Jared lay awake, wrapped tightly in his sleeping bag beneath orange-blue tent canvas, listening to the soft breathing of Jennie beside him. She was in her own sleeping bag, though nuzzled up against his side. This beautiful, caring woman of his dreams had such a fierce determination to survive, it was no wonder the others followed her.
Perhaps the only wonder people felt was what she saw in him.
Perhaps he wondered the same thing.
It was crazy how much had changed in two months. Life always had this slow, measured pace of control, of existing within walls and determining outcomes by what sacrifices could be made: family, friends, Happy birthday! texts instead of in-person hugs, scheduling every worthless thing to squeeze more of the day dry, more of life dry.
It all seemed very important back then, when time was the enemy. Every goal and passion demanded its share of those precious seconds. No refunds, no take-backs, no second chances. Time was cruel like that, or so it seemed until a real enemy replaced it.
Jennie didn’t exist in that perfectly controlled life. She wouldn’t have fit. Not between the studies and work, goals and outcomes. Months ago she would have been a lone piece searching for its spot in the puzzle, now . . . life had forever changed, never to be the same again.
There was no puzzle anymore, just scattered pieces.
In all the chaos of broken walls and schedules and goals, something unforeseeable happened. She found him. Like all the stars aligned and it just took the end of the fucking world to make it happen. Now they were two entwined souls, fighting for a chance. Fighting against those terrible, terrible things.
Her calm, quiet breathing soothed that overly familiar spike of anxiety, of fear that followed their troop of survivors, always lingering in deep thoughts.
He couldn’t shake the things they had seen, seared into permanent memories of bodies, drained and skeletal, wrapped in their own leather tight skin: mummified husks. They had hollowed out eyes and creepy smiles, stretched and stuck as if death was the release they had all sought. The most terrifying was the gaping holes in their foreheads. . . .
He pinched his eyes shut, forcing the hundreds of withered dead they had seen out of his mind. But they crawled back! The ever-present nightmare of the laughing dead, casting their curse, their promise that someday, someday soon, he and everyone else would be like them.
No, no, no. . . .
Jennie exhaled: A peaceful sound mixed with the occasional light tapping of raindrops that struck the thin canvas walls and trickled down. He just needed to hold onto this reality, not those terrible monsters that left the streets covered in the dead.
They didn’t exist. They couldn’t exist.
No—he needed to sleep, but it was hard to ignore the swelling discomfort coming from his bladder. The damn thing woke him half an hour ago, or was it an hour? If only he still had a functional watch that didn’t need to be recharged once a week.
Maybe he could last until morning. Quiet his mind, focus on nothing until the world fell into a perfect, undisturbed darkness. . . .
Gah! It was impossible. Yet it was so warm here, so comfortable next to Jennie. The rain only promised a wet, miserable outside, an outside they had trudged through, day after day, relentlessly pushing toward some promised haven that probably didn’t exist.
But he wouldn’t complain. Jennie believed in this haven. All he could do now was support her and the others that depended on her leadership, her hope. Would she forgive him if he didn’t believe? At least they were away from civilization, where the attacks were the worst.
Enough of this. He pressed himself up and wiggled out of the tight confines of his sleeping bag. His tattered, yellow-stained shirt hung from a plastic hook sewn into the ceiling. It was still moist with sweat gone cold. Pulling it over his aching muscles, it clung like a second skin.
He stretched an arm out toward his pants, though stopped. This wouldn’t take forever—completely changing just to piss was a bit too much and would make a ruckus. Jennie had pushed them all hard, waking her now was like a cardinal sin. He’d go and come back before the warmth in his sleeping bag had a chance to escape.
The tent’s zipper whined as it split the fabric. He slipped soundlessly through the flap and eased bare toes into the cold, wet, and miserable mud, glinting with moonlight. The dozen other tents were dark and quiet: no candlelight, no worried whispers, no . . . guard.
"Henry?" he whispered into the dark shadows of giant pine trees. They circled the glade, filling the undergrowth with gnarled roots. The campfire was nothing more than flakes of stubborn red ember, brightening with a breath of crisp air that flittered through shrubs and branches of pine-needles.
With arms crossed, he rubbed the sprouting goosebumps and walked on the edges of his feet toward the watchpoint. Henry was probably curled up on the other side, fast asleep, not taking his responsibilities seriously.
It was one thing to be a damn pissant when the only consequences of being stupid fell on the one being stupid, it was a whole other thing to risk the lives of everyone.
Jared ground his teeth, a flash of heat burning from jaw to neck and chest. Never mind the fact that he wore nothing more than a dirty tee shirt and boxer briefs, he stepped past the large rock covered in lichen, acting as watchpoint, and looked to the other side.
Of course there was nothing. And no one moved in the tents, no one was handing off responsibility. Just a whole bunch of—
Something moved. . . .
A shadow in the darkness, down the slope, where the glade met the tree line. Maybe Henry had to take a piss? But why all the way down there?
He wanted to yell. Oh . . . how he wanted to put the kid in his place for all the crap he gave Jennie. Though waking everyone, robbing them of even a few precious minutes of rest, would cause more damage than good, not to mention, evoke everyone’s ire.
Instead, he marched down the slope.
Raindrops of icy water stung with each poke, sucking warmth away. The sky churned with dark storm clouds—tomorrow would be even more miserable than now. At least there was a section of star-filled sky and a bright silver moon to light the way.
Long blades of grass tickled his legs with each step, like dead, frigid fingers trying to take hold, soaking his toes in numb wetness. Something crunched underfoot, followed by a sharp stinging pain.
He jerked back, sucking air through teeth, hopping on one foot while cradling the other. Dammit, dammit, dammit! The sole of his foot, the soft fleshy part, pooled with warmth. There was blood. . . . It stung, though his feet were now so cold, there was no knowing how bad it was. Jennie had a first aid kit, but their supplies were dwindling. She would chide him good if his foot got infected on this endless hike they were all on.
He should have put shoes on before deciding to tramps through the wildness like some damn idiot, barefoot and freezing his ass off. And what the hell did he step on?
Bones. . . .
Tiny, needlelike bones speared out from decomposing animal flesh, crawling with white, busy-bodied maggots. He reeled back, coughing from the sudden putrid smell of pushing his face beneath the tall grasses, inches away from some rodent’s carcass. Great. Infection was definitely a concern now.
"Henry!" he called to the tree line and their deep shadows, now far enough from the camp to raise his voice.
No reply came. Just the tapping of raindrops and the distant whistle of cold wind through trees . . . and footsteps.
"This isn’t a game! You’re supposed to be keeping watch."
Still, the brat didn’t reply.
Fine! If the pissant didn’t care about being chewed out in front of everyone, he’d wake the next person for guard duty—Greg, was it?—and tell Jennie in the morning. He turned and took one hobbling step back toward the shadowed forms of tents when a sound came from behind.
Laughter? Oh sure, laugh now. He balled his fists and turned back. This couldn’t wait until morning, and though Jennie was fully capable of evoking fear with her intense, blue-eyed stare, sometimes words simply weren’t enough.
He stepped past the first tree and the second, scanning the shadows for the lanky teenager and his toxic attitude. Everyone had lost someone or something or everything. That didn’t give them a free pass to burden others. This was all they had; these just might be the last people that were alive.
"Come out!" he yelled. What was Henry doing, hiding under some bush? Moonlight didn’t reach the forest’s floor here, textured with damp pine-needles, making it near impossible to see anything or walk without aggravating the cut on his foot.
The rain and forest took on an almost briny stench. He crinkled his nose. Hopefully, there wasn’t another animal carcass lying about, ready for him to stumble over. Though this didn’t smell like rot, it almost smelled like . . . the ocean.
They were nowhere near the ocean.
A twig snapped a dozen feet away, deeper into the forest. This was so stupid. They were just getting further away from the camp, the camp Henry was supposed to be guarding. What if those things attacked right now?
He let out a frustrated breath and turned back. The silver moonlit glade seemed further away, looking out from the darkness. And up the slope where small tents covered the ground, a lanky teenager pushed himself onto the large, watchpoint rock.
If that was Henry—
Jared swallowed hard, freezing in place. That sound, that laughing sound came again, though it wasn’t laughing. It was like steam escaping a machine in quick, short bursts.
Something pressed into the ground from behind—a weight. The pine-needles and mud squished and complained with silent, wet snaps.
His lungs wouldn’t draw breath. Every tiny, minuscule hair across his body stood on end as if in defiance. He needed to go! Run, dammit! An outpouring stream of strength, of energy coursed through him, and he sprinted toward the glade.
They were supposed to be safe here. Dammit! Nowhere was safe from these things. He yelled to warn the others, though his voice came out quiet, muted, as if underwater.
Something thick and fleshy tried to wrap around his waist. He shoved against it, pushing himself off balance and crashing to the ground. A stick tore across his shoulder and arm, stinging fiercely—he twisted around to grab it.
A squeezing force wrapped his leg then pulled, tearing him upward.
He dug his fingers into the wet pine-needles, into the soft mud, raking them across the ground as his body lifted. A solid, slick form slid into his hand, and he clenched panicked fingers around the stick just before he was pulled free of the ground altogether, hanging upside down, heaving breath, twisting, kicking with his free foot.
The thing—the monster—was there. But it didn’t exist! This black bulbous form in the dark, couldn’t be real! It had long tentacles that held to the ground and trees and branches—one was wrapped around his foot, another slid across his chest.
He tried to scream again, though it came out weak and hollow.
The second tentacle tightened around his chest as another one, with a large hooked claw at the end, slid along his neck and chin, vibrating as if with anticipation to pierce his skull and drink, to leave him a dried husk, like all those other thousands of people.
No! He couldn’t die here, not now. Not when after he died, Jennie would be next. They needed to be warned, to be given a fighting chance.
Gritting teeth, he drove the sharp end of the stick into the tentacle around his chest. The monster thrashed, waving him up and down, though he dug deeper, tearing a gash in the rubbery flesh, splashing oily, glowing blue blood across his fingers.
The monster jerked back with a sucking growl and flung him away.
He hit the ground, hard.
His leg cracked against a rock, followed by a blinding bolt of fiery pain. He rolled once, pressing mouth and nose into a shallow pool of water, and screamed! The pain nearly took the air from his lungs, shocking through muscles and crunched bones.
But there was no time for pain. . . .
He tore at the ground, kicking his good leg, jaw achingly tight, heart beating so fast it was making him dizzy. From under a tree, he grabbed a short branch stub and pulled himself up, sliding his back against the rough bark, like coarse sandpaper on skin.
Where is it? There was nothing behind the trees or the rocks or beyond the bushes. Maybe he just couldn’t see it.
It was that laughing sound, and it wasn’t far.
He forced himself out from under the tree and toward the bright, moonlit glade where Henry still sat, oblivious to the dangers they were all in. What an idiot! Jared hopped and stumbled, crashing through branches, grabbing whatever could propel him forward and maintain balance.
The monster followed: sticks cracked, trees shuttered.
He pushed out of the tree line where there was nothing else to hold onto and yelled to the camp. Relief prickled through him, hearing his terrified voice cut through the night’s silence.
Henry frantically jumped off the rock and started shouting, raising the alarm, waking everyone.
The monster broke from the trees, all black and fleshy, carried on long tentacles covered in suckers. One tentacle wrapped Jared’s chest twice over. Another tore the stick he didn’t even realize he still had, from cold fingers.
It moved with a fierce eagerness, perhaps afraid? Could this monster think for itself beyond blind instincts?
The others would come for him! They had a bolt-action rifle and three precious bullets. He just had to last, had to live for a few seconds.
He screamed in defiance! Let rage replace fear. A tentacle wrapped his neck, cutting off his voice, his airway. He flexed his arms against the thick fleshy tentacle and struggled against its unfaltering strength—clawed unkempt fingernails into its cold, lifeless rubber.
A tentacle slid along his chin. The tip didn’t have a claw, like the other he had seen. Instead, tiny, rainbow luminescent strings, worms, antennae—something, felt along his face. Their touch, oddly warm and numbing.
All the fear, all the need to escape, to run, to fight, to save the others, to save himself, seeped away like a bad dream.
Why was he running?
These creatures were their friends!
He had hurt it. . . .
The guilt was crushing, and new tears ran down his cheeks before he couldn’t feel anything, nothing except an overwhelming surge of happiness. He almost laughed. All the anxiety that had needlessly plagued him was gone.
The magnificent creature hovered a tentacle with a curved claw above his forehead. It lowered with gentle precision until the tip touched, cutting into skin. With a sudden jerk, the claw pressed into his head.
Something surged through him, a glorious warmth that trickled down within his chest, legs, and into his toes. Then just as it had started, the world shifted, like he was floating upward, weightless, unburdened.
"No!" a scream from the camp. Jennie?
The world came rushing back. He fell to the wet ground on top of something withered and rigid.
Everything had changed! Grays of every shade blanketed the land, the grass, the trees. Moths and field mice and bats glowed rainbow colors, colors he could feel.
Jennie radiated a pure white with red spilling through her chest, swirling like dye in milk. She was so scared and angry. Her emotions pushed him back a slithering step.
He tried to say something, though the words only came out as short bursts of air. He projected happiness and peace and calm—it will be okay!—though she couldn’t feel, couldn’t understand.
She pointed a shaking, dull gray, emotionless rifle at him. A sad blue pooled at the back of her head. It thrashed about, fighting against her, threatening to escape her control, to overwhelm her.
She needed help.
He moved forward.
The gun went off, and yellow agony speared through him. A low, sucking growl rumbled deep within as the yellows coursed over his . . . tentacles. The color rippled like a drop in still water, more fascinating than the diminishing pain.
Jennie struggled with the rifle, yanking at the bolt, cursing. Finally, it slid back, ejecting a gray shell with a crisp ting in the air. She shoved the bolt forward and retook aim.
He ran! Or floated or eased over the land without much thought to it. This body moved on its own. It understood his intentions—more machine than anything.
But . . . no! He wouldn’t abandon her, not Jennie. Not the fierce woman that he had grown to love and support, the woman that, confused as she might be, had fought to save people, to protect them.
Before the gun could go off again, his glorious friend tore it from her hands, bending the barrel before launching it against a tree that, now that he really looked at it, glowed a soft, peaceful green, filled with millions of lines that surged along branches and into the ends of pine-needles.
Jennie fell back. She was crying, pushing herself away from the only thing that could help her, help all of them.
Something touched his mind—a nudge to let go. Emotion swelled, and he knew everything would be okay, he just needed to trust in the others and give up this body.
Jennie pulled out a knife. She swung it at the tentacles of his friend, of his savior. The blade connected and spilled bright blue blood. It felt pain, and he felt it too! Somehow, they were connected. . . .
His friend lurched forward on shifting tentacles and seized Jennie around the waist. She was shaking her head, sobbing, fighting with everything she had, and she had a lot. She fought harder than he had.
Though then, between the fierce fighting spirit and the inevitability of giving into the process, her colors changed to a deep purple, a terrible hue of defiance and . . . sacrifice.
She took the knife, sucked in a deep breath, set her jaw, and plunged it into her chest. Yellow burst through her body in waves.
No! He shot to her, ignoring the nudging in his mind to let go, to give into peace, to let be, and all would be fine. All wouldn’t be fine. He couldn’t exist in a world without Jennie, a world without her fiery determination, her love, her laugh.
He took her from his friend, bleeding a desperation of orange while his friend pulsed a color of green, of peace and calm. The sensation at the back of his mind fed him with information.
He could save her. . . .
Tentacles gently wrapped around her, and he brought one to her forehead. Her mind was a blazing light, firing so fast the colors were hard to look at. He released his fillers that crawled over her face, numbing and soothing her in these last few seconds of life.
They slipped into the soft corners of her eyes and slid into the brights of her mind. Then he shook as his claw dug into her forehead, giving her a way to escape, filling her with chemicals to start the transformation.
He pulled on her entity, pleading for her to live, and then, gushing from the shell of her body, she slid out—slick-bodied, thin tentacles . . . gray.
Her new body collapsed to the ground.
No colors illuminated from within.
Lifeless. . . .
He nudged her with a tentacle, then again. Blue colors twisted and spun throughout his body. He wasn’t as strong as her, as controlled. A wavering whine slipped out, barely an echo of the anguished screams from within.
Move, move, move—dammit, move!
She couldn’t be gone. . . .
That peaceful nudging at the back of his mind came again, though he wanted nothing of it! He wouldn’t let go. He had already let go of everything in life: work, goals, passions. The only thing left was—
He collapsed next to her, tentacles too weak to hold him.
The others in the camp were coming. They yelled, brandishing makeshift spears, glowing more red than white—their last hope, their leader, taken from them. And he was the one who did it.
The nudging came more urgently, an assault on his mind. It didn’t push calm and peace as before, it seeded fear and panic and grief. The one on the other side was relentless, like pounding on a door and screaming!
Finally, one clear word rang through it all, Stubborn!
He released the tension around his mind that held tightly to the machine . . . this body, this reality. That feeling of weightless rising returned, lifting him from the confines of this alien form as another entity took his place.
The machine and its many tentacles, swerved away from spear thrusts, catching wooden shafts and shattering them while sending back colors of reassurance. The others would be saved. All will be well.
The sky pulled, drawing him away from the shrinking glade, forest, and the sprawl of cities upon cities, empty of life, perfect in their construction of glass and steel, depressingly gray and emotionless.
He slipped through dark clouds that rumbled and flashed. Walls of curving mists hung around, churning in constant movement, ready to rend his single, infinitesimal existence away in a blink.
But he persisted, towed beyond the storm to the peaceful silver lit, cloud tops, the giant moon, and the boundless blackness of space, filled with shimmering stars and . . . something more.
What was that?
The closer it came, the more individual lights illuminated of different colors. They all combined in a sphere that glowed brilliantly, larger than the moon itself: legions of minds, together, warm and welcoming.
Reality shifted until he stood on two feet within a painfully familiar room. The electrochromic windows were dark, dimming the walls and desk and computer monitors. All of his work, designs, ambitions, scribbled across boards, notebooks, and index cards.
Everything was here as if the end of the world had never happened.
Everything . . . except for the one thing that mattered.
Where was Jennie? There was no way he imagined her stern, fierce voice. Was it a trick to get him to let go?
No . . . please no. . . .
He sunk into his office chair, the faux leather cushions identical to the real thing. Even turning the chair had that tiny squeak that no amount of WD-40 had managed to eliminate.
Information streamed into his mind. Histories, species, worlds. . . . Though all he could feel was that deep, sickening hole in his chest. It swallowed everything else.
He took a labored breath and pinched his eyes shut. Maybe it was all a nightmare—maybe he’d wake up with Jennie nuzzled against his side in their sleeping bags, listening to her soft, calm breathing.
The taste of tears wet his lips, and he sniffed, rubbing the sleeve of a button-down shirt across his eyes. Then a knock came at his office door—a pained sorrow emanated just beyond the white wood.
He jumped to his feet and took hold of the brass doorknob. The wood splintered away to fragments of color that faded. In place of the long hallway that his office connected to was a green field spotted with flowers, blue sky, and . . . Jennie.
She stood there with her gorgeous blue eyes, accented with makeup he had never seen her wear before, and a white dress, far from the rags they had grown accustomed to. Her eyebrows were pinched and raised, tears brimming on eyelashes.
He stood there for a frozen moment where all emotions fired in confused bursts, trying to comprehend. Then as natural as gravity itself, they came together: arms wrapped, warmth shared, and a burst of surprised laughter. This was all that mattered.
"Is this real?" Jennie asked. "It’s not some terrible trick?"
"Terrible? Only you would call seeing me terrible."
She laughed. "You know what I mean."
"It’s me. I’m really here." He pulled backed, cupping her cheek, then turned and pointed to his office. "You never knew where I worked, so this couldn’t be your imagination."
She hugged him again, tighter than ever, perhaps afraid that if she let go, he’d drift away. He feared the same thing, though somehow knew that they were safe, that they were together, and nothing would change that.
After a long moment, he broke away and entwined her fingers with his.
The office splintered away like the door had in fading fragments. Large whirlpools of color took up places along the field: portals to worlds within worlds.
"They preserve the balance," Jennie said.
There was undeniable truth there, like her words ignited dormant knowledge. He understood. This nightmare they had lived over the last two months had happened on other planets. Whenever a species grew out of control and endangered the world, they were removed to restore balance. Removed and given life anew where they couldn’t hurt anyone.
A tingling warmth of hope came at the sudden realization that their parents, family, friends . . . they would all be here! All those they had thought were gone forever, had mourned for, those he had neglected in the past life, were here. It was a second chance to do things differently.
This was their haven.
He gripped Jennie’s hand tighter, and she smiled with understanding, with that determined eagerness to always move forward wherever it should take them. They walked up to the swirling colors of a portal that distinctly felt of Earth, of home, and with one last glance at each other and the green field full of life and warmth . . .
They stepped through.