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Yekaterina is not what she used to be. She used to be sweet and she used to cry easily and she was getting ready to leave for college with the little money she had left and riding on a full scholarship she got from playing her cello. Yekaterina loved her little brother and her sister and she was prepared to love them forever. She cared for them all the way up to the day she left for college, for real life.

But then it happened. The fire, the one that melted streets and buildings, that rendered the sky forever dark and burning, that killed billions. Within weeks, the world’s population of seven billion dawdled to a few hundred thousand, taking Ivan’s life as well.

Yekaterina isn’t really sure when it started. Probably when the day all the satellite was cut off--no radio, no cellphone, no television. No way for the government or anybody to tell them what to do. How to survive. How to keep together in times like these.

Then everything just shut down. The stores, all closed. Gas stations didn’t open their doors, the banks were locked from the inside. People rampaged in the streets, trying to get food and water, and that’s when They made their presence known.

They infiltrated the minds of the vulnerable, impersonated humans, tricked you. That was how Natalia died. She showed weakness. She took pity on a Latvian boy lying in the street sick, coughing, and brought them into their house. She fed him. She clothed him. She gave him a bed to sleep in.

And then Natalia was slaughtered in her sleep.

Really, there was no choice, but that was her first kill. Yekaterina’s, I mean. She’d seen plenty of death the weeks before. Men, women, and children. A man, walking down the street, met an old, begging woman. In a flash the man stabbed her right through the head and said that he wasn’t taking chances. Yekaterina had walked over bodies of dead children, purposely avoiding that one street she knew Ivan’s body was lying, charred and burnt to a crisp, but still somewhat recognizable because the frayed, blackened pink pieces of fabric wrapped around it.

So when she heard the soft pitter patter of feet down the hall, the first thing she did was grab the handgun lying by her bedside table. She didn’t plan on ever using it. But maybe it would be a scavenger, and they would be scared off with the weapon. So when Yekaterina opened her door to see Raivis, standing in the hallway splattered with blood, as if he were wearing a crimson body suit, Yekaterina froze, and the boy’s blue eyes looked up into hers.

She hesitated for a moment, but within seconds, her hand was raised, and her finger was pulling the trigger.

The jolt from the gun was painful, watching his body fall limply to the ground not an easy sight on the eyes, the stench of unwashed clothing and blood reaching her nostrils unbearable.

Yekaterina had ran from the house that morning, not even going to look at Natalia’s corpse. Not even bothering to clean up Raivis. She packed a few clothes, some food, and then she left the house. She walked down the sidewalk, she side-stepped the long-dead neighbor, and she avoided the starving dog still chained to his leash in the yard. Yekaterina didn’t want to approach him.

He could be sickly.

Everything seemed to happen in stages. First, the satellite shut down, then the stores, then the electricity and gas, then the fire happened, and then the disease hit and spread. People were inside their houses, lying in their beds with fevers and the curtains drawn closed, coughing wetly into tissues with running noses and angry red spots all over their body.

And then, the peak of it all--the arrival of Them.

You couldn’t really call it an arrival.

They just sort of...Appeared. And even now, nobody still knew what they really were. Maybe mind-controlling microscopic robots, maybe invisible beings with the power to posses. But one day there were children killing men and women throwing their babies out windows and it seemed like half of the remaining population was being controlled by Them, whoever they may be. There were still some people like that, fake people, and you never knew who was who.

The first few weeks, Yekaterina felt sympathy. She camped in the woods for three days and began scavenging before coming across a tent. Inside, was a dead young woman with soft, curled brown hair and half-lidded, dull green eyes. She didn’t look like she had been killed. No laceration marks, no stab wounds, no bullet holes. Maybe she had died of disease. Or died of some other natural cause. Yekaterina didn’t know. But she had bent down, and began stripping the woman of her clothes and possessions.

Yekaterina didn’t like doing it. These were still people and they had lived and breathed at one point but there were no more stores, no more order to anything, and you had to do what you had to do to get by. Still, Yekaterina wondered if there was a story behind the frayed fabric of the sweater in her hands, wondered if the woman had went through great lengths to obtain it or received it as a Christmas gift, if she had made it herself or picked it off another dead body. Yekaterina had stuffed it inside her backpack and ran away.

When she put on the sweater three days later, she again wondered if there was any sort of story to this sweater, this possession of that dead woman’s. The sweater barely fit over her breasts, but it would have to do for now. The fabric was frayed and thin and had seen better days, but Yekaterina knew it had a history.

Like everything else.

The second person Yekaterina had killed, had been an accident. It was the eighth day of starvation, of not venturing into the town where more of Them might be lurking. So Yekaterina decided to try hunting.

Of course, she would be better off with a hunting rifle and not the handgun, but she would have to make do.

Stalking through the woods, clumsily tripping over tree branches, listening for the rustling of leaves was what she spent the next four hours doing. Getting whipped by branches and walking straight into a spider’s web.

It was not a fun experience.

But then, she saw a flurry of movement, a flash of brown, and she thought it was a deer, and she knew deer were fast. She wasn’t going to let a source of food run away. So she quickly raised the gun and shot.

The jolt went up her arm, shook her cranium, made her elbow shoot back and hit the trunk of a tree, but it was all drowned out by the painful scream of a man.

Yekaterina didn’t go see if he was okay. She didn’t go after him. She turned and ran. And ran.

And when she got back to her tent, she saw someone had recently gone through all her possessions and took her last bottle of water and her boots, and then Yekaterina cried.

Because she was going to die, of starvation or thirst or disease or someone else killing her, and she couldn’t stop that.

And then Yekaterina got her pack, her remaining possessions, and walked.

It took an hour, but she did walk past the man she had shot. He was dead, staring into the sky with glassy eyes and a crimson stain on his shirt. His jacket was brown. He did not have any of her stuff. He did not raid her camp.

Which meant someone else was in the area, and Yekaterina had to move. Now.

Weeks passed, and Yekaterina witnessed more death. It was the time period in which some people still clinged to little strings of hope that civilization might be restored one day, a time period in which people still traveled in groups and shared rations and sung hopeful songs. But those days soon dwindled to some of the members dying of disease or killing themselves or someone killing someone else, and the groups fought and either killed each other or ran off. Yekaterina witnessed it from afar, nestled safely in some child’s treehouse. There had been the body of a seven year old within. Yekaterina had gently dragged it out, placed it neatly behind the bushes, and ignored the awful smell for a full twelve days.

Her hair grew longer, her stomach smaller, her arms and legs bigger with muscle from walking all day, lifting heavy things (mostly bodies) and her clothes were either burnt, frayed, torn, ripped, or blood spattered. She even wore clothing she wouldn’t normally wear-she had worn an oversized men’s suit jacket for a month before losing it in another camp raid, and she wore a skimpy dress for a few days before deciding it was uncomfortable and inconvenient to travel in.

By the time the six month mark rolled around, Yekaterina hardly remembered her old self. She hardly remembered naive, big-breasted, crybaby Yekaterina from September, preparing for school with a smile. She was now familiarized with the Yekaterina that killed more people than she count on her ten fingers, the Yekaterina that had recently just kicked the fresh, dead corpse of a little girl away so she could reach a can of peas on a top shelf. The child still had warmth on her flesh when Yekaterina checked her pockets for anything useful and found a matchbox.

The day she met the two of them, was the day everything just seemed to go wrong.

She found them, huddled under a self-made wall of broken shelves from a grocery store. A man of maybe twenty three, with overgrown silver hair that covered his eyes and ears and brushed his shoulders, huddling close to him, another man, maybe nineteen, with blond hair, and a limp, muscular frame.  And finally, a young man of probably twenty or twenty one, with long enough auburn hair to tie back in the smallest of ponytails, sad amber eyes and a frayed green jacket.

The blond one was dead. It was blatantly obvious when Yekaterina shoved aside the shelves to make her presence known, and saw the albino and auburnet look up at her with fear, chests heaving. The blond remained still. He had been dead for at least a week, judging by the smell.

She didn’t know what to do. Foolishly, she had left her gun at her camp (seeing as it was out of ammo) and these people could be prepared to kill her. But when they only sat there, helplessly dull eyes staring right into her own, Yekaterina knew they must be human. And if not, and they killed her, well, she deserved that for making that mistake.

“Who’re you?” Yekaterina was the first to speak of the three.  The albino was the one who answered her.

“I’m Gilbert. That is Feliciano.”

Yekaterina eyed the dead man in Gilbert’s arms. His eyes were closed. There seemed to be no marks on his body.

Perhaps he died of disease.

The silence was long and drawn out, nobody saying anything, until Feliciano nudged Gilbert, and he looked up, violet-red eyes looking at her through strands of dulled hair that’s lost it’s shine months ago.

“Please,” He said. His voice was hoarse, like he had shouted many times and was on the verge of losing it. His hands were scarred. The tank top and pants he was wearing were too big. He looked like a healthy man that had lost a lot of weight in a very short amount of time.

“Please, what?” Yekaterina asked. The old Yekaterina would flinch at her monotone voice, but it was a rule here, trying to survive. Don’t show emotion.

Don’t show weakness.

“Please, don’t kill us,” Gilbert said, and then Feliciano started crying silently.

They were human. They were crying and they were hugging a dead body and they looked tired, and, they had to be human.

Yekaterina had left them, and when she returned, she was a little surprised they were still there. She had given them a half-eaten can of beans.

Gilbert had scooped up a tiny amount on two fingers before handing the can to Feliciano, sticking his fingers in his mouth before turning and coughing it back up. Feliciano himself scooped it up with fingers clawed, shoving it in his mouth hungrily, the juice running down his chin.

Yekaterina let them sleep in her camp, which was just an old, run-down log cabin a mile off the highway that’s roof was collapsed and had had a rat infestation before she cleared it out.

She didn’t sleep that night-she waited for them to come kill her. She had watched Gilbert drag the man’s body out of the ‘den’ they had made, before carrying him, the man’s knees hooked on one arm and his neck supported by the other. She had let them lie the man down next to them on the frayed blankets she had given them to lie on. She had watched Feliciano slowly fall asleep, but Gilbert lie awake.

For three days, they lived without really acknowledging each other’s existence. Yekaterina went out again to scavenge food, returning only with two cans of chicken soup she had picked out of the wreckage of a car. They were still there, and Gilbert was still holding his body, and Feliciano was silently staring at the sky. When Yekaterina returned, she put the cans on her own blanket and made it clear she wasn’t sharing. Feliciano disappeared for three hours. Yekaterina did not question him, did not look for him, but when he returned with a mostly-empty container of peanut butter, she relaxed slightly. At least she knew he wasn’t getting a group of bigger people to attack her.

It became a pattern for a few days, and by the third evening, when Gilbert had yet to move from his spot on the floor, holding him close, Yekaterina asked,

“Are you sick?”

It took Gilbert a while to respond.

“‘M not sick,” He answered, “‘M not alive. ‘M almost dead. I am dead.”

At least he wasn’t spreading any sort of disease to her.

“What’s his name?”

“He’s Luddy,” Gilbert answered, looking up Yekaterina. His face looked hollow and his eyes, dead. It looked like a few of his molar teeth were missing. “He’s always gon’ be Luddy to me.”

Lover, brother, other, she didn’t care.

Feliciano did.

He silently draped the blanket over Gilbert that evening before he went to bed, Gilbert still unmoving.

He was dead the next morning.

Starvation, disease, heart attack, could’ve been anything. Feliciano cried. Yekaterina packed up, leaving Gilbert where he slumped over Luddy’s body, as he might have wanted in the afterlife. Together even in death, or whatever.

She left the cabin. It was an invite, a message to Feliciano. You can stay or you can go. I don’t care.

Feliciano followed Yekaterina, and was not a bother, but was not a help. She made camp, and the only thing she provided for him was a blanket. He still sought out his own food, found a gun (that kept Yekaterina awake for days, waiting for him to use it on her) and tended his own wounds when he tripped and rolled down a hill.

It was somewhat comforting, having Feliciano there, even if he didn’t talk. Human comfort, just the presence of him, seemed to bring a little bit of Yekaterina’s humanity back, because one evening, Feliciano’s back to her, curled up in a ball on one of those nights when he hadn’t managed to find any food, Yekaterina had rolled a full can of green beans to him. A whole can. It might’ve been considered gold nowadays. The tears in the man’s eyes were evident when he opened the can and practically tipped the contents down his throat.

The first time Yekaterina spoke to him was two weeks after Gilbert’s death.

“Are you sick?”

Shake of the head.

“Do you feel sick?”

Shake of the head.

“Are you sad?”

A pause.

A shake of the head.

Yekaterina had shared a half-rotten apple with him that evening.

The next time they came into human contact, was an Asian man, lying on the streets.

They had been scavenging together for the third time (Yekaterina decided it was better to have Feliciano with her in case, if she left him back at camp, he decided to steal her goods and run off with them) when they stumbled upon him. Thinking of him as a corpse at first, Yekaterina had stepped right on his hand, only to hear a muffled gasp.

Looking down, they saw a man with long hair that might have once been brown-it looked dirty and deadened. He had no shirt, and the deep cuts on his stomach were clearly visible. Someone had tried to kill him.

Or it might have been one of Them in disguise.

“Please,” He had said. He had looked up at the both of them, eyes flickering between the two of them.

BANG.

Yekaterina put a bullet through his head. Feliciano didn’t cry.

It was the slightest of improvements.

Feliciano found the next human life. He had returned to camp with a girl with short, jagged brown hair and bright green eyes, her hair having been cut crudely. Yekaterina’s was long enough for her to braid now, and not just have it in a ponytail.

“What’s your name?” Yekaterina asked.

“Elizabeta,” She answered.

“Who are you?”

“I’m nobody.”

“You were somebody.”

“Well, you’re asking who I am, not who I was.”

They stared at each other.

They didn’t like each other.

Elizabeta stayed with them for a week. And then she disappeared. And Feliciano didn’t cry. And Yekaterina decided it was time for them to move.

Feliciano contracted a disease as the month of February drew to a close. Could’ve been any disease, could’ve been the disease that killed millions. He coughed. He had a fever. Yekaterina let him have three blankets instead of two when she went to bed.

She didn’t need to look at him to know he was dead the next morning.

There were no signs of his deep breathing, no sounds of rustling. He could’ve been out scavenging, but the motionless lump lying across the room suggested otherwise.

Yekaterina did cry. But it was only a few tears shed. She kept two of the blankets, but rolled his body in one, and then she spent the whole day and well into the night digging Feliciano a grave.

Yekaterina did cry for real the next morning as she sat down in exhaustion. He had been good company. Human companionship. It was something she desired now.

But it was impossible.

Soon, Yekaterina reached somewhere in France. She’d travelled through several countries in a year in what could have been a two-day trip by car.

In France, she found them. An establishment of people. Real people. Seventy of them, at least, on three streets of a neighborhood. Where they moved back and forth, greeting each other like old friends. Yekaterina didn’t trust them. She kept afar, not making her presence known. She watched them.

They seemed okay. They grew plants and worked together and had normal fun, children playing frisbee with a small dog and men kicking a ball back and forth, the women sitting down and watching. The only fights that broke out were small skirmishes over normal things, like who got to use the warm water first or who ate the last can of sardines.

Though she didn’t exactly trust them, Yekaterina deemed them safe.

It took her two weeks to meet all the people. And one of the last people she saw, made her heart stop.

He had the same facial features. Similarly styled hair. The same flyaway curl. The same height, the same weight, and for a moment, she thought it was him.

And Yekaterina had raced across the street to actually look at him, and realize it wasn’t him. He had too dark hair, and green eyes, and olive skin. He had a rougher look. And he talked.

“You’re the new one?” He asked. His accent was Italian. Yekaterina nodded.

“Did you ever run into anybody?”

Yekaterina nodded.

The man looked desperate.

“I have a brother. He has red-brown hair, brown eyes. A curl. My height, looks like me. Did you ever see anyone that looked like him?”

Yekaterina turned and ran, and she cried. She cried like old crybaby Yekaterina would cry, and then she cried some more, because she had just met Feliciano’s brother, who looked too much like Feliciano, and she couldn’t even tell him.

The months stretched on into nearly a year. Yekaterina got to know the people there. She let a little, tiny bit of her old self back into her new life. She helped farm on the only usable land they had. Slowly, their population grew from seventy eight to ninety four with the arrivals of new people and the birth of children. Maybe humanity could prosper again.

She got to know him. Lovino. Lovino and the one he kept closest, Antonio, whom was happy despite having only one eye, his other eye scarred with a crude, cartoon-ish eye drawn over it. It looked both silly and terrifying at the same time. And she got to know Emil, a small boy there that clutched the hand of an older boy named Lukas, who soon died of disease shortly after Yekaterina got to know him. She got to know all of the children there.

And, one day, Elizabeta came in.

She was petting one of the four dogs they had in total, one that didn’t really belong to anybody, when she came. Her hair was a little bit longer, there was a cut down her face, and she had a new companion, a teen girl with long blonde hair in a braid and a tattered ribbon.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Elizabeta was the first one to speak.

“As to you,” Yekaterina responded, scratching the dog’s ears. He gave a low whine.

“Where’s Feliciano?”

Yekaterina didn’t answer. Elizabeta didn’t say anything more about it.

“Come on, Lili,” She said, and together, they left the establishment, to go god knows where. Hopefully, to hell.

It’s the the beginning of the third year since the world ended, and Yekaterina still hasn’t told him. He’s packing his bags. He’s going to look for Feliciano.

“I’m going,” He told Antonio, “You can stay or come with me. I need to find him. I’ll fucking travel all the way to Asia if I have to.”

Antonio went too. They stood, against the morning sky, and Yekaterina wanted to tell them. Tell them Feliciano was rotting six feet underground. Because he died. Of sickness. And it wasn’t her fault. And she was sorry.

But as they walked away, to a useless goal and an inevitable death, Yekaterina could only wave.