By the Shores of Time
Celeste thought about warm thoughts while fixating on the candle. The rainfall had reduced to gentle keys of nature, playing their tune. The thin blanket hardly kept her body warm. The moonlight cast on her clothes, which hung to dry on a few fixtures in the small lounge. Her backpack did little to ease her sore neck while laying on the ruined couch in the guest room down the hall. Time and again, she felt the presence of God slipping from the world she once knew. Misguided in her compassion, she remained amongst the weak in a merciless world.
It was on such chilly nights that drove her to believe everything was but a fabrication. Yet the healing wound along her side reminded her all too well about the reality. What she sought through this pain was repentance. Witnessing Johnny’s death y her hands weighed upon her. She never had ill will toward him. He was one of the many imperfect souls cast into the unforgiving new world.
She quickly sat up with her knife clenched to the sudden movement by the door. Gabriel entered with a blanket slung over his shoulder. She set her knife, realizing she hadn’t covered up when he looked away.
“I probably shouldn’t have walked in on you like that,” he cleared his throat.
“How many times have we—” she teased.
“That’s not the point, I shouldn’t have walked in on you. Period.”
“Well, you’re checking up on me—Well-meaning, right?”
“Gabriel, get some rest, you look so tired.”
“It’s kinda hard to,” he replied. “But, how are you feeling?”
“Johnny… He never deserved that kind of death. Besides, he was close to your brother, too.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel nodded. “He was. Maybe those two could bury the hatchet in the afterlife… If there is one. The kid was young, but death—It doesn’t care who you are.”
“I really wish there could’ve been another way, but—”
“Wishing… Not much use in that. Life happens, right? We’ll give him a proper burial tomorrow.”
The dim lighting stressed his baggy eyes as he looked off. His posture weakened from the sleepless nights.
“Dear God, Gabriel. You need to get some sleep.”
“You say that, but your body says otherwise.”
“I can use a bit of company, you know?”
A quick glimpse revealed the silhouette of her slender body and bruises from earlier along her chest and forearms. The moonlight cast upon her warm and inviting face with wet curls of hair flowing freely over her shoulder as she awaited him. Her thin blanket hugged along her thighs and feet, leaving little to his imagination. He’d have to admit her earthly charms resulted in her being the unintentional temptress in an alien world. He sat on a chair across from her, finding her pouting at his intentional difference.
“What’s this?” she sighed.
“I just—Can’t let my guard down,” he answered reluctantly.
“By sitting next to me?”
“You barely have any clothes on. Can you cover—”
“Nope. I’m still wet.”
Gabriel couldn’t hold a straight face, especially after discovering her smile. Her dark eyes reflected the nearby candle as her lips pursed in amusement. He looked out the window, seeing the raindrops trickle against the thin window. He closed his eyes, listening to its peaceful song while she watched him. It was perhaps the most ease she sensed him in a while. He’d often go about his day fatigued, staying on top of things while she worked closely with the head nurse. And his deeds didn’t go unnoticed.
“You know,” she spoke, seeing one eye open. “This is probably the most relaxed I’ve seen you since we met.”
“Really?” he responded while leaning forward. “I’m really tense.”
“I’m still trying to picture the lazy guy you were talking about at the beginning and how he did nothing but dream his life away.”
“You remember all that?”
“How could I not? That was the first time we spoke to each other. Hm, it seems like your focus was on other things.”
Her wit brought a smile to his empty expression.
“No, I remember. I just—Have to think about it a little. I’m not all up there these days.”
“All right, Rocketman.”
“You’re on a roll tonight, aren’t you? If I didn’t know any better, you were a different person.”
“Well, you’re here with me, so—I feel a bit more in my element.”
His eyes trailed away, nodding at what she had said. As much as he loved her, he couldn’t bear losing her in the violence. He’d rather be out here, knowing she was safe within the Sanctuary. He hoped this would be enough for her to stay there so he wouldn’t have to experience such grief. Upon turning to her he found her patiently waiting for what he had to say.
“Is everything all right?” she voiced concern.
“I, uh—” he gathered his thoughts aloud. “I think you should—”
“I should what?”
“Find someone that’ll stay committed to you.”
Her brows furrowed, perplexed by his suggestion. In that rare moment, he couldn’t maintain his eye contact like he usually would.
“You say this, but you don’t mean it,” she maintained her warm tone.
“I’m not trying to go back and forth with this—” he insisted.
“And we’re not. I just want to understand why you’re saying this.”
“I know why you’ve wanted to travel out here.”
“And why is that?”
“To get closer to me since we hardly spend time together. Look, Celeste—”
“Gabriel, c’mon, we’ve been through so much together and—”
“And I don’t want you crying when I die doing what I have to do.”
She paused and processed what he meant. His sorrow couldn’t hide the meaning behind his words. In some sense, they weren’t too different, as was the case before her. The manipulation he employed was to his benefit most familiarly.
“You understand how selfish that sounds, right?” she pried in a soothing tone.
“Again, this isn’t a subject for debate,” he replied, presenting a facade she easily saw through. “Once we return, I’m barring you from scouting operations.”
“Like I expected you would.”
“I just want to make sure you’re safe, is all. Imagine what would happen if you got hurt or something worse. I—I can’t always be there.”
“I think you’re starting to understand how I feel.”
He leaned against the creaky chair, conceding with an inaudible sigh. Strangely enough, her eyes never lost track of his during their conversation. She got onto her knees, shuffling over as he looked away. She rested her arm along his lap, waiting for him to look at her. A quick glimpse immediately drew his attention as he became enchanted by her beauty. He noticed the bruise along her cheek, begging him the question he had earlier.
“What happened between you and Alex?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she answered hesitantly. “Johnny turned when we were talking—”
“And he left you behind?”
“You don’t expect a drunk to do much, do you?”
“No, but I expect you to tell me the truth.”
Before she could deliver a reluctant response, a window smashed from the level below. A draft lingered from the opening, with nothing entering but the rainy breeze. Her heart pounded, watching for Gabriel’s cues as he opted to investigate. He reached for his bag on the couch and took out his knife and pistol. She fixated on the darkness, panting while holding her knife. He rested his hand on her shoulder, hoping to calm her, but startled her to her core. Before he could leave into the hall, she clutched his arm, begging him not to go.
“I’ll be back,” he whispered.
“I—I’ll go with you,” she responded.
“With some clothes, right?”
“They’re still wet!”
“Close the door. I’ll be back.”
Celeste obliged and quietly closed the door. The flashlight guided the way beside his pistol, revealing the deteriorated walls at the end. He passed Alex’s room, peeking through to find him asleep on the over-turned mattress. The drunkard snored lowly enough as he lay on his stomach. It was a wonder how the shatter didn’t awaken him. Gabriel continued toward the stairs, each step creaking louder. Amidst the flowing air on the first floor, he heard something below.
Uncontrolled crying replaced the once silent setting. His hands trembled. He tried to clear his mind as the weeping continued. As he looked down the stairs, he saw the moonlight cast well into the living room. His heartbeat throbbed as he descended with clumsy footsteps, giving away his presence. Yet the crying continued while taking a clearer form when he turned toward the kitchen.
“H—hey,” his voice trembled.
The flashlight cast upon the emaciated woman who dashed into the basement.
“The hell?” he froze after witnessing how quickly she moved. “Miss? I’m here to help.”
Gabriel looked down into the dark basement, hearing the woman’s cries. An unsettling feeling sank in as the light cast down trembled. She ignored the light whilst remaining in her fetal position. Her long, messy strings of curly black hair veiled her face from the light. Her skin was fair, close to pale. Her cries evoked an unusual distortion that sent chills down his spine. He kept the light on her while lowering his pistol. His body couldn’t move, especially after she fell silent.
“Miss?” his voice shook.
Her head snapped up toward him, revealing her empty sunken eyes. Her stringy hair covered part of her face as her mouth brandished its small, serrated teeth. The hunched woman stood, revealing talon-like fingers. Gabriel gasped while she let out a deafening shriek. Before he could fire a shot, he tripped backward, barely missing the deadly swipe of her serpentine tail. The pistol flung through the cracks of the stairs. His adrenaline absorbed the harsh impact on his back as he scrambled up the stairs.
“Fuck, fuck,” he repeated.
Gabriel reached the top before the powerful claws shattered the wooden steps in a swift upward motion. Her forearm became lodged in the stairs above while trying to grab him with the other. He felt warm blood run along his hands with splinters entrenched unbeknownst to him during his panic. The woman’s eyes never shifted their attention as it snarled back. He saw the pistol’s shiny body shine against the faint moonlight.
She finally ripped out her bloodied forearm and chased after him. He glimpsed it through the side of his eyes when he dove forward. His landing fell short, as it remained out of reach. Gabriel turned over, expecting a swift end as he closed his eyes. Instead, the woman began howling in frustration as it thrashed about.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a shirtless Celeste holding back the woman with a knife impaled into its side. She held on as the deranged woman flailed wildly, trying to grab a hold with her long talons. Gabriel quickly grabbed the gun, taking aim with the guidance of the moonlight. His hands trembled, afraid to pull the trigger, since he feared hitting Celeste. The woman let out a blood-curdling shriek, making him lose focus. As it finally knocked Celeste away, he fired a shot. The first bullet missed her as it began focusing on the pained young woman slumped against the wall.
He pulled the trigger again. This time the bullet hit her chest, but had little effect on her. She readied to impale Celeste. His pistol’s iron sights trembled, pulling the trigger one last time. She wobbled forward before collapsing next to Celeste, who froze when looking into its empty gaze. Blood began pooling from the exit wound of her head, which marked the end of the harrowing event.
“Celeste,” he uttered while walking over.
“I’m not going to apologize for showing up,” she replied.
“You could’ve gotten hurt.”
“Are you fucking serious? You could’ve died.”
“I asked you to stay behind.”
“While you put yourself in danger? I thought we were supposed to work together—”
“Quiet,” he lowered his voice when he heard something.
Celeste’s eyes fixated on the open window, shivering from the cold draft. Clicking drew close. It was hard to tell how many there were with the overlap, but fear had paralyzed them from moving as someone hopped into the room. Its footsteps crackled the glass beneath its feet as it sought its prey. Alex was still upstairs, somehow remaining asleep throughout the ordeal. Another one entered, covering another part of the room, leaving the pair with little room to pass. Celeste held her hand over her mouth, breathing shallowly.
Gabriel reached for her hand, bringing a sense of comfort. They glimpsed another, hoping the other knew what to do, as two more clickers arrived. It wouldn’t be long before two more emerged, pressing them back toward the kitchen. Celeste pointed to the door, prompting them to leave as silently as they could.
The rain came down gently, providing a bit of respite for the two. Gabriel looked to the fire escape, seeing its bottom ladder still up. She offered to be boosted to reach the bottom rail. When she pulled it down, it slammed all the way to the concrete. The vibrating metal drew the many clickers just behind the kitchen door. He allowed her to climb first, following close behind as the first clicker broke through the door. The rest followed, flooding into the small backyard.
Gabriel tripped forward, sending the ladder knocking against the building’s brick siding. Her body softened his impact as she let out a wheeze. They remained motionless while the clickers patrolled below. Their stillness made them lose track of them. He looked her in the eyes. There was comfort in the chaos. She observed the clickers’ erratic movement. Her back pressed against the cold, discolored metal, soon felt his weight lift.
He crept toward the window and forced it open. They held their breath after the windowpane creaked. Gabriel watched for the clickers’ reactions. He thanked the rain that moment before carefully entering. Shivering from the chilly rain, Celeste waited for him. He came into view not long after, gesturing her to enter. She kept close as they entered the silent hall.
Gabriel snickered after discovering the drunkard wasn’t in his room. Celeste felt something was off when his belongings weren’t there. She went ahead without him to check their room, finding their backpacks emptied. She glimpsed him at the entrance, holding the empty bag toward him.
“Fucking asshole,” he muttered.
“He must’ve left when we drew out the infected,” she said.
“We just have a gun and a flashlight. And your shirt?”
“Still soaking wet.”
He took off his shirt, handing it to her without a second thought. She quickly slipped it on, finding it a far looser fit than she was used to. While he looked away, she saw the outline of his black tank top, seeing how it hugged his waist.
“What?” he asked when he caught her gaze.
“Eh, nothing,” she replied. “I see doing all this put you in shape.”
“Yeah? Well, don’t get too distracted. We still have a ways to go.”
“I should be telling you that.”
He turned away and smiled in the darkness. With nothing but the items in their hands, they exited the room. As they made their way to the fire escape, the tired man tripped over his feet. The sudden fall broke the withered floorboard, crashing some of it to the floor below.
“Shit,” he uttered as Celeste helped him up.
“You’re bleeding,” she noted the splinters and cuts along his forearms.
“That’s the least of my worries right now.”
He grabbed her by her hand upon hearing the infected scramble from below. Although his knees had a dull pain, his adrenaline kept him going. Celeste exited first and helped him through. He let out his grunted pain when he staggered toward her. Gabriel eyed the higher-up balcony in a building next to them. She shut the window to buy them time. The infected below huddled for the ladder.
“The only way is up,” he said.
“And then what?” she asked.
Instead of answering her question, he proceeded up the stairs, stammering after a few seconds. She helped him up without argument when the glass suddenly burst along the metal. Bodies began piling on, rattling the weak structure as they approached fast. The frantic nature of their movements loosened the bolts that held it to the building. As they reached the top, it leaned to the side, throwing them off balance. She pulled him forward, hearing the snarls of the carefully moving infected. Gabriel planned their escape while the twisted metal signaled their inevitable ascent. He pressed down on his foot, wincing as she observed him.
“What are you planning?” she asked.
“Get ready to run,” he suggested.
“Run? We’re already doing that!”
“No, straight ahead.”
“Straight ah—You must’ve hit your head too.”
When the infected began tumbling over the other to reach the solid ceiling, Gabriel grabbed her hand and ran. She glimpsed the clickers bolting after them while the fire escape began to collapse. Her heart pounded as the twisted metal thumped into the small yard, breaking down the fences and pinning the infected that tried to climb it. As they neared the edge, Gabriel ignored his unbearable pain. He could hardly see the platform below, but he had to take his chance.
“W—what the hell—” Celeste panicked.
Gabriel pulled her toward his chest on his final stride before he leaped. They spiraled onto the second-floor patio. A gasp escaped her lips as he closed his eyes. The infected plunged to their deaths when they slipped off the roof. Celeste felt weightless in their spin. The wind blew against her hair.
It all ended with a loud thud.
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