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261. dancing in the ruins

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It’s been a long time since the world went boom. Helena doesn’t know how long it’s been – she used to keep track in tally marks, but Pupok said that tally marks were a stupid plan for idiots so she’s abandoned them. It’s been a long time. The buildings are starting to fall down everywhere, and the bodies Helena passes are mostly bones.

It’s a good thing she isn’t alone. If she was alone she would be so scared.

But Pupok is with her, and Pupok never goes away, and so Helena is alright and she’ll survive until – until something happens. Until all the people come back to do things like bake bread and sing.

She rides motorcycles from city to city. Motorcycles run out of gas, but that’s alright: there are always more motorcycles. Pupok crawls up and down her arms and says: head to the base of the mountains, there’ll be snowfall, something like clean water. Pupok tells Helena when to eat food – when she’s about to fall off a motorcycle from hunger. If it’s a shaking day, Pupok will even tell her stories until her hands are still.

—and then the princess left her shoe behind on the ground, because she was stupid, Pupok is saying as Helena drives through the streets of the empty city. She ran away from the prince.

“Why?” Helena says, or maybe Why – she can’t keep track, anymore, if she’s speaking out loud.

I don’t know, Pupok says. Because she loved him.

Helena is about to ask about that – love – and then she sees a face in one of the windows. Her hands jerk on the handlebars, almost drive them into a building. The face goes away but Helena saw it, it was there. A face. A person’s face.

Don’t you dare, says Pupok.

“I just want to see it,” Helena says.

The only people alive this long are crazy people, Helena.

“I’m alive.”

Yeah, that’s my point.

Helena picks Pupok up by the stinger, picks a direction, throws. Pupok whines at her, a silly sound coming from end-over-end as the scorpion hurtles off towards a building. Hopefully Pupok won’t be offended; it’s not like Helena won’t find the scorpion again on her shoulder partway up the stairs. She hopes it made a point.

She has a gun, but it’s been a long time. She grabs it anyways. She puts it in her pockets. She climbs the stairs.

Turn around and get back on the bike, Pupok says from Helena’s shoulders, and here is the interesting thing: the scorpion sounds serious. Pupok very rarely sounds serious, unless Helena is about to die.

“I can’t,” she says. Her voice echoes in the stairwell. All the lights are turned off, but dustlight shakes its way through the windows enough to see by. Pupok arches an angry stinger but doesn’t say anything else. Up and down Helena’s arm, up and down. Helena climbs the stairs.

Hallway. No windows, no light. It would have been the third door down on the right side; Helena puts her hand on the wall and tiptoes steady towards the door. When she gets to it she checks it – locked – and then she raises her hand and knocks.

Do you want to get us killed, Pupok says, sounding stunned.

“No,” Helena says. The door doesn’t open. Hm. She considers it for a moment, and then she shoots the lock.

We only have five bullets, idiot! Pupok shrieks. You saw a curtain in the wind and now we’re going to starve, because you had to break into a random apartment—

“There’s a refrigerator,” Helena points out sensibly. It’s still humming, somehow. Odds are good that there’s food in it. Pupok goes silent in a surly sort of way, so: Helena has won the argument.

“Hello?” she says, hopefully out loud. No answer. Helena puts the fingers of the hand not holding the gun up to her lips, and makes sure she moves them. “Hello?”

There’s rustling in the corner, too big to be rats. Turn around, Pupok says. Helena does not turn around. She walks towards the corner

and is tackled to the ground. There’s a knife at her throat. The hand holding the knife belongs to someone frantic, a woman just as unwashed as Helena, her hair falling in loose snarls around her face. It’s brown. Her eyes are also brown. She is pinning Helena down and she is made of bones and Helena doesn’t know how long it’s been since the world went boom so she doesn’t know the last time she saw another body but it’s been a long time it’s been a very long time.

“Hello,” Helena says.

Great idea, Pupok hisses. Why not tell her how best to slit your throat while you’re at it.

“Shh,” Helena says. The woman on top of her blinks. Helena looks at her again. “Not you.”

When the stranger opens her mouth, her voice is just a croak. “Who are you,” she wheezes.

“Helena,” says Helena. “I saw you in the window. I haven’t seen a person in a long time.”

“I thought you were all dead. I thought everyone was dead.” Her voice is coming back as she talks. Helena’s ears hurt from hearing another voice, but she can’t cover them because she is being pinned down by a woman holding a knife.

“Mostly everyone is dead,” Helena says agreeably. “Except for you, and also us.”

There is no us, Helena, you’re supposed to just say me.

“Me,” Helena says.

“You’re batshit,” says the woman, eyes darting between Helena’s eyes.

“I do not know the meaning of these shits.”

“Means you’re crazy,” says the woman. “Psycho. Insane. You’re talking to yourself.”

“No,” Helena starts, and then realizes saying I’m talking to my friend Pupok the scorpion is maybe not the way to make friends. “I’m talking to you.” She shifts a little bit, to try and make herself more comfortable on the floor. The knife says no. “What’s your name?”

A second of hesitation. Helena laughs, a rusty wheeze. “What am I doing with this. How do I hurt you with a name. Do I go to police? Oh, officer, the world is broken, please fix it. Also there is a criminal who put a knife to my throat. Fix this first, please.”

“Sarah,” says Sarah, and she lifts the knife away from Helena’s throat.

Well, look at you, kiddo, says Pupok. That worked.

“She didn’t want to hurt me,” Helena says.

“God,” Sarah says, half-sigh-half-laugh. She stands back up – shaky – and offers a hand to pull Helena up. Both of them are bones, so it’s not hard. “’course you’re the only one left at the end of the world.”

“Also you,” Helena says. She tilts her head to the side. “How? How are you alive.”

“I’ve been raiding apartments,” Sarah says. “I can pick locks, I can – I’m alive.” Her eyes dart over to a pile in the corner, covered by a tarp; her eyes dart over to the fridge. Helena doesn’t comment. Helena also doesn’t knock Sarah out and steal her food and leave, although that’s what Pupok is suggesting from Helena’s elbow.

“Shut up,” she tells the scorpion. Then she looks at Sarah. “Sorry. Not you.”

Sarah shifts from foot to foot and she doesn’t say anything. Then she says, grudging: “How are you alive.”

“I ran,” Helena says. “On a bike. Bike running. I am going to the mountains, because there is water there, and also maybe there are woods. If there are woods there are maybe deer. I know how to eat deer. So.”

Pupok makes a thoughtful sound. Why’d you tell her the plan.

“Because she can help,” Helena says.

No she can’t. If she’s foraging around here that means she lives here. City people are useless. She’s deadweight.

“You don’t know,” Helena says. “Maybe not.”

“I can help with what,” says Sarah.

Helena shrugs. “Living.”

“Yeah,” Sarah says. “Yeah, I can help with that. I know a – I know where there are cabins, near the woods, there might be shit there. At least it’s a roof over your head, if it isn’t.”

We can find cabins, Pupok says, sounding bored.

“That would be help,” Helena says, glaring at Pupok like that’ll change anything. “You could come. If you wanted. To the mountains.”

Sarah pulls nonchalance over her shoulders like a threadbare jacket. “Yeah,” she says, “alright, I guess it’ll be better than staying here.”

But Helena can see Sarah’s eyes, so she knows Sarah is desperate. At any second she could turn on Helena, and take her food, and run back to this nest.

She could turn on us, Pupok says.

“Shush,” Helena says, to Pupok and herself. She nods her head at Sarah. “We can go. Now.”

“Alright,” Sarah says again, and she starts following Helena – so close she steps on the back of Helena’s shoes a few times, but Helena doesn’t blame her. Another person. A real live person here, talking to Helena, looking at Helena. Helena leads them down the stairs, towards the motorbike. She only has one helmet but Sarah can keep it.

“Do you want to hear story,” she says on their way down.

Sarah doesn’t answer for a second. “Sure,” she finally says.

“Once there was a girl,” Helena says, “who wanted to go to a dance.” You’re gonna tell it wrong, Pupok hisses, but Helena doesn’t think that’s true: she thinks she’ll be able to tell this story just fine.