Saturday, 24 October 2015

No Hero - part three

The sixteenth was special.

It was later I met him, a couple days later. I’d found a strip mall with a grocery store where the porch had collapsed, blocking the entrance. The rubble looked pretty heavy and all the windows I could see were intact, so I figured there’d be plenty of food and water left inside. I was really using my strength, really fully using it, lifting slabs of shattered concrete and shoving them aside, trying to make a path to the door.

That’s when he saw me.

I stopped when I realised I was being watched, stopped and stared back at him. I was waiting for fear, for him to freak out.

Instead he smiled at me. He smile was so big and wide and it was the first smile I’d seen in weeks.

He told me he had friends trapped in another store further along – they’d hidden in the store room when the shaking started, and the room had been strong enough to withstand it but the rest of the store hadn’t. The door was blocked and he’d been trying and failing to find ways to move the blocks to get them out.

Then he found me.

I thought about leaving, about walking away. But that smile.

I was helping him before I’d even really thought about it.

His friends were lucky – they’d been trapped in a supply closet, plenty of food and cartons of juice, and the door opened outward enough for them to get some fresh air and for him to pass through fresh supplies.

The smell when I finally got them out – I don’t have the words for it. They’d done their best, using just one corner of the room, but they hadn’t exactly been lucky enough to be trapped with a bathroom.

They were all so grateful when I got them out – he was crying, tears clearing the grey dust off his face and revealing the smooth dark skin underneath. They were all crying. It felt so weird, standing there, watching these strangers cry and hug each other.

Later he said I should have a nickname, like Captain Hammer or Princess Powerful. He said I should have a cape.

I laughed, told him that was a stupid idea. I didn’t tell him how wrong that felt.

It was hard to shake them after that. The group kind of presumed I’d want to head out with them, and he was looking at me like I was something special, and I found myself travelling with them.

We kept heading east, or trying to – we all knew if we could get far enough away from the coast we’d begin to find towns that hadn’t been affected, ground that hadn’t been picked up and tossed out like a rug, tearing everything up and off and scattering it across the landscape.

It was hard to know the direction we were going in. All of the roads were in bad shape, some so torn up they were impassable, and some of the streets were blocked with fallen buildings, crashed cars.

On our third day together we found a lake.

We almost literally stumbled across it – it was midday, we were exhausted from the heat and the sun and the walking. I was just thinking if I had to listen to nothing but cicadas for one more damn minute I was going to lose it, and then we turned a corner and surprise. 


We all just kind of stopped, and looked at each other, and looked at the lake, and then each other. I swear it was like a corny movie or something, this real touching moment for the heroes.

I don’t know who moved first but suddenly we were all running, running into the water, tearing off our clothes as we went, dropping our packs, not caring about who else might be around, who could try to steal our stuff. We sprinted naked into the water and flung ourselves in.

It was the cleanest, coldest thing I’d felt in months. All the grime was floating off us, off our skin, and I was struck by how different we all looked; under the grit of the road, hair lank with grease, we’d all looked the same, like grey ghosts of the people we used to be. In the water our colours came flooding back.

I found myself next to him, and he was smiling again – god, that smile. Water droplets were running off the tight black curls of his hair and he was smiling at me and I couldn’t help but smile back and then we were kissing.

Later, that night, we took each other’s hands and walked off, away from the rest of the group, to the privacy of the empty night. I climbed on top of him, took him into me, and watched him watching me. Still smiling. I loved that smile.

I rode him and watched his dark eyes cloud with lust. I rode him and wrapped my hands around his throat and watched the lust change to surprise change to fear change to panic. I squeezed, squeezed myself around him and watched the blood vessels bloom and burst in his eyes, watched until the whites were nothing but red and I cried out my satisfaction and release.

It was easy to just pack up and walk away from the others after that.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

No Hero - part two

The next three were a practicality.

I heard an engine, and when I saw it was a working car I could barely believe it. I literally rubbed my eyes like a cartoon character. Who knows where they had found it; the paintwork was scratched all to hell, the trunk was too bent out of shape to close and the axles looked warped – but despite its kind of rolling limp, it was a real working car.

And I wanted it.

I got close enough to see two girls up front and a white guy sat in back. I stepped out onto the shattered freeway and waved at them.

I don’t look much of a threat, especially being as short as I am. They were still wary, though. I guess they’d watched enough post-apocalyptic-dystopia shows to be cautious. The driver stopped but kept the engine running and I could see her looking around, looking for the trap, looking to see if I was alone.

The guy spotted me and started to get right out of the car but the girls knew better than that, they stopped him. I guess some things men just can’t learn.

I waved again, smiled, held my hands out and open. I waited whilst the women shared a short debate. The sweat trickled down my face and I wondered if the car’s air-con still worked.

I really wanted that car.

After a couple minutes the women let the guy out the car whilst they stayed inside. As he got closer I could see sunburn peeling on his face and neck; either he hadn’t been with these ladies long, or all three of them had only recently found the car.

He stopped a few feet away from me and I caught him checking me out. That’s when I knew how easy it would be.

I remember how trusting he looked. Idiot.

We made our introductions. I told him the carefully-edited tale of how I’d been surviving since the quake, how I escaped the wave. He was all smiles, like a younger Mr Rogers. I remember thinking I could have told him the bloody, brutal truth and he would still have welcomed me into that car.

The ladies were way more cautious; whilst he was talking non-stop, telling his whole life story, those women were unhappy even giving up their names. I couldn’t figure how they put up with him, how they hadn’t cut him loose already. I guess they didn’t think like I do.

I waited until we were moving again before reaching over, grabbing his face in my hands and snapping his neck. The passenger looked back, startled to hear him shut up for the first time in his damn life I guess, and I leaned forward and smashed her face into the dash. The driver was screaming, reaching for something under her seat. I yanked her arm so hard it nearly ripped off and her screams changed to shrieks before I snapped her neck, too.

I left them on the side of the road.

The car did have air-conditioning.

The tenth was a total cliché. He was actually hitchhiking. Like literally stood at the side of the rode sticking his thumb out.

I couldn’t resist.

He seemed surprised that I stopped, even more shocked when I let him in and casually asked where he was heading.

He really stank, I remember that, smelled like the kind of guy who hadn’t been big on personal grooming even before the quake knocked out the water supply.

It didn’t take him long to pull a knife on me, and it was all such a trope of the slasher-film-twist-ending that I started laughing as I took the knife off of him and used it on him.

I had to ditch the car after that. All the blood made it hard to see out the windshield and I couldn’t exactly swing by the carwash.

The sun was mercilessly hot and every sweaty step seemed like a lesson in why you should think of the little practicalities before killing someone.

Lucky for me, I didn’t have to walk far before I reached the next town. This one was busier than those I’d passed through before. There was less damage, I guess no surprise this far east, and more signs of people making an effort at repair. The other towns, everyone I’d seen had been in a kind of holding-pattern, just surviving whilst they waited for something to change. For the National Guard to roll in, the government to step up, the power to come back on, whatever. But they were just waiting. In this town someone had taken the lead and was getting things organised.

People stopped to watch me walk in – I remember they were cautious but not hostile. I remember thinking this was a town that hadn’t seen trouble. They weren’t stupid enough to be waving and smiling like the Brady Bunch or whatever, but they weren’t exactly trying to chase me out of town with pitchforks and torches either.

They probably should have been.

We had a real take-me-to-your-leader moment, some of the older white guys stopping me to ask where I was heading, who I was with, you know the type. I asked who was in charge, if I could crash for a few days, offered to help out in exchange for shelter. They took me to their head honcho, a guy who was still wearing his honest to god sheriff’s uniform. I nearly laughed in his face, the earnestness of it all, but I figured this was the kind of place I needed to watch my step. I kept my face serious and my eyes down. Little practicalities.

The townsfolk were friendly in a reserved way, helped me set up camp in a room in a house that was still almost intact, showed me were they bathed, the latrines, the dining hall. I figured they had a food store and a weapons cache too, but I wasn’t stupid enough to ask about them. I helped out, like I’d said, hid my strength, stuck to simple things like cooking, cleaning, carpentry, scavenging deserted stores.

After weeks of total freedom it made my skin itch and my teeth ache to keep smiling, keep behaving. I needed the break, though, needed a place to rest where I didn’t have to watch my back, somewhere I didn’t have to worry about dehydration. I knew if townsfolk started showing up dead suspicion would immediately turn to the newcomer, so I clenched my fists and kept my peace.

The eleventh was different.

I was waiting. Waiting for a scapegoat to show, or a diversion I could use to raid their food supply and hit the road again. Waiting for days whilst the tightness across my shoulders got worse and my fists started to shake when I clenched them, waited whilst I wondered if the waiting was worth it.

He showed up on my seventh day there.

Huge hulking white guy, still rocking a skinhead despite the hassle of keeping that up without running water and easy access to fresh razors, stained wife-beater vest that looked like it was probably stained before everything went to hell. The townsfolk let him in, but they weren’t all happy about it and he wasn’t exactly happy about all of them. They were suspicious of him, didn’t want him to stay long.

He was my scapegoat and my diversion. He didn’t even last a full day before he played his hand.

I was on my way back to my room when I heard them – his voice low, hers high and afraid. I turned a corner and saw them. He was grabbing at her shirt, looming over her, shoved her to the ground.

She picked up a length of piping and came up swinging.

He didn’t expect it and her hit knocked him back, made him loose his balance. She didn’t hesitate, brought the pipe round again at his head. He dropped to all fours this time, then grabbed for her legs. I stepped in behind him and stomped my foot down on his back.

We killed him together.

She trusted me with everything after that.

Later, I took her with me when I left. Didn’t tell her what I’d left behind.

We hit the road with everything we could carry, plus me with everything she didn’t know I’d taken. She used to wake up crying, sometimes screaming, said she had nightmares. She said in every dream she could hear that roaring, that rushing sound as the endless wall of water came flooding in. Said she kept dreaming of her family, what happened to them.

She’d been hiking when it happened, way up in the hills. When the ground started shaking like a monster waking up, she’d been out in the open – just fell to the ground, crouched there whilst trees toppled around her and the ground moved like a living thing and when it was over she stood up without a scratch on her. A miracle, she thought.

Until she heard the roaring. The rushing. The wave. She was high up, way above the town she lived in, and she had the perfect view of that wave crashing in and wiping out everything she’d ever known and loved. For those first fifteen minutes after the quake, before the wake, she’d thought she’d experienced a miracle. She said that was the worst part, the most bitter part – that irony.

She asked me if I had the nightmares, too, and I nodded, stayed silent, tried to look sad.

I didn’t tell her I don’t dream at all.

I still don’t know whether to count her, whether she was my fifteenth. We were taking a shortcut when it happened, the stupidest thing, she stepped on a section of pavement that looked safe but wasn’t. The slab of tarmac shifted under her feet and she fell down and sideways into one of those rips in the ground and the tarmac slammed back down onto her leg.

I left her screaming, too.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

No Hero - part one

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.

A burden.

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.

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.