My feet pound the concrete below me and my lungs ache like heartbreak. I will my body not to make a sound or they might hear us. And that would be worse than death. I slow down as we near the end of the hall and Julian abruptly tugs on my jacket. I jerk to a halt, my throat filling with bile. Please don’t let him see them, I think frantically before tensing my body, preparing for an attack from Julian. But he’s already shaking his head as I turn to look at him. I relax, but only just. Looking at one of those creatures in the eye is so much worse than dealing with the other kind who simply feed on us until we die.
Julien is nodding towards an open door on our right. We move together towards it, cautiously peering into the room. When we’re sure it’s clear, we ease inside and close the door. Julian turns to me, embracing me in a hug. “Sorry I scared you, Jenna. I just thought we could use a break.”
I smile, pulling back to look at him. “It’s okay. I’m just easy to spook these days,” I joke.
Julian and I have been together for six years, long before all of this madness. Our best understanding of how the world ended, before everything went dark and people stopped broadcasting theories, is that an alien lifeform visited our planet. Then it got hungry, and we were what’s on the menu. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there are others. No one knows what they look like, because if you look one in the eye, you don’t usually survive and neither does anyone around you. We have no idea how they do it, but if they look at you, they turn you into a murderer. You’ll kill whoever is around you and when you’re done, you die too.
Julian and I have seen it happen. It’s not pretty. I like to laugh that I would have preferred zombies. For the record, Julian agrees.
I glance around the room. It’s small, mostly empty. Just some decrepit furniture and a layer of dust that makes me trust we’re alone here. We’re just passing through this industrial building, attempting to make our way out of the city. We figure it will be safer in less populated areas. Or, well, safer from mind-controlled human grenades. It’s been a while since we’ve seen anyone sane. I personally sometimes let my mind wonder if there’s anyone left. Like, what are the chances that we’re the last two people who haven’t become dinner?
“Jenna?” Julian snaps me out of my daydreams. I look over at him, registering the tension in his shoulders. I go cold. “I hear something.” Julian lets out in a whisper. We immediately move closer together, crouching down behind an overturned desk, eyes fixed on the door. Julian reaches over and takes my hand. “If it’s one of them, don’t forget the plan, Jenna.” I nearly roll my eyes, but they’re frozen on the doorknob, which I’m pretty sure just jiggled. Julian states the plan anyway. “Only one of us will be able to see it, we know that’s how it works. So if that door opens and you don’t see anything, just run, Jenna. Don’t think about me, just run.”
We’ve talked through our plan so many times. Which, I am aware, sounds ridiculous since the entire plan is 1. Don’t see an alien? 2. Run. Neither of us will admit it, but I think we talk about it so often because we know that we won’t leave the other. It’s like a little slice of hope in this whole fucked up mess to think that if one of us has to die, at least it might be so the other can live.
The door swings open. Am I going to pass out? Maybe.
My head clears as I register a woman and her child in the doorway. She smiles at us tentatively before edging into the room and closing the door behind her. Julian and I stay crouched behind the desk, which under any other circumstances, would have been very funny.
“I’m Natalia,” the woman offers, still gently smiling. “And this is my daughter, Molly.” The child is probably eight or nine. Molly waves at us and I feel my heartbeat slow.
I stand up. Julian follows my lead. “I’m Jenna. This is my partner, Julian. You really scared us!” I laugh nervously.
Natalia nods. “I’m sorry about that. When they saw you on the security cams, Molly and I happened to be close by.”
My brow furrows, but it’s Julian who replies. “Security cameras?”
Natalia sighs and shakes her head a bit. “Sorry, I don’t usually bring in new survivors so I guess I’m not exactly good at this.” She pauses briefly before continuing, “I’m with a group here. We’ve made a camp and have this building mostly locked down. Our base is actually underground. Molly and I came to find you to invite you to it, if you’d like.”
I feel my knees weaken. “You’re with…people? They’re unaffected?” Natalia nods. My head spins. I look at Julian. He seems to be experiencing similar emotions.
Julian turns back to Natalia and Molly first. “Thank you for coming to get us. We’d love to come with you.”
“Great!” Molly exclaims and dashes forward to take my hand. She starts pulling me towards the door.
I hear Natalia speaking into an earpiece I hadn’t noticed before. I don’t catch any of her words before she’s turning to pull the door open. “We’ve got the all clear to move out now. It’s not far.”
Julian and I follow Natalia and Molly through the building, down into the lower levels. Natalia stops beside a wall and I’m momentarily confused until she reveals a door that had blended almost seamlessly into the stone. We make our way down another hallway and then more stairs before we empty into a small room with another door leading beyond. There are people here with monitors set up. Natalia introduces us, but my head is throbbing at this point and everyone’s names slip through my mind like silk through fingers.
Molly is sprinting ahead now through the only other door in the room and when we emerge through it, my heart nearly leaps out of my chest. I feel Julian lace his fingers through mine and gently squeeze, but I can’t take my eyes of the sight in front of me. It’s as if we’ve stepped into a small bustling marketplace. Booths are set up all around the outside of the room and people are offering food and clothing. A couple booths have large red crosses painted on fabric hanging behind them, and I take those for medical tents.
I break away from Julian and take several shaky steps forward, into the heart of the square. I stop and spin slowly around. That’s when I notice I’m crying. My face is wet and it occurs to me that I’ve been crying for some time. I can’t seem to catch my breath. I sink to my knees and soon feel Julian’s arms around me. “People are alive,” I sob into Julian’s shoulder. He just nods and strokes my back.
People are alive, I think again. And for the first time in so long, I feel hopeful that we can stay this way.