Überleben der Stärksten
(Survival of the Fittest)
account by Alex Arbeit
Edited slightly for content from Alex’s account concerning the events of the northeastern blizzard of 2014. Contains graphic material that may be found disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
“Do you think you’ll find peace after what happened?”
“I don’t know. But if I ever do, it’ll be because of her.”
It all started one Monday in November, during the time when the air becomes chill and boys abandon their plots of acting tough by not wearing jackets. I don’t usually watch the news, because all they ever talk about is politicians, crimes, and weather. But I woke up pretty early in the morning, and I had a few minutes to kill, so I just collapsed on the couch and stared blankly at the television screen. I wasn’t really watching, more thinking about what I would do when I got home from school – sleeping was the only thing that came to mind. I noticed, not unusually, that there were northern regions of the country that had several feet of snow; I simply ignored this information, but in the back of my mind I knew that we, too, would suffer the wrath of Mother Nature before long. Of course, the weather allowed for days off of school, and those couldn’t come too often. I couldn’t complain about that.
I grabbed my military-style camo backpack full of unfinished assignments, along with my pocket knife (as long as I don’t get caught, I’m fine, right?), the keys to my truck, and my wallet, before putting on my leather jacket and heading out the door. As soon as the wind hit me, I felt disoriented by the cold. But I toughened up and booked it to my vehicle. When I got in, I immediately hit the defrost button and waited for the truck to heat up while I shivered helplessly. I put the truck into drive when I was satisfied enough and I headed out to the school.
The day was boring, as usual. More homework due, but I can finish that before the bell rings tomorrow morning. My big brother asked me to pick up some groceries from the store when I was driving home, and since he was sick at home, I had no other option. So I drove my way down into the nearest supermarket and walked in. The air was cold outside, and it had just begun to snow, so I was glad to get into the warmth of the supermarket. I looked in the pharmacy for Vitamin-C and cough syrup, but they were out of both.
That’s when it happened. I heard over the store’s intercom: “Attention Customers, weather conditions are growing worse outside. Please leave the store as soon as possible, or you may be stuck inside for awhile.”
So I said to myself: “Crap. I won’t have time to get any of this stuff for my brother; I have to leave before I’m snowed in.” I then immediately exited the store and got in my truck. I turned the key, but the truck only sputtered and choked; it was able to start after several attempts, but when I tried driving off, the truck stayed put and the wheels turned until gravel pattered the side of my vehicle. I smashed the steering wheel with my fist in rage, because I knew that I would have to wait inside the store until weather conditions improved.
But that was only the beginning.
Chapter 1, Day One
Swearing to myself, I opened the door to my truck and hurried back inside. There were a few others that couldn’t leave also, but that didn’t cheer me up. I wanted to go home and take a hot shower before passing out on my bed. But now I have to stay here in this friggin’ supermarket until the snow melts, which, by our state’s standards, will probably be in another few days.
At least there’s a bright side. We have plenty of food, and it’s warm here. When I say “we”, I mean the people who are temporarily living in the store. There’s sort of a small community that was established the day the snow fell, but there tends to be distinct groups of people instead of one large mass. The number of people living here is about fifty, though it could be higher for all I know, since there are many different groups that hang around different parts of the store, kind of like territorial boundaries. Some stay near the electronics (which are a few nerds and geeks), a few like the clothing section (girls, mostly), a large majority keep to the food aisles (fatties), and some, like me, hang out at the automotive section of the store.
Though we are separate in different groups throughout the store, we generally get along and share supplies. The food and survival equipment is free to anyone, I guess because of the customers’ inconvenience of being trapped inside the store. Every once and awhile my group and I head over to the electronics to watch the previous night’s football game, and, of course, to pick on the nerds hanging around there. The store manager told us to knock it off, and since we didn’t want any major conflicts, we obeyed, but we knew we’d be back later.
I’ve also seen someone while walking around the store. She was sitting down with a few other girls (all of them around the same age as me) around the clothing aisles when I passed by. I looked at her, and she at me, and we didn’t cease our gazes for a surprisingly long time, at which I promptly ran straight into a pole. Her friends laughed, but she only smiled brightly as I ran off in embarrassment. But I also felt a sense of fascination, and a strange, unexplainable feeling.
Over all, I don’t think it’s going to be a terrible experience. Of course I’d like to go home as soon as the weather clears, but I think I could have a lot of fun in here.
Chapter 2, Day Five
The snow won’t stop outside; we can no longer open most of the doors due to the buildup. Some of the more hearty members of the community, including myself and the others from the automotive section of the store, helped clear the doorway for the past couple of days, but it has become useless lately, because the snow falls faster than we can shovel it. Not to mention it’s extremely cold outside, and we can only spend a few minutes out there at one time.
We gathered from the news on the t.v.s that many others around the state are trapped as well, though most are in their own homes. It would seem that we are better off than them, and, for the most part, that is true. There are aspects that I envy about being stuck at home, mainly that I wouldn’t have to share food with anyone else (except my brother and parents). But from the weather reports, which from past experience should not be trusted, we should be out of here within a week or two.
I’m still pretty comfortable overall, and there’s lots to do. We play some video games in the electronic section every now and then, and sometimes we go to the hunting area and look at various guns and hunting equipment. The food is still freely given, so we can pretty much take whatever we want, at least within reason.
Chapter 3, Day Nine
Fricking fatties are inhaling all of the food; it’s almost completely gone, with only a week or two left, if we ration it correctly. We had plenty just a day ago, but now most of it’s gone, consumed by those corpulent, f-… ah, never mind. Who gives a crap if I have to eat less than normal, I’m a lot healthier than anyone else in the store.
One bright side is that I met the girl I saw two days ago. Her name is Alicia Fluch (her last name is German, like mine – mine is pronounces kind of like “ah bite”, and her’s is like “flookh”). I came across her while I was on my way to the bathroom, and I saw her walking out of the adjacent door. “Hey,” I said in desperation as she was heading off. “I saw you the other day with your friends,” I said, although I really didn’t care about them.
“Yeah, I remember. S-sorry my friends were kind mean for laughing at you back then. Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” I casually mentioned, although I was trembling from anxiety on the inside. “Um, by the way, d-do you wanna maybe, I don’t know, hang out some time? I-I mean, I could maybe show you around the automotive section of the store, or whatever you want to do.” I was trying to find the correct words, but I was falling apart. I’m usually never like this, but for some reason this instance was different.
“Sure,” she said nonchalantly. “I’d love to.” She either didn’t notice my nervousness, or she didn’t care. But whatever the case, I was glad she said yes.
We then exchanged names and phone numbers, and of course she departed with the appropriate “call me” phrase, though I was already in deep thought about what I would say to her the next time we met. Hopefully I can regain some of my dignity from the stupidity that I exposed to her from the past times she saw me.
Chapter 4, Day Eleven
Maybe it was fate that trapped me in this store on that specific day, so that I’d have the chance to meet Alicia. Maybe it was my destiny. Whatever the reason, I’m fortunate that it happened.
So she and I talked for some time after reuniting near the area I usually hang out in, but we decided to take a walk around so that we didn’t have to be bothered by the others. At first we exchanged general information about one another – I live with my lazy older brother and irritating parents, she with her mom; I like beating up nerds, she thinks it hilarious.
But after a few minutes of pleasantries, we began speaking as if we had known each other for years. There wasn’t an awkward moment during the entire time we spoke. She understood my personality unlike most people, and I was fond of her in an extraordinary way. It was then that I knew – she and I were meant for each other.
We came to the snow-barred store doors, where we stopped walking, and suddenly there was a pause in conversation as well. She looked into my eyes, and I into hers. We didn’t say anything for an eternity, but it felt like a second. And then, without the prior knowledge of either one of us, the distance between our faces gradually decreased…
Chapter 5, Day Thirteen
The governor recently called the blizzard an “historic, top-five storm,” before sending around five hundred National Guard troops to the state’s aid, although we still haven’t noticed a difference from before. A statewide travel ban is also in effect, but we wouldn’t have known about that either, if it weren’t for the fact that the T.V.s still maintain a decently clear signal of the news. Additionally, the National Weather Service called the situation a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard”, and they say we could have up to three feet of snow, but everyone here knows that we’ve received over twice that amount already. Honestly, at the rate we’re at, we won’t make it much longer. Our food supply’s almost empty, and tempers are slowly building. But it’s going to take a lot more than a little hunger to make me go crazy, unlike the others. Besides, I have a secret hidden cache of food that I slowly accumulated over the past few days from both taking food from the supply at the beginning of our entrapment, as well as from sacrificing a portion of my share when we started rationing the food. I’ve kept it back in the freezer room along with our backup supply of sustenance, where nobody will think to check because they are all too blind trying to keep the current supply in tact. But I’m not worried about the food issue.
What I’m beginning to stress about is these people’s tempers. They grow increasingly upset that they are having to eat less and less, but it is surprising by how much we still have to eat. They are also caring less and less about one another, which I saw apparent from day one. The people here are becoming restless; they are running out of things to do, either for our aid or for recreation.
I can see the day coming… they will begin rioting against the system. They will want to break free from the rules, even if the rules benefit them. It is a biological urge to rebel, and it is most certain that things will change, if for good or evil. But they will rebel, and mark my words, this place will change its order in the days that follow.
Chapter 6, Day Sixteen
Alicia and I hung out more and more as we grew increasingly fonder towards each other. We usually enjoyed a small cup of coffee in the morning as we chatted near the store’s entrance in the small restaurant, which was a neutral location where nobody would be suspicious about where we were (due to their increasing paranoia). But, of course, that left them to another suspicion – why we were together. But this matter did not concern us, because we had known no one there previously, except for a few of Alicia’s friends – well, former friends. She had forgotten about them a while ago, since they were unbearable for both of us. And everyone else had most likely assumed that we had been together previously, so we didn’t need to explain anything to them.
After the coffee, we would usually walk over to the electronics section so we could watch the morning news on the T.V.s, to see the present weather conditions. The situation never improved though, even though it’s been over two weeks. We didn’t really watch though, since we knew what we would see if we did. Mostly we made plans on what we would do after we got out of the store.
Then we would separate for a while to our own activities, as well as mandatory work (which was scarce), but throughout this time we would frequently text one another. I found that the more time that passed, the less I could find to actually do. It became mind-numbingly dull, but at least I had something, no, someone, to think about.
For the rest of the day, from evening till night, everyone in the store (or at least the majority) would assemble for a certain activity to fend off monotony and boredom, like watching a movie from a projector or telling stories in a group or whatnot. I didn’t find much interest during this, but at least it got me doing something. But lately during this time Alicia and I did not attend, so that we could pretty much roam the entire store other than near the entrance where everyone was gathered without being bothered.
And we discovered that we could get away with a lot of crap. From raiding various miscellaneous shelves that we had no actual interest in stealing from (other than to sate our kleptomania) to finding the lonely dork Stuart and forcing him into mock fisticuffs (I hyperbolize when I say “mock”), we soon found the evening to be the most enjoyable and probably risky part of the day.
The situation I’m in is bitter-sweet. I’m bored as heck and I become hungrier every day. But at the same time, there’s Alicia. She is the one reason why I haven’t killed anyone yet – seriously. Some people here are real jerks, but she has made me a better man. I just hope that when we get out of here our relationship stays the same.
Chapter 7, Day Seventeen
It was another average day. I awoke from my sleeping bag amidst the other guys in the automotive section, surprised that I was the first person up. Last night was crazy. I was still a little hung over from the vodka Alicia and I smuggled from the food/drink stash that the “leaders” were too busy to guard. They’re not really leaders so much as supervisors who make sure “kids like us” don’t do things that honestly have no effect on anyone else.
It wasn’t the first time I had been drunk before, but I guess my metabolism was low due to the cold, so I had an unfamiliarly severe migraine that could not be extinguished. Sitting up did not help it. As I attempted to recall the events of the previous night, I found I could not. The only things that did come to mind were the moments when Alicia and I stealthily snuck the alcohol away and were opening the bottle in the girls’ bathroom with a chef’s knife. Did you know they have their own couch in there?! Or maybe that was just me hallucinating.
Anyway, I was finally able to rise after a moment of almost completely blacking out, at which point I noticed my t-shirt was thoroughly soaked with blood. Had I injured myself? I quickly prodded my body throughout for signs of pain or blood lossage. I knew that my chest was fine where most of the blood was, because I lifted my shirt briefly and didn’t see or feel anything aside for slight nausea. The rest of my clothes were relatively unstained except for a little spatter here and there, which meant that my entire body was unharmed. But why was I covered in blood?
A thought came to my mind. ‘What if the others saw me like this?’ They might suspect something that I hadn’t done, even if I was, in their eyes, a delinquent. I had to remove all the evidence. The only way I saw to do that was to get a fresh set of clothes, and then rinse my face and arms in the bathroom.
Without delay I sprinted quietly over to the clothing section and grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, disregarding the exact sizes of them. Before I left, I crept to where the girls were, and among the few women and other teens lay Alicia, sound asleep. I let out a quiet sigh of relief as I ran to the restrooms.
But as I approached, a figure popped out from the men’s restroom. It was Stuart, the emaciated, pale little nerd that I ordinarily picked on. He didn’t look intimidated by me like he usually does; in fact, he appeared almost too bold, like we had swapped roles, and he was about to beat me up. He didn’t do anything, though, as he exited the bathroom and walked off, except give a menacing glance which disagreed with his weak nature. It was odd that he didn’t seem to notice any of the blood either; maybe he was blinded by his anger for me. Something was off, but I didn’t have time to ponder it, so I simply went in the restroom to wash off and change clothes.
I opened the door and saw it. A man, maybe mid-thirties, lay prostrate on the floor near the sinks, with a chef’s knife protruding from his back. There were many other deep lacerations across his body, and from these seeped dark, thick blood onto the tiles. There were splatters on the wall, mirrors, and sinks as well. Next to the scene on the counter and floor was spilt copious quantities of vodka, with the entire bottle smashed and in pieces everywhere. I remembered the vodka and the knife, but the man… who is he? I don’t even recognize him, even though there are only around fifty people in the store. I would never actually…
“Oh, god!” I shouted. I know I was drunk, but I know I couldn’t have done anything like this. But if not me, then who…?
Stuart. He came out of here just before me, and if he had known about this and not had a reaction like I did, then he must have done it. Maybe, since I had treated him so poorly before, he wanted to set me up by staining my clothes and placing the alcohol and knife so that it would seem as if I had caused it. But was he really so messed up? There was only one way to find out. I have to tell the others before he does. I have to stop him -
But as I was making my way out of the facilities, I was surrounded and forced to the ground by a group of burly men.
“That’s him!” I heard a squeaky voice say. “He did it last night!” It was certainly Stuart, leading the hunt.
“No, I didn’t do anything!” I proclaimed in futility. “It was Stuart!”
One of the men holding me down said: “Dude, there’s blood all over you.” Then he commanded another person to check the restroom. As the other guy went in and back out, nodding, the two who were grabbing me yanked me onto my feet and shoved me forward so that I began walking. I was led to the store’s manager, who is basically our main leader, who then said I was to be held in the store’s detention room.
Apparently the detention room hadn’t been used in a long time, because when the door was unlocked by one of the staff and we entered, we all coughed from the dry, musty air. What sucked even more was the lack of heating. At least it was pretty small, although that’s a downside too, because there’s nowhere to go. I was simply thrown in there by a beefcake, who slammed the door behind me and had the staff member lock it promptly.
When Alicia awoke shortly after, I guess she had tried to force her way to me, but nobody was allowed to see me, and she was escorted away. If anyone touches a hair on her head, the moment I get out of here I’m gonna…
What I still don’t understand is why Stuart was mad enough to kill someone. And was he really so mad at me to blame me in his place? Only time will tell.
Chapter 8, Day Eighteen
This is the second day I’ve been stuck in the detention area. Still no one has come in here, except to give me food and water, and a small blanket which is my only means of fending off the cold. It has been more boring than ever, but that’s not what has been killing me. The worst thing of all is the fact that someone would possibly blame me for their murder and get away with it. I can’t believe -
The doorknob suddenly turned slowly, until it stopped and the door swung open. The person standing in the way was my accuser, Stuart. If it was only him, though, I would have struck him. But he was not alone, shadowed by the two men who had put me here. He had the smug look of victory on his face which was falsely earned. I don’t know why he came, but I assumed if he had it would be to gloat.
I was not far wrong. “We’ve decided how you will pay for your crimes,” he said with satisfaction.
“But I haven’t even done anything,” I replied. “You set me up!” I tried grabbing him, but one of the men pried me off.
He continued without changing his tone. “We have decided that we have no place for murderers here, so we will have to send you away.” He said this last part almost laughing: “You have been exiled. We will give you a day’s worth of food and water, as well as other provisions necessary for short-term survival in the cold.”
“What?” I said. “You can’t send me out there! We can’t even get outside!”
“Oh,” he retorted, “that’s what we’ve been doing for the past two days, trying to get outside.” His face twisted into a maniacal shape that I never saw until that day. He was truly mad.
If they had been trying to get out for the past two days, then did they decide my fate on the day I was put in here? No, I didn’t want to find out. But I also didn’t want to find out what would happen if I was sent outside by myself. But I would face that answer whether I wanted to or not.
It happened faster than I expected. After Stuart left me alone again, a few minutes later a heavy jacket and other snow gear was thrown into the room, along with my leather jacket. I was also given my camo backpack with my pocket knife and wallet which was previously confiscated, as well as food and water that would probably only last a full meal. Before I could gather everything together, the door was opened once more and I was told I had one minute left. I decided to toss the remaining items loosely into my backpack before I put on both jackets and the weather gear (which wasn’t much, except for a pair of thin gloves, a scarf, and a beanie). Soon after I was escorted out and led to the front of the store, where several people were still clearing away the snow at the foot of the doors.
I hadn’t seen the outside in weeks, besides on t.v. It was more menacing than I could have imagined, and the thought of me going out there by myself was horrifying. I didn’t have any more time to think about it though, as I was briskly forced into the awaiting snow outside.
Chapter 9, Day Nineteen
Yesterday I was exiled out here in the bitter cold, with no way to but to fend for myself. I tried breaking the doors to get back inside, and I might have succeeded, if it weren’t for the store “security” holding baseball bats and shotguns aimed at me on the other side. The store’s social structure has fallen into a state of martial law, as the store’s staff and manager have lost all influence over the people residing there, and in place Stuart has taken over, along with his brainless bodyguards. Why he was able to gain such support is still unknown to me, although I suspect it had something to do with making me look guilty and casting me out here. He probably also helped improve conditions temporarily, so the people immediately took him as the new leader.
In any case, I’m on my second day out here, and my food and water is all gone. After giving up on trying to break into the store yesterday, I chose to attempt to walk home, which was the only place left that I felt like I would belong, except maybe for one of my friends’ houses. But my home was closest, although still quite a few miles from the store. On the first day I must’ve made only about three or four miles, due to the harsh storm conditions. After being winded and extremely cold, I stopped inside a small convenience store, which had unfortunately been completely ransacked, to set up camp for the night. There were only a few hours of daylight anyway, and I didn’t want to risk night travel, even if I did know my way around, because of how low temperatures would drop during this time. I dumped my supplied from my backpack onto the frozen hard floor and I saw what I was looking for amid the pile. I grabbed the fire starting kit, which wasn’t more than a piece of flint with a magnesium body attached, as well as a tiny striker. Next, I put a few semi-dry tissues and twigs into a heap, and I struck the flint with all of my might. I was actually surprised that I managed to get a spark big enough to start it in only a few tries. I put on a couple bigger sticks after it was burning bigger, and after that I went to sleep on the floor next to the campfire.
The next day I woke up, and the headache from the other day was even worse. The fire was out as well. I was relatively warm, at least for a while, since the shop’s doors were closed and the place was well insulated. But it was still too cold to stay there for more than a few hours, considering I had no extra provisions. I decided my best bet would be to head out once more, in hopes of reaching the safety of my house.
It was not before noon when the storm’s wrath peaked to terrible conditions. I could no longer feel anything in my body, and my eyes were glazing with frost. What felt like hours spanning many miles must have actually been only a fifth of a kilometer occupying a single hour. But I could not tell, not for lack of feeling, but for monotony in landmark features due to the uniform spread of snow and ice. I kept pushing myself though, for a reason that I could not grasp – but I believe now that it was because if I had given up, I would no longer be there for Alicia.
Physical bodies have limits, however, and mine gave out unexpectedly as I trudged into the nothingness. At first I didn’t know that I had fallen, and I thought also that I was still moving along without feeling. White was surrounding me everywhere, so even separating the sky from the ground was an enormous task. The only reason I did eventually find that I was not on my feet was the fact that I was able to lift my head from the snow-ridden ground, at which point my headache returned from its numbed state. I wanted to get up, but I knew that it was useless by then. But then again, it was always useless, from the very moment I walked into the store. The only thing that really kept me alive all that time was her, and even that wasn’t enough to save me from my fate now.
As I laid down, accepting my oncoming death, I felt at peace on one hand, for I knew that at least there would no longer be any more pain. At the same time, though, I knew that I could have done so much more, and, and -
Stuart. That backstabbing f-. He caused this to happen to me. He is why I am here, and not with her – with Alicia. I have to get back in there one way or another. And when I do, I’m gonna kill him.
But every effort I made to rise was unnecessary. I was finished. It was over. My body was giving up, even if my spirit wanted to fight the oncoming tide. I screamed in rage until my lungs died to a soft whimper, and I could barely even breathe anymore.
And then… it started. It wasn’t like a light, like many people describe it as. It wasn’t even overwhelming darkness. Instead, I felt warm – a warmness that I’ve never felt before, neither overbearing or mild. All I can describe it as is warm. I no longer felt any cold, pain, or worries; they were instead melted by this indescribable warmth that took ahold of me, as I felt myself slowly slipping away. I also heard faint, unfamiliar cries that were far away, as if they belonged in another world. The cries grew gradually louder, but remained far from me at the same time. They spoke in a different language than what I had known, but they were clear enough to where I could make out what they sounded like: “Schnell! Er ist dabei zu frieren!” It was as if my ancestors were calling to me from the past in German, but I could not, or did not, want to understand them.
But at last the voices stopped, as well as everything I could perceive.
Chapter 10, Day Twenty
Light re-emerged in my eyes. I struggled to open them, and by doing so I could perceive a warm environment full of wooden furniture and paintings of catholic saints. The feeling in my hands returned also, which turned out to be a thick wool texture – no doubt a blanket. I attempted lifting my head from the bed I lay in, but every motion was difficult.
Seeing my consciousness, a girl roughly my age stood from a homemade chair to check on me. She had long light-brown hair which reflected the dim candlelight of the room, and her tall, elegant frame glided gracefully across the small room to where I was. She was absolutely beautiful, and even as I looked her way I felt a sense of guilt, as if I was betraying Alicia for this simple action. She sat on the bed looking down upon me and said something I couldn’t recognize: “Guten morgen. Wie geht es Ihnen?”
I didn’t know what to say, except: “No, I don’t…” but I knew she probably couldn’t understand me either.
She then said, while pointing towards herself: “Ich heiße Anna Freundlichkeit.” She pointed to me next and said: “Wie heißen Sie?”
I was, for a moment, confused, but then I figured out that she was asking my name. “Oh,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “My name is Alex Arbeit.”
“Alex – Arbeit,” the girl called Anna repeated in an extremely fluent German accent, especially my last name, which was German. She blushed, I don’t know whether because she found out I was German or that it was a little awkward, being that we were in a room by ourselves with nothing to say to one another, and of the opposite gender no less.
Then, to break the silence, footsteps were heard directly outside the door. The door opened, and in came a man of about 35 with dark-brown hair and a full beard, with similar dress to the young lady (sort of traditional looking, but with a modern twist) – while she wore what looked like a dirndl, he had on a kind of lederhosen.
Was I dead? I was certain that my body was still in the outside in the snow somewhere, but maybe these German people had actually managed to save me and nurse me back to health. But why did they dress so traditionally, and not speak English?
The man asked the girl who was now standing in the middle of the room: “Ist unser Gast wach?”
“Ja,” the girl answered.
“Um,” I interrupted, “I don’t speak German.”
What surprised me was that the man answered me in not only English, but fluent English: “Good morning, sir. My name is Jack Freundlichkeit, and this is my daughter, Anna.” He gestured to the girl in the room with us, who curtseyed shyly.
“Oh, hi,” I said. “I’m Alex Arbeit.”
The man was as surprised as the girl when he found out my name: “Oh, really,” he said. “Are you German like us?”
“Not really,” I replied. “Well, my father is, but my mom’s American.”
“Ah,” he said, “So am I. I went to Germany on a business trip for a couple of months, and while I was there I met my wife, Amelia. We moved back here as a couple after adopting Anna; that was only a year ago, so they still don’t speak fluent English yet. But that’s irrelevant. Will you please join us for supper? Amelia has prepared a hearty bratwurst supper.”
I was quite hungry. I hadn’t eaten since early yesterday morning. I agreed without hesitating, since I needed the energy if I were ever to go back out there in order to eventually get back into the store to Alicia. We went downstairs, and I was immediately greeted by the fragrant aroma of authentic German bratwurst. We sat down, all four of us, around a tiny wooden table, adorned with candles, hand-made decorations, and the food which we were about to consume. Once everyone had sat down, I instinctively picked up the utensils and began cutting the sausage.
While I did so, everyone else bowed their heads and Jack began speaking: “Herr, Du hilfst aus aller Not, Gibst uns unser taeglich Brot,” I quickly set down the fork and knife and awkwardly lowered my head with my eyes closed before Jack finished the prayer, “Speisest alle, gross und klein: Lass uns Dir befohlen sein. Amen.”
We all dug into the delicious sausage meal, during which I listened to the family socialize in their native language. It was very interesting. At first they were quite casual, exchanging pleasantry information; but soon there was strife between the adults and Anna due to an undefined issue. The girl soon left the dinner table to her room with a curt word to her father.
I tried finishing my food after that, but the tension in the atmosphere was overwhelmingly pungent. What they fought about was unclear still, but it was probably an everyday argument just like any family experiences. When I ate all I could, I left and went back to the room I was staying in. There wasn’t anything else to do, so I just went back to sleep.
Chapter 11, Day Twenty-Three
Jack told me that I could stay with him and his family for as long as I needed. I plan to leave whenever I regain enough strength for the last leg to my house. I have decided it best to go home, since I am no longer welcome in the store (although the only reason I would go back there is Alicia). My brother is there, so I wouldn’t be completely alone, but I’ll probably have to look after him since he’s been fighting a cold for the last few weeks, and my parents would want me to take care of him, despite the fact that he is 23 years old.
Just the other day I felt well enough to exercise a bit, though due to the severe weather outside I had to make due with what I had in the house. I did a bunch of lunges and crunches, but whenever I tried stretching I was struck with bouts of pain. I was still horribly sore from the walking I had done for the entirety of the past days in the snow.
There’s something else though. Anna… I think she’s taken an interest in me. Well, I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s safe to say this is a full-blown Chernobyl crisis. You see, I found out two mornings ago from Jack that the reason Anna was arguing with her parents over the dinner table three days ago was because she wanted me to sleep in her room; she reasoned that if I needed anything and didn’t have the strength to get it myself, she could be there. But her parents would not allow it, for obvious reasons. She got her way somewhat, as she crept into the guest room I was staying in that night, blankets in hand, and laid down at the side of the bed. I didn’t worry about it too much, since I knew that my heart belonged to someone else, and I could handle the situation if things became too serious. Which, unfortunately, they have.
Last night, as I was drifting unconscious, I felt my bed sheet covering me being lifted from my body, releasing the heat from within. But warmth quickly returned after the wool blanket descended, for another body lay underneath other than my own. Opening my eyes, I say in the dark Anna’s eyes reflect the starlight from the window next to me. She did not move, but simply gazed at me, waiting for me to act. I wanted to ask what she was doing, but she wouldn’t be able to understand me. So I tried waiting it out – if I don’t do anything, maybe she’ll go away.
I waited all night. Only before dusk did she leave, and only because her parents were about to wake. I spent the whole rest of the day resting, and the only times I came out of bed were for bathroom breaks, brief exercise, and supper.
Chapter 12, Day Twenty-Five
I’m packing up my things to leave tomorrow. The Freundlichkeits have graciously provisioned me with enough food to last for a whole week if I ration it correctly. Even with the brutal weather the trip should only last two or three days.
There was more disputing between Anna and her parents. This seemed more emotional, as Anna began screaming at them before breaking down in tears. I knew what it was about. Anna wanted to accompany me, and her parents did not want her to.
This dilemma has not abated, even after Jack expressed my refusal to reciprocate her love back to her. She continues to pursue me, although in more secrecy than before, because Jack and Amelia have commanded her not to bother me as much. Still she comes in my bed at night, although she is still waiting there, looking at me until one of us falls asleep; I have grown used to it now, so I am usually the first to drift. In fact, it’s no longer uncomfortable for me when she stays by me. We have become more acquainted in the past few days, so I’m fine with it.
I hope the journey back home isn’t too difficult. The weather hasn’t exactly improved any in the time I’ve spent here, but I don’t think it’s any worse either. Along with the travel ban, the National Guard has issued a statewide curfew a while back, so I’ll have to be careful if I travel at night so I’m not caught. I’ll probably end up finding a place to rest inside an abandoned store like I did on the way here.
I still wish I could go back to Alicia. She is still in the store most likely, although I’m not sure if it is safer in there than out in the cold. But I shouldn’t worry; she’s strong enough to handle herself. I worry, though, about what Stuart has done to the place since my absence.
Chapter 13, Day Twenty-Six
It’s colder than I remember. As soon as I stepped out to meet the frigid air, I was hit with a deafening bite of winter wind. But I was fortunately more prepared this time: I wore thicker gloves, snow pants and boots, a heavy coat over my leather jacket, a wool scarf and cap, and even thermals underneath. The Freundlichkeits have even been generous enough to offer survival supplies along with the winter gear and provisions. This trip should be relatively easy.
I made my way down the main south road leading to the street alongside my house for a couple of miles, before I came upon a massive pile up of cars. People had ignored the travel ban and had tried to escape the city, as it appeared. They were in such a hurry that a lot of the cars had slid on the ice and smashed into walls and street lights, as well as other cars. The pile up spread far down the road, and the vehicles were tightly packed, so attempting this street to my house seemed hopeless. I tried walking on top of the cars, but I slipped off and landed on the hard ground with my back. So I decided to make my way east – that way I can eventually go south again when the road is clear, and I can then head west on my house’s street for a few blocks until I get home.
Chapter 14, Day Twenty-Seven
I didn’t make it very far today. The weather worsened as the day progressed, so even with the clear roads I could not move very fast. At around noon I gave up and set up camp inside a flower shop, which was unfortunately the only place with its doors unlocked. I broke out my fire starting kit that I had used before, and I struck the remaining kindling until it burst alight. Next, after allowing some gathered branches to burn for a good while, I laid a small tin mug full of beef goulash on top of the fire. After I judged it to warm enough, I retrieved it with my gloves and tipped it to my mouth. On contact with the metal, my lips sizzled like bacon, and before I realized what was happening there was soup everywhere, and the cold numbness in my lips transformed into fiery burning. I let out a brief cry of pain before shoveling stray snow and ice onto my face where the wound was.
Apparently someone had heard my scream, because a few minutes later I heard the doorbell ring and footsteps draw near. I was in a small employee break room, so I clumsily brushed out the fire and peered around to see inside the empty store. A tall, slender figure was standing in the center of the room, completely covered with familiar looking winter clothing. The person gazed about the shop before removing the scarf covering the face.
I gasped. The person heard me and looked over to see me frozen as a statue, peeking as I crouched halfway out of the door. “Arbeit!” Anna proclaimed in celebration. But it was not a celebration. Even as she rushed up to hug me I stood motionless and confused. “How did you find me?” I asked, though mostly to myself.
Anna looked at me with a smile and said with a heavy accent: “I followed.” I didn’t even realize that she could barely speak English, I was just confused as to why she came after me, and how her parents allowed it. “I went at night,” she concluded. She must have been really determined if she was able to trace my tracks and catch up with me that fast.
“You can’t come with me, Anna,” I hopelessly protested. I could see from her curious expression that she wasn’t going anywhere. I sighed deeply and returned to hold ice chunks to my fried lip. Anna saw that I was hurt, both physically and emotionally, and her smile faded. It seemed she was now the one in agony.
Anna opened her backpack and removed a small kit with a red cross displayed on it. She unlatched the tabs and opened it, before taking out a aluminum can of some kind of applicant. She glided precariously over to me and placed the can near my hand. Then she stood up and left the store without another word.
I was still trying to decipher those events when a sudden impulse struck me. I bolted out of the flower store and yelled towards the figure vanishing in the newly-developed blizzard. “Anna! Wait, come back! Anna!” But it was no use. Even if she could hear me through the storm, she did not turn. I ran as swiftly as I could, but the storm’s wind was shoving me back and forth in the waist-high snow. Looking up again, Anna was no longer there.
I continued to follow Anna’s tracks until they split out from the road and into a fast food restaurant. I fell breathless to the floor and laid there until I caught my breath. My eyes were forced shut due to the stinging cold that froze them into submission, and I couldn’t open them even as I heard Anna walk up to me and help me to my feet.
“I’m sorry, Anna,” I apologized. “I’m sorry I’ve been treating you so poorly recently. I don’t really mind if you come along.”
I could tell she understood my meaning, if she couldn’t make out the words themselves. I heard a faint, whimpering crying coming from her as she realized that she wasn’t neglected after all. And then, suddenly, the pain on my burnt lips was gone in an instant, replaced by a soothing warmth and a soft texture.
My eyes thawed enough for me to open my eyes slowly, and I saw Anna’s face, closer than it had ever been when she laid with me at night, but this time no longer waiting for me to do anything about it. Her eyes, unlike mine, were now closed, but they soon opened before she drew away from me.
Her appearance changed into a guilty shock, not knowing how I would react. But at that moment I shocked even myself and forgot Alicia entirely as I drew towards Anna.
Chapter 15, Day Twenty-Eight
Anna and I awoke early from the greasy kitchen of the fast food restaurant, and before departing we ate a small breakfast of the remaining goulash that was still in its container, along with a half-cup of coffee each from a coffee pot Anna had brought. We hardly said a word, but not for lack of understanding or awkwardness, but because we finally understood each other and words weren’t necessary.
“Ready?” I finally asked when we packed everything up.
“Ja,” she said.
Together we travelled quite a lot faster than I would have on my own. We continued east, along the monotonous road with nothing but store after store for miles on end, but almost all were locked and bare inside anyway. The stores shifted into houses, which became increasingly more hostile and mysterious. As we continued, a strong military presence was easily visible: barricades blocked many roads from the one we were on, and some houses were even condemned and sealed off because of the weather damage.
We eventually came to the edge of a military outpost, but we didn’t come close to the gate where the soldiers were patrolling. Anna and I crept unseen in the heavy blizzard alongside the side of the road until we found a place behind a snow-covered pickup to observe. A soldier with a black balaclava concealing his face stopped two people at the gate’s entrance with a firm hand signal and a rifle pointed at the pair. I could tell the two were a man and woman, because their clothing was not suited for cold weather. I don’t know why they would be outside, but they might have been looking for a safe place inside the military camp to stay.
The couple shivered bitterly as the soldier commanded them to go back inside their own homes. I was confused why the curfew was in effect during the day, since before I heard it was only at night. The two people standing there did not move, but the man protested that their house was unlivable and they had nowhere else to go. The soldier repeated his order, but the man stood up a little from his shaking and suddenly became frighteningly still. He just stood there, looking at the soldier, but I couldn’t tell his expression.
Suddenly the man lunged at the soldier, grasping for his gun. He was flung around like a ragdoll by the soldier, until the soldier kicked the man square in the chest, knocking him to the soft snow. The soldier then double tapped his trigger, firing two rounds through the man’s heart. The woman screamed and ran to the weeping to the dead man, but the soldier told her to go away again. The woman stood up in defiance, and she too was shot and killed.
Chapter 16, Day Twenty-Nine
Anna and I retraced our steps away from the military outpost in hopes of going north and eventually around the entire camp. It’s a lot longer than I had hoped, but at least we won’t have to go through the outpost. We found a clear road and followed it through a desolate neighborhood, with only the sound of a chained husky barking to ensure that we were still moving through the white nothingness. Every now and then one we would go along a road to our right and see if we could still make out the outpost, but every time we could still see barbed-wire fencing surrounding a mini army equipped with snow vehicles and gear, along with enough armaments to fight a small war. We did come to the edge of the camp after a long hike though, so we took the street to our right and continued until we could move south.
As we travelled, I could sense Anna was in stress. She didn’t show it very easily, but I could tell that she was nervous of the area. I was a little also, because of how hostile the soldier was at the outpost yesterday. The neighborhood was off too for some reason. Without thinking, I reached for Anna’s gloved hand and held it in my own. We continued like this for a long time, the two of us alone, walking down the middle of the pale white town in silence.
Our footsteps made fluffy sounds as they compressed the snow together, and this was the only noise we perceived other than our heavy breaths and the sharp wind. I stepped once and heard the sound of hardened snow being packed under foot, but the snow I had stepped on had still been unexposed to the sun. I stopped walking, and Anna looked at me curiously. Only snow that was partially melted made that sound, but the sun hadn’t been out in weeks. A campfire nearby was another possibility – but I was certain that I would’ve seen one if there had been one at all. If it was a campfire, there could be another person nearby who made the sound…
“Anna, get down!” I yelled when I saw movement at the edge of the road behind a rusty metal barrel. I forced Anna to the ground, but not before a loud crack erupted in the direction of the movement, and I was hurled backward.
Instinctively, I looked at my hand and saw Anna’s own were no longer there. I craned my neck and saw her halfway in the snow, her face completely veiled from view. A sharp pain shook my ribs then, and as I arched even further I could see my coat’s insulation strewn about, and a dark fluid flowing from the many tiny holes made by the projectiles. I coughed what I thought was mucus, but it was much warmer and had a salty iron-like taste. As I inhaled roughly, I suddenly felt dizzy. I blacked out for awhile, but I could still hear and feel.
A huge hand grabbed the neck of my coat and dragged my helpless body in the direction of the burn barrel. “Anna, run!” I coughed, although I couldn’t even see her. “Go!”
I was flung onto a stone-hard surface, and the pain forced my vision back to me for a moment. Standing brutishly above was a gruff bearded man in white winter gear, holding a smoking shotgun. “She’s dead,” he laughed crazily. “I killed the poor b-”
“You f-!” I roared. “I’m gonna kill you!” Ignoring the pain of birdshot in my chest, I stood up to face him. Examining him again, he looked simply like a sad old man with a light gray beard and a slight hunched posture. He was strong to be able to drag me across the dense snow with ease, but he appeared incredibly thin and feeble.
“Doubt it,” he answered. “You tried savin’ the girl, but that di’n’ work. Doubt you can do anything now, bleedin’ everywhere like that.”
I didn’t hear any of his words. I was thinking of the most painful way to make him suffer for what he did; I didn’t think about the danger upon myself, because I knew my rage would prohibit him from being able to harm me anyway. Gathering all the remaining strength left inside of my, as well as all of the burning anger and adrenaline, I threw myself at him. I grabbed his shotgun first and forced it down, but it was slowly being lifted again. And as the gun was raised up to my stomach, another two shots rang out. This time they sounded a lot more sharp and less separated, but still so near that I was certain I had been hit.
I looked down at my torso and saw no additional wounds. Confused, I gazed up and saw the old man clutching his heart, but his hand did not slow the blood from spewing everywhere. The snow around us was quickly veiled in warm blood, which partially thawed it and formed to create a thick, warm sludge.
After the dead man collapsed, I was able to make out a blurry form standing behind dressed in a military uniform, with a carbine smoking in his grasp. Then, after that, I saw nothing.
Chapter 17, Day Thirty-One
In a dream I saw Anna before me, looking down in wonder and sorrow at my mangled body, though her own corpse lay unscathed. I looked around and saw an unfamiliar but nonetheless cozy room, as well as a pole next to me with an IV containing blood, which was running down a line into my arm. A soldier, the same one who killed the old man, was standing patiently above.
But it was no dream. I soon regained full awareness, and I saw my presumed-dead love, Anna Freundlichkeit. “Hey,” I managed to cough out. “You’re alive”. She smiled and bowed down to my bed to embrace me. Every movement pained me, but I ignored it as I wrapped my weakened arms around her. “How long has it been?”
The soldier responded me, though strangely in a subtle Russian accent, saying: “A little more than a day, though you needed the rest to recover.” The man seemed in his prime, around twenty-five or so, with a cookie-cutter military buzz cut and the stereotypical high cheekbones associated with Russians, as well as the starting signs of a new beard. The mood around him seemed to suggest that he was energetic but at the same time patient and cool-headed. “Your girlfriend is fine, just a little shaken, but I think mostly for your sake. She’s been by your side since I brought you here.”
I still couldn’t tell exactly where “here” was. I wanted to ask the soldier this question, but I expended my energy already. Seeing my concern, he said: “Don’t worry, you are safe in my house. I’m not a soldier – well, not anymore – I went AWOL; this is just a disguise – a camouflage, heh. I’m Daniil Doveriye, by the way. Anyway, your girlfriend – Anna, yes? – she told me where you were going, and I think I can help you get there faster, if you want my help that is. But, uh, you may want to know why the military, which isn’t just the national guard, is so hostile, and why there’s so much disorder throughout the state.”
The man named Daniil sat down in a chair much too small for him despite his average size, but he still appeared comfortable. He then took a deep breath before continuing: “The weather is being used by the government as a nice little cover up for what they think to be humane population control. That’s the short and, honestly, more bearable story. I’m not going to try explaining much more, because I really don’t know much more past what my pay grade allowed, but there is a little more I can give you. Well, they think there are too many people, and they’ve been planning a way to reduce the population for quite some time now, so the approaching snow storm gave them an ideal opportunity. The government secretly paid a small group of skilled scientists to design an untraceable virus, so a lot of people would die. Of course, they didn’t account for the chaos that would follow, so they had to send out more branched other than the national guard – but that was never official. The military’s hostility is due to the virus itself, yes; but it is also because of how the community reacted . People didn’t feel safer with them here, no – they felt more oppressed, which is why many broke out in protest, like the old guy you came across. That fellow was somewhat of an exception though; he was an old-time war veteran with severe PTSD, and the chaos made him crack. There are those out there like that, but they’re usually pretty rare.”
Daniil then shifted forward in his seat a little in a business-like manner, though still maintaining friendliness. He said: “Now, I can help you get to your house in less than a day, if we’re lucky. We should be able to slip past the encampment without being noticed, and then we can take the road that leads to your home. Does this sound like a plan?” He waited for my reply.
I took a few moments to consider his words, and to take in the news of what was really happening out here amidst the blizzard. “Okay,” I agreed as I looked at Anna, who smiled and nodded her head radiantly. I could trust the man, since why else would he save me and Anna? He was friendly enough that I could tell he wasn’t lying either, and even if he was, we didn’t have any other choice, since he could just have easily killed us as kidnapped us. At least for now we are alive. “We’ll go with you. But, one question – how are we going to slip past the base without them finding us?”
“Oh,” he laughed slyly, somehow hiding his master plan behind the thin stubble-beard of his chin. “Well, my friends,” his accent abruptly became more defined as he continued, “I think I have some spare uniforms that might fit you two.”
Chapter 18, Day Thirty-Three
Three soldiers wearing standard-issue ACU’s approached the outpost gate. The one in the front was oddly the only one armed, holding a M4, although the others held other gear – the man on the left carried a large radio on his back and other technical equipment, and the one on the right bore a red crossed backpack, indicating medical supplies; the two were obviously a radio operator and a field medic, although they seemed a little young to be in the army (but it was difficult to tell with their balaclavas on).
The guard at the gate stopped the group with his hand and asked for identification. As the soldier in the front produced an ID card to be scanned, the sentinel asked why the two in the rear didn’t have weapons. “We were on recon duty,” replied the foremost soldier. “We didn’t bother all bringing weapons, since where we were was already cleared out.”
The ID tag beeped a confirmation, and the sentry said: “Don’t you know? There are protesters and infected personnel everywhere, not just the places we haven’t checked yet. Oh well, your funeral. Anyway, you guys are good; go on in. And uh, be careful, civvies have been dressing up in uniforms to try to get in here – that’s why we have these ID checks.” The front-most soldier nodded and headed in the camp, shortly followed by the two others, who tried acting inconspicuous, although attracted the attention of the guard, who warily looked upon the two as they passed – before closing and locking the gate – but otherwise remained unwavering in the cold winter wind.
Daniil undid the velcro at the mouth of his balaclava as the three of us stood in the military camp, unnoticed for the present moment. We all had the face masks not only to protect our heads from the terrible frost-biting air, but also to slip past the gate with relatively no suspicion. I was the one holding the radio equipment, while Anna had the medical equipment; I still wonder how Daniil had all of this stuff, but didn’t have another two M4’s. But we still looked like soldiers, and that’s all we needed apparently, since Daniil was able to get in despite going AWOL. I guess his ID was still valid for a while after he left…
“I think I can get a Humvee from inside,” he pointed farther in a general direction further into the camp, and he added: “But we have to be fast. They’ve already found us out – but we can’t be too quick either, or they’ll find us. We have to blend in; here, get rid of that.” He pointed to my radio gear, and while I took off the backpack he helped Anna remove the medic’s pack. We set the shedded gear down under a loose tarp before taking off deeper into the outpost.
The three of us ran steadily in formation – as Daniil told us was required (even in the weather), and as we did so I asked when we were clear of any other soldiers: “Why did you leave this place? Obviously it’s safe from the outside.”
I thought maybe he didn’t hear me, or he didn’t want to answer, but he finally told us: “Ideals. They believe in their ideals for the perfect nation, no matter what is necessary for that to occur. But killing innocents just to boost the economy… bol’no! That’s why I fight against the system. That’s why I fight, even though it is futile. I want to help people – like you – to resist against this dolbannyye tyranny. Heh, pardon my Russian.”
We presently made it inside the large building connected to the barracks and mess hall, which contained many of the outpost’s vehicles. The building had a high ceiling, and appeared as almost a hangar, but there were no air vehicles visible. A few Humvees were scattered across the hard concrete floor, being maintained and repaired by a modest crew, which at the moment was only two men (but the others were probably on leave). As we entered, one of the men told the other he was going to sup in the mess hall, and the other gave a brusque grunt from under the Humvee he was attending. Hearing the three distinct pairs of boots on concrete, the soldier slid from under the vehicle and stood to face us.
The man was quite large, at least a foot above any of us, with a thick jaw and piercing eyes and muscles nearly ripping through his shirt, and he was covered from head to toe in thick black oil, even so much that his hands seemed like they could never be anything again but pitch-black. At first glance the firearm at his hip gave the illusion of grease, but a slight shifting of the man gave away its 3d properties. “What are you doing here?” he spat.
But before any of us could speak, the radio as his waist bleeped and someone on the other end said: “All personnel, please be advised: three suspicious individuals spotted carrying radio and medical gear. Advised to detain for interrogation; use lethal force if necessary. Individuals may be carrying the virus. Extreme caution advised. Over.”
Even though we weren’t carrying the backpacks anymore, the mechanic could tell that we were the intruders. Everyone was silent and still for only a moment, because the soldier and Daniil simultaneously raised their weapons and shot of a rapid burst of bullets towards one another.
The soldier who had left just moments earlier returned with an upright M4 to find four soldiers on the ground. “Christ, they’re all dead!” he lowered his gun somberly and grabbed his radio, but our wriggling movement on the floor caught his eyes. I was the first to get up from where my natural instincts had put me, and I checked Anna to see if she too was unharmed. I was glad to see that she had not taken a hit, and I helped her up. The soldier was stunned into stillness for a short time, but he then raised his M4 again at us.
We ran over to Daniil, who had a gaping bullet wound in his stomach. We thought he was dead, but he sprang up with remarkable speed and tore the Humvee door open. He used the door as cover while Anna and I piled into the vehicle, and we ducked down in the cramped space as more shots rang out and Daniil took the front of the Humvee and started the ignition. The vehicle plowed through the base’s front gate not moments later at upwards of eighty miles an hour.
Before I jumped in the Humvee, I glanced at the mechanic lying near the front-right tire with a round in his throat, bleeding out but still conscious. It looked like he was trying to choke himself from trying to stop the blood, and it may as well have been that he was. He looked up at me in the kind of fear that only comes alongside death. I don’t think he he has a good chance of surviving…
The road we took was fairly clear of obstructions, so we continued at high speeds in spite of the ice-laden pavement. Even if we are followed, they won’t be able to track us all the way to my house. Speaking of which, it won’t be but a few hours now until we get there.
As we travelled, we took off our balaclavas in the warmth of the Humvee, and Anna laid her gentle head in my lap and dozed off. I wanted to protect her from all of this; I wanted her to feel safe, and be safe, no matter what happens next. I suddenly started to feel spent from all that we went through in such a short amount of time. Just as I began drooping down, Daniil started speaking. “Do you have any brothers?” he asked.
I opened my eyes and gave a puzzled look. “Yes, actually. He’s only a couple years older than me, but he’s been sick with the flu for a few weeks now and I need to take care of him.”
“The flu, huh?” Daniil pondered for a long while, until changing the subject. “It’s messed up, you know. The whole thing, not just the government’s oppression, but the virus too, even though we’ve hardly seen any signs in a long time; they covered it up very well.” His crestfallen expression went even deeper as he proceeded: “I lost two buddies to the virus. They didn’t even stand a chance… they were executed like criminals, as criminals, officially. Well, I guess it’s better than what civilians with the virus had to go through – the slow progression of the disease until death.” Daniil remained quiet, and I didn’t know what else to say. At length, he concluded: “That equipment you two were wearing was theirs.”
Chapter 19, Day Thirty-Four
We pulled into the driveway a few minutes past midnight. I had to make sure it was my house for certain, because it was hard to tell surroundings with all the snow pile up; I strode over to the small car enveloped in a thick topping of ice and flakes and dusted off the fine layer over the license plate. The numbers were those of my brother’s vehicle, so I knew we were at the right place. The three of us then put a bleach-white tarp over the Humvee to camouflage it from any passersby.
Before I went to the door with Anna, Daniil pulled me aside. “You said your brother was sick with the flu, yes? Well then you may not like what you find in there. But be careful, at least.” He unclipped a respirator from his belt and gave it to me. “And if I were you, I’d go in alone.”
But my brother was sick a long time before the storm began. Surely the government couldn’t plan so far ahead as to infect people weeks before and expect no response until the blizzard was able to skew concerns. There was still a chance though…
And so, grabbing Anna’s hand in my own and disregarding Daniil’s advice, the two of us entered my house. Anna was wearing the respirator, as I insisted, but there was no other protection for us. I led her gingerly through the living room and into the hallway, stopping at the closed door to my brother’s room. “Ron!” I mildly yelled, knocking warily. “Ron, it’s Alex, are you in there?”
Anna squeezed my hand tightly and drew closer to me. “It’s alright,” I assured unsteadily, “he’s probably just asleep.” But I was confused as to why my brother would have his door closed – that’s not like him, even when he is asleep. I gave one final deep breath before pushing the creaking door halfway open. Light penetrated the hallway from Ron’s room, and the faint sound of the droning beep of the Emergency Alert System sounded from the television. I walked into the messy room with Anna close behind, confused at the disorder of the room. Usually Ron is impeccable about the tidiness of his room, even when he’s sick.
I came to the bed in the center of the room. I gazed down, paralyzed. Ronald lay on the bed, partially covered by the bedsheet and dozens of mucus and blood-stained tissues. A trash can beside the bed was knocked over; I assume it was for bile, but only days-old blood spilled out of it. The pallor of my brother’s skin was beyond gray – it had the white paleness of death, which was strictly distinguished against the dark blood that filled the room.
“God, NO!” I screamed uselessly, briskly exiting the room, first guiding Anna out and then slamming the door shut. I let go of Anna’s hand and smashed a large portion of drywall in with my clenched fists until I was thoroughly exhausted. I knelt down against the door and stayed there for a long time, without heed for the airborne virus infecting me as I breathed. Tears flowed like rain down my weary face, tears that had not fallen for any other. Even though we didn’t get along all the time, Ronald was the only person in my family who understood me, and I him. My parents cared, sure, but their care was obligatory, and if they could choose they would have Ron and I leave as soon as we were able. I’m still in high school, so I have nowhere else to go, and Ron went to college nearby, so it was more economical to commute. But both him and I were going to move out as soon as we could find stable jobs, and we even had a plan to find an apartment together – although we were usually against each other due to our separate lifestyles, if it had to do with our parents, we were always together. But now… now it’s no more. He’s gone, and I can’t do anything now to help him. I really did want to help him – as much as we fought, I wanted to help him.
Anna offered her hand down to me. “Let go,” she said through the muffling respirator. Although I think she meant to say “let’s go,” what she said gave me the strength to move. I held her hand and followed her out of the condemned house and into the bitter cold, where Daniil awaited us patiently. It was still pitch-dark when we stripped the tarp from the Humvee, and the former soldier beckoned us to get in the warm vehicle, having been continuously running.
“Where to now?” Daniil asked generously.
“What do you mean?” I questioned. “I thought you were only going to drop us off at my house.”
He regarded me with understanding eyes. “You can’t stay here anymore. I wouldn’t be much help if I left you at a place like this. As soon as you told me your brother had the flu I knew what would happen. And I doubt you got infected with such a brief exposure to the virus; it is most likely past its potency.” He sullenly peered down in sorrow and pity. “I’m sorry, Alex. I’ve been where you are now. But maybe at least I can help you further, if you wish my assistance.”
I nodded and held onto Anna, and she me. “We’ve got a government official to impeach.” I didn’t even realize how difficult a task this is, for the rage swelling through my veins slew any impossibilities at the gate of my conscious. Daniil turned back to face me. He seemed to emit the doubts shed from my indignation, but as he saw Anna and I – the defiant couple – his worries sundered. He smiled and put the Humvee into drive. “But first,” I added, “we need help if we want have any hope of fighting. I have to return to the store – and rally the customers to our aid.”
Chapter 20, Day Thirty-Six
“This is the place, yes?” Daniil asked me as we sat in the Humvee before the store I had just weeks ago been exiled from.
“They kicked me out because they thought I killed a man,” I answered. “I was set up though. It was Stuart, I’m sure. He was basically running the place by the time I had gone, and I won’t be surprised if that were still the case. Almost everyone listened to him, so it will be difficult to sway them to our cause. But if they believe this is all the government’s fault, that’s all we’ll need. Isn’t that all anyone needs to defy the law?” Daniil chuckled lightly and agreed. “Shall we go in then?”
“Let’s,” the soldier concurred, yanking the M4’s charging handle with a swift hand movement. The three of us hopped out and strode to the front entrance of the supermarket. Unexpectedly the quantity of snow piled up was scarce, and the doors opened with ease as we neared them.
Daniil was once again in front with his M4, while I guided him through. Honestly, I didn’t know how much was changed since my departure, so I was clueless to the whereabouts of Stuart and the community of shoppers.
As we proceeded, thoughts of a former life, or what was just as distant, surged in my mind; I could not shake the feeling of this other person, this couple, actually. It was a couple polar opposite from Anna and I, yet it appeared much too familiar to be a dream. And it dawned on me only as Alicia herself came out of an aisle of the store, right in front of us, that I had a girlfriend before Anna. But the reason I forgot is because I was meant to forget her; Alicia only goaded my delinquency, whilst Anna purified my past misdeeds. I felt like a completely new person after I met Anna, and, although I ultimately betrayed Alicia, she was the first to betray me.
“Alex?” she questioned, not knowing if it was really me standing in front of her. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh,” I stuttered, hardly able to say anything. “I came to get help. I – we – are going to stop all this madness.”
Alicia frowned, as if she just realized I was insane. “You mean Stuart? No, that was your fault for killing that man, and now look what it’s brought us. Stuart has run this place without resistance ever since you left, and you think you can just come back whenever you want and fix it?”
“What?!” I shouted. “I didn’t kill that man, you know that! And that’s not why I came back; I need help stopping the virus.”
“Virus?” Alicia sounded like she had never even heard the word before. “What are you talking about? You’ve become even more delusional than I thought. And who’s this girl? Have you been cheating on me?! You left without even a goodbye, and now you come back with a new girl! You MONSTER!” She screamed so loud that the silence that followed implied that every living creature in the store heard her. Daniil and Anna became significantly more uneasy.
Things were becoming even more obscure now. “Without a goodbye? I had no choice, Alicia! Stuart’s been lying to you all; he killed the man, not I!” I could feel the deception of Stuart reaching in every direction, twisting and corrupting even the smallest truth. But that wouldn’t stop me from at least trying to explain things to Alicia. “I loved you, Alicia. I swear it. But look what you’ve become. You’ve let Stuart manipulate you, and were you, or I for that matter, any better beforehand either? Anna has changed my life in the best way imaginable; she’s made me see who I truly am, not some idiot jock who stumbles around looking for some weak nerd to pick on. I know you liked that version of me, but honestly, that’s pathetic. Just forget the person you once knew, because he’s dead now.”
For a brief moment it seemed that Alicia was about to break down in tears, but she swore to us brusquely and stormed off down the same aisle she had come from. Anna grabbed my hand and gazed at me in a concerned, befuddled manner. I told her not to worry, that she was just a girl I knew, and there was nothing that went on between us. I didn’t lie either, because that was exactly how things were then; the two of us believed we had a relationship, but in reality, we were just pretending. Daniil checked his ammo nonchalantly, obviously trying not to obtrude with our conversation. Finally, with nothing else to busy him, he said: “We might want to start moving again. They’ll know we’re here before long.”
“Right,” I affirmed. “If they haven’t moved things around too much, the majority of the community should be this way, near the grocery aisles. That’s where we gather for afternoon activities and meals; it’s about noon, so almost everyone should be there.”
No sooner than one minute later we arrived in the community’s designated meeting center, only to find less than a dozen pale, jaded souls shambling about with indifference, where there had once been over fifty. And atop an elaborate wooden chair pulled from somewhere in the store sat the pompous and covetous Stuart, commanding it seemed the store itself for his elation.
“Ah,” Stuart projected from his throne in seeming hospitality, “It seems the prodigal has returned from his expatriation. And do tell my why it is that you have come back after I forbade you from doing so? Have you come to overthrow my reign? It that what you wish, my downfall? Or have you come for your love, Alice was it? Oh, I don’t care, but she has forgotten you in any case, so it’s no use. Speak, and be swift; I’m no longer as patient as I once was.”
I did want to kill Stuart right then and there on the spot, as I would have if I had the chance before I was exiled, but… I needed all the help that I could muster, and, although he was my mortal enemy, I had to at least try to sway him to our cause. I couldn’t simply murder him now, it wouldn’t be right, even if he did murder that man in the restroom. “We need your help, Stuart,” I said painfully.
“You – want my help?” Stuart pondered sarcastically. “Oh, and I see you’ve brought friends, and armed ones no less,” he cackled, pleased that I would oppose him in such a way, although I wanted to avoid any conflict if possible. “Well now, this is a funny position I’m in. Hm, I could either aid my enemy in whatever cockamamy exploit he has arranged, or I could just have him shot right now so I don’t have to worry about him any more.” Suddenly we heard the clicking of rifles all around us, hidden behind aisles and around grocery shelves, at least six in total.
“That’s what happened to the others who wouldn’t obey your tyrannical laws, isn’t it?” I retorted in disgust. Daniil’s upright carbine hopped between targets nervously, but futilely.
“Oh, no!” Stuart uttered, surprised. “Most of those buffoons too daft to handle my simple rules were exiled just like you. But I judge now that I should have executed you instead; you should be joyous! For I saved you, I redeemed you of your sins and gave you a second chance out there! Don’t you understand that gift?” Now he had the characteristics of a corrupt lord, willing out his own degree of judgement upon his powerless subjects. He continued: “I’ll tell you what, Alex. I’ll let you and your company leave in peace. For I, as a merciful leader, am gracious enough to reciprocate the pacificism which you have so elegantly feigned. Choose wisely though; as you can see, my men have had shaky fingers the past few days. You know how it is with thirst causing twitchy hands.”
I knew in all he said that Stuart was mocking me, both then and now, and he wouldn’t ever help us, no matter how much I pled. But I could also tell through all of his spite that he was lying. There was just something off when he threatened us, an emptiness, maybe even a tangible fear. “You’ll just have to shoot me, Stuart, because I’m not leaving without help.” I started pacing straight towards him, and I even noticed a slight, inconspicuous withering of his body, a brief, startled shiver almost. Immediately the six armed men pointed their rifles, shotguns, and pistols at me, forgetting Daniil and Anna altogether.
One of the bigger men with a shotgun interjected: “Should we shoot him or what? He did kill a man.” Stuart’s mouth hung agape, projecting the indecision and doubt that I had exploited.
That’s right, shoot me. Shoot me if you have the guts. Let my death simmer in your conscious forever, because you know the truth – you know that I didn’t murder that man. Can you truly hang your sins on me as I go to my grave, taking that remorse to yours?”
Another skinnier man, armed with a rifle, responded: “Let’s jus’ kill ‘em a’ready! I’ve had enough o’ this-”
“Wait!” Stuart intruded. “Don’t. Just… don’t.” Putting his hand over his face in shame, he no longer seemed anything like the dictator he so recently had been. I wonder how he could have killed that man, considering the timidity he displayed now, as he had before the murder. It just didn’t make sense, but I was absolutely certain he was the culprit.
Or was he? I didn’t actually witness the murder, even if I did see him exit the crime scene before I came to it. Maybe… could there have been an accomplice? Maybe Stuart wasn’t the true killer after all. It would explain a lot for someone else to aid Stuart in the crime in order to frame me and then have me banished, allowing him to gain popularity and power by falsely earning the community’s trust. But if Stuart lacked the will to murder, then it could be also true that he didn’t have the courage to exile others like me; that person could also be giving him orders to carry out their will through him. Of course, this was all theoretical, but there was the chance that Stuart was ultimately no more than a figurehead, a lackey even.
Even as Stuart sat abashed and these thoughts ran through my mind, Alicia appeared from nowhere in particular and walked up to the emotionally crippled man in the chair. “Pathetic,” she whispered audibly. “You can’t even go through with a simple command. Do I have to do kill everyone MYSELF!?” This girl was not the one I had known before, though; she was more than just a baneful, corrupted teenager like I had been. Now her true character was shown brightly in front of us all. She was a poison. A curse.
Alicia grappled Stuart by the chest and hurled him onto the tile floor with such force that he didn’t get up, and blood oozed onto the ground from his face. She faced us with wickedness in her eyes, but she didn’t say a thing.
“It was you – all this time?” I addressed my new foe. She killed the man in the restroom. She had me exiled, and others after me. She betrayed my trust, the trust of the community. “May I at least ask why you killed that man in the bathroom?” The armed men were taken aback; they had never realized the truth that she had committed the crime.
Alicia smirked bluntly, sacrificing no restraint. “He was my father.”
“What!? Why would you murder your own father!?”
She replied casually: “He was a d-” She took up the vacant throne and crossed her legs nonchalantly. “If you had a way to get rid of any of your family members without getting caught, wouldn’t you do it? What about your brother? You said you’d kill him if your parents wouldn’t suspect you, right? There’s no difference with me.”
“My brother’s dead,” I returned bitterly. “And you’re wrong, Alicia. I loved him more than you could ever comprehend, because no matter how much we fought, we were still brothers. I’m not the monster. You are.”
Suddenly, Alicia’s lips began twisting into a contorted smile, stretching almost completely across and around her face. A terrible growl emanated from a deep, dark place inside Alicia, awkwardly morphing into a mutilated cackle, accompanied by a bloodthirsty gaze. Her face truly was that of a monster, an awful beast whose only purpose was to maim and slaughter. The laugh then became so volatile that Alicia’s mouth was broadly agape with her teeth, tongue, and saliva being wrung in all directions.
Then she stopped at once. Her eyes shot to the thin man holding a pistol, and she commanded him: “Shoot him.”
The man, still aiming at me with his gun raised, questioned: “But if it was actually you who killed th’ man and not ‘im, then why should we kill ‘im?” The other armed men nodded in defiance, their own dilapidated faces worn thin.
“You do what I say because I keep you alive. It doesn’t matter how I run things, as long as you survive.” Alicia didn’t seem to mind their resistance, as though she could swat it away with her hands.
The emaciated man looked at her forlornly. “Yeah, but we ain’t got to eat in days, and all o’ the pipes are frozen solid-”
“And anyone who doesn’t do what you say is forced outside,” butted in another man. “You’re not bein’ fair.”
Alicia sneered loudly and threatened: “I could cut off your food and water completely, if you want. It would be easy, too, since I have the only key to the storage room after we secured most of the supplies in there.”
Everything was starting to come together. It made sense that Alicia was able to control the colony so efficiently without an uprising, forcing the community to serve her by establishing a “wise leader” figurehead through Stuart exposing my “crime”, as well as threatening to exile all those who oppose her, or in their eyes Stuart’s, laws; limiting food and other supplies was another way that she could dictate the store’s fate, giving her total control of everyone in it.
“Your threats are meaningless,” I stated with confidence. “We’re leaving with or without your help. Anyone who wants to live free again should come along.”
The guns around us drooped down, and the big guy with the shotgun, who had hauled me into the detention area of the store after I was falsely accused of murder addressed me: “We’ll go with you. I think I speak for us all, even poor Stuart, when I say that we’ll be happier out there than in this hell.” He looked at the other men and said: “Come on guys, gather your stuff, we don’t need that shrew bossing us around.” And then again to me: “Look, I’m sorry about all that happened, throwing you out there by yourself for something you didn’t do. But we’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
As everyone was prepared to leave with what they could carry (about twenty people in total), Alicia simply looked on in loathing silence. Stuart was helped to his feet, nose burst and continually bleeding, and he didn’t say a word as he packed his gear together. Daniil had to sit down for a few minutes before he could assist anyone, because his gut wound was still bothering him, given that he dug the bullet out with a fire-heated knife. Anna and I gathered as much equipment as we could find, but I presume most of it was still locked inside the storage room, and there was no way in except with Alicia’s key.
Packed and ready, the twenty-some customers walked to the store’s exit, afraid and dubious of what awaited. Soon the only ones in the store were the four of us: Alicia, Daniil, Anna, and myself. I was a little sad that it had to be this way, but at least I could make peace in the fact that I knew the truth, and though justice was not fully upheld, at least no further hard would come to any of us. Daniil turned to leave first, saying: “Let’s go now.” Anna and I nodded in reply and turned, following the former soldier.
“I really did love you,” was Alicia’s final comment.
I couldn’t find the words to say. She was a psychopathic murderer… and I had loved her. I finally came out with a simple “farewell.”
A sudden madness returned to Alicia, and she stood up from her seat. “‘Farewell?’ That’s it? You leave me for another girl and that’s how you say goodbye!?” Her eyes bloodshot now and her teeth razors, she spat flaming coals and acid venom towards us, her innermost being revealed at last. “FINE! THIS IS HOW I SAY GOODBYE!”
Alicia viciously yanked a handgun tucked in her jeans and loosed several shots before Daniil put her down with his M4. In an instant I was shoved to the ground, not by the Daniil or myself, but by Anna. I sat on the ground looking at the lifeless body of Alicia, blood trickling down the wooden chair she lay dead in. Turning to Anna, I gasped as I saw her hands stained with her own lifeblood, trying to stop a bullet wound in her abdomen.
“I’m… okay,” she stuttered before falling unconscious.
Chapter 21, Day Thirty-Seven
Anna regained consciousness, but it was obvious that the bullet had done severe internal damage. We stopped the bleeding, thankfully, but there was no way to replace the blood already lost, which was probably almost a liter. Anna was extremely weak, and I had to carry her outside and put her in a tiny sled to be pulled along. I covered her in my heavy coat, leaving me only my leather jacket, gloves, and a beanie. Unfortunately there was no storage room key on or anywhere near Alicia, so we had to make do with what we had, facing the brutal cold in hardly medium jackets as we trekked on towards the state’s capitol building.
The store’s shoppers were in brutal conditions, aside from a few of the more hearty ones, most of which were former store guards. Our pace was excruciatingly languid due to the weakest members, but nonetheless we continued together, all of the remaining customers as one group.
I still worry, though, if we’ll ever make it to our destination. I know we’ll lose some along the way, but will any of us make it there? We have very little food, and even less strength. I fear especially for Anna; she has grown significantly colder since yesterday, and she slept, or appeared to have slept, most of the time we have travelled.
Daniil and the six guards are the only ones armed, but we plan on stopping by a few of the shoppers’ houses to gather additional armament, as well as other supplies like food and coats. It hasn’t even been a single day and yet the people are starving and stumbling in blindness, guided only by the grunts and coughs in front of them.
There have also been more and more signs of the virus ravaging the local neighborhoods, as evidenced from the countless amount of damage and destruction to most houses and vehicles. Many homes are sealed off and condemned, and entire blocks are quarantined, but the only way to the capital is through the brunt of it.
Chapter 22, Day Thirty-Eight
We’ve managed to scavenge some supplies from a few homes, although not nearly enough for all twenty of us. The conditions have been too harsh for some, however – we’ve lost four souls yesterday to the starving cold. The only bright side is that we have fewer people to take care of.
Anna is doing better at least, though only by a smidgen. She is awake more often than not, and she even admitted a weak smile when Daniil told a funny story to lighten the mood. I’m not ever going to give up on her. I know she can make it; she’s stronger than I ever will be.
The days are growing ever shorter, yet even so I can feel that we’re drawing closer to our goal. What we shall do when we finally reach the state capital is anyone’s guess, since there are too many variables to simply deduce an indisputable conclusion. I doubt we’ll be able to make an impact worthy enough for recognition, and if we do then we certainly won’t survive the ordeal. This is a one-way trip, and, although I’m fairly content about dying, I can’t help but feel pity for Stuart and the other members of our group who don’t know what they’re getting into. They probably don’t have much to live for, though, while I do. But if anything were to happen to Anna, all of my purpose in life would vanish, and I’d be but a mere wandering soul, doomed to roam the earth for the rest of my empty, pointless life.
Chapter 23, Day Forty
Two more people have died yesterday, one of them being a former store guard (the one armed with the hunting rifle). I took up his gun, but I was astonished to discover that it had not a single round of ammunition, rendering it innocuous. Had all of the other guns in the store been just as useless? As it turns out, after prying upon the other five armed men, who bore more than a bit of rue, Alicia was the only person in the store with ammunition, so she was able to control the others with greater ease. Fortunately for us, Daniil stockpiled quite a lot, so even between the seven of us we have a decent amount of ammo. There are still ten of us without guns, and the rest possess but knives and baseball bats.
We’ve only just made it into the outer limits of the now heavily defended military zone that was the state’s capital. A couple of us scouted the perimeter of the compound under the shadow of night while the rest took shelter in a nearby convenience store. I helped Daniil map the shape of the border so that we’d know a general idea of what lie inside, but we could not complete it due to almost being spotted by a searchlight surveying the night abyss. We were, however, able to plot a few details pertaining to the interior of the compound: to the west are the barracks and what appear to be the mess hall and main FOB (forward operating base) telecommunications building; the east contains a few smaller buildings and a makeshift helipad; the south, next to the entrance closest to us, has a setup similar to that of the previous outpost with soldiers filtering anything that may come in. The entire fortress is dense with soldiers and watchtowers erected shortly after the military’s arrival into the state, but the capitol building itself is located in the northernmost section, surrounded of course by drones of men armed with carbines below and rifles above. No doubt the governor is holed up in his office, or even an undisclosed locality where we will never manage to find. Nevertheless, we have to try something to change what is happening around us, even if it is something as stupid as a revolt.
Back in the relative safety and warmth of the store, along with Anna the rest of the crew, Daniil and I reported our findings. Then a plan was constructed, or lack thereof, to infiltrate the compound. We could no longer sneak in using our ACU guises, yet we needed a way to divert the attention of the soldiers so as to enter unnoticed – otherwise we shall all be killed and thought of no more. The plot we have fashioned is straightforward enough, but whether or not it will succeed is another point altogether. Because of the position of the capitol at the far north, close to the border, there is a small zone where neither soldier nor watchtower occupy, and it is in that place where we wish to slip through and into the building of the governor. Daniil’s impressive range of equipment provides us with the tools necessary for our swift entrance, so the major dilemma resides in dealing with the soldiers inside the building. We will require some type of distraction though, if we wish to remain hidden, and that’s where the other ten of our group come in. After that, our hope is that we will negotiate with the governor – or whoever maintains the position of authority in such a locale – our terms of annulling the current state of oppression and immoral intent. I fear, however, that our discussion with the governor will be anything but peaceful, and that our plans for a compromise is utterly futile.
Chapter 24, Day Forty-One
We struck the military outpost surrounding the capitol today. Anna came with Daniil and I despite our apprehensions, although she appeared to be feeling better than the last couple of days; her pallor grew each day, yet she persisted even more fiercely now that we were at the end. Retrospectively, we had all been stirred by the boiling madness in our hearts over the reckoning of our iniquitous regime, and that stirring gave us strength, if even a false sense of it.
I cannot deny your wish to accompany me, Anna. Whether to death or a new day we fare, ever may you accompany me. I always knew you would do anything for me, so I bid you now – let me do this for you, that you may know how I behold you in my heart.
The other ten remaining members in our gang, one of which is Stuart, set forth towards the west border, while the three of us strove east, all of us endeavouring to avoid the watchful gaze of the inside troops. Daniil had told me this morning that Anna should not have come, but both Anna and I refused his warning; for us, it was better that we stay together, no matter where we are. We came to the spot we had predetermined to be our entrance point the night before, northeast of the capitol building, before Daniil retrieved from his pack a pair of military bolt cutters and we waited for our que. We had on our ACU’s as before, but even with this precaution there was great risk for the base’s immediate discernment, due to our presence in the previous encampment. I looked to my right at Anna, whose face was struggling in a half-smile in a futile battle at comforting me. “Be strong,” she said, proffering her hand to me. I gladly accepted it, and I could easily feel how cold it was, even with her gloves on.
I was about to say something to her, but I was interrupted by the sound of gunshots. “That’s our signal,” Daniil confirmed as he began cutting the fence. I let go of Anna’s hand with hesitancy, knowing I might never hold it again. “It’s loaded?” my soldier-friend questioned of me.
“Yeah,” I replied, raising the rifle in both hands into a relaxed-patrol position. “I hope I don’t have to use it, though.”
“I hope none of us have to,” he reassured. And, with a hint of dejection, “I wish I didn’t have to kill anyone, but there’s no other choice. If only there was another way…” Daniil trailed off slowly, but would not finish his thoughts. The bolt cutters remained motionless in his hands, and I was certain he had been frozen to death in an instant by a gust of winter wind; but he continued and swiftly completed the task. He then grabbed the unattached section of fence and removed it for us to pass through. Once we were all inside, Daniil rested the cut fencing upright as much as possible to camouflage our entrance before we moved on towards the barricaded capitol.
As the gunfire persisted, soldiers exited the capitol by the dozens and marched off towards the firefight. We could see faint smoke rising amid the grey snowstorm clouds above the west of the outpost, and we knew the others were in trouble. This was the plan, though – they would distract the main force while we commandeer the capitol and hopefully find the governor inside. Daniil set to work on one of the doors to the building with a lockpick, since we could not risk the attention of a brisk entrance (although we had a sledgehammer prepared just in case time became more valuable). It was surprising how quickly he was actually able to succeed – either he was extremely adept at lockpicking, or the lock was a simple one.
“Listen,” Daniil said, “It’s not too late for you to leave.” He was looking at me, but I knew he was talking about Anna.
“We’ve come this far,” I insisted. “She wants to stay with me, and I do too.”
Daniil sighed deeply, but he proceeded to open the door and enter the capitol. He went first with his M4 raised, I followed after with the hunting rifle, and lastly Anna came shortly after. Room after room we searched, but oddly nobody was present to offer resistance against our siege.
Finally we came to the workroom of the governor. A single desk lay in the center of the room, and a lavish chair was behind it, but the back was facing us. I wondered – could the governor be behind that chair? And as I did so, it turned around and there he was, plainly before us.
I raised my rifle, but as soon as I did, Daniil yelled, “I’m sorry,” before striking my face with the stock of his M4. The last thing I remembered was Anna’s scream.
Anna, why was I so selfish? I knew something would happen to tear us apart, but I refused to accept it. I know you would follow me anywhere, but why did it have to come to this. Please promise me, if I manage to get you out of this, you’ll run as far and as fast as you can away from this place, no matter what happens to me.
I coughed myself awake and tasted an all-too-familiar metallic flavor in my mouth. I could barely move, but not because of weakness; no, this time my arms and legs were cuffed to each other, and I was lying helplessly on the floor. Anna was near me, also cuffed, but she didn’t make a single motion. “I swear!” I shouted at Daniil, who stood talking to the governor, “if you’ve touched a single hair -!”
“Shut up!” the governor retorted.
But Daniil finally answered me, “She’s fine. After I cuffed her she cried herself to sleep.” I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I had thought that Daniil was our ally, even a friend. So why the sudden betrayal? Did they offer him money? Or was he against us all along, simply waiting for the right opportunity to bring us in?
“Why?” I summed up all my questions into one. “Why did you turn your back on us after all we’ve been through?”
The Russian suggested his words for little while before responding, “Orders.” But this answer was petty at best, and he knew it, so he continued. “I am not one to go back on my word. I can’t simply become insubordinate to my superior.”
“And who is that?” I questioned rhetorically.
“That would be me, son,” the governor spouted in vainglory. He took a cigar from his desk drawer and said no more as he snipped off one end with a fancy cigar clipper.
“I still don’t get it,” I asked. “Why didn’t you just take me captive after I had been shot? You could’ve saved that soldier’s life… and what in hell do you need with Anna? She did nothing to you, and she’s only here because of me.”
The soldier didn’t know how to respond to me, so the governor proceeded, “We’ve been watching for a long time, Alex. We knew someone like you might come along to sully our designs, and while your attempts are in vain, it is delightful to see how much you care for your love, to say nothing of your brother…”
My realization of this fact flushed erratic adrenaline throughout my body, and I had to force myself to calm down. “H-how long have you…” yet I was not able to complete my sentence.
Daniil stated: “Since I encountered you with the mad old man. We knew what you would find at your house, so we planned for the worst, knowing you would most probably choose revenge upon us. The entire situation was staged, even the affair with the soldier I shot. It was all to convince you of my allegiance, as well as to… extract any information of your intentions.” He hesitantly finished, as though he himself didn’t want to believe it.
“You are probably still wondering why we took so much pain over you. The answer is simple: you’re a fighter. Anyone weaker than you would have died with the amount of birdshot into your chest, and with the knowledge of your brother’s death it was inevitable that you seek the capitol. We’ve tracked others of a similar nature, although you’ve made it farther than any before. Of course, we couldn’t allow your girlfriend to part from you – she would follow in whatever mindless conspiracy you had up your sleeve, so it was much easier to keep an eye on both of you simultaneously. Unfortunately, we cannot allow our flawless plans for population control to be hampered, and so we must inevitably deal with all those who oppose us with swift justice.”
“Then why are we here?” I asked blatantly.
“For me to congratulate you, of course!” the governor threw his hands in the air with a jerk, as if being cuffed on the floor was a noteworthy achievement. “Your persistency is admirable, dear boy, and that resolution helps us greatly in the task of apprehending and dealing with nuisances such as yourself.”
In vexation I said, “And how do you deal with people like me?” I was almost feral in my rage, but I tried not to show it.
The governor sat at his chair, languidly smoking his cigar. As I spoke my question, he smiled darkly and finished slowly, “The same way we deal with all who are accused of treason: death by exposure.
Chapter 25, Day Forty-Two
The governor has decided to wait until around 6:00 p.m. – right before sunrise and the coldest part of the day – before casting us out into the cold. There was only one other person left with Anna and I, and that was Stuart; everyone else was killed in the fray, which was in actuality an ambush. I assumed Stuart survived because of his reluctance to fight, while on the other hand the others perished because they would not give in.
The three of us were chained like animals to a sturdy metal post, and we were stripped of all our possessions, most importantly our weather attire. We sat shaking uncontrollably in the blind darkness as the governor gave us a “good riddance” before departing swiftly to his building.
Nothing was left for a long time except the blaring wind in our ears and the faint and periodic whispers of conversations made by the few soldiers out on patrol. The warmth of our bodies was being rapidly expelled from the bitter winter night, but all we could do was cluster close together and save any heat we could; we knew it was fruitless, but still our instincts urged us on.
Anna looked up at me through the darkness as she lay almost lifeless in my lap, but even as the weather continued to gnaw at our strength, she held onto me, and I to her. The three of us persevered with waning hope, yet as if we could survive by sheer will alone we continuously struggled against the heedless weather. But we all knew that we were near the end, and no matter how hard we fought against it, natural causality would win in the end, and we would die.
“Will we… die?” Anna asked, looking up at me. The light of her face was quickly being consumed by the frigid darkness that was soon to be our death. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth; I couldn’t even shake my head one way or another. All I could manage was to keep looking at her beautiful face, hindered none by the coming tide, but soon to be washed away entirely. It is surprising how little of a time I had known her, but still Anna had made my life worth all the suffering I had endured, even now. If only we had just a little more time, without having to fear that we may die at any moment.
“Hopefully not,” a familiar voice uttered nearby. We were not able to make out who stood in the darkness beyond us, but we soon realized him when he stooped down in front of us. It was Daniil, my former friend who betrayed us into death. “I’m sorry I had to do that,” he continued, “but there was no other way to convince them that I wasn’t a threat. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but please let me help you to finish your mission.” He proceeded to unlock our chains with a key that he had obtained, and he helped us up one after the other.
Barely able to stand up, I protested, “And what about all those people who were killed in the raid yesterday?”
“I had no idea that they would be killed; I assumed that they would all be taken prisoner like you with little trouble, and I tried warding you two off from entering the capitol.” Daniil helped Stuart after Anna and I, saying, “I take full responsibility for every death yesterday. I could have prevented all of that from happening, but instead I betrayed the only friend I ever had.” He then quickened his speech and bade us to hurry. “Please, if you still want to finish this, there is still time, but we must hurry before they realize you are free.”
So, after Anna and Stuart fled, taking the two jackets that Daniil had smuggled out to them, I took Daniil’s handgun and tucked it in my jeans before following him back into the capitol. Numerous guards patrolled the building, and Daniil took me directly inside and in plain sight of them. They seemed to trust him well enough (as the governor had), so it was no issue when he told them he was taking me for further questioning by the governor.
The two of us came shortly unto the governor’s room that I had only hours ago been interrogated in. This time, though, I was the one doing the questioning. I raised the gun up to the desk chair in the same way I had done before, and I yelled for the man behind it to come forward. Instead of turning around, the governor stood up, still facing away from Daniil and I, and said: “I thought something like this might have happened. I wasn’t wrong, you know: you’re a fighter all right.” The man seemed so small now compared to what I had known before, as if he lost his soul before he would die. He turned to us and came a step closer, yet he was wary of what I might do. “But really,” he spoke, “what did I do to you? I’m only the puppet of the federal government; in all reality the call for population control was not my choice; I enacted it, but only to acknowledge the inevitable. You can’t blame me for simply being a mere pawn, at risk for death at every turn and ignorant of all the woes of his fellow man.” He suddenly fell onto the ground and started weeping. It was sick, but at the same time I couldn’t help feeling a little bad for him, since he had even less freedom than me in all this chaos. Or so he said. “I see now, young man, that I have erred, and my sins cannot be redeemed. But please! Spare me, and I may be able enough to aid you in healing this terrible calamity.”
“Is there a cure?” I questioned as Daniil and I lowered our guns, for the governor was clearly no threat to us in his pitiful state.
The governor’s demeanor promptly transformed: his back became more stiff, and he ceased his crying. Then he even cackled a little under his breathe, which one might mistake for sobbing, but I could tell the difference. “Of course there’s no cure,” he declared defiantly. “The virus was scientifically engineered to have to possible cure, and only die out at the end of winter. There are vaccines, however, but only a select few have the luxury of possessing that. I, fortunately, am one of them.” Daniil and I stood in absolute confoundment while the wretched figure on the ground became a heartless demon. “The truth is, boy, that you will all die, without joy or hope. It will be a living hell for you, watching the rest of your loved ones die in front of you. There’s nothing you’ll be able to do!” As he said this, he whipped a revolver from out of his coat pocket and snapped off two rounds before I shot him dead.
The wood floor made a muffled thud as the governor’s body struck the floor, and warm red blood oozed out. Another thud followed the first, only this time it came from behind. I swiveled around to see Daniil on the floor also, face first, with two holes in his back. The blood of the two bodies meshed together and puddled onto my shoes, staining them forevermore. The smell of death reeked into my nose more than any of the governor’s cigars could have, and I dropped Daniil’s gun that I had borrowed. My hands were trembling convulsively, not from the cold, but from the horrific realization of both my dead friend beside me, as well as the possibility of my girlfriend, Anna, having the virus.
Not wanting to take any more risk, I stumbled out of the capitol’s back door and slipped through the hole in the fence. I looked upwards and saw faint hints of light in the dismal sky: dawn was approaching. Suddenly were heard the distant barking of attack dogs, and I knew they were after my scent. I headed off away from the camp as swiftly as possible, taking brief rests to regain my breath; nevertheless, the hounds were approaching fast, and there was no place I could find to hide that would keep me from them. In my blind despair I tore the shirt from my torso and flung it into the snow, hoping that the smell of it would beguile the dogs from my trail. I then took to the direction of where Stuart and Anna had left, on the south road where we had come from. Even though I instructed them to go on without me, I have a feeling that Anna will want to wait for me in the same store that we had conducted our planning yesterday, and Stuart will be too afraid to proceed on his own.
I don’t know how I survived long enough to wander into the store, but I was joyously greeted by Anna when I did, who gave me her jacket and bade me sit by the fire that she had resurrected. Stuart was lying silently in a corner nearest the fire’s warmth, mournfully eating a can of canned vegetables; he neither looked at me or otherwise acknowledged my presence, and I did the same to him. Anna looked at me questioningly, as if to ask where Daniil was, but I simply told her he was gone, and she lowered her head in sorrow and hugged me empathetically.
After a few moments, Anna proffered me some heated green beans, and I accepted them graciously and ate ravenously. Each of us were aware that the entire camp of soldiers was searching for us, but we cherished the few moments of tranquility we had left. We ate in silence, the three of us, until Anna broke out in a coughing fit. She set her can down and began convulsing on the floor in bitter agony, but I found no way to ease her pain. And then, in an instant, her coughing stopped. I asked if she was alright, and she smiled and nodded comfortingly, but I was not in the least relieved, for I saw the true nature of the cough present on her thin white shirt sleeve.
Chapter 26, Day Forty-Three
Was it the gunshot wound a week ago, or something much worse, that caused Anna’s retaliating symptoms? I sincerely hope it to the the former, for what hope do we have of dealing with the later? If Anna had contracted the virus I don’t know how I’d have the strength to move on. And what about what the governor had said about me watching my loved ones die in front of me? Had he known the whole time that Anna had the virus, if indeed she does?
All these questions, and many others, summed up my fears as we carried on down the south road. Another thing I wondered: if what the governor had said was true about the virus dying off after winter’s end, would it also be so for a pathogen that already had a hold on its host? Warmer weather certainly promotes quicker bodily healing, but this virus was artificially engineered, so there was no telling the outcome of such climate differences.
Due to our restricted amount of supplies, our group has made miniscule progress, and we had to stop frequently to preserve our strength and core temperatures. Yet we still had to make progress, and we were compelled to trek through the grueling weather; I was without a jacket, but it was easy to tell how little Anna and Stuart’s were effective against the freezing air. They say hell is the hottest place imaginable; I, however, felt very near it in the miserably frigid blizzard.
I didn’t mind the aching hunger, nor the exasperating thirst. But the cold is too much. I can’t handle much more physically, not to mention my mental welfare, which died long ago. I’m even more afraid, though, of Stuart and especially Anna, since they won’t last as long as my body will allow, despite their jackets and my complete lack of upper clothing.
I don’t believe in jinxing, yet that’s exactly what it seemed like I did at the moment I thought that, since Stuart collapsed into the soft snow that promised a peaceful rest for him, and Anna fell not a minute after. Fearing that they had already frozen completely, I attempted dragging their stiff bodies to shelter, though my own strength was lacking. I didn’t give up, even as I was the last to crumple into the snow. A familiar aura engulfed me, and again I felt myself being claimed by mother nature. It was even more calming this time, and I became thoroughly content to be taken away from the world. I still mourned the needless loss of Stuart and Anna, but maybe they were as blissful as I was…
Chapter 27, Day Forty-Five
My chest hurt. That was the first sense I perceived, which slowly ebbed throughout my whole body and remained as a pulsating sting that did not give in. Once I realized I was breathing again I immediately coughed noisily and popped my eyes open to find the same dimly lit environment in which I had awakened to the first time I was rescued from the snow. Stuart was lying on the bed next to me on the other side of the room, and a woman in a dirndl was tending to him by applying warm rags to his forehead. “Amelia?” I wondered, although the words came out in a thin rasp.
“Wie fühlst du dich?” she asked, but when she saw my confusion, she excused herself for a moment before Jack came in.
“Ah,” he said, “if it isn’t Alex. Amelia was just asking how you were feeling. It’s fortunate we found we when we did; we have been searching everywhere for Anna for weeks now, and we had almost lost all hope.”
“You’re not mad then,” I coughed at length.
“We were at first,” he continued, “but that was a long time ago, and that anger was replaced with worry. Amelia and I weren’t sure if we’d ever see our daughter again. But…” he paused then, and he looked away from me. Amelia had already left the room, and I could sense something was wrong.
“Anna,” Jack uttered her reverence, as if not articulating the name in a certain name was a disgrace. “She’s gone ill. She’s…” Jack began sobbing uncontrollably, so he left the room after Amelia. I didn’t want to face this atrocious fact any more than I knew it to be true, and I wanted ever more to be dead then. Why couldn’t we have died together in the snow? It would be much less painful, and most importantly, we would be together until the very end. But now she must suffer through a week at least, even a month if she can withstand the virus long enough, before she breathes her last. Meanwhile, I shall be alive, though it will become a living hell for me to go on living without her. There was no way to save my love.
But was there? What if, by some miraculous grace, she could rid herself of the virus by being exposed to a warmer atmosphere? This could be the only way, but there is a change that it will work. Oh, please, God, let this save Anna! Let her make it through – take my life if need be, but please, let her live!
Chapter 28, Day Forty-Seven
I’ve made my proposal to Jack, and although he at first thought it was a vain endeavor, after some explanation on my part, as well as the weight of recent desperation, he gave in and accepted, having no other alternative other than to nurse Anna at home. The plan was to take the Freundlichkeit’s minivan and head south – in no particular direction – to escape the weather. The last time I looked at the weather on the news, almost every state south of us was clear of the blizzard, since the storm originated in and, for the most part stayed in, Alaska and Canada. We shouldn’t have to travel too far to escape the weather, so it shouldn’t take but a few days of travel at the most.
Stuart was willing to accompany the four of us on our journey; apparently he wants to run away as much as I do, and he doesn’t have a home to go back to either. As much as I hated him for what he did, I couldn’t blame him for the actions he was forced into. In a way he even reminded me of my brother – intelligent, but in need of protection. For his sake I’m glad he’s coming with us.
In the early afternoon the three of us men loaded the minivan with what provisions we deemed necessary for the coming expedition while Amelia gathered the food. We let Anna rest, and even though she offered assistance to us, we insisted she get as much rest as she could before the long trip.
We departed the house soon after we finalized the preparations, and not one of the five of us said a word as we fled south to warmer countries like a family of geese. The whooshing howl of wind outside the vehicle made me shiver, even as the car’s air conditioner warmed my skin. I put another blanket on Anna, who sat in the seat next to me, and she thanked me as I delicately kissed her forehead. I was the one who should have thanked her, for she gave me purpose and drive. She was the only reason I survived this long, and I can’t just let her die. I’ll fight for her life, not matter the cost.
It became dark quickly, and Anna fell fast asleep with my hands still locked in hers. I didn’t want to let go, not ever. I was feeling so much emotion and so helpless all at once. I would give my very soul – I would go to hell itself – if it saved Anna. But that was not possible; all I could do was hold on to Anna’s hand at that moment, until I too passed out from exhaustion as Jack drove on down the long, ice-ridden highway.
Chapter 29, Day Forty-Eight
It was early dusk when I opened my eyes to see myself still holding on to Anna’s hand. The skin of her arm was considerably more pale than before, and it felt cold and almost stone stiff. Looking up at her face, I managed to perceive a trail of blood seeping out of her tiny nose and trickling onto the blanket on her lap. She did not move.
“Oh, no! Anna!” I cried, startling Jack and waking the other two from their slumber.
Jack shot a glance back and bellowed for Amelia to grab some tissues. “Anna?! Anna, wake up, baby girl, come on!” He pulled the minivan over to the side of the road and unbuckled in the urgent manner that can only be possessed by a desperate parent. He reached back and pressed the bunched tissues in his hand against Anna’s nose while compressing the bridge of Anna’s nose with his other hand. As soon as she felt this, she awoke with a dazed spasm, but her father maintained his hold on her nose. Once she realized the situation, she calmed down and waited for the blood flow to cease.
Anna held a block of ice wrapped in a towel onto her face to ensure proper clotting as Jack started the van to embark once more on the long road south. Anna looked out at the lightly falling snow which gradually faded into nothing in a matter of hours. In less than a day we were out of the storm, but still far from the cold. I gazed at Anna, and I knew that she was missing something: some part of her had died already, and what remained was only a husk of her former self. She had lost all hope, for she knew her fate was drawing nearer every minute.
A tear fell from Anna’s cheek. It was far more painful than watching the blood run from her nose, and I felt even more helpless. I was about to hold her hand again, but I stopped myself just then. She was too far for me to reach her by kind actions like that. I thought a moment before delicately placing my hand on her shoulder. She turned to me with tear-filled eyes that crushed my spirit, but I continued anyway. “Anna,” I spoke as sensitively and tenderly as possible, “I’m here for you.”
Stuart unexpectedly leaned forward from the back seat and spoke, “We all are, Anna.”
“And we won’t give up on you,” I reassured. “Whatever happens, we won’t lose hope, and we shouldn’t abandon life and joy.” I felt as if I was speaking nonsense, but Anna smiled at my words, and yet another tear flowed down her cheek.
Anna embraced me and began weeping, but not out of sorrow. To my surprise I started sobbing along with her, and we sat there holding each other for a long time. “Jack gandered back from the driver’s seat and inquired, “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” I barely managed to get out, “we’re good.”
We’ve come too far to fail now. Please, Anna, hang in there just a little longer.
Chapter 30, Day
Amelia took the wheel yesterday to allow Jack to rest, although Jack did not fall asleep due to his concern for Anna. I couldn’t sleep either after what happened the other day, but Anna’s fatigue was too great for her to stay conscious for more than an hour or two. While she slept her expression was free of pain and worry, and I was glad she found something to dream of peacefully. Wherever she was in her dreams there was no affliction, nor anything that could shackle her, save the act of waking up.
I wanted so much to join her in tranquility, and in hopes of doing so I dozed off. I was granted only an instant, yet in that flash of time I beheld a peculiar scene. I stood on the edge of an island, on the sands of an ordinary beach, and standing before me was Anna with her thin, elegant feet already submerged in the water a few feet from the shore. Anna was slowly pacing further into the water, and I tried shouting for her to stop, because I knew that the waters were dangerous, but I couldn’t make a sound. As she strode out into the wide sea, she gazed unendingly at a stretch of land far from the beach we were on. It was so far, but I knew that she was heading for it. I kept screaming as loud as I could, but still nothing came out. Anna didn’t turn her head; she simply stared out at the island in the distance. And suddenly I was torn from the dream and placed back into reality.
“Here we are,” Jack told all of us in the minivan. I asked where “here” was, and he informed me that it was southern Florida, where he had family who owned a house close to the beach.
“A beach?” I asked, confounded.
“Yes,” Jack replied. “It’s not the nicest beach in the area, but the view is spectacular.” The dream I just had… was it coming true? Did I have a premonition? If so, then Anna -
Before I knew it, the rest of the family, including Stuart, was out of the vehicle, eager to stretch their legs from the extensive travel. My brain was still trying to process the implications of this uncertain scenario when Jack questioned if I would join the others out on the beach before going to meet Jack’s family further downshore.
My head shot up in realization, and I ripped off my seatbelt before bolting out of the minivan and speeding off down to the beach. The three others were near the water’s side already, and Anna stood staring out at the vast sea. “No, Anna! Wait!” I cried to alter the course of my dream. She turned to me and gave a smile warmer and more radiant than the shining sun above, and at that moment I knew that she had found the thing that she had lost: she regained her joy and hope, something that nothing could take away anymore.
My fears subsided, for Anna was here in front of me, not wandering forlornly into the midst of the ocean. Life was revived in her face; it was more beautiful than it had ever been in the past, but it contained hints of sorrow, tiny fragments of something faintly amiss. Yet despite any strand of despondency, there was no doubt of Anna’s supreme grace overcoming all signs of illness and anguish.
We kissed then. It was the two of us at that moment, everything and everyone else fading away before us. My heart was bursting in elation for this girl before me, and I could feel it beating in sync with Anna’s, perfectly parallel. Drawing away a second later, or what felt like just as long to me, I uttered what I had never told her before: “I love you.”
She smiled once more, this time with a stronger inkling of returning grievances, though a moment later it was vanquished by her grace. “I love you,” she returned.
And then, she died.
Überleben der Stärksten is an American-made novella written with some German aspects (such as the main character's last name, Arbeit, meaning "work" or "job", which exemplifies the character's early tendency to act rather than to think). The story itself follows Alex, a teen/young adult who becomes trapped inside a supermarket along with a few others during a horrendous blizzard, although that is only a small part of the entire journey. The book's incipience sprouted from the "store wars" idea of a three-author union who strove to create a three-perspective story, though this one is the only story of the three to be brought to light in full. There must also be noted the journal-esque format in the writing of this story, which stems from three prior stories written in intentional journal format, and thus inklings of that style may still be seen here. Überleben der Stärksten is the fourth story written by Daniel Lokovich and the first one officially published.