Authors: Demitria Lunetta
For Justin, who always listens to what I have to say
I long for the comfort of night.
The sun feels warm on my face. Before, sunshine was a good thing. But this is the After, and outside of New Hope, the light means only one thing if you’re not armed: death.
It’s early spring, but in the place that used to be Texas, it gets oppressively hot early in the year. I stop walking and open my canteen. The water drips from it and sizzles on the asphalt when I take a drink.
My synth-suit shields my otherwise bare feet from the burning ground, though my calluses also offer protection. I always wear my synth-suit in case I come across someone unfriendly—and out here, everyone’s unfriendly. In the After, I learned to live without noisy shoes, and continued to run without them while I was in New Hope. I’m grateful I kept up with my running, or I wouldn’t have made it out here these last three months. Even a simple supply mission like this could turn deadly.
I close my canteen and scan the area. On the horizon, I see a strip of houses that lies by a dried-up lake. I haven’t hit this neighborhood yet for supplies, and as it’s a fair way from the main road, I’m hoping no one else has either. As I get closer, I see that at some point this must have been a cozy little community. The walls of the houses are stucco, the roofs red tile, as if designed to look like a Spanish village. An old swing on a backyard jungle gym sways, its metal links creak in the wind. The houses, obviously cheaply made, aren’t suitable for shelter anymore. After just over three years, many are missing doors and windows.
Houses like that don’t stand a chance against Them.
At about a hundred feet away, I break into a full run. There seem to be more survivors in this area, more than I ever saw in Chicago. They won’t be active during the day, but if someone’s staking out this place, I don’t want to give them time to catch me. There’s no sign of anyone, so I flatten myself against the wall of the first house and peek inside. No hint of life, not even a breeze.
As I make my way inside, I let out a sigh. The place is wrecked. It’s not the old bloodstained walls that sadden me. Evidence of past Florae attacks have become so commonplace, I barely even register scenes of death anymore. I’m just disappointed that the house has been ransacked already. The cabinets are thrown ajar and empty, the couches overturned. Even the pillows have been ripped open, the stuffing strewn across the floor.
Some people are worse than Them,
I sign, then bite my lip to keep the tears back. I’m talking to Baby in our secret language. But she’s not here with me anymore.
A quick check of the other houses reveals nothing but a half-empty bottle of vodka. I toss it into my pack. You never know when you need disinfectant or a Molotov cocktail. My time with the Guardians taught me that.
At the last house, I freeze when I see it in the backyard: an orange tree, full of fruit. I haven’t seen fresh fruit in a long time, not since New Hope. Hands shaking with anticipation, I pick every one. When I can’t fit any more into my pack, I sit on the ground, peeling orange after orange and jamming the sections into my mouth. The sweet taste helps the emptiness for a while. I eat until my stomach feels like it will burst.
I rest in the shade of the tree, satisfied. My contentment is fleeting, though, and soon the emptiness returns, not just a gnawing in the pit of my stomach but a hollowing out of my entire being. It’s impossible to avoid the loneliness that has haunted me since leaving New Hope, so I let it wash over me. I nearly give in to it, and sit under the tree, waiting until something hostile finds me. In the end I fight the despair, pushing it down inside where I don’t have to deal with it. I stand, determined not to give up.
Time to go,
I sign to the empty air.
On a shady side road, I make my way back toward the place I’ve made my home. I pick up my pace, anxious to return before nightfall. I used to be afraid of the day, but the sonic emitter that Kay gave me keeps me safe from the Floraes. Night is what worries me now, when I hear the occasional voice nearby or a gunshot in the distance. There are people out here. Not many, but enough. They are alive in the After, which means they were either smart and figured out the Floraes’ behavior, or they are just mean enough to survive. I don’t want to find out which.
When I reach my new home, I bypass the large plantation house and head to the backyard. Beyond the overgrown tangle of grass is a field. I scan the area for any sign that the yard was breached while I was gone. I’d set traps, pressure-activated alarms that would send the Floraes running. So far, no one has disturbed the yard and my luck seems to be holding; everything looks as I left it. I sprint to the overgrown tree in the far corner and scramble up the trunk, into the tree house.
The tree house, a remnant of Before, has held up well. It barely creaks as I walk across the wooden floor and make my way to my sleeping bag in the corner, careful not to overturn the stack of books next to my makeshift bed. The tree house is large, larger than my room in the Ward, with two giant glass windows, one facing the house, one facing the field. Seems silly to have glass windows in a tree house, but judging from the mansion up front, that family had money to spare. There was a rope ladder that I cut down. I can climb up the tree without it. It’s not ideal, there’s no running water, but the tree house is sturdy and hard to spot in the mess of leaves and branches. Even without the emitter, I wouldn’t have to worry about Floraes up here.
In the three months since I’ve left New Hope I’ve had too many close calls. The first couple of nights were sheer terror. I thought about going to Fort Black, since Kay had dropped me so close, but I didn’t see the point. If it was as bad as everyone said, I wanted to stay away. I had nowhere else to go, so I wandered aimlessly. At least I didn’t have to worry about Floraes. The emitter kept them at bay.
One night, while I was scavenging a house, I heard voices, whispered but deep. I hid in the bushes and waited, knowing what kind of men banded together. The kind who Amber brought to my home in Chicago, the kind who attacked New Hope. Still, I wanted to check them out.
When I looked at them through the leaves, I could see there were no women with them. Not a good sign. After they moved on, I ran in the other direction. I’ve had a few encounters since then, but I always hide. I was lucky to find this place. Anyone looking to scavenge will head straight to the mansion up front.
This place is only twenty miles from where Kay said Fort Black would be. After I decided not to go there, I started to feel the loneliness. It was small at first, just an itch that I knew I couldn’t scratch. But now it’s an ever-present sadness. Even if I don’t feel safe going to Fort Black, I like at least being
other people. In New Hope, I grew used to being in a community, to being part of a family again. As much as I was mistreated there, as much as I don’t want to admit it to myself, the horrible truth remains. I miss New Hope.
And now, I am all alone.
I try not to feel sorry for myself, instead passing the time by working out to stay fast, or by reading or scavenging for supplies. But the memories come back. I think of my mother, who loved me, but not enough to save me from Dr. Reynolds. I think of Kay, my real friend.
I think of Amber, who betrayed us all and paid a horrible price. She brought a gang to the doors of New Hope, and they tried to create a panic, kill the leaders, and take everything we had. I forced her to tell the truth, and for a brief moment I thought I’d done something good. I’d saved New Hope. But then I found out all the people in the gang were put to death, without so much as a trial. And Amber, she was unmade, given a lobotomy to keep her placid.
Sometimes I even allow myself to think of Rice, how good and safe it felt to be held by him—then I stop. I can’t let myself think of that or I’ll go crazy. And I think of Baby, who I love more than anyone, who’s safe in New Hope. I wanted to take her with me, but Kay talked me out of it. That she was better, safer, where she was.
Suddenly I freeze, holding my breath, not moving a muscle. Outside something is rustling the long grass in the field near the house. I silently crawl along the floor, peeking up out of the window. A lone Florae shuffles slowly. I stand up behind the window, turning on my flashlight. The monster swivels toward me and immediately begins loping. At one hundred feet away, it will run into the sound waves from the emitter.
With shaking hands, I reach to the emitter at my hip and switch it off. My pulse races and every nerve screams against what I am doing. For a moment I feel truly alive, awash in adrenaline. For a moment I forget my loneliness.
The green monster crosses the hundred-yard line, creeping menacingly, its yellow teeth bared. Looking up, it knows exactly where I am. And I look curiously into its horrible eyes.
You used to be a human.
What are you now?
The creature circles the tree house, and I peer out over the doorway. It tries to climb the tree and makes it up a few feet, surprising me. Startled, I come back to my senses. What am I doing? I fumble with the emitter, pressing it on. The creature falls from the tree and staggers back, unsure of which way to run to escape the sound. It darts toward the house at first, and I fear it will set off one of the alarms, but it changes direction and speeds back to the field, not stopping when it breaks away from the sound radius.
I exhale, realizing I had been holding my breath, and shakily sit down. Was I that desperate to see another person that I would risk my life . . . or was it something else? Something darker that I don’t even want to begin to think about? I shake my head. No. I want to live, even if it’s this solitary existence. I sneak a look out the window, searching for the Florae, but it’s long gone.
Leaving me alone again in the black, hot night.
I spend the next two days roaming through the surrounding neighborhoods, searching through houses I’ve missed or skipped before. Supplies are getting dangerously low, and I’ve combed through the area too thoroughly. If I want to keep living this way, I’ll have to start traveling farther out to scavenge. I make it home with nothing more than a dented can of spinach and some shampoo. There’s a pond I found a while back that I’ve been using for water, but I’m sure I can spare a couple of bucketfuls to wash my hair. The synth-suit keeps my skin clean, saps sweat away from my body, but my hair is another story, especially if I don’t wear my hood often.
As I settle into my sleeping bag, I hear a familiar crackle. It’s my earpiece. Kay remotely turned off the communication ability, so Dr. Reynolds couldn’t track me. It has a solar-powered microbattery, though, good for years, and I’ve been using it to amplify faraway sounds, keeping it in my ear at all times. It’s been so long since I’ve heard anything, I forgot that someone might actually try to use it to contact me.
“Sunshine? Are you there?”
I sit up in anticipation. It was nothing more than a whisper, but I know who it is. “Kay?”
Just the thought of talking to someone friendly makes my eyes flood. But she doesn’t answer.
“Kay?” I plead. “Kay?” Nothing. I slide back to the floor, my head in my hands.
And then, after a few minutes, she’s back.
“Sunshine?” She’s whispering, but there’s something else, a tone in her voice, something I never thought I’d hear. Kay sounds scared.
“Kay! Are you all right? Did you guys get in trouble? How’s Baby? How’s Rice? How’s my mother?”
“Amy, I don’t have a lot of time. Gareth hacked me in to the system so I could contact you . . . but I’m being watched closely.”
“No time, sunshine. You making it okay out there?”
“I’m handling it.”
“Good girl. Listen, I need to tell you something. . . .” She pauses so long, I think she’s cut out again.
“Kay, what is it?!” I ask desperately.
“It’s . . . Baby.”
My stomach turns over as dread seeps into every pore of my body.
“Dr. Reynolds has Baby.”