Boots, worn from wear and tear of uneven cement and broken glass, slide on the wet concrete. The soles are slick and muddy from the morning rain. Add that two Bishops are hunting him and he’s left with a situation bound to a train headed right off a cliff.
The warm sun recedes on his back, but the heat stays plastered to his face. Once in a great while it drips off the tip of his nose. It doesn’t help that the wooden table feels to be melting above him, making his space even more cramped. He doesn’t dare to peek past the white and red checkered table cloth. To calm his panic, he count the seconds his deep breaths last for. In and out, his chest rising and falling. His heart still beats on his ribs like a hammer. They ache for a pause. His eyelids as well would like to close and let his mind drift into a deep slumber. It occurs to him that with the amount of adrenaline coursing through his veins, sleep will not happen tonight back with his group. Even if he makes it back any time soon.
As he mentally prepares himself for a last free breath, he really wishes he had a paper to scribble goodbyes for friends. He can’t think of what he would say. Supposedly he was supposed to equip his mind with the last goodbyes the moment this began. They are consisted of the people he cares for, the ones that kept him sane in the darkest of times. They repeatedly told him, “You are going to survive.” They all became a cloth, woven by the strings of hope and strength with patches of stubbornness and anger. It is the only way they are alive. Him and his friends can’t think this world is full of rainbows and unicorns anymore.
His ears prick at the sound of crunching glass. Instinctively, he draws his limbs in closer to his body. The less space he uses, the less chance they’ll find him. His heart leaps into his throat and creates a fort of blankets and chairs. He knows they are here, in the same room as him, but his head wants to trick him and make him flee. That is a death he does not want to see in his near future. The boots frighteningly scrap across the dusty floor. He reaches back for his handgun, tucked away in his waistband. His other weapon, sadly, is outside, seeing he dropped it climbing in here after hearing the ship’s engines whirling and cutting out as the Bishop's ship landed across the street. His first thought was to find cover and not to run in the opposite direction. He curses himself for such an impulsive act. Light is almost gone and his group always thinks once darkness hits and someone isn’t accounted for, there’s no use in looking for them. Night is a death trap and the stars are the warning signs. He’s ten minutes away from seeing the warning signs.
A large presence kneels on the other side of the cloth. His chest tightens and his heart, oh god his heart, is on the brink of crumbling to dust. Head pounds from the lack of air he refuses admission to his lungs. Fingers skim on the table cloth. Sweat beads on his neck. The plastic film crinkles when the hand curls around it. His own hands shake. He press his lips to the back of his hand to prevent himself from crying. His joints lock up, unable to handle the constant shaking. The hand slowly pulls back the cloth. They know he’s here. They are prolonging it, probably holding a wicked grin to their face. The last chance of life is the bullet inside the silver encasement. One shot, right between the eyes, no matter how many Bishops there are around; this is the one endangering him. He intends to save whatever life he has left
A sharp cry interrupts his suffering and the cloth is released. Every muscle he was tensing up releases, exploding at the sudden movement his mind took. He balances on one hand and he almost screams out to the heavens for the second chance at life. The Bishop runs out when more horrified shrills crack the sky, heavy boots practically shaking the whole building. It’s these kinds of sounds he got used to in War and isn’t as terrifying as it was back then. It’s like the bird’s chirping. It’s not even as scary as seeing the stars when you’re not home. He waits a few seconds, just for the screams to quiet down. They don’t, but they move through the building. His blood curdles to see another Human fall victim to the Bishop's wrath, but… better them than himself. Sadly. He immediately shoves the gun in his backpack and crawls out from under the table. Standing too quickly, the cramps take their toll and he crashes against the window sill, choking on a scream at the jagged glass slicing into his forearm. Blood slowly leaks from the slice. It’s not deep, he observes, but it’s enough to drip down past his fingertips. He quickly rolls down his sleeve in hopes it will clot itself. He launches from the second floor and plunges into the alley below, ankles barely being able hold his weight, a shock of pins and needle piercing through every bone in his body. After a light rub, they disappear. To his left, his gun lies in a bush. Picking it up again makes his very knees wobble. It’s so scratched up and dirty, but it’s so beautiful to his eyes. This baby has been with him for about a year. They became friends when he found her in a pool of fresh blood on a run, left behind by someone who is probably dead at this moment. A bag was across the room with ammo to last a lifetime. If it was comfortable and safe, he would snuggle with her every night.
The screams and yells of curse words and threats twinge at his chest, but causes curiosity to itch at the back of his head. He has this very picturesque image of snapping necks because the screams he’s heard are so abrupt; though, his made up thoughts have never been sated. When there are large groups, he just sees the Bishops using electrified whips and corralling the people into ships, forcing them to pile on top of each other. He’s seen a lot of fear for the last two years, from losing a family member to being captured. It’s a different kind of fear once people know their life is over. There’s some acceptance, whether they want to or not. He decides he can’t keep kneeling on his knees every night to pray to something for help, even for himself. A bright horizon is nowhere in sight. And he can’t waste the energy anymore.
His boots crunch on the rocky alley. He presses to the steaming brick and looks around the corner. The ship lies in the grass. In the sky, it looks like a silver hot air balloon, but up close, the sharp angles of it are prominent. Three tinted, panel windows are in the front. The thing doesn’t have any weapons on the outside or some blood red symbol smeared across the sides. When one came from the west on a news broadcast, it was a reason why no one panicked. People were worried, nonetheless. A foreign object entered the camera’s view. More came in all directions, and he swears his mother almost broke his shoulder. The broadcast cut out when the reporter screamed.
Sobbing and praying blow out of the openings in the building. A man is thrown from the door, rolling on the cement and stopping when he crashes into a flipped car. Red paint splatters across his face and he spats some on the ground. Two Bishops follow, one with a crowbar and the other with a screaming, withering woman. She screams for them to stop, tears and snot staining her face. The Bishop has such a grip on her wrists that as his hands move to keep the solid grip, he sees red circles. He wants to pull away at this point, but his mind forces his feet to stay planted, seeing as he needs to learn all he can so he knows what to expect. The armed Bishop raises the weapon and paints on the man’s face, the crack rattling around his skull. The man goes down. The woman screams and cries and tries to kick away from the Bishop. His own fingers curl around his gun, but he holds back in case there are more around. The Bishop turns, a smile cracking his face in two. The woman cries harder and shakes her head desperately. He prays silently, wishes he could tell her the begging won’t help. The Bishop twirls the crowbar in his fingers and takes slow steps to the woman. He grasps it tightly and one quick swing of the arm, the crying dissipates.
Mourning for people Josh have no idea who they are has become a habit of his, and priding in it would mean absolute death. He has to force himself to give thanks for his survival, even if that means two dies in his place. Himself and his family and friends are the only people he cares about out here; everyone is just as insignificant as he is to them.
He realizes he has outdone his stay and the warning signs are almost out. It took him an hour to get here, combined running and walking. In the dark, his risk of twisting an ankle is large, but so is being found by Bishops. Weighing my options, he would take the injured ankle any day. He shoots down the alley and fill his lungs with as much air, for the long haul. He’s run the same route for the past year, but every time it feels longer, a heavy drag on his shoulders when the sun sets. He can’t imagine the numbers that are captured every day. It can’t be a lot anymore since the whole city is pretty much as desolate as a desert. After War, everyone seemed to be gone. The screams erupted at least seven, eight times a day, lasting an hour a time almost. It got slower, less every passing season.
It has become a skill to skip over the rubble and pieces of buckled roads. The trick is to analyze the area before he gets there and figure out where his hands and feet will go to get you over the obstacle. He swiftly traverses up a cement piece acting as a ramp and onto the hood of a truck. Adrenaline courses through him. He always feels some sort of accomplishment after every successful jump. It’s just another time he hasn’t smashed his teeth into a bumper or the ground. He leaps off and continue on, scanning the area and watching behind his back for Bishops and/or Bishop ships.
His mind switches over to the man and the woman whose sacrifice will go unnoticed. He may feel the guilt tomorrow when he wakes up. Wonderment of why his lungs breathe freely and theirs don’t may enter his thoughts. He’ll let it. It’ll sit and boil and cook until he decides that everything happens for the greater good of tomorrow. He’ll make an excuse to be able to withstand drinking coffee with the flaw. It happens every other time. This won’t make the pain different.
He rolls up on his usual turn which surprises him every single time. A large pit spreads out on the entire road and plunging forty feet. There’s quite a few scattered around the entire city. The combination of planes and bombs did the job considerably well. He takes the little sliver of sidewalk that’s stable and squeezes his way through, pressed up against the broken window frames. He can’t count how many times he’s gone this way, but every time his heart rate picks up in fear of plummeting down deep. What would be worse than dying on impact is breaking something and not being able to move. Just dying there… he shudder.
The stars are out, but along with those twinkling lights shine down from the sky, zipping over buildings, the soft whirring of engines stuffing the air. His blood freezes. It’s a sight barely seen from the windows of the Factory, so seeing them while he’s out and venerable makes his breath seem foreign. He spies eight ships, one dive bombing an area too far away to care about. He rubs his eyes before they have the chance to swell up and begin to run as fast as he can down the road, dodging debris. The lack of air prevents thoughts from entering his mind and it also helps guide the focus to survival instead of death.
With travel cut in half, adrenaline takes the best of him and seemingly shoves a twenty pound weight into his backpack. His shoulders, knees, and lungs are screaming out for a time of rest, but the dark is crawling up on all three of them and their tearful sobs won’t be the things that the Bishops hear when hands pin him on the dirty cement. He takes a hand to the sweat caked on his forehead and will his legs to keep moving.
Back behind burnt flower beds and trees that span out wildly and untamed, homebase sits quietly, surrounded in a wall of those spiky trees. The group calls it the Factory: a large building that stands tall with four floors inside, all floors cleaned out of any kind of supplies. It’s bare, plain. A little boring at times, but his mind is usually occupied with a lot more in his time there. If he could, he would paint the walls and hang up pictures and have fairy lights twinkling on the ceiling as if they were the stars themselves, but like it’s been shown, nice things don’t last in this world.
He ducks under branches that hang lowly, either broken off or dead, trunks fallen and ripped up to show their wilted roots. Leaves aren’t heard to be crunking under his feet, but instead, ash coating the toes of the cleaned boots. Rain came, and that’s when everything gets washed here. Better to just let nature take care of them once in a while. The ash clings to the rubber tightly, smearing when I brush my fingers on it. Charcoal. After wiping his fingers off on a nearby tree, he continues down an invisible path to the Factory. Wind shrieks through his hair and the night sky is a dark gray, reflective of the ash on the ground and his boots, and he knows it’s time to get inside.
At the back of the building, he pulls on a thin string and hears the faint bell it is attached to ring its dull tone. Even that can be boring. After that, the window to the third floor opens and a rusted latter that creaks and clatters loudly against the brick walls of the Factory tumbles down until its feet touch the ground. Brendon’s head pokes out, looks out, left, and right, and then waves Josh up. He climbs quickly, gracefully, his muscles taking over for the rest of him, like they have a mind of theirs, separate from his own being. Brendon lends a hand to him at the top, but he swats it away and tumbles down to the floor, panting, gulping air into his chest. Fire licks at his legs, screaming at him like he has killed them oh so badly.
“Are you okay?” asks Mark.
He nods, the action almost making him more breathless. “Jus’... gimme a minute.”
“Were you running from anything?” Brendon asks, almost demanding.
“No,” Josh answers. He shuts my eyes, letting them fall. He hears Brendon scoff under his breath, and it tugs at the back of his brain.
He pops an eye open at Mark’s voice, his hand stretched out , opening palmed. He takes it and his pudgy body is able to anchor him up on shaky legs. Mark is just a touch taller than Josh, but well shouldered and armed, both physically and skillfully. “Thanks,” he mumbles, patting a hand to his chest. He grins.
“Glad to see you’re back. We were starting to get worried,” he explains.
Josh nods, shrugging his backpack off onto the rickety dining room table they managed to weasle in here a few months back. Jenna looks up from her book and Debby momentarily stops sewing a hole in a pair of Brendon’s jeans to also look at Josh. “Found stuff, though,” Josh says.
“Like?” Debby says, eyebrow quirked. Just like her.
“Batteries, cans of fruit, random band aids.” It spills out onto the table, Jenna guarding the edge with her palms. The fruit cans are heavy, untouched, but very dirty as someone tried to bury them under broken tiles of their living room floor. Pears. Not the best canned fruit, but better than stale saltines.
“Are you going out again tomorrow?” Jenna asks.
Brendon’s looming presence is around, and knowing him, he wouldn’t let Tyler, the damn fucking tyrant he is. God complex, Jenna says. But Josh says screw it and answers, “Yeah. Do you want to come with?”
Her eyes widen, like giant milk saucers for kittens. “Really?”
“Sure,” he says.
“Wow. I… I’d really like that.”
A bead of sweat rolls down his back as he tears off the tattered sweatshirt, the cloth displaying the words “ New York” across the chest area. He has always wondered what New York City would be like when he was a kid, but he has developed a pretty good sense of what that place could be like nowadays. Dead animals in Central Park, burnt up taxi cabs, torn down over priced apartment buildings. What a shame his youthful eyes couldn’t see that overgrown business cityscape before all of their lives were ruined. Jenna’s eyes have barely seen any of this landscape either. And he knows that, but Brendon and him designated themselves to be the scavengers, the least to lose.
“Cool,” he says. “Early morning, so get some rest.”
He takes the supplies to a nearby cooler, offset in the next room, and shove everything inside it. It’s a red and blue one with blood stained imbedded into the texture of the cover, ones they can’t truly get out, but it’s still intact all the way, rather than cracked like most they could find in the area. It’s only for food so it doesn’t sit out and attract any remaining animals that have managed to survive this long.
“I need to talk to you,” says Brendon, “upstairs.”
Josh pauses for a moment, almost as if time has frozen itself, but then twists his head so he can see him. “No, you don’t, Brendon. All you’re going to do is whine about Jenna going with me tomorrow.”
“Glad we’re on the same page, then.” He completes the comment with a roll of his eyes.
“Stop it. I’m taking her with.”
“No, you’re not.”
He sighs, slamming the cooler cover closed, which is just a dull thud. It’s not as satisfying as a door. “Can we stop being babies about this? She needs to see what it’s like outside, because if we have to run, I’m not going to deal with the shock that happens to her. She isn’t a scared child.”
His eyes are dark, almost black, under his shaggy hair, freckled skin warm in the candlelight. “I don’t want anything to happen to you two.”
“I know how to handle situations.”
“The Bishops are going to start their sweeps soon and if we keep going out we’re going to get caught.”
Sweeps mean summer is almost here. Means it’s been a long time that the Bishops have been around. Means more people are about to die. “I know. But we need as much food as we can find before the sweeps begin.”
“What I would like to do is get out of here,” he says, backing up a few steps.
“We all do.”
He sighs, crossing his arms, rubbing his chin on his shoulder. “Look for cars tomorrow,” he mumbles and walks away.
He watches him leave, how his feet drag in his shoes. For a man of luxury and pride, Brendon has shoulders that carry weight an old man would have. Regrets already at the ripe age of twenty three, maybe twenty four. He’s know his face since elementary school and he almost pities what hand he has been dealt. He does definitely pity the fact he got stuck with this group of people and not the people who love and care for him. As well, it hurts him on how much they do actually fight with each other, both very stubborn and level headed, both wanting to go in different directions with almost every single decision. He yells run, Josh whispers hide. No other person or group could live up to what opposites they are.
Jenna pops her head into the room, raping her knuckles on the door frame. “Ready for bed?” she asks.
Josh nods his head, taking her hand as she tugs him towards their bedroom.