By the time Michelle reached Houston, she had forgotten the sound of her own voice. It had been a journey fraught with fear and danger - on more than one occasion she had buried herself deep down under the car seats and held her breath and heard her heart. Being unable to make a noise, being unable to sob or scream, had been an advantage then.
“State your name and where you came from,” the soldier at the first barricade told her crisply, pen and paper at the ready. Michelle’s voice came out as a bubbly croak: she was afraid that any words she did manage to form would be Howard’s and not hers. The soldier rolled her eyes, and pointed her to the nearby medical tent. Michelle did not go there. Other people needed it much more.
As she walked through the streets, not meeting the eyes of anyone, a woman grabbed her. “My husband!” she shouted. “Have you seen my husband? The monsters got him! The monsters-” But she didn’t get much further, as Michelle grabbed her by the shoulders and slammed her against the wall. The woman fled screaming, and Michelle felt guilty, but also immensely relieved that she had not grabbed by the woman by the neck instead.
No-one seemed to have noticed the altercation, and Michelle slipped quietly into one of the thousands of tents scattered down the street and slept. When she awoke there was a man next to her - not touching her, but next to her - and she screamed.
“Christ!” the man yelled, getting up and running away. “Jeez, what is your damage, girl?”
Michelle would have loved to tell him.
In the morning she prepared herself to do what she had come to Houston to do. Swagger into the turmoil with the arrogance of a bulletproof superhero, and announce I’ve come to help you fight aliens! But she didn’t do that. She told herself she needed to prepare, even as she picked at the skin around her still-weeping wounds.
She found her way to the Texas Medical Center, eventually. Half of it appeared to be missing, but it was still open, in some sense. People both inside and outside were lying on beds with their flesh peeling off, missing arms or legs or eyes, screaming at anyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Other people were running from bed to bed, from sheet to sheet, trying to find their lost loved ones.
Michelle wanted to look for her brother, she wanted to very badly, but she knew he wouldn’t be there. He was long dead.
A woman with her bones showing clawed at Michelle’s arm as she went past. “Water,” she choked out. “Please. Girl. Water.”
Michelle knew there was nothing she could do to prevent the woman’s death, she seemed to be halfway out of the world already, but she did try. She nodded at the woman and ran outside, hoping against hope that there would be an unlooted vending machine sitting in a corridor somewhere, or a water cooler, or anything. There was nothing. She hurried back to the woman’s bed, stepping over people lying on the floor, and saw that she had already died. Her face was grey, and when Michelle checked her pulse she found none.
Michelle pulled her out of the bed - she weighed almost nothing - and carried her to the side of the room. She used the side of another corpse’s sheet to cover her face, and stood up. It wasn’t much, it was almost nothing, but it was something.
She hoped the bodies would be taken out and buried soon. It hurt her heart just to look at them, and of course they were starting to rot. She thought of Emmett, who had of course never gotten a proper burial, even though he was technically still under the ground.
When she turned around the woman’s bed had already been taken by someone else, and screams were still filling the air.
Heavy weaponry - tanks, airplanes, machines Michelle had never even seen - made their way down the streets of Houston at night. Every so often, an explosion could be heard. It made it very hard to sleep.
Michelle had found a large tent, nine other women inside it, that she had been allowed to sleep in for the night. There seemed to be no enforced rules as to sleeping arrangements, none whatsoever, but she had gotten lucky. “No men?” one of the tent women had asked as she had approached. She didn’t seem to speak much English. “You, no men?”
Michelle had nodded. She had been let in.
The night was long. Lots of time to think. Michelle's hand found a small discarded twig, and her hand curved around it as if it was a pencil.
Michelle's love of designing clothes didn't end at dresses and skirts and biohazard suits. Back in her previous life she had sometimes designed superhero costumes, not for anyone in particular, just for fun. Ben had seen them and admired them, told her she should go into comic books maybe. There was good money in it, if a girl could get that far, art was more of a man's domain.
Michelle did not miss him.
She fantasized about the costumes she could make once the world was put right again. One for herself, something armoured and coloured bright yellow like sunflowers, knives and guns easily reachable at the hip. Monster killer girl! Monster killer woman. She would have made something for Emmett too, something light and breezy like him, but of course he was gone now.
She owed it to poor, brave, dead Emmett to do something in Houston, save people, fight aliens, but her head and her heart and her hands felt so heavy.
In the morning Michelle was offered an apple and a can of Coke by the woman sleeping next to her. Michelle was soul-achingly grateful, but she could show it only by gingerly touching the woman’s hand.
On exiting the tent, Michelle stepped over a pile of guns. The woman who had spoken to her before was sitting on a rug and cleaning one, and on seeing Michelle she picked a small handgun from a bag and thrust it towards her. It took her a few moments to realise that the woman was offering it to her, not threatening her with it.
Michelle managed to croak out a word that might have been ‘no’, even though she had no idea why, and then she walked away. She ate the apple she had been given, right down to the core, and spat the pips out onto the ground.
It didn’t take long for her to find a hub of activity that was probably a military base, or some sort of checkpoint at least. But there were barricades around it and long, long queues of people. They could be asking for food or information or anything, Michelle didn’t know. So she simply got in line.
A little way ahead of her in the queue there was a man holding a little girl by the wrist. Michelle watched them, saw the tightness of the man’s grip, saw the expression on the girl’s face. She left her place in the line: no-one seemed to particularly notice.
The queue of people moved forward and the man pulled the girl, a very hard and angry pull. The little girl fell over, crying, and almost pulled the man down with her. Michelle saw it all.
The man swore at the child and raised his hand for a slap across her face, but he never got to do it. Michelle caught his arm and bent it back, bent it back far enough for him to let out a satisfying scream of pain, and then she let him crumple to the floor.
“You leave her the fuck alone, you sack of shit!” she screamed. “You leave her the fuck alone!”