The first time Friar’s Lantern lit up the sky, Eve held a frightened Cassie in her arms, listening to the screams. She remembered how Cassie’s tense little fingers seized her own; tenacious, strong, yet vulnerable with youth.
The panic started so quickly. But it wasn’t because of the televisions that died, or the lights that went dark, or even the cars that stopped dead in the road, it was from the plane that fell from the sky. So many people watched the sudden plummet of the aircraft. The town stood at their windows like mannequins. She remembered making eye contact with an open mouthed stranger on the street outside. They both knew the world was changing.
No one could have survived the crash and everyone knew it. That’s when they realised they weren’t protected anymore. And no one could talk about it with the world. They were cut off. No more phones. No more internet. There was nothing to tell them how far this had reached, and there was no protective barrier anymore. The days of hiding behind a camera lens were over.
She swallowed, the image of Doug’s dead body popping into her mind. The corpse left in the street. So many innocents killed by the opportunistic looters. Lives claimed by an invention she’d helped to create.
This time the green light meandered across the horizon to an almost silent audience. Eve wondered if Jared and Cassie were sitting by the window watching, their hearts in their mouths. Her chest tightened at the thought. They’re safe, she thought. They have to be.
Eve whipped her head around at the sound of shuffling feet. Closer now. More urgent. Whoever it was had been spooked by the sight of the aurora. Unless… unless they saw her hide in the culvert.
With nervous fingers, Eve unzipped her pack. Had Jared left her unarmed? Had he packed a knife? Or worse, a gun? The thought of using, even holding a gun made her stomach flip. He was the one with training. He was the one who knew how to load and aim. He’d taught her the basics, but the thought of actually using it made her stomach turn to water. She reached into the compartments and searched.
The mystery footsteps hurried along. Shoes scuffed against the dry ground, quicker with each stride. Running. Running from what? From whom? Eve let out a breath and continued her search through the supplies. A breath too loud, she thought. She should be still and quiet. Surely the runner wasn’t close enough to hear her breathe. But sound carried in this dead world. Before the Outage, Eve had complained about the noise. Now she longed for it so she didn’t have to listen to the sound of buzzing flies and growling dogs. A shudder ran down her spine. Only a few days ago Jared remarked at the change in domestic animals—how they were grouping together to form packs. Fewer humans meant fewer pets, and more wild animals.
Her fingers groped into the front compartment of the bag. There they met cold metal and she knew immediately what it was. A gun. Bullets, too. She shook her head and half-smiled, ignoring the churning of her stomach. She pulled the gun from the compartment and examined it with her glow stick. It was small, but it looked scary enough, at least to her, and to most of their small town. Jared had been considered the scary survivalist on the street. He was the one most people greeted with a friendly smile but wary eyes. It seemed laughable now.
Perhaps the presence of the gun is enough to frighten her follower. Eve ran a finger over the barrel. She wouldn’t even have to load it—just let them see it. Those footsteps could belong to a neighbour. They could be friendly, helpful even. Her mind filled with random names and faces from the town she lived in: Rachel from book club, the old guy down the road, Cassie’s teacher—what was her name?—or a colleague from the institution. No, not one of them. Eve shook her head. Jared would disapprove of this train of thought. It’s you against them. There is no decency in chaos. That’s what he would say after reading one of his doom-mongering books.
Eve froze. There was a change in rhythm. She thought she heard the sound of someone tripping, of a longer scuff against the ground followed by a heavy thud. Her heartbeat quickened. That thud sounded close. Too close. A young female voice cried out. Eve lifted the gun and gripped it in both hands, waiting. No more footsteps. No more voices. The only sound outside the culvert came from the rushed breathing of the fallen girl.
There was a sob.
Eve closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall of the ditch. She longed to go out there. She knew Jared would shake his head and grit his teeth. But she wasn’t sure if she could be so cold.
That word. That one, magic word. Oh, Christ, she sounded just like Cassie. Eve pressed the heel of her hand into her eye socket. Could she ignore another human in peril?
Her mind drifted to thoughts of Cassie lying in bed, sick and afraid. She thought about her own daughter out there in the middle of this catastrophe, alone and afraid. Hurt. She got to her feet and slipped the backpack over her shoulders. She wasn’t ready to lose it yet—her humanity.
“Where are you?” she said, not too loud, as she climbed out of the culvert.
“Over here. It’s my ankle. I think I twisted it,” said the girl.
Eve saw a dark shape lying on the ground, not far from the entrance to the culvert. She suspected that the girl had noticed the hiding place during Friar’s Lantern and hurried over. They would have met eventually.
“All right, I’m here. But don’t try anything, I have a gun.”
“I won’t,” said the girl. “Thank God you’re here. I saw the green sky and I ran.”
When Eve approached her, she realised that the girl was a teenager, around fifteen, sixteen years old. She was filthy, her blonde hair clumped with dirt and her clothes torn and ill-fitting. Eve frowned as she bent low to examine the girl’s ankle. This amount of neglect came from more than being in squalor since the Outage. The girl had been living rough for a long time.
“What’s your name?” Eve asked.
“Ali,” she replied. “Short for Alison. I prefer Ali.”
“Okay, Ali. Can I have a look at your ankle?”
She nodded and angled herself so that Eve had better access to her leg. But in order to check the girl, Eve had to put the gun in her pocket.
“It doesn’t seem swollen,” Eve said, gently pressing her fingers against Ali's skin. “Are you sure you…”
She sensed the change immediately. Ali’s head turned ever so slightly and her body tensed. There was the sound of quiet movement around them, and then she heard a cough. Eve reached for her gun, but a click made her stop.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said a man’s voice.
Eve slowly raised her head. Still crouched, she saw three pairs of boots. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip as she looked higher. Three large men, armed with weapons far more frightening than her small pistol—rifles, automatic weapons—faced her. She lifted herself to her full height and turned around. A man smiled and waved. Even in the dark she could tell that the smile did not meet his eyes. The blood drained from her face and a cold chill lifted the hair on the back of her neck.
“It’s okay, Ali. We’re going to be okay,” Eve said, trying to keep the tremor from her voice.
“Well, I am,” Ali replied. Eve turned in shock. The girl was on her feet and grinning through the dark night. “I don’t know about you though.”