might expect with a night-time chase through a dark forest.

Unable to ignore her curiosity, Amy peeked around the tree. Nothing doing: too many trees blocked her vantage point, so she crept closer to the small clearing in which she’d built her fire, padding as lightly as she could manage across the dark, wet, snow and leaf-covered forest floor.

Gradually, the fire came back into view and Amy thought she could make out the shape of a person on the other side. The fire, burning a healthy three feet high both obscured the person with its flames and blinded Amy to the relative darkness on the other side. Amy drew still closer, stomach in her throat as her heart pounded loudly in her chest.

“It’ll be a lot easier to talk if you just come over here,” came from across the fire.

Amy just about fell over from the shock of spoken words after so long with nothing but her own running commentary. Literally speaking, she took two quick steps backward but caught herself and dug deep within her personal well for the courage to stand her ground and reply.

“Who are you? How did you find me?” Amy replied.

“You shot a gun and went charging off into the woods. Then lit a campfire. Stealthy, you were not.”

The voice was gravelly from disuse and inflected with sickness, but unavoidably familiar. Amy edged her way around the fire.

“Okay. Fair point. But what are you doing here? What do you want with me?”

“Oh, I was just wandering around. Enjoying all that nature has to offer. And,” he said, as Amy stopped dead in her tracks, stunned into silence.

“I wanted to see my little sister.”

Tears began to flow down Amy’s cheeks as she stared at his face in the flickering light. All of the emotional torment and the horror of the past couple days bubbled to the surface at the sight of her brother’s face. Her one connection to the past and the world she lost. He was here. Right in front of her. Jake

She rushed to her brother’s side, but the hug she was prepared to give died on her arms as Jake completely failed to react to her movement. Jake had a large haunch of meat in his hands, and sat still, chewing slowly as he stared into the glowing embers at the base of the fire. A bit of juice dripped slowly down from both corners of his mouth and darkened the chest of the ragged black t-shirt he was wearing. 

It was a shirt she remembered well from years ago. SOUNDGARDEN was emblazoned across the chest with the distorted figure of a singer below: the distinct front artwork of Jake’s favorite album, Superunknown. Jake had won the t-shirt in a radio trivia contest in junior high and wore it often, and reverently in the years that followed.

That album had been blaring that night, and Amy shivered at the memory of Jake screeching to a halt at the sight of Amy, dead-eyed and swaying on her feet at the curb in front of a massive house party. As he rushed around the side of his battered Nissan, she came back to herself slightly and fell into his arms, shaking. He helped her into the car gently and quieted the music with a swipe of his hand as he pulled away toward home.

“You owe me big time!” he said, laughing. “Dad would lose his mind if he knew his precious little girl was stumbling drunk at a massive party. And Cara–unbelievable. The balls on her to throw a party like that with neighbors so close by. You’re lucky I got there before the cops did.”

He was right about that, as they both later found out. Police showed up shortly thereafter and sent kids running into the night, with mixed results. Cara herself had got stuck with community service and a mandatory series of alcohol counseling sessions, as well as something of a parent-imposed exile at home for most of that school year. Amy considered the outcome little more than a slap on the wrist for Cara considering the way the night had gone.

“How much did you have to drink, anyway?” he asked, glancing over at her.

Amy just stared at the dash. Jake decided to try another tack.

“It’s gonna be fine, though. Dad will never find out; he thinks you were at Rebecca’s anyway… And I’m sure mom went to a party or two in her time, she would…”

“Understand,” he’d meant to finish, but he trailed off and looked over after a hitch in Amy’s breath. Jake had been only 7 when Helen Riker died in a brutal car accident. Her car had slammed into a tractor-trailer at 60 mph after failing to stop at a red light. Everything inside the car had been destroyed, including Amy’s car seat, mercifully empty on that occasion, as she and Jake were at home with her dad, Billy. Jake and Amy had never been privy to all of the details, but he had guesses based on stories he’d heard about her lifestyle and mental state. 

Jake’s road to recovering from the grief of this loss had been long, windy, and full of potholes. But he had made good progress in moving on as his formative teenage years rolled around, and he was able to talk rationally about her now. Amy, meanwhile, had never quite moved on. Despite being only two years old at the time of the accident, she deeply felt the absence of a female authority figure in her life in a house with two boys.

Realizing his mistake, Jake reached over and rubbed Amy’s shoulder. 

“Hey. You know, I…” he trailed off again, and blew a sigh through his nose. “I love you.”

Amy clenched her shoulders hard and turned to look out the window, unable to bear her brother seeing her emotions on her face.

Amy took a step back from her brother, letting her proffered hug drop to her sides as another fit of coughs struck Jake and he hunched over with the effort of clearing his airway. The coughing failed to subside, seeming to gain intensity until Jake was wheezing and choking.

Finally, after what seemed like minutes, Jake wiped at his mouth and turned to her, grinning lopsidedly. Amy started to mirror him, scraping at her brain for a joke to downplay the obvious distress he was in, when she frowned suddenly. Jake’s teeth, once perfectly straight and blinding white, were a jagged mess of yellow chips covered in glistening blood.

Amy took two more steps backward, mouth agape, as Jake smiled more broadly and began to stand, dropping the haunch of meat he’d been gnawing at. It hit the ground with a cold thump, and Amy looked at it in horror as she realized what it was: a human arm, torn free at the shoulder. The stumps of two white bones hung out just below the elbow, where Jake had been slowly working at it.

On his feet now, Jake took a step toward Amy, eyes wild. As he came closer, Amy could see the same green mottling splashed across his face that she had observed on the boy in the house. His black t-shirt was covered in dark spots that looked suspiciously like blood stains, and as he moved she could see a score of rips and holes across its surface. His forearms were covered in lacerations, scabby and tinged with the same pickle green as his face. Amy cringed back from him, feeling like she was moving in slow motion, unable to escape his inevitable pursuit.

“Where’s my hug, Amy? I just want to hold my sister again. Hold you clooose.” Jake motioned a lover’s embrace as he lurched toward her steadily.

A dozen more steps of backpedaling, and Amy’s back hit a tree. She scrambled to get past it and her heel caught a thick root, sending her sprawling, unable to find her balance on the slick, icy leaves.

In an instant, Jake was on top of her, his breath fetid and heavy. His eyes were bloodshot with red and green as he looked down on her eagerly, smiling wide.

He leaned in close, then whispered in her ear, “We’ll never be apart again.”

A low, throaty chuckle escaped his lips and washed over her in foul odor. Pinning her painfully to the ground he lifted her shirt from her waist, licked his lips, and dug viciously into her stomach, laughing as he pulled her intestines loose with his teeth.


Chapter 6: Breaktop

Amy was nearly in a blind panic.

Her freedom from the four dogs, so recently earned, was purchased with exhaustion. She’d found refuge from the dogs, but even after a night and change of solid sleep, her nerves felt frayed and her thoughts came through quickly, disjointed and out of order.

Noises. I have my backpack again. But no carrots. Noises. So tired. My gun. Which gun?

This house, the onetime bastion of safe refuge, was no longer secure, and Amy mourned for its loss.

Harsh, thumping and scrabbling noises from above. Amy could feel the hair on both arms raised as her heart pounded uncomfortably through her chest. Her lungs felt small and closed, and she gasped as if the very oxygen had left the room.

Get a hold of yourself. Breathe. Breeeaathe.

Her shoulders lowered slightly as she caught her breath, but her body still felt tense, tight, alert.

What the hell was that?

Amy tried to marshal her mind and push it forth into rational analysis of the situation. The sounds had a weight to them. Too heavy for a raccoon, but she couldn’t discount the possibility of a slightly larger animal, like a dog.

It could just be a door, swinging on its hinges in the wind. You did see at least one broken window upstairs.

Amy shook her right hand awake and grasped at the zippered hip pocket of her jacket, where the .32 resided, loaded and waiting. She was less than confident in the integrity of the gun. The hammer seemed to work fine when she pulled the trigger, unloaded, but she’d been reticent to fire a test shot, both for the noise and attention it might bring, and the possibility that the thing might literally blow up in her face.

She had no idea how old the bullets were, for one. They might not even fire. The gun had nickel plating that was worn off in several places, which did not give her great vibes about the structural integrity of the steel. On top of all of that, the gun was an ancient-looking breaktop revolver. I small button on the top of the gun made the whole thing pop up and open for easy loading. Convenient, yes, but she wondered how this technology would be viewed in terms of modern safety standards.

Well, good luck finding a gunsmith out here, girlfriend.

Kicking herself one final time for being too afraid to test out the gun, she crept away from the front door and started to make her way toward the maroon-carpeted staircase on her left, right hand outstretched and ready with the revolver.

The staircase came down from the second floor in a wood-banistered U shape. Two steps led up to a wide landing. Turn to the right and seven more steps led to a second landing with a picture window. Turn right again and several more steps led to the second floor. Unfortunately, as Amy drew close to the lower landing, she could see that the upper set of stair was blocked by a large desk and a sofa, jammed together into the passageway. Amy walked up to the second landing to examine the odd configuration of furniture.

There was a small gap on the lower left hand side of the desk through which Amy could see up into the dark interior of the second floor hallway, but it looked barely large enough for a small dog to slip through. A quick nudge with her toe told Amy all she needed to know about the weight of the objects blocking her path.

Maybe there’s another way up.

With a last, distrustful glance at the small gap beside the desk, Amy backed down the staircase. She held out the gun in front of her as she moved back down toward the entryway. She thought this was how they did it on Cops, and she hoped she wasn’t leaving out some crucial detail like remembering not to lock your elbows, or holding your breath when you pull the trigger.

She turned left at the entryway, easing down a hallway that bisected the house on the first floor. Blue and pink floral patterns surrounded her.

This wallpaper: horrific.

A formal dining room appeared through a doorway on Amy’s left. She glanced in, but the two other doorways in the room both opened along the right side wall, along the direction of the hallway. Amy moved back to the hallway. on the other side of the hall were three doors. The first opened into a large bathroom. The second was a closet. The third opened into a black staircase, descending into the bowels of the house.

No thanks.

Amy continued down the hallway and arrived in a kitchen. It was dated, but with several pleasant-looking sets of built in shelves, cabinets, and doorways that looked original to the old house. In the far right corner, a door with a window looked out into the back yard. In the left far corner, there was a refrigerator inset in the wall beside a walk-in pantry.

The kitchen, and really the house as a whole, were in remarkably good shape considering the end of the world. But for the layer of dust dulling the shine of the counters, the kitchen looked ready for the next meal. Amy couldn’t help imagining some cute middle-aged couple preparing dinner and dancing to whatever music old people listen to. Something doo-wop-y.

It was so strange that the one significant thing out of place in the house was the only apparent passageway up to the second floor, where she’d heard a noise. But she didn’t see any way an adult could have fit past the desk, and the furniture looked like it would have taken a tremendous amount of strength and effort to push into place.

Amy crossed the kitchen, hovering briefly in front of the refrigerator before the remembered the smell with which she was assaulted back in her own home a few days ago.

No more fridges.

She turned instead to the pantry door beside the refrigerator, hoping that she might find some supplies before she looked outside at the back of the house for a way up. To her surprise, she found not a room packed with dry and canned goods, but a narrow staircase, twisting steeply up to the second floor.

Amy’s gun, which had drifted toward the floor during her exploration, was pointed up the dark staircase with renewed vigor. She could not see the top of the stairs, though. The staircase was very dark and twisted around to the left. Amy figured there must be another door shut at the top of the staircase.

Please don’t be blocked.

Amy crept slowly up the stairs, feeling her way, and cringing at every tiny creak. Finally, after what seemed to her like an hours long journey, she arrived at a door. She grasped with her empty left hand for a handle and found one. Applying careful force, she was surprised to find that the handle relented easily and the door slid open silently under her gentle control.

Amy eased into a dim hallway lit by one small curtained window beside her, looking out at the back yard. Looking down the hallway toward the front of the house, Amy thought she made out more ugly wallpaper with an odd large floral pattern. On the right side of the hall, she could see the outline of the sofa and desk jammed into the staircase. It still seemed bizarre, given the rest of the house, to see the furniture positioned thus, as if it was blocking off entry to the first floor from the second, or vice versa.

Amy turned to the window and drew the curtains so she could better see the desk and sofa, and the other doorways lining the hallway, which she planned to examine for the noise she’d heard. She had no heard a thing since she crashed back through the front door, and she was beginning to think that her frayed nerves had merely played a cruel trick on her mind, but she was devoted now to the idea of getting to the bottom of the mystery. She turned back to the hallway to pick the first door to open.

Her heart immediately leaped up to her throat.

All along both walls of the hallway, what Amy had mistaken in the dim light for ugly wallpaper was actually messy handwriting in a dark brown ink. The wall was absolutely covered, from ceiling to floor, in the letters.

Amy felt the hallway closing in around her as she broke out in a cold sweat and found it suddenly hard to breathe. Her legs felt weak and she backed into the wall below the window, and stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

On the portion of the wall closest to her, she tried to pick out a few words amid the madness. At first she thought she was looking at a foreign language, but after a few moments of focusing on the characters, a few of them resolved into words. But the words were madness. Just random words jumbled together in no particular order. A select few words seemed to jump out with more frequency: fear. dark. mad. bomb. queen. water. There was just no discernible pattern.

Curiosity momentarily conquering her fear, Amy roused herself from the wall and took a few steps down the hallway. Now that she knew what she was looking at generally, she began to realize that there was one pattern in the writing. A group of large lines on the left side of the hall that she’d initially taken for a series of scratched out words were actually letters overlaying the wild ramblings on the wall. Amy took a few more steps to get a closer look. TRUHSUSKAMRETAWKABOGRVEN.

Amy was disappointed at first. She’d hoped to find some message, a clue about what she could hope to find when she reached Pittsburgh and the remainder of local civilization. She almost dropped it completely and moved on, but something was tickling the back of her mind. She was suddenly thinking of high school and the stupid games that she and her friends used to play. Find the grossest eater in the cafeteria. Who has worn the same clothes a few days in a row. How many ribbons of tape can we stick in the new girl’s hair.

It was embarrassing, thinking about the person she’d been. Amy shuddered at herself and said a silent prayer of apology to anyone who might still be around that she’d hurt. She never considered herself a bad person, even then, but peer pressure was a hell of a thing, even subconsciously. It was amazing the situations you could find yourself in before you so much as realized how you got there.

But no, this was something more innocent. A game she’d played for her own enjoyment. She read the letters again.

TRUHSUSKAMRETAWKABOGRVEN. What is that? There is something there.

Suddenly, it hit her.

It’s backwards. How many times did you sound out words backward in your head back in school? You used to think you were so damn clever spouting them off to people.

After a few seconds of puzzling over it, she tried saying it aloud.

“Nev-rgo-bak-wat-erm-aks-ush-urt. Nevrgobakwatermaksushurt. Never go back. Water makes us hurt. HA!”

In the excitement of the mystery, Amy had forgotten her true mission on the second floor and spoken a little louder than she intended. Not a half second after she uttered, “HA!” she heard a sudden rustling movement from down the hall. Amy froze, muscles tensed for what seemed like the hundredth time in the past hour. And as she focused again on her mission, the dark theme behind the writing on the wall impressed itself upon her. Never go back. Water makes us hurt. Never go back to what? Never go back to the room in this house? The desk and couch wedged into the stairway suddenly seemed so much more ominous.

Should I go back? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?? No. I have a gun. I can do this. If it’s a wild animal, maybe I have fresh food.

As if she’d ever cooked a wild animal. Still, she figured there couldn’t be too much to it. Build a fire. Heat it up. The end, right?

The sound had come from the left hand side of the hallway. There were two doors on that side, side by side. Amy slid stealthily up to the first, and gently turned the door handle with her left hand, right hand outstretched and ready to shoot. She let the door swing open while she ducked behind the wall. Stealing a glance into the room, she found that it appeared to be completely empty. Pink walls. A small bed. Surprisingly vibrant cream carpet.

Now there was no doubt. Whatever, or whomever was in this house was behind the second door. Amy looked doubtfully down her arm again at the .32 and its fragile-looking break top. She prayed it would hold together if need be.

Amy moved as silently as possible to the neighboring door, sweating out each minuscule creak of the floorboards beneath her.

I’m going in hot. Surprise is on my side.

Amy grasped the doorknob, and with one swift movement and a bloodcurdling scream, she turned the doorknob and flung the door into the room, flying in after it.

She could not have been more shocked to find a handsome yet odd looking young pale boy with a green-mottled face blinking back at her, and she paused, mentally disarmed by the unexpected sight. But in that brief moment, the boy’s countenance changed completely. Suddenly, he was red with rage, teeth bared and rushing at her.

Amy’s gun was still held at arm’s length, finger tense on the trigger, and she pulled it, more as a reaction to the sudden thing rushing toward her than out of fear, although of that there was plenty. The shot was deafening, and Amy dropped the gun instantly, surprised beyond belief that the ancient bullets had fired, and afraid that the noise was the gun blowing up in her hand.

The boy looked down himself, felt for holes, found none, then glanced behind himself, where he spotten a small hole in the wall where the bullet had punctured. Truthfully, it had not come close to hitting him.

Amy was still wincing at the ringing in her ears as she observed the boy checking himself for wounds. She looked down for the gun. It had bounced several feet away toward the interior of the room. She was just beginning to move to recover it, but the boy was on her in a flash, bashing her from all sides, with hands and arms and shins and feet and teeth and who knows what else. The strikes were coming fast and forcefully, but not especially painfully. Just enough to get her moving backward out of the maelstrom. The boy was small but he seemed irrationally powerful with sinewy strength. He quickly backed Amy out of the room with a series of quick shoves and blows.

Presently, Amy found herself nose-to-door in the hallway, wondering just what the hell had happened. She wanted the gun back, but there was no way she was going back in the room with that… thing. Nor was she going to stay in the house with it. She raced down the hallway toward the back stairwell, back down through the kitchen, down the lower hallway, and out the front door, pausing only to grab her backpack and bolt action rifle.

Amy ran through the snow for as long and hard as she could, turning randomly so as to lose herself and anyone who followed. Eventually, she found herself in a forest, leaning against a fallen tree and gasping for breath. Night was falling, but Amy had no particular desire to find shelter.

To hell with houses. Seriously.

Amy looked about the fallen tree and began gathering some sticks for a fire. She didn’t really want to draw any attention to herself or her whereabouts, but she wasn’t about to spend all night out here, freezing to death, either. She’d take her chances with a fire. After a few frustrating attempts with her lighter, Amy finally caught fire to some dried birch bark, and pretty soon she had a respectable fire going.

Amy opened a can of Hormel chili and set it in the fire to warm up. After a few minutes, she rubbed her fingers in the snow, then pulled out the can as quickly as she could and set it down. Dipping her fingers in, she found that the Chili was barely lukewarm in the center although the can itself seemed unbearably hot. It was just as well seeing as she had no silverware. After scarfing down most of the can, Amy made a bed of bark and leaves, and was just leaning back on her backpack as a pillow when she heard a stick crack nearby.

Whirling around and grabbing the rifle from the ground, Amy hopped to her feet and pointed the gun in the direction of the sound. At first she saw nothing, but then she detected a low, loping form coming at her from the dark. Her nerves frayed, Amy nearly pulled the trigger, but something stayed her hand. She would find out later that she had not properly cocked the rifle even if she’d wanted to shoot.

As the form came closer, Amy started to laugh with relief. It was the Pit Bull. She’d nearly forgotten it among the events in the house, but it must have followed her when she left. She grabbed the remaining Chili and offered it to the dog. The dog did not pause to consider. It jogged happily over to the can and chowed down, tail wagging vigorously.

Amy laid back down on her makeshift bed as the dog licked the can clean. She was just beginning to drift off when she felt the dog draw close and lay down beside her. Amy beckoned the dog closer, patting the ground by her midsection, and the dog nestled in. And for the first time since she’d gone underground, Amy felt just a little bit happy.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 5: Hold Steady

Amy’s relief at her escape from the dogs was palpable, but the tears making hot smears of grime down her face were not out of relief, not really.

She had seen so much in the two days since she’d left her shelter, and she’d barely made it anywhere. It is so hard to push onward. What is the goddamn point? She had yet to find a single soul with whom to share this miserable existence. Everywhere she turned, she found only death, drabness, and decay. And what was waiting for her at the end of this journey? Some vague belief that she might find her brother, alive and well in West Virginia?

What evidence had she seen of that? Not a solitary living person so far and she expected to find her own brother, of all people? Amy had known Jake to be a resourceful person in everyday life, but Bear Grylls he was not.

And as if the landscape weren’t bleak enough, now she had to be faced with a pack of rabid dogs. And who knows what else she was likely to encounter. There was no guarantee she would ever make it to Charleston. Right now, even Pittsburgh felt unfathomably far away.

She grimly wondered what horrors might await her in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, but the prospect of finding help and some semblance of civilization were too great to pass up, especially considering that Pittsburgh was situated in the correct direction and might offer her the best chance of finding passage across the Ohio River. Amy was not optimistic about the state of the infrastructure that she, and everyone else, had long taken for granted.

But she couldn’t possibly be the last person left alive on this depressing rock, could she? Wasn’t that even more unrealistic than the idea of finding her brother alive and well?

She was dead whether she stopped or whether she kept moving. Would it be something so simple and sad as hunger, or a valiant death at the hands of the radioactive spawn of Beelzebub? One sounded a little more interesting than the other.

So she decided to believe. To believe in her own untested ability to survive. In what she might find at the end of her journey. In the power of humanity to survive. She would keep moving on.

Amy took a deep breath, wiped the tears from her face, and shoved herself up away from the door, where she’d collapsed a few minutes earlier. Her legs were shaky, and, as the adrenaline from the encounter with the dogs was wearing off, it was replaced with an intense weariness. It was approaching dusk, and Amy had already subconsciously settled into the idea of spending the night here. She did not have the energy to go back outside, nor was she eager to find the next pack of dogs in her path.

She looked around at the inside of the old Victorian, the carpeted staircase to the left, the traditional parlor to the right, a hallway between them leading deeper into the house, and dusty hardwood floors beneath all. Common sense told her she should further investigate her current dwelling, but she was just so tired. Every limb felt as if it weighed 200 lbs. Her back ached, and her legs were barely holding her off the ground. Her utter exhaustion went most of the way toward convincing her to give it a rest. Any remaining doubt in her mind was put to rest by the complete quiet within the house. So quiet she could have heard a mouse fart.

With little conscious thought and darkness closing in, both in the world and under her heavy-lidded eyes, which were still swollen and bleary from her tears, Amy shuffled into the parlor across the dusty hardwood floors. She slumped heavily onto a large antique floral-patterned settee, grabbing an old blanket from the edge of the seat as she did do. Amy eased her tired legs up onto the cushion beside her, and laid down, covering herself haphazardly with the blanket.

From the settee where she lay, Amy could see out a large picture window overlooking the porch. As the light faded, she wondered if she’d seen the worst of her troubles for a while. She was unconscious before she settled on an answer.

She woke with a start, warm light splashed across her eyes. It was morning, and she could tell it was no longer early.

I must have slept for at least 12 hours, she thought. She’d never been a heavy sleeper, 6-7 hours being the norm, so this was certainly an anomaly for her, particularly given the fitful and nervous way she’d spent the previous few nights.

Amy groaned as she sat up, taking inventory of herself. Her arm was scraped and red where the Golden Retriever had gotten a hold of her, but it appeared the skin was unbroken. Legs and lower back felt stiff and brittle from the adventure of the past several days. And she was sore all over. So, so sore. She wondered if she’d ever walk again.

But after a few moments to compose herself and rub her eyes, Amy was on her feet. The soreness was going nowhere fast, but she could feel a small amount of stiffness dissipating as she forced herself to move.

Amy reached for her shoulder and grabbed the leather strap of her rifle. She’d slept with it on all night. Lucky she was a side sleeper. It would have been less than ideal to wake up with her back split by a three foot long piece of wood and steel. Pulling the gun over her shoulder, she glanced around the room for her backpack, but saw it nowhere. It was gone. Amy began to panic.

She did not believe the pack was critical to her survival deep down, but it contained all of her treasures in the world. Her food, the ammunition for the rifle. The contents of this pack were what saved her from having to constantly explore death-defiled houses. They’d been dearly paid for, and she was not ready to give them up. Amy walked over to the parlor window to look out across the porch and front yard, half expecting to see a pack of dogs laying in wait for her.

The backpack was laying right below the porch stairs, looking slightly bloodied, but really no worse for wear than it had before her ordeal yesterday. A multitude of scuffled footprints and pawprints surrounded the pack and ranged across the front yard of the house, but of the dogs themselves, Amy could see no sign.

She did not want to go back outside with the dogs, but she would have to eventually. Might as well break the seal before her fully awake mind could talk her out of it. Gripping the stock of the rifle tightly with her right hand, she grabbed the doorknob with her left and eased the door open. She stepped quietly through the doorway and unconsciously shut the door behind her, a now-meaningless remnant of polite behavior.

Amy brought the rifle to her shoulder and quickly glanced left and right, searching the yard and the surrounding buildings for hidden threats, but finding none. She slowly made her way down to the backpack, nudging it with her toe, as if the backpack itself could be hiding a dog within its small confines. To her relief, the bag did not move. Most backpacks tend not to.

Amy bent over, grabbed the pack, and shouldered it as she continued to scan the yard and back her way up the porch stairs to the front door.

She grabbed the doorknob and turned it to go back inside. At least, she tried. The doorknob was unrelenting.

“Goddammmitsonuvabitchareyoufuckingseriousrightnow,” she muttered. She would have screamed it, if not for her ongoing fear of the dogs. There was nothing she needed in the house, strictly speaking, and yet, it was hers, wasn’t it? The house had given her a safe night of sleep and little trouble. She was not quite ready to depart it, this adventure notwithstanding. Amy set down the rifle and grabbed the knob with both hands. Still nothing.

Amy let go, shook out her hands, and prepared to jerk the doorknob as hard as she could, setting the weight of her right shoulder against the door as she did so. At first, it seemed as thought the doorknob was going to continue standing fast, but, as she continued to pull and leaned harder into the door, it suddenly gave way, and opened into the house with a bang and a crash as the door flew wildly into a wall just inside the entryway.

Amy fell headfirst into the room, with an “Oof.” and an “Ughhh.”

“There is something very wrong with that freaking doorknob,” she told herself. “Either the lock isn’t working, or that thing is horrifically misaligned.”

Amy made a mental note to find another door to use if she went outside again. She scooted over to the door, reached out for the rifle, and set it inside, then moved out of the way of the door.

It was just as she was again shutting the demented door that she heard the noise coming from the second floor.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 4: Bad Dogs

Amy grasped desperately at the right hip pocket of her jacket as she shuffled backward from the dogs.

Her mind was frantic as she drew up blank after blank in a vain attempt to search herself for some type of expertise on violent dogs. Instead, she found only unhelpful fear-filled memories, like the time she was ten and she was cornered by a Rottweiler on the way home from her neighbor’s tennis court. Every time she tried to move past it, the dog growled and tracked her, until finally, miraculously, the dog was called home by its out-of-sight owner.

But she was an innocent, unarmed child then, not the hardened road warrior that she now imagined herself when she waxed romantic in quiet moments. Well, her romanticism was draining quickly as the four dogs continued their slow approach and Amy’s shaking, icy fingers failed to find purchase on the tiny metal zipper.

“Fuck these fucking zipper pockets,” Amy muttered.

The growling, blood-speckled Retriever took a slow, yet eager step forward as it observed Amy’s growing frustration. With his reddened, mangy coat, bared teeth, and raised hackles, it was an intimidating sight, in stark contrast to the playful, obedient Retrievers Amy had fed years ago under friends’ kitchen tables. She almost had to laugh at the juxtaposition, and she wondered, dumbfounded at what must have befallen the dog to render it thus.

The Shepherd and the Lab continued to slowly work at flanking her to her left and right, respectively, while the Pit Bull held back slightly, between the Shepherd and the Retriever, appearing to wait for Amy to make a move before springing into the attack.

Amy gave up on the revolver and began to work her left shoulder out of the strap of her backpack, which was inconveniently slung over the old .22 bolt action rifle she carried across her back. That was a mistake she told herself she’d never repeat.

Just as she worked her shoulder free, the Retriever lunged at her right leg with a snarl.

Amy jumped backward as she let the right shoulder strap slide down her arm, and in one single motion, she grabbed the pack with both hands and swung upward at the dog with all of the force she could muster.

She missed the direct hit she’d hoped for, but the backpack was heavily weighted with several bottles of water, cans of soup and vegetables, and other miscellaneous supplies. It clipped the dog’s snout with enough force to snap its mouth shut with a whimper. The dog shook its head and stared intently at the snow, briefly dazed.

The Shepherd, Lab, and Pit Bull froze, apparently startled by the sudden turn of events, and all three watched the Retriever for its reaction before moving.

Amy didn’t wait for more action. She was already turning with her swing, tromping up the street through the sickly, grey snow with as much speed as she could muster.

It was only a few seconds before the Retriever gathered its senses and launched itself after its prey with vigor, now incensed by Amy’s attack. The other three dogs followed suit, a bit more cautiously.

Though Amy’s escape was hindered by the snow, the dogs also had difficulty building any momentum over the terrain, as their small paws frequently broke through the top layer of snow and dropped them nearly face-first into the wretched substance. Still, Amy’s agility was no match for the dogs, and they were closing ground quickly.

Amy ran for the nearest door without thinking. To her right, just 15 feet away, was a glass storefront under a sign that read, CJ’s Smoke Shop. It was one of those pillars of community that showed its great respect for its customers by virtue of a steel-cage lined display.

She yanked at the handle on the front entrance. Locked.With no hope of breaking into the store through the front windows, Amy immediately turned left, up the street, away from the direction from whence the dogs had appeared.

CJ’s storefront ended abruptly in this direction; the severe two-story retail building and sidewalk giving way to an open yard and a weather-beaten red Victorian with white and green trim. There were several broken windows in the the wide second story, but that was fine. She didn’t need it to be airtight and well-insulated, she just needed to keep the damn dogs out. The ground floor looked secure, as far as Amy could tell. A slight depression in the dirty snow indicated a sidewalk leading up to a three wide steps and a covered porch. The house was set back from the street roughly 30 feet: A small-ish yard under ordinary circumstances, but it seemed like a mile in Amy’s current, frantic state.

Amy’s ongoing fear regarding houses, birthed at the Bauers’ house and reinforced by a handful of subsequent grisly discoveries, was momentarily quelled. She began struggling toward the house without hesitation.

Her departure was not a moment too soon. Just as Amy lurched toward the house, the Shepherd chomped hard at her left leg, but it found only air, and skittered past her into the storefront with a crash.

Amy whipped around, backpack flying in a low arc aimed to keep the dog on the ground. Instead of finding the Shepherd, the backpack caught the oncoming Lab in the left shoulder just as it was rounding around toward her at the Shepherd’s heels. The impact and the dog’s already-compromised center of balance launched the dog sideways, directly into the Shepherd.

The two dogs struggled to untangle themselves from each other as Amy spun back toward the house. As she did so, she glimpsed both the Retriever and Pit Bull working their way toward her. The Retriever was in the lead, fangs bared in a deadly grimace.

Amy shuddered as she turned back toward the house. She pushed her out of shape body as hard as it was capable, but she simply wasn’t going anywhere fast. It was her worst nightmare: caught in a deadly chase but unable to make any speed.

15 feet to go. The door still seemed so far away. Amy’s legs were burning unfairly as the blood-crazed dogs chased her. She could hear the Retriever’s ragged breath as it drew nearer. Close now. Too close.

Ten feet. Her legs were numb, running only on fear and a depleting measure of adrenaline.

Five feet. She was almost there. I’m going to make it, she thought. Please, God. Let it be unlocked.

The thought was barely out of her head when she heard the Retriever’s jaws snap shut just inches from her left ankle. With a scream, she half-jumped sideways while she stumbled forward the remaining distance to the stairs. But she was off-balance now, and she had neither the time nor the presence of mind to right her ship, and she went crashing sideways into the steps.

In an instant, the Retriever was on top of her, lunging at her face. Amy shoved her forearm at the dog in an act of self-preservation, and the dog clamped down on it, harder than she thought possible. It whipped its head back and forth, and with a tearing sound, the arm of Amy’s jacket was loose, and the dog stumbled a half step away from her. Amy kicked at it and scrambled backward up the steps, crab-style.

Suddenly, her back was at the door of the house, and she fumbled at the doorknob. It wouldn’t budge.

With growing horror, Amy looked back at the Retriever, who knew his prey was trapped, and approached slowly. Just on the other side of the Retriever, she could see the Pit Bull rushing in to join the fight, and beyond it, the Lab and Shepherd closing in as well.

Amy couldn’t believe she’d survived the end of the world, only to be offed by some fucking domestic dogs off their leashes. She scrunched up her eyes as she heard the Pit Bull growl its threat at her.

A second later, she heard snarls and scuffling from the Pit Bull and the Retriever, but the noises were not drawing any closer.

Amy opened her eyes, and was surprised to see the Pit Bull and Retriever locked in combat. Shaking, she rose to her feet, and shook the door knob in earnest, trying in vain to get through the door.

After a moment of resistance, Amy felt the knob slide in her grip, and, to her amazement, the door admitted her into a dark interior. Amy whipped inside and slammed the door shut behind her, throwing the deadbolt as she did so. She turned and fell backward against the door, gasping and sobbing with relief.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 3: Dinty Moore is a Delicacy

Amy was moving slowly and there was nothing she could do about it.

The topography of the Pittsburgh area is notable for its makeup of hills and trees, broken up only by virtue of the progressive efforts of civilization. Navigating Pittsburgh roads is known to be a hazardous winter activity in the best of times, between the blind turns around hillsides, the steep grades, and the pothole-stricken pavement.

Mercifully, Amy was not currently beset by the pothole issue, but this was only because the legion of area potholes, divots, and other imperfections were filled in with a foot or more of snow and ice.

To her credit, Amy was wearing a good, sturdy pair of duck boots that kept her feet dry in the deep snow, but she was woefully out of shape from her time spent underground, and the snow and ice and landscape meant a difficult passage. Good boots or not. Good shape or not.

It was snow in spirit, if not in appearance. Nowhere was the pure white snow that Amy loved playing in as a kid. Snow so brilliant she had to shield her blue eyes every time the sun peeked through the clouds and lit up the landscape in a cold fire of white light. Amy had loved to grab handfuls of snow and much on it, even though her dad once melted snow on the stovetop to show her how dirty it sometimes was. She didn’t care. It looked good and it tasted good. That was enough.

This snow was a depressing shade of gray, pockmarked as if diseased by dark spots. It didn’t look entirely dissimilar to the accumulation of snow she saw often by the side of a busy roadway in winter, after plows have churned up the silt of the road and leagues of cars have sprayed muck and gray-brown fumes in their wake.

Amy felt she was making painfully slow progress. Literally painfully slow. Her breath came in hard raspy gasps and she stopped frequently to deal with her burning quads and lungs. As she stared at the sickly looking snow, she wondered again what, exactly, was filling her lungs during these fits and gasps.

She tried to push these thoughts out of her mind as soon as they entered. Unfortunately, the landscape, diseased and radioactive as it may be, had not yet bestowed on her any special breathing abilities or weird neck gills to filter the air.`And unless she’d missed some critical part of adulting, she didn’t expect to find a plethora of breathing masks to protect her every time she ventured outside, Metro: 2033-style.

Truthfully, Amy was more comfortable outside than in at the moment. She was haunted by what she’s found at the Bauers’ house; the image of the rats seething around the Bauers’ desiccated bodies flickered before her eyes every time she thought of moving indoors, even for brief jaunts to warm up, rest, and root for supplies.

In the two days since she left home, Amy guessed she made roughly 4 miles, although she’d never been great with distances, and the intensity of effort required by the snow and her poor conditioning skewed her viewpoint. She was following US-19 because she knew that it, generally speaking, led directly to Pittsburgh.

An intersection with I-279 southbound had forced Amy to make a decision on this count. I-279 flowed more directly toward Pittsburgh, but US-19 would take her through more housing areas where she thought she could scavenge for supplies, or, even better, find someone to help her figure out what in the hell was going on.

The thought of finding help was both painfully appealing and outright terrifying, which was another reason why she ultimately decided to steer clear of I-279, with its broad lanes and wide open sightlines. She had no idea what to expect from the living when she finally encountered them.

Amy had already encountered countless dead bodies, though she tried as well as she could to block them out. They filled stalled and wrecked cars all over the roadways, and more than once Amy thought she’d stepped on suspicious lumps under the snow. She was sure that anyone out there had been through quite an ordeal.

Even with these endlessly disconcerting discoveries, Amy felt a growing awareness that something was off, even in the context of a possible cataclysmic event. She’d found more bodies in a few houses, yes, but she’d also found houses that appeared to be not just empty, but abandoned. Standing cold and lifeless, but untouched, as if their owners expected to return at any moment but never did.

The cars, too. There were snow-covered lumps of cars strewn all across the roadways, in various states of disrepair and abandonment, but Amy thought there should be many more cars around, especially given the empty homes. It seemed like either people were missing, or she was being actively avoided.

Amy felt so incredibly alone. During her extended period underground, Amy was by herself, but she always harbored a fantasy in the dark recesses of her mind that she might open the vault door and find the world exactly as she left it, or  maybe slightly altered. A few bombed out city centers, perhaps. She wasn’t ready for this. Now, after seeing the complete absence of humanity in the world, she felt a despair unlike any she had ever known. It was only her hopes of reaching her brother in West Virginia, and of miraculously finding someone willing and able to help her, that kept her pressing forward with a purpose.

This afternoon, though, Amy had begun to feel a presence.

It didn’t come on all at once, nor was she quite aware of her dawning perception. Call it a latent instinct, or premonition, woman’s intuition; take your pick of miraculous 6th senses. Perhaps she’d heard a series of noises, and her brain logged the information even as Amy’s thoughts were divided between the road ahead and her internal dialogue. But slowly, Amy found her pace slightly quickening, and she began to make out shapes moving in the sides of her vision.

Every time Amy turned to look straight on, she saw only a beat up trash can, or mailbox, and she mentally chided herself for losing her senses in the face of extraordinary stress.

Amy was now looking down a street lined on both sides by old Victorian and Craftsman-style houses, along with the occasional dark storefront. The typical small-town storefront on the ground level of two stories of weathered brick, with an upper floor devoted to an apartment or store offices. Since she was a kid, she’d always wondered about streets like this. Wondering how different the neighborhood had been in times of greater prosperity. Pittsburgh was a re-defined city in the late 2010’s, trading the dying steel industry of the 20th century for technology and medical advancement, but some areas had yet to fully recover.

Families are always rising and falling in America. Hawthorne, I think. I wonder if the same can be said of cities. It was the type of quote Amy memorized to make herself feel smarter, though truthfully, she’d never read The House of the Seven Gables. Never even opened it, actually. But she’d seen The Departed, and wasn’t Scorcese just as good? She thought so. Anyway, it seemed to fit. What is a city, anyway, but a group of people who have decided to live together, and whose fortunes generally rise and fall together by their collective efforts and divine providence? Amy wondered if Pittsburgh was rising or falling now.

Maybe the more important question is whether the human race is rising or falling.

Jesus. That’s enough with the waxing philosophic for now, Amy. My internal dialogue gets depressing as fuck.

Amy was exhausted, and she had ignored the growing pangs of hunger in her stomach for about as long as she felt capable. Scoping a rare dry area next to a trash can under the awning of a storefront nearby, she decided it was as good a time as any to make a stop. A dingy and weather-beaten wooden sign above the awning informed her that this was home of Mike’s TV and Radio Repair.Wonderful, she thought. A store that was useless even before the apocalypse. Amy didn’t want to take the chance of another gruesome discovery just for a taste of stagnant indoor air and some overpriced A/V cables. She aimed for the dry spot next to the trash can.

Amy unslung her backpack from her shoulders and dropped it on the ground next to the store. She leaned back against the trashcan with her antique .22 bolt-action rifle still hanging over her shoulder. It was uncomfortable, but she was too tired to really care. Reaching into her backpack, Amy grabbed a can of Dinty Moore beef stew she’d been saving for a special occasion. The special occasion being that she was really hungry and wanted some damn beef stew.

She had to laugh a little bit inside at the change in fortune. Three months ago, Dinty Moore beef stew was a step above dog food. Now, gourmet masterpiece.

Amy cracked the pop tab and breathed in the luscious aroma of cold, metallic, salty, processed stew. She half-drank and half-scooped the contents into her mouth with two fingers, trying in vain to savor the taste and fight the urge to scarf it down within minutes. She had a spoon buried somewhere in her backpack, but why exercise modesty? Not like anyone was watching her to make sure she abided by proper European-style table etiquette.

So singularly focused was she on her feast, that she nearly didn’t notice the sharp crack of a twig breaking roughly 100 yards away. It took her a moment, but suddenly she was on her feet, backpack in her left hand and can of stew unconsciously remaining affixed to her right.

Amy nearly cried, she was so happy about what she saw. Making its way toward her slowly, hopping here and there roughly along Amy’s footprints in the dull mounds of snow, was a Golden Retriever.

Its fur had lost the bright sheen attended by constant brushings and an indoor life; its golden coat was stained, dark, matted, and mangy from weeks or months of living outdoors, but as it made its way closer, she could see it was still wearing a collar and tags. This was someone’s pet! Or it had been, anyway.

Amy was about to put on her best sing-song voice to draw the dog closer, even though she felt it probably wasn’t necessary, when two more dogs, and then a fourth appeared from around the side of a distant house from the direction she had come. There was a Black Lab and a German Shepherd, and what looked like a Pit Bull mix with a mottled brown coat bringing up the rear. All were wearing collars of various types, just like the golden retriever in the lead. The Lab and Pit Bull both sported nylon straps, while the Shepherd wore a stainless steel chain.

Amy’s right hand, which had been holding the can of stew toward the golden retriever in a welcoming gesture, unconsciously lowered to her side as she considered her growing group of friends.

They must be half-starved. Just let them have the stew and I’m sure they’ll be friendly enough, or they’ll run off, having sated their hunger a bit.

Amy set down the can of Dinty Moore and took several paces backward as she watched the dogs continue to draw closer. The can was extra-large, and though she’d eaten a fair amount already, there was enough for each of the dogs to get a small morsel.

The Retriever’s eyes never left Amy as it made its way closer. Amy could see that it was wet around the mouth, so it had been eating or drinking something recently. She hoped that the dogs weren’t too hungry and wouldn’t fight each other for the food. The Retriever paused as it reached the can, and sniffed the contents thoroughly. It took a single lick of the stew, and then stepped past, in Amy’s direction.

Amy looked on in fascination at the dog’s decision to leave the stew for its fellow companions. Now only 25 feet or so away, Amy could see the sad state of the dog’s fur much more clearly. It was even more matted than it had looked from afar, but the myriad spots she’d taken for mange at a distance appeared to be ugly scarred and scabbed flesh, torn by what looked like both the serrated edges of bite marks and some smoother lines that looked like possible knife wounds.

The Shepherd and Lab passed the can without pausing and began to fan out slightly from the Retriever in the lead. Amy looked with awe at the Lab, who was similarly scarred and missing his left eye, and the Shepherd, who appeared to be relatively unscathed, apart from a shortened tail. The Pit Bull sniffed at the can and whimpered at the others for a moment, then thought better of it, and moved between the Shepherd and the Retriever to Amy’s left.

Amy was involuntarily moving further backward now, but the dogs were drawing closer. Now roughly 15 feet away, Amy could see that she was mistaken about the Retriever’s muzzle. It was wet, but not due to water. Stained in splashes and specks across its mouth and chest was the unmistakable red-brown of drying blood.

Amy began to move backward more quickly as the dogs continued to fan out and move closer. As she fumbled with the zipper of her right jacket pocket, where she kept her .32, a low, sinister growl erupted from the Retriever’s throat.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 2: The New World

The door of Amy’s shelter opened reluctantly. It was a heavy thing, made of tarnished half-inch steel, with a welded-on handle, bolt latch, and thick insulation besides. Amy remembered it being significantly easier to lower into place when she made her temporary exit from the world 75 days earlier. Which really wasn’t surprising. She did her best to get some exercise during that excruciatingly long period, but she was stuck with an unfortunate choice between maintaining her muscle mass and conserving her food.

Amy, who had lived most of her adult life in fear of some kind of terrorist attack, had been in no rush to re-join a world that she’d last seen imploding into total warfare. She’d chosen the food. Choice aside, 75 days is a very long time, and Amy pushed her supplies to the very limit. She was weak with hunger and thirst. So weak that her vision swam with the exertion of opening the shelter door, and Amy paused, panting and collecting herself in the basement of her home.

It was very cold in the basement, colder by 10 degrees than her shelter room, at least, but still Amy sighed with relief at her new-found freedom. Before moving down into her shelter, Amy found her basement to be uncomfortably damp and musty, with it’s stone and mortar foundation inexorably seeping moisture into the space. Even with a de-humidifier running nearly constantly, the space still felt damp and smelled of mildew and earth. Now, Amy took in the smells and relatively dry air with rapturous delight. She thought she’d never breathed air so fresh.

Amy leaned back through the doorway to grab her backpack and nearly gagged. The stink of body odor and a collection of refuse buckets swam up at her. The lids were firmly planted on the buckets, but it didn’t matter. As a group, they emitted plenty of smell to fill up the space, and then some.

Amy hated to think of what she smelled like herself. Probably something like a dead animal carcass left to rot on the side of a highway. Not far off from the way she felt, actually. First order of business would be to find some food and water. Then, she needed to freshen up. Stat.

Amy trudged up the stairs to the kitchen in search of food. Most of the food in the house made the trip down to the shelter in the days before Amy headed down herself, but she opened the refrigerator door anyway. Mistake. Amy slammed the door shut far more quickly than she’d opened it. She guessed that the only thing that saved her from being bowled over completely by the fetid smell within was the wintry temperatures outside during her self-imposed exile. Still, it was really bad. She almost lost her hunger completely, but not quite.

Amy grabbed a dusty glass from a kitchen cabinet installed in the 80’s. The cabinet matched the dated decor found in the rest of the house very well. She never really gave it more than a moment’s consideration, and she didn’t now, either. Moving to the stainless steel kitchen sink, she tried the tap, but got nothing from it but a weak spurt of brown water followed by pops of air bubbles. No water pressure. She didn’t have it in herself to swallow the rusty water, yet, and searched the pantry for something else. Hidden behind a collection of broom brushes and mops on the floor, she found a single bottle of water and a half-empty box of dry spaghetti.

Amy chugged the water greedily and began munching on the spaghetti noodles as she opened up the rest of the kitchen cabinets. She turned up a lighter, a box of matches, and a can of diced tomatoes. She grabbed a can opener and started to open the tomatoes, but thought better of it and stuffed them in her backpack instead, along with the can opener, matches, and lighter.

With her most pressing needs covered, Amy glanced out the kitchen window at the street and paused. She lived in a quiet neighborhood in West View, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa, but still, the absence of activity was striking. The street was covered in nearly two feet of light gray snow. Amy wondered if a plow had been through since she went underground. Even without the plows, there should have been footprints, tire tracks… something. As she looked closer, she realized she did see some tracks. A group of deer had trotted their way between two houses across the street, and some smaller prints, as if from squirrels or chipmunks, wound their way among a copse of trees in her neighbor’s yard.

A chill began to creep down Amy’s spine as her mind processed the scene she observed through the window. “What the hell is going on here,” she said to herself. Where is everyone?

Amy walked over to the hallway closet and grabbed a pair of duck boots that she seldom wore, but felt appropriate given the heavy snow. She walked over to the front door and opened it slowly, breathing carefully, in case anything seemed amiss in the air. Amy was not dumb. Even as she did this, she knew in the back of her mind that the air outside was likely not appreciably better or worse than the air inside, but the extra caution helped her nerves, which were still frayed from her underground ordeal, and not quickly improving.

As she relaxed a bit over the oxygen and stepped out onto her front stoop, Amy felt an increasing sense of unease, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

The silence.

In her youth, Amy took a handful of trips up to the National Forest near Tionesta, Pa, and she’d always been struck by the relative quiet compared to the familiar suburban sounds of traffic, children playing, dogs on leashes barking. That was nothing. At that moment, the world felt like a gigantic empty coffee can, emptied of its contents, and reverberating wildly with every individual tap of sound.

As her ears adjusted to the new normal, she realized she still could hear occasional distant chirrups of life, but even those seemed vastly muted compared to her memory of the neighborhood she left behind two and a half months ago.

Amy tromped through the grayish snow, across the yard to the street. She was glad for her Columbia ski jacket, and while the weather wasn’t biting cold, she made a mental note to return to the house for a hat and gloves before she ventured out far. She crossed the street to the Bauers’ yard, walked up to the door, knocked twice, and waited. No answer. She knocked three times, more forcefully now. Still nothing. Amy shuffled along the front of the house and peered through the living room window. The house was dark inside and she could see no signs of life, except the Bauers’ fluffy orange cat, Saturn, looking up at her expectantly from the floor.

Amy thought for a second. She really wanted some more information about what was going on here. She was scared, and she just spent a long time underground. She thought that was probably a good enough excuse on its own. She was also on friendly enough terms with the Bauers’s. She thought they would not judge her too sharply if they found her “checking on the cat.”

She made her way back over to the front door and wiggled the doorknob, surprised to find it unlocked. As she walked inside, Saturn immediately strolled over and rubbed against her legs, purring. He’d always been moderately friendly on his frequent excursions outside, but this was new. He seemed just about starved for attention. Amy reached down and scratched his back, finding him to be leaner than she remembered, but obviously not malnourished.

Amy looked around. The house looked basically normal. The furniture was in place and looked like it was basically the same as the last time she’d seen it, when she returned a cookie tray after the Bauers’s welcomed her to the neighborhood. Slightly shabbier, perhaps. The carpet seemed a little dirty with cat hair, as if it had not been vacuumed in some time, but she didn’t expect an elderly couple to keep up as well as they used to. The only thing completely out of the ordinary was that the phone was on the floor.

Moving toward the hallway leading back to where she knew she’d find the master bedroom, Amy called out, “Hello? Anyone here?” Only one door was closed in the hallway, and she guessed it was the master by the cat door installed near the base. Those people did worship that cat. She knocked on the door, and, not hearing an answer, she entered.

The smell hit her first. Death. The smell of decaying flesh came to her in waves, disturbed by the door being pushed into the stagnant room. The withered corpses of George and Helen Bauers lay in their bed, still locked in a lovers’ embrace.

Amy’s revulsion at the smell was quickly replaced by sadness, and she felt tears sting her eyes as she remembered how kind the couple had been, and how touching it was for them to have gone out this way, together. She glanced at the open pill bottles on George’s nightstand, and quickly decided she didn’t care. If they decided it was time for them to leave, she wouldn’t judge.

Amy was just about to shut the door and leave the Bauers’s to their peace, when she thought she spotted movement at the foot of the bed. She couldn’t help herself. It was clear the couple was dead, so what in God’s name could be moving. She walked over to the bed, pulled back a corner of the comforter, and screamed.

Beneath the comforter lay a writhing mass of rats, engorged by chewing through the remains of the Bauers’s legs. Little was left but bones and cartilage beneath the knees of each, and their thighs were a patchwork of missing flesh. As she looked on, horrified, a large albino rat crawled out of a hole where Helena Bauers’ vagina should have been. Disgusted in a way she had never contemplated possible, Amy dropped the comforter, and stumbled back from the bed as several of the rats fell onto the floor and began crawling toward her, languidly. She tripped over her own feet, hitting her ass hard on the floor, but barely felt it as she scrambled to the door and slammed it shut.

She was covered in a cold sweat and had to get out of the house immediately. Amy rushed to the front door, and threw up the limited contents of her stomach the second she cleared the threshold. She shut the front door and sat back against it, weeping, as she wondered how everything could have gone so horrible so quickly. She didn’t want to go back in the house. Every ounce of her body told her that she couldn’t possibly to it. What she just saw was too awful to comprehend, let alone willfully bring herself nearer.

But her rational mind knew she must. She couldn’t stomach what unknown horrors she might find in other houses on her street, and she knew now what lay within this one. She needed food and more supplies. She had to go back in.

Setting her teeth, Amy walked back in, and went straight to the kitchen, thinking as little as possible about what she’d seen in the bedroom. She was grimly happy to find the kitchen cabinets well-stocked, and she filled her backpack with cans of creamed corn, peas, chili, and peaches.

Amy knew Mr. Bauers was an outdoors-y sort of guy, so she headed next for the garage. The garage was dimly lit, by virtue of a panel of windows set in the two-car wide external door. The Bauers’  tan Buick sedan sat under a film of dust next to a yellow Cub Cadet. Amy wondered if either would ever run again. There really wasn’t much use for the car at present. With the roads under two feet of snow or more outside, Amy thought she’d need a snowmobile or a monster truck to have any hope of navigating the roadways.

In a row of cabinets along the back wall, Amy found an old compass and a bowie knife in a leather holster. The knife handle was heavily-worn leather, but examining the blade, Amy found that it had been dutifully resharpened to a fine point. She unfastened her belt and slid the holster around to her left hip. Rooting around in the cabinet a little further, she came away with a box of .22 caliber bullets. But she didn’t see a gun anywhere in sight.

Amy spotted a step-stool near the garage door and pulled it over to the cabinet. She climbed to the top step and looked in again. There. On the top shelf, all the way at the back, Amy saw the wooden handle of what looked like an old rifle. She moved some junk out of the way and pulled it out. The rifle was covered in dust and grime, but nothing looked obviously wrong with it. It was a bolt-action type, single bullet, with a rudimentary notch on the top of the barrel for sighting targets. Amy brushed off the top of the barrel and read “Springfield Model 15” inscribed on the top. The rifle had a strap attached to the stock.

Amy had seen plenty enough in the short time she’d left her shelter. The antique .32 pistol in her jacket pocket was hardly worth an peace of mind in the face of God knows what horrors she might yet encounter. Without any further hesitation, Amy slung the rifle over her shoulder and shoved the box off ammo in her backpack. If she was going to find something out there, she was damn well going to be ready.

Amy reluctantly stepped back into the house to make her way through on her way back outside. At the front door, she paused just as she pulled the door shut behind her, as a disturbing thought nagging at the back of her mind finally burst through with clarity. Saturn. The rats. That was why he wasn’t starving.

While the thought of a few of those rats getting their “just desserts” was strangely satisfying from a karmic standpoint, Amy couldn’t bear the thought of Saturn getting his nutrition from his former owners, even secondarily so. She opened the door and left it ajar.

Crossing the Bauers’ yard to the street and back to her own house, Amy went back to the hall closet and grabbed her warmest hat, a pink knitted cap with wool lining, and a pair of ski gloves. With these in hand, she thought she was finally ready to get going.

Amy guessed it was roughly 200 miles to her brother Jake’s cabin near Charleston, WV. She said a silent prayer that he was still there, and safe. Amy stomped through the snow on her street in the direction of US-19, hoping fervently that the worst was behind her.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 1: Underground

Amy was counting her 74th day underground. On the 75th, she would go out, for whatever waited outside.

She counted herself lucky. Amy knew that she was probably among the world’s 1% most-prepared private individuals to hold out in the event of a total world disaster. She also knew that the very fact of her continued existence meant that there was some hope for what was left. Her shelter was basically entombed beneath the basement of her ranch home in West View, PA, but it was far from impregnable. If the world had ended completely, she would have known about it.

Still, Amy was terrified of what waited beyond. Truth be told, she was terrified before she ever built the thing and stocked it. She was terrified back when she bought the house, terrified when she set off on her own, terrified when she graduated high school. Amy derided therapy as a “crock of shit,” but if she’d ever subjected herself to a professional opinion, she may have largely traced it back to a day early in her Senior year of high school. Approximately 9 in the morning on September 11, 2001, to be exact.

Amy was whispering with her friends Josh and Trav, lamenting the choice to take Calculus instead of an extra study hall or a blow-off, when the teacher broke the lesson to take a phone call. Then an announcement of news that made no sense. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Amy almost laughed, the idea was so absurd. This wasn’t a game of Flight Simulator. How could they not miss?

When the TV came on, the news set in. Just like that, Amy’s foundation was shaken, without even fully realizing it. As more news came out over the days, months, and years to follow, Amy changed from an overconfident teen into an adult obsessed with insurgent terror threats, foreign nuclear threats, chemical warfare, and all manner of worldwide tension.

When she found a small home with an unusually large sub-basement fruit cellar, she knew she’d found the perfect place to turn her fear over the state of the world into a plan of action. Over five years, she spent almost all of her not-inconsiderable expendable income on preparing a safe room in the event of total world disaster. She had buckets and buckets of potable water, innumerable canned goods, dry foods, heat, lighting, ventilation, clothes, and even an installed generator system with plenty of fuel and backup batteries. She also had a hand-cranked radio and a collection of books and trivia booklets to tide her over.

When news reports surfaced in late 2018 that North Korea was preparing another round of nuclear testing, not many world leaders batted an eye. It had happened seemingly dozens of times before, sometimes to comical effect. Just one more event of posturing in a long line of them, right? But then a small nuclear bomb killed 20,000 people in Seoul, nearly instantly. Followed by some type of chemical attack on Pyongyang–reports were conflicting and unclear. What is clear is that China blamed the US, South Korea, and Germany for the counter-attack. And these countries blamed 5 others and a handful of groups without national affiliations. On December 5, 2018, 10 more cities of various sizes had taken major hits, and the list was growing. On December 7, after several sleepless days spent watching a TV with two feet in her wig-out hole, Amy’s legs turned to Jello. The moment she had feared for most of her adult life. Breaking report of a projectile estimated to be headed toward Pittsburgh. That was plenty close enough. Way too close, in fact. Amy headed underground.

That was 74 days ago. The first ten days had been okay, if you discount the constant feelings of shitting yourself with fear, or puking, or both. Interspersed through this time, Amy read several novels that were so exciting she thought she could shit herself, and solved so many puzzles she thought she would puke with pride. Her emotions were, understandably, a little muddled at this time. She had electricity when she needed it, and plenty of food and water.

Amy tried to work her hand-cranked radio for news reports, but the reception was either too poor, or there was no radio station operating close enough to pick up. She thought she heard snips of words here and there, but everything fuzzed out almost immediately, and the words that came through were not promising. Massacred. Rioters. Chaos. Bombs. Loss.

Amy felt deep rumbles through the walls of her fortress, and occasional reports, as if from gun fire, but the sounds came distantly, muffled through the layers of steel and concrete surrounding the entrance to her room.

The following 15 days were a little less constantly panicky. Amy had whole moments when she thought she might be bored. These thoughts were quickly replaced with feelings of guilt and shame. She never really knew her mother, and her father died of a heart attack three years earlier, but her brother was out there, somewhere. Amy hoped. Jake lived with his wife, Carrie, and two kids in a cabin in the hills of southern WestbygodVirginia. Amy prayed that his cabin was remote enough to survive whatever was happening out there. She’d never been there.

On day 27, Amy was no longer able to pick up any radio snippets at all. She told herself it was the cheap manufactured-in-Taiwan radio.

On day 46, Amy decided she needed to stretch out her food. She started reading her favorite novels for the third time. She was hoping that his time Pip would not be such an insufferable twat to Joe. It wasn’t looking good.

Amy ran out of power, apart from her flashlights and backup battery stockpile, on day 57. Despite her room’s location under the ground, it became very damp and bone-chilling without the benefit of any added heat. Amy bundled up in her blankets the best she could. She had to balance her needs to conserve energy, food, and water with her desire to keep the shivers away by moving around.

On day 72, Amy was down to two cups of dry Oatmeal. Her stomach was a constant gnawing ache of hunger that eating seemed only to make worse. Amy was not accustomed to going short on food. Prior to going underground, Amy padded her generous bodily portions with constant helpings of carbs and cheap fast food. If nothing else, her time in the room had eroded her weight somewhat, although Amy judged that the pallor of her skin would make her no more appealing to the opposite sex.

Amy hadn’t ever had much time for the other sex anyway, at least since high school. The few men who actually made it to her house were slightly weirded out by her obsession with “prepping.” She did her best to expound upon her fears, but they largely fell on deaf ears. Amy was very familiar with the clouded, distant expressions that dawned on her friends’ faces as she explained her habits. Even Jake had reacted dubiously the first time he stepped into her home. He observed the threadbare carpets, the garage sale TV, the flimsy kitchen table, the handful of Goodwill furniture. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, of course. Jake and the others just didn’t understand how someone could have a great job like Amy, and pour it all into a basement freakout room.

Jake hadn’t called in about a year. She supposed that was her fault. The’d never been the friendliest brother and sister in the world, but their last meeting wasn’t exactly acrimonious. At dad’s funeral, Jake implied that Amy’s lifestyle was harder on him than it should have been. Or maybe he was really only saying Amy should take it easier on herself. Either way, Amy responded by telling Jake in no uncertain terms that he was not properly looking out for the future of his family. At that, Jake scoffed and walked away. They hadn’t passed more than perfunctory greetings and “how are you’s” since.

Why did I do that? She asked herself. Did I really expect him to say, Gee, sis, you’re right on the money, there. I do need an escape room, just like almost no one else in the country. It all makes sense now.

She guessed it was some mixture of the emotion of the situation, her pride, and her constantly fragile state that made her lash out. She really wanted Jake closer, not farther away.

Amy wondered how many of her so-called friends were okay. It seemed that no one had come to check on her, but she wasn’t really close enough with anyone to expect such treatment. Amy resolved that when this was over, she was going to track Jake down and make amends. She felt she owed it to him, and this extended time in solitude had brought it fully into focus.

It was about 20 days since the last of the eruptions of sound outside, but she was still scared. Not just of what might happen to her and who may be laying in wait, but because she wasn’t sure anymore what the world might look like. In a way, silence was far worse than noise, even bad noise. Amy decided she could wait, just a little bit longer. She pulled her blankets closer and stifled a shiver.

On day 74, Amy drank the last of her water. She was starving. She was thirsty. She was god-damned tired of being in this fucking room. She was terrified, yes, but she had to go out sometime. But day 75 sounded better. 75 is a nice, round number. Never mind that 75 days has no real meaning as to relative safety following a massive world war. She went to sleep that night, and slept fitfully and in starts, dreaming for the umpteenth time about bombs falling with nowhere to run.

Amy woke on day 75 feeling weak, but ready for whatever lay beyond. She packed up Great Expectations, a few items of clothing, pushed her small antique .32 revolver into her jacket pocket, and shouldered open the door.

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets