“Follow me,” a voice croons to my left.
I’m not the skittish type. But now, two inches away from certain death, my heart pounds deep in my chest. The sound is so audible I’m almost certain I’m about to be spotted, so I shift my weight to the balls of my heels, concealing my wide frame behind a bookshelf. I search for the source of the noise, my eyes landing on a silhouette jutting out of the bleak light of a doorway to my left.
“Come on,” the voice whispers.
I peek my head around the corner, scanning the room for any more bodies, perspiration sliding down my neck like wires of tension. I come down onto my knees into a crouch, carefully extending my leg forward. Any noise could prove to be fatal. I scour the ground for any signs of glass, tin, metal—anything that will make a sound beneath my feet—before moving toward the door. The front half of me, my upper torso, glistens with sweat in the sunlight while the latter half of me remains concealed behind the bookshelf. I dare to breathe.
I swallow the remaining notions of fear and quicken my pace, moving along overturned structures and boxes to keep from exposing myself completely. I duck behind an old counter, probably one used as a cash register. Keeping my head low, I fix my gaze on the conjoining room. Seven steps and I’d be inside.
“They’re gone,” the voice says once I’m through the doorway, closing the door behind me with a thud loud enough to make my ears bleed. I stand fully erect again, my legs whining from being crouched for so long. How long was I down there? An hour? Two? I don’t linger on the thought for long. I wiggle my feet and my shoulders, my bone cracking from the strain, and try to find something remarkable about this little room. In an instant, I can see it, my eyes finally landing on a yellow box on a shelf, coated in dust and grime. I reach out for it, overjoyed to hear a distinct, familiar rattling noise on the inside.
Pain shoots through my entire body and I fall back onto my knees, taken aback by the sudden blow. Behind me, a figure steps out and snatches the box from the shelf, peering down at me with a snarl.
“Listen, asshole, I didn’t just save your neck so you could steal all of my shit.”
I dip my head up, blinking in the flickering light, only to see a tall, slender woman with dark hair tangled around her oval face. Her arms, neck, and face are peppered with scratches and scabs, each one older than the last, but I’m sure I don’t look any different. On instinct, I run my hand along the deep gash in my side, the pressure of my fingers against the crooked stitches enough to make me wince.
“Sorry,” I grumble, finding my feet again. She’s a head shorter than me but her eyes don’t leave mine. Her height is no symbol of her strength. She’s not afraid of me. Not here, anyway. I break her gaze only to look around the room. It appears to be some sort of break room, most likely for the employees who used to work… well, whatever this used to be. Grocery store, clothing store, pharmacy, it’s hard to tell. Nearly everything in sight is covered with a thick layer of dust. There’s an old refrigerator in the corner, the top half of the freezer broken and bent in the corner atop of what was once probably a table. Now, the thing looks unrecognizable beneath all the rubble and bricks.
“You got a name, kid?”
“Frank,” I mutter, not bothering to give her another glance.
“Frank,” The woman nods, wiping her forehead with the back of her dirty hand, leaving a black smudge that barely works at her hairline. “What’s your deal? Why are you out here?”
I avoid the question with another question. “What’s your name?”
She makes a noise deep in her throat. “Didn’t know you had the time to get intimate with strangers,” Her left hand clutches the 9mm pistol from the back of her ratted jeans, carefully popping bullets from the yellow box into the clip. “The name’s Jessalyn, but please, spare me the formality and just call me Jess.”
The accent hanging to her words sound southern. I make a mental note of it, trying to find something of use in the nearly destroyed room. “Thanks,” I say, feeling the words stick. “For what you did.”
She shrugs. “There’s not many of us left nowadays. Gotta save who you can.”
“I figured you were going to kill me as soon as I got in here.”
“So why did you come?”
I don’t answer, my eyes drifting back to the door. She knows why. A bullet through the chest would be mercy compared to a death on the streets. Especially with those things crawling around.
She yanks the bottom half of the refrigerator open and tosses me something. She doesn’t let me thank her again, instead pointing with her chin. “Just eat, and shut up.” She unwraps her own granola bar and chews slowly. Food is scarce these days.
I recognize the bar. It’s a power-bar, one I used to take to the gym. But those memories are long gone, washed away with years of fear and torment. I waste no time with the thing, eating it in nearly one bite, letting the flavor consume my mouth before it slides down my throat, hitting the bottom of my empty stomach almost immediately. How long it’s been since I’ve eaten, I don’t know. The waxy coating paper slides through my fingers, landing in another pile of trash.
“There might be some people who operate like that, you know,” Jessalyn sniffs, crumbling up the wrapper and tossing it into the corner. “You know, people killin’ just to survive. But I ain’t like them.”
“Where from?” I say, still fixated on the outline of the door. I’m waiting for a noise, but nothing comes from the other side.
“Georgia,” she says, cracking her knuckles in a row. “But I haven’t been back there in quite some time.”
“Thought I heard a little bit of a drawl,” I say, hopping up on one of the only intact counters, my feet dangling inches from the floor. She rolls her eyes. “I said little, didn’t I?”
“Kids used to make fun of me for it when I was growin’ up,” She rubs her elbows. “But I suppose everyone got served some justice after what happened.” Her voice sounds small and faraway. I don’t prod at her open wounds. We share the same pain. Two people, strangers before this moment, engulfed in a world of suffering.
I release my gaze on the door, my shoulders rounding down in their usual ache. There’s scraps of paper on the ground—scraps of newspapers, journals, even some notes from the office—but the writing is all but legible now, the grime and mold succumbing most of the floor and eating at sides of the walls. The smell of death is prominent, even in Jessalyn’s little haven.
“You got any family left?”
“Yeah,” I say, my voice hitching. “Parents in quarantine. And… well, I’m trying to find another one.”
“Are they safe?”
The comment burns like an insult. She knows just as well as I do that safety isn’t a guarantee, not anywhere, not in this world. The confines of my bedroom weren’t enough to keep me safe, and neither are the electric fences of Quarantine. I don’t know where my brother is, and the thought is enough to shut me up, even for a moment, my stomach molding into an uncomfortable knot. The wound on my side seems to come alive again, the pain licking up the side of my torso. I push against it with calloused hands. It’s enough to get me to stop thinking about Joe, even for a second.
“No idea,” I wince, battling discomfort on my face, but Jess is observant. She crosses the room effortlessly, hands working on the hem of my shirt.
“Just let me see the damn thing,” she says. I pull my arm away, almost expecting blood to pool out of my side. She tugs my shirt up to my sternum, keeping her finger away from the sensitive areas, instead pawing around on my stomach to get a better few. “Lord Almighty, who in the hell gave you these stitches?”
I don’t bother looking at them. They’re ugly and choppy, a giant web of thread blotched against bruised and bloody skin, tender to touch. I squeeze my eyes shut as the pain takes over again, ripping through my ribcage.
“It’s infected, you know.”
I laugh at her, angry, and it sounds like a bark. “Very funny,” I snap, chewing on the bottom of my lip.
“No, I mean seriously infected. Medically infected.” Jess matches my tone, her eyes darkening. “You know, the kind of infected that means there’s a lot of puss and blood, and you’ll need medicine or it’ll kill you faster than those things out there will.” She moves one of my stitches and I writhe beneath her, slamming my hand down on the countertop. The noise reverberates through the room. If anything is outside, they’ve heard us now.
“Fuck,” I breathe, unable to find words. “Don’t do that.”
“See, it’s infected.”
“I’ll take my chances, thank you,” I bite, yanking down the hem of my shirt again. The pain ebbs away slowly, but it’s still there, a constant reminder of my impending weakness. My agility weakens with every day.
“If you want to survive on a damn god complex, be my guest,” She spits into the corner. “But at least let to clean it.” She disappears into the damp corner of the room, barely visible from the lack of light, and appears a few moments later with a half-full bottle of distilled vodka in her hand.
I snort, and she’s not amused with my response. “You’re an alcoholic?”
“I’m cleaning the wound with alcohol, for god’s sake,” She says through gritted teeth, fussing with the bottom of my shirt again.
“Vodka? You can’t be serious,” I grab her wrists. “You’re going to put vodka on my wound?”
“Should’ve saved that judgment for whoever the hell did your stitches, cowboy,” Jess purses her lips. She’d be pretty if it weren’t for her constant condemning stare. “Not me.”
Anger ripples through me. “Forgive us for not all being medical technicians,” I say with a toss of my hands. “The first thing I wanted to do after the contagion broke out was to go to medical school, but, well, fuck me, right?”
She snarls at me, white teeth standing out against her tan skin. “I hope this hurts.” She pulls up my shirt again, this time more forcefully, her other hand pressing up against my skin to make me lean back into the wall behind me. I obey, watching her twists the cap off the bottle with her teeth, spitting it back onto the ground in one swift motion. Her right hand keeps my hand in place while the other grips the neck of the bottle, her thumb over the opening. “Ready?”
“Not at all.”
I feel her fingers spread out the folds of my skin, her touch sending electric pulses through my body. It’s nearly unbearable, and this isn’t even the worse part. She releases her thumb off the tip of the bottle, the liquid pouring out over my body and seeping into the open parts of the suture. I convulse underneath her, my vision going spotty, and fear I might pass out. My throat rips open in pain, fingernails digging into my palm so tight that I draw blood.
I cry out to her, but she barely flinches at the sight of me. “All right, tiger, just give me a second to get some gauze. Hold on. Just—just hold up your shirt so it doesn’t get wet.”
I try my best not to shift. The vodka sparkles on my skin, slithering around like liquid glass, sharpening the edges of the wound by the second. My heart is in my throat by the time Jess reappears, hands fumbling around a thin roll of medical gauze. She rips off a piece with her teeth and begins to bandage me, still thrashing in pain from the alcohol soaking into my skin. She makes it around my torso twice before beginning to pat at my dressings, my breathing starting to slow underneath her touch. She slaps two long pieces of duct tape along the sides, securing the gauze in place, and pulls my shirt down over it once more.
“That should do.”
I stretch out over the length of the countertop, each subtle movement like daggers in the side. My head fits into the remnants of an old sink. “Thanks,” I manage, my body quivering with sweat.
I take a moment to find my breath. It comes back natural as the pain begins to subside into a bearable numbness. “What about you?” I say through short, uneven breaths. “Do you have a family?”
I don’t miss the flicker of sadness etched across her face, disappearing with a blink of an eye. Her hands fall back down by her chest. She takes a heavy swig from the handle, letting it burn at the back of her throat. “I used to.”
My eyelids feel heavy. It’s been awhile since I’ve slept. “You don’t need to explain,” I say, gesturing with my hand.
“I watched my mother turn right in front of me,” she says, her eyes hardening. She looks through me, at the wall, already lost in a memory I can’t see. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything scarier in my entire life. The stuff of nightmares.”
I try to stop her, but she launches ahead of me, her eyes burning into the spot on the wall.
“She was bleedin’—and I mean, really bleedin’ and I thought she was just gonna bleed out right there in our foyer. I stayed with her that night, even boarded up all the windows in the room. I tried stayin’ up with daddy’s shotgun to protect her. But I fell asleep,” Her voice catches. “I woke up and she was on top of me, screamin’ and wailin’ and pleadin’ with me to just shoot her before it took over her soul.”
I don’t want to, but I imagine it. Jessalyn, huddled up in the corner of another forgotten room, dirty-blonde hair sticking to her cheeks, watching her mother crumble right in front of her, begging for death.
She looks like she’s about to cry, but she clutches her hands into fists, drawing upon what little strength she has left in her tiny body. I don’t have the energy to stop her. I feel numb from top to bottom. Her voice keeps me awake. “It was too late. She starts convulsin’, foamin’ at the mouth, wiggling around on the ground and just screaming as loud as she could. I won’t ever forget that noise. That horrible wailin’ noise. She was in so much pain.”
I find my voice. “It’s not your fault.”
Her left hand crosses over to fidget with her right one, fingers dancing around one another before she breaks the silence again. “My mother and I, we—we didn’t see eye to eye on very much. I tried apologizin’ before it took her. Really, I did.” She’s not talking to me anymore, but to herself; arguing with her own morality, combing over the situation a million times with the same outcome, trying to extract some sort of resolution, some sort of message, to let her know her mother didn’t die in vain. “But that thing, it wasn’t my mother anymore. She had blisters all over her face and black eyes, like starin’ into darkness. She stopped wiggling for a moment before she lunged at me, and—”
Despite the pain, I sit up, feeling my body resist. “Jess, stop. Don’t.”
She clears her throat, bringing her back to me and the little room of dust. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it.” She shakes her head as if ridding herself from the memory, though it clings to her like wet clothing. “I didn’t kill her. I couldn’t kill my own mother. Someone else did it before I got the chance to say goodbye.”
Anger travels the length of her build, making her shake and ball her hands into fists. “Got blood all over me, all over the floor, all over my thoughts.”
“Whoever it was,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “They did it to protect you, to keep you safe. I’m sure they—”
Jess’ body twists around to face me, her face flushing white. “He knew, all right,” She spits, venom dripping from her lips. “He’s my cousin. Her cousin. Family. And he murdered her right in front of me.”
I ignore her anger, distracting myself with my throbbing side muscles. “It wasn’t your mother anymore.”
The muscles in her cheek tense. “How could you kill someone you knew, someone you loved, someone you grew up with?” Her voice drops a decibel, barely audible even with a mere foot separating us. “How could you just shoot someone without a second thought?”
“It was either you or… or the thing.”
“That was years ago,” she whispers, exposing the cracks in her demeanor. She’s not scared of me, but she’s scared of this world, what it does to people you love and people you hate. She plays with the ends of her hair, finding solace in the repeating patterns of her braid. “I still haven’t gotten over it.”
“I don’t think I would either.”
For a fraction of a second, Jess’ eyes meet mind. She pleads with me, thanking me with nothing but a glance, sewing up her emotional wounds like she’d attempted to soothe mine. The cracks in her mask disappear and her face hardens again, all business, much like when we’d first met, minutes ago. The time for her vulnerability has passed.
“So, this person you’re trying to find.” She straddles a chair positioned against the opposing wall, facing me fully. It’s a statement, but she’s questioning me.
“Brother,” I respond, studying the patterns of the ceiling. Mold is ugly, but it makes beautiful holes of decay, almost like a piece of abstract art.
“Younger or older?”
“He’s younger, but only by a year,” I say, counting the holes in the ceiling to keep from thinking about Joe. The burning in my side has begun to alleviate, so I readjust myself along the structuring of the countertop, leaning against my healthy side. “He can take care of himself.”
Her eyebrows shoot up to meet her hairline. “What happened?”
I grimace. I knew the story well, but no part of me wanted to recount that horrific day, even for the sake of reciprocity. Jess had opened up and she expected me to do the same. We are survivors, after all. Telling war stories is almost part of the job. “My family got moved to Quarantine, much like everyone else,” I say, feeling the weight of my words slam against my chest. Like Jess, I’d never brought my stories to life like this. “One of the soldiers wouldn’t accept one of our ration cards. He thought it was faked or forged, I don’t know. We hadn’t eaten in a few days, and Joe snapped. The guards took him somewhere.”
Jess is toying with a shard of glass now, twirling it in between her bony fingers. “Fuck the government for thinkin’ they know what’s best for us.”
My gaze falls down to the musty ground again, back to the unrecognizable bits of paper with water-stained photos, the ink leaking down onto the nearby lettering. “They took him somewhere. I tried to find him, one night after curfew, but the guards caught me. I managed to get away, but—”
Her eyes nearly bulge out of her face. “You got away? How is that possible?”
“I’d studied their patterns. Shift changes. That sort of thing,” I exhale a heavy breath, watching her face shift in and out of confusion. “There were only a few of them on duty that time of night. I managed to get by.”
She waves her hands in front of her face. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You can’t expect me to believe that you got out of the hands of fully-trained guards with assault rifles. You got superpowers or something?”
“Let’s just say I might have a little training myself.”
“Military?” She grips the edges of the rusty chair.
My brow furrows. I shouldn’t be telling her this. I shouldn’t be telling her any of this. But my lips are moving before I can think about what to say. “No. My father used to own an organization in conjunction with the FBI. It basically allowed teenagers to practice field work, fight crime, all around America. My brother and I… we were about to inherit the entire thing.”
She laughs outright. “I don’t believe you.”
“Then don’t,” I say, my voice sounding harsh and bitter. She takes no offense, only staring with curious eyes. I dig through my pockets, finding my now-dirty badge from the Network, my last name engraved along the curve of the bottom edge. She takes it from me, studying the metal.
“Hardy,” She says, her eyes flitting to me for a moment. “The Network. That’s what it’s called? How come I never heard of it?”
I try to remember what the building looks like, but my memory fails me. I haven’t been there in ages, and I’m certain it’s nothing more but a giant pile of bricks, raided of all its weapons, gadgets, and plethora of information. Not that any of their intel meant anything to the world anymore. Everyone was too busy trying to stay alive. “My brother and I were senior field agents. It’s normally kept quiet. Right before things went under, I met the Director of Special Operations for the FBI. We were working closely with them, but he was about to make my father an offer to endorse the organization and allow agents to work exclusively for the government on classified assignments.”
“So what you’re sayin’ is that you’re a spy,” She retorts, tossing my badge back to me. I’m feeble, but find the strength to catch it. It’s the one thing the soldiers didn’t strip from me back in Quarantine.
“I’m not a spy. I have field experience. There’s a difference.”
“I don’t see none.” She says, watching my face melt with annoyance. “Where’s your gun, then, agent?”
“Obviously I didn’t have much time to arrange for that when I made my grand escape,” I mutter. “Guards don’t let us have guns in Quarantine. I’m sure you know that.”
“Sounds t’me like you’re a pretty shitty agent.” She chides, letting a crooked smile envelope her angular face. In the light, she looks normal, save for the bruises and scars along her chin. In another universe, we’d probably grow to be friends.
“Oh yeah?” Heat races down my spine. “And what about you? Why are you out here?”
“I got… contacts out here.” Her jaw tightens. She doesn’t want to tell me. Why should she?
“Contacts,” I repeat with air quotes, letting the word slap her. She responds with a roll of her eyes. “You mean Allegiance.”
“Things work a little differently in the south than they do up here, cowboy.”
“Yeah, right,” I say, already working at swinging my legs down from the counter, pulling myself up to sit straight. My eyes move across the room, looking for things to take, anything useful. I’ve already heard enough.
“Seems like that struck a chord,” she says, standing upright. If she’s annoyed, she doesn’t show it. Her face is a perfect blend of neutrality. “When my town got taken to Quarantine, there was a mishap of sorts during the transport. Those—those things ambushed the truck. I thought I was as good as dead. But Wade had his guys followin’ me, stalkin’ the truck for miles, waitin’ to get me the hell out of there. During the ruckus, he managed to pull me away and we took off.”
I can’t look at her. Whoever I thought she was is far gone. Any inkling of friendship dissipates into the damp air. She’s not someone I can trust. She notices my change immediately, crossing the room to stand between me and the only exit. A fair play. She knows I can’t—wouldn’t—fight her, not with a healing wound. A good punch to the side would incapacitate me, rendering me less than able to fight. “Where you think you’re going?”
“Not here,” I growl, shoving an arm passed her shoulders to unhook the bar covering the door. Jess acts quickly, breaking her fist hard against my elbow. I stagger back, gripping my arm, grateful the pain is elsewhere than my side for once.
“Somethin’ I said?” She breathes deep, nostrils flared.
“So I want nothing to do with them,” I say, circling her. “Or you.”
“You think the government has better plans for us?” She scoffs, the noise low and guttural. It sounds unnatural coming from someone as petite as Jess. In the flickering of the light, I catch a sight of green in her eyes, narrowing at me with discontent.
“What did you do with all those people, Jess?” I lead with my healthy side, rounding her body with quick steps. She adjusts in turn, twisting on her heels to face me. “I bet I know. You left them all to die so you could save your own sorry ass.”
“We didn’t have a choice. There were too many of ‘em coming from every direction. We didn’t have enough ammunition to protect ourselves, let alone anyone else.” The air in the room, once stuffy, now pricks at my skin, the cold settling around the edge of my shoulders. “They were contagious, Frank.”
“And now there’s more of them.” My voice echoes off the walls of the tiny room, but it’s clear my message falls on deaf ears. Jess isn’t listening to me. She’s picking at her cuticles, distracting herself from what she doesn’t want to hear. “More of them to kill more mothers. Like yours.”
My mouth explodes from impact. I paw at the side of my face, hoping to feel the indents of Jess’ knuckles or a gash oozing blood, but I find neither. I spit down onto the cement, blood curling around my tongue. The coppery taste is all too familiar.
“Fuck you, asshole,” She breathes through gritted teeth, shaking out her right hand. “It’s life or death out there. I did what I had to do to survive.”
“You did what you had to do for yourself,” I say, licking my teeth. I spit again, this time in her direction, meaning every bit of it. She jumps back like it’s a bullet, hands rising preemptively for another fight. “But whatever helps you sleep at night, Jessalyn.”
My fingers caress the protective bar on the door, tossing it in the opposite direction to yank down on the door handle. I cast another look in her direction, long enough to see her fold her arms tightly across her chest, mouth set in a pinched line.
“Best of luck out there, agent,” she manages, her lips twitching. I’m no longer listening. I’m examining the outer room, shoulders rounded forward, ready to make a move when the timing is right. I don’t say another thing to the girl who’s just saved my life. Instead, I push the door open wider, take a step out, and disappear back into the shadows.