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Pillar of Salt

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All it took was a wave of the dead - swaying arms and snapping jaws, bloated, peeling, decaying - and dashing, screaming chaos. Suddenly they were all gone. Nick, Travis, Ofelia… Mom. Just street upon empty street, screams and gunshots echoing in the distance. Alicia couldn’t have drawn how she got here on a map. Her sides ached, each gasping breath a battle that she was almost too tired to fight.

She slumped against a wall, sliding down to sit on her heels tucked between bags of trash and filth next to a peeling dumpster. When the wind blew just right she caught the heavy, wet smell of fresh rot. Alicia ran a shaky hand through her hair, subconsciously pulling her headphone cord between her lips and worrying it between her teeth. She couldn’t help but think of Matt, picturing his face among the growling, howling hoards.

A heavy, wet wheeze echoed down the narrow alley, making her heart stutter in her chest. Alicia slid her eyes in the direction of the sound with the slightest turn of her head, and saw a massive frame filling the far end of the alley. It - somehow her brain refused to acknowledge the shambling creature as he -  tottered on one swollen, trunklike leg, the other rubbery on a shattered knee. There was a clear dark bite mark on it's cheek, tearing the jaw open to reveal yellowing molars. Only one cloudy eye remained, fixed and staring into whatever abyss lay beyond this transformation.

Alicia was not weak of heart. She managed to survive the constant comparisons to her brother, the weight of not being the family screwup and the relentless pursuit of perfection. Even so ancient instinct howled in her chest, a wordless horror.

The broken sob was enough to make it lumber forward, and Alicia scrambled backwards, yelping when her hand came into sharp contact with a piece of broken bottle. Copper filled the air and the zombie gurgled, shuffling forward faster than before, just as Alicia's back shoved against chain link fence.

The zombie toppled without a sound, a heavy crossbow shaft buried in the back of the skull.

Alicia looked up just in time to see another girl prop a crossbow on her shoulder, flashing a thin smirk more to herself than Alicia. "That was pathetic."

Her eyes were striking. Brilliant blue and steady as the sky, as if in this moment she ruled this alley and Alicia herself without pity or reservation. A leather jacket a size too large draped across deceptively narrow shoulders, tattered, bloody jeans and a worn-soft grey t-shirt - utterly unremarkable. The pistol at her hip and the knife handle peeking from her boot were distinctly not.

She offered a hand and Alicia took it, stumbling to her feet and wobbling on weak knees. She could still feel cold breath on her skin, putrid and strange and not at all human. She shuddered, bile rising in her throat. Matt. Had he known, somehow, what would happen?  She couldn't believe he had - and she had left him alone to die, to become one of these things .

“Pull yourself together.” The girl said quietly, thumping Alicia’s back as if her dry, retching sobs could be fixed like a broken tv. “You’re okay. Shh, they’ll -”

She broke off at the rattle of rapid, close gunfire. Inhuman roars rose all around them, echoing against the concrete walls.

“Shit!” The blonde hissed, then ripped open the dumpster lid, clambering inside and barely waiting for Alicia to follow her growled prompting before she let it fall shut. The dumpster was full enough that they were forced to hunch close, legs tangled together, almost nose-to-nose in the dimness. Outside many feet shuffled past, groans close enough that she could pick out different voices. She didn’t want to imagine how many there were.

Instead she focused on the other girl, and realized those blue eyes were still trained on her face. They caught the scarce light like mirrors, searingly bright in the half-light.

Underneath the stink of the trash was the lingering odor of too many missed showers, but the warm exhale against her cheeks was sharp and minty.

“Who are y -?” A rough palm clapped over her mouth, cutting her shrill question short.

“Hush… Elyza. Elyza Lex. You can talk, just... quietly." She removed her hand,  eyes darting upward at a loud thump against the side of the dumpster. When nothing happened, she returned her attention to Alicia. "What's yours?"

"Huh?" Alicia tore her eyes from the other girl's cracked lips, suddenly feeling the fatigue pulling at her limbs once more. Days and weeks on edge had worn on her more than she thought, and the adrenaline washing from her system just emphasized the worn-through feeling.

"Your name." Elyza asked gently, expression softening a fraction.  

Alicia's lips twisted in a sudden flash of irritation. She had never liked feeling pitied - part of the reason she worked so hard not to be pitiable. "Alicia."

Elyza grinned as if she had won something, settling back on a bag of trash and setting a short knife within easy reach.

"For the zombies." She elaborated quietly, before continuing. "So what are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be back at the safe zone, where the soldiers can protect you?"

Zombies. It was one thing to think it privately, another to hear it said out loud. For all the "aim for the head!" jokes she'd heard the soldiers making, not one of them had actually uttered the word. It was always "infected" as if it were a flu or the chicken pox on steroids. "How do you know about that?"

Clarke's brows raised. "Well it's hard not to notice the tanks patrolling everywhere."

"...I'll give you that." She leaned back herself, trying not to think about what might be soaking into her jeans. "How long do you think it'll take for them to clear out?"

Elyza shrugged. "Hard to say. With all that gunfire they should keep moving, so there may be a few stragglers. No big."

"So you have no idea?" 

"Well I didn't want to say "hours" but..."

"Great."

She slumped with a quiet groan, flinching at the sound echoed loudly outside their metal sanctuary. The others would be long gone - or worse - before she got out of her in time.

"Do you have somewhere better to be?"

“Maybe I do,” she muttered, gripping her knees until she could feel her nails biting through the heavy denim.

“You do?”

Alicia had never heard a more skeptical question in her life. Her clenched jaw seemed to be enough of an answer to make Elyza’s eyes glint with curiosity.

“Yeah? And where would that be?”

“What about you? I don’t see you volunteering any information.”

Elyza sat back with an appreciative look that made Alicia flush. She half wanted to close the distance, just to see that expression up close. It felt like a vicious betrayal, even if she’d known for months that -

“I’m trying to get back to my… family.” Elyza rolled the word on her tongue like a child rolling a marble between her fingers, with a sort of simple pleasure. “They’re waiting at our meeting point, if your soldiers didn’t get them.”

“They aren’t my soldiers.” Alicia thought of her brother stolen in the night. Even if he’d left them again and again and again, somehow she always knew he would return. She didn’t know that now.

A body slammed against the side of the dumpster, cutting off her outburst.

“Seriously, hush.” There was no venom to the statement, as if Elyza weren’t concerned about the sound of nails against the lid, scrabbling for a few long minutes before the infected lost interest. “So… who are you looking for? Did you have family inside the fence?”

Mom, Nick, Travis, Ofelia. It was like a punch in the gut thinking of them running around out there.

Alicia thought of that silent, tense house inside the fence. “I - my boyfriend. He got sick. They didn’t tell me what it meant.”

Even in the dimness she could make out the other girl’s features, and found  she had to look away. The girl looked rough around the edges, but earnest compassion burned in her eyes like a brand. It stung to look at while her heart broke again behind her ribs. She should be worried - it should be more than this stunned emptiness. Mom, Nick, Travis, Ofelia.

“He told me to go.” She bit her lip, fighting the stinging in her eyes.

“Damn, girl.” That breathed, sympathetic curse was the only warning she got before Elyza gripped her shoulders, tugging Alicia gently against her chest and tucking her chin on top of her head.

There was that broken-TV back thumping again. The embrace wasn’t constrictive, but it still unsettled her… it took months to let Matt hold her like this. It was hard to let go of being the stable one, the strong shoulder.

Elyza’s breath stirred her hair. “He must’ve been a brave guy.”

“He was.”

They were quiet for a long while, the only sounds their quiet breathing, the groans of the dead and the sporadic gunfire. After a while it fell silent and didn’t start up again.

“I got seperated from my family when this all started,” Alicia said finally, unable to swallow the words any longer, “I don’t know where they are.”

“That shit sucks,” Elyza muttered, “I know the feeling.”


 

A callused hand gripped Alicia’s shoulder, gently shaking her out of a doze. It took her a moment to recognize what was different - the utter silence, deep enough to make her skin crawl. She’d never heard the city so quiet in all her life. She didn’t remember falling asleep.

“They’re gone.” Elyza whispered again.

Alicia sat up slowly, fighting the urge to scoot further away and banish the drowsy warmth between them.

“Thank god, my legs are getting stiff.” Before she could think better of it she lifted the lid a fraction, peering out into the pale early morning light. “...I think it’s clear.”

“You’re sure? Then let’s go.” Elyza pushed the lid open and hopped out, driving her dagger through a straggler’s eye without missing a beat. It dropped like a bag of pudding hitting cement. Bile flooded Alicia’s throat at the assult of too-sweet rot - there was an arm lying in the middle of the alley. An arm with a delicate hand, long nails bright with blue glitter polish.

She took a deep breath, turning to Elyza and lifting her chin with a challenge. “Come on.”

It was easier than she expected.

The streets were full of still bodies - former infected and the living both - bloated and grey. Some were fresh… she didn’t look at those. A few still walked, but Elyza finished them off with easy, fluid movements, as if she were born to this. She handed Alicia a bat grabbed from one of the corpses, and didn’t wait to see if she followed.

She also missed a narrow gap between two buildings, scarcely large enough to hold a human being. Oh dear god but it was large enough to hold a human being. A very small one.  The little thing had dark, dark eyes glazed with a grey film, a tattered pink sun dress hanging off of narrow shoulders. There were no words for the soul deep disgust - the need to wipe this inhuman thing from the girl’s remains. She never wanted to find the words.

Alicia moved. She remembered, in some distant corner of her brain, her dad teaching her how to swing a bat. The stance the swing, the follow-through. This was just like that - and wasn’t like that at all. The one similarity was the solid crack , the small zombie toppling to the ground mere inches short of Elyza.

Mercifully, the child… it did not move again.

Alicia felt bile flood her mouth, eyes darting over the twisted, crumbling form. She felt a firm grip on her shoulder and an even firmer voice. “ Not now. Later.”

And then she was tugged into motion again, the brief outbursts of zombies enough to keep her mind off of the feeling of bones breaking under the bat, and the way her muscles burned. Before she knew it they were in front of an apartment complex with bars on the windows and a gate at the only entrance, broken glass embedded in tall concrete walls.

She half expected Elyza to scale the gate, but instead she only produced a key to open the heavy padlock. Only when the gate was locked behind them once more did she visibly relax. She looked so much younger without that hard alertness in her eyes, even coated up to her elbows in gore.

Alicia looked down at the bat. She expected her hands to be shaking but they weren’t. The storm had passed while she wasn’t watching. Somehow she knew that it would come again… but until then she had time. That’s all anyone needed now: time.

“Hey Granny!” Alicia called, none-too quietly, “Grandma!”

“I’m still young enough to whip your ass, girl!” A grey head popped out of an open apartment door, brandishing a clenched fist with far more energy than Alicia expected in anyone you could call a granny. A biker granny, maybe, with a leather jacket and faded jeans.

‘Granny’ took the steps two at a time. Spry too. With slim features and skin wizened to leather. Sturdy arms wrapped around Elyza, pulling her into a tight hug. “Don’t run out on us like that again girl, or I’ll skin you.”

“Is that any way to talk to our girl, Janice?” The other voice belonged to a woman of a similar age, though she was far taller and broader of shoulder, something the kitten sweater didn’t begin to hide. She was the silver-haired, cookies-and-milk grandma to Janice’s biker vibe.

“Welcome back, dear.” She swept down the stairs to plant a kiss on Elyza’s forehead, chuckling when the blonde flushed and rubbed away a lipstick print with a grumble. Her eyes crinkled behind cat-eye glasses. “Jan was about to go looking if you took much longer.”

“I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Of course not dear, but no one ever got anywhere by being reckless.” She  laughed openly at her own words, as if it were a private joke.

Elyza met that with a flat stare, taking ahold of Alicia’s wrist and tugging her past them and up the stairs.

“She can’t stay here, kiddo.”

Elyza pulled up short and rounded on Jan, giving Alicia a chance to tug her hand free. “What do you mean she can’t stay?”

“None of us can, girl,” she said, gently laying a hand on Elyza’s forearm, and Melinda’s jaw set at the words, the taller woman agreeing with a stiff nod, “it’s not safe here anymore. Mel and me have been packing up all day. We just need to get your stuff into the truck and we’re all ready to go.”

Alicia felt a sinking in her gut. “What does that mean for me?”

The three of them turned to face her as one, surprised almost as if she had just appeared. At least that much hadn’t changed during the end of the world. She was still invisible.

Elyza’s blue eyes hardened, her jaw setting with stubbornness. For the first time Alicia could see the resemblance between the blonde and her odd caretakers. “I’m gonna help her get back.”

Alicia blinked with shock. Elyza stood with her feet planted shoulder-width apart and her arms crossed over her chest in defiance. At the blonde’s back Alicia saw Melinda’s lips pinch together, eyes wet behind her big glasses.

“I know you are, dear.” She held up a hand before Janice could speak, circling around to stand in front of Elyza. For the first time Alicia noticed the leather pouch clasped tight in her grip. She flicked it open with practiced ease and pulled out a circle of metal and bronze with reverent hands.

Elyza raised a brow. “A frisbee?”

Janice snorted into her hands, the faint laughter making her shoulders shake even harder when Melinda’s expression scrunched with irritation. Even now the laughter felt weirdly right, as if it weren't an insult to the horrors just outside the gate, but an armor that they were helping each other wear.  


“It’s called a chakram, and it’s… special to me. I’d like you to take it with you.”

“A frisbee.”

“A chakram!” Melinda straightened to her full height, pulling an irritated face. “She gets this from you, Janice.”

“Someone has to keep you from getting all uptight, princess.”

“...I’m going to ignore that, you pint-sized amazon.” Mel threw over her shoulder before she smiled at them both and pressed the weapon into Elyza’s hands, “Just take it, dear. As a keepsake. For me?”

Her hand closed around it, and maybe it was a trick of the light, but Alicia was sure she was a spark flash between metal and flesh. Elyza shuffled in place, rolling her shoulders inside her too-big jacket.

“Just until I get back.”

“We’ll meet again, girl, one way or another.” Janice punched Elyza’s shoulder playfully, her smile only a little forced.

Melinda didn’t even attempt pretense, instead pulling Elyza and Alicia both into a tight hug. “Good luck.”

Even in the safety of that surprisingly broad-shouldered embrace Alicia had a horrible feeling that they would need it.