As the sun set beyond the city skyline, Theia realized she had been hiding too long. Gently, cautiously, she opened the cabinet door with her right hand, straightening her glasses with her left. Faint afternoon sunlight pierced into the darkness that had concealed her. Through the window ahead, she saw the clouds saturated in a beautiful pink hue, which provided her some much-needed comfort, but it additionally warned her that night was drawing near. It was time to come out; time to flee…
Inhaling deep, she peeked her head out, but remained concealed. The peaceful gleaming light that soothed her shined down on a body that lied inches away. It was as cold as that winter day, and soaking in blood. She never directly looked at it. Finally, she made room only enough to fit through and crawled out, stepping over the body.
Cold rushed over her, seething through her shirt and jeans. Trembling, violently, she told herself, Keep it together. She was engulfed in fear, frozen stiff. No sounds, she discerned. The silence both imparted comfort and amplified the horror. Despite knowing what she would see when she left her hiding place, it failed to prepare her.
She walked with careful, cumbersome steps, but kicked something and nearly fell. She stumbled, catching her balance on the kitchen counter, then saw another body. Somehow, she couldn’t look away. She was as frozen as the corpse at her feet. The man’s eyes were still open.
He’s looking at me! She couldn’t even gasp.
There was no going back; the damage reached its furthest possible extent. She already saw the bodies, and was now forcing herself to see the others. Every face, she recognized. But she maintained her composure, reminding herself that focus was the key to finding an exit.
He was nice to me, Theia thought while passing the body on a couch as she made her way through the living room. That man had brought her to that house months ago, but he never mistreated her, unlike the others. She wished she had at least known his name.
Death everywhere… There was a silver lining to be found in the situation: she finally had her freedom. Now, to get outside…
Every creak forced a pause in her step, as did every whistle in the wind, or any other sound she didn’t cause. For comfort’s sake, she wished to know who else was alive, if anyone. She passed a window that overlooked all of Portland. There was no activity to see in the streets; not on the distant bridges, nor among the neighboring condominiums. None of it made sense. How could everything, everywhere, be so silent? Her mind questioned, and every conceivable outlandish, absurd explanation made more sense than what she was seeing. She considered the supernatural, which, surprisingly made the most sense. That guy in the kitchen… Did he really look at me, even though he was dead? Perhaps some colossal creature was running amok, trampling and eating every human in its path.
No, she thought. It was people.
She recalled the gunfire, the explosions, the shouts, and the cries. Before Theia had taken shelter in the cabinet under the sink, she witnessed a man’s head split open by three men with bats – the first time she had ever seen a dead body, let alone a mutilated one. Memory betrayed her, for the first time in her life. She was reliving the horror and witnessing its aftermath simultaneously. Her heart raced, and she began to shake.
“Hello?” she called, but kept her voice low. I heard something! Remaining calm require every last ounce of strength and will.
Theia lightly stepped toward the base of the stairs, never intending to see what devastation occurred on the two upper floors, but to perhaps hear if anyone was alive up there. Two bodies blown to shreds were sprawled on the steps, blood and bullet holes covered the walls. She looked away, but continued to listen. Nothing.
Before the smell could overwhelm her, she turned around and headed straight for the exit. The area surrounding the front door was covered in three times the bodies as the kitchen and living room, all soaking in a thick layer of dried blood. Panic consumed Theia just then. She ran, stumbling over the bodies. She vomited while opening the door, tripping onto her knees before she could close it. She crawled down the porch steps, onto the lawn.
When it was over, she took a few minutes simply to breathe and relax. After wiping off the small bits of stomach content that got on her hands, she stood. Rather absentmindedly, she checked her hair, feeling some kind of slime in it that made her blonde hair a slight brown in that spot. The sink, she figured. Theia attempted to pull the slime out. Of all that was going wrong, she didn’t want anything to ruin her one precious feature. At least one thing had to stay right.
Theia peered toward the greater city, which was only a few hundred feet away. That prison of a house lied directly outside the skyline. What was there to go on? There was no one around, no one in sight, to help her find her way. Everyone who could have was dead. “Where?” she asked herself. “Where should I go?”
Burnside was directly ahead, at the base of the road leading into that neighborhood. Downtown was the only direction with which she was familiar. So, she chose to run toward the city. Down the lot’s slope, and stepping onto Burnside, she found more bodies. Whatever killed these people, whatever seemingly killed everyone, she had to stay safe from it, and so she ran. Everything will be okay. I just have to find people…
It was strange to see Burnside so devoid of activity. In the past, it was one of the busiest streets in the city. There was nothing. Nothing living, at least, except scavenger birds and insects, and foliage that had already begun consuming the streets and buildings alike. Vehicles of every variety were strewn about, from civilian cars, to carrier trucks, and even a tank. The city was negligibly different from the house, like the aftermath of a massacre but on a much larger scale. It provided no solace.
Theia came across a block with multiple retail establishments. From there, she could still see the condominiums on the hill from which she came. By then, she didn’t fear being found by anyone involved in that slaughter. Running into the first store, she found it was empty, devoid of the living or the dead. The second store, same result, as well as the third and fourth.
I’m the last person on Earth. Everyone left me behind. Eleven and alone, her life ended before it had a fair start.
She remained outside, sitting against the front entrance of the fourth store she had ventured into. The pink hue of the clouds had turned dark, and with that darkness came the predictable rain. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she wept. “I’m sorry, Mom.” Tears ran down her cheeks as fluidly as a stream. She didn’t wipe them away; their company was appreciated. “What did I do? Why did you leave me?” she asked the sky, or the wind, whatever would listen. She hoped her father would hear her voice in the wind. It terrified Theia that she lacked the slightest knowledge of her parents’ whereabouts. Nothing could be done about it though, which she forced herself to accept.
After gathering herself, she pondered what to do next. Home, she thought. But, how to get there? None of the stores contained any bodies, she recalled, so she rose and walked to the one she had entered first. A clothing store. It was the best option for a place to sleep and stay warm.
Whatever strength she had in her legs was nearly gone. Her body still trembled, and felt weak. All she had endured since escaping weighed on her like shackles. The carpeted floor sufficed for a bed, and she chose to lay between cash register lanes. As Theia listened to the pouring rain outside, she removed her glasses and curled into a ball. For assurance, she reminded herself: I forget everything when I’m asleep, and then closed her eyes to sleep.
Unfortunately, it proved as difficult as finding company. The cold seethed deep into Theia’s skin. For what felt like days, weeks even, she tried to fight it. She would curl up more, or roll around to create friction. At one point she had gotten up to use clothes for a blanket and pillow, a little embarrassed with herself for not doing it sooner. But when she walked to the aisles, her attention shifted to her own attire. Everything was designed for casual times of day, far from anything suitable for winter. She smiled, finding it a little funny that she could take as she pleases without paying. After a while of sifting through the selection, she found the only item that interested her: a plain white long-sleeved shirt. She put it on. Something about it made her happy, though she couldn’t pinpoint the reason. Perhaps it was because the shirt was completely clean. At least it goes good with my blonde hair and my jeans. Still it couldn’t keep her warm, so she put on a plain deep-blue sweater as well.
Theia returned to her sleeping spot, attempting to rest and hoping to dream. For another hour she tossed and turned, until finally giving up. She stood, then dragged herself outside.
Following along Burnside, but this time staying off the road, she encountered a grocery store. The reprieve its sight bestowed made her smile. Upon entering, her heart sank to find that the place was almost completely devoid of food, or really anything else useful. Only empty cans, wrappers, and some cardboard remained. Graffiti plastered nearly every square foot of the floor, walls and ceiling, displaying repulsive writing and symbols. Everything that could break was already broken, from the windows, to the racks, to the registers. She would have to rummage through piles of scraps. I guess I have time, she thought as she began to do just that. Among the garbage was at least one useful item, which brought a smile to her face when she discovered it: a book of matches.
Now, the store was her new home, and those matches were sacred relics. ‘Start a fire,’ her father always told her in those stupid lectures about survival. He had been referring to being lost in the woods, or a desert, but the city was now an environment equally as wild, empty and hostile. Theia searched throughout the store for any large pieces of cardboard, knowing that it burned longer than ordinary white paper.
Among the trash enshrouding the floor, she found a digital watch, which was nearly as much reason for celebration as the matches. The time didn’t matter any, and she saw the backlighting was nearly completely faded; with a battery that low, it wasn’t worth keeping. She did see, however, the date, which displayed: 12/15/12. A shocking discovery. Apparently, a disturbingly vast amount of time had passed while she lived in that house…
To avoid losing track of time again, she got an idea. While continuing her search for fire fuel, she searched for a simple notepad. Rather absentmindedly, she collected piles of cardboard scraps until ultimately finding the item she sought. She promptly recorded the date on the first page. After tucking it into her pocket, she completed her salvaging, gathering as much as her arms could carry.
Before long, Theia successfully created a small fort at the front, by the registers, made of nothing but cardboard, then lit it. The flames were massive, and the smoke even more so. Another reason to be happy, another moment to smile. But she was quickly forced to retreat outside, suffocating from the thick black cloud.
Out in the parking lot, she spotted a small brown and black dog about twenty feet away, eating scraps of some kind. It dipped its head, sniffing the ground, then cautiously approached her. Must not have been good food, she thought. The fire behind her died down nearly as swiftly as it grew. Then, the dog fled. Her moment of happiness was truly just a moment.
Returning inside, she resolved to keep her piles small henceforth. None of the fires lasted long. Upon noticing her entire stockpile of fuel was nearly depleted, she moved outside, starting one final fire immediately past the front doors in the hope the light would signal anyone out there. But, no one’s alive, she thought. It’s pointless.
Everything was ruined, everything was destroyed. The remnant of a former world. The world she once knew, now filthy and infested.
Theia rolled back the bottom of her sweater and examined her white shirt. She saw that it had already accumulated dirt and was blackened some by the smoke. Well, I sure didn’t keep that up for long, she thought. Keeping it clean and bright as possible remained a priority, for stability’s sake, despite having already failed. After adding the last of the flammables to the fire, she collected a handful of her hair. Still clean, she saw. Smells like a campfire, though.
In those early hours of the darkness, she heard people speaking in the distance. It excited her immensely. She ran further out to locate the people and signal them over. But what she discovered was a gang of men, all dressed in black, each carrying at least one rifle in hand. Half carried a spare on their backs. She had regrets already. First, she snuffed the fire by spreading it out – another trick her father taught her – then she bolted back inside.
They saw me, they saw me.
Seeing them approach invoked fear she could physically feel, like touching fire. After she extinguished her only source of light and heat, it seemed the gang hastened toward the store. She knew she only had a moment to hide somewhere. Instinct guided her feet toward the back of the store, hiding among the leftover merchandise in the shipment area. From then, she could only wait…
Now, for a second time, Theia’s comfort was in absolute darkness as she waited to be safe again. She reassured herself thinking, If I can’t see, neither can they. If the thugs were present, she wouldn’t know, because there were no doors or windows left to open or break to enter.
Indistinct voices, impossible to discern. They didn’t seem to be conversing with each other. Ultimately, it was their footsteps which gave them away, particularly when one accidentally kicked something. Though a wall safely separated her from the main area, she stayed attentive, peering around, checking for flashlights.
What if they won’t give up? I’ll be stuck here the whole night. Or longer…
Hiding for hours wasn’t an appealing option, but it had been tested with success.
Theia decided to do some pondering while she waited, since time certainly allowed it. Questions for herself, mostly. Her primary thought was, Why am I hiding? Her father had always wanted her to ask questions, but emphatically reminded her to trust her instincts in dire situations. Impulse and instinct were for emergencies, because thinking ‘would only slow her down.’ She hadn’t questioned why she feared these men searching for her, but since she was now, she was beginning to consider coming out to meet them, merely for the chance they meant her no harm. Despite this, a more important thought countered the question repeating in her mind: Why are they looking for me? Theia only remained, laying down, preparing to sleep.
“HEY!” one screamed. “Get out here!”
It caught her by surprise, causing her to gasp loudly. No! Did they hear me? Fear consumed her, igniting a searing heat that spread throughout her body. But the cold continued to sting her skin. Everything was wrong , first with the world, and now her own body. She kept as silent as she could, petrified, with her palms pressed against her mouth.
“We’ll be gentle, we swear. You’ll learn to like it.”
After another minute, as the group grew more impatient, another said, “’the fuck are ya, little bitch? Come on!”
Learn to like what? Nobody likes being hurt. Why do they want to hurt me? A dozen more questions followed. The cold was catching up to her, overpowering her pounding heart and adrenaline rush, stiffening her muscles and causing her to shiver. Maybe if I talk to them…
“Fuck you, bitch,” one said. Theia heard them throw trash and slam the shelves, followed by stomping that faded into the distance. They were finally gone.
She felt terrible, the cold notwithstanding. What did I do? Her better judgment knew she shouldn’t have taken offense to their words, but their words stung regardless. Remaining there was best, she knew, because the night was young and that gang was the first sign of living people she had seen. Are there only those kinds of people now? she thought.
Curling into a ball, she folded the ends of her sweater over her hands, then tucked her arms up to her chest. She was alone. Truly alone. She wanted to cry, but her eyes already stung. Only her parents were on her mind at that moment. “Sorry I thought you abandoned me, Dad,” she said to herself. “I know you love me. I hope you’re still alive. I wish I knew where you were.”
Theia began to hear fighting in the streets, nothing more than a scuffle. Then, people shouted at each other or were screaming in pain. She was safe there, in the darkness again. She imagined her father sitting beside her, with one arm wrapped around her so that she could feel his presence and be reminded throughout the night that he was there. “Goodnight, Dad,” she whispered. He said the same, she imagined. Reluctantly, she brought herself to say, “Goodnight, Mom.” Then, she closed her eyes, hoping to live long enough to wake again.
The horrors of the night were forgotten by the next morning. She felt rejuvenated, more fit to handle her circumstances, more alert …, more alive.
Silence covered the city, again. It seemed almost backwards to her: Everyone’s awake at night, and asleep in the day. Anyone still alive, at least. Foolishly, she regretted hiding from that gang, because she might have gotten some answers about what was happening, or had happened.
With great hesitation, Theia snuck out of the freight room. They could still be in here, she realized once she was already in an aisle. To test this, she breathed in deep and held it as long as she could. With the extra silence that allotted, still, there was nothing to hear, and that was enough to give her a little more relaxation in her step.
Like the overall silence, and the desolation, the cold was ever present. It sure likes to remind me it’s there, she thought.
Back to square one.
Theia dreaded repeating the same course of action as yesterday. How do I avoid that? Resenting the notion of having another day of senseless cardboard burning, she decided to figure out ways to keep the fire going on its own. I need to learn how to do this right. Wood came to mind first, but she had no idea where to find any. There were some trees around, but none that had fallen over or had low branches. People must have already made use of the trees they could chop down. Most were stumps now.
Giving up couldn’t be an option, but it appealed more than risking her safety in the street again. I was lucky I didn’t get attacked when I was walking around yesterday. That gang could be close, waiting for me to come out.
She had nothing anymore. No one. Not even a toy to play with or a diary to confide in. Everything was gone. Everyone had vanished, and no one bothered to say goodbye. She questioned herself. She questioned her father again. Did he not want me anymore? Maybe I wouldn’t be here if he did. Suddenly, giving up was the least painful and least terrifying idea she had. Mom never wanted me. Did she make Dad hate me too? Dad always said he loved me, but… he’s gone… Theia stood by the windows, looking out at the ruins. The bodies had not moved, nor the fallen equipment. Maybe those people gave up too.
Sluggishly, Theia walked out of the store and leaned against the building. For a minute, she stared at the silent nothingness surrounding her before she slumped down the wall, with no intention to ever move again. She clenched her sweater, locking her hands in a tight grasp to the one thing she had left in the world. Her precious hair soaked in a puddle. No matter. Why should I try? she thought. Everything is gone.
Moments later, Theia’s eyes lit up. A group of young boys were walking in the distance, coming from the plaza she had first visited. They appeared to be approximately her age, and they walked with confidence, even laughing sometimes, like they weren’t afraid of anything. They must have known some things. Obviously, they knew how to survive. And they were happy, somehow. Strength returned to her body as she rose up.
Not everything’s gone, she joyfully thought as she ran toward the boys.