Fifteen To Sixteen
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“I’d think it would be warmer.”

“Huh?”

“The end of the world. I mean, think about it. When somebody says post-apocalyptic wasteland, you picture a desert, right?”

“Mm. I guess so.”

“Instead of the snowglobe we’ve got goin’ here.”

Joe didn’t reply to the last one, and Emma glanced at him. Joe’s attention was focused elsewhere, eyes squinting against the bitterly cold wind that was whipping small, delicate flakes to and fro. It was a delicate snow that formed a haze in the distance, the light of sundown turning everything a rich shade of blue. The street was not terribly different from how it had been five years ago, when it all happened, but there were…differences. Awnings had torn away from shop fronts and flapped in the wind. Windows were broken in, the stores raided.

And Joe crouched on top of the semi-trailer he called home, eyes narrowed. He actually had lived fairly close to here, although he didn’t think about it anymore. After all, five years ago…thing were very different for him. He had a job and a girlfriend, and two dogs. A nice apartment walking distance from the office. Of course, that was before it happened.

It was hard to piece together what had all happened, things had truly happened so quickly. In a matter of hours, chaos broke out that took months to calm. Bombs had gone off somewhere, a dozen countries declared war, and then they were silenced when the…things emerged. Joe had only seen the monsters a few times, and he counted his blessings for that. It was best to hide when they were around, no matter what they were.

Joe liked to think that he had been a pretty nice guy, before all hell rose up, but it didn’t matter now. He fidgeted slightly, having sworn that he saw movement far down the street through the haze of snow, but when it didn’t return…he was forced to relent, turning and climbing down the narrow ladder on the side of the semi-trailer. They had initially taken up residence in an abandoned home, then an abandoned shop, but in the end…the massive, heavy metal box turned out to be the safest of them all.

Emma waited for him at the bottom. “Anything?” She asked.

“No. We should get inside before nightfall.”

They hurried into the semi-trailer through the small door on the side, pushing their way through several layers of hanging blankets as they shut and locked the opening, before emerging into the warm interior. Joe nodded to David, who doused the fire and shut the chimney slides, sealing the warmth in. The trailer was all but airtight, and they’d wake up chilly, but it was preferable to waking up with something with too many limbs and too many mouths crawling in, attracted by the scent of a fire. Or to never waking up again, carbon monoxide filling the box.

Joe lay back on one of the mattresses, sandwiched between Emma- who nestled against him, and Adam, who faced away and curled up alone. There was little room, and there were fifteen people to share it between them. Joe wrapped his arms around Emma, and glanced up. Emmet was on watch duty tonight, he knew, looking at the young man to make sure he was awake and alert before looking down.

Emma’s face was barely illuminated by the faintest light, Emmet’s dim watch lantern cast it over the trailer, and she was asleep the moment she closed her eyes. Probably for the better, Joe thought, as the young woman had been out foraging all day, and this life of survival left for little time to stop and think, and only time to eat, sleep, and hope to eat.

They had decent food stores, sure, but this winter had come in hard and faster than any before. The summers were hotter, he noted, and the winters colder these past five years, or perhaps it was some illusion caused by the lack of central heating or air conditioning. He didn’t know, pulling Emma close to his chest.

Four years ago, when their little group had formed in a town filled with dead, dying, and things unspeakable, she had been a portly teenager, often short of breath and easily tired, but the years had carved her into a fine young woman, although her hips were still wide and she never lost all the girth of her upper arms, or thighs. She reminded Joe of his girlfriend, who had been lost when she left town to try and find her parents.

Joe suddenly thought about his girlfriend, briefly, and then held Emma tighter. On second thought, maybe their food stores were better off than he had the impression of, musing that she was a little thicker around the waist than she had been at the end of fall.

Then, he was abruptly and deeply asleep. He hadn’t dreamt once in the past five years, curiously enough, none of them had. He thought nothing of it.

Then he was awake, silently, eyes wide and glancing about. Emmet was standing, holding the small pistol he carried warily, looking up at the roof of the trailer. Something scratched along. Joe glanced around, everybody else was awake as well, the faint sound of scrabbling hands and claws having aroused everybody’s attention.

They stayed awake, until it passed, whatever had been there, tapping at the metal, losing interest, before falling back to sleep until morning. They didn’t dare leave the trailer until the sun was up, stepping out under a clear blue sky and a world freshly covered with pure, pristine, untouched snow.

Well, perhaps almost untouched.

When they collected snow to heat for washwater that morning, Joe and Tina, the oldest woman in the group, a stern woman pushing forty-five, silently looked at footprints that led from the distance up on top of the trailer, where they circled about, then left, heading deeper into town. Joe pointed out the elongated toes and paw-pad like impressions. Tina pointed out the long marks in the snow where it had scratched at the metal.

“What do you think it was?” Emma asked, that afternoon. She had spent a lot of time, lately, Joe thought, rummaging through old drug stores and corner shops.

“I don’t know. Footprints reminded me of my dogs, but with toes like a monkey.” Joe muttered, going about the messy work of cleaning a deer, a small doe, that they had managed to get. Of course, they only cleaned their fresh kills far away from the trailer that was home.

“Do you think it’ll come back?”

He shrugged, and glanced up at her. She had something hidden in her pockets.

“…Dan’s been talking about leaving.”

“To where?”

“I don’t know. He said that he just feels stir-crazy, and thinks he can walk to the next town, see if anybody’s there.”

“Why?”

“Because. I don’t know.” Emma frowned, neither of them knew anybody who left town that came back. They had seen a group of travelers, once, and observed them curiously, but they had left the second they stumbled across Joe’s own footprints, hastening away. Perhaps worried about contact, and frankly, Joe’s group wasn’t too keen on it either. “I’m gonna go back to the trailer. Ana wanted help mending some old clothes.”

Joe grunted and continued his work with the deer, until Emma, dissatisfied with the lack of response, turned and left. Joe watched her walk away, and paused when he saw the corner of a box sticking out of her pocket, just barely able to make out a few letters, part of a logo.

FIRST RESPO

He paused, then, and for the first time in a long time, truly thought, deeply, about something beyond survival and the here and now.

Then he turned back to the deer, a small smile on his lips even in the bitter cold, and went back to work. He would talk with Dan tonight, and perhaps…they could find a doctor in the next town. Yes, that would be good.

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