Short Shots Contest - May 2011
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It was a beautiful day in the city. Stella rode her bike through the empty city streets, enjoying the fresh air and sunlight. It was almost enough to make her forget about the ongoing zombie apocalypse. Almost.
The streets were deserted as she rode, and she passed empty apartment buildings and storefronts on each side. One of the downsides to a species-endangering cataclysm was that there weren't enough people to keep businesses running; the upside, of course, was that everything was free and she didn't have to worry about traffic or waiting in line to make a purchase.
Stella was on her way to the one small market nearby that she knew still had a supply of canned goods. The fresh meats and produce had long since spoiled or been looted by other survivors, but she was content to live off cans of green beans or stewed tomatoes; if she were lucky, she'd find some peaches or pineapple for a sweet treat.
Watching Stella ride her bike, one would be hard-pressed to tell that the human race was on the brink of collapse. Her bike was in pristine condition, and her clothes were immaculate. She wore her favorite white skirt, spotless and neatly pressed. She complemented the skirt with a purple blouse that she stumbled across in a burned-out department store and just happened to be her size. She balanced a small satchel on the front of her bike, which she used to transport food or other goods she happened across and might be able to use.
No one had really expected Stella to survive the infection, let alone the aftermath. At five-foot-four on the dot and with a slender, almost skinny frame, most people didn't give her very good odds of survival. The epidemic had claimed the rest of her family, all of whom were easily in better health and better shape than she. But one by one, they had each fallen, either to the disease itself or someone who had contracted the disease. Stella had survived both, and proven time and again that she was not only strong enough to survive, but even someone to be feared. That's why she made the runs to the supermarket; because she knew how to survive.
At the market, she rummaged through the mess of upended shelves and empty containers, careful not to cut herself on the remains of shattered glass jars and refrigerated display cases. The pickings were getting slimmer every time; they could maybe get a couple more weeks out of the supplies in here, but then they would have to move on and find greener pastures to graze.
She helped herself to a couple cans of creamed corn that were hiding under a display case, and then to a box of saltine crackers which she was sure were probably stale by now, but were probably edible nonetheless.
That's when she heard the sniffling. It was faint, coming from a couple aisles over near the back of the store. Normally one to avoid any potential conflict (there's a reason she survived where others have failed), she felt compelled to investigate. It wasn't the scratching, scraping, drooling, moaning sound of one of the infected; it sounded vaguely human.
There, in the back of the store, Stella saw a little dirty face hiding amongst the rotten cardboard displays and rusted bakery racks. It was a little boy, shivering and sniveling. He couldn't be much older than seven or eight and he looked terrified. Stella knew what it felt like to be alone; she understood the crippling chill that sat in your gut when you had nowhere to go and no one to look after you.
But then she thought about the small group of survivors for whom she was scavenging. If she took the boy under her wing, that would mean another mouth to feed. It would also mean another body to look after, to worry about when it came time to migrate to their next temporary dwelling. He wasn't just a little boy; he was a liability.
"What's your name?" Stella asked. She knew she should just turn around and leave him be, but she couldn't.
The boy didn't respond. She couldn't tell if he had even understood her. He just kept staring at her with those big, terrified eyes.
"My name's Stella."
Still, the boy said nothing. She reached into her satchel and took out the old granola bar that she had been saving for her lunch. She broke off a piece and held it out in her hand so that he could see it.
"Are you hungry?"
It seemed like a stupid question to ask someone who was hiding in a supermarket, but without a can opener like they had back at home, it was unlikely he'd be able to get to any of the food in the cans anyway.
The boy looked at the morsel she held out to him, suspiciously at first and then with increasing interest as his stomach grumbled. Eventually he crept out of his hiding spot, ever so slowly, inching toward her outstretched hand. When he was within reach, he sniffed it curiously then his hands shot out and snatched it out of her hands, devouring the half granola bar in a matter of seconds.
At that point, he decided she was all right and pounced on her, hugging her leg tightly with all four of his limbs. Stella chuckled as she stood up and tried to move around. For the first couple minutes it was kind of charming, but its appeal soon wore off when she realized that now she wasn't getting rid of the kid anytime soon. He kept looking up and her, refusing to loosen his grasp on her leg.
She felt his fingernails dig into her calf when they first heard that familiar scratching and scraping noise. Stella had to bite her lip to keep from crying out, sure the little boy had drawn blood the way his talons latched into her. Stella tried to make her way toward the door, but was hindered by the extra weight affixed to her left leg.
The zombie came around the corner just as they reached the supermarket door. It lunged after them and the boy, freed from his catatonic stupor by the attack, practically sprinted out the door. Stella followed suit, grabbing a moldy mop from beside the door on the way out. She slammed the supermarket door shut and threaded the mop handle through the door handles just as the infected creature crashed against the wood frame. The door lurched and shuddered under the force of the assault and Stella turned to the boy.
"We have to go. Now." She said. That mop handle wasn't going to hold forever. Heck, it probably wasn't going to hold for much more than a few seconds.
She jumped on her bike and beckoned for the little boy to follow her. She was still worried about having another mouth to feed, but she would be damned if she was going to let the kid get turned into one of them once they got their teeth into him. Even worse, though, was that she had dropped the satchel in the store. And not only was she headed home without any food to bring her little band of survivors, but she was bringing home another one who would be taking another share of their dwindling rations.
When they were a safe distance away from the supermarket and its ungodly occupant, Stella finally breathed a sigh of relief.
"Looks like we live to fight another day, huh? Too bad we lost all that food at the store. Some people are going to be pretty pissed at me when we get back. But hey, you can't bring home cans of food every time, right?"
She knew she was just talking to herself at this point. The kid hadn't said a word since they had met, and she wasn't even entirely sure that he understood her. As they rode to the outskirts of the city and toward home, the boy suddenly sat up on the handlebars, pointing excitedly at a house on one side of the road.
"What is it?"
Stella skidded the bike to a stop and watched as the kid leapt off the handlebars and ran toward the house. Stella followed, curious, as the boy – instead of running into the house – ran around back. In the backyard, there was a small concrete structure with a metal door, about the size of a tool shed. The lock on the door was a keypad of some sort, with a distinctive logo above it.
"What is this?" Stella asked.
The boy typed a series of numbers into the keypad and the door clicked as the locking mechanism disengaged and the boy pried open the door. Inside, it was stacked wall to wall with canned goods and other nonperishable food items. He beamed at her.
"Oh my God," Stella said, marveling at all the food. "How did you know about this? How did you open it?"
The boy shrugged out of his jacket and showed it to her. Peering at the inside lining, she saw a piece of cloth stitched inside the jacket with the same logo and series of numbers that had been used on the door.
"My father," the boy croaked, finally finding a voice that clearly hadn't been used in a very long time. "He built these."
"There's more than one?"
"They're all over the suburbs," the boy replied, smiling. "My dad's company installed a bunch of them in the weeks leading up to the outbreak."
"And you know where to find them? And can open them?"
The boy grinned even wider and Stella had to resist the urge to grab him in her arms and hug him right there. He had just provided them with a secure and bountiful supply of food that would last them a very, very long time. It might even mean not having to move from place to place once the meager food supply from supermarket leftovers was exhausted.
And here she thought she was bringing home a burden when, as it turned out, she was bringing home their savior.
It just goes to show you, Stella thought. A good deed can go a long way.