A girl sat on the edge of the railroad tracks, shivering beneath her hospital gown. She was young, probably nine or ten, and her prepubescent body was emaciated and pale. Her mousy brown hair hung loosely in a thin veil around her face, and her freckles stood out against her lifeless expression. Her small feet were bare and calloused; dirty. Her bones protruded out from her frame and her skin sat loosely upon her skeleton like a bedsheet. She had curled herself into a ball, her knees pulled up to her chest and her chin delicately resting between them.
The girl stared ahead of her, the broken city in which she had grown up just outside of casting an eerie, omniscient shadow against the smog-ridden sky. A rat scurried over her feet, but she paid no mind. She just sat there, staring, as if she were waiting for something, or maybe for someone. Her eyes were glazed over with the look of deep thought, and it was clear that she was not just shivering because of her malnutrition. She was remembering her days in The Ward, where They had thousands of other females of different age groups. She remembered the tests that they would do – shocking her, poking and prodding her, starving her, and countless more barbaric things. She looked remorsefully at her bony arms, covered in bruises, scratches, and scars, and shuddered, trying to turn her thoughts elsewhere. The girl had little success. She remembered her escape with her older sister, and she relived the moment her sister had been shot in the back while trying to climb the towering chain fence and she, the least likely of the two to survive, made it over with no more than a sprained ankle.
Suddenly, there was rustling in the weeds behind her. She turned round slowly and cautiously, as if she had known whoever it was would be coming but was afraid of the alternate possibilities. Upon seeing the familiar figure of her older brother, she got up quickly and ran to the boy, wrapping her frail arms around him in a relieved embrace. He looked to be fifteen or sixteen. He was young, but his jaw was set with a sadness and maturity that far exceeded his physical age. His eyes sat in a squint and despite the melancholy that filled them, there was an undeniable shimmer of love and affection that was directed towards the girl.
“You made it,” the girl whispered, her face buried in the leather-clad chest of the boy.
“Of course I did,” he said with an exhale. “You know I wouldn’t leave you for long.”
“I know,” stated the girl, “but I was beginning to worry that…that,” she took a quick but thorough glance around her, “They had gotten you.”
“No, I’m here. I’m safe, and thank God you are, too. Besides, what would They want me for?”
The boy sat down on the tracks next to where the girl had been, and he motioned her to sit next to him. Her forehead sat in a confused wrinkle, but she did not question the gesture. She sat down, pulling the gown together underneath her. The boy reached into his coat, pulling out a paper bag decorated with the flamboyant logo of a modern sandwich shop. The girl’s eyes widened as she smiled in disbelief, and her disbelief turned to amazement as she saw her brother pull out two sub sandwiches and two sodas.
“How did you get these?” she asked, eagerly reaching for the sandwich and soda that the boy held out for her.
“Sandwich shop,” answered the boy, unwrapping his sandwich. “It’s about a town over from here. I managed to find some spare change – enough for the food. The people there seemed real nice, but something felt…off, so I left right after. Now eat up,” he encouraged with a loving smile.
The girl followed his command, stopping to lick her fingers every so often. She hadn’t seen a sub sandwich in over a year, let alone tasted one. When they had eaten everything, they stood up and, after the boy pulled out his map and showed her where they were headed, she followed in his lead, holding the hospital gown closed behind her.
The boy told the girl about the city he’d found, just twenty miles east of their current location. He told her that there were still people living there, and that, if his calculations were correct, They had not yet reached it.
“But first,” the boy looked at his younger sister with a sternness in his still gentle eyes, “you need clothes.” The girl nodded eagerly. He reached into the beat up leather messenger bag that hung over his shoulder and pulled out a pair of jeans, a sweater, boxers, dirty sneakers and a baseball cap. “Sorry,” he apologized. “It was the best that I could find.”
The jeans were too big, but through trial and error the two managed to rip a strip of denim fabric from the jeans that was long enough to be tied around the girl’s waist in a makeshift belt. They ripped off three-fourths of the legs on the jeans to make shorts, and then rolled them to give them a more “normal” look. The sweater was baggy over the girl’s small frame, but it looked more intentional when she tucked it in and rolled the sleeves up to the point where her hands were no longer covered. She then grabbed the old, nearly broken rubber band around her wrist, and, after it snapped and she tied it back together again, she loosely pulled her thin hair into a high ponytail, completing it by pulling the tail through the back of the hat and placing it on her head.. The boy smiled and gave a nod of approval, and they set off walking on the barren, abandoned train tracks.
It was quite a few hours later when the sky began to grow dark and the wind obtained a cool bite to it. They had trekked nine miles, putting them only eleven miles away from their destination. The boy figured that if they began at sunrise the next morning, they could make it to the city before sunset. They ventured off into a small forest by the railroad and, after acquiring enough large sticks, they constructed a lean-to under a large oak tree.
“I remember when we had a real house,” said the girl after about a half hour of silence. She was sitting in the same position she had been on the train tracks while waiting for her brother. He had told her to get some sleep, but she could hear coyotes in the distance and every time she closed her eyes she imagined them circling the lean-to and ripping her to shreds.
Her brother just looked over with a sad expression in his eyes.
“When Mommy and Daddy were here, before the apocalypse.” She glanced at her brother. “Why did They start the apocalypse?”
“Because They’re bad,” the boy said.
“You say that every time I ask,” the girl groaned. “I’m not five; you can tell me.”
“There are some things you don’t need to know,” stated the boy.
“But how am I supposed to listen to you when I don’t even know what’s going on? For all we know half of the human race is extinct, and I’m sick and tired and I don’t even know what I’m fighting for.”
The boy solemnly stared at his little sister, wishing she’d been able grow up like a normal kid. He thought about how fast she’d had to grow up and all the awful things she’d witnessed: the death of her parents, the bombing, the fall of the city she grew up in… She’d had to face starvation and poverty and hardly knew what it’s like to have a real home. At the very least, he decided, she deserves to know why she’s had to go through it all. And so he told her everything.
He told her about the mysterious shapes and lights way up in the sky at night five years ago, and how after a year they began getting closer. He told her about the sudden increase in populations all around the world and how for three years they lived without electricity and no explanation as to why it was gone. He told her about the plague that swept across the world, wiping out one-third the population – anyone that They deemed unfit for Their revolution was killed. And finally he told her about how the government seemed to back away and not do a thing, and how no one knew if they were just scared or if the government was helping Them, and how the debate got so bad that it started a third World War with three sides, in which no one knew if the government was backing anyone. There’s the ones against Them and the government, there are the ones who backed the United States government, and finally Them, the aliens that are out to destroy the world.
The girl was crying and the boy scooted across the floor of the lean-to, wrapping her in his warm embrace that, like hers, was thinning and on the verge of collapsing. They sat like that for what seemed like hours, but in reality was only a mere ten minutes. Tears slid down both of their faces like rain drops on a window, and although their sobs were quiet, they echoed loudly in their skulls, a haunting melody of melancholy.
Until they heard the crackle of leaves just outside of the lean-to.
The two siblings jumped and grew silent, straining to hear even the slightest sound. It was dead silent for five minutes, and in those five minutes they were trapped inside their own special kind of Hell.
Finally, the lean-to came down around them in a shower of splinters and through the mess they saw a countless number of tall grey figures against the full moon, circling their now destroyed home of the night. The two held hands and squeezed their eyes shut. They knew that their end was near, and they felt nothing but the warmth of each other’s palms and heard nothing but the pounding of their hearts and the desperate, sharp breaths that they took, knowing that any one of those breaths would be their last. Then, after they both inhaled deeply in unison, the shots rang off all around them and they collapsed into a clutter of sticks, bullets and fragile bones, their fingers still intertwined as They left the rubble for the coyotes to find the next morning.