By the Shores of Time
Frantic footsteps splashed in the darkness, with each stride weakening with each puddle. A gentle downpour drowned out the young woman’s panting. She tripped over her feet, but she scrambled through the mud. The snarls and howls drew near. The rumbling storm made visibility difficult as darkness descended upon the trail. Her deep brown eyes blurred with a lingering dread before glimpsing the safety of the lights ahead. The light cast against cuts and bruises on her skin and her messy shoulder-length hair. She continued running with what little energy she had left after a familiar voice called out to her. She followed it while losing herself as her heart raced. The closer she came, the brighter the light.
“Hey,” a man shook her shoulder. “Celeste? You all right?”
The young woman dropped the prescription bottle in her hands. Her eyes shifted toward the medicine cabinet’s dirty window, finding a young Hispanic man behind her. The only light provided was from the large windows aligning the grocery store entrance. His once-trimmed hair became the messiness that graced his rugged stubble. The strange glint in his eyes evoked an uneasiness as she reached down to pick up the items.
“Johnny,” another man sighed. “Ease up, will you?”
“We can’t be standing around here like this,” he reminded, glaring at the man by the entrance.
“She’s only been out a few times. I remember you pissed yourself a few times, but I didn’t complain.”
“Celeste, take your time. You’re in good hands.”
She glimpsed his subtle smile when she stood up, providing a sense of relief from her familiar. The reflective mist outside the pharmacy’s windows revealed his long beard and a melancholic gaze with skin a shade lighter than hers. His medium-length hair was tied into a small ponytail with fringes draped over the sides of his bearded face. Although his stature was smaller than most of his peers, he was the craftiest. Having gone on several runs, he steeled himself from the horror beyond their relative safety.
While Celeste bagged whatever she could find, the men peered into the foggy parking lot. Once familiar places became alien with a lingering fog that lasted for months. They glimpsed silhouettes of the people who fell to a strange affliction that infected much of the world. After the initial day, it was rare to encounter them up close.
“Gabe,” Johnny spoke. “How long do you think this is gonna go on for, man?”
“How long?” he repeated with a side glimpse. “This is the new world.”
“Gabriel, I—I got everything,” the young woman whispered with a noted accent.
“Cool,” Gabriel clutched his pistol. “Let’s—Go around back. I haven’t seen those “things” since we left the Sanctuary.”
“What things?” she asked, meeting their pensive gaze.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Gabriel responded.
Gabriel guided them toward the back of the store. Celeste followed between them. Johnny raised his shotgun raised as they reached the end. The near-empty aisles shelved worthless trinkets no one wanted during the riots. Gabriel kept a measured breath, hoping she would remain calm after leaving the fog’s lighting. She’d accidentally clenched the fabric of his jacket before turning on her flashlight. A shaken halo guided their path forward and cast shadows against the double-door exit.
“Easy there,” he muttered, looking over his shoulder.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“Eyes peeled and ears perked, yeah?”
An ominous silence crept upon their cautious entrance. The flashlight beam stopped at the other end of the expansive stockroom. The light’s edge revealed rows of shelves stretching the store’s width. A rotting fragrance wafted within the cool, dry environment. It grew stronger the further they went. Celeste covered her nose while a lowly gnawing droned by the back exit.
A sudden bang from the ceiling let natural light shine in the middle of their path. The gentle draft carried flurries into the floor. Strange, organic clicking broke the silence. The trio halted. Celeste’s heart began racing while her eyes remained on Gabriel. A sudden jerk could throw everything into jeopardy despite their cautious approach.
Gabriel reached for her flashlight and gently pried it from her hand. Its light shone against his pistol’s long, homemade muzzle. The beaten metal door revealed streaks of curdling blood. Johnny glanced over, his hands trembling when the gnawing intensified. Again, the clicks were accompanied by nimble footsteps covering the cold stock room.
Celeste followed his cues while hearing Johnny’s hands’ gentle rattle. Gabriel froze in fear as a low bellow followed. A lowly gasp left his lips at the familiar sound. The creature was within range, lumbering around them as it searched blindly.
“What the fuck is that?” Johnny panicked.
“Shh,” he gestured.
But the bellow became a hungering rumble. It sent shivers down Celeste’s spine. The light’s edge spotted a molten mass of flesh emerging from the aisle. Protruding limbs, bone, and rotting flesh covered its amorphous body. She gripped his hem tightly while Gabe assessed the situation.
There are two different types here, he thought. Likely, Johnny bolts while we keep our cool. So far, she’s done well not to goof up, but —
“F—fuck this,” Johnny panicked as he ran past them.
“As expected,” Gabe whispered loud enough for her to hear.
They watched as the sluggish creature missed him, but it wasn’t the only thing observing them. A pair of humanoid creatures sprung toward Johnny as he slammed the door shut. They banged against it, bending and creating holes in the sturdy metal before letting out ear-piercing screeches. Their brandished bloody talons sliced metal with ease, revealing the fog outside. The light revealed misshaped faces, exaggerating their lower tarnished jaws. Celeste noticed small slits that were active as they stalked around the stockroom. Thinning locks of hair hung over their pale, colorless eyes as they raised their noses to the air.
“Other way, now,” he suggested calmly. “They can’t see us… But, they’ll eventually find us.”
Gabriel looked over his shoulder, finding her slowly coming undone. Meeting her glance, they exchanged nods before proceeding in the opposite direction. Celeste guided the way as quietly as possible. Gabriel tried to ease his nerves, occasionally glimpsing the humanoids inch closer. Once they walked away from the door, Celeste took a deep breath. As Gabriel kept his eyes on the door, Celeste vomited. He reached over, feigning concern when her body quivered.
“Hey, hey,” he whispered.
“What were those—things?” she asked after wiping away her vomit.
“Those—We call them clickers—But, the other thing I haven’t figured out.”
“Were those people?”
Her eyes sought answers, but he’d provide none. Although the crazed scientist at the Sanctuary had an idea of what those humanoids were, he didn’t. Frankly, it no longer mattered with everything at stake.
“Gabriel,” she repeated.
“I don’t know. I just know how to get by around here—”
The stockroom doors slammed open, prompting him to take her hand while they quietly scurried to the other end. They glimpsed the humanoids while looking around the aisle’s end. Their clicking echoed throughout while they erratically searched for them.
“Fuck,” he mumbled. “We need to get to the substation before it gets too dark.”
“How far is it?” she asked.
“A few blocks away. It’s pretty close to the—”
His response came to a stop. They listened to their harmonious clicking. Their unfamiliar behavior made him uneasy. He masked the creeping angst from the young woman. Her sudden rustling broke his fear as he looked over. She gathered a few items from the barren shelves.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Celeste flung an object over several aisles. He looked into her eyes after hearing them go into a frenzy, tracking the source of the sound. His nervousness produced a relieved smile after she handed him a can. Gabriel led the way toward the registers, spotting the creatures scouring the aisles. Gabriel chugged another item into another empty aisle. The humanoids knocked several shelves over, creating enough noise that allowed them to make a run for the exit.
They ran through the lot and into the fog’s thicket. Dry flurries fluttered about as he guided her along the sidewalk. They avoided the dense streets while observing the shuffling silhouettes. Once they arrived at an alleyway, they took time to recuperate in an enclave just out of sight. She saw the tired look in his eyes, handing him a bottle of water as a token of their success. He took a sip as she leaned against the wall.
“Thanks,” she said. “That was nerve-racking. I don’t know how you guys do it.”
“Experience,” he uttered. “Patience, especially… But you gotta be smart too. If that blob pulled up, that would’ve just complicated things.”
“Do you think Johnny is okay?”
“If that dumbass would’ve kept his cool, we would’ve made it out without a problem.”
“Have you—noticed how he’s been looking at me… Or you, for that matter?”
“He was kinda giddy about this outing. But he’s not bothering you, is he? I’ll kick his ass before he does anything to you.”
“I’d hope you’d say that. We are a thing, no?”
Gabriel glimpsed her flushed expression as she kept a lookout. While what they had amounted to was akin to a fling, they were dedicated to their causes. He dedicated himself to ensuring where they stayed was supplied, going on most of the runs while she aided the staff. She joined them the past few runs against his protective wishes upon her insistence.
“I’m doing everything I can,” he spoke earnestly.
“I know you are,” she nodded. “But—The last thing I need is for you not to come back one day.”
“Not gonna happen.”
“Does it really hurt for you to talk about these things? Do you even worry about how I feel when you go out there?”
“I think about you every day,” he replied. “Now, we should be going.”
“You’re never good at talking about your feelings.”
“You are asking for a lot from me.”
She brushed her hair aside, hiding her smirk as he threw himself back into their mission. He handed her the baseball bat from his backpack, holstering his pistol for the bowie knife from the backpack’s side pocket. She heeled him as they snuck through the empty streets. The infected’s lingering presence didn’t go without notice as they cautiously slipped through the vehicle-packed streets. Alley after alley, the tension grew without a clear and present threat.
A shotgun blast roared upon Gabriel’s entrance into the next street. While the parked car in front of him absorbed the spray, the rest missed him by a hair’s length as he ducked behind a parked car. Celeste slid toward Gabriel to check if he was wounded, finding relief when he wasn’t.
“G—Gabe, is that you?” Johnny raised his voice.
“Considered checking your fire before you popped off?” he growled before being pulled by his sleeve. “You can draw those things on us!”
“Wait,” she whispered, flashing a mirror over the window.
“Is Celeste with you?” he asked.
The mirror revealed Johnny aiming his shotgun as he approached. He stopped to look around his environment before proceeding along the wet pavement. His tattered shirt revealed his bloodied abdomen. He began panting as he sat against the hood of a car. Her deep brown eyes looked into Gabriel’s, awaiting the crazed gunman’s response. She didn’t want to see any bloodshed between them, whimpering as she closed her eyes.
“Y—Yes, I am,” she expressed nervously upon meeting Gabriel’s nod.
“Oh, man, I didn’t see ya there,” he responded unconvincingly as he lowered his shotgun. “I’m sure glad to see you.”
“You could’ve gotten us killed,” Gabriel responded, standing up beside her.
“But you made it, though?” Johnny clenched his abdomen. “Damn—They got me good, though. There were more outside, but I blew those fuckers away.”
Strange, we would’ve heard all that, Gabriel noted. Celeste looked toward him, awaiting his cue.
“It could be infected,” she tugged his sleeve. “We need to get him there now.”
“Right,” he agreed before looking toward him.
Gabriel helped Johnny as they made their way to the substation. A bright light shone through the dense fog, marking the substation. The young woman silently rejoiced as they picked up the pace, soon marveling at the unassuming safe point. The two-story home was bordered entirely up to keep the infected out, but it was the dimming light on the roof that managed to keep them at bay. Johnny leaned against the entrance, aching from his wounds, while Celeste knocked.
“How are you holding up?” she asked.
“It burns,” he muttered, casting an underlying fear that caught her attention.
Celeste met the deranged blue eyes from the door’s crack before he opened it. Cuts covered his face from his failed attempts at shaving. Her glance pried away as she stuck close to Gabriel. The room they entered was devoid of furnishing. Cans of food were stacked against the cabinets in the ruined kitchen, and opened magazines were laid about. The most crucial thing Gabriel noticed was the flickering lights throughout the shoddy setting, wondering how long it had been that way. A collective sigh of relief filled the silence once the door closed.
“Alex,” Johnny spoke. “You look like shit.”
“I didn’t exactly come here voluntarily,” he muttered. His gaze fixated on Gabriel.
“Be thankful we didn’t kill you,” Gabriel reminded.
“You may as well have.”
“But you’re doing a good deed. These lights provide a haven to any survivors out there.”
“I’ve got news for you, buddy! No one’s shown up since we risked lives setting this up.”
“I’m not here to listen to your opinion. You can’t build without sacrifice.”
“All right, guys,” Celeste interrupted. “Let’s just take a moment to breathe. We’re—All on the same team.”
“Fuck this,” he mumbled before ascending the stairs.
Gabriel wondered how long it would be before the fallen leader came around. While the events that happened weeks ago resulted in heavy casualties, he didn’t bear ill will. Johnny rested against the stars, wheezing as he clutched his wound. Celeste approached him to check on him while looking toward the top of the stairs. She checked his wound, noticing a strange inflammation overtaking it. She looked upon Johnny’s sickly expression, which had gone pale since they found him.
“This is worse than I thought,” she noted calmly.
“It’s just a scratch,” he responded with a weak smile.
“Enough with the tough guy bullshit.”
Gabriel raised his brows, pleasantly surprised by her response. However, the strange sensation washed over him when he met Celeste’s worry for their wounded comrade.
“It’s gonna be a long night,” he thought aloud.
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