All was quiet in the town’s main street. No cars rumbled along the road, no children skipped across the sidewalks, and no birds flew chirping from building to building. This was a place that should be noisy, filled with the sounds of life. No such sounds had been heard here for a long time. Aside from the occasional rustling caused by some unknown creature, the last noises made here were the panicked screams of a dying crowd. No one knew where the many different monsters had come from, or why they had entered our world. They appeared from blinding lights, all over the world, and began a rampant slaughter of all humans they came across. Few survived, and even fewer stood up against the menace, resulting in the world of today.
Such morbid thoughts lay heavily on the mind of the young man who was surveying the street intently. He pushed a long lock of blonde hair out of his face before squinting his eyelids together. The problem was that danger was so good at hiding in places like this. Small bushes and patches of grass had pushed themselves up through the asphalt and flagstones-these made perfect hiding spots for smaller beasts. Larger ones could hide under abandoned cars and SUVs. Even the sunlight could betray him as carnivorous birds specialised in using the sun to hide from their prey. Still, there was absolutely no movement, and waiting around wasn’t going to make it any safer.
“Psst, Sandra, it looks all clear,” he hissed.
The woman hiding behind an overturned RV five metres away scowled. “You do realise that 'psst' is quite possibly the worst phrase you can use while trying to stay quiet, right?”
He smiled and waved her over. She moved quickly, staying bent over so as to minimize her profile.
“It’s a good thing you’re smoking hot, or I’d leave you,” he said in a mock-stern voice.
“Please, I’ve got you completely whipped,” she replied, looking at the general store across the street. “Are we doing this or not, Nikolai?”
Nikolai grinned. Sandra's fire had been the first thing that attracted him. “Whenever you’re ready, love,” he said.
Sandra smiled and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before darting out into the open, continuing to stay bent almost in half. Nikolai fished out the crucifix he kept on a chain under his shirt and kissed it three times before following Sandra. Their footsteps made a dull tap-tap-tap sound on the road’s asphalt as they made for a bright red Mazda sportscar. They had learned the hard way that speed was almost always as important as stealth, if not more important. When they reached the car, Sandra peeked inside the rolled-down window to see if there was anything of value. The keys had been left in the ignition, but the petrol cap on the car’s side had been popped open. That meant that someone had already come through here at some point and siphoned the gas out. Sandra waved Nikolai onwards, and he moved quickly to the supermarket’s entrance.
The sliding doors had been left wide open. Whether that was because of the lack of electricity or someone’s conscious decision to give scavengers a fighting chance, Nikolai didn’t know, but either way he was grateful for it. Smashing a window would be the easiest way to summon death in a quiet town like this. The young man pulled a six-chamber revolver out of the holster on his belt, just in case there was something hiding in here. Step by step he inched into the shop, looking into shadows and behind fallen boxes for any kind of movement. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be any.
“Seems clear,” he called over his shoulder in a low voice. He heard Sandra step out from behind cover and enter the shop quickly. As she passed Nikolai caught the faintest scent of vanilla. He didn’t know how Sandra maintained this-after all, it had been a week since her last shower and god knows how many months since her last bottle of perfume-but it was one of the things he loved about her.
“Remember, we’re running low on beans,” Sandra said. “Our can opener is getting a bit blunt too, so a new one of them would be great.”
“Sure thing,” Nikolai replied. He and Sandra started to walk down the first aisle together, each checking a different side. The shelves were about half empty, and most of the remaining stock had spoiled. Empty cans strewn about the floor said that other scavengers had definitely been here before them. However, Sandra found a few items of interest-a can of baby corn kernels, a deodorant can, a large filleting knife and three pairs of thick socks. Most of the medicine aisle had been looted, although Nikolai located an intact package of Trojan condoms and showed them to Sandra with a grin. The young woman rolled her eyes and pushed her way past him. When she wasn’t looking, Nikolai pocketed them. Better to take them and not need them than vice versa, after all.
In the final aisle of the store Nikolai found a disturbing sight. A young girl, no older than twelve, was dead on the ground. Still clinging to her leg with its fangs was a long purple snake with a yellow stripe around its neck and a rattle on the end of its tail. While the girl was quite intact, the snake had been disembowelled, cut open down almost its entire length. The blood on the floor was dry, but the girl’s corpse was relatively undisturbed, indicating that she hadn’t died until recently. Nikolai threw out an arm to keep Sandra from seeing this tragedy.
“Is something the matter?” she asked.
“You don’t want to see this,” he replied sadly.
“Grow up, Nik, I’ve seen some bad shit in my life,” Sandra retorted. She ducked under his arm but stopped cold when she saw the lifeless body on the ground. The young woman bent low and brushed the girl’s long brown hair once before retreating into Nikolai’s embrace.
“That could have been our Alice,” she whispered.
“Hey now, when we get to safety and can have a daughter, she is not going to be living in a dangerous world like this,” Nikolai said softly, holding her tightly against his chest. “We’re going to make it north into Alaska, high into the mountains where we’ll be safe. Nothing can stop us from having our dream.”
“How do we know that Alaska is safe, we only have the news reports from a couple months to trust. And we don’t even know if I can have a child. Sterility is a problem on my mother’s side of the family, remember?” Sandra started to tear up.
“That’s enough, Sandra,” Nikolai replied firmly. “There will be no problems, and even if there are, now is not the time to worry about them. Let’s just get out of here and back into the woods. Cadillac is only a week’s walk from here-perhaps the military quarantine zone is holding out.”
“You’re right,” Sandra wiped her eyes. Nikolai used his thumb to gently raise her chin and the couple brushed lips noiselessly, forgetting their troubles for all of a second.
Unfortunately for them, it nearly meant their deaths. They were startled out of their kiss by the sound of tin cans being stepped on and knocked about. Nikolai instantly dropped low and brought his revolver up. Sandra did the same, except she was wielding the filleting knife they had found. Nikolai raised his finger to his lips and peered around the aisle. He couldn’t see anything, but something continued to knock cans about in one of the other aisles. The creature began to sniff and snort, no doubt looking for something to eat. Nikolai knew that if the pair of them weren’t careful, it might end up feasting on human flesh.
Slowly they began to make for the exit, being sure to avoid making noise. They crouched over to minimise their frames and walked very deliberately, being sure to roll along their entire foot instead of walking on the tips of their toes. At the start of each aisle, Nikolai peered around before waving the all-clear to Sandra. The snorting and clanging sounds were getting louder, putting the both of them on edge. If the beast was paying even the slightest bit of attention, or even facing the wrong way, it would detect them and they would be in serious trouble.
When Nikolai reached the final aisle, he saw that he was in luck. The creature making all the noise appeared to be a small black dog with a red underbelly. There were some white bones sticking through its ribcage and skull, giving it a demonic appearance. The beast was pawing through the tin cans scattered on the ground, occasionally licking one. Nikolai raised his revolver and aimed down the two raised bumps on the top of the gun, lining up a shot. He was just about to squeeze the trigger when Sandra grabbed the gun and forced it downwards. She gave him a harsh look and jerked her head towards the supermarket’s exit. Nikolai suppressed an unhappy grunt but did as he was instructed. He strained his ears to try and make sure the beast was still engrossed in the cans, but all he could hear was Sandra's incredibly soft foot-falls amongst the metallic clatter. It was only when he reached the footpath that he dared look back. Sandra was right behind him, and the dog was still investigating the tin cans.
It was instinct to try and break line-of-sight with the beast as soon as possible, but Nikolai knew that this would just be a mistake. They had spent far too long in this town, and they needed to get out as soon as possible. He led Sandra back across the road quickly and they ducked behind the overturned RV. Just as they did so a pair of huge brown birds with red, spiky crests flew overhead, screeching occasionally.
“That was far too close,” Sandra said as she exhaled slowly. “If you'd shot, those birds would have alerted all the monsters in this town.”
“You're right,” Nikolai agreed. “At least we managed to get out safely. Have you got the loot?”
Sandra tapped her My Little Pony backpack. “All safe in here. Pity we only found the one can, though.”
“That’s alright, we’ll hit that small deli on the way back to the campsite.”
The young woman nodded and led the way, disappearing into the darkness of an alley. Nikolai shot one last look towards the supermarket, but he could no longer see the creature inside. He gripped his revolver a little tighter before following after the woman he loved.
The smell of the pig cooking over the fire brought Sandra's mouth to watering. They'd found it in a backyard on their way out of the city-no doubt it had once been someone's pet. The poor animal looked half-starved, so the sharp blade Sandra had introduced to its throat had almost been a favour. This lucky find had raised her and Nikolai's spirits immensely as neither of them could remember the last time they had eaten fresh meat.
Sandra cast her head around the makeshift campsite. Nikolai was sitting on a tree stump next to the tent, trying his best to keep watch. The forests here in Michigan had surprisingly little undergrowth and mostly consisted of straight, tall trees with few low-hanging branches. This meant that it was hard to be sneaked up on, but predators could spot you from a fair way away. A single ribbon of smoke wound its way into the air, a tell-tale signal that the young man was smoking again. Before the monsters had attacked, Sandra had been continually on his case about quitting, but what with everything going to hell, she figured that there were worse things to worry about.
Sandra picked a strand of hair and started to nibble on it as she stared at Nikolai. They had known each other for years back before the killer beasts appeared, when they were living in Kentucky. The two of them had lived a couple of towns apart but met by chance at a concert in Frankfort. Something about the lingering Russian in Nikolai's accent intrigued her, and it had only taken twenty minutes for the two of them to go from having met to making out against a wall. Ever since then they had been in a long-distance relationship, meeting up once or twice a month, but never for more than a couple hours at a time. This meant that they had not had any opportunities to take the relationship further, much to Nikolai's irritation.
When the monsters appeared, most of Nikolai's town was slaughtered. He managed to escape and he fought his way to Sandra's town, where she had miraculously survived in the town's church along with her family. Nikolai had wanted to spirit her away to Alaska, where monster attacks were supposedly very infrequent, but she refused to leave her family. When the monsters finally broke in, led by a huge fire-breathing dragon, it was only thanks to Nikolai's quick thinking that the pair escaped with their lives. The young man had forced Sandra up to the top of the church and then they both climbed out of the parapet and sneaked down the outside of the building. Ever since then the pair had been moving steadily north, scavenging whenever they could. They had yet to see any other survivors, but they often heard gunshots and Sandra thought once she had heard a distant scream.
Nikolai caught Sandra's eyes and sauntered over, a gleam in his eye. She had to admit that he was a very attractive man-his muscles were sculpted from a life on the farm, he had a regal chin, and that slightest hint of his accent melted her insides.
“While we're waiting for the pig to cook, why don't we have a little fun?” Nikolai asked, grinning wickedly and pulling out the box of condoms.
Sandra scoffed and shoved him onto his backside. “I can't believe you brought them back,” she scolded the young man. “We are literally running for our lives and you stop to grab a pack of rubbers?”
“Hey, I'm an optimist,” Nikolai replied in a hurt tone. “Besides, you wouldn't want to get pregnant while we're 'running for our lives', would you?”
“My point was that while we're trying to survive, banging is about the last thing I feel like doing,” Sandra shot back. “Sometimes I feel like you let my family die just so you could be alone with me.”
Instantly, Nikolai's shoulders tightened and he turned away. Sandra knew that she had gone too far, but the damage was done. Nikolai had helped defend the church for the few days he had been there. It was only when he saw the huge red dragon leading the attack that he had grabbed Sandra and pulled her up into the bell tower. Still, some small part of her believed that Nikolai preferred this world to the one of a few months ago. He had admitted previously that it was a lot more exciting than his normal life on the farm. Sandra, on the other hand, missed everything about her life. She missed the safety and security, she missed her friends, she missed driving in her car with the windows down. She had even grown to miss the insane amount of homework her Biology 201 professor had given her.
Sandra sighed and turned to look at the pig on its spit. She thought that she heard Nikolai mutter something but was too tired to ask what it was. He often tried hitting on her and while she appreciated it, this wasn't the time nor the place to make love. She sometimes wished that he'd just quit it, but on the other hand, if he ever stopped trying she would be worried that something was wrong. When she looked back, Nikolai had returned to his stump and was looking away, apparently sulking. Sandra stayed quiet and sliced into the pig. A delicious if somewhat slightly cloying smell wafted throughout the clearing.
“Looks like the pig is ready,” Sandra said. Nikolai didn't move, so she sighed and cut a piece for herself. She cleared her throat, trying to get Nikolai's attention, but he only shushed her.
“Don't shush me!” the young woman exploded. “Don't get pissy with me just because I don't feel like being pawed at!”
“Shut up!” Nikolai hissed. Sandra now saw that he was cupping a hand to his ear. When he turned around, there was panic in his eyes.
“We have to get inside, now!” he said. He held open the tent flap and motioned for Sandra to get inside. She immediately did so-Nikolai didn't joke around about stuff like this. He followed her in and zipped up the flap. They sat cross-legged in silence for a few moments until Sandra finally heard what Nikolai had. High-pitched squeaks filled the air, starting out quiet until they were deafening. Sandra couldn't see very well through the cream-coloured canvas but she could make out lots of tiny little shapes flying in groups throughout their campsite.
“What are they?” Nikolai whispered.
“Bats,” Sandra replied tightly. “Little sightless bats that hang out in groups and feast on blood. They shouldn't be able to punch through the canvas, though-they aren't very strong. They used to attack the church every night, but they couldn't get through the canvas window covers we put up.”
Sure enough, some of the bats had landed on the tent and were walking all over it. Sandra could almost see their fangs as they tried to chew their way through the fabric. She could see Nikolai shaking, so she reached for his hand silently. He took it and gave her a grateful look. Nikolai was very brave at most times-it was only when he couldn't fight something that he became scared. Despite this, Sandra knew that they would be okay-this tent was looted from an abandoned military checkpoint. The fabric was rated to withstand anything up to combat knives. Still, it was a horrifying experience: the two humans were less than a metre from a horde of beasts that would be only too happy to kill them.
Finally the bats grew bored with trying to get inside and they decided to fly off. Sandra and Nikolai listened to the chittering fade out slowly, until there were no noises except the occasional crackle of the fire.
“Man, I'm looking forwards to that pig,” Sandra said to break the silence. “There would have been little blood in it so the bats should have left it alone.”
She unzipped the tent flap and gave a quick look around the campsite. It was exactly the same as before the bats had attacked, with one exception-the cooking pig had been plastered in white, lumpy excrement. Sandra groaned loudly and stuck her middle finger up in the direction that the bats had left.
“People call them dumb and savage,” she grumbled as Nikolai left the tent. “Don't tell me they're dumb, those little fuckers completely understand every move they make.”
“Don't worry, we'll just cut the outer parts off,” Nikolai said. “It'll still be delicious.”
“Yeah, I know, it's just the statement that pisses me off,” Sandra replied, giving the pig an evil eye.
This statement seemed so ridiculous to Nikolai that he burst out laughing. Sandra followed suit soon after and the couple sat down to a delicious, if slightly soiled meal. The meat was a bit gamey and could have done with some flavour, but Sandra produced a small salt shaker and this made Nikolai's entire week. The two chatted as they ate, talking about how far they had to go and what supplies they would need. Nikolai was keen to try and find another gun as their revolver only had four shots left in it, but Sandra wasn't convinced. It had been gunfire that attracted the beasts to her church to begin with, and ever since she had been convinced that they caused more problems than they solved.
When the pair were done eating, Nikolai kicked some dirt into the fire while Sandra went to relieve herself behind a tree. They entered the tent and shed their outer clothes before laying down together on the same camproll. Nikolai ran his hand down Sandra's bare thigh, which earned him a sharp elbow. He didn't mind though, because there was laughter in Sandra's eyes, and the two shared a kiss before falling asleep together.
Nikolai awoke first. He carefully disentangled himself from Sandra and zipped open the tent. Just like last night, the forest was completely silent. Once upon a time birds would have been singing, but not now. Nikolai yawned as he stretched and cut a piece of cold meat off of the pig's carcass. It wasn't more than five minutes until Nikolai heard Sandra emerge from the tent. She'd already gotten dressed into her normal jeans and blue jumper. Sandra saw Nikolai looking and did a small twirl on the spot.
“So, how do I look?” she asked.
“You look beautiful, babe,” he replied. Sandra flushed a little and sat down. Nikolai kissed her on her forehead and carved her a piece of meat. The pair ate in silence, until Nikolai heard a rustle behind him. He turned quickly but couldn't see anything. Still, he had an uneasy feeling, like he was being watched.
“I think we should move on, love. Cadillac is still several days away. Besides, I have a bad feeling,” he said in a low tone.
A momentary flash of fear appeared on Sandra's face. The last time he had “felt bad” was the night that her family had died. She nodded and started carving up some of the remaining pig while Nikolai packed up the tent. He tried to keep an eye out while doing so, and even though he couldn't see anything, he was sure something was nearby. Once the tent was folded into a wear-able backpack, Sandra carved off as much pig meat as the couple could carry and they left their campsite, heading north. They walked in silence, with only the occasional breeze of wind and the snapping of twigs underneath their feet to break the monotony. Nikolai walked with his hand close to his revolver, and every time a bush rustled he spun around anxiously.
“I think everything might be okay now,” he said after fifteen minutes of fast walking.
“Good, because I seriously need to tie my shoe,” Sandra replied. She handed Nikolai the two pieces of meat she was carrying and bent down. Nikolai was taking the opportunity to glance over her rear when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small bush rustle. Just barely hiding inside was a knee-level green monster covered in black spikes and wearing a wicked grin. It was roughly human-shaped, except its legs were stubby and its arms were super long. It raised one of the arms and then brought it swinging down. Nikolai immediately pushed Sandra over, sending her sprawling into the dirt. She looked up at Nikolai, outraged, but the outrage changed into fear when she saw two jet-black spikes fly through the air where she had been not two seconds ago.
“Run!” Nikolai yelled as he threw the two meat pieces away. He drew the revolver and fired a shot at the creature. The bullet slammed into a tree as the crack of the gunshot echoed throughout the forest. The shot was enough to scare the monster back into the bush, but it retaliated with another barrage of spikes. Luckily, Sandra had managed to get onto her feet and the two were already running. Nikolai found it hard to hold onto the gun what with his sweat and the juice from the pig meat, so he re-holstered it.
“Have you ever seen one like that?” he asked Sandra between pants.
“No,” she replied, equally breathless. “It looked kind of like a cactus, though, and I've seen flower ones and tree ones before. That's probably how they hunt-hiding in plain sight as plants. Thank God we're not in a desert or we might have fallen for it.”
Nikolai turned his head back and to his horror, he saw that the little beast was following them. It was having trouble keeping up on its stubby little legs, but he could clearly see it behind them, darting from tree to tree in case it got fired on again.
“We need to find some cover and try to fight it off,” he said to Sandra. Fear immediately flashed across her face.
“Can't we just keep running?” she asked. “I don't want to attract any more of them.”
“It seems like it can keep up with us,” Nikolai panted. “Best to try and deal with it as soon as possible.”
Sandra didn't reply. They both dropped into a fast walk, turning their heads periodically. They soon lost sight of the creature, but they both knew it was still around.
It had been a stressful morning for Sandra and Nikolai. They hadn't seen the monster for over an hour now, but they had kept themselves moving quickly anyway, even going so far as to skip lunch. Nikolai believed that the creature had moved on, but Sandra wasn't so sure. She was convinced that it was just hiding, and waiting for a chance to strike. The couple was walking slowly up a steep hill when she was proven right. A quiet whistle announced that they were under attack again. Sandra looked around quickly but the beast was nowhere to be seen. She nearly wet herself when a black needle embedded itself in the ground right in front of her. The young woman looked up and saw the cactus-creature standing on a tree branch high in the air, grinning its evil grin. It fired another group of needles from its arm towards the couple.
“Come on!” Sandra shouted as she grabbed Nikolai's arm, dragging him up the hill. The pair struggled up the hill, attempting to zig-zag occasionally, but that just tired them out more than anything. They felt like the monster was toying with them, shooting to scare but not to kill. It was certainly working-Nikolai wanted to pull out his gun and try to shoot it but it was way too high-up in the trees to get an accurate shot in.
When they reached the top of the hill, Sandra breathed a sigh of relief. At the bottom of the hill was a clearing, and in the clearing was a makeshift campsite. There were tents and a couple of campervans and a single Port-a-Potty. Nikolai read her mind-if they were going to try and fight the monster off, that would be the best possible place. Unfortunately for the two of them, the cactus-beast had the same realisation. It dropped onto a lower branch and started firing the needles a lot faster.
“Come on honey, one last burst,” Sandra said as she started to run down the hill. Nikolai nodded while panting heavily. He followed the young woman down, heading straight for one of the vans. As they ran, something cylindrical fell out of Sandra's backpack. Nikolai bent low and grabbed it. He saw that it was a vanilla-scented deodorant, and despite the situation they were in, he grinned. Mystery of Sandra's alluring scent solved.
When they were but twenty metres from the van, disaster struck. The monster dropped onto the ground and fired a single needle from its forehead. The projectile flew straight into Nikolai's leg. The young man yelled in pain and stumbled, collapsing into a heap. Sandra heard the shout and turned around to see her partner laying on the ground. Nikolai was struggling to get up, but his leg obviously could not bear his weight.
“Sandra, get inside!” he yelled.
“I'm not leaving you,” she yelled back.
“I'll be fine. Don't throw your life away for me! GET INTO THE VAN!” he roared. Nikolai was almost out of his mind with fear-not fear for himself, but fear that Sandra would throw away her life needlessly. He might be dead, but she could still survive. Tears rose unbidden into her eyes and she backed into the campervan slowly, not taking her eyes off of Nikolai.
The young man struggled to turn onto his back, to try and see where the monster was, but he couldn't. He felt a sharp pain in his side, like someone wearing soccer cleats had just kicked him. He turned his head and saw the creature standing next to him, grinning that evil grin. It kicked him again, and Nikolai could feel its spikes penetrate his side. The monster made a horrible gurgling sound and kicked him once more, with such force that Nikolai was rolled onto his back. He clutched at the can of Sandra's deodorant, the only connection he had with her in this final moment of his life. Then, he had an idea.
Please, God, let this work.
Nikolai forced his hand into the pocket of his trousers as the creature jumped onto his lap. Its eyes shone as it raised its hands into the air, preparing for the kill. As quickly as possible, Nikolai pulled out his cigarette lighter and snapped it open, before spraying the deodorant through the flame at the monster. A tongue of fire lashed out at the creature, instantly igniting it. It wailed and fell of off Nikolai, thrashing at the dirt in an attempt to put the fire out. Nikolai wasted no time in spraying it again in a withering torrent of flames. The creature screamed and thrashed a bit more, but didn't last very long. It soon laid still, the fire burning merrily on the beast's corpse as an acrid, almost painful smell rose into the air. Nikolai sighed in relief, but the sigh soon changed into a pained gasp as Sandra crushed him in a hug.
“I thought you were going to die,” she said quietly as she buried her head in his chest.
“Me too,” Nikolai said, choking slightly. “Honey, do you mind? That little shit did quite a number on my side.
“Oh, of course.” The young woman retreated and wiped her eyes. “Knowing our luck, there's probably no bandages around here. Here, let's get you inside and I'll take a look at you.”
Sandra carefully lifted Nikolai up and helped him into the campervan. It was surprisingly clean, especially considering no one was home. Sandra laid him down on the bed and took his jumper off. She hissed sympathetically when she saw the wounds the monster had inflicted on Nikolai's side. There were five stab wounds, all fairly deep and mostly in a line. Thankfully they weren't so deep that Sandra could see bone, but they had started to ooze blood. She pulled out the few bandages they had from her backpack and wound them around Nikolai's chest. She also gave him the last few tabs of painkillers that they had. Sandra then had a look at Nikolai's leg, and she felt even worse. A spike the size of a pencil was embedded two inches into his leg.
“This is going to hurt,” she warned him.
Nikolai nodded and grit his teeth as Sandra yanked the spike out. Nikolai yelped quietly but otherwise was fine. Sandra used up the last of the bandages on his leg-thankfully this wound was much smaller and so wouldn't bleed as profusely.
Nikolai laid back on the bed and closed his eyes, appearing to drift into sleep. Sandra sat down on a small chair opposite him. She did nothing but simply watch him, her eyes roaming from wound to wound, but always returning to his face.
“You could have died, you know,” she said quietly.
“I thought I was going to,” he replied without opening his eyes. “But hey, that isn't what God had planned for me.”
Sandra rolled her eyes but said nothing. She moved onto the edge of the bed. Nikolai cracked an eye open at her, but said nothing.
“Does it still hurt?” she asked.
“Not much, no,” he said. “Pity we don't have any more of those pills. Tomorrow is probably going to suck.”
“Then we better make the most of tonight,” Sandra replied. “Do you still have that little package?”
“Yeah, it's in my lower-right trouser pocket. Why?” he asked suspiciously.
Sandra smiled impishly at him and retrieved the box. Nikolai started to grin.
Two weeks later
Sandra was very happy with the pace they had been making over the last couple of days. Nikolai's injuries had prevented travel for almost a week, and when she had decided he was well enough to be doing endurance walks he still needed to lean on her every now and then. Two days ago, however, he had managed to keep up with her without any help, and as a direct result, they had made it almost as far as they would have normally. Still, she had a sick feeling in her stomach that she couldn't make go away.
Nikolai, on the other hand, had been in high spirits the entire time, and she could guess why. It was funny how such a simple act of love could make everything seem so much better. He hadn't even had a cigarette since before the cactus-monster attack. At this moment, Sandra could see Nikolai leading the way through the forest, whistling under his breath. Only occasionally would he grasp at his sides-surprisingly, those side wounds were worse than the hole in his leg.
According to their map, they were only hours away from the town of Cadillac in northern Michigan. This was good because they were out of food. They had eaten their last can of corn kernels for breakfast, and had skipped lunch. Back in Lansing, when they had looted their tent from the abandoned military checkpoint, they had found fliers that listed all the remaining active survivor zones, and one of them was in Cadillac. Sandra and Nikolai were hoping that they could barter for some supplies there, and maybe even enjoy a hot shower, before heading off north.
A small twig snapped to her right, and Sandra immediately stopped moving. Nikolai stopped whistling and they both turned to see a young deer grazing amongst the trees. It moved delicately, nibbling only on the longest blades of grass. Sandra couldn't see any other deer around-this one must have been separated from its herd.
Sandra heard a small metallic click as Nikolai drew his revolver. He looked at her questioningly, and she nodded. The young man aimed down the sights and fired a single shot. The crack of the bullet echoed throughout the woods, chased by the panicked groans of the deer. Nikolai had gone for the safe shot, in one of the deer's powerful legs. It fell onto the ground and started thrashing around, sending clods of dirt flying.
“Quick, give me the knife,” Nikolai said to Sandra. She drew the knife from the side of her bag and passed it over to the young man. He walked quickly over to the deer, which was starting to stop flailing.
“Be at peace now,” Nikolai said quietly. “May God grant you entry into his kingdom.”
He stabbed the knife quickly into the deer's heart. It groaned once more before falling limp.
“Good shot,” Sandra said as Nikolai rolled the deer over and pulled out his knife. He started to gut the deer methodically, with the practiced ease he had earned through his years on the family farm.
“We only have two bullets left now, though,” he replied. “Hopefully we won't need them.”
“Yeah. Come on, let's put some distance between this place and us before we eat, just in case some monsters heard the shot.”
The next morning, Sandra woke up feeling sick. She carefully slipped out from underneath Nikolai's arm and started the fire up again. They had put it out the previous night, like they always did, but half of the deer remained on the impromptu spit she had constructed. Just as the flame caught hold, a wave of nausea rose, and Sandra turned aside as she threw up chunks of half-digested meat and occasional corn kernels.
Nikolai heard the noise and exited the tent quickly, wearing only his boxers. “Are you okay, love?” he asked in a concerned tone.
“Yeah, I just feel a little bit sick,” she replied before hurling up another load. “Maybe there was something in that deer.”
“I don't feel sick, but maybe,” Nikolai said slowly. “Perhaps we shouldn't eat any more of it. I mean, Cadillac can't be more than a couple of hours away. We'll just get something to eat there.”
“Good idea,” Sandra murmured. She wiped her mouth and stood up, preparing to go and get dressed, when a lightning bolt ran through her. Her period was already four days late. And it wasn't uncommon for out-of-date condoms to break...
Sandra sat down heavily onto the ground. On one hand, she was relieved. If she was indeed pregnant, she didn't need to worry about her potential sterility. Furthermore, Nikolai would be so happy! However, she also knew how Nikolai would act-he'd start trying to do all the work and stop letting her take necessary risks for the safety of the baby. Sandra decided that for now, she wouldn't say anything. After all, she wasn't even sure. Maybe it was the deer.
Nikolai packed the tent up quickly, shooting worried looks at Sandra but saying nothing. Sandra kicked dirt on the fire as butterflies warred with the sick feeling inside her stomach. They decided to leave the deer-any monsters that stumbled across their site would probably be too distracted by the meal to worry about tracking their scent.
The couple set off through the forest, being sure to avoid the roads. Sandra caught herself running her hands over her stomach, but she forced herself to stop. Strangely, she wasn’t angry at the thought of being pregnant, even during all of this chaos-it somehow felt right, like it was a point of sanity she could cling onto.
“It shouldn’t be much longer now,” Nikolai said, breaking her out of her thoughts. “Actually, it looks like the clearing is just up ahead.”
The sound of waves started to fill the air, the first consistent sound they had heard in weeks. Nikolai smiled and stretched his arms, warmly anticipating that hot shower. Maybe he could even coax Sandra in with him. As the couple stepped out and beheld the town, however, that dream died. Just outside the town proper were huge barricades set up like a fort, and Nikolai could see tents and RVs inside. However, it was all burning. Black smoke was belched into the air, the only movement in this tragic scene.
“Come on!” Sandra yelled, dragging Nikolai across the fields towards the barricades. They stayed low, and Nikolai drew his revolver, just in case. It didn’t take them long to find the entry point, mostly because that was where the largest smoke pillar was emanating from. The fire had burned low, but it was still putting out a lot of smoke.
The gate itself had been blown into tiny metal pieces, like by a bomb. Corpses were scattered all around, both human and monster. There were police officers, firemen, dog monsters, military troopers, huge scorpions, and even a couple horse-sized dragons, all scattered around like giants’ dolls. The only difference was that every single human corpse had been bitten or chewed on in different places.
“Everyone is equal in death,” Sandra murmured. Nikolai said nothing.
They couldn’t hear anything except the crackle of the fire, so they moved further in, keeping to the shadows. Every now and then they heard a twig snap, but nothing came at them with the intent to kill. It appeared that most of the fighting had gone on at the gate-once inside, there had been minimal resistance put up against the monsters. Every now and then there was a lizard blown apart with a shotgun or a huge, demonic crocodile with a collection of arrows embedded in its hide but the vast majority of casualties were humans.
Finally, they reached the centre of the camp, which held the most disturbing scene. Mounted machine guns were arranged in a circle and pointed outwards, no doubt a last-ditch attempt to repel the attackers. The literal mount of corpses told the couple that it hadn’t worked. These people had been liberally feasted upon, with flesh devoured and bones cracked and bodies ripped into tiny pieces. Families couldn’t even rest together in peace.
Sandra felt tears well up in her eyes, but it was Nikolai who took it the hardest. “Why, God?” he yelled, looking up into the unforgiving blue sky. “What could anyone possibly have done to deserve this?”
“Nik, be quiet,” Sandra begged, pulling on his shirt sleeve. “We don’t know if any of them are still here.”
He ignored her. “These were innocent families, only wishing to live normal lives together! How could you send monsters and demons to ravage our world? What justice is there?”
“Nik, shut up!”
Nikolai bent low and snatched an assault rifle out of a soldier’s cold hands. “These beasts deserve to be exterminated,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’ll kill them all!”
Suddenly, a roar split the air. It sounded like a rhinocerous, a primal and furious one.
“We need to go!” Sandra yelled, pushing at Nikolai. He refused to budge, instead turning in the direction of the roar.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he replied with his eyes narrowed into thin slits.
Suddenly, two huge SUVs were tossed aside like beach balls, revealing a truly gigantic monster. It stood over seven feet tall from head to foot, but the lashing tail behind it would have made its length closer to fourteen feet. It had a thick, gray hide which was raised around its chest and face like armour. There was a single horn above its nose, and red eyes boiled deep within its eye sockets. The only weakness appeared to be its cream-coloured chest, where the beast’s hide was noticeably thinner. In short, this behemoth looked like a rhinoceros on steroids that had learned to stand up and had made a pact with Satan.
Nikolai pulled the trigger on the assault rifle and sprayed metal at the creature. The rat-a-tat-a-tat of the gun was a reassuring sound, but the hollow-point bullets bounced off its skin easily, even the cream part. The beast roared and charged at them on all fours, attempting to gore them with its horn.
“Just like a bull!” Nikolai shouted, and they jumped to the side. The monster barrelled past them and crashed into the mound of corpses. It growled angrily and shook its entire frame, sending bodies flying and landing with dull thumps.
“Come on!” Sandra yelled. She pointed in the direction they had come. Nikolai grunted angrily, but they both ran, being careful not to step on anything. They could hear the beast roaring in the distance, but they also knew it wasn’t going to be delayed for long. When they reached the gate, Nikolai made to run for the forest, but Sandra grabbed him.
“We won’t stand a chance in the woods,” she said urgently. “That thing can easily outrun us. We’ll have to go into the town and try to lose it.”
Nikolai nodded tightly and they both moved around the edge of the barricade. The creature’s noises were getting closer, and there was an almighty crash as it blasted straight through the barricade not twenty metres behind them. It saw them and bellowed before pawing at the dirt, just like a bull would before charging. Nikolai turned and fired a few shots but that didn’t even faze it. He grunted in disgust and threw the gun away onto the ground. The beast roared one final time and gave chase, again pounding after them on all fours. The earth shook as it gradually caught up with the fleeing couple. Luckily for them, they reached the edge of the town first. Sandra kicked desperately at a wooden fence and two of the boards splintered. She ducked through and then helped Nikolai through. Instead of running, however, she dragged Nikolai behind a convenient dog house. Not three seconds later the monster barrelled through the fence, completely splintering the wood. It stopped and snorted angrily, looking around for its prey. The monster bent low and started sniffing at the ground.
Sandra tapped Nikolai on the shoulder and then raised her finger to her lips, indicating the need for quiet. Nikolai nodded tightly. The couple slowly stepped out, making sure to avoid stepping on any sticks or dog toys. It was terrifying, moving at a snail’s pace with a huge monster sniffing at the ground only a rock’s throw away. Occasionally it would snort and raise its head, but it never caught sight of either Sandra or Nikolai.
Sandra’s patience paid off. They reached the street and saw that it was a reasonably large one. They appeared to be in a residential district-there were a lot of houses, and a bit further down there was a supermarket and an olden-style wooden church. Usually Nikolai’s eyes lit up when he saw a church but this time his eyes stayed dull. Sandra was worried about him, but put the discussion off for later. She pointed towards the supermarket.
“We need to circle around,” she whispered. Nikolai nodded again, not trusting himself to speak. The two of them began walking quickly down the footpath. The destruction here was not as overt, but there were hints that something had gone wrong: occasional splashes of blood, overturned and rusted tricycles, cars crashed into houses. Sandra reached for Nikolai’s hand and they walked in silence.
“How did you know that would work?” Nikolai asked quietly.
“It was something I learned in Biology last year,” Sandra answered. “Herbivores tend to have movement-based vision. That thing looks kinda like a rhino, and hey, we didn’t have anything to lose if I was wrong.”
Suddenly, the beast roared behind them. It had made its way out onto the street and seen them moving.
“Make for the shop!” Nikolai yelled. They broke into a run and dived into the shop as the monster blew past them for the second time. Sandra heard a muffled crunch and a stifled yelp behind her. She turned to see Nikolai cradling his leg and rocking back and forth.
“I think I did something to it,” he whispered. “It wasn’t quite ready to take all of my weight yet.”
Sandra swore under her breath. She dragged Nikolai behind the cashier counter as the shop began to shake. Its walls were little more than windows with steel beams every few feet, but thankfully this was enough to keep the monster out. Still, the monster was more than happy to smash the windows and send glass flying everywhere while continually bellowing. Sandra looked around and cursed when she saw that the access to the forest was completely blocked off by a tall chain-link fence. However, her eyes widened when she saw that there was no fence behind the church. If they could just get to it without alerting the beast they had a straight shot into the forest. The only problem was that both sides of the church had been barricaded. They would have to go through it.
“I have an idea,” Sandra said to Nikolai, speaking over the destruction. “If we can get into the church we have a straight shot back into the woods.”
“I think you’re overlooking the problem of that huge fucking monster out there,” Nikolai snapped back. “There's no way we can kill it.”
“That’s why I’m going to go lead it away,” Sandra replied. She kissed Nikolai quickly on the cheek before grabbing the revolver and darting out of his reach.
“You can’t do that! It’ll kill you!” Nikolai cried desperately, reaching out for the woman he loved.
“Trust me, I’ll be back for you,” Sandra said. She turned and saw that the creature had now reared onto its back legs and was pushing at the store’s roof, perhaps trying to find another way in. Sandra ducked out through a smashed window and ran onto the road. Once she was in the middle of it, she fired a shot at the monster. The bullet ricocheted off the monster’s shoulder, but the round got its attention. It turned and roared at Sandra. This time, instead of charging at her, it approached her on its two rear legs, walking like a person would. Yet another sign of their intelligence.
Sandra turned and ran towards the houses, making a beeline for one that had an open door. She slipped inside and ran upstairs. The monster reached the house and started pounding on the walls, causing everything inside to rattle. Sandra entered the master bedroom and noted quickly that everything was tidy, like the mother of the house had just been through to make sure everything was clean. She approached the window next to the bed and opened it as slowly as she could. The creature outside continued to roar and pound on the house as Sandra slipped outside and started to shimmy down the house’s exterior, just like she and Nikolai had done when escaping the church in her hometown. The monster was invested in trying to bash a large-enough hole to enter, so she was able to sneak back across the road. Nikolai’s eyes were wide and it looked like he had been panicking.
“Thank God you’re back!” he exclaimed, holding his arms out to her. Sandra rushed into his embrace and they hugged for a couple seconds, until Nikolai pushed Sandra away.
“You ever do that again and I’ll kick your arse,” he told her.
“Please, you wouldn’t hit a woman,” she replied, sticking her tongue out at him. “Come on, time to get out of here.”
Sandra hoisted Nikolai up onto his legs and slid under his shoulder. Together, they walked out the now-smashed front door of the supermarket. The monster was still trying to get into the house across the road, and in fact had partially succeeded. Its entire upper body was inside the building, leaving only its legs and its angrily-thrashing tail sticking outside. Sandra jerked her head towards the church and Nikolai nodded. Carefully but quickly they moved. Nikolai grunted in pain a couple of times but he never gave any signs of flagging. When they reached the church, Sandra found both of the double doors open. It was a fairly standard church-lines of seats, an oratory at the front of the building, an organ off to the side and a large, gently swaying chandelier that was attached to the ceiling. Interestingly, the chandelier’s many candles were still alight, yet another indicator of how swift and recent the monster attack had been here. She sat Nikolai down on a pew and closed the doors, barring them with a long metal candlestick.
“That should hold for a few minutes,” she said to herself satisfactorily.
Sandra then heard Nikolai gasp and turned to look. Opposite the organ was a small impromptu nest made of kneeling cushions, and inside the nest were two small monsters. They looked a lot like the monster outside except that they were only the size of a small dog. They also seemed to be quadripedal, and a lot less armoured than the ones outside. They had a spine-like ridge up their backs, their horns were far less developed and their upper fangs protruded from their mouths. At the moment they were huddled together, silently watching the pair of humans.
“We need to kill them before they can kill us,” Nikolai said without any hesitation. He struggled up onto his legs by bracing himself on the pew and held a hand out towards Sandra. “Give me the gun.”
Sandra hesitated, but did as he asked. Nikolai turned and started walking towards the pair of creatures. When he was only a few rows from the oratory, one of them emitted a plaintive cry, strangely reminiscent of a goat’s bleat. Almost immediately the thrashing made by the big one outside stopped. It seemed like time had suddenly paused.
“That can’t be good,” Sandra whispered.
There was an almighty roar, the loudest yet, and the ground started to shake. Five seconds later the doors were struck by a huge force. Thankfully they were strong, and they held. The monster’s cries were now panicky instead of angry, and the bashing at the door seemed frenzied.
“I think that thing is their mother,” Sandra said. “There’s no way that shooting them is going to help us in any way.”
“Leaving them behind alive will just result in two more abominations to terrorize our world,” Nikolai replied angrily. “Them being in this church is a sign that God is sheltering them. Why would he do such a thing? If God has given up on us, so be it. Man must make his own way in the world, by the gun if necessary.”
The young man cocked the gun and aimed down the sight at one of the creatures. It looked up at him and squeaked, apparently not sure what to do. Before Nikolai could pull the trigger, however, Sandra rushed in front of him.
“I won't allow you to kill them, Nik,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“They're monsters!” he roared.
“No, they're babies,” she replied loudly.
“How do you know the difference?” Nikolai demanded.
“Because I'm pregnant!” she yelled.
All was silent except the commotion at the door. Nikolai stared at the young woman in shock, the gun slowly lowering.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“I have a feeling,” she said. “I think this morning was morning sickness, the condom was probably out of date, and most of all it just seems right.”
Everything faded out of the young man's focus. He slowly added all the clues together, just like Sandra had. They couldn't be sure, but just like she did, Nikolai felt something. When he returned to the world, the first thing he saw was the giant cross on the altar, and in that moment Nikolai knew that God had not left him after all. He rushed forward and crushed Sandra in a hug. She was stunned for a second, but then gladly returned it.
“Okay, celebration later,” he said. “Let's get out of here.”
The bashing at the door continued as Sandra helped Nikolai towards one of the side doors. The church began to splinter and crack as the monster’s relentless assault continued. The babies lay quietly in their nest, watching the humans’ every step. Sandra decided that they were newborns, perhaps even since the assault. That might be why the one outside was being so overly territorial.
Just before they reached the side door, there was a huge cracking sound. A section of the church’s ceiling gave way, causing the chandelier to fall. Chunks of wood fell along with it, and one large beam landed on the pair of baby monsters, pinning them in place. They started to squeal, and the outside monster’s frenzied bashes increased in speed. The chandelier landed on its side and rolled slightly towards the nest. One of the candles dropped onto the edge of the pillow nest, setting some of them alight. They must have been made of silk to go up that quickly.
Instinctively, Sandra went to help them. She dropped Nikolai onto a seat and rushed towards the creatures.
“What are you doing?” Nikolai exploded. “We have to get out of here! This is our best chance-the mother will be too busy trying to rescue her children to chase us!”
“Nikolai, I will not leave these babies to die!” Sandra yelled back. “They haven’t done anything wrong, and I will not condemn them for the crimes of their parents!”
She kicked the chandelier away and grabbed the beam of wood. The young woman pulled with all of her strength and was just barely able to roll the wood off of the two creatures. They yelped and stumbled away from the nest, hiding next to the organ.
The mother finally burst through the doors by ripping one of them clean off of its hinges. It saw the two babies huddled by the organ and the nest on fire and immediately came to the wrong conclusion. The monster growled, low and long, and started slowly approaching the front of the church.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Sandra said, holding her empty hands out. “The chandelier fell on them, and I saved them.”
“Why are you talking to the insane monster?” Nikolai hissed. “Let’s just leg it!”
“It’s just like talking to a spooked horse,” Sandra muttered. “It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you are calm.”
The monster continued to growl as it approached Sandra. It held its arms out like it was preparing to grab her. Suddenly, it stopped. Sandra looked down to see the baby monsters at her feet. They were making soft squeaking noises and one of them licked her skin through her torn jeans. The mother looked almost as shocked as Sandra did.
“I promise, I never intended any harm to your babies.” Sandra patted her own stomach. “I too am going to be a mother soon.”
The babies continued to squeak, but they ran happily over to the mother, who checked them over quickly. Its boiling red eyes stared at the couple, and Sandra could almost see the hate.
Finally, the monster picked one child up under each arm and turned to leave. It thudded out of the church and turned the corner, disappearing from sight. Sandra exhaled loudly and collapsed onto the floor.
“How did you know to do that?” Nikolai asked incredulously.
“I don’t know,” Sandra replied, hugging her knees. “I think these things are like people, you know, some bad and some good. We know that they’re visitors to this world, but who says they came willingly? Or that we didn’t fire the first shot? All it takes is one hunting jock to decide that mysterious new species would look mighty fine in his living room and all of a sudden we’re locked into a war.”
Nikolai paused. “I suppose you might be right. After all, killing never solves disputes.” He threw the revolver into the cushion nest and watched as it was enveloped by flame. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “After all, we only have about eight months to get to Alaska.”
Sandra smiled and slipped under Nikolai’s arm once more. She kissed his cheek and together they left the church, heading for the safety of the woods.