THE WORLD had turned into a deafening silence of danger and uncertainty. And in the darkness where sadness and horror lingered.
The night fell. It was time for me to move.
The desolated pet shop had been my shelter for the past few days and the safest place so far as no one who would think of getting pets nowadays. A dog was probably a good idea, but the food was not easy to search in this world full of chaos.
After shoving my extra shirt and the only blanket into my backpack, I slipped my feet onto the old running shoes and ready to move out.
After a few steady breaths, I walked out, determined to find a new place where I could stay for a few days or longer. I had been running from places to places for two weeks now and I hadn't seen or met any living human being other than the littered dead bodies everywhere, burned or decomposed.
I couldn’t remember the last time I talked—probably the day I escaped, and I missed my own voice. Talking to myself would make me crazy and singing would make me cry and hungry, so, I just kept my mouth shut.
The cold breeze smelled death. A ghost of pain rippled through my body. It had been like this since the unknown deadly virus wiped out the country. My labored breathing and my steps against the asphalt echoed through the darkness.
I picked my way to the intersection, hoping to find an apothecary. The weak light from the silver moon was the only guide I had to follow.
I knew for a fact that it had been raided, but by any luck, I could find a stash of painkillers or any medicine I could trade with food when I met survivors.
Passing by rusting vehicles lined at the sides of the deserted road, the Bowl of Hygieia printed in the white wall came to view. I sighed in hope, but it quickly crumbled down when I noticed the open tail lights of the SUV parked in front.
Hustling, I ducked down and hid behind the car. After everything I had been through, it taught me many, and one thing was to trust no one other than my own instinct.
Silhouettes of a man and a woman hopped out from the SUV. The short curvy woman walked toward the trunk, pushed up the hood, and took something, then left it unlocked.
A click of gun and murmurs were the only thing I could hear. They marched to the apothecary door in somewhat in rush. Alerted, the man’s handgun was out and aimed at the glass door, and the woman cautiously tailed behind him.
A few minutes later, I slowly and carefully walked to the SUV, hoping to find something to fill my grumbling stomach. When I got into the trunk, it was empty, only a stinky blanket that smelled blood, and nothing else my eyes could find. It must be their first stop, and I could not find any food.
Hurried footsteps crouched against the broken glass made me stiffen. It was too late for me to run, and when they spotted me, I was dead.
My instinct kicked in. I got into the trunk and covered myself with the blanket, then someone shut the door down.
A moment later, the engine revved.
“This isn’t enough,” said an angry male voice. It was almost a roar.
“We don’t have time to search around, Frost. We need to go back right now.” A soft voice came from a woman.
“I know,” the man hissed, angrier.
“He’ll be okay. He’ll live.”
Someone’s life was in danger, I thought.
“Yeah, he needs to be.”
I was counting how long the drive was. A silence loomed from the two people for a few minutes.
If my feeling was right, the car turned left in less than ten minutes. The gravelly road against the tires indicated that we were off the highway.
“We can go and search the nearest pharmacy once he has this,” she suggested.
“No. You’ll stay. I’ll go with Colt. It’s more dangerous out there than that area.”
“I can take care of myself,” she answered defensively.
“Do you think I don’t know that? But Darick needs you, Heloisa.”
My temples pounded as the car jumped from the bumpy road a couple of times—the driver seemed to be in a hurry, and my stomach also ached. I closed my eyes when my headache worsened. I was beyond hungry and thirsty. And weak.
Minutes passed, and I must have lost count of the time. My plan was to escape before they would notice someone was in their vehicle.
Nowadays, people would not accept excuses. People killed each other when they found them they were threats.
For months, no one really knew if the government still existed. They killed to survive. They killed for food. They were paranoid, and trust didn’t come easily even to a girl like me that could barely harm a fly.
I was in my deep thoughts when the blanket was pulled away from me.
“I’ll take— oh, my God!”
Shock rocked me in my place.
My arms flew to my face, not to protect myself from harm, but to shield my eyes from the light pointed directly at me. My heart pounded. My lips went dry.
“Who are you?” the angry man asked in a cold and deadly tone.
“I-I’m... I-I’m unarmed.” I raised my hands to surrender.
I closed my eyes when silence surrounded us. I could only hear my breathing until several clicks echoed in my ears.
This is not good. This is the end. My end.
I forced the strength in my voice. “I’m just a survivor who wanted to live like you.”
“Yeah, I get it, and shit like this and that,” the same angry guy said.
“How did you get inside the car?” the soft voice asked—the same woman who talked earlier.
“You forgot to close the trunk, again, didn’t you? Now, I need to kill her because she already knows our place. How could you be so reckless, Heloisa?”
I quickly moved to sit down. My world spun, but I managed to support my body with my hands to avoid falling. Squinting, I blinked until my eyes adjusted to the light.
Another silhouette stepped forward, his shadow alone vibrated deadly and intimidating as his muscles shifted against the illuminating light from the post. His overwhelming size reminded me that he was taller, bigger, and stronger than me—than any of the two.
“You’re running out of time. Talk!” No hint of humanity in his deep voice.
His lack of emotions twisted anxiety in my empty stomach. I’d been in this situation many times, but one thing I was sure of before, I knew they would not kill me, at least not yet, but these people didn’t know me at all. So, this is the end.
My chin trembled.
“Who the fuck are you?” Something more terrifying about his command that I’d never been encountered before.
I swallowed. My mouth ran dry. My throat clogged, and I had barely strength left to answer him.
“Don’t!” the woman screamed that shocked me through my core.
In a split second, the darkness claimed me.
WHERE AM I? The smell of soap tickled my nose. I tried hard to tune in my other senses, but all I could hear was my own breathing. The comfy feeling against my head and my back made me want to fall asleep cocooned in this warm blanket.
I opened my eyes and wandered around the wooden-walled room. At least two bunk beds from my side and two from the opposite side. There were no windows, they must have blocked it for safety—just the kerosene lamp lighting up the entire room. Beds were empty. I could smell now the mud and the musty smell of cabins. This must be the campsite based on the bed style I was in.
The door swung open, revealing a woman—the same woman from the—Oh, my god!
I’m still alive.
“Of course, you are?” The sweet smile spread across the woman’s lips. If my memory served right, her name was Heloisa.
Did I actually say it out loud?
“You collapsed. You must be hungry. I brought something for you. This isn’t much, but it fills an empty stomach.”
The smell of mushrooms made my stomach grumble.
She chucked. “I know you are.”
When I was about to sit down, I realized there was something hooked to my hand. My heart rate accelerated.
“It’s alright.” She must have seen my reaction. I was terrified. “Our doctor checked you up when you passed out and while you were sleeping. He said it could be due to hunger and dehydration. Well, just like everyone, right? And you look so pale and fragile. How long have you been alone out there? Good thing you found us before something bad happen to you.” She continued talking while I stared in horror at the transparent tube attached to me.
“That’s just fluid.” She sat beside me in the bed. “I cleaned and changed you up into my clothes. Yours are already washed.” But something was missing.
Shock, I searched for my neck. “Where is my necklace?”
The woman looked shocked as well. Her brown eyes widened. “Oh, the necklace? Um, it’s with Gael.”
“Who’s Gael?” Hastily, I pulled out the IV and stood up, ignoring the pounding of my head, the grumbling of an empty stomach, and the spinning of my vision. “I need that necklace.”
“It’s safe. You can have it back once you've eaten something.”
I walked to the door, squeezing my eyes shut. I open my eyes after a couple of breaths. I was right, we were in the middle of the forest, and guarded by walls from old metal roofs, but not safe enough to stand still with strong blows of weapons.
There were three old cabins aligned across the cabin where I was standing, with the same structural designs and disparate from where I came from. A large fire pit in the center with charred pieces of wood caught my eyes, reminding me of the summer camp back in high school.
I shoved my feet onto the first shoes came to my sight aligned beside the door and walked down to the muddy ground.
“You’re still weak. You need some more rest.”
“I’m fine. I need to take my necklace back,” I insisted stubbornly.
“Okay, then. Follow me. This place is an old campsite in the middle of the forest. It’s way safer from the looters. By the way, I’m Heloisa. You can call me, Lois. Where you from?”
I ignored her rambling question and followed her crossing the muddy ground. “What happened last night?”
“You mean two nights ago?”
“What?” I stared at her in shock. “H-how long did—?”
“You slept for almost thirty hours. You must be so exhausted.”
She had no idea.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
We stopped at the wooden ladders with muddy footprints leading to the door. She knocked while I stared at her again in disbelief.
She then yanked the door open and said, “Gael, she’s awake and wanna talk to you. It’s urgent.”
“Has she eaten something?” The calm and concerned tone of a male voice came from the room.
Warily, I stepped inside. The room size was the same as where I slept in. Only there was no bed except for a desk and two chairs. Stacks of papers and a single pen atop of it. No guns and no decoration hanging on the wall, but there was a single open window from my right, probably for ventilation because I could smell cigarettes thickly hanging in the air.
He was a smoker. Gael was around my dad’s age. He had short graying hair and bright blue eyes. A medium built, and from where he was sitting, he was probably around five feet and eleven inches tall.
I took a deep shaky breath. “Sir, I need my necklace back.”
Gael strolled his gaze on me from head to toe. “That must be so important to you. A gift? Just Call me Gael.”
“Gael it is. That’s my mom’s.”
“You can go, Lois,” he dismissed her. “Have a seat—”
“Iris. My name is Iris Clayton.” Slowly, I took a seat at one of the two chairs across him.
“Were you separated from your family or group?”
“My group. We were attacked two weeks ago by dangerous and armed men while we were heading North. My group leader thought we could change the route and search for some supply on our way. We got separated from each other after the attack.”
I doubted if Gael was convinced with my story, but he was listening.
“It happened so fast. It was all blurry, and all I could hear was the gunfire and screams from my group. I saw...” My eyes stung and my heart broke every time I remembered how my brother died. “I saw my brother collapsed to the ground.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Iris. We’ve also lost people we cared about from the outbreak and killed by dangerous people. Everyone here is like you who wants to live.”
I nodded and wiped my tears dry.
“How did you get into that place?”
“I’ve been strolling from places to places almost every night, but I stayed for a couple of days at the pet shop since no one seemed to pass by that place anymore.”
“You’d become clever when you only have one mission since the virus wiped out the country. To survive.”
“I want to be honest with you, Iris. We don’t recruit or take people in anymore. These past few months, we barely survive through scavenging. We don’t have enough food, medicines, and supply left. We have families and children here, and in a few days, some groups might find this place, and you know what they would do when you refused to give what they wanted. We’re also lacking ammunition and manpower to defend this place.”
“I understand. I’m leaving as soon as I get my necklace back. Thank you for your hospitality, Gael.”