By the Shores of Time
Frantic footsteps splashed in the darkness with each stride weakening with each puddle. A gentle downpour overshadowed her heavy breathing. The young woman tripped over her feet before slipping back onto her feet, hearing the snarls and howls draw 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 the cuts and bruises on her fair 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 whilst losing herself as her heart raced. The closer she came, the brighter the light.
“Hey,” a man shook her shoulder.
The young woman trembled, dropping 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 store entrance. His once trimmed hair was reduced to messiness gracing 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, provided 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 side of his 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 looked into the foggy parking lot. Once familiar places became alien with a perpetual fog that lingered for months. In the distance, they glimpsed silhouettes of “the lost,” 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 while rolling his “r”.
“All ready,” Gabriel clutched his pistol. “Let’s—Go around back. Something—Feels off.”
“The hell do you mean?” Johnny asked.
“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 as he walked toward the back.
Celeste followed between them; Johnny’s shotgun raised to covering the narrow path behind them. The near-empty aisles shelved worthless trinkets no one collected during the riots. Gabriel measured his breathing, hoping she would remain calm after leaving the fog’s lighting. She’d accidentally clench the fabric of his jacket before turning on her flashlight. A shaken halo guided their path forward, casting shadows along the hallway exit.
“Easy there,” he muttered, looking over his shoulder.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“We don’t know what’s beyond this door so, eyes peeled and ears perked, yeah?”
Upon their cautious entrance, they were met with an ominous silence. The flashlight beam stopped at the other end of the expansive stockroom, revealing rows of them making up the res of the store’s size. A rotting fragrance wafted within the cool, dry air which only 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 allowed a single light that shone in the middle. The draft carried flurries, confirming another presence along with whatever was already inside. Strange, organic clicking disturbed the silence, halting them in their tracks. Celeste’s heart began racing as her eyes remained on Gabriel. Although their footsteps were light, a sudden jerk could throw everything into jeopardy.
He reached for her flashlight, gently prying it from her hand. Its light shone against its long, homemade muzzle when he paired it together. The beaten metal door revealed streaks of curdling blood. Johnny glanced over, his hands trembling as the gnawing intensified. The clicks occurred again, accompanied by nimble footsteps that covered ground throughout 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 to 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, sending 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 anticipated,” Gabe whispered loud enough for her to hear.
They watched as the sluggish creature failed to catch him, but it wasn’t the only thing observing them. A pair of humanoid creatures sprung toward Johnny as he slammed the door shut. The creatures banged against, 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 exaggerated their lower tarnished jaws. Celeste noticed small slits that were active as they stalked along the stock room. Thinning locks of hair hung over their pale, colorless eyes as they raised their noses to the air.
“Other way, now,” he suggested in a calm tone. “They can’t see us, but they’ll eventually find us.”
He looked over his shoulder, finding her slowly coming undone. Meeting her glance, they exchanged nods before proceeding in the opposite direction. They exited as quietly as they could, with Celeste guiding the way back. Gabriel tried to ease his nerves as the humanoids inched closer, slowly picking up on their presence. Once they walked away from the door, she took a deep breath, vomiting not too long after.
“Hey, hey,” he uttered with concern, keeping his eye on the door.
“What were those—things?” she asked, wiping away her vomit.
“Clickers—But, the other thing I haven’t figured out.”
“Were those people?”
Her eyes sought answers as he stood there that moment. 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 cover. 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—”
He stopped as they listened to their harmonious clicking. Their unfamiliar behavior set him on edge, although he masked it 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 before she 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, noticing the creatures scouring the aisles. Gabriel chugged another item into the side of the empty aisles. The humanoids knocked several aisles over, further creating the noise that allowed them to sneak through the entrance.
They didn’t utter a word as 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 responded. “That was nerve-racking. I don’t know how you guys do it.”
“Experience,” he uttered. “Patience especially… But you gotta be smart as well. If that blob pulled up that would’ve just complicated things.”
“I never considered that.”
“Well, it was slow, so—”
“Do you think Johnny is okay?” she abruptly changed the topic.
“If that dumbass would’ve kept his cool, we would’ve made it out without a problem,” he grunted.
“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 was akin to a fling, they were dedicated to their causes. He dedicated himself to making sure where they stayed was supplied, going on most of the runs while she aided the staff. It was upon her insistence she joined them the past few runs against his protective wishes.
“I’m doing everything I can,” he spoke earnestly.
“I know you are,” she agreed. “But—The last thing I need is for you not 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 admitted. “Now, we should be going.”
“You’re never good with 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 infecteds’ 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 cover. Celeste slid toward Gabriel to check if he was wounded, relieved that 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, no?” Johnny dismissed, clenching 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 as Celeste looked toward him.
“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 where the substation was. The young woman felt silently rejoiced as they picked up the pace, soon marveling at the unassuming safe point. It two-story home, completely bordered 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.
She 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 along the cabinets in the ruined kitchen and opened magazines laid about. The most important thing Gabriel noticed were 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, with 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 safe 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.”
“Alright, 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 bare 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 with a calm tone, withholding her doubts.
“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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