ave / stories / You are on your own ch.0

"No help is coming. You are on your own."

I wake up with a scream. Fingers, tearing into me, ripping me apart, devouring me. Same old nightmare, every night.

My name is Lena Giles, and I'm still alive.

I'm not sure how long it's been since it all went to hell. The Cataclysm, they called it. Mostly zombies, with the occasional alien outpost, mutant monstrosity, or even more creative hellspawn, now roam the Earth. At first, people thought those were riots swarming the cities. I was one of the lucky few to have a backpack at the ready and the good sense to run like hell away from the big cities when it hit.

I stumble in the dark and put my leather biker suit on. It was usually dark here - boarded up windows and drawn curtains seemed like a good idea to stay hidden. The suit was tattered, but protected me well. Also, it was easier to wear than a school uniform. I had a wardrobe full of clothing, and most of it I only used as rags. My mother would have shouted at me. I got brief flashbacks of her being pierced by that metal bar, and felt nothing.

I walk into the kitchen and eat something to fill my growling stomach. I don't even know what it is. It was weird how little I felt lately, butchering up corpses so they don't turn, or scavenging houses where people once lived. But food? Food felt good.

The shyest of rays come in through my kitchen window, but the sun isn't out yet. Good. After washing my face to wake up properly, I grab my backpack of goodies and head out, north to northeast. There was a small settlement not far in that direction, just a bunch of houses, a few car wrecks, and a crooked, rusted sign reading "Winslow". I had looted it many times before, but there were still things left, too heavy or unnecessary to carry over on the first time. Also, I knew the path there pretty well, and it helped to get my mind off things, stalking the old road in the morning mist.

In a way, I liked this better than before. Humans had been real bitches to each other, and I really didn't miss society. Though, in a way, it also felt a lot like before, repeating the same monotone tasks everyday, getting by from one day to the next. Just like school.

Fidgeting around, I swing my bat at a nearby flower, and it bursts in a small cloud of petals. It's a twisted old thing that I found in some rich ass' house after I bashed his head in. Ever since, it had been my one and only trusty companion. There wasn't much going on in Winslow. There was a river west of here, and downstream was Guilford, but Guilford was a big city with a lotta zombies, and I was too lazy today to deal with that. Winslow I knew pretty well, and despite having looted it so many times before, I was sure to find something.

By the time I reach the small groove by the road, I have worked up a sweat. Nothing like some morning sport. Funny, I used to hate it. I crouch behind a shrub and glance over the houses. School was very stressful, but one thing it didn't have was genuine, constant, blood-chilling fear of death. I felt little else, nowadays. Back then, I never glanced around like a scared rabbit, I didn't know just how sensitive my ears could be.

To be honest, I loved it. I guess I even got off on it, a little. Whenever I was holding my breath and waiting for one of them rotting bastards to pass me by, or slamming one of them with my bat as it grabbed for my arms and legs - that's when I felt alive. The village was mostly abandoned by now. Decaying, dismembered corpses lay on the road there, still dead where I left them. Way further down, a few black blobs made their way into one of the houses, attracted by plastic, petroleum from the broken down cars or whatever. I was once young a foolish, a few weeks ago, when I made the mistake to attack one. The fuckers are blind and deaf, but if they touch something, they latch on to it like there's no tomorrow. And for whatever touched them, there won't be. That's why I had to go looking for a new bat, after all.

Well, since there wasn't anyone coming to greet me, I might as well go 'introduce' myself. I got up from the blueberry bush and casually walked the rest of the way to the houses, picking leaves from my suit. The first house to the right was pretty much empty - last time I got pissed that their milk had rotten, so I unscrewed their water tank and started thrashing it around. Don't judge - I was bored. The one to the left is actually more of a building site than a house - some of its windows are missing, which was a nasty surprise when I snuck in and got jumped by two undead. The second house to the right is where the blobs went, so I head to the left. Used to slipping into houses, I take out my screwdriver and get down on the window. Minutes later, I have a few screws on the floor and a glass pane in my hands. I didn't really need to be careful - the blobs were deaf, and I was strong enough for any stray zombie I might have missed. But it never hurt to be careful.

I put the pane down and start climbing into the window frame. I have done this enough times before, but it's still annoying - doors are so much more comfortable to use, but the odds of an unlocked door are none, and bashing them open creates more problems than it solves. I have broken a few hairpins figuring out how to pick locks, and if I dare say I had gotten quite good at it.

I step down and drag in my backpack after me. Something bumps against my foot. A long slimy thing, bulbous and glistering pink, had slithered over and had begun crawling onto my foot, two long pincers teasing at the fabric of my suit.

With a shriek, I kick it away, jumping back a few feet. It falls to the floor with a wet sound, and twists around, starting to crawl back. Fear winning over disgust, I jump over and start bashing it with my bat. It takes a few hits before its chitinous shell cracks, and not long after, it's pulp on the floor. I lean back against the wall. Deep breaths. It's dead. It's just a giant, flesh-eating caterpillar, and it's dead. It can't hurt you, girl. I look back down at it, and feel myself calming down. It's a mess. I guess it's good meat, but I feel too disgusted to eat stuff like that. I might have to starve for another week first. That shell, however, seemed very useful. Clenching my jaw, I took out my dagger and went down to work. A few minutes later, I had a few wonderful new chitin plates. I could make some fancy armor out of them, I guess. At the very least, it won't be getting up again.

I finally take a look around. I should have done that first, I guess, but I was too busy working through my disgust for that thing to think of that. It seemed like a normal house, almost upsettingly so. The crap that the previous owner had stuffed in it must have been good crap. Despite the still good looks, there was a gentle, unpleasant waft from below an ugly printed carpet. Nasty bugs. First things first, I headed into the kitchen and dug out whatever I could find. A lot of utensils - I didn't bother taking any. Butchering knives seemed useful until you had a bag full of them. There was some butter - the fungi looked like flowers already -, a package of nutmeg, some of that waxed string for chicken, more nutmeg. After emptying out three drawers, I gave up. The fridge was going to be a stinky mess at this point, and I doubted I needed a seventh glass of nutmeg. I packed the one good thing I had found - a luscious jar of pickled onions -, and went back to the living room.

That was some fancy crap indeed. The sofa looked like it might have been made of actual leather. It's useful for crafting a lot of stuff, but looking at those welcoming curves, it felt like a sin to put such a beauty to the knife. I lowered my beloved bat onto the armrest, and let myself sink into it, the soft folds molding around my body, and welcoming me into the sweet release of rest . . .

I grabbed my bat and rose it up to swing. Something had skittered. I inspected the room, refusing to get my ass off the soft cushioned sofa. Somewhat distraught, I noticed that there was significantly more light here now. Had I dozed off? The nasty smell from before didn't seem stronger, but I could pick it out easier. Reluctantly, I rose from the comfy lounge. I was starting to get worked up again, heart pumping faster. I was in control this time. I was faster, but not dumber.

Silently, foot over foot, I snuck around where I had heard it. Another sofa, bought to fill up the room, bordered my newfound piece of heaven. Behind it was the ugly carpet, still caked in some rotting secretion. There was an elongated bulge under it, and from the way it skittered around, I had an uncomfortable feeling I knew what it was. I slowly moved the bat up and down, getting a good aim at where I knew its head should be.

Two antennae pressed against the carpet, as if looking around.

I swing down with all my force. I bash it in, once, twice, slamming my bat against the carpet until I'm sure that whatever's underneath won't come back to haunt me. I give it a second, and when it fails to twitch, I drop back against the ugly sofa behind me, catching my breath.

God, I hate those kinds of fuckers.

My eyes wander back to the disfigured mound. I don't want to know what it looks like under the carpet, but the mere idea of something so disgusting makes me shiver - and entices me. Looking around, I notice a piece of metal peeking from below the carpet, embedded into the wooden floor. Come to think of it, the thunks of my bat didn't sound much like wood.

With a foot, I cautiously push the carpet a bit to the side, confirming my suspicions. A hatch. Was today my lucky day? I doubt there were any survivors, but a bunker sounded like non-perishable food and something to entertain me. And oh, how I could use some entertainment.

Fueled by curiosity, I swept aside the rug, and managed not to look at whatever was still under it as I rummaged around for a crowbar. Now surely you wondered what other goodies I carried with me in my bag, besides a screwdriver? The hatch didn't seem to be locked - either nobody got to it in time, or they were too dumb for their own good. I got the old bar of steel wedged under the solid metal plate, and levered it up until I could get enough fingers under it to pull it up properly.

It slammed onto the carpet, and didn't seem to mind much, laying almost flat to the floor. Dust and stale air rose from the opening, the stench of rot forcing me to look away. An unpleasant sound, almost like cackling, or the clicking of a thousand tiny mandibles, came from down below and shivered up my spine.

My hand darted back into the bag and habitually tossed a handful of something into the hole as I somersaulted behind the sofa. I plugged my ears and made a note to keep the pin - it was useful for tinkering. A moment later, there was a loud, dull explosion, and a nail-on-chalkboard screech as a bunch of nasties were blown onto the ceiling. I moved out of the way just in time to miss the first bits falling back down. It wasn't pretty. Apparently, there were benefits to not having enough for breakfast.

After another few moments of jumping in a circle and high-pitched squealing, I managed to calm down my shivers enough to bear to look back at the gory mess and be productive. I shouldn't linger too long, the sound might attract more critters from outside. Though, it was usually the gory stench that did. Still icky, I tiptoed back to the hole and peeked down, holding back from the stench of intestines and something older. There was a mess of critters - at least twenty of them, guessing by what parts were left -, and metal rungs leading down.

Now surely, if I remembered to bring a damn hand grenade, I'd have a flashlight, wouldn't I?

Slightly embarrassed by my lack of foresight, I went back to the kitchen and started digging through another drawer. If they had the money to build a subterranean bunker in their house, they had to have a fancy flashlight somewhere.

After another couple minutes, I managed to procure something passable, and took another look down. The floor was four or so meters below, covered in insect feet and carapaces, and judging by the lack of reaction, there wasn't anything else alive down there. I clenched my teeth and turned around, slowly lowering my feet onto the metal rungs. I hummed a tune I had heard a long while ago, trying to distract myself from the crunching under my feet. By the time I reached the floor, I was frozen in cold shivers, humming quite loudly through bared teeth to distract myself. Balancing on the squelching wet mess below me, I turned the flashlight on again and took a look around.

Well, if somebody was planning to bunker down for the apocalypse, they sure knew how to make it comfy. Unfortunately, some dumbass with questionable foresight seems to have thrown some sort of an explosive down here not too long ago, and quite a good deal of the furniture was wrecked. Covered in monster insect carcasses were lacquered wooden planks and felt, with plastic pieces and a couple hard balls indicating what must have been a billiard table. Sticks were hung on the wall in front of the stairs, next to a caved-in locker, tattered golf shirts spilling out.

Really, what kind of idiot plays with explosives in a closed room?

The wall to my right seems to have been covered by portraits, most of them gnawed through into oblivion. I make out what must have been a suit, and an ocean landscape on another. Under them is a shattered glass display rack, trophies scattered around, their gold and silver now useless.

The one behind the stairs had a door which seemed to lead into a storage room. It was where the nasty smell was coming from, so I ignored it.

The opposite wall, to my left, had several doors embedded into it. One of them had a sizeable round hole on the bottom, black rot marking the edges. Fighting down another shiver, I decided against throwing another grenade into their nest, and turned to the second one. Surprisingly, it didn't seem to be lockable. I gently push the handle down with my bat, and push the door open, readying a swing for the large nothing that lunges at me. I whip the flashlight around, taking a look. There is an old-school vanity to one side, a wardrobe next to the door, and a feather bed along the opposite wall with a cutesy carved bedside table next to it with almost no space for anything. The ugly flowers on the tapestries suggest that whoever was intended to live here really doubled down on the 50's housewife aesthetic. It felt really uncomfortable to be here.

First off, I opened wide the wardrobe, cringing a little at the assortment of bright summer dresses and heeled sandals. Despite myself, I brought myself to pack a few of them. Sometimes, even I felt fanciful, and I just had to indulge in this opportunity, however forced it felt. They seemed a bit too big for me, but I was getting good enough at stitching that I could fit them. And some good silk never hurt.

Taking another look around the room, I spy the bed. I had a rugged old spring mattress, remedied somewhat by an old army jacket tossed over it. A feathered duvet . . . I took another dress, quickly repurposing it into an extra bag for the clothes with a couple knots. Carefully, I moved over to the vanity, and closed and laid down the mirror - I didn't like mirrors. I couldn't help but spare a look at the makeup as well - some of it seemed expensive. Luckily, dresses were the height of my vain, and the couple tubes of nail polish I had back home were more than enough to satisfy my rare craving for makeup.

Another bag dangling off my back, I headed back into the main hall and towards the last door, repeating the bat-swing maneuver. This was a more non-descript tone of pink, with a bookshelf above the bed and a poster over the desk.

Oh no. A teen.

I took a deep breath, preparing myself for an emotional toll, and took a closer look around. The poster seemed vaguely familiar, shaggy black hair and shorts, but it was too worn down for me to read the name of the band. The bookshelf didn't have a lot of books, and I was surprised I recognized some of them. Dune, Lord of the Rings - I had to laugh at seeing the Hitchhiker's guide lodged between them. A well-read girl, it seemed. The others were some young adult novels that I hadn't heard of - Kingkiller? - I pocketed them nonetheless. It was hard to find mental enrichment in a wasteland.

The wardrobe was a blessing. She seemed to have been smaller than me, but not enough for her clothes to be unwearable. To my pure delight, almost everything was black, white, or dark enough to be bearable. I took out one of the dresses from before and made another bag. It was going to be annoying carrying all of this back, but I was too happy to have clothes I liked to care about that.

Come to think of it, she must have liked them too. I knew what it was like to grow up a city girl, and how I had wished I had a wardrobe like this. I can almost imagine the kind of arguments some of her skirts or tank tops must have brought.

In a weird way, I pitied her. We could have been friends. She would have gotten along with Berry. Berry would have known which band that was.

I sat down on her bed, looking through her clothes and reminiscing days long gone. Belinda Gates. She had a pretty face. Surprisingly bad at lying, despite her appearance. Was learning for a motorcycle and welder licenses, mostly to spite and rebel against her parents. I wondered whether she was still alive. Despite how awkward she could be with people, she was a smart girl. And she knew enough about vehicles to get around fast if she had to. Maybe she was still somewhere out there, riding her motorbike, and wondering whether I was alive . . .

Maybe I should have looked for her. Not that I know where to look, but still. She was terrible at cooking. No sense of style either - she dressed like a whore, and it didn't even look that good. Scavenging, on the other hand - the adrenaline that girl needed to kick it off was more than I could bear. She'd love scavenging. And I could have been the stay-at-home wife, taking care of food and clothing, keeping the place warm for her . . . was that what I wanted? Living the 50's couple life with another girl - with a motorcycle? Well, the patriarchy was dead now. I knew she'd had a couple girlfriends before, so she'd probably be up for it. I had never gotten the courage to . . . "experiment" like that. And it didn't seem like I was going to get another chance, now . . .0

I packed whatever clothes were left - even a pair of boots. Not Martens, but it was something to have pretty boots, even if nobody was going to see them. Well, I wasn't nobody. I deserved to be pretty for myself. I took a deep breath, and got up. Easy part was over, now for the hard part, I thought as I turned to her desk. There were notebooks - mostly empty -, and a bunch of writing appliances lying around. I pocketed all of them as well, and decided to take a look at her doodles later. With a heavy heart, I started going through the drawers. If she had a diary, I had to read it. And I didn't know whether I could handle knowing her that well, and knowing she was dead and that I was never going to meet her.

I opened the first drawer. More notebooks, brand new. Paper was useful. There were mechanical pencils at the back, and a couple ink pens. She seemed to like doodling a lot. I didn't find any diaries, or hidden love letters. I opened the second drawer.

Could it be? Had my prayers finally been answered? I gently picked up the tiny sacrosanct with trembling hands and held it up, looking at the label with metaphorical tears in my dry eyes. I fumbled for the nub at the side, and there it comes. Sweet, sweet release, in the sound of static and the voice of Freddie Mercury.

I lied down on the bed, pressing the player to my chest. I listened to Bicycle Races. I listened to Fat Bottomed Girls. I even sang along to the Bohemian Rhapsody. I was a little surprised I still knew the lyrics despite not having heard any kind of music for so long. Maybe I shouldn't have been - everyone knew the lyrics to the Bohemian Rhapsody.

With a smile on my face, I turned it off, gently putting it into the small breast pocket of my suit, and went back to scavenging. Two pairs of headphones - ones hung on the ears, ones with black kitty ears -, and a box of SD cards. It was tiny enough not to have its own storage, and she seemed to have enough music prepared. Apparently, the band on the poster was some 'MCR'. At least now I could tell whether they were good myself. I took the whole box, and packed it beside the player.

Well, only the bottom drawer left. Even the joy of 'Mamaaa~' dampened a little, knowing what I might have to do. Taking another deep breath, I pulled it open.

And there it was. Among magazines and loose sheets of paper, a single black notebook, with red borders, the name 'Aurelia' penned on a sticker on the front in beautiful handwriting.

I knew her name. Her story still existed, waiting to be read - and I knew where to find it. With trembling hands, I reached in, scooping it up together with the paper around it, and packaged it as gently as I could in my backpack. Despite how much stuff I usually carried, it was almost empty, and I could zip it up without having to think too much about it. I was holding back tears. I didn't sign up for this when I broke into this house. I didn't want to know about who lived here, or care about them. I wanted food, some comfort, and materials to tinker with, not the legacy of another life entrusted onto me.

Done here, I headed back out. I wanted to go home, drink something strong, read that diary, and cry myself to sleep in a fetal position. Some part of my mind remembered about the storage room, and the unpleasant stench that came from it.

I knew that stench. Zombies sometimes stank like that. Or corpses, when they've started rotting.

I climbed out of the bunker. I went back to the sofa. I sat down. I pulled my legs up. I hugged them. I started crying.

I woke up. It had started getting dark. I wiped my face and got up. I headed out, with my loot dangling on my back. Had it been worth it? Loosing another person before even getting to know them?

The walk back is enough to dull the pain, but not to forget it, never forget it. I have too much time to think about stuff. I can get by from one day to the next, surviving and not thinking too much about how many people have died. Sometimes I discover people I would have liked to know, people who deserved better. But I can't change it now, can I? And honestly, how many more have died and deserved it? I try to imagine it, all the abusers, rapists, murderers, screaming like the little bitches they are as their strongholds are overrun by zombies, and I can almost feel a smile on my face.

Zombies were a hazard, like broken glass or wildlife. You had to prepare for them, and they couldn't hurt you. The real monsters, the ones that went out of their way to hunt you down and make your life a nightmare unimaginably worse even than this apocalyptic hellscape? Those were now dead.

Guided by the last few rays of sun, I got back into my little cottage. I locked up the door, and dropped the bags off on their respective piles. I can sort them out when I can afford to have light. The onions I felt around for in my bag, and put them away in the Good Stash in the kitchen corner. The fridge didn't work, but it helped keep things organized. It was weird, insisting on putting food in a fridge despite all that's going on. One of those habits I couldn't get rid of, I guess.

I had actual bread for dinner. I quickly learned that flour and salt have almost indefinite shelf life, and even if it had kind of a shitty texture without all the other bread stuff, it was still filling. I had not realized how hungry all that crying had made me feel, now that I didn't feel like stabbing myself in the stomach. And despite the reassuring monologue on the way back, I did still feel kind of terrible as I headed back to bed.

I brought out my . . . toy. Kept it clean and loaded for special occasions. I had been so embarrassed when Berry first showed me hers. I didn't think she would have gone through with that dare, but apparently she had even been using it. I wonder what she'd think of me now. I didn't even bother keeping quiet - if anyone was close enough to hear me, I would be having an entirely different set of problems.

I went to bed exhausted - emotionally, physically, carnally. Something had to change, I thought to myself before I passed out.

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