Lorraine’s father drank Earl Grey tea because Captain Picard drank it on Star Trek. Now, she drinks it because it reminds her of him, the man who, years ago, had pulled her from a burning building with bare hands- eyes wild and swimming, and that inexplicable strength of terror that seemed to surprise both of them. He was gone now, her father. Trampled to death under a thousand fleeing feet, just squashed denim, an unburied streak and shattered eyeglasses.
So, if she finds Earl Grey tea, she drinks it and she thinks of him.
It’s no easy task. Boiling water is a pain. Finding clean water is an even bigger pain. But she suffers the routine, rising with the birds, stoking the dead embers of her fire back to life, working through the chill in her bones, through the damp clothes that stay mildewed and musty until well past noon, through the boredom and the sadness until her little pot of water is hot enough to steep the tea and coax a bit of blood into her finger tips.
She’s getting low on the tea. Who knows if she’ll ever find more? And when the packaged stuff eventually goes bad or runs out, she wonders if she’ll set about collecting herbs and flowers to replace what was gone or just give up on the whole routine.
She can feel the morning beginning to roll in; blink by blink she can make out more and more of the room she’s staying in- an abandoned house overlooking an overgrown ravine with slanted floors and the entire roof missing. She keeps to the top floor, where the sky is wide and clear above her. In one corner, beneath where a remaining section of roof hangs bloated and moss, she keeps her tent, two duffel bags packed with warm clothes and some books
The fire pit sits on a stack of salvaged bricks in the middle of what must have been the master bedroom, save that nearly everything had either seemingly slid out a large hole in the wall or had been looted. Whatever remained when she’d discovered the house had either been carted off into other rooms or tossed out into space.
She wouldn’t be able to stay here for much longer. The slant in the floor felt like it was getting worse; the whole house was heaving, teetering. Rain and animals and bugs and mold and plants- it was all finding its way in, wearing down the countertops, stripping the wallpaper, cracking the windows and rusting the pipes.
Holding the mug carefully, Lorraine climbs out the hole in the wall and inches along the edge of the house until she comes to a broken corner that juts out in a perfect little perch. She eases herself down with a soft grunt and lets her legs dangle out into space.
She sips the tea and thinks of her father and thinks about everything else that is just… gone. Working lights. Reliable medicine. A decent curling iron. Clothes, fresh from the dryer. Music that isn’t just some uneasy folksong around a campfire of refugees, crooned out by the son of someone shitty. Brunch chatter at restaurants. Texting. Movies. Artificial climates. A coffee made by someone else. Dogs you could pet. Shoes that fit. Privacy. Safety.
Somehow, it’s better to think of the things she’s lost rather than the things she still has- A sore back. An empty stomach. Dirty hair. Bug bites. Cracked heels.
The sky has taken on the soft glow of sunrise. She can make out the individual trees now, countless massive ancient things that must have been under some sort of heritage protection to have survived this long in the middle of a city. They wind along the ravine on both sides, giving the path below an almost magical quality.
Below her, she makes out the sound of movement. Of a twig snapping and of a throat clearing itself, muffled, but impossible to miss.
Lorraine takes another sip of her tea and waits.
She’d heard them arrive in the night. She can only assume that they’d somehow made out her fire through the darkness and decided to wait until morning to get a good look at what was going on up here- to see if it was worth the risk to get closer.
The person moving towards the house has finally decided that the hill out of the ravine is too steep for stealth and has abandoned it entirely, breaking branches underfoot and tearing at ferns and roots with growing irritation.
She can feel that energy- she imagines bad breath, the bleary eyes, the hangover, that base hunger.
It’s a man, about as big as they come. Big, gross beard, long greasy hair, a plaid jacket that’s dirtier than it needs to be considering all clothing in the world is literally free. He’s wearing work gloves, which she decides she doesn’t like the look of.
He stands in front of the house a moment, directly below her, breathing deep and sweaty. If he’s noticed her, and she can only assume he has, he’s given no indication.
The man heads around to the front of the house and Lorraine can hear him trying the doors. Eventually, she hears the side door open.
Waiting is the worst. She feels around in the pockets of her coat for something to do. Her knife is there. The cigarettes she’ll never bother to smoke. Some pocket change that came with the coat. Stale gum. She closes her hand around the locket and pulls it out a moment, checking it over. Worked and polished until she could literally see herself in it, it’s much larger than anything that could actually be worn around your neck. Shaped like a heart, she’d found it hanging on a wall in the kitchen of this house and figured it must have been merely a decoration. There were pictures of two children inside, one on each side, smiling in sweet, oblivious innocence. She keeps the photos inside mostly to irritate herself.
Still sitting on the ledge, Lorraine glances over her shoulder and gives a quick scan around the room and figures it’s about as good as it’s going to get. Her supplies are hidden, but they’ll be easy to find. Dried beans, pasta, rice, all triple bagged and waterproof in tight little pouches. The cans are hidden in the floorboards. The water is still sitting out, as she was just making tea.
She settles herself down to wait and watches the sky, now pink and glowing.
She hears a creak in the floorboards behind her.
“Mornin’.” He says from behind her.
“Morning,” Lorraine replies, as though this man in this shattered house in a world turned upside down was the most normal thing in the world.
“You mind coming down from there, little lady?”
“Nah,” Lorraine replies. “I don’t think I will.”
“Please,” The man says, that little change in his voice just starting to make itself known. She knows in that dramatic pause, he’s revealed some sort of weapon. “We wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.” He says, and she knows he’s proud of that little joke.
“Okay,” Lorraine says, standing with a stretch and heading back inside.
He’s holding a gun, casually, as though it were an afterthought, something he’d set down in an instant if only he could find a place to do so.
“You, uh, alone up here?” He asks.
Lorraine shrugs. “Are you?”
“Right, right.” He says with a small grin. “Maybe, maybe not. Something like that?”
Lorraine says nothing and the man takes a moment to look around the room a bit. He notices the pot of tea and his eyes light up. “Oh, my” He exclaims. “May I?”
He snaps the mug out of Lorraine’s hand, dumps what’s left on the floor then pours himself a cup.
Lorraine decides that he should die.
He wanders over to the giant hole in the wall. “The heck happened here?” He asks with pretend amazement. Lorraine doesn’t respond.
“Quite the view.” He says, returning his attention to her.
Lorraine stands very still and waits.
“How old are you, anyways?” The man asks.
Lorraine doesn’t like the implication of saying old enough to a man this size, so instead she lies and says “Thirteen.”
The man scoffs and shakes his head. “Nice try.”
He pokes around the room a bit more then decides he’s seen enough.
“I’m going to need you to turn out your pockets.”
Having nowhere else to do so, Lorraine begins setting her things along the edge of the fire pit. As the items get set down, the man picks them up and begins inspecting them. Most disappear into his coat.
He hesitates on the locket. “What’s this? A heart?”
“It’s a locket,” Lorraine replies. She wonders if she’d have time to smack him with a brick before he fired his gun. She also wonders if it’d do any damage. Standing next to her, he had her beat by a full head and a half.
“Yeah, I know that.” He says. “But why do you have it?”
“My father gave it to me.”
“It’s pretty big. And ugly. You wear this?”
“No. I keep it in my pocket.”
“Like this?” The man tucks it away with a grin.
Lorraine quickly holds up a hand. “That… That locket means a lot to me. I’d like to hang on to it.”
The man towers over her. “Doesn’t work that way.”
“It’s not even worth money or anything. “
He sighs. “Let’s just get down to it, okay? Show me where all your food is, or I’ll find it myself and I’ll have to hang around this place longer than either of us want me to, deal?”
In the end, Lorraine shows him the dried goods and he finds the canned ones on his own. He dumps the duffel bags with her clothes in them and fills them with the food. Slinging everything over his shoulder he makes to leave.
“It’s not supposed to be like this, you know.” She says.
The man turns to look at her. “Oh yeah?”
“It’s not supposed to be mine versus yours or every man for themselves. It’s supposed to be people versus that!” She gestures to the hole in the wall.
The man crosses his arms. “Right, right. And what’s that supposed to be?”
“Extinction.” Lorraine replies. “It’s supposed to be people fighting against extinction. Not fighting one other.”
She catches it then, a small shiver that runs across his face. This man used to be someone, just a regular guy, with a job and bills. And now he’s just this awful thing, spreading fear and misery wherever he goes.
She wonders if this man had ever been a father.
His face still has that stricken look and he reaches into his pocket. For a moment, Lorraine is convinced he’s about to shoot her, but instead he pulls out the locket and drops it on the floor.
“You’re welcome,” he mutters and disappears down the stairs.
Lorraine gives it a minute before crossing the room and retrieving the locket. It’s scuffed from where it hit the floor, but was otherwise intact. Brushing it of on her pants while she walks, she returns to the hole in the wall and slides back out to her perch. The sun has crested the trees, its rays warming her face.
Pretty perfect timing.
She can hear the man stumbling back down the hill below her, retreating back to his buggy. She waits a moment to make sure he’s on the move.
Then, holding the locket up into the sunlight, she closes her fingers over it again and again, fast and practiced. Incoming.
They answer back immediately; they must have been watching.
One man. She signals. Big. Armed. Loaded up.
There’s a pause, then the signal comes back. Worthwhile?
Yes, she replies.
Lorraine doesn’t even hesitate.