Charlie’s dirt-bike spun on the loose gravel, nearly hurling her from her seat. She struggled to gain control of the steering as the bike spat rocks and dust out its rear end. Her bike swayed to the side and she gripped the handles, her knuckles turning white under the pressure. The sweat rolling down her forehead was making her goggles fog up so she could barely see. Vacant houses spun in her vision, until finally, the bike righted itself and she was back on track. She hunched forward, pulling back against the acceleration with every scrap of power that the adrenalin bursting through her veins could give her.
The bike roared and the wind ripped past her eardrums with increasing velocity as she sped, racing further and further through the town. The moonlight illuminated the path before her. Even though the desert air was cool and dry in the darkness, her own body’s heat inside the leather jacket made it feel as though she was stuck in a furnace.
She couldn’t get the image out of her mind…it kept staring at her, every time she blinked. Bullet holes. Blood. The face of her own fear, staring up at her with glassy, dead eyes and dirty blonde hair.
Damn this place. She could see the outskirts of the town rapidly coming up before her, where the quaint, long-vacant homes and gas stations spilled out into the sandy dunes before they disappeared entirely. In the moonlight, the desert looked like an ocean, frozen in time.
Damn my stomach.
“I’m gonna rip your head off, bitch!” An angry voice chanted behind her, breaking through the cacophony of sounds barraging her eardrums. The engines of the bikes chasing her sounded close, so close that it seemed as though the sounds of her engine and theirs had become synonymous with each other. She knew then that her near-spin out had cost her critical time.
The voice was even closer than before; they were right on her tail. Her heart pounded against her chest as if it was going to explode. She was tempted to turn around and see if they were gaining on her, but she resisted, biting into her cheek.
Damn my fear.
She revved her engine in response to their shouts.
One hour earlier
Charlie hit the brakes, slowing her bike to a halt. Nightfall was encroaching, and the sun was just sinking into the western horizon, painting the desert sands blood red. She lifted her goggles onto her scalp, resting them on what was hardly an inch of brown hair. The hair stuck straight up because of the wind and sweat, poking out in all directions from underneath the goggles. She wiped the ring of dirt and sweat away from her brow to keep it from slipping into her eyes.
She was headed east, running from the sun it would seem. Not for any particular reason, except that you had to keep moving to say alive. She straddled her bike as she removed her canteen from her hip and took a swig of water.
It had been hundreds of miles since the last sign of civilization, but finally, a vacant town spanned out before her. The buildings were old, from as far back as the 1970’s maybe, certainly from a few decades before the war. Even though it was old and long abandoned, remnants of civilization meant there was likely a water source, and probably some leftover gasoline. She’d used the last gallon in the spare drum strapped to the back of her bike just yesterday, which meant she was getting sloppy. If she hadn’t managed to find this place, she would have been completely out of gasoline, completely out of water, and completely fucked.
And out here, getting sloppy meant getting killed.
Her stomach rumbled as she stared at the town. Shadows began enveloping the buildings bit by bit as the massive sun descended in the sky. It slipped further and further underneath its blanket for the night, until finally the sliver of light vanished and all before her was covered in darkness.
She felt a chill settle into the dry, desert air. It wasn’t ideal to enter at night, but the very thought of food that wasn’t lizard meat made her want to cry. Especially Twinkie’s. The very thought of their cream-puff, goo-filled goodness made her start salivating like a starved dog.
The town was quiet enough, only the sound of the howling wind reached her ears. Silence encompassed the great expanse before her; the town was still and the buildings had long been empty.
She made up her mind. She was going in.
She dismounted her bike and pulled out her .44 caliber revolver to make sure it as loaded. She spun the cylinder, counting the spinning bullets before she snapped her wrist, closing the chamber and slipping the gun back into her hip holster. She leaned over and pulled a knife out of her boot, ensuring that everything was where it was supposed to be. She flashed it from side to side before she shoved it back into place, and then rummaged around in the satchel tucked under her armpit to count the ammunition jostling around at the bottom. There wasn’t much left. That was another good thing about shitty southern towns like these—lots of ammo.
She decided to push her bike the rest of the way, that would certainly be quieter than riding into town. The sandy dunes slowly turned into a loose gravel road that crunched beneath her boots and the wheels of her bike. She hated how loud it sounded to her, it felt like she was announcing her presence. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up as she slipped into the darkness of the town.
She looked around cautiously, checking for any movements or signs of danger, but everything was still and quiet. The houses, when cloaked in the darkness, almost looked as though they could have been inhabited recently. They were mostly intact, structurally at least. Windows were smashed out, garbage littered the roadways, doors hung ajar, and the homes’s insides were rampaged, but she’d seen much worse than this. This town probably survived for at least a little while after the war, based solely on their isolation from the rest of the world. She knew civilization would have inevitably crumbled, even in a small town like this where your neighbor Bob is your best friend and owns the gas station on the corner. But inevitably, the frenzy would begin, and hunger would slowly change your neighbor from Bob into a biological time-bomb in desperate need of food.
As she sifted through the meandering roadways, she finally spotted a gas station. Of course there were no lights, and the glass windows which had composed the face of the building had been smashed out long ago. The window’s jagged edges looked like teeth, and the inside of the station was its deep, black throat.
Her S.W.A.T. instincts from before the war were kicking in just from looking at the place; she knew it was a bad idea to enter. It just wasn’t safe at night. She couldn’t see enough.
Just get gas and get out. Forget the Twinkie’s.
She rolled her bike up to the pump and sniffed the nozzle. It reeked of gasoline; there should still be some left in the tanks. She painstakingly siphoned the gas and filled up her bike and the extra gas-can strapped to the back of her bike with bungie cords before her stomach rumbled again.
She stood still, letting the cool desert breeze send a chill down her spine before she turned around to stare at the gaping mouth of the gas station. It tantalized her with its potential. Everything around her was dark, silent. Like a grave.
There’s nobody here.
She approached the cavernous gas station, gripping her holster just in case. The washed-out 7-eleven sign was caked in dust and grime that had accumulated over the years of abandonment. The glass’s razor edges had blood on them, and something inside the store smelled foul. Smelled like somebody had died in there. This was good. Rotting carcasses aren’t left laying around when people are near; nobody likes to smell that shit.
She had to move carefully around the jagged teeth of glass as she walked into the store, and some of the glass scattered on the pavement crunched underneath her boots. The store was pitch black inside, she could hardly see a few feet in front of her. She rummaged around in the satchel strapped across her chest for a flash light. She finally found it, but the LED light was faint and flickering as she rotated the handle to power it. The twisting made a sound that reminded her of a movie projector, from way back before the world had been blown to fuck.
She shone the weak light from place to place, and she could see the store was mostly empty. The light trailed to show shelves that were ransacked and plaster ceiling tiles that were crumpled all over the floor, leaving looming caverns in the roof that exposed the insulation. There was definitely a carcass in here somewhere, and the smell suddenly hit her like a sack of bricks straight in the nose. She wretched, nearly vomiting as she pulled up her brown, sweat-soaked bandana to cover her mouth and nose. God, she could handle a lot, but the smell of death was really bad. She cringed as she continued, approaching the first row of shelves. They were mostly empty as she looked, but she grabbed anything she could from empty cans and bottles to plastic wrappers and stuffed them into her satchel. You never know when you’re gonna need something. You can’t find this stuff in the desert, this here was like a goldmine of garbage.
She scoured the shelves for any food, but it seemed as though this was going to be a bust. The shelves had probably long been empty. She sighed, turning around to leave and throwing her flashlight back into her pack. She’d only gotten a few steps when, suddenly, she heard a sound.
Footsteps. Glass. She knew it wasn’t her.
Fuck. Never go into a building at night; never straight down the middle. Fuck.
She stood still momentarily, her heart pounding in her temples and fear surging in her mind. She waited, trying to hold her breath as her lungs screamed for air. Sweat rolled down her cheek and soaked into the handkerchief over her nose.
She whipped around, ripping her gun from its holster and immediately unloading in the direction of the sound. Adrenalin pounded through her veins as the gun’s muzzle flashed blindingly before her eyes. The smell of gunpowder stung her nostrils through the fabric, and she stopped. She couldn’t see a thing, she could hardly hear anymore from the loud blast of the gunshots. It was the deafening silence that let her know she’d hit her target.
She fumbled with her bag, her hands shaking as she desperately tried to find her flashlight. She couldn’t hear anything but her own breathing through the cloth.
She looked up, shining the light at the sound—at the direction of her gun shots.
“Oh my God.”
A little girl sat in a pool of her own blood, riddled with bullet holes in a dirty, large black tee-shirt that draped over her small body like a dress. She’d had blonde hair, matted and caked with dirt. Blood dribbled from her mouth as she slumped forward, looking like a broken doll. Her pale blue eyes were wide open, staring at the floor. She couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old.
Her heart stopped. What the hell was this kid doing here. What the hell.
She stood, unable to move. Unable to think. She hadn’t seen a kid since the war; she didn’t know there were any around. She must have been born after the war, after the destruction. She didn’t even know that was still possible. She’d thought the human race would soon go extinct; the radiation having poisoned both the womb and the soul.
Charlie couldn’t catch her breath. The air underneath her bandana felt suffocating, so she ripped the thing off of her face and clutched her throat, staggering backwards.
Dear God…she’d just signed her own death warrant. Someone had to be here with this kid. The girl wouldn’t be here, she wouldn’t still be alive unless she’d been with someone. Terror drove her as she turned on her heels and sprinted towards the front of the store.
“Amy!” Someone screamed. It was a man, the voice was deep and guttural. She heard footsteps and stopped dead in her tracks.
Charlie threw herself underneath the cashier’s counter, landing hard on her side and covering her head as the voices entered the store. She ripped her pistol from its holster and hugged it to her chest, flaring her nostrils as she tried desperately to still her breath. The carbon dioxide burned inside her lungs like fire.
“Oh my God!” she heard the voice scream.
She cringed with guilt and fear at the sound, the panicked voice of a parent viewing their baby girl’s bloodied, bullet-riddled body. From her vantage point on the floor, she could still see the little girl, her glassy eyes staring at her as if to show her parents where to look.
A large bearded man bent down near the little girl. He took the girl’s tiny hand in his as his back heaved with silent sobs.
“What happened!” She heard another man’s voice enter the store. “Oh…”
“I told her,” the big man gripping the girls small, lifeless hands mumbled, “I told her not to run off…”
“Guys,” It was yet another man. She was desperately outnumbered. “We have to get out of here. Whoever did this is still here.”
The sobbing man, the only one she could see, stopped heaving. Suddenly, he got up and turned around, exposing his monstrous height to her and his blood-shot, flaming eyes that were filled with hatred.
“I will find you,” he roared. He sounded like a monster, like a lion bellowing for its cub. “I will rip you to pieces!”
She bit her lip, her eyes wide with panic. She could feel her limbs trembling. In fact, her whole body was shaking in fear. She could feel her teeth clattering inside her skull as she gripped the revolver.
Suddenly she heard something in her bag jostle. It was the bullets, her spare ammo. Her eyes bulged, and the man’s face suddenly jerked in her direction. He narrowed his eyes, taking a step towards her as if he couldn’t believe what he saw. Panic surged in Charlie’s mind.
“Don’t move!” She screamed, her throat dry and her voice hoarse. She extended her revolver, trembling. “I will kill you!”
The man clenched his teeth, nearly smiling as he eyed her down in the darkness.
“Do you think I have anything to lose?” He said, taking another step in her direction.
“Don’t do it!”
He took a step; he was practically on top of her. Her arms shook violently as she pulled the trigger. She flinched away from the muzzle flash, but there was none. The chamber rotated, the hammer clicked, but nothing happened.
Oh my God.
Someone grabbed her by the feet and drug her out from behind the counter before the man could descend on her like a savage animal. It was the other men, the ones she’d forgotten about when she started her face off with the colossus. She kicked with as much strength as she could muster, but she was no match for two guys, much less three. They drug her over the glass shards at the entrance of the station, slicing her legs and back so deep that she screamed out loud. Blood rushed from the wounds and she felt the heat soiling her pants as if she’d pissed herself. Maybe she had.
They dragged her over the pavement, scraping her head against the concrete before they finally stopped. They made the mistake of letting go of her legs for a moment, and she reached down and ripped the knife from her boot. They saw immediately what she was doing and tried to grab her arms, but she slashed at their forearms, slicing into the muscle. She’d hit deep, deep enough to get the fuck out of here. The men were only just reacting to the blood pouring out of their veins while she was jumping to her feet and sprinting to her bike. Her arms and legs burned in pain as she hopped into the seat and started the engine. The big man was barreling down on her, and she barely peeled out before he’d reached her.
He screamed, both at her and at his friends. “You’re dead! Get up!”
She accelerated as fast as her bike would allow before she glanced backwards to see them run behind the gas station. She heard their engines roar to a start, and almost simultaneously three bikes rode out onto the gravel road behind her. The men slumped against their choppers, their arms elevated to grip the obnoxious handle-bars so far above their heads. She clenched her teeth as she turned back to face the road, pulling her goggles over her eyes and leaning into her dirt-bike, flattening herself to decrease drag.
This was bad news. Her dirt-bike was no match for their motorcycles, not in speed; not in anything. They were already gaining on her, steadily growing larger in her rear-view mirror. She kept glancing behind her, her pulse pounding and her eyes wide. She couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid. She couldn’t believe she’d actually killed a little girl…
Possibly the only little girl left in the world.
She wasn’t paying attention. Her bike slipped on the gravel, nearly hurling her from the drivers seat and into the road before her. She struggled to cling to the bike as it tilted, tempting to spill onto the road and seal her fate. Finally, the bike righted itself and she hugged her body to the center, trying to still her breath as it escaped her control.
Come on, come on. Almost there. The desert wasn’t far away, she was going to be out of the town very soon. They probably wouldn’t stop chasing her, though. They wouldn’t stop until she was—
A bullet smashed into the back of her bike like a rocket. Her rear tire blew out before she could know what hit her, and Charlie tumbled into the street headlong, followed by her bike. Her body rolled in the gravel that bit at her bleeding legs and stabbed at her face until she finally came to a stop. The bike came sliding in and smashed into her back. Pain instantly shot through her spinal chord, from the top of her neck down to her pelvis.
Limp, she lay on the ground. The wipeout had crushed her goggles against her skull, and blood was running into her eyes. Her head felt heavy, yet hollow, all at the same time. Her ears were ringing and time felt like it had come grinding to a halt.
She looked up to see the motorcycles approaching. It felt slow, like she was dreaming. She tried to move her arms to push herself to her feet, but agony stabbed at her legs and lower back. She screamed, but she couldn’t hear it in her muffled ears. She trembled and grimaced from the pain as it felt like a vice squeezed her back with every movement she made.
Tears involuntarily flowed into her eyes. The salty water mixed with blood dripping down her face, and they splattered on the ground together into a pool beneath her head.
She couldn’t get her thoughts straight, but she instinctively reached for her bag and fumbled with the leather until she finally pulled out a bullet. Her hands were bleeding, possibly broken. Loading the gun was difficult; she felt as though she couldn’t control her muscles. The blood on her fingers made the bullet slick, and she couldn’t still her tremors. It was like threading a slippery needle. She finally got the single bullet into the chamber just as the bikes pull up alongside her, kicking up a cloud of dust.
They dismounted, looking like titans. The big one with fury in his eyes loomed above her, blocking the moon behind him so that it almost looked like a halo encircled his head. Her vision swam momentarily, the fog in her brain growing as time floated by.
Here, he’s come for me.
The angel of death.
She focused on the man’s eyes as she snapped the cylinder back into place.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger.