Living in the Ashes

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
In the middle of an ending world, on the edge of a burning town, in the corner of a creaking house, the small frame of Lucy Manning sat curled up. She was in such a deep sleep, snores echoing from the corner, that she was unaware of what was happening around her. She didn't hear the distant screams and yells, the breaking of glass or wood that was now very common background noise. Having exhausted herself from a long day of staring out from between the boards nailed to the windows, she had immediately collapsed onto the pile of old blankets, causing her to miss the only significant thing of the day.

Outside of the boarded up house, though fires still raged down the street and cries from the houses (Lucy always whispered into the darkness, "Just keep quiet and they won't find you, please be quiet,") the usual bustle of looters was gone. The streets were far emptier than they had been for the last two weeks.

But Lucy stirred in her sleep only slightly as the backdoor creaked open, unaware of the streak of red that whipped through it, searching for food and survivors. She had no clue that she had never been so close to death or being rescued as she was right now.

The streak of red paused at the doorway of the kitchen, observing the ball of matted blonde hair and baggy clothes. The air was so thick with tension that she finally woke up. Lucy's wide brown eyes found the dark tall figure standing only feet from her, it's hand on the gun on it's holster.

"Lillie? Manning?" Though the figure whispered, the sound rang out. There's was something slightly familiar about the rasp in the feminine voice.

Lucy stayed still, hardly daring to breathe as the shadowed figure moved into the dim, dust filled light. The familiar, if slightly harsher, face of her neighbor Bree moved into view, her signature grey streaked red hair pulled into two braids. Dirt and ash were smeared across her face and arms, along with a red substance that Lucy refused to believe was blood.

"Wasn't that your name? Lillie? Or Lacey?" Bree squatted down, making herself eye level with the smaller girl, and smiled in what was assumed to be a kindly way. Lucy noticed the red on her teeth.

"No," She winced at her weak voice, hoarse from lack of use. "No! It's L-Lucy Manning, and what do you want?"

Bree's smile disappeared. Without it her face seemed too long, too old, unhuman. "I saw your father stumbling down the street abou' a week ago, mumbling about food. Didn't see him after that. Decided to come see you, didn't think you could last long. But. . . You seemed to have taken up your own methods of survival. . ." Her eyes wandered to the old blankets and the gun on the counter.

There was definitely something about those eyes that Lucy didn't like. She watched them flit across the room, taking in information, though something wasn't quite there.

"You saw my dad? And you didn't think to help him?" Lucy's foot moved in the direction of her dad's old gun, thinking that if she needed to make a grab for it. . .

"Well, er, Lucy," Bree smiled again, though this time maliciously. "Didn't know who I could trust, did I? No, the Plague, don't quite know with that." She muttered almost to herself.

"You know Lucy, I tried very hard to get here." Bree now began to work her way in an almost predatorial circle, like a lion eyeing their prey. "The streets were filled with people, thieves, taking advantage of the downfall of this once great nation. Yes, crumbled from within, didn't we? Hm, humans have always been good at that, masters of their own destruction.
. ."

Lucy didn't know what she was talking about, didn't really care, for she had just noticed how quiet it was. Even the fires seemed to have stalled to listen in on the conversation.

"Yes, they thought it was terror from the skies, thought of aliens and other worldly things." Bree's eyes were wild, her smile animalistic. "But no these were quite worldly, quite human."

Lucy hated to admit that her knees were trembling as an alarm went off in her head: She had just recognized the signs.

Just the same as her mother, really. Narrow pupils, picking and peeling your own skin (Lucy saw shining spots on the woman's arms where the muscle showed through), babblings and ramblings of conspiracy theories, paranoia, distant and animal-like face. Bree was infected and, by the looks of it, she wasn't too far from the last stage.

Lucy shivered as she thought of her own mother, lying still in the stained bedding, her blank eyes staring at the daughter that she'd left behind. The daughter that she couldn't even see.

"Br-Bree. . . What's. . . What's it like out there?" She had to swallow to hide the sob that had reached her throat. And to Lucy's horror, Bree had begun to laugh, eyes wide, shoulders shaking.

"Oh it's wonderful!" She looked absolutely delighted, like a child explaining the rides at a carnival. "You'd love it Lucy. No really! Screams echoing from buildings, anything you want is yours as long as you're willing to, er, apply force. Oh and the food just litters the ground. Plenty for all!" With a sickening lurch Lucy remembered all of the people she'd seen lying in the street.

"I can. . . I can help you, I know of a town, I heard it on the radio." Lucy was grasping for chances, wanting to help but scared of the disease that showed in Bree's eyes. "I've been waiting for someone to come and save--"

She was, however, cut off by the shrieking coming from the red haired woman in front of her. It was a sound that made Lucy aware of every bone and blood vessel in her body, for a chill had just run through all of them.

"Save? Save!" Bree shook with the noise, her expression horrifically twisted with it. "There is no saving! Only survival! Oh, the tyrants thought they were the survivors but they victims. . . Victims of human ignorance. . . So I had to, yes, no choice, noooo. . ."

Lucy barely had time to move before Bree had crashed into the wall behind her. Body convulsing, the red haired woman turned toward the small child, but hadn't seen the gun now in her hands. After shooting, rather wildly and randomly, Lucy ran towards the front door. Her fingers tore at the nailed boards, felt them scraping raw as she finally made her way outside. Loud footfalls behind her, don't turn back, don't do it Lucy, just keep running.

But no matter how fast or long she ran, she couldn't escape the cookiecutter houses of her neighborhood. The only thing keeping her alive right now was the bullet residing in Bree's body, though that wouldn't keep her for long, she had the Plague, she's no longer human. . .

Panting, sweat mixing with tears, she finally saw the end of the line of houses, saw trees and cover. Safety, she could hide in the trees. . .

A scream rang out. It came from a two story building, whose roof had just caught fire. The cry drew out, though the person did not tire from it.

A moment's hesitation and then she was running through the front door, which promptly fell off it's hinges. The scream seemed to be coming from the downstairs. Hurrying in that direction, Lucy noticed holes and cracks in the ceiling, and wondered how much time they had before it caved in.

At the foot of the basement stairs (or what was left of it) was a heap of wood and metal, which seemed to be where the sound was coming from. Upon hearing Bree's footsteps behind her, Lucy lowered herself quietly next to the rubble.

She began to dig.

The metal cut into her arms, wood agonizing against her already raw hands. She vaguely noticed blood trickling onto the floor.

As Lucy scraped and scratched at the wood, trying to find the source of the cry, the ceiling above her creaked ominously. Finally a chubby hand emerged from the wreckage and just as she pulled on it, the ceiling collapsed.

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