Authors: Michelle Bryan
I checked the bathroom-also empty. Mom wasn't in there. That left my parents room at the end of the hall. The door loomed large in my terrified brain, making me suddenly feel like Alice in Wonderland after the 'Drink Me' potion. 'I'm shrinking! I'm shrinking', bounced crazily around in my head and the slight laugh that escaped my lips had an echo of madness to it.
I didn't want to go anywhere near that door. My gut instinct was telling me to run. Get away. But I needed to find my mom. The door was slightly ajar. I took a shaky breath before pushing it the rest of the way.
The first thing I saw was my father's gun lying by the dresser, like someone had tried to take it out of the top drawer where it was kept but had dropped it in the process. The second thing I saw was his back as he hunched over mom's body, spread eagle across the bed. I could only see her dangling legs and head, his body hid the rest of her from me. Her face was turned toward me, and the look of terror captured forever in her now unseeing eyes chilled me to my core. The wet, smacking sounds that filled the room and the wide stain of red soaking the white bedspread told my mind that hope was already lost for my mom, but my heart refused to believe it.
"NO!" I screamed, as I lunged at my father's back. With one swipe of his arm he sent me flying across the room and I crashed into the dresser mirror, smashing it on impact. I slid down. Sharp, brutal pain tore through my face as my jaw caught on a jagged piece of glass-slicing me open. But there was no time to wallow in my pain, for the creature now done with my mother, turned to me. Through the haze of fear, I could see the hideous worm -thing protruding from my father’s mouth, flapping excitedly as it smelled more blood.
Terror. Pain. Grief. They all combined into one agonizing scream threatening to make me black out. The creature lurched toward me and I tried to back up, but with the solid dresser behind me there was no place to go. I reached out blindly, searching for something-anything I could use as a weapon. My hand made contact with cold steel. The gun.
Shaking my head to keep the blood out of my eyes, I aimed the weapon. Holding on tight with both hands, I fired at the creature in desperation. Each shot sent him stumbling back, but still he came at me. I kept firing, my screams in sync with the gunshots. I lost track of how many times I squeezed the trigger, but the clicking of an empty chamber finally registered. No more bullets. With a pathetic last attempt at self-defense, I threw the useless gun at him. It bounced harmlessly off of his chest. I closed my eyes in surrender and waited for the pain to come.
Please let it be over quick
, I prayed fleetingly as I covered my head with my arms and tried to shrink into the dresser.
Nothing happened. There was no attack. No pain. I opened my eyes a crack, expecting to find the creature about to rip my face off. Instead, I found my father's body lying at my feet. The bullets had done their job. He was folded over sideways. Not moving. The worm abomination hung lifelessly from his mouth.
The silence was punctuated only by my frantic breaths of disbelief. I kept staring at the thing on the floor just inches from me, but still it didn't move. The gray monstrosity had done the same thing to his face as it had to old man Heff. My father had been considered a handsome man once, but not anymore.
Funny, I didn't feel anything as I stared at the dead man that helped give me life. I didn't check to see if he was okay. Instead I kicked at him, trying to push him-and it-away. Images from all the old horror movies my mom and I used to watch jumped into my head and I kept expecting it to suddenly come to life and crawl its way toward me. The monsters in those movies always made one last attempt to get you before they died. But the worm-thing remained as still as the body it possessed.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The sound clawed its way into my consciousness, pulling my eyes away from the dead thing and toward the bed. I was thankful I could only see the top of her head from my position on the floor...but it was enough. The sound of my mother's blood as it trickled from the saturated bedspread to the hardwood floor was the last straw. I couldn't take anymore. The wailing started again as I let the waves of pain wash over me. I screamed until I had no voice left and then finally lay there in numbed shock.
Exhausted, terrified, my own warm blood gushing down the side of my face, I just wanted to let go. My body felt heavy—like it was filled with lead, and I crumpled over pulling my knees up to my chest. I wanted to sleep and forget everything. The bright pink of my mom's favorite t-shirt peeked coyly at me from the bottom drawer of the dresser, and instinctively I yanked at it until it came loose. Balling it up, I placed it under my cheek and pressed the cloth into my wound. The smell of the familiar laundry soap twisted my heart in pain, and tears filled the corner of my eyes. They tickled softly as they fell across my nose. I allowed them to take their course. I had no energy to wipe them away.
I knew I should move. My brain was shrieking at me to go. To try and find other survivors. Anyone that could help me. But the heaviness in my body took over, and I didn't care anymore if an army of those worms were heading my way. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep.
I didn't know how long I lay there on the floor. Minutes. Hours. Days. Time lost all meaning as I passed in and out of consciousness, only to wake up to the same repeated horror. Every time I opened my eyes it was to my mom's puddled pool of blood. So I simply closed my eyes and welcomed the darkness again. Maybe, I kept telling myself, maybe if I slept long enough, it would all go away.
"...search the rest of the house..."
The voices sounded so far off, and my eyelids felt sewn shut as I fought to pry them open. Was it my mom and dad? Were they fighting again? I should go to the park. No! The park was a bad place.
The thoughts all jumbled together in my head. I didn't remember anything. Where was I?
"Hey, little one." This voice was alarmingly close and my eyes finally bulged open. A huge shadow loomed above me, and I lashed out instinctively. Strong hands stayed my flailing arms and swept me effortlessly off the floor.
"It's okay. You're safe now."
Safe. Safe from what? Then I remembered the mist. The worm things. My mom. A wail of anguish welled up in my chest as I fought against the strong arms holding me.
"Hey now, everything’s going to be okay. You've lost a lot of blood but we’re here to help you." The kind voice, the gentle arms—someone was here to help me. To save me. The painful grip binding my chest loosened and a slight whimper escaped. I wasn't alone!
The arms cradled me like a baby. I could hear the stranger's heart beating rhythmically against my ear; soothing and calming. I stopped fighting as all the tension flowed away and my body went slack. I looked up into a bearded, tanned face. Warm brown eyes stared back at me.
"That's it, no need to fight anymore. It's gonna be okay. What's your name, little one?" He kept up the inane chatter as he removed me from the dark room, shielding me from the awfulness I knew was on the other side of him. He carried me through the house I had lived in my whole life. If I had known I would never see this place again, I probably would have insisted on taking something of my former life. But I was too numbed.
The soothing babble continued all the way to the outside. I closed my eyes against the blinding morning sunlight, but a sudden shot pierced the air, forcing them back open again. The bearded face leaned over me, blocking the sun.
"Don’t worry," he said soothingly, keeping my focus on him. In the back of my head, my mind registered far off sounds-screams and gunshots-but he kept talking to me.
"Do you know your name?" he questioned again. My name. My name? For the life of me I couldn't remember. I stared back at him with wide-eyed panic. Surely I must know my name! But I drew a blank.
He smiled at my bewilderment.
"Don’t sweat it, kiddo. Sometimes I wake up and can't remember my name either. I've had a few mornings like that."
We passed by the beat up mailbox, dented from years of run-ins with the bumper of my father's truck. The stranger pointed his chin toward it.
"Says here on the box, Bixby. Is that your last name, Bixby?"
Bixby? Yes. I nodded in agreement. This caused excruciating pain to shoot through the side of my damaged face and I bit my lip, stopping myself from crying out. He saw the grimace, and concerned furrowed his brow.
"Sorry about the pain, kid. But we’ll have you fixed up in no time." He stopped at the curb, in front of an idling white pickup truck. I hadn't even noticed it there. Its door stood wide open and he handed me off to the blonde woman inside. I automatically reached out for him at the loss of contact. The little time I had spent in his arms was the safest I’d felt in a very long time. Responding to my whimper of protest, he took both my grasping hands in his giant palm and squeezed them reassuringly.
"This here is Olivia. She's gonna take real good care of you. Olivia, this is Bixby. Now she's been a real brave soldier so far, but I think she's gonna need our help from here on out. We'll keep you safe, little Bixby, I promise. Or my name ain't Captain John Cooper."
"Straight flush!" I yell, and spread my cards triumphantly across the scarred wood of the table top. The tiny room echoes with the sound of my undisguised gloating. Cackling happily, I drag the loot of still sealed batteries, bags of MRE pretzels and the candy to my side of the table. The five other faces illuminated in the pale glow from the lone bulb hanging above the table, don't seem to be as pleased as I am.
"There's no way you're this good at poker all the time," Cal says in disgust as he throws his cards down and scowls at me over black-rimmed glasses held together in the center with a sticky, dirty mound of tape.
I stop hoarding and stare back over my pile of winnings at the newest member of our group.
"You accusing me of cheating?" I say quietly, narrowing my eyes.
"Uh-oh," Badger mutters as his skinny frame vacates his chair in a hurry, leaving an empty spot at the table between Cal and me.
"I ain't accusing you of anything other than being extremely 'lucky'. Maybe that's what we should call you from now on—Lucky."
I shake my head, not quite sure if I heard him right.
of all people, should be called Lucky? Are you fucking kidding me?" I quickly pull one of my knives out of its leather sheath and practically leap over the table, jamming the tip in the soft fold underneath his dark chin before he can move away. The eyes behind the glasses open wide in shock.
"Maybe I should change your definition of lucky then. Maybe I should cut you open and put you outside the gate, see how many leeches you can out run. If you live, then that...that would be
lucky and we get to change your name. How 'bout that?"
"Jesus Christ, Bixby! I wasn't being serious." Cal hisses through gritted teeth, holding his chin high off of my knife. His eyes dart around the table as if pleading for help.
"Come on guys, tell her to back off!"
Blank stares meet his plea.
"Sorry, Cal, man. You accused her of cheating. Bix don't like that. That's what Sellers did and well, why do you think we needed a new hunter?"
His frantic dark eyes flit back to me. I don't back off an inch. They let him stew in fear for a bit before they finally crack up laughing.
"Don't get your panties in a knot, Cal. She's just shittin' with ya." Luke laughs as he slaps Cal on the back, causing him to lurch forward and the tip of my knife digs in slightly. A tiny bead of blood forms at the entry point.
"Ah dammit, Cal. Look what you did. Now you done messed up my knife."
Pulling it away from his chin, I wipe the blood off on my pants leg with disgust as Cal watches me warily. He dabs at his chin with his sleeve.
"You’re as crazy as what I heard," he mutters, then quickly tries to backtrack as my head snaps his way. "I mean, others have said..."
"Why don't you just leave it at that, Cal," I warn softly. Picking up a silvery bag of pretzels from my loot pile, I toss them his way. "Here, no hard feelings."
The bag hits him squarely in the chest, but he snags it before it can hit the floor.
"Thanks, I guess, since those were mine to begin with."
"Hey, all’s fair in love and poker," I say with a shrug.
"If you're gonna give Cal back his shit..." Dom reaches for another of the silvery packets and I jam my knife into the table, missing his grasping fingers by a hair.
"Don't even think about it," I snarl. He yanks his hand back in a hurry.
"Jesus. Pms'ing much, Bixby?" He snaps, his lips curling in anger. His flaming face conveys his embarrassment at everyone's laughter.
"Just as much as you, bitch," I toss back with a sweet smile. "We must be on the same cycle."
Out of the five other hunters sitting around the table, Dominic is the only one who can push me to this level of bitchiness. There are a couple reasons why. Number one, he’s a male chauvinist pig. Doesn't matter that I’m a much better hunter than he will ever be, all he sees when he looks at me is a girl. And the way he looks at me sometimes, it makes my skin crawl. I'm glad I can't see into his twisted thoughts, since I'm sure just a tiny taste would be enough to give me nightmares.
Number two, he’s an all-around asshole. And for the life of me I can't figure out why he’s even assigned to our group. He would make a much better guard than a hunter. He has that 'My shit don't stink" vibe about him that most guards at the Grand, seemed to attain after a while. I mentioned to Cooper a few times about Dom not fitting in as a hunter, but he just laughed at me and told me it was good to have someone around me to challenge all my decisions. That it would keep me on my toes.
Luke is another who doesn't seem to get Dom's nasty side. He tells me often that Dom isn't really that bad of a guy and that I make him out to be worse than he really is.
Luke is a dumbass. A beautiful, caring, giant of a man-but a dumbass just the same. He refuses to see the bad in anyone. He always says there are so few of us left in the world that we need to believe everyone is basically decent. There are times I want to rip those rose colored glasses right off of his damn face. Mostly though, I'm grateful for his calm demeanor. He keeps me grounded.
I watch him now as he clasps Dom on the shoulder, turning the other man’s anger away from me.
"Chill out, my friend. No harm, no foul." He smiles at Dom and whispers, "Women," under his breath like that’s the answer for everything wrong in the world. It seems to appease Dom though, and he grins in agreement. I get a quick wink from Luke before the asshat stands up, blocking him from my view. The wink seems to say 'no offense, Bix,' but I don't take any. I'm just glad the situation has been defused before it escalates into one of our heated debates. It's been a hard week, and I don't think I have it in me right now to argue with Dom.
Luke, the peacekeeper. I'm sure Dom and I would have torn out each other’s throats by now if it weren't for him. He is our unofficial leader. Level-headed. Cautious. Methodical. Everything I'm not. Only a couple of years older than me, but experience wise—he’s a grizzled vet. More than once he’s gotten us out of an ass-ripping in the field, whereas I would’ve just gone balls-to-the-walls to escape the leeches. His instincts are infallible. We’ve never lost a man under his watch, and I'm lucky to call him friend. And lover.
"Come on, Bix. You can keep the damned batteries, but at least share the rest of your loot. It's movie night. Gotta have snacks for movie night and you took all my shit." This is from Gordon, the youngest member of our group. Barely seventeen, his freckled face and slight stature make him look far younger than his years. But the kid is a super-fast runner, one of the most important requirements of a hunter. Sometimes it's all that keeps us alive.
"Movie night?" Shit. I had forgotten. Amy is going to be pissed at me. I promised to come see her before movie night. That had been what-a week ago? Yup, she’s going to be upset. I'm hoping my newest acquirement for her collection will be enough to lighten her mood.
"Yeah, they're showing
Raiders of the Lost Ark
tonight! Love that one!" The irony of the boy’s eagerness is not lost on me. The movie had been out long before we’d even been born. Gordon has probably seen it at least fifty or sixty times, since the Grand's entire movie collection consisted of maybe twenty titles, shown on an old-school projector and movie reel. Yet, he's still as excited as if it's a brand new release. And since new movies have gone the way of the dinosaur, we've all learned an appreciation for the classics.
"Did you know," he continues eagerly, "...in that movie, Harrison Ford kept losing his hat, so at one point they stapled it to his forehead? I read that somewhere." He looks around at us all like he’d just revealed the secret of the Lost Ark itself.
"Yeah, we did," Dom grounds out. "And I still don't give a shit any more than I did the last three times you told us."
Even though I actually agree with Dom on this one, I'm sure as hell not about to say that. Instead I ignore him and sigh at Gordon, tossing a bag of candy his way. "What's the point of beating your asses if I'm just gonna hand it all back to you losers?"
He catches it effortlessly and grins, taking no offense at Dom's rudeness. "You know you're only doing this cause somewhere in that hard shell you call a heart, you’ve got a soft spot for us all."
I laugh along with the kid. He has this happy-go-lucky way about him that always cracks me up. But then the snide comment hits my ears.
"Yeah, go figure Bixby would have a soft spot for morons. Not to mention the oldies, cripples and 'tards, that live here. The biggest non-contributors to our survival. As far as I'm concerned they should all be put outside the gate and..."
Dom doesn't get to finish that sentence. An intense wave of hate floods my body, literally making me see red.
I lunge at him before he can move away. Taking him down to the floor, I land on top of him, straddling his chest. Laying my left forearm heavy across his throat, I hold my knife inches above his right eye.
"Take that back you ignorant prick, or I swear I will cut your fucking eyeballs right out of your head and pop 'em like grapes!"
Dominic's eyes screw up in undisguised fury as he spits in my face. The spittle runs down my cheek and drips from my chin, turning my anger into a raging inferno. I drop the knife like a hot potato, hitting fast and fierce, three quick punches to his face. Blood spurts from his split lip, but the sight of it only fuels my wrath. I need to inflict more damage. I pull back for another punch, but my anger makes me sloppy. Dom quickly recovers from the surprise attack and lurches to the side, throwing me off of him. My head hits the nightstand next to the bed, and the blow stuns me. Dom takes advantage of my confusion and flips me onto my back, grabbing my arms as he stares down at me.
"Don't you ever threaten me again, bitch," he snarls. Instinctively, I yank my left hand up to my face, pulling him over me. Not giving him any chance to retaliate, I place my right knee between us and brace my left foot against his hip, pushing with all my might. It forces me out of his grasp, and I roll nimbly to my feet. He's still on his knees, and I move in for a good swift kick to the balls. Nothing I want more than to see this asshat squirming in pain.
Luckily for him, I don't connect. The others yank him to his feet and pull him out of reach. He struggles against the confinement, but Gordon and Badger refuse to let go of his arms. I don't protest their involvement; all the easier for me to kick his damn ass! I know it's a dick move to attack an unharmed guy—but I don't care. He so deserves an ass whooping. I leap at him, but I'm plucked out of air, mid-lunge.
"Let. Me. Go." I huff at the arms binding me like a vise. But Luke doesn't let up on me in the least. His lips bury in my hair as he quietly hisses at me, "Calm down, Bix. Calm the hell down."
"Get your hands off of me," Dom snarls as he pulls his arms out of the grasp of the two holding him back. They back off, but only after they’re convinced he's not planning to retaliate.
"Bix?" Luke questions quietly, and I nod sharply. He still doesn't let go.
"I'm done!" I snap, and he lets go of me. I shake him off as I move away. Our heavy breathing the only sound in the room, Dom and I simply stare at each other in hatred. Luke is the one to break the silence.
"What the hell was that?" Even after the drama that just unfolded, he sounds so calm and in control. I, on the other hand, am still pissed to no end.
"You know damn well what that was—Dom being the complete jackass that he is." I turn my glare from the moron across the room and stare pleadingly at Luke. "You just heard him. You heard what he said about the old folks and Amy and Cooper. He's not joking, he truly believes the shit spewing out of his own mouth, so why is he still a part of this group?"
"You know that's not up to me—" Luke begins his usual defense but I don't want to hear it. Not this time.
"But you can talk to Cooper. He will listen to you," I say in frustration.
"Why don't you go see Cooper yourself, Bixby?" Dom's eyes are as back as coal as he dabs at the blood on his lip with his sleeve. "From what I hear, you have him just as pussy whipped as Thor here."
"That's enough, Dom." Luke warns and I can tell by the throbbing vein at his temple he’s trying hard to hold his temper in check. Fleetingly, I think
. I want him to lose control. But right away I feel guilty, since my dislike of Dom isn't Luke's problem.
"What? You don't want me saying out loud what the rest of us already know about your girlfriend, Whitman?" Dom goads, his words filled with insinuation.
"It's not like that," Luke growls and Dom's laughter grates along my spine, like nails on a chalkboard.
"Says who? Her? Like she's gonna tell you the truth. Word has it she's been sleeping with Cooper and you both at the same time. I wouldn't be surprised to find a few more names on that list, either."
"Except for yours," I snap. "Is that what this is about, Dom? You jealous ‘cause you're feeling left out?" My fist curls again, just itching for some more contact with his leering face. But I know from experience it's pointless. Dom never changes his opinion on anything, no matter how warped that opinion is. I found that out the hard way. Why he’s even still allowed to live at the Grand with us is a mystery to me. Cooper shares Luke's mindset, believing every life essential. Too bad Dom doesn't feel the same way.