The first one felt like self-preservation.
I knew I couldn’t get her – so I didn’t try.
It was in all the safety information. “No heroics”. The ads literally said that. “No heroics. Don’t go back for people. Don’t wait. Run.” So I did. I heard the sirens sounding and I ran.
Later, I wondered about it. If I could have helped her. But nobody spoke about it, about how they survived, who they didn’t go back for, who they didn’t wait for.
So I stopped wondering.
The second didn’t seem to count. Those first few days, after it happened – it was all such a mess. We all did what we had to. I saw this guy, and the gang running after him, hunting him down, and I thought about stepping in. About being a hero.
But I was afraid. And I think it crossed my mind, somewhere deep down, that if I helped him I’d be responsible for him and he’d be another mouth to feed.
So I left him.
The third I felt bad about. She was trapped, her legs crushed – this was three days after it happened, I was amazed she was still alive. Her legs had started to rot, I could smell them as I got close, rotten meat and rotten vegetables from all the produce turning to mulch around her.
I’d gone into the remains of a grocery store, trying to find food, maybe some bottled water. I found her in there. I wasn’t the first: the store had been nearly cleaned out of anything canned, bottled or boxed. The heat was intense – no air-conditioning obviously. What wasn’t rotting was drying out, sort of mummifying.
There were a few bottles of water next to her, some empty, some not; boxes of crackers; a few cans; a can-opener; a torch. I could see where someone had tried to make a lever and fulcrum, tried to lift the concrete beam off her and failed.
She was crying. She begged me for help. To release her.
I’m still not sure what kind of release she was asking for.
I left her. I felt bad for her – but I took the water, the cans, the tools, the torch.
I felt bad that I left her screaming.
The fourth was an accident.
We’d both stumbled across each other in what had been a motel. I wanted a place to crash, had faint hopes of a stocked vending machine, ice buckets full of clean melted water, the lottery-win-remote odds of enough water in the pipes for a shower.
She surprised me.
I thought I was alone, was letting down my guard, was scouting for what I could use. She popped up from behind a desk, popped up and out at me.
I remember she was small, smaller than me, maybe younger than me, maybe a kid.
I hit her before I knew what I was doing, I hit her before checking my strength, hit her with no holding back.
My fist connected with her face and her head whipped sideways and there was a crunch and she dropped like someone had flipped a switch.
I checked her pockets, her bag. She had a gun, a pistol probably too big and heavy for her small hands to use. There were bullets, a pocket-knife, a half-empty pack of Oreos, a carton of milk so warm and swollen I didn’t even want to open it, a comic, a brownish apple.
I left the comic. Superheroes didn’t make me feel so good anymore.
I took her bag, packed up her stuff and mine. It was an accident, but I still needed to survive and she didn’t.
The fifth I barely remember.
What came before and after, it stands out pretty sharp in my memory. But the fifth, I guess it just felt kind of mundane. Trivial. He’d caught up with me on the highway, seemed like he’d been watching me for a while. Said he’d found that still-warm kid back at the motel, said he knew I’d understand, that I’d get why he had to take my stuff.
I don’t remember his face, his voice; it was twilight and we were alongside one of those huge rips in the ground, a fissure hundreds of feet long, totally black inside, like something had just grabbed the ground and torn it apart – which is pretty much what actually happened, I guess.
I remember he screamed as I shoved him in. I remember he screamed for a while and I was surprised, still able to be surprised, at how deep he fell and how long he screamed.
I don’t remember if I took his stuff first or not.
The sixth was vengeance. First for them, and then for me.
They were his friends, I think – they didn’t know exactly what had happened, but they knew something had happened and he’d been following me and then he wasn’t.
I’d been walking along that broken black tarmac when I heard them running after me, heard them shouting some guy’s name and then yelling at me as they got closer and could see my silhouette against the gloom of nightfall.
For those first few seconds I was scared, and I ran. Ran like I had when I heard those sirens and knew the wave was coming. Ran the way you do when your life depends on it – not just as a simile, but when you know your life literally depends on how quickly you can get to higher ground.
They caught up with me anyway.
They might have been older than me, were definitely taller than me, and I couldn’t sprint faster than they could.
I guess no surprises they survived the wave.
When they caught me they were all yelling over each other, grabbing my jacket, grabbing the girl’s backpack I’d taken, yelling their friend’s name, yelling at each other. I saw their hands clench into fists and there was a moment when I started to prepare myself to take a beating.
But then I lost it.
I’d never really let go before, never chosen to just completely, no-holds-barred, no pulling punches, no checking myself let go. It felt good.
They were so shocked at first that it took them a few slow seconds to start trying to fight back, trying to defend themselves. All I could hear were the wet, crunching, popping sounds whenever my fists made contact.
One guy, I hit him right below the eye and it was like his cheek disintegrated, his whole face just caved in and he dropped cold.
The others saw that and stopped trying to fight and started running instead.
I chased after them, but they were still too fast for me.
I went back to him, to my sixth. I was still so mad, so full of this lashing, burning rage. I kept pounding at his face until his head was just a smear on the pavement.
I felt better after that.