This story by Jessica Gilmartin is a runner-up in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Jessica Gilmartin hails from Buffalo, New York, where she works with refugees and immigrants in a high school and raises her three children. Writing has been something that always sat in the back of her mind, only finding its way to paper sporadically. For the past year, she has ramped up, focusing on writing short stories and flash fiction.
Jo huddles in the corner of the abandoned subway system employee break room, studying her maps. She only lights her candles down here when she absolutely has to, hanging thick blankets over the door to ensure no light leaks out any of the cracks. She has to get food tonight. She is almost out and afraid of waiting another day to scavenge.
She traces her hand over the map. She has been through all of the buildings on the block above. They are empty, were mostly empty by the time she got to them. She’s only been on this block about six weeks and is afraid to move on, but also afraid to stay.
She looks around the small room and gathers her meager belongings into her Jansport bag. When she was eleven, when life was still normal and she still had parents and a family, she had begged them for a bag like this.
“They’re too expensive,” her mom complained. “You will use it for a year and then forget about it and want new bag next year.”
Her mom had always been the practical one, but at least she explained. Her father just said no and expected her to accept it. Tears come to her eyes, and she can see her mom dying as if it was just a last week.
She looks around again at the peeling walls, the empty candy and pop machines, the moldering furniture. This is her fifth residence in less than a year. She may still come back here, but returning is never guaranteed when venturing outdoors. Blowing out the candle out, she waits for her eyes to adjust. She has developed great night vision in the last five years, something that saved her life more than a few times.
As she walks through the pitch black subway, she sets traps. Well, they aren’t really traps as much as signs for her to know if someone else ventures into her territory: Pop cans lined up like bowling pins around the corner from the door. A thread across the top of the lower stairwell, so thin it will break unnoticed if someone walks into it. And lastly, a fine coat of chalk dust across the top step before going outside. She is careful not to step in it as she emerges from the Underground.
She congratulates herself for grabbing the sidewalk chalk from a kid’s bedroom two weeks ago. She knew she could find a use for it.
She clings to the shadows, hugging buildings and staying in alleys as much as possible. She knows there are eyes on her, no matter how careful she is. She just hopes they aren’t the wrong eyes.
Above ground, her senses are on super alert. Feral dogs still roam these streets in packs. She can usually hear them a block away and detour to avoid them.
But there are other kinds of predators, too. The run of the mill human predator doesn’t worry her too much, but she would still rather avoid them. Her parents couldn’t afford to buy her fancy backpacks–part of the reason was so they could all take Tae Kwon Do together. More than a decade of martial arts training has paid off since the rest of the world ended.
The last person who attempted to attack her ended up with a broken arm. She left the poor girl on the tenth floor of an apartment building. She didn’t know what the girl wanted, she didn’t have anything to steal, but people do crazy things in this brave new world. This girl was raving mad, screaming about calling the cops and trespassing. Lunatic.
She shudders at the memory. One of the ways she keeps herself sane is reading. She always has one or two books in her pack. When she finishes one, she scavenges another. Occasionally, she takes a trip to a library, if one is close. She never sees other people in the libraries. Books aren’t useful anymore.
The second year she was on her own, she obsessed with finding post-apocalyptic and dystopic books. How had people survived in those novels? Most of them were no help. They described new societies and new governments that had risen up to replace the defunct one. Seven years and that hasn’t happened, yet.
There’s a library two blocks away. Maybe she will head there once she finds food. She left both of her latest books in the break room, having already read them through twice.
But first, she needs food.
The night is even quieter than usual. She doesn’t see or hear anything to indicate other humans in the vicinity. No animals either. She scavenges all of the buildings on the next block, but her haul is less than ample. She still has two hours till dawn, so she starts on the next block, the one with the library.
She’s learned to look for things in places other people wouldn’t think to. This pays off when she finds a door hidden behind a bookcase that leads to a cellar full of canned goods–too bad the house doesn’t have any reading material in it. She sets up some traps in the house and sets out to find the library. If she’s quick, she should be back before dawn breaks.
Heading to the library, she hears a few noises–human? A rustling down an alley. Is that a car alarm? Her ears must be deceiving her. She doesn’t feel like she is being watched or followed, so she continues, but warily. She’s determined to get this accomplished as fast as possible.
When she gets to the library, the glass doors have already been smashed. She immediately heads to the history section. This year, she has kept to a strict regimen of one nonfiction book for every novel she reads.
She isn’t picky, and chooses the first one with a name she vaguely recognizes: John F. Kennedy. Then she grabs something in the fiction area, glancing at the cover to make sure she hasn’t already read it.
She stands to leave, and hears feet pound toward her just before a body barrels into her, knocking her over and pushing all the air out of her lungs. She recovers quickly and swings her legs up, wrapping them around his head, and throws him off of her.
She finally gets a glimpse of her attacker and lets out a string of expletives. This guy is ex-military. Shaved head, tattoos running down his arms. She’s seen a few of them around and always kept her distance. Her self defense training is nothing to how the military was trained to kill. She turns and bolts for the front door.
She skids to a halt and slowly turns around.
“Hank?” Hank had been one of her favorite sparring partners. They had moved through their belts together and pushed each other to be better. “I thought you were dead.”
“What? Why would I be dead?” As Jo looks at him, she can see the boy she remembers from before, light brown hair that stands up in the front. As she shakes her head the hair disappears and the tattoos reappear.
“What’re you doing here?”
“Jo, you’ve been missing for over a week. Your dad is out of his mind with worry. Your picture has been all over the news. You need to go home.”
Jo can’t make sense of his words. “I don’t have a home. Everyone is dead! Why are you trying to confuse me?”
He gets up and walks towards her. He keeps flickering back and forth in Jo’s eyes–the boy Jo remembers, then the soldier who attacked her. “No, Jo. I think you need help. We’re all so worried about you. I’ve spent the last three nights here, hoping you’d come.”
“Stop talking! I need to get out of here! Leave me alone!” Tears start running down her cheeks as memories from the last few months assault her.
“I knew you’d come here. Remember studying over there at that table?” He points to the back of the library. “I kissed you for the first time there. It was right before your mom died.”
Sobbing, the memory of her mother’s car accident comes rushing back. It seems so long ago. Jo shut it out, choosing to focus on her survival in this broken world. Hank wraps his arms around her. The filter of Jo’s present reality drops and Hank transforms into his old self. Jo drops to the floor, confused and crying.
“Turn your phone back on, Jo. You’ll see.” She pulls her bag around to her front and digs through it until she finds her old cell phone. It looks almost new. She remembers buying it with her mom. Was that seven months ago or seven years?
She has more than a hundred messages. “Take me home.”
Sobs rock her body as Hank half carries her through through the door she smashed and into his car to take her home.