“The baseboards can always be painted over.”
The sentence played over and over again in Margaret’s head. The real estate agent had muttered it innocently under her breath, but it stuck... [+]
“Nope.” She mutters. “Quick nap, then we’ll set up camp. ‘Kay?” I nod quickly, eager to take a rest, slipping an arm around her shoulders and releasing a heavy sigh. She's asleep within minutes, and I wish I could say the same, but I can never sleep without first lying awake, solemnly musing over how quickly everything has changed these past few years. Six years ago, my life was completely normal; I was just adorable little ten-year-old Tzarah Winchell who played soccer Friday nights, loved reading and did well in school. Then, suddenly, a disease began spreading across the planet, and once infected- only by touching the blood of the diseased- it stays dormant in you for only a few hours, with little to give the virus’s presence away. Then, once ready, it strikes, ripping apart the DNA and altering it, mutating whatever possible, converting both body and mind into those of a bloodthirsty fiend within minutes. Dubbed the Kaxlar by the world’s petrified masses, the only thing these monsters can think of after transformation is the taste of human blood. I fled my home when my mother turned one night and killed my older sister, and met Maylana, another runaway. We quickly became friends, then lovers, and I’d do anything to protect her- but I can’t help but wish we could be normal infatuated teens worrying about our grades, instead of worrying that we could be slaughtered or robbed everywhere we go.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but suddenly I am plunged into a dream I know far too well. My skin ripples with shiny black scales, my teeth sharpened in my mouth and slicing my lips, nails curved and yellow. My spine breaks, mends itself, and breaks again, till I'm slumped over in a hunch so harsh I’m forced down on all fours. I can smell something glorious- the stink of human, so close I can taste it. I know who I’m hunting; how could I not? We have known each other for six years. Dragging my twisted body around the corner of an unknown building, I see her- Maylana. Sleeping peacefully, curled up on the floor beneath her favorite blanket. A smile curls my lips, and I lunge towards her, reaching out a hand, desperate for blood-
I jolt awake with a start, heart pounding. I’ve been having that dream constantly ever since I met her, and it still shakes me up as much now as the first time. Maylana has vanished, and it’s grown dark outside the crumbling apartment building. How long was I asleep? I rise to my feet, snatch up my things, and finally make my way to the stairs. Somehow managing to climb up all six flights without getting a ruptured lung, I stop for a moment to catch my breath before starting down the foyer. In the dim light, I can still see a few hints of previous life here and there; cracked marble vases, shattered picture frames strewn everywhere, torn pillows, all surrounded by dirt, leaves, and broken glass. Spying a door left slightly ajar at the end of the row of doors, I hurry down the hall, sidestepping glass shards and rusty metal bits, turning the door handle and easing the door open slowly, to avoid any creaks that could give away our location. “Tzarah? That you?” She calls, and I sigh in relief; I’ve opened wrong doors before, with disastrous consequences. “It’s me. Sorry I took so long.”
“Nah, I just wanted to get started before you woke up.” I smile gratefully, stepping into living room and shoving my hands in my pockets as I stop behind her. “Smart. I’ll get some beans and hot dogs cooking.” Maylana groans, sitting back on her haunches and turning to me. “Ugh, we need to raid a real kitchen. I’m tired of hobo food.” I snort, leaning down and kissing the top of her head before starting to navigate through the clutter towards the kitchen. “Well, we kind of are hobos, so we’ll have to deal for now. But if I find some good food, I’ll snatch it right up for you.” I reply, kneeling on the floor and dropping my bag beside me. As I set to work making a small fire, I can just imagine the tantrum my mom would throw if she saw me eating such unhealthy meals, and I almost laugh.
After eating, fatigue takes over. We collapse inside our tent onto a mound of pillows and blankets and snuggle together, exchanging a quiet goodnight before drifting off to sleep, tangled in each other’s arms.
I sleep for what seems like only a minute, when the smallest of noises tears me from slumber- I'm a light sleeper by practice. I pull myself carefully from Maylana’s embrace, slowly unzipping the flap over the tent window partway and peering out. It’s too dark to see much at first, but as my eyes adjust, I can make out the dirty walls, old trinkets, and our things, being pawed through by- My heart drops. We would’ve had a chance to escape from looters or other squatters, through bargains or just running. But there is a colossal mass of Kaxlar in the dilapidated apartment, maw agape as a slimy tongue runs over our supplies. A sensory deprived one- disabled people who turned, carrying impairments along with them as Kaxlar, often using their tongues or paws to map out the terrain. I watch, not daring to flick on a light, as it searches for the source of the scent it’s caught, when a small clatter in the kitchen makes it whip its head around. It eagerly abandons our things in favor of investigating, lumbering into the kitchen and bumping into a few walls on its way. Blind- easier to run from, but still dicey getting past. I back away from the tent window, making as little noise as I can, and turn to my sleeping girlfriend, leaning down and shaking her gently till she stirs, then tapping her three times- a silent warning against making noise. She nods, sitting upright, grabbing her bag and quietly shoving her things into it. After packing whatever we can, we slip out the tent flap- always left open, should these situations arise - and start creeping out of the living room, towards the front door, a difficult task without flashlights, but it’s too risky to use one lest the monster hear it click, or, worse, any pals it brought see the beam. As we near the exit, I can see how it got in- I didn’t shut the front door. I’m such an idiot.
We manage to make it out the door without getting caught, and, anxious to get away, we pick up the pace, moving blindly down the hall towards the stairs. Merely two yards from them, my foot slams into a piece of glass, smashing it, and I yelp as the shards cut through my sock and slice my heel. Maylana whirls about as I clap a hand over my mouth, but the damage is done- the blind beast howls joyfully, and I can hear it storming through the apartment, hungry for blood.
Knowing I have but a few moments before being torn to shreds, I shove my bag into Maylana’s arms. “Run as fast and as far as you can. Don’t stop till you find safety.” Maylana shakes her head wildly, grabbing for my hand. “No, Tzarah! I won’t leave you to perish, we can-” I press our lips together to cut her short, pulling away as the Kaxlar forces itself past the threshold, labored breath polluting the air. “Go.” She stares at me, finally turning and sprinting away. As I turn to face the monstrosity hurtling towards me, teary-eyed, trying to think only of saving my Maylana instead of the fear threatening to cripple me as every second passes, my final thought is that I’ll finally be able to see my friends and family again.