Bruce and Arthur sat, legs dangling over the edge of the roof. A beer stood between them; it was old (like everything else) and had a strange fermentation that was not completely unpleasant. They had been sharing it for the better part of an hour, and the bottle was half empty.
Smog clouded the night sky above them, bearing down on their temporary home. The air was strangely silent. For once, undead groans and stray gunfire weren’t oppressing them from all sides.
Arthur’s voice pierced the quiet.
“We need more food,” he grumbled low in his throat, then took another swig from the bottle.
Bruce turned his head just slightly, raising an eyebrow. “We always need more food. Your point?”
Arthur didn’t speak for a moment, instead opting to stare across the cityscape. Typically, small cities were a nightmare; absolutely infested with zombies and, even worse, survivors who had lost their morals long ago. They’d been uncharacteristically lucky, however, and had managed to find a mostly empty building to hole up in for the night. Some supernatural force must have been looking out for them, as they’d also scored three tins of canned pineapple. Dinner had been a riot.
Arthur was right though; they needed more.
“Barry’s getting really skinny, you know,” Arthur said under his breath, his voice rough as always yet tinged with concern.
“I know,” Bruce said softly. “Trust me, I know.” They’d both gone without food for the night, reasoning that the beer would hold them over. Diana and Clark had given them sad eyes, yet they didn’t protest as Barry and Victor began tearing open the cans with bitten fingernails.
They were all too thin; not enough food and copious amounts of walking made it impossible to maintain a pre-apocalypse physique. But Barry had always been small, and he seemed to only be getting smaller.
Arthur seemed to be lost in the same train of thought, as he snatched up and chugged the beer, before hurling the bottle far into the distance.
“This is fucking bullshit, all of it,” he spat out before stalking back down the hatch and into the building. For his part, Bruce couldn’t help but feel relieved that Arthur hadn’t been reduced to an emotionless shell of a man, as he quietly feared was happening to himself.
Victor sat with his back against the wall, watching diligently over the others. Dull sunlight dappled their slumbering forms, with each member enjoying one of the various sleeping comforts that they took turns sharing. Tonight, Diana had the sleeping bag with the broken zipper, bundled in the warmth; Clark had the pillow with the floral cover, turning his face away from the strange stains; Bruce and Arthur were sharing the large fleece blanket, although Arthur seemed to be hogging most of it. Victor himself had the checkered picnic blanket, which he’d only acquired halfway through the night when waking Barry up for his turn to take watch. Barry had given him the blanket along with a fist bump and a smile, before making his way to the roof with a rifle to keep a lookout.
Victor wished he’d let Barry keep the blanket; it was colder out in the open, and he couldn’t sleep anyway. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Barry to keep watch; the boy was undoubtedly capable and strong, yet he was young, younger than Victor himself, and worry had a knack for eating away at his insides. And this time he knew that it was definitely worry and not hunger, as he’d had his fair share of pineapple the previous night, even though it was kind of gross and he’d never really been a fan of canned foods. But no one can afford to be a picky eater in the apocalypse.
Clark rolled over, unknowingly pressing his face directly into one of the pillow’s yellow splotches. Victor smothered a smile, even though no one could see, and decided to put himself to good use. He stood, slinging the blanket over his shoulder and quietly making his way towards the stairs. Maybe he and Barry could watch the remainder of the sunrise together, even though it seemed quite overcast.
He was halfway up the stairs when Barry crashed into him, almost sending them both tumbling back down.
“Dude, what the-” Victor began, but stopped when he saw the grin lighting up Barry’s face. Fuck the sunrise, this was much brighter.
“Victor, man, hey, good to see you. Did you sleep well? How is everyone else? Why aren’t you still sleeping, anyway? Did something happen? Did some-”
He was interrupted by Victor throwing the blanket over his head with a laugh. “Barry, calm down. Everyone’s fine, nothing happened. In fact, I was just coming up to check on you.” Victor entertained the thought that Barry might still be high on the adrenaline of finding three whole cans of untouched food, yet the truth was more likely that he, too, was infected with the constant worry and anxiety that death was right around the corner, which wasn’t too unrealistic, all things considered.
Barry slid the blanket off, his hair ruffled and his grin firmly back in place. “Well, I was just coming down to wake everyone up.”
Victor frowned. “Now? It’s still kind of early, don’t you think?” Arthur had this knack of waking up at precisely the right time; they always joked that he was in tune with nature, and that he had been some kind of hippy in a previous life. Or maybe even in this life, as he’d once admitted to having had dreadlocks in his twenties, which had caused Barry to choke on his water and Clark to frown in thoughtful imagination as the rest of them had laughed. That had been a good night.
Just as Victor was starting to wonder if the previous night’s beer could have fucked with Arthur’s internal body clock, Barry spoke up. “Actually, yeah, it is early. But I think they’ll forgive me. And you, ‘cause you’re gonna help me wake them up, right?”
“Why on earth would I do that?” Victor asked, even as he was turning to walk back down the stairs, Barry by his side.
“Because,” Barry said, his eyes gleaming and voice bright. “It’s going to rain.”
A few minutes (and more than a few curse words) later, the whole team found themselves on the street, staring up at the sky. The sky which was definitely not showering them with rain.
“Are you sure, Barry?” Clark asked. He was holding the bottle of dish soap which they’d been saving for months, waiting for a time like this. “I know it’s slightly overcast, but that could just be the smog.”
Barry’s smile didn’t falter, however. “Trust me, it’s gonna be pouring .”
The sky did not back him up, but Arthur did. “The kid’s right,” he said, once again displaying his freaky hippy nature powers. Clark squinted at him, probably trying to picture him with dreadlocks. He opened his mouth, undoubtedly about to portray his skeptical leader slash dad persona, but was interrupted by a raindrop falling on his head.
“Huh, well would you look at that,” he said, and then talk ceased altogether as sheets of rain descended upon them.
Barry whooped. “I told you!” And then he peeled off his shirt and began to run his fingers through his hair. The others were quick to follow, and most clothing was discarded in the name of their painstakingly rare group shower.
Diana let her hair down and turned her face upwards, water running in streams all along her body. Bruce was scrubbing at his beard, while Arthur was shucking off his boxers, having no shame. Their skeletal frames were hidden by the downfall, and it gave them all an opportunity to forget.
Clark popped open the dish soap and began distributing it by the handful, and they all basked in the suds and bubbles. They’d smell like lemon myrtle and mandarin for days. Life would be good.
Barry and Victor dashed down the street, feet slapping in puddles, laughing like children. Clark would force them to lather up when they came by, but for now he let them be.
There was peace to be found in the rain, a happiness that could be heard in the laughter of friends, somewhere in the depths of a city.
A farmhouse with creaky floorboards and lace curtains was much more welcoming than a penthouse, in Diana’s opinion. The city was long behind them, yet another nameless collection of long nights and longer days to live in their memories. Personally, Diana liked the constant change of scenery. She’d always been a bit nomadic, and in times like these, rule number one was don’t get attached.
She liked to think that she abided by that rule when it concerned places and strangers fleeting in the night, but when it came to her team, it was safe to say that they had all stolen her heart.
Speaking of the others, they were all dispersed throughout the two-storey house, claiming beds and couches and raiding cabinets. Diana herself felt a bit overwhelmed by the almost ravenous searching, and found her feet leading her out to the front porch, where Clark was brooding.
To be fair, she didn’t actually know if he was brooding or not. But he was leaning against the railing and staring forlornly out into the decaying cornfield, and she considered herself a pretty good judge of body language. Besides, Clark hadn’t said a word since they’d stumbled upon the house just ten minutes earlier, instead brushing his fingers along the corn husks as he’d walked by. Diana was almost certain it had to do with his past; his life pre-apocalypse.
They’d had a team bonding night once, some time last year, after they’d found an unraided liquor store and had all gotten inadvisably tipsy. None of them had gotten drunk (they needed to constantly be alert) although Barry had been close; many jokes had been made about the youth being unable to handle their alcohol.
It had been with whiskey on his breath that Barry had begun to tell them about his childhood; his mother, his father, the various foster homes. They’d all come to an unspoken agreement to each share a bit of their own past, standing in nostalgic and melancholy solidarity with one another.
While her memory of the night was slightly foggy, Diana remembered Clark speaking reverently about a woman with long bright hair, a quiet farm house, picnics in the cornfield.
With that thought in mind, she quickly stepped back into the house before Clark could notice her, and dug through the bags that they’d all dumped in the living room. Tugging out the supplies she needed, she returned to the porch, where Clark was still staring into the sunset.
She walked up to stand beside him, sending him a smile as he glanced her way.
“All the beds have been claimed. I think we’re both sleeping on the floor tonight,” she said, resulting in a soft laugh from Clark but not much else. He turned away, the smile already beginning to fade, and she resolved to put her plan into motion.
“I know this must be hard,” she murmured, and felt him tense. “The memories, the thought of all that we have lost, of all that could have been. And I understand. I think we all do.”
“... I know,” Clark finally replied.
Diana sighed, then forced a smile. “That being said, not all memories are bad. So, would you like to have a picnic?”
She held up the picnic blanket and a cranberry energy bar that she’d been saving for a special occasion. Clark smiled and frowned at the same time due to the incredulity of her suggestion, but found himself nodding and following as she led the way down the front porch steps.
A minute later and they found themselves sitting cross legged in the afternoon sunlight, the corn at their sides as they halved the energy bar. A muffled crash could be heard from the house, followed by a peal of laughter and a disbelieving shout. Maybe this was what home sounded like.
Diana chewed thoughtfully on a stale cranberry, brushing hair away from her eyes. A breeze whistled through the husks, ruffling the collar of Clark’s shirt as he once again stared into the sun. Diana found herself slightly concerned about his eyesight, and resolved herself to claiming his attention.
“What was her name?” That ought to do it. Clark started, turning to look at her before quickly looking away. He had always been quieter than the rest of them, so Diana was expecting the ensuing silence.
Clark took another bite of his half of the bar, in what was a painfully obvious excuse not to talk. Diana waited patiently.
A minute later, he spoke.
“Lois.” His voice cracked on the word, and he cleared his throat before continuing. “Lois Lane. She was… she was a reporter.”
As the sun slipped below the horizon, Clark revealed unprecedented detail about the love of his life. Her smile, her laugh, her way of speaking gently, her individuality, her strength.
“She was stronger than me,” he choked out through a laugh, the field swaying beyond. “Stronger in so many ways.”
He spoke until the moon was hanging above them, and his voice only faltered when a telltale groan sounded in the distance. He stopped suddenly, as though he hadn’t been aware that he was talking at all, and fixed Diana with a look.
His lips moved without speaking for a moment, before he asked “were there drugs in that energy bar?”
Diana laughed aloud, covering her mouth with one hand. “No,” she assured with a smile. “No, you were just comfortable. And happy, I hope.”
Clark returned her smile, standing and offering her a hand up. He picked up the blanket and they began the short walk back to the house, which was now alight thanks to electricity reserves and candles. There was laughter within, a welcome sound in the gloom of the apocalypse. With the distant undead at their backs, and the overwhelming life in front of them, it was as if they were in between two worlds.
“You are strong, Clark,” Diana found herself saying as they stepped up to the porch. “Stronger than you think.”
He smiled sadly, murmuring “that’s something she would have said,” and they walked inside together.
The farmhouse was their home for a few more days. That time was filled with sunny mornings, pickled onions for breakfast, scavenging in the cornfield, impromptu wrestling matches, watching the sunset, and cicadas buzzing in the heat. It must have been summer, or close to it.
They’d been rotating through the beds and couches. There were enough that only one person had to sleep on the floor each night, and that person was always given the sleeping bag and the pillow. Talk about luxury.
There were enough dusty cans and protein bars to last them at least two more days, but then they’d be forced to make a supply run. Considering the fact that the nearest town was a few miles away, Bruce thought that when they left, they probably wouldn’t come back. No one mentioned it, though. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
There was something about the house that seemed to make the air lighter, a little easier to breathe. Maybe it was the fact that they were so isolated, and were able to see any danger coming from all directions. Maybe it was the fact that they had actual beds to sleep in. Or maybe summer was the reason, their group seemed to brighten up around this time each year.
Bruce knew that none of them really wanted to leave, and that’s why he found himself on the front porch one afternoon, staring out into the cornfield. The husks slouched ominously in the slowly fading light, yet Bruce couldn’t help but picture them standing tall, vibrant and green. An unlimited food supply; their own slice of paradise.
It wasn’t long before Diana joined him, and there was an amused glint in her eye as she took in his position, as if there was some joke that Bruce didn’t get. He didn’t mention it, however, only giving her a welcoming smile as she leaned against the railing next to him. Her hair was down, and she smelled very faintly of lemon myrtle and mandarin.
“The others are making a blanket fort,” she said, and Bruce coughed out a laugh at the mental image that her words caused. He felt warmth in his bones, though, as he remembered a time when they’d used to make blanket forts almost every night. That had been a long, long time ago, back when they were all a little healthier and less worn out. Maybe this house was making them all a little bit younger, and that only served to increase Bruce’s determination to stay.
“I was thinking,” he said, knowing he had Diana’s full attention. “You know how I’ve been saving those pumpkin seeds? Well, we could plant them, here in the field. I don’t know how much water they need, or what the best conditions are, or if this soil is any good. I really don’t know much about farming, but sunshowers are a thing, at least.” He tried not to be unnerved by the hopefulness in his own voice.
Diana hummed thoughtfully. “I think Clark knows a thing or two about farming,” she said, and once again Bruce felt like he wasn’t in on the joke. She didn’t shoot him down though, and that made him a little more optimistic.
“It’s a good idea,” she continued, her voice low yet clear over the cicadas. “We would have a constant supply of food. We could exercise out in the field. We could even fix that hole in the roof.”
Bruce nodded in contemplation, images of the potential future dancing in front of his eyes. They’d all gain a little weight, get more sleep, smile a little more.
“We’d get sick of pumpkin pretty quickly,” he found himself saying, and Diana laughed, the sound swiftly fading along with the afternoon light.
“We’d be happy though,” she said softly. Behind them, the house was alight with noise, and for the first time in a long time, Bruce let himself have hope.
They should have known better.
The world was a cruel place, with even crueler people, and hope was a dangerous thing.
Arthur sat on the roof, alone this time, staring out into the distance. His shotgun rested by his side, and for now it remained unused. His eyes were trained on a lone zombie in the distance, shuffling across the moonlit horizon, too far away for him to even bother shooting at. Besides, he wouldn’t want to wake up the others.
It was Barry’s turn to sleep on the floor tonight, but Arthur would bet his last bullet that the kid had crawled into someone else’s bed once the lights were out. If Arthur had tried that, he’d probably have been kicked in the nuts, but no one would harm a hair on Barry’s head. Especially now that he seemed more tired every day, despite the fact that everyone was sneaking extra food into his bag when he wasn’t looking. It was never enough, nothing ever was, and Arthur could feel himself growing weaker.
His heart had lifted, however, when Diana and Bruce had crawled into their candlelit blanket fort with a little bag of pumpkin seeds. Arthur remembered Bruce snagging them from a trash can months ago, but hadn’t seen them since.
It was with anxious voices that Diana and Bruce explained the potential of a farm, and Clark had eagerly jumped in to spread his strangely copious harvesting knowledge. And they call me the hippy, Arthur thought with a sigh.
There had been a general hesitance about the idea, a fear of hopes raising too high and getting crushed. But there’d also been an overall acceptance and agreement to at least try.
The plan was to start early tomorrow morning, and Arthur found a strange excitement creeping into his bones, an emotion which he hadn’t experienced for far too long. Any ghost of a smile disappeared quickly, however, when he heard the sound of tyres squealing nearby.
Arthur’s heart rate immediately accelerated when he saw a pickup truck zooming towards the house. He honestly would have preffered to see a cluster of zombies; the undead were a lot easier to deal with than the living. He grabbed his gun and fired off a warning shot at the vehicle; it was better to assume they were hostile right from the start than wait and see once they got closer. His bullet ricocheted off the hood, but the car didn’t falter, still heading straight for them.
Arthur rushed to drop down through the hatch in the roof, and was immediately met by the sight of Clark and Bruce scrambling out of their respective beds and checking their guns.
“I heard a shot and a car. What happened?” Clark was quick to ask.
“Humans,” Arthur answered, already making for the stairs to check on the others. “They’re coming our way, and fast.”
“Fuck,” Bruce swore, just as Arthur descended downstairs to find Diana and Victor checking that guns were loaded and bags were packed. Barry was in the kitchen, shoving any uneaten food into a bag. They must have been woken by the noise, and Arthur couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride at their quick response.
Diana caught his eye. “Humans?” she asked, even though she probably already knew. Arthur only nodded before helping Barry with the food. He was quick to sling a number of bags over his shoulders, not caring if they were his or not. They mostly shared everything, and there was no time to be picky. The others scrambled to do the same, just as Bruce and Clark came downstairs.
Before anyone could speak, there was a loud crash from the front of the house as the pickup presumably crashed straight into the porch. They heard car doors opening and people yelling, and it didn’t take long for them all to come to a mutual decision.
“Run,” Bruce said, and they all turned to sprint out the backdoor. There was no sense in trying to fight, they were most likely outnumbered, and no one wanted to risk an injury, especially when they were so low on medical supplies.
They burst out into the night just as they heard the sound of the front door being slammed open. Hoping beyond all hope that the intruders would be more interested in the house than it’s temporary occupants (or lack thereof), they didn’t stop running, heading straight across the field and toward a sizeable cluster of trees at the far end.
In what was a rare bout of decent luck, no one followed them, and they encountered no zombies along the way. They slowed down when past the treeline, breathless and, at least on Arthur’s part, thoroughly pissed off.
He wanted to yell and curse at the treetops, but when he took in Barry and Victor’s frightened expressions, haunted by the moon, he bit his tongue. That didn’t stop him from kicking a tree stump and spitting in anger, as he tried to ignore the sheer disappointment gnawing away at his heart. It was even worse knowing that the others felt the same, if their melancholy silence and slumped shoulders were anything to go by.
A few moments later, Barry let out a heartbroken sigh, his feet trudging through the dirt. Diana, who was next to him, linked their arms, and they leaned against each other. They were all hungry, and tired, so very tired.
Arthur cursed himself for ever believing that something good could have finally happened, that they could have found a permanent home. He knew better. Nothing was permanent in the apocalypse.
Barry studied the flowers in front of him. They weren’t particularly vibrant; the colours were mostly pale pinks and dusty reds, but they were significant. He hadn’t seen this many flowers since last year, and he knew that there were more to come.
As he sat by the side of an empty road, staring intently at the bloom, he could hear the sounds of life from the gas station behind him. Victor was attempting to hotwire an abandoned car in the parking lot while Bruce siphoned gas into tanks. The others were inside the convenience store, scavenging for supplies.
Barry himself began to raid his backpack, digging around for something he was sure would lift their spirits. The whole group had been desolate since they’d lost the house last year, and it seemed that, with every passing day, they were only getting worse. Barry had been holding out for spring, specifically the second week of the season. Since he’d seen flowers starting to sprout a week earlier, he was hopeful that the time was right.
At the bottom of his bag he found the crumpled packet of pumpkin seeds, which he immediately pushed aside and resolved to never think about again. They’d come to an unspoken agreement to never mention pumpkin or corn until they found a new place to settle down, although the chance of that happening was dishearteningly small.
Barry was grateful when he finally found what he was looking for; a slightly dented box of Betty Crocker gluten-free strawberry cake mix. He tore open the box and inhaled the sickly sweet smell of the powder, which he had been saving for precisely this moment.
He pulled out his water canteen and some plastic cups, beginning to assemble six bootleg birthday ‘cakes,’ which he’d become quite the expert at making. It was something he did every year, a tradition which he couldn’t bear to let go of. None of the others really kept track of their birthdays; Clark and Victor knew theirs were somewhere during summer, and Arthur would usually say something like “I feel old” out of nowhere and they would know that it was around that time. But other than Barry, none of them saw the reason (or had the energy) to really keep up with and celebrate things like that. Barry had always been a bit sentimental, though.
He was covered by Bruce’s shadow as the man came over to get his own water bottle. Barry smiled up at him brightly.
“Bruce, get everyone out here. We need to celebrate,” he instructed, and he swore he could see the ghost of a smile on Bruce’s face before he nodded and left.
A few minutes later and the whole group found themselves on the side of the road, each with their own cup of mushy strawberry batter.
“I didn’t even notice it was the second week of spring,” Victor said as he stuck his finger into his cup, scooping out a dollop of the mix. “Happy birthday, dude.” He offered a fist bump, which Barry accepted with a wink.
A chorus of happy birthday’s rang throughout the group, as everyone dug in and chased a sugar rush. With the flowers and his friends (his family ), Barry sat with his sticky fingers in the sun, and smiled.