I am a shadow, moving through the deeper darkness of the night. I read in a book once that the sun brings life. If that’s true, then my world is dead. I remember sunlight—a hazy dream that slips through my grasp as I try to hold it. It’s like the memories of frilly dresses, apple pie, and Mother, just another thing I lost in the explosion. Now darkness is the only protection I have left.
The quivering flame of a torch comes into the room beyond the closet door. If they see me, I might not make it out of this apartment alive. My stomach clenches around the thought, but my stomach is always upset anyway. There are three people, dressed like me in ragged coats with hoods pulled up to cover their faces. It is meager protection from the cold and the radiation.
One person holds a torch in a gloved hand. The other person holds a handgun. It's an old-fashioned make, not like those the Coalition sentries carry. There's a good chance there are no bullets for the gun, but I can't bet my life on that.
Sweat from my palm seeps through my own thin glove and into the rope holding my broken kitchen blade to a makeshift handle. I hope I don't have to use it. Once, when a woman tried to steal a tarnished silver platter I found in a hotel, I sliced her hand open. I can still hear her scream, smell the tang of her blood. I had nightmares for days. But the platter bought Mardy an extra week in the shelter.
The three scavs are not being careful, but such a large group doesn’t need to be, especially with a gun. They are pawing through piles of trash, tossing useless items aside, holding others up to the light to examine them, and practically shouting to each other.
“Hey! I found some batteries,” a man says from the broken dresser in the corner. I wonder how I missed those.
The person in the adjoining bathroom scurries back through my line of sight to the dresser.
She has the hoarse voice of a woman used to yelling. “They’re corroded. Won't do us no good.” She slams the drawer, and the man yelps, yanking back his hand. He growls at her, but she returns to the bathroom with a casual air. Her boots crunch on the broken glass of the mirror.
“Everything is picked clean in this place,” another man says, the one holding the torch. He moves in and out of my sight as he lifts a child’s blanket off the bare mattress and sneers at it. “Even the curtains are gone.”
“Then look harder!” the woman snaps.
All three seem haggard in the glimpses I get of them, like the mangy dogs I sometimes come across on the streets—thin and worn. I wonder how long it has been since they stayed in a shelter. The thought frightens me. I don't want to get stuck topside again.
The man with the torch swings it around the room. The light stings, piercing my skull and amplifying my headache. I fight the urge to retch. Not now. They will find me.
The other man comes toward the closet. I cram myself harder into the corner of it. All the clothes are long gone, stripped by scavs soon after the mushroom cloud that changed the world. It happened halfway around the globe, but it affected everybody. Back then, the pickings were good. Papa brought home armloads of blankets and clothing that kept us in the shelter for months at a time. After eleven years, there’s not much left.
I can hardly breathe as the man’s fingers curl around the door. His other hand holds the gun. I can't throw up. I can't throw up. I repeat it like a mantra. But when has my body ever obeyed?
My stomach convulses suddenly, and I am dry heaving, the sound filling my ears with horror, but I can’t stop. The door jerks open all the way. The man stares at me. The other man with the torch appears behind the first.
“Jackpot!” the woman suddenly yells from the bathroom. “I found the curtains.”
The first man raises the gun. “We found something too. A girl, hiding in the closet.”
I fight to get control of my body. The retching finally stops.
Coming out of the bathroom, the woman holds up a dripping bundle. My heart plummets into my toes. This woman is thorough. She sees me, and her wide lips contort into a sneer that makes her look even uglier. “Thanks for the goods, sweetie.”
“Curtains won’t get us much.” The man with the torch frowns, peering at her bundle.
“There’s a packet of pain pills inside, plus other stuff.” She shakes the cloth at him, spattering water around the room. “Lucky there weren’t enough water in that toilet to sop through or you’d be sleeping on the streets again.”
The man with the gun grins. “That’ll get us a week in the mansion!” He turns to look at her, and I seize my chance.
I am already bunched tight. Now I use the corner to push off, uncoil my muscles like a spring, and leap on the man with the gun. I slash at his wrist with my knife, but it glances off the sleeve. He yelps in surprise, stumbling back. The man with the torch curses.
The first man is not as quick to recover as I am. I swing a leg behind his, knocking him to the floor with a thud. The woman grabs my knife arm, yanking me back. I spin to face her. She has dropped the bundle to the floor. I glance greedily at it, but she stands in the way. I spent all PM gathering that stash. The thought makes me angry, and I strike out at her.
She dances out of the reach of the knife, catching my arm again and yanking me forward, off balance. The man with the torch grabs me from behind, holding me in a grip surprisingly strong for one so scrawny. The woman delivers a kick to my belly. I double over, retching again. The man with the gun scowls down at me and swings the gun to bang me on the side of the head. I crumple to the floor, thinking that I was right after all. The gun had no bullets.
The room spins lazily around me as I listen to the sound of their boots clomp down the stairs. They probably figure I’m as good as dead, injured like this.
Darkness slowly returns. I struggle to get up, and the room lurches sideways, spilling me back to the floor. There is pain. So much pain. It throbs in my head in time with my heart, burns in the back of my throat, cramps my middle.
But I am used to pain. It is a constant presence in my life. After a time, I catch my breath, force the pain back. I push myself up again. This time, I stay up until the room stops spinning. I listen carefully for several agonizing moments. Their steps don’t return. They’ll be running to their shelter by now with their prize, glad to escape the AM and get a hot meal. I hope they choke on it.
I crawl to the spot where the woman dropped my bundle. The matted carpet is still damp. I want to cry, but my tears dried up long ago. I sweep my hand carefully across the carpet until I find my knife, then I struggle to stand. I catch my balance on the broken footboard of the bed. The darkness is complete again, unbroken by torches or candles. Not many scavs in this neighborhood. After this AM, and the spoils those three bring back, that will change.
There isn’t much time. I sense that AM is only a couple short hours away. I stumble to the corner of the room where I remember the man found batteries. The woman said they were worthless, but they’re better than broken wooden boards and easier to carry. I wrap them in the ratty blanket from the bed. At the window, I pause, scanning the street below. The sky is just beginning to brighten.
In the early days, Papa said you couldn’t tell AM from PM, the ash cloud was so thick. He said men ruined the ozone layer when they focused too much on their own anger and ignored the warnings of scientists like Mother. He knew the ash cloud would eventually disappear, but told me never to go into the light.
By the time his prediction came true, he was gone.
There is no one in the street below. Most scavs have already found shelter for the AM, whether in an underground basement they bribed their way into, or an elevator shaft, or even a closet. I think briefly about spending the AM here, in this apartment, but Mardy is waiting for me.
There’s more jagged triangles of glass in this window frame than the one I entered from below. I push at the shards with the blanket until they fall into the street below with a crash. My small body slips easily through the opening even as I avoid the rough edges of glass that remain. It would be awful to get a cut now. I don’t have the pain pills to pay a doctor.
Outside, I shinny down the rusted fire escape to the broken pavement a story below. When I get down, I wait again, watching in both directions of the street before I venture out of the shadows. The light is getting stronger now, coming from the east where the killing orb of the sun will soon appear. I’m wasting time, but somehow, I can’t move. It feels as though someone is watching me. I scan the street again, looking more intently this time. I look up at the building across the street, examining each hollow window. And then I see him, five stories up.
He would be invisible if he stayed still. But another figure moves in the deeper darkness behind him, and he holds up a hand. The approaching dawn outlines his form, dressed in gray colors like a scav. But there’s something strange about his face. He has a blonde beard and mustache that glint oddly, as though his face reflects the light of the coming dawn. Then I realize he’s watching me from behind a clear mask of some sort. I wonder if he’s Coalition. Scavs don’t have that kind of protection.
I wait, watching him, but he does nothing. The sun will crest the horizon soon. I can’t disappoint Mardy.
Hoping the man will continue to do nothing but stare, I slink away through the shadows, headed for Lincoln Shelter. I glance back frequently, but never catch anyone following. Still, I vary my usual route, making sharp turns and sudden changes of direction just in case.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish