Waking Up to Nothing Part 4
A World on Its Own
My days started to run together consisting of rising early to train and returning to the safe house. I would crash almost immediately only to wake up and do it all over again. It felt like boot camp. I was getting in the best shape of my life out of survival, not for selfish gain. My muscles buckled in certain ways when I walked and my feet felt like I had burned a hole through them. All the while, my stomach was a constant, hungry pit that craved red apples.
If I was not training with Grace, Dee was my instructor especially after we had our heart-to-heart. They grilled me in every possible way by throwing me into situations that I was never comfortable with. They were even trying to teach me multiple hand motions to be quicker with my kill delivery like shooting a gun and throwing a knife in the same motion. Even when my muscles cried out in protest and my mind tried to allow me to be complacent, I was reminded that each day I needed to steel my entire being to comprehend this was for my life. I had to get better.
I had to confess, the longer I stayed with the group, the more I could feel the strings of a bond forming. Plus, more than anything I was afraid to be left alone. I didn't think I would make it ten feet out of the front door before I was mauled. Now that I was part of a group, it was nothing short of a miracle that I made it as far as I did on my own before I found them. My bones rattled in alarm as I pictured my earlier days out on the freeway.
I had moments during my alone time where even my little brothers and their shining faces could not shake the everlasting, soul-crushing terror lurking everywhere. I was determined to do this, but I wasn't so sure if I was capable. My adrenaline was a constant jolt to the nervous system while a swirl of chaos danced in my head. I recognized at times I was losing my ability to stay in touch with myself.
I had no way of determining what time or day it was, so I had been keeping track of my training days by marking a tally with my thumbnail. So far, I had made it to twelve sessions. Twelve days I had lived through. Just a little under two weeks. When I first learned of the zombies, it had already been an erupted mess for three weeks. Overall, it has been a month since it all started and it looked like we were not getting any closer to an answer.
If humanity were to survive this, I was curious to know what stories the history books would tell. The truths and the lies would become the mixed up history we would tell our descendants.
I was casually sitting on the kitchen counter as I munched on a red gala apple after a long day of training. My teacher for today was Dee, and she was working on bridging the gap between me and Carmelo. I didn't want to make a fuss over it, so I didn't discourage her efforts. Partly, because whatever she was doing was working. His glares weren't as intense and he could keep his gaze on me longer than five seconds without saying something disrespectful.
I reached for another apple, sinking my teeth into the sweet juiciness. Oddly, these apples were the only thing that really made me feel better. I was never a big fan of apples before but it was possibly because food rations were limited and I was working with what we had. They made me feel less...sick about everything. Grace swore over time I would get used to the putrid smells, but nausea would arrive almost instantly every time. Wrapping my face in a sheet only made it worse because of the intense blaze of the sun.
Grace had mentioned we would be traveling early in the morning out into what was named The Abyss. She believed I was ready for the journey into deeper trenches. After that first time on the roof shortly after I arrived, I managed to view the world around me with a harder heart. It wasn't an achievement as it made me feel forced to accept the ugliest and darkest scenes of the world. Trying to keep my composure under control was a daily, arduous task where I tried to convince myself that if I wasn't afraid, then I wouldn't feel the insidious emotion creep in.
Despite my neverending internal dilemmas, I had to admit I was more informed about the human anatomy from killing so many Zs. I wasn't sure if I would ever get used to the sensation of the blade slicing through thick layers of flesh and bone and blood. At times, the skull felt like cutting a watermelon, though I was always keen that it was not. No scenario was the same, and each one made me ill to think about because they used to be real people. The images lingered in my soul with the description of death longer than they did in my mind.
I trekked up to my bedroom for much-needed rest. Other than The Sisters, I kept to myself. It would be foolish to call this a prison, though there were times when it felt otherwise. We were all used to our old lives with the people we were used to interacting with. It was an intense rush to the head to suddenly stop those lives and turn into a soldier. This life did not spare the weak or the innocent. Our world was changing for the worst, and most days I had to hold in a scream whenever my mind settled on it.
I slipped into a dreamlike state where I was aware of my body on the bed but my consciousness was on another plane. Visions of thoughts and imaginations sprinkled with memories plagued my mind. Some were joyous while others were tumultuous and life-changing. In this state of in-between, something in the depths of my core began to move. It wasn't in the physical sense, but I could feel it inside of me as a familiar yet foreign entity. I couldn't put my finger on what it was or how to describe it other than it was very gentle. I felt it as if it were my own down to the cellular structure.
The energy was curious and playful like a child. Its essence wrapped around me in a protective sleeve that made me feel safe for the first time since I had awakened. I tried to hold onto that feeling of keeping myself engulfed in its glory. My hand reached out into the openness for the entity, to physically touch something so caring and soft. The connection was there like our hands were touching for the first time. Just when I felt the sizzle of electricity between us it stopped.
Then my eyes jolted open to the following morning with Grace’s firm hand on my shoulder with her short hair slicked back under a baby blue baseball cap.
“You ready, Perris?” she quipped.
I wasn’t, but I had no other choice. Her friendly eyes were not the welcome wagon I wanted to endure especially so early in the morning. I nodded and pushed up to my feet, shaking off last night's dream. It felt so real I was not confident that it was all just a dream, but no other word made much sense.
I pulled the laces to my tennis shoes, making sure to double knot them, and grabbed my things to head out the door with Grace. The sun was rising in the far distance. The cloudless sky was a watercolor myriad of oranges and pinks. It looked like the new dawn of hope. But even in the early hours, one could still hear the distressing screams of some unfortunate person from far away.
“Does it take long to get where we’re headed?” I asked before we took off into a steady stride.
“Yes,” she answered. “Our destination won't be easy. We'll have to cross through several deserted cities that make up The Abyss to our main spot called The Cap. It's a hub for the latest news on the apocalypse where people trade for supplies and try to shelter as many people as possible. Though how much of those last two are left is a mystery until we get there. Because of that, it is dangerous to be there."
My teeth worried my lower lip. “How far in are we going? Have you been there before?”
Her eyes scanned the area with sharpness. “Not too far since it’s just the two of us. If our group was a little bigger or Carmelo was with us, I’d say we could go a little farther. But I've only been once before now. ”
I felt the weight of the gun on my side as we traveled through the city and swiveled through various pathways. There were bodies piled up every so often in an effort to clear the streets as much as possible. Grace kept us off the main road to avoid any renegade survivors, though the closer we made it to The Abyss, the body count seemed to grow. The fires were bigger on this side, the sense of danger more prominent than in our little hideout.
The entire space of The Abyss was just as it was described—empty with the exception of death hovering around. Though we stayed close to the shadows, it did not negate the notion that these bodies were gathered in this particular area for a reason. I was afraid to open my mouth to say anything even if I whispered.
The further we walked into The Abyss, after miles of ground had been covered, I started to believe this area was an undisclosed burial site. These parts of the cities had been completely demolished and what little life was there, if any, was hidden. With a surge in deaths, it made sense to put the bodies somewhere, though it did seem like it could pose as a feeding area for the Zs. Just as the thought had crossed my mind, we noticed two Zs crouched down in front of a pile of bodies, devouring what they could into their mouths faster than they could chew.
Though we kept a safe distance, I could still see the blood splashing from their feasting as their fingers dove into decayed flesh more like starved animals. They hissed as they ate, greedily stuffing their mouths with as much as they could. Chunks of body parts were discarded like mere trash and literal bones were left as they finished their meal to move on to the next one.
Grace suddenly faced me with a finger up to her mouth in silence, turning on her foot to change direction. She was great at what she did because she had us take a path that was longer but safer. It was a path she was very familiar with thanks to Carmelo showing her multiple ways to get to her locations so she would not be adjusted to one single pathway. Plus, it had the least amount of foot traffic.
I did not speak until I knew we were far enough from the site that no one would be able to hear us.
“How much further do we have?” I asked, from behind Grace. Her eyes were peeled ahead, searching for anything that could be a threat.
“Maybe another couple of hours and we should at least be at the edge of The Cap where we can bargain without having to go too far into the city.”
Another couple of hours felt like another couple of days. The sun was unforgivable even in the shade and my feet were beginning to ache in places where they usually did not. Not only was I smelling dead flesh, but showers were also not as common. We did our best to mask the musk but there was only so much that could be done. I thought back to a simpler time when taking a shower was not such a luxury and how I itched for one regularly.
Grace assured me the mileage was worth the walk once we got there. Because things were constantly changing, part of me was afraid The Cap Grace knew so well would not be the same. Yet, I was already in the midst of the travel, and I was going to do my best to keep positivity at the forefront of my mind.
"I'll have to introduce you to the woman who has the red apples you love to eat," Grace said as we ducked under some branches that were covered in dark, emerald green leaves.
I responded with a minuscule upturn of my lips. I wasn't sure if it would be possible to really smile and genuinely feel it.
Since we were on the backroads with little activity, we found ourselves engaged in an easy conversation about The Cap. It was lodged in the middle of downtown Santa Ana. Grace was sure the area was swarming with more people and armed guards than before since the apocalypse was only progressively getting worse. If our government was doing something to save us they weren't making it widely known.
It was in an area known for bustling troves of people coming through a city that did not sleep. An area that was supposed to be chockfull of resources, yet the once sleepless city was now a restless city with vibrations of panic lurking under the surface ready to pounce at any moment.
The last time Grace was at The Cap she mentioned shootouts and brawls over food and water. Desperation, anger, and most of all fear were the central causes of this massive shift none of us were prepared to endure. This could be the end of humanity and we were essentially on our own to figure out how to make it out alive.
We were making a turn into another dirt pathway under a set of powerlines when Grace told me about a family she witnessed a family being robbed of nearly all their possessions.
"They had traveled for hours," she said solemnly. "Only to have it all diminished the moment they reached The Cap. They had a toddler with them, but the thugs were ruthless. They wore very unusual masks. They were sandy brown ski masks with red paint. It's how we've come to recognize them."
Despite the topic at hand, I felt like I was having a casual conversation with one of my girlfriends. "They are rogue survivors."
She nodded, her eyes animated as she described the group. "It's too hot for masks, let alone ski masks, so my only thought is they are desperately trying to cover their faces."
“Why use the paint?” I asked.
She nodded, her gaze thoughtful as she toyed with her chin between her fingers. “Yeah, it was different. You'd think they wouldn't want to stand out, but they maneuvered like they were trying to keep track of each other or something."
I was leaning more toward the or something. “Maybe they use it as an intimidation method. It's easier to commit a crime when no one knows what you look like and it's even easier in a group environment."
“I didn't really think of that,” Grace said thoughtfully. "It's not like law enforcement is going to punish them for their wrongdoings."
I shrugged, trying not to let the eery feeling of running into criminals settle. “It was the first thing that came to mind.”
Grace’s chocolate brown eyes penetrated me, now growing serious. “This isn’t going to be an easy life, Perris. But I truly hope we both make it.”
Her smile was small, barely a line on her face. I returned the smile, hoping some of her positivity rubbed off on me. “I do too, Grace.”
Just like she said, within a few hours we were approaching the outskirts of The Cap. It was a distant, broken-down metropolis that was littered with poverty and unforeseen dangers. We had made it to our destination.
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