As she stood alert in the baking sun, sweat pouring down her face, neck, and back, the only thing that stood out in her mind was the memory of when she was ashamed to get a tan. Her tank top—ribbed and worn, not to mention stained with countless days of general bodily filth—provided little coverage as usual, darkening her already russet-coloured skin.
Clouds were nowhere to be seen, though that wasn’t anything unusual for the area. Neither was the humidity that made it feel as though she was standing in a pot of old, disgusting soup.
If anything, it was more nostalgic.
She wrinkled her nose, eyeing the dark hairs that sprouted from her arm, still from the lack of breeze. There, too, had been a time when she would have shaved them, ashamed that it would even try to grow. Now, she had let it sprinkle everything from her arms, legs, underarms, and unmentionables; it had seemed like so long ago that it was something that bothered her, something that actually mattered.
‘Don’t you think it’s a little un-lady-like?’ she recalled Tasha Jones’ unimpressed drawl that rang throughout the change-room. ‘I mean, you already look like a gorilla without it all… I don’t think you need the extra help, sweetie.’ The other girls that had surrounded her at high school had tilted their heads back, letting a collective laugh out like a pack of hyenas.
But that was back when Tasha still had eyebrows to cock at her—a face, even, to even have eyebrows—back when she didn’t know what a hyena even sounded like, and back when being a woman with a little bit of arm hair was the nastiest thing a girl in high school could ever think of.
Aurelia crossed her arms, smirking as she gladly let the memory fade away. Glancing down at the deep, dark hole in the ground, the mutant inside moaned as it bumped into the small, enclosed walls; she decided that there were far worse things in life.
“You’d think it would have just stopped,” Marcus commented, tilting his head to the side as he stopped to watch the thing. Bits of its flesh had come loose as it slammed itself hard against the cool sand, meters below the surface.
“Shouldn’t you take it out?” he asked, looking up at her with brows raised.
She rolled her eyes; his sheltered-ness was showing. “I’m not wasting a bullet on a comemierda that’s stuck so damn low beneath the ground. If it keeps going like that, it’ll kill itself anyway.”
It was clear by his wrinkled nose that the lingo was lost on him, but he didn’t ask for clarification. Instead, he went back to de-pinning the cactus he held firmly between his knees, silently thankful that Aurelia had suggested bracing them with an old saddle.
He dropped the needles in a pile, careful to save them this time.
Though she had known little of his life before, Aurelia knew a life of using a cash register solely on weekends and playing video games the rest of the time in his mother’s basement hadn’t imbued in him the idea of keeping something as simple as a cactus needle. It wasn’t something she had asked of the Pack members at that point, but only because it had been engrained in their memory, a force of habit. Yet sure enough on his first trip out with the scouts, he left the tiny pins behind; it earned him a severe reprimand and sole dish duty for a week.
“Are you retarded?” Sal had barked, his brooding eyes flashing as they stood before the camp. The Pack’s gazes darted between the two. “You’ve set us back days. Cacti aren’t just for eating—or do you enjoy drinking polluted water?” Head hung, Marcus had unwillingly committed it all to memory, lest he be humiliated like that again.
It had been Aurelia that had explained it—and how to better pluck the damn things out without ripping and wasting the flesh of the cactus.
There was something about the quills that allowed people to separate oil from water, a trait that the Pack desperately needed. Water was easy enough to stumble upon in some regions, but less so naturally potable water.
It wasn’t that he looked particularly dumb, but the fact that she had known that sort of stuff seemed to surprise him. Where he had known how to beat dungeon bosses in a multitude of RPGs and how to toast pizza bites to perfection, she had ended up knowing every goddamn thing about cacti.
The two of them stood there, just as they would on any other day: Marcus, on the ground, cactus clamped between his legs as he plucked away, and Aurelia, holding an old Kalashnikov as she stood watch. The sun wreaked havoc on their bodies, feeling as though it grew more relentless as the minutes dragged by; it was only made worse by the fact that the sand reflected it right back up into their sweaty faces.
“I-Is there a rag I can use?” he asked, wiping the mop of shoulder-length greasy hair from his face.
Aurelia shook her head, scanning the horizon for the umpteenth time. “No. Just use your shirt or something.” She tried to ignore the disgusted look that crossed his face as he used the back of his hand, but it was well-deserving of a roll of the eyes. She had never asked directly, but somehow, she knew he had been a coddled brat that had been above getting dirty before.
The monster in the hole let out a long, drawn-out moan. “Yeah, you think he’s a priss too?” she asked it lazily. Marcus’ discomfort from the sound changed minutely to pointed as he dropped her a dirty look. Her question was answered by another, more annoyed sound from the creature.
“Oh, absolutely. Definitely still a virgin.”
Another, more insistent groan.
“With you? Wow. That’s a rather generous offer.”
A shiver ran down Marcus’ back, and he shut his eyes, scrunching up his whole face. “P-Please don’t… egg it on…” His voice was barely a whisper that made it past his chapped lips, but it seemed to be just loud enough for it to hear.
Wailing, it scratched the sides of the hole, its rotting flesh peeling away fingernails from the incessant, needy clawing. As with any of them, hunger was the driving force, and its food source was so near, taunting it with every movement and sound. The creature was in agony; so close, yet so very far.
With every passing scratch, with every sound that resembled nails on a chalkboard, it touched a nerve in Marcus, reopening his fresh mental wounds that had barely began to heal.
“Shut it up!” he screamed, jumping to his feet. His eyes were wild, pleading as they locked onto Aurelia’s. Like a frightened, cornered animal’s. “Please, just—make it stop!”
That was it.
While she had already decided the boy was weak, she had also already been reprimanded for making newbies cry on their missions, even if it was just for a supply run. If Sal caught wind of how badly Marcus was shaking, how pale his sunburnt face had gone…
She dropped her gaze to the hole in the ground.
The creature’s fingertips were still about a meter from the surface, but, as she reminded herself, sand could give way unpredictably. While unlikely, due to the depth, if the hole caved in, the monster would have the chance of digging itself out and potentially getting back to camp. It was a lot of ’if’s that she wouldn’t normally concern herself with. With a heavy sigh, she leaned over the side of the gap and pulled the trigger.
A resounding pop echoed through their portion of desert.
The bullet hit its mark square in the creature’s forehead—or rather, what was left of it. Not that any of them had ever been pretty, but the fact that the thing’s grey-matter had already began to spill out pre-bullet probably hadn’t helped it get very many dates, she noted.
At least now it was out of its misery.
She turned back to her partner, hand on her hip. “Happy now?”
It took him a moment to remove the hands that had somehow jumped to cover his ears. His eyes were still closed as he slowly removed them, letting his arms finally hang by his side before he opened them again. “…thank you.”
Her response was a grunt.
There had been a time when she might have reacted similarly, but it certainly wasn’t this far in the game. She had to remind herself that, contrary to herself, Marcus had been found much, much later than a lot of the others.
It had been close to six months ago, back when the Pack was closer to the north end of the country. Supplies had been running low for quite some time, so they had done the rashest thing they could think of; enter a major city. She was sure Marcus was thankful they had gotten that desperate.
His apartment at the time, a low-rise built sometime in the sixties, had drawn all the beasts, clearing the roads. There had been what looked like thousands of them, all clamouring over each other as they struggled to get to the roof where he had barricaded himself.
Of course, at the time, her squad hadn’t seen that.
All they could have really seen from their spots on the ground, tucked behind buildings, was the fact that something had caught the attention of a majority of the creatures, leaving them to have free reign on the ground so long as they were quiet. Unnatural yearning pulled them in the building’s direction, regardless of the fact that some of their limbs were broken, bits of their skin had rotted off, or they lacked a lower body to properly propel themselves with.
She had learned long ago that that sort of stuff wasn’t a bother for them; they were hungry, and that was all that mattered.
At that particular instance, they were hungry for whatever was in that building, and as the Pack dug around in a 7/11 for supplies, they were grateful for it. Bagging vitamins, tampons, supplements—anything useable that had somehow been skipped in previous forages—a single yell had stopped them in their places.
A distinctly human yell, coated in a final plea of desperation.
It hadn’t taken a lot of coaxing to have Marcus agree to be part of the Pack once they had fished him off the roof. In fact, he had practically begged for it; having hardly stepped foot from his PC previously, the New World hadn’t been a welcoming one for him, certainly not one he didn’t struggle to survive in.
They all struggled, but together, the Pack made them strong. Ultimately, there were still things—barriers—that stood in everyone’s ways, regardless of how adept they were at surviving.
What had been difficult was getting those thoughts out of Marcus’ mind; the constant moaning, groaning, and screeching that came from their lips as he fought to get a few winks of sleep on that roof, surrounded by the dead bodies of his fallen comrades. Despite the safety of the roof, they had dropped like flies when it had been made clear there wasn’t enough food for all of them.
Cannibalism was one hell of a drug to recover from, but Marcus definitely wasn’t the only one getting clean. Desperation had driven a lot of people to things they would have never done otherwise; all that mattered now was that they didn’t have to ever take a step backward.
Sighing, Aurelia tilted the gun and rested it back onto her shoulder. “Happy now?” she asked, hoping she sounded a little genuine; it had never come easy to her, and she hoped it did. His expression told her she didn’t. “It’s dead.”
As he peered over the side of the hole, sure enough, the creature had stopped moving. More importantly, it had stopped making any sound. Its greyed flesh hung on bones that remained ever still, not a breath or pulse to move them.
With a shiver, slowly, he pulled away again. “I… I still hear them in my sleep, you know?”
She did, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. “You’ll get used to it. It’ll be like crickets in the night after a while.”
He flinched as another moan broke the silence between them. “Heh. I guess my brain just won’t let me forget. I still hear that one,” he explained, pointing to the carcass in the hole.
Aurelia whipped around, scanning the horizon. Her stomach came crashing to the floor as more moans, a collective, floated through the air. ‘Fuck. This area was supposed to have been cleared!’
It was only as he studied her that Marcus realized he hadn’t imaged the sound. The colour drained from his sunburnt face, his heart pounding uncomfortably in his throat.
They had either heard the gun go off, or else were notified by their trapped buddy screaming its head off. Whatever the case was, the two of them knew they needed to scurry, and fast.
“Throw everything in,” Aurelia ordered, tossing him the satchel. “We’ll worry about the spikes later.”
Marcus nodded severely, his palms sweating as he shoved as much of the de-pinned cacti inside, setting the quills in another pocket as hastily as possible without eviscerating his hands. That was the problem with cacti; you couldn’t pack any of them in bags until their danger had been removed without risking cuts and infection.
As if they needed anything else to go wrong.
“Done!” he gasped, looking up at her from the ground. He struggled to his feet, adrenalin pounding in his ears.
The sounds had grown stronger, more lively, no doubt because they had caught their scent. Aurelia watched as the creatures made their way toward them, hoping there wouldn’t be more than seven. Even if she managed a headshot for each of them—and at this distance, there was no guarantee she would—her bullets were still limited. And given that this sector of the desert was supposed to have been cleared, she hadn’t given much thought to bringing extra.
“Fuck!” she screamed, whipping around.
She was met with the terrified face of Marcus.
If she was panicking, the thought of his own survival flew out the window. Never the fighter, his lanky legs would have at least allowed him to outrun the creatures—if only he had ever taken the time to really use them before all this. Even so, his knees braced themselves at the ready, begging him to turn tail and bolt.
“Let’s get out of here,” she commanded, yanking him away from the swarm by his arm.
He didn’t need to be told twice.
The two of them marched themselves as best they could through the awkward plains of sand, their ankles twisting at odd angles as they fought against not only the terrain but time itself. Aurelia didn’t dare risk any shots from their distance; she might have had decent aim, but there was no use in risking it, let alone attracting more attention.
‘Don’t waste your bullets!’
Sal had drilled that into them—everyone—from day one. Why had she bothered with it this time? Casting a sideways glance at Marcus as they ran, she wondered if letting him sit through the sound, regardless of how traumatizing it was for him, would have been worth it. ’Probably.’
But there was no time to think about that now. Every footfall counted, and she wasn’t about to risk wasting rounds. Every bullet was precious, and there was still a possibility of the creatures losing their scent if they ran far enough ahead.
That was the hope, anyway; camp was still an hour away.