Our short story writing contest has ended and it’s time to show off the winners!
Back in September, we launched our second annual Post-Apocalyptic Media Short Story Contest to help showcase indie writers in this genre who aren’t yet published. The stories needed to be short (2,000-5,000 words) and in the post-apocalyptic genre.
This was our second year doing this contest and it was exciting to see our number of entries grow more than ten-fold from last year! The contest was picked up by Reedsy as a “Best Writing Contest of 2022” early on, and the submissions certainly reflected that standard.
In addition, a brand new feature we decided to add this year was a celebration of those who didn’t place in the top three but still showed exemplary talent with their story. As such, 10 “Runners Up” and 20 “Honorable Mentions” have been added. Check out the complete list below!
What Looks like Bravery on a Rainy Day by Kevin Broccoli
The Sun Grew Hotter by Miles Bergquist
The Blue Devil by Anne Wilkins
The Post-Apocalyptic Chicken Wizard by Marlin Bressi
The Andromeda Gambit by Charlie Dearing
Venison by Amalie Wad
The Ill-Conceived Death Wishes of Spectacle Grace by Neal McIntyre
Any Last Orders by Kristina Yaneva
The Light Behind Ash by Olivia Ramsey
The Opposite of Truth by Sadie Kaye
Senescence by Lily Steinberg
The Green Ones by Magdalena Smith
Beware of an Old Man by JJShurte
Time Bends You by Dempsey Hyatt
Melody’s Song by Christopher Jacob Canady
Roar by Chase D. Cartwright
A Good Dark Roast In The Morning by Travis W. Shpeley
Progress Report by Frederick Barstow
Sirius A by Ernesto V. Campoy
Dog Island by Linda Wright
A Handful of Sky by Perdita Stott
If We Go, We Don’t Come Back by Leftie Aubé
Jerking Forward by Violet Piper
Pearl Diving by Sarah Ang
Beneath the Surface by J.D. Donner
The Stone Thrown By Distant Gods by Marie Eriksson
The Flip of Fate by R. J. Riley
Mirage by Carmie Hsiao
Spidersick in San Francisco, 2045 by Chuck Miriam
The Great Gathering by Nat Click
Now let’s take a look at those top three winning entries!
She flicked the freezing, fetid mud off of her heavy-duty gloves. No luck today, but this area was mostly tapped out now, and soon she’d have to make a decision as to whether to move on permanently. E shifted slightly in the makeshift carrier on her back; she removed a glove and reached back, tucking the blanket more snugly around him. He was resting still, which was good. There wasn’t much else for him to do.
Used to be, you could find valuables here by the cartload, courtesy of the destruction wrought on the wealthier hillside neighborhoods where the lahars hit. Once people had gotten over their fear of aftershocks and more mudslides, the braver among them immediately saw the value to be had and set to work, followed not long after by scavengers like herself, happy to let others take the initial risk, as long as they could do “clean-up” and get at least a little something to trade for necessities: gnarled bits of copper pipe too small for the big haulers, the occasional piece of silver jewelry or cutlery, maybe a small, overlooked bit of gold if you were lucky… your luck would have to hold if you were to avoid getting robbed before you could get it to a trader, though.
Survival of the fittest ensured there weren’t many of those left, either. Beyond the initial cataclysm and accompanying corpses (the majority of which still polluted the mud in various stages of decay), most of the population had not survived the weeks that followed — now stretching into months, she realized, and without much feeling about it one way or another.
That was one of the first things you gained: that pervasive numbness, and not just from the cold, which you could never seem to shake. She remembered hearing that the word “decimate” originated when soldiers long ago lost more than 10% of their comrades. What was the word for it when there were only about that many remaining, she wondered, and had it gotten to that point yet?
You mostly tried to avoid people these days anyway, though, unless you were lucky enough to have survived with some close loved ones intact. She hadn’t.
Neither had E: she had come upon him suddenly one day while scavenging, both of them wide-eyed in surprise at the other’s appearance. This had been some weeks back, and he appeared to be non-verbal, but she couldn’t be sure if he had ever talked, or if the disaster and intervening time had left him mute. She only called him “E” due to the letter embroidered on his jacket; she had no idea of his actual name.
She also wasn’t sure how he had survived at all. He was very small, but seemed to be in good shape; she guessed he was probably around 5 years old. She had managed to coax him up from where he scrunched against a wall in the mud, huddled in the corner of what may have once been his own home. Upon consideration, she realized that must be the case: the only way she had survived, herself, was by consuming whatever packaged-but- well-preserved foods she was able to pull from the mud near homes. A child his age would know where his own kitchen had been, and where to locate the food therein. Smart.
Her ears picked up on the distant sounds of squelching and of debris being rifled through, and she decided to move on for the day. She had found an intact packaged food bar during her scavenging earlier that morning, the corner of its foil wrapper bright against the brownscape. It would have made a good trade, since food was growing even more precious than metals, but carrying it on your person ensured that you would not have it long if you encountered a stronger force. Best to eat it as soon as you were able if you wanted to eat at all.
With someone else nearby, she could not linger. She removed and tucked her gloves into her waistband and tore into the foil: stale but not spoiled. Edible.
As she hiked parallel to the western river, she broke off a piece for E. She reached back to stroke his cheek and rouse him, but already she could tell that his head was turned the other way in refusal and was going to remain so. She had never had a child, but was it normal for them to refuse food even when it was so scarce? Maybe he was ill. If so, there wasn’t much she could do about that. She tucked half the bar away for him and vowed to try again later, then ate the remainder in a single bite.
They were heading back to her campsite, which she thought of as Christmas Paradise. The cataclysm had indeed happened at Christmas time, but that wasn’t why she called it that: it was due to the lush, red-and-green ivy which covered the trees and landscape there, and because she had found the spot back when she still had the spirit to name things.
It was only a narrow swath of land, but it bordered the river on its downward slope, and despite its verdant appeal in a world of muted grays and browns, she had never once had to contend with any unwanted visitors.
A cache of high-quality camping supplies from the garage of an abandoned Tudor-style house helped make Christmas Paradise a home, the tent tightly nestled among and secured to several sturdy trees. The land even featured a flat, rocky outcrop upon which she could have had a fire, but she didn’t want to draw unwanted attention, so she kept only a small, vented pit fire near her tent, as suggested by one of the camping guidebooks. It worked for some warmth but did not advertise flames for miles around.
Cooking, of course, wasn’t needed, since their fare consisted of pre-packaged goods. If bags of rice or pasta were found, she would just soak them for a day in settled water from the river until they seemed soft enough to consume. Silt would accumulate at the bottom of the pan and get mixed in with a little of the food, but that would leave more than enough to eat that was still untainted.
She did have a number of pilfered bags of dried beans buried nearby, but those were for an emergency when the other, more convenient food was truly no longer available. Maybe those days weren’t far off, but they weren’t here yet. Beans would produce a cooking smell and took more work to prepare; she did not relish the attention that might draw.
It was now about midday, but they kept to a schedule of wakefulness at night, so it was best to sleep during the day when you could see danger more clearly if it unexpectedly woke you. She settled into the plush goose down bag, grateful for the spare-no-expense lifestyle of those who had purchased it, and tucked E beside her. They rested.
Little of note is left to tell, of the intervening time. The days went on with an umber sameness, the nights, eigengrau.
The river being too wide to cross, she was eventually forced northward into new territory, unfamiliar and more hostile. She never strayed far from Christmas Paradise, though sometimes they had to take the sleeping bag in case they could not make it back within the day. It wasn’t that they could sleep at night while away, but they could at least stay warm and huddle together until daylight found them safe again to make their way back home.
They no longer sought precious metals, only food now. They avoided concentrated sources like grocery stores, where food was (or had been, at one time) plentiful, but where gangs were sure to have arrived first, and might still be lurking. She stuck to remote communities: remote enough that they hadn’t yet been picked clean by a hungry and overgrown populace, but not so remote that the countrymen of the old ways were still steadfastly on guard.
Then, time finally wound down. Survival isn’t always a grandiose triumph in one fell swoop: it is more often a tedium of days where you wake up again and again, remarkable only in that, one day, you simply don’t. She was now fast coming to that one day.
She had gotten greedy: it was raining hard, and they’d again failed to find food while out. The deluge kept refilling her efforts to seek buried packaging, and so she had just given up and turned to go home, contemplating that it might finally be time to dig into her bean stash.
Her mud-soaked gloves were soddenly freezing her fingers, and so she had just removed them when something metal caught her eye, sticking out near the chimney of the destroyed home she had been looting. Possibly just a fireplace tool, but she might find a use for it if she was going to need to tend a cooking fire now. She wasn’t having to juggle both E and a sleeping bag on this particular trip, so she could certainly carry home a spoil.
She grabbed the object to pull, and immediately yelped, a crimson gash covering her palm. No! Though she couldn’t see him in his harness on her back, she knew E’s eyes would be wide and scared, and so she attempted to control her own mounting fear and panic. She pulled off the bandana that held her hair back and tied it tightly around her palm, then put the gloves back on in an attempt to help suppress the bleeding.
Already she was feeling a bit light-headed as she trudged back home, grateful that E weighed so little, since letting him down to try to keep up on his own would slow her down entirely.
They made it back to Christmas Paradise by early evening. Among the camping supplies from the Tudor was a well-equipped first aid kit, but it had very little of what she would actually have liked to have, namely antibiotics, prescription painkillers, and sutures. Still, it would have to do. She wiped the wound with antiseptic pads and wrapped it with antibiotic gel and gauze. E continued to stare, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with what she presumed was some level of shock, as she completed the bandaging and washed down some aspirin. Despite her pain, she chatted softly and nonchalantly at him as she worked, hoping to exude an aura of calm.
She felt nauseous, and so she took what she could find in the kit for that, as well. They were both worn, and so she laid down and snuggled him a while, intending only to nap briefly before keeping watch that night, but the dawn was breaking and her hand was badly throbbing when she finally awoke. She examined the limb with trepidation and found it inflamed even outside of the bandaged area. Not good.
Her time was growing short, she knew, but with what resources she could stockpile for him in this last big push, E might be okay long enough without her until someone else might come along… hopefully someone kind who could and would look after him.
She spent the next several days showing him the steps in cooking, and only those, repeatedly: gathering the wood, building the fire and keeping it going, maintaining a freshwater supply, the soaking, draining, and long process involved in getting edibles out of the packaged beans. He watched intently, never taking his eyes off of what she was doing.
At last, she could tell the delirium was taking over, and that the infection had won. Even as her fever grew, she hoped against hope that there was a future for E, somehow: a legacy of hers. She laid down one last time, and cuddled him closely to her chest, stroking his hair as she fell asleep.
A bright spot of red among the ivy caught the little girl’s eye; she tugged on her father’s sleeve and pointed excitedly at it in the distance. Raising his binoculars, the girl’s father could clearly see a woman’s body lying prone, her hand bandaged and blood-soaked, a sallowness to her complexion. She looked dead, and after a couple of hailing shouts across the verge, the family traveled on: poison ivy was the last complication they needed, and they could not check on the woman without crossing it to get to her. As for the red plush doll that the woman was tightly clutching to her chest which had first caught the girl’s eye, well – the father made a mental note to keep an eye out in the hopes of finding his daughter an Elmo doll of her own, very soon.
Gus and I headed down the path toward the Derelict. Ambitious grass cracked the asphalt here, and when we stopped to stare at the leaning ruins ahead, birds swooped down in flocks of hundreds to peck at the ready seeds at the grass’s tips. The tufts swayed under their weight, and in a moment the birds were gone, the stalks bare, the raucous bird cries faded into nothing.
“I’ll never get used to that,” Gus said, “never.”
“To what? The Derelict? The sky?”
“The birds,” he said. “The warmth. All of it. There are so many living things.” He bent down and picked up a rock. Millipedes uncurled and skittered away. “They’re everywhere.”
I knew what he meant. I knew what he felt. I felt. The Amalgam hadn’t prepared us for this—for the warmth on our skin, the beads of sweat at our napes.
“Do you think we’ll ever get to do this for real?” Gus asked me.
“If we do,” I said, cupping my elbow in my palm and marveling at the shape of the bone beneath the fleshy pads of my fingers, “it will probably kill us.”
“Would that be so bad?”
We got closer to the Derelict. Even it seemed alive. It was green with moss and shrubs and the corrosion of living things. A tree burst from its center, halving it; cement crumbs dotted the base. A squirrel hopped from crumb to crumb, its bushy tail waving up and down. It scolded when it saw us and disappeared up the side of the Derelict. If I was back in my glass body, I’d know exactly what this Derelict was before. Here I could only guess. A shopping mall? A human dwelling? Perhaps a place of worship? I didn’t know. I had no way of knowing. My ignorance was unfathomable. I braced myself to experience panic for the first time. I clenched my jaw and put a finger to my pulse. But it didn’t come. Instead, I felt a dizzying wave of relief. Relief and wonder.
The Amalgam really hadn’t prepared me for this.
The algorithm hiccupped suddenly. The Derelict lost its quality. It was all blobby gray polygons. It wavered and took form again.
“Find food,” Gus said. “And make shelter.”
I knew what food was. That squirrel could be food. Berries were food if you picked the right ones. But humans cooked, didn’t they? They used heat to kill off pathogens and greatly extend their caloric intake, leaving time for things like socializing and tool-making. We cooked, I corrected myself. We used to cook. And not just tool-making. Books. Stories. Art. And technology. The last flesh-and-blood humans made the Amalgam. They made it because they could, not because they had to. They made it because they evolved past the need to hunt their food with bare hands.
So I understood food. But what was shelter? Wasn’t the Derelict shelter? Wasn’t shelter a place with walls and a roof? Wasn’t it something not unlike the glass bodies? What was I missing?
If they could evolve, I thought, I can evolve. I can figure this out.
The Derelict had a gaping black opening at the front. Perhaps that had been the entrance. Gus and I crept inside. We found it incredibly dark. The tree in the center let in light, but not enough. There were too many leaves.
“Fire,” I said. My voice seemed too loud for the dark. I dropped it to a whisper: “We need fire.”
“Easy. Oxygen, heat, and fuel. We just need sticks.”
We went back outside to look for wood and dry things. The few dead leaves we found were too wet. The logs on the ground swarmed with detritivores and crumbled in my fingers. Finally, we found a tree with branches that snapped off with very little force. We fumbled trying to carry the logs. How did humans do this before wagons, before cars? I tried to nestle them between my face and my shoulder. They tumbled to the cracked asphalt with surprising volume. Finally, I found that tucking them beneath my armpits worked well. It left my hands free for the bundles of dry, dead grass and tiny sticks.
As Gus piled the wood in a sort of leaning structure inside the Derelict and started making friction with the sticks, I tried to picture this place before the world fell. I tried to picture humans in bright fabrics milling about, touching baubles and foodstuffs, talking, laughing. I tried to picture them in chairs making music with their voices while a man read from a book, arms outspread, prayer on his lips. If I hadn’t been born in the glass body–if I hadn’t been formed in the Underground, where there was no light and the only living things were roaches and algae farms–would I have done those things? Would I have reached out effortlessly with my hands and my digits and my living, breathing flesh? Would I have felt pain and heat, and found it familiar?
There were so many things I didn’t know the answers to, and that didn’t scare me as much as it should. I had always been able to find any information I wanted in a moment. Ignorance wasn’t natural. But it had a certain…
“Shit,” Gus said. He’d made a spark, but it didn’t catch. “These arms can’t do this forever. I’ll try again.”
…a certain mystery to it.
“Fuck,” Gus said when the spark faded away again. “Feels weird saying that.”
“Better get used to it.” I crouched down to help and gasped in shock when that movement sent pain signals up and down my back. Was there something wrong with this body? My body? I paused, letting the pain wash through me. It left almost as soon as it came. I must’ve moved wrong. I filed that away for later: don’t abruptly bend the spine. “Profanity is very human. It has prosocial benefits.”
We both went to work making friction with the wood. After a few minutes, my muscles screamed for me to stop. But we kept going, and soon a small, tender flame curled up from the wood. We cradled the fire into a nest of dry bits. Those caught, and then the bigger wood; soon we had a full-fledged fire blazing on the Derelict floor. I discovered that it hurt and comforted all at once. I couldn’t sit too close, but by the old gods, I wanted to. The red and orange burbled and cracked; it was humbling and beckoning; I wanted to move my body as close as possible, damn the pain. I held out my hands and marveled at the warmth they caught from the flame. I rubbed them up and down my skin.
Suddenly the little hairs at the back of my neck prickled and rose.
“Something’s wrong,” Gus said. “Something’s coming.”
But I couldn’t hear or see anything. I turned, trying to angle the sound better into my eardrums. I wished human ears could pivot. There didn’t seem to be any way to focus them.
“Oh, fuck,” I said when I finally saw the source of our unease: a large predatory animal—a bear, I realized. “Fuck,” I said again, relishing the taste of the word on my tongue. A part of me thrilled at the sight of the huge brown bear staring into the Derelict with tiny, brutish, evil eyes. It was silent. We were silent.
“We should have made tools first,” I said, “weapons.”
“I’m not ready,” Gus said. “I’m not ready to feel it.”
“Those claws. Those teeth.” The bear lumbered toward us. We must look like easy meals. We’d been too loud. The fire was too bright. It smelled too strong. I filed that away for later as the bear reared up on its hind legs, saliva glistening on its huge teeth, and bore down on us.
Gus tucked his arms over his head, but that didn’t help. The bear tore his smooth, fleshy body to shreds. Blood pooled on the floor. So much blood. Enough blood to extinguish the fire. I smelled the blood, the sound of his skin tearing…
“God,” I said, “damnit.”
The world was black as the bear killed me. I smelled smoke. Pain launched explosions across my synapses.
And then nothing.
The simulation ended and I was back in that glass body. And all at once, I understood why the Amalgam had waited so long to let us try the sims, why it had waited centuries, why it had waited until the world was survivable again and we would have a chance at survival in the real human bodies. I understood it all at once because I felt something I never had before, something I had known for 200 years only as a concept:
Oh, and it was strange. It was sweet and bitter all at once. I wanted nothing more than to go back to that warm, flesh-and-blood body and feel again. Even if it meant death, even if it meant ignorance, I wanted it.
How much more incredible a real body must be.
I looked down at the “body” I’d known for 200 years. It had seemed so normal before, but now I saw all the ways it didn’t match up to a real body. Yes, it had legs to move; it had eyes to see and sensors to detect sound waves; it had haptic sensors for pressure; its translucent blue glass held a certain artificial beauty; it was connected to everyone Underground, all the knowledge collected from the last real humans’ minds before their bodies died, and all the books and records they took with them, but it couldn’t feel. It couldn’t feel.
“Simulation failure,” the Amalgam cooed into our minds. “What have we learned?”
“Human bodies are incredibly vulnerable,” Gus said. “We should have been more careful.”
“You will be next time.”
For days we stayed in the glass bodies—I couldn’t think of them as our bodies anymore—and did the one thing they were designed for: tending the algae and roach farms. This they did well. Our eyes and sensors were perfectly attuned to our farms’ fluctuating biological states. In an instant, I could see what the algae needed, whether it was in a state of overgrowth or undergrowth, whether it was hungry, whether the genetic mutations in its cells would help or harm it, how old its cells were and how much longer they would live. The purple algae knew how to grow without sun. For a moment I thought that was a loss, a pity. The sun was beautiful. But the last humans designed it that way, so I couldn’t feel bad for long.
We went about our work collecting surplus algae and cockroaches and passing them off to the drones responsible for turning them into human food, who would then pass those off to the drones responsible for long-term storage. Our human food stores could carry the new race for decades, if not centuries. But us—the Amalgam, the drones, and the glass men—had bigger dreams than that.
The world was survivable now. The atmosphere had enough oxygen, the seasons were stable enough for sufficient plant growth, and we extrapolated that the plants and animals would no longer be toxic. I guess I’ll see for myself. If I passed. If I was chosen.
We were allowed to reenter the sim only a few days later. I barely recognized such a short passage of time.
Gus and I gave up our glass bodies to the Amalgam. I was aware of a slight pressure as its probes made contact with the glass shell, and suddenly I was back in the world, back in that warm body, and I could feel again.
We walked carefully up the path this time, silent except for the slapping sounds our bare feet made on the asphalt. I discovered it was quieter to walk in the grass. Wordlessly, we began collecting long sticks and stones from the woods around the path. Every time my clumsy foot cracked a dry stick, I froze, scanned the horizon, and waited; when nothing came to kill me, I walked on.
We fashioned weapons with sticks, sharp rocks, and grasses tied to the ends. We tested them until we could throw or thrust them without the stone tips coming out.
Now onto the fire. We built it further inside the Derelict, far from the doorway, so the smoke billowed out and away, taking the smell with it. I sat near the fire, savoring its warmth again, but there was an empty, almost burning sensation in my gut. My arms wobbled when I held them out.
“I’m hungry,” I realized.
“Me, too. If the bear comes again, and we win, we can eat it,” Gus said.
And sure enough, it did. This time we were ready. As soon as the hairs stood up on our necks, we crept to the Derelict’s dark entrance, weapons clasped tight between our fingers; the bear’s shaggy brown body blotted out the sky; we thrust our weapons at its throat and stomach, pulled them out, and thrust them in again.
The bear rushed towards us, bellowing. We ran to the back of the cave, toward the fire, maybe by instinct. The thing crashed straight into the fire. Maybe it didn’t know better. It bellowed again, batted at its burning eyes, and we descended on it, beating it with our weapons and fists until it lay still.
“Now we… eat?” Gus poked the bear’s dead body.
“Yes.” I dug my weapon into the tough flesh, made a hole, and thrust my hand in. “We cook it first.”
I had to dig deep into my memory to find knowledge I didn’t know I had: an image of a man eating something hot off of a stick. That made sense. The fire was still going. We figured out how to get the meat out of the great, shaggy corpse—just strips at a time, and we weren’t sure which were good to eat—and jammed it on our weapons, put that over the fire, and waited.
The first batch of meat turned to charcoal before we realized it was done. But we learned. We figured it out. We cooked the meat strips until they were hot but not burnt; we ate until our guts felt distended and sated.
“Clothes,” I said, breathing heavily, elated, excited. “We can make clothes from what’s left.”
“Like the glass bodies.” Gus smiled and wiped grease from his chin. “To keep us warm without fire. To protect our soft insides.”
And suddenly it was gone, the fire, the bear meat in my belly, the cement and grass underfoot. I felt that regret again as the Amalgam pulled us back into the glass bodies.
“Simulation,” it cooed, “success.”
The Amalgam seemed to smile at us. It wasn’t any more human than our glass bodies, but the minds of the last humans lived in its circuitry. It had been centuries since they had bodies to control, but they must have remembered smiling; its many blinking lights and sensors lit up, and its dozen arms moved in a congratulatory way. The Amalgam was a patchwork thing of metal and silicone, scrap parts welded over each other. It had a dozen arms, which wasn’t very human, and no legs to move with. But it had one head, and something like a face, and that face was trying to smile.
“The bodies are ready,” the Amalgam said. “Organic. Fleshy. It will be a shock. It will be more visceral than any sim can emulate. We have embedded one-way ansibles in your new bodies so we can monitor your progress. Once it is clear you can survive indefinitely, we will join you. We will be made whole again. You will have no warning. We will not come all at once but in pairs. You will simply find us. But first.” One of its arms whirred down to rest atop my head. I registered the pressure and tried to imagine a feeling of warmth. “Choose your names. Choose your genders.”
“I’d like to keep my name,” I said. “I’ve had it for so long. As for gender…”
I looked at Gus, at his vaguely humanoid glass body with its winking diodes and translucent shell. He couldn’t emote beyond sensor blinks, but I thought he agreed.
“Can we do both? Can we do neither? I want to experience every aspect of being human. I want to be impregnated. I want to give birth. I want to do neither. I…”
“Me too,” said Gus.
The Amalgam was silent for a while. When it talked within itself, I wasn’t allowed to listen, but that was okay. I’d have to get used to hearing no one’s thoughts but my own.
“Yes,” the Amalgam said. “Your bodies are ready. Say goodbye to these shells. I will give everyone a moment.”
A million voices from glass men, drones, and the Amalgam’s captive minds broadcast congratulations and goodbyes and some very human words of good luck into my glass body’s circuitry.
“The same tech that ended humanity,” one of them said, “will rebirth us.”
“You just wait until you sleep,” another said. “There is nothing like it.”
“Goodbye,” said a million voices. “Goodbye.”
Everything hurt. Slime coated my skin. I crawled forward, my muscles straining with the effort. Bits of ooze sloshed off of me. I blinked. Where was I? What cave was this? I’d never seen it before. I was facing a huge, circular door. Light streamed from a chink in the ceiling. I bent my knees under my body and got to my feet.
“So they didn’t leave me with nothing,” I said out loud. They’d put memories into this body: how to skin animals and dry their pelts, how to build structures, how to make a bow and arrows… But there were gaps, too. There were questions. I had more questions than answers.
I looked down at my body, my lovely, wonderful, warm, and squishy human body. My skin was the perfect shade of dark brown. I reached my fingers up to curl my fingers in my hair, then brought them down to my neck, my clavicle, my armpits, and my ankles.
They looked a lot like me, but their eyes were a deeper brown, their hair longer. It cascaded over their shoulders and spilled across their chest.
“Gus, you’re beautiful. You’re absolutely beautiful.”
Gus held out their hand. The door was opening. A million strange scents flew in, almost knocking me off my feet, and I closed my eyes hard against the sun.
“Find food,” Gus said, smiling. “And make shelter.”
Hand in hand, Gus and I crept out of the cave system that had been the last refuge for the human race. The sensations were a million times brighter than what we’d felt in the sim. The sun burned hotter. The birdcalls were shriller. The wind whipped my bare skin. We walked down the path and into the world, knowing full well we might not survive the night.
We found the ruins. We made a fire. We nestled together against its warmth.
If a bear comes for me, I know what to do.
Bitter was the pill she swallowed at the break of each new day. Truly, she had not wanted to survive, to hold on to a life that had in countless ways ended so many years ago. Yet Martha was too old and so very forgetful. If she was to live another day, she knew, it was only because of her – her orderly.
“I’m cold,” Martha shivered.
She clutched her worn knitted blanket and pulled it close across her breast. She could not picture her children, the daughter for whom it was knitted.
“We have to keep the fire low, Martha. Do you remember?” Her orderly insisted, impatient almost as she took charge of the blanket and tucked it firmly into the sides of the chair.
“Howard?” Martha called out.
Her husband Howard had promised to fix the heating that morning but he was so easily distracted. An ‘absent-minded old fool’ she wouldn’t mind telling him. He loved to fish and to tinker, to keep his wrinkled hands occupied, his mind busy.
“Martha!” Her orderly hissed, “you have to keep your voice down.”
“Howard?!” Martha called again before succumbing to defeat, “I can tell you now that I won’t have that stupid man bring me another fish supper. I’m sick of it! It ruins my table tops and it stinks! He never uses boards, never! And that’s another thing, guts them all over the place – leaves nicks and marks on every surface in my kitchen! That man!”
Her orderly smiled. Martha marveled at how it brightened her orderly’s features, how her crooked snaggle-tooth had prominence over her front teeth – she reminded Martha of a puppy. Martha liked animals. Sometimes she forgot.
She wished her orderly would smile more, if only so she would remember.
“I know Howard won’t have it but I would love another dog, just a little one mind, to keep me company in the day. Little Oscar,” Martha said hopefully, returning her orderly’s smile.
“My girls have forgotten me,” her smile faded.
Her orderly had not noticed, nor was she listening. Instead, something else held her attention at the window. She was hunched awkwardly to one side, peeping out from the cramped, fifth-floor apartment.
“The boys are back with their scooters, aren’t they? I don’t mind them really but the way they tear up the lavender really upsets Mrs. Brown at 42A — sends her round the twist! I told her the other day, I said to her, I said why don’t you keep a little potted garden out on the windowsill, out of harm’s reach. It would really brighten up the view I told her. She won’t listen to me though, she just prattles on, ‘Oh you mind your own business, Martha!’ Well I do, I say to her. But lavender is a foul-smelling eye sore that has no place in the communal gardens, no place at all. Gardens we all share, I tell her. So then yes, I told her, then it becomes my business to mind. Stubborn old witch.”
Her orderly sighed, tying up her long blonde hair into a messy bun. Her hands were grubby, noticeably so, and worse still were the cuts and bruises adorning her wrists.
“Oh dear, did you hurt yourself?” Martha asked.
Her orderly concealed a pained expression, turning her face back to the window. Tenderly she rubbed her wounds and shook her head with closed eyes.
“The gardens Martha, do you remember?” Her orderly sighed.
“Oh yes.” Martha lied.
She felt a flush of anger, or something more wicked still, a feeling that burned her up beneath the skin – anxiety, embarrassment, fear.
She had forgotten.
Suddenly, a loud bang erupted from outside and Martha yelped. Her orderly threw herself to the floor in a panic and scurried away from the window. She dragged herself back across the dusty floor, scraping through the debris that littered it. Her orderly turned to Martha, shaking with wide eyes.
“They have fireworks again, Martha,” she whispered.
Martha perked up, trembling in her armchair. She shifted a little, as she always did before rising from her tartan coffin but her orderly scrambled over, thrusting out a hand to stop her.
“No need to worry yourself, Martha,” she said with a worried expression, “just boys being boys.”
“Well, I won’t have it!” Martha exclaimed, “not at this time of night. Devils dancing at the witching hour! Howard?!” Martha called out to her husband.
“Martha please!” Her orderly pleaded, “please, there is no need to get excited. He will be back soon,” she concluded. She never said his name.
“Then I want to go to bed,” Martha said and she forced herself to stand. Her old and decrepit body shook as she found her balance. She moaned in pain, unable to abide the sharp and agonizing bolts that rattled around her broken hips.
“Martha, if you want to sleep – do you remember? You have to sleep in your chair. You have your blanket and your pillows, you told me how much you prefer it. Your husband…” She hesitated as the color drained from her face, “your husband is working, he does not want to be disturbed.”
Martha huffed and crossed her arms. Howard was always keeping busy, always turning a hand to everything and nothing. He never knew how lonely it made her feel, how isolated it made her. Her daughters never came to visit and little Oscar, he was always sleeping. Lazy dog.
Her orderly rushed around the room, past the overturned bookshelves, and across the broken furniture – their butchered cast-offs gently smoldering in the fireplace. She glanced at a crooked picture on the wall, of Martha and her husband; a sunny day abroad, Italy perhaps, and beside them both were their three smiling daughters, radiant blonde crowns and light blue eyes. She lingered on the picture for a moment and ran her dirtied fingers across it, delicately tracing their youthful faces. And as she clutched a key that hung around her neck, quietly she began to sob.
“Linda, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” Martha asked, “Linda, where are the twins?”
Linda wiped her tired eyes and faced her mother. She stared at her, overwhelmed with joy, and yet, still she was anchored by her misery. There was now a part of her that could not bear these moments, fleeting as they were.
In the beginning Linda would indulge her mother, she would warm her with laughter, and seldom honesty, but they would delight in their favorite memories. And yet time was brutal, time was so cruel. Time had robbed Linda of the will to do so again.
“Linda, where are your sisters? Are they with you?” Martha asked as she watched her daughter, as she saw her for the first time in so long.
Howard smothered them. Slit their throats like pigs. Linda remembered admitting once.
Linda could remember the day, not so long ago – though she was never really sure. She had been out, committed to her relentless search of the fractured remnants of town, digging through the rubble and ash in hopes of finding canned food or bottled water. Anything hoarded by the dead. There were still nooks, black with soot that had remained untouched but recently, she was sure that the pickings were slimming. She knew she was not alone.
She kept quiet, moving only when the gunners and slavers had piled into adjacent buildings like rats, foolishly scavenging the biggest structures, those that resembled a time before fire had ravaged the land. Moving as she did was the best chance of remaining undetected, but it came with a most morbid price. Bodies littered so many of the abandoned homes she had burrowed into, often skeletal and almost always in the bathroom. There must have been a warning, there must have been time. A forecast of complete and utter destruction.
You could fill a bath, preserve enough uncontaminated water so that in the event that your body was not stripped of flesh, or your home had not been decimated beneath a relentless and unimaginable horror – there was a chance you could survive. But so few would. And their humanity was always the first to go.
The slavers, often great in their numbers, frequented the town and ravaged the lives of those who remained like passing waves of locusts. They would devour families, strip their homes of everything before retreating to their compound along the outskirts of town. There they would revel in blood and spoils. And so another day would come and with it, the encroaching darkness of their presence would follow. The shadow from the east. They were the sulfur that poisoned the land.
Linda felt sick. She felt so many things – her scrawny and emaciated body plump with fear and anxiety.
She was alone in a small room, the peeling teal wallpaper crumbling against every gust of wind and falling around her like ash. A child’s cot was on its side beside her and thick with black soot. The pictures on the wall had gone, their frames warped and rusted. She had hoped the child had not survived. To live like this, to surface from beneath scorched and wicked earth, to survive, to commit to unspeakable things, to emerge another tired vessel of misery, just to face the barrel of a slaver’s gun.
She stood over the cot and cast her eyes skyward; quietly she prayed that the child had died here. Slavers hurt children, she thought. They hurt them and they liked it.
Linda thought of her mother and wondered if she had been any different. It was true that her disease had poisoned her with the mind of a child, and had stolen from her the years in which she had grown and matured. She slept and cried like a child, she thought. It was all that was left of her, that and the naivety. Lost was the crutch of a sound mind and with it the ability to care for herself. And yet, though sparse and unannounced, she would have moments of clarity, the light would reignite behind her eyes and when she looked at Linda – she could see her daughter. It was a gift and a curse. Because Linda knew her mother saw her daughter and yet saw her pain, would recall her own, of ash and soot, fire and death. Her mother then remembered she was sick and that her daughters were starving. She remembered that she had eaten dog food again. And like a child, she would cry.
“Get out of my house,” whispered a voice from behind her.
A young boy, barely a teenager stepped through the bedroom door, a knife in one hand and tremors in the other.
“Are you alone?” Linda asked as she cautiously turned her head to look at him.
He was filthy and his hair was overgrown, matted together with blood and dirt. Of course he was alone but only recently, she thought. He was trembling, he was scared. If he had survived alone here, for all this time, he would not have announced himself, he would not have told her to leave. Instead, the knife would have found her throat. And she would have found God.
He had been alone for weeks she found out.
He took little convincing to disarm, to sit and tell his story.
The slavers had come, and snatched his younger brother and his mother. They hurt his brother, and smashed his tiny fingers until the slavers were met with compliance. His father returned, and found only his remaining son cowering in the attic, swaddled in insulation. That night, his father headed out into the black to find his wife, to save her and his youngest son. He had not returned.
Linda touched the boy’s shoulder and he shuddered. It gave her chills, to feel somebody, to calm and nurture someone who did not forget it, who would reciprocate. It was an aspect of love that had been stolen from her by her mother’s disease. Her father’s depression. Her sisters’ hunger.
“Come with me,” she said, “my father is a good man, he will know what to do. I have two sisters, they could be your sisters too. Your dad is not coming back. You will die here waiting for him, you know that. Come with me and I will be your family. Would you like that?”
The boy nodded.
“I would like that,” the boy said.
Beneath the cover of darkness they left, hand in hand as they navigated the old town, past crooked husks and poisoned earth, buildings and overgrowth that had consumed the torched streets. Quickly and without incident she had led them home to her concrete highrise. The windows had been blown out and wooden boards concealed the flats beyond them, nailed tight and blocking every entrance. Linda knew however that around the back and through a loose board she could enter and navigate the maze of vacant flats and crumbling plasterboard.
She pulled a table across from one of the rooms and aligned it with a hole in the ceiling, using it to boost herself up and through. The boy scrambled up close behind, struggling to lift his weight. She reached down and held him tight, pulling him through with a smile.
He was pathetic.
“Wait here,” she said as she slipped her key into the front door.
She stepped inside and her father greeted her in a panic. He was bloody, distressed, and frantically checking behind her.
“Linda quickly. Oh God, help me,” he said panting before rushing off to his bedroom.
Dread filled her and as she followed quickly behind him, her stomach began to turn. Her chest became tight.
She saw her sisters sleeping on the bed, side by side. It was haunting, their identical faces twisted and frozen in agony. She looked again and felt her guts twist. And a small cry escaped her cracked lips.
Their throats were slit and they were covered in blood. The bedside table was on its side, sheets and clothes scattered across the floor in the wake of a struggle.
“Linda, you have to believe me. I am sorry. Forgive me, please,” her father whispered, his breath warming her ear and sending chills down her spine. “We are not going to suffer like this, not any more, darling. Not a minute longer. Not like this. Shut your eyes.”
The bag came across her face without warning. It was still hot, moist even with every last breath her sisters had taken. She could feel it tighten, her mouth open now and sucking down every bit of air that was left. She could feel her father’s large hands across her neck as he held it in place and like a vice, he slowly applied more pressure. She flapped wildly, fighting the urge to scream and as her hands found his bearded face, he snatched them up in his claws, cutting her skin as she struggled. Her breaths had become shallow as the last of the air left the bag and with it, her senses fell away. She became dizzy, weakening at the legs and losing her balance. She could feel her chest tighten and her strength slipping away, could not determine where she was, and a darkness was creeping at the corner of her eyes. The lights, they were dimming.
And then she could feel her father’s grip loosen. Mercy. And she fell away to the ground, stripping the bag from her face. And like a baby she screamed, gasping and drawing as much air into her lungs as she could. Her legs trembled, the strength to stand having eluded her. She could see her father, could see how he had lurched to one side, clutching the crown of his head. Blood was trickling through his fingers, hitting the floor like the pitter-patter of rain.
The boy stabbed him again, this time in the side and her father lashed out like a wounded animal, stumbling into the wardrobe and collapsing at her feet. He was silent for a few moments, trying to stand but his body had defied him. Instead, he simply rolled onto his back as the blood slowly pooled beneath him.
Linda shut her eyes, lulled to sleep by the sound of his chest bubbling and popping with each laborious breath. And with one last rattle, he was gone.
Linda could not recall how long she had laid there but her boots were sticky, her socks moist with the blood at her feet. When she finally sat up, she could not see the boy. He was gone. Her sisters, her father. They were all gone.
“Howard?” She heard her mother call out.
Linda looked at her father. And still he looked at her. His eyes had not closed.
“Howard! I want to see the girls before they go. Do you hear me?”
“Linda, why are you crying?”
“I’m crying because I miss you, because I am alone,” Linda admitted to her mother.
“Oh darling, don’t be so silly. If you would just behave, you wouldn’t be alone, would you? Dry your tears, I won’t have them, no crocodile tears here thank you. Dry your eyes and go back to school,” Martha said sternly.
Linda shook her head, each wave of misery hitting her harder than the last. She felt a hot flush wash over her cheeks and she clasped her hands to her face. It would never end, this sadness would never lift from her heart.
“We are all alone, Linda,” her mother said, “we died in the fire. The titan consumed us all, do you remember?”
Linda stared in disbelief at her mother, wiping the tears from her bloodshot eyes. She saw her and yet she saw death. She saw her mother, saw her lips were cracked and gums diseased, saw her rotted teeth; black and crumbling. She saw her wrinkled skin, dried and peeling, only moistened with stinking wet sores. She saw her feet, warmed beneath socks that had clung to weeping cuts, and could smell the stench of necrotic flesh hidden away beneath them.
She prodded her own teeth with the tip of her tongue and winced in pain as the exposed nerves shot through cracked and wobbling bones like electricity; her own mouth was now a cesspit of untreated cavities and disease. She felt her chest, her small breasts lost to her skeletal frame, her protruding ribcage and skeletal hips jutting out like blades beneath her skin. She always felt sick, her small stomach violently churning through the rotten food that lined her belly.
“I want my mum back,” she sobbed.
A loud crack echoed from outside and a cacophony of voices swelled with excitement. Glass shattered from the window and blew clear splinters through the room. Martha screamed, her eyes now moist with blood as small cuts opened up across her wrinkled face.
Linda rushed to the window without a thought and pressed her bony frame against the wall. Nervously, she peeked outside.
They had finally found her.
The low rumble of an old bus was the bass line of their attack. Surrounding the single-decker coach were ten of them at least, slavers, armed with rifles and wielding more than just a lust for violence, their rabble eccentrically building to a fever pitch. One of them, a small man with scruffy hair and a leather chest piece had spotted Linda, his grubby face turned skywards as he looked directly up at her. He held a rifle in one hand and pointed with the other. Linda was several floors up, far enough she thought to remain unseen but still, despite the distance, she saw him; that pathetic teenage boy staring back up at her. The slavers had found her but she knew; it was the boy who had finally led them here.
“We’re leaving,” Linda said as she hurried past her mother and into the bathroom.
She could not hear her mother’s retort, nor her complaints of cold and suffering. Instead, she snatched a large backpack from inside the grimy bathtub, hoisting it up onto her shoulder and adjusting the straps. It was heavy but it would ensure survival on the road, its burden no heavier than that which had anchored her there for so long. She wiped her eyes, clearing her vision of dust and debris. She dug her fingernails beneath the plastic face of the bathtub and pulled away the cover. Desperately she fumbled around beneath it until she found it – a dusty shotgun she had scavenged weeks ago. She ran her hand across the cold steel of both slender barrels before snapping it open, checking the two cartridges were still inside. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“Am I going home now? I’m worried about little Oscar, he must be starving!” Martha cried out.
Linda shook her head and shut her eyes for just a moment. She needed peace, a second or two so she might spare a thought. A thought that would save them both. All she could see, however, was little Oscar roasting over the fire. It had taken so long for him to cook. Lazy dog.
“I’m taking you home, Martha. Can you stand?” Linda said as she barrelled back into the room.
“Of course I can stand!” she exclaimed.
Linda ran to her mother’s side and hoisted her up beneath both arms But she had not prepared herself for the almighty wail her mother let slip.
“No, let go of me! Howard! Howard?!” she screamed at the top of her voice.
Linda could feel her eyes swell with tears, could feel her stomach twisting and knotting as she struggled against her mother. Despite everything, she still could not stand to see her distressed, to see her as upset as she would get when the monotony of their existence was disrupted.
“Please Martha, stop struggling. We need to go now. Martha. Please.”
The dome of tears that swelled in her eyes ruptured. Linda struggled to take breaths, her chest now jerking uncontrollably as the poison of her own survival seeped into her mind, “please Martha. Please. Mum. Please,” she begged.
“Howard!” Martha screeched.
Linda could hear voices below her now and the scrambling of several sets of thick boots navigating the maze beneath her.
“Piggy piggy!” came a hoarse voice.
A hole ripped open the floorboards at her feet and Linda relinquished her grip on her mother as a gunshot rang out. Then another. And two more after. Linda flopped around on the floor, kicking up dust like a fish out of water as she narrowly avoided each bullet. She scurried into one corner and pulled her knees up to her chest. And holding the shotgun at her side, she pointed it at the door and shook.
Her mother was quiet.
“It hurts,” Martha said weakly, and slowly she turned to look at Linda, blood beginning to pool at the foot of her chair.
“Which fucking door, Roland?!” The voice screamed from the corridor now.
“There,” she heard the pathetic boy say.
Linda knew it was him.
The door bucked violently. Linda had struggled for all these years, had put out of her mind that beast of desire, one that crept and crawled, lulling her to cut her ties and survive alone. She knew she could. But love. Family. It was sturdy and reliable, like a tree rooted upon this most chaotic earth.
She stood and held the gun, raising it to her mother. The sound of the door rattling on its hinges faded for a moment, and the sound was distant like a memory. She wished it had been different. She wished she had never met that pathetic boy. She wished she had never survived the fire. She wished her father had killed her that day.
Her finger lingered on the trigger, her eyes unable to lock with her mother’s, wide and vacant.
“Linda,” Martha said. “please don’t leave me.”
But she could not pull the trigger.
She swiveled to the door, fired one shot, and watched the blood-soaked splinters fly through the hole she had made. A body hit the floor and she heard them yelling. She rushed over and shoved the barrel through and turned, pulling the trigger once more. There was a second thump. She tried to pull away but several pairs of grubby hands held the barrels of the gun, and it was pulled free of her hands.
She turned back to her mother.
But she was silent.
“I’m sorry, Mum.”
But she could not hear her.
Linda looked at the fractured window and saw only the abyss beyond it. She would be released. She would be free. She would see her family again.
And Linda ran.
She crashed through the window and into the cool night air. And her foot had caught a railing that snatched her ankle, her body swinging like a pendulum into the concrete balcony. The weight of her body freed her from her trapping and she quickly continued to fall, her fingers spread wide as she reached for another. She grabbed a railing but slipped, holding it long enough to slow her fall. and then she felt her bag take the impact of the metal at her back. It rumbled violently, sending vibrations through her that rattled her body.
She had tried to survive.
She had betrayed herself.
Linda rolled onto her side and slid off from the top of the bus with a crash. The main door hissed open and a gaunt man with thinning grey hair rushed out to her. He aimed a rifle at her, his intention to kill, but Linda snatched the barrel of the gun and held it to one side before yanking down upon it. There was no shot, the rifle had left his hands. He pounced on her and together they rolled in the dirt, frantically fighting for control.
“Stupid bitch!” He yelled as she sunk her teeth into the side of his face.
She had mounted him now and with all her strength she clubbed his head with balled fists until the rifle was hers and with it she sunk one side of his face, bringing it down harder and again and again until he was motionless.
Her vision was blurred and the pain in her legs had begun to dull but she knew she was hurt. From above her, she saw figures, shapes that hung from her window like phantoms.
“Stay there or we fucking kill her,” a phantom yelled.
She knew that her mother was already dead.
“She died,” she yelled. “We all died. In the fire. Don’t you remember?”
And using the rifle as a crutch, she limped off into the darkness, away from the phantoms that now haunted her home. She could feel the tears warm her face, the blood warm her legs. Yet she ran.
She navigated the small alleys and derelict homes she had become so familiar with. She would not stay, not here in this town, not any more. They would kill her, Linda knew that much but she was glad. An end to the suffering, it was a gift for her mother to be released. But Linda could not pull the trigger. Perhaps now she was just a different breed of monster, perhaps she was simply weak. At that moment she would not decide.
Tomorrow, she thought.
The journey beyond the city flew by in a haze of agony, her heart racing and stomach cramping. She fell by the side of a road, down into a ditch where she laid down her head.
She dreamed of her sisters, playing together by the pool in Italy. Her mother waved over to them from behind her book and her father, he had sat up to watch them, his round gut hanging over his shorts as he sat forward with the biggest smile. Death was kind, she thought.
“You are kind,” she muttered.
“She is hurt. Help her up.”
“It could be a trap!”
“She needs help. Lift her up, we can carry her back before it gets dark.”
“Who is she?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I’m Linda, she thought.
“Can you hear me?”
“I died,” Linda admitted.
“Almost but not yet.”
“Are you death?” she asked.
“Who are you?” Her eyes began to open.
A pale woman looked down at her and smiled. She brushed thick chestnut hair from her face and tucked it delicately behind her ear.
“I’m Dorothy,” the woman said. “my name is Dorothy, and we’re going to take care of you.”
Linda smiled. She could taste blood in her mouth.
Bitter was the pill she swallowed at the break of each new day. Truly, she had not wanted to survive, to hold on to a life that had in countless ways ended so many years ago. Yet Linda was too stubborn and so very resourceful. And now she was to live another day, and she knew, it was only because of her. Because of Dorothy.
A hearty congratulations to each of the winners and a special thank you to everyone who submitted a short story!