Luke stayed awake all night, staring out the window, hearing noises from the street below. Andrea was fast asleep against him, her slow deep breaths calming his shattered nerves. The previous fortnight of being alone, barely getting any sleep, hearing the scuffles and other odd sounds kept him on edge. Even though he felt relatively safe in the suite, he still couldn’t will himself to sleep.
As the sun began to rise over the grim landscape out the balcony doors, he thought about trying to stand up to stretch his legs. He groped around behind him for a cushion to put under Andrea’s head and carefully slipped it between them. Then he carefully untangled her arms from around his shoulders and stood up, the blood rushing to his head, making him feel faint.
He flexed his toes in his boots and ran his fingers through his hair while he walked towards the kitchen, in order to assess the supply situation. He found Ian and Juan sitting at the large stainless steel island in the middle of the room, each with a cup of water, chatting quietly.
“You’re up early socio,” Juan said, taking a bottle of water a pouring Luke a cup.
“Thank you, what are you two talking about?” he asked, taking seat on a stool next to Juan.
“Well, we were just talking about what we should do today,” Ian said slowly.
“Shouldn’t we wait for Andrea to wake up before we talk about this?” Luke replied.
“Why?” Ian said defensively.
“We’re just tormenta de ideas,” Juan said quickly. Luke furnished him with a puzzled look, “Oh ... Brainstorming. Of course we were going to wait for you two.”
Luke took a sip of his water and looked at Ian, who had become very interested in something under his finger nail. “So what have you two deci- come up with?”
“Well if we’re going to make this ridiculous trek to Panacea,” Ian began, “we’re going to need to hoard for a couple of weeks to get enough stuff, right?”
“Yeah, lots of water and easy to carry food, bedding, cooking gear, decent shoes,” Luke nodded.
“And guns. We got a few nice things yesterday, despite Juan’s little breakdown,”
“We should go back there today and just ransack the place. Take everything, then bring it back here and then sort it out. We’re safe here ... well, safer than being in an unlocked and huge mall.”
“How are we going to get it all back here?” asked Luke.
“I was going to go around outside, try to find us some working coche’s,” Juan began but Luke was already shaking his head.
“The streets are completely backed up; you wouldn’t be able to move.”
“I know, hermanita,” said Juan, annoyed. “That’s when you joined us. I was thinking of shopping carts instead.”
“Yeah that would work better.”
There was a lull while the three men had a drink.
“Good morning boys,” Andrea yawned at them as she walked in, a sheet wrapped around her even though she was clothed underneath, her naked feet slapping against the hardwood floor.
“Buenos dias novia,” Juan said pleasantly, again pouring a cup of water.
“We have coffee you know.” She said sitting next to Luke, “But thank you.”
“What? Where?” Ian asked, “We couldn’t find any!”
Andrea rolled her eyes and went to the cupboard under the island, right in front of Ian, pulled it open, “Hey careful!” and extracted a box of instant coffee sachets and a box of sugar packets, dumping them in front of him.
“What were you three talking about anyway?” she asked, sitting back down.
“What we’re gonna do today,” Luke said to her.
“Oh. I thought we were going to go back to that mall today?”
“Sí, sí. We were waiting for you so we could decide when we should go,” replied Juan.
“As soon as possible.” Ian said tiredly.
“Yeah, that sounds good. What are we going to look for?”
They discussed what priority targets were and what peripheral items were. Andrea advocated strongly for any kind of sewing material and clothes, as they would be intensely useful for repairs on the go, which Juan and Luke agreed with but Ian was not very enthusiastic. Juan wanted to find medical supplies, Ian wanted camping gear and Luke just wanted anything useful. They agreed on everything everyone wanted to look for, including the guns, which were a given, and drew up a list. It was a big list, and would take a good couple of hours to scavenge all of it.
The only thing everyone opposed was cigarettes.
“Socios! Come on! I was saving that one yesterday for 2 weeks!”
“No Juan, they’re bad for you!” Andrea said, completely shocked, “You’re a nurse for crying out loud!”
“No time to look for them,” Ian said flatly.
“No space to carry them. Plus they give you the shakes when you haven’t had one in a while, we can’t have that if you’re going to get a gun, hommbry,” Luke said, looking straight at him.
Juan stared at him venomously, “It’s Hombre, puta. And if I find any I’m taking them.”
They all pulled themselves up from the counter and got ready to head out. The sun was still low in the sky, the haze from continuing fires catching the light, turning the sky a sickly, pale yellow. They barricaded the balcony, closed all the curtains and shades, hid all their food, water and other gear in the back bedroom wardrobe, cleaned up any mess that would give any nosy people a clue that anyone had been there and locked the front door.
When they got to the bottom of the stairs, Juan wordlessly handed his empty backpack to Luke and went over to a vending machine. The other 2 stopped to watch what he was doing.
“Come on, we haven’t got time for munchies,” Ian said, re-adjusting the strap of his bag on his shoulder.
Juan didn’t reply and went to the side of it, resting his shoulder against the black metal siding and began heaving it.
“Juan you’re just going to hurt your sho-,” Luke began. The machine edged slowly at first, the heavy bottom making the whole thing tilt until Juan lowered himself and it crunched sideways. He got it moving and stopped where he though the stairs were. “Oh,” Luke said simply.
“Ok, let’s Vámonos!” Juan said, taking the bag back from Luke carefully. Luke turned around and wiggled his eyebrows at Andrea, who smiled back at him. Ian patted Juan on the back as he walked past him and held the front glass doors open as everyone traipsed out.
The trip to the mall went fairly uneventfully, if tensely. Luke took ‘point’, as he had the shotgun. They took a more rounded route, because Luke didn’t want to come directly from A to B for some reason.
Ian followed behind them all, watching Luke suspiciously. The way he held the shotgun seemed trained. Mechanical. Where he would have been holding it against his shoulder, pointing it in front of him, Luke was holding it down and away from his chest. The butt only ever touching his shoulder when he held up his hand to get everyone to stop and he went off to check out a noise, or some movement from the corner of his eye. Several times he got them all off the street to hide behind a car or an alley way to check behind them. Always returning with a vexed and worried expression on his face.
“Socio, what’s wrong?” asked Juan after the third time, annoyed at having to crouch so often.
“I don’t know. I think I’m tweaking, could have sworn I heard something back there.” He shook his head and motioned for them all to get moving again.
“Tweaking?” Juan said to himself as he trudged off again.
Luke had nothing to worry about though.
They didn’t see any other survivors. They didn’t see any looters. They didn’t see any other sickos.
All they saw were silent vehicles and rotting bodies that littered the streets. The smell made Andrea and Ian gag, but Juan and Luke didn’t seem to be bothered by it. The enormity was finally starting to dawn on everyone.
This was the end of the world.
The journey took them a little over an hour at their slow pace. When they finally found it again, it took them another 10 minutes to find the already broken door. Luke and Ian went in first to take a look around and make sure it was empty this time. Again nothing. Ian whipped a hand out the door and beckoned them in.
First on the list were dollies and carts, anything with wheels that could hold stuff. If they couldn’t find anything suitable, the trip here would be all for nought.
Juan found a couple of deep, wide bins that looked like industrial laundry trolleys. He pulled them out and Andrea took one of them, following behind Luke and Ian. They found the hunting, camping and fishing store from the day before, and still looked as though it was just as impenetrable as last time. But they were relatively certain they were alone, and they had all day this time.
Ian went off to find a crowbar or something to lever the bars with, while Juan and the others stood in front of it, looking for any point of weakness.
“Hey you two!” Andrea said excitedly.
Juan and Luke both came over and looked at where Andrea was pointing. “What?” Luke asked.
“I think I can squeeze through those if we can move this cage a little bit. See the gap just behind it?”
There was enough space behind the cage for a very small person to get to the front door.
“It’s no use, the front doors are padlocked. Even this,” Luke lifted the shotgun a little bit, “won’t punch through that.”
“Not the front door, there!” she pointed again right in front of her.
Behind the cage and the heavy plate glass was what looked to be a 7 foot tall, stuffed grizzly. Its arms positioned un-naturally above its head, as though it was trying to fly. Between its legs was a tiny gap that Andrea was confident she could get through.
“How are we going to get through the glass?” Andrea said, more to herself than anyone.
“Well actually, the shotty would work here,” Luke said.
“Save your rounds,” Ian said coming up behind them with a very heavy looking, long, tyre iron. “Use this instead.”
He stooped in front of the glass window behind the cage, closed his eyes and turned away, shielding his face. He back-handed the tyre iron into the plate glass again and again. At first it just bounced off, but he hit the sweet spot with the third strike, splintering the glass window. His continued beating made the shop window explode into huge, very dangerous, jigsaw pieces, crashing to the ground.
Luke kept a watchful eye out while Juan and Ian knocked out the rest of the glass, the loud sounds he was sure would draw some attention to them. A noise from behind made him whirl around to see Andrea giggling, holding the bar of metal, smashing glass away from the pane.
She looked up at Luke who smiled in mock exasperation. “What?” she asked, “it looked like fun! How often do you get to smash a window and not get sent to gaol?”
“Good thing I brought this,” Juan said, joining Andrea with a weighty looking quilt. “Wrap this around you so you don’t cut yourself.”
“You sure you can fit?” Ian asked sceptically.
Andrea whipped around, the quilt billowing around her like heavy wings. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked darkly.
“Nothing, go for it!” Ian said quickly, bending to help Juan lift the cage to give her enough space to get behind it.
After much swearing and many small cuts, Andrea made it into the Sporting Goods store. It was dark, and they didn’t have any flashlights. She was nervous and could only see her companion’s silhouettes through the cage.
The first thing she went looking for were bolt cutters so that the others could get inside as well. Instead, she found the keys behind the counter, and the doors and lights switch. She flipped them hesitantly, scrunching her eyes up as the harsh fluorescent lights flickered on and cage began to creak and groan in its hinges.
She heard Ian yell in surprise outside. “Watch where you point that thing man! Jesus Herbert Walker Christ!”
“Could you let us know when you’re going to do stuff like that please Andrea?” Luke asked in an irritated tone. “Stop whining Ian, I didn’t shoot you, did I?”
“Sorry! Sorry!” Andrea called from behind the counter.
“Nice job novia!” Juan said happily as she unlocked the doors and they all stepped inside.
The shop owners had obviously rifled through the shelves in a hurry, leaving behind a gold-mine of equipment. Andrea happily sorted through hiking gear and emergency rations, Ian grabbed the few tents and sleeping-bags that were left, while Luke and Juan stood in front of a wall of glass, behind which sat some hunting knives and guns.
There weren’t many, the proprietors had bagged most of the shotguns and rifles, but the weapons remaining made Luke feel infinitely more comfortable. Juan was making a giggling, deep breathing sound, disbelief coursing through him.
“Hermano ...,” Juan said quietly.
“Jesus Christ,” Luke breathed in agreement.
Upon the wall sat two Ruger 12 gauge sports pump-action shotguns, and a Browning AR Safari rifle. They broke open the glass and took them down, also grabbing a machete and a skinning knife from the case. Luke went to the stores room, searching for ammo and after rifling through a few crates he found some. Not much though, only 3 boxes of 12 gauge and 2 boxes for the BAR, about 130 rounds in all.
As he was heading back through the dusty shelves he thought he saw movement out of the side of his vision. He turned and saw the back of a man dressed in desert fatigues. Luke took a hesitant step forward and reached out for him, but the man moved just out of reach. Luke took another step, his boots scuffing gently in the dense air.
“John?” His voice was absorbed by the darkness, the man continued as if he hadn’t been called.
“John.” Luke said, this time with a tone of expectation, willing him to turn around.
The man took another step and fell to his knees, blood and bone spraying Luke’s face. A split second later he heard a tremendous crack in the distance, echoing through the dark store-room.
Luke didn’t flinch as he heard the bullet sing through the air. John’s head was torn by the blast and strewn across the ceiling and the walls. He stood silently as blood trickled down his face, breathing hard.
“Luke?” came Andrea’s voice from the door way, “Are you alright?”
Luke stared wildly towards where the voice had come from. When he looked back down, John’s body had disappeared, the blood gone from the walls. Luke felt his face, damp with sweat. Water dripped onto his nose and he looked up; a leaking fire-sprinkler was directly above him. He wiped it away, staring at the nozzle.
“Luke?” Andrea said hesitantly, touching him on the shoulder. Luke flinched and shook his head.
“Yeah? Yeah,” he said quickly, “Yeah I’m fine. Let’s get this done and get back to the hotel.” He smiled perfunctorily at Andrea, who was looking at him strangely. He didn’t move, staring at the pool of water under the sprinkler.
"Luke? What's wrong?" Andrea asked quietly.
He continued to staring at the ground, "Yeah ... Let's go" he said distantly, walking past her.
Andrea watched him leave, not sure if he'd heard anything she'd said. She turned her gaze to the same puddle, watching the drips falling rhythmically into the growing pool for a few seconds, then followed him silently.