The world looked different through Maureen Epps’ eyes, even before the apocalypse came calling. In the four years since she’d been plucked, semiconscious and soaked, from a mess of flotsam in the Bering Strait, she found herself watching people’s hands before she shook them. With a deep pocketful of insurance money left to her name by Murphy’s death, she could only sleep with the lights on and the closet doors wide open. People who spoke with her face-to-face saw a woman that barely blinked, taking in every facial tic and detail as if she would feed on it. In the place of someone that had lived and breathed for a life in the ocean, Maureen was now a creature of the land and road, staying at least one state away from the ocean at all times. There were old books and photographs keeping her company in the truck’s passenger seat, not welding gear and breathing tanks from a long-lost career of salvage.
Maybe she still had some of the C4, but she kept that to herself.
She never, ever went anywhere near anything abandoned or derelict.
The strangest thing, though... that had to be the realization that she hadn’t been alone in seeing the world as a stranger, uglier place before the sky turned black and every light in every city had been snuffed out. She found them after, like diamonds sifted to the surface of the newborn wasteland.
The young man pointing a .45 in Maureen’s direction looked like he wasn’t quite comfortable with holding it just yet, and that served to reassure her that she was dealing with a fellow human being. Evidence of those who hadn’t passed that litmus test were splayed all around Maureen’s truck with varying holes blown into their chests and shark-toothed skulls. What had once been a roadside turnoff for truckers to dump their garbage and grab a handful of sleep looked more like a slaughterhouse.
It had been a long two days, and she was down to the last loaded shotgun (and the harpoon gun strapped to her thigh). Frankly, Maureen wanted to get back to siphoning gas out of the abandoned semitrailers and coax her truck back to life. Her shoulders were numb from the shotgun’s kick, and her eyes felt like deserts. She still had the crawl of phantom locusts itching all over her skin, too.
That didn’t mean that she was about to let her guard down. Scared human beings could still pull triggers on their own.
It was the sound of a squalling baby that made the both of them lower their guns. A woman slowly leaned up from the passenger seat of the dusty station wagon, her arms full of squirming infant. She shared a look with the young man, and Maureen felt herself relax.
“My name’s Jeep,” the man offered, his voice shy and drawling. “‘n this is Charlie. You look like you need some help.”
When they picked up a petite hitchhiker with a revolver in her belt and a tattoo of stars in her hand (not a hook), Maureen caught an odd look crossing Jeep’s face. The new woman wasn’t much older than being called a girl, but Maureen saw a steely resolve in her eyes, one that Maureen herself saw every now and then in the rear view mirror. This one knew something, too. This one had seen the weird and the dangerous already.
With three women in the vehicle, Jeryline made a joke about ‘Charlie’s Angels’ once, but only once. The look on Charlie and Jeep’s faces permanently erased any levity from the a-word.
No one asked about Jeryline’s habit of checking every door and window when they bedded down for the night in a roadside motel that was miraculously clear of dead bodies. By now, it seemed normal.
No one ever asked how Victoria had just happened to own so many guns before the apocalypse. No one asked, because no one was complaining.
Eagle’s Nest was a fortress - the best defensible area in the city with steel siding painted white, bullet-proof windows, and a cellar that smacked of cold war instead of cold room. When Charlie asked why Victoria hadn’t shot them on sight, the woman’s smile had changed slightly, and become less immortal, though no less dangerous. “A few years ago,” she’d answered, “I would have. You can thank those to blame, if they return.”
Comrades on a supply run, she explained, to friends with caches in Florida and Louisiana. Even her supply of bullets wasn’t bottomless, and if Victoria taught them anything, it was how to plan ahead. The radio setup in her basement reminded Maureen of the Arctic Warrior - old, hardy, and held together with skill and sure hands. It worked well enough to find more survivors, and guide them in to safety.
Neither Abby nor Penelope could have survived alone in this new and deadly world, not on their own. Maureen was certain of that, even with the military and FBI ID cards that they wore around their necks like dog tags (Abby did wear real tags, but they weren’t in her name). The miracle, though, was not that they’d found each other, but that they’d managed to get all the way to Eagle’s Nest without so much as a scratch on the antique hearse that Abby patted fondly and called her ‘baby’.
No scratches, but Maureen never, ever wanted to know what was stuck in the treads of the tires and the cross-hatches of the headlights. Rotting corpses couldn’t possibly smell that bad.
Then again, it turned out that Abby called everything made of steel, silicon, and plastic her ‘baby’, or some other pet name. She’d named her brass knuckles ‘The Director’. She named the generators after heavy metal bands and cartoon characters, complete with red heart stickers every time she fiddled one back to life. Between Abby’s personification of every one of Victoria’s weapons and Penelope’s sweet nicknames for everyone living, Maureen wondered if this was what sisters might feel like.
Abby hovered around little Michael like she was afraid he’d break, and Penelope became a doting aunt full of soft, soothing songs.
Maureen saw Charlie soften a bit, and smile more.
Sarah, Maureen decided, seemed far, far too much at home with all of this. Five years ago, Sarah would have scared the crap out of Maureen.
Last week, though, Sarah saved Maureen’s ass during gasoline run for Victoria’s many generators. Sharpteeth could be snake-quiet when they had a mind to, and instead of giving Maureen snorting, grumbling vehicle she could listen for over the sound of her hand pump, they pushed an abandoned Volvo up to a decent pace and rammed her pickup through muscle power alone. Fortunately, nothing explodes quite like it does in the movies, and Maureen dove, ducked, and came up out of her roll with nothing more than a nastily bruised knee, no gun in reach, and a sleeve and pantleg soaked with gasoline.
Five sharpteeth stared her down, grinning.
Sarah emerged from the gas station’s old convenience store with a bigger gun than what Maureen thought could be lifted, and shot four of the bastards in chest and head while Maureen beat the fifth into a smear with her hand pump.
“You were going to steal my goddamn gas, weren’t you?”
“Maybe I was.” Sarah glanced Maureen over, methodical as a robot with the gun still held to bear, but her eyes seemed to linger on the heart pendant that hung from Maureen’s neck - too small and delicate to have come from this place. “That’s more gas than your truck needs.”
“Maybe it is.”
At first glance, Maureen would have sworn that Sarah and Victoria had to be related in some way. The pathological connection to anything with a trigger or a detonator switch was a strong suggestion of similar upbringing, but there was a fierceness, a wildness in Sarah’s eyes that would never tame into Victoria’s icy calm. The way that Sarah took to Charlie’s little boy might have been a hint.
Maureen saw Sarah smile just once when she held little Michael, as natural as breathing in the bend of her elbow, rocking slightly. She smiled, eyes brimming, and then vanished alone for an hour into the bathroom. Every woman in the house exchanged glances of sympathy, but left Sarah her space and never said a word.
Maureen wasn’t even going to start on how Alice gave her the fucking willies. That was the only word for it - willies. Fucking willies.
She didn’t notice how different it was to be surrounded by women until about six months into the new world. Perhaps her personal radar was off, or the persisting scent of gunmetal and soldering irons, or perhaps it was the lack of contrast. Perhaps it was the fact that Maureen didn’t particularly give a shit, so long as they all stayed alive, the lights stayed on, and the monsters stayed outside the perimeter.
Perhaps it was the fact that Eagle’s Nest had four bathrooms.
Maureen slipped out onto the porch with a pair of cold beers in hand to watch the sunset creep down in a rainbow of colour that might have been far too pretty to be fair, if not for all the red. Red was appropriate now. Something was burning far to the west.
Idaho, if the radio was to be believed.
Jeep sat in the woven wicker chair, a bible in one tattooed hand and the baby in the other. Little Michael solemnly sucked at the pacifier that Penelope had somehow materialized out of nowhere. Jeep smiled at Maureen, still polite and shy as when they’d first met. He called every one of the women in the house ‘ma’am’ or ‘miss’, and Maureen knew for a fact that it drove every damn one of them a little nuts.
Despite the amount of firearms in the house, though, Jeep persisted, and survived.
Maureen offered a beer over. “You know, any guy I’ve ever known would give a pretty major body part to be in your spot right now.”
Jeep glanced over his shoulder. Charlie had banished Sarah and Alice from the kitchen (again) to stick to cleaning guns instead of dishes. Victoria was heading upstairs with the 50-cal for evening watch, relieving Jeryline. Whatever Abby and Penelope were working on in the basement, it had a soundtrack that thrummed faintly at the windowpanes.
“‘s funny how things work out,” he admitted, and glanced up at the darkening sky with a wry smile instead of fear.