No one expects the apocalypse to be quiet.
At least, I never did. But it’s the thing that continues to surprise me the most, the silence of it all. When you grow up in the city, you expect to hear sounds. The hum of electricity. The muffled chug of a distant train. Cars. Dogs barking. Someone playing their radio far too loud. You hear people and their things. People living, laughing, existing.
That’s all gone in an apocalypse.
Now, the power’s long gone and there’s no endless hum. The cars are dead. The dogs have wandered away, and all the people who used to live in the city? Most of them are dead, too. Even though the silence is unnerving, you eventually get used to it.
Until it’s not so silent anymore. And then that’s when you get worried.
I’m used to the silence, myself. It’s become a good thing. Silence means there’s no dragon taking flight overhead, roaring and flaming. It means there are no people nearby. It means I’m left alone, with nothing but peace and quiet for company.
Tonight, it’s not so quiet though. I hear the distant, cranking sound of a motorcycle long before it arrives, and the sound’s almost offensive in the peaceful night. I clutch my baseball bat —my best friend now that my gun is gone—and move silently to the window of my gas station. There’s no gas—and I’ve posted signs to that effect, but I figured someone would come check anyhow. I know I would, if it was me.
Sure enough, a motorcycle roars up, and then another. My heart drops when I see it’s a full fleet of motorcycles, because that can only mean one thing. Nomads. Nomads don’t live in one of the forts. They’re lawless, outlaws who can’t obey the simple rules of After society. They’re usually dicks, take what they want, and that includes women. This means I’m in danger if they find I’m here. Fuck. Not what I wanted. I think of the store down the road, where Sasha’s sitting cozy with her dragon. I wish I was there with them. Sasha’s offered, but I never felt comfortable. I regret it now.
I watch through the grimy, dark window as one of the men leaps off his bike and moves to the gas pump. He pulls the nozzle free and sniffs it, then squeezes the trigger. Nothing comes out, of course. It’s dry, just like my fucking sign says. Dumbass. But he jiggles the handle again, then inspects the pump and calls something out to his buddies, waiting to refuel their bikes. I peer at them, trying to count. There are at least seven bikes, with tandem riders—fourteen people. I see a van, too. Fuck. I clutch my bat tighter, my pulse racing with alarm. They haven’t looked in here, but if they do, they’ll see me. There’s not much left in this old gas station—no food, just a bunch of empty, trashed shelves that I’ve pushed to the side to make room for my bedding. I can hide, of course, but the moment they see my bedroll, they’ll know someone’s here.
I watch, alert, as one of the bikers moves to the side of the gas station, probably to test the emergency shut-off. It’s not going to help things though. I did the same when I got here. This place is dry as a bone.
I brace myself when someone comes toward the door. I’ve got it chained shut on the inside—I’m not a dumbass—and I clench my teeth, waiting as they try the handle. A moment later, someone else approaches, and they throw a rock through the glass door, shattering it.
I rise up in my corner, clutching my bat. Ready to attack. The man reaches through, tugs on the chains to undo them, and then tosses them to the floor. Another guy pushes the door open and strolls in, wearing a baseball cap. His stance is so familiar I can hardly believe what I’m looking at—
Until he turns and sees me at the same moment I see him.
“Boyd?” I say, shocked.
His eyes widen, and I realize it’s him all right—I’d recognize that heavy brow anywhere, not to mention the unshaven, straggly beard and the wide face. When he grins, I see the one broken tooth that always gapes out, a reminder that there’s no dental care in the After. It’s my brother, all right.
I don’t know if I’m relieved or terrified.
“The fuck? Emma? What are you doing here?” My brother’s look is openly skeptical.
“Squatting, dumbass. What’s it look like I’m doing?”
He breaks out into a grin. “Fuckin’ hell, I thought you were heading to Fort Orleans.”
“Changed my mind.” I don’t point out that I lied to him. Boyd’s got a sensitive ego. “Was going to check out Fort Dallas, but word is that they’re not the friendliest, so I thought I’d hang on my own for a while.”
“Well, you ain’t alone no more,” my brother says, grinning. “You’re with my crew now.” He gestures at the fleet of bikes behind him. “Me and the boys will take care of you.”
That’s kind of what I’m afraid of, especially since my brother’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. But he’s the devil I know, so I beam at him as if this is a relief. “Great.”
Bregaste cajita de pollo, as my dad used to say. Boyd fucked me over once and I won’t forget.
* * *
I’ve never been extremely close to my brother, Boyd. He’s a lot like my dad in all the bad ways, and my dad beat my mom on a regular basis when we were kids. Both Mom and Dad died in the Rift, when the dragons first descended, and that left me and Boyd to fend for ourselves. Boyd was fourteen and I was twelve, so we hitched along with other survivors and tried to make a living in Fort Tulsa. Unfortunately, that place was a real shithole run by the worst kinds of scum. When I was sixteen, my brother got us booted because he sold me in a card game to an old toothless fucker, and I responded by beating the shit out of the guy with my bat. That didn’t go over well with the locals, and we ended up having to run out of the city.
After that, we wandered on our own for a while and then eventually found Jack. I don’t think that was his real name, but he referred to himself as “Jack of All Trades” and so we just called him Jack after a while. He was a tiny guy with pale skin, glasses, a wiry build, and a bald head. He was a prepper, and that was why he was surviving so well in the apocalypse. He felt bad for me and Boyd and took us in. That went great for a few months, until Boyd got bored, robbed Jack blind, and left in the night with most of our stuff, including Jack’s valuable guns. I hadn’t seen my brother since, and that was years ago.
Jack’s been gone these last eighteen months or so and I’m alone, and somehow I’ve managed to get stuck with my shitty, no good brother once more. Damn.
After they’ve confirmed that I’m telling them the truth and the gas station is indeed dry, the fleet of bikes heads off, and I have no choice but to go with them. Boyd makes the guy sitting behind him give me his spot, and so I ride behind my brother while he shouts into the wind, telling me what he’s been up to.
Apparently he got kicked out of another fort in between now and the time he left me and Jack. He doesn’t tell me the name of the fort, of course. My brother likes to keep his secrets, and I imagine whatever he did to get kicked out was pretty freaking bad. I don’t ask for more details. After he got booted, he hooked up with his current crew of nomads. Azar’s gang, he calls them.
“Who’s Azar?” I ask. Weird freaking name. “He foreign?”
My brother just laughs. “He’s some weird fuckin’ albino, but he’s a tough son of a bitch. You don’t mess with him. I’ll introduce you later.”
Great. I can hardly wait.
One of the bikes starts to sputter, low on fuel, so the bikes all pull into the parking lot of an old chain hotel. I get a funny feeling in my gut because the place looks relatively clean and neat, and there’s a cardboard sign on the door that reads “Keep Out – No Trespassers.” I smother my objections when a few of the thugs go into the hotel, guns in hand. What can I do? Get shot in the head, too?
Luckily, the people inside—three old men, an old woman and a couple of kids—give up their home without a fight. They’re chased, sobbing, into the night, and I have to harden my heart against them. They’ll find protection somewhere else. Hopefully. It’s at least a day or so from the next dragon attack.
I focus on watching the others in the nomad band. I don’t see many women with this group. In fact, I only see two, and both are twice my age and could be someone’s mom if it weren’t for the slutty tops they’re wearing and the way they’re hanging on the men. That’s all right. A girl’s gotta get her safety in the After any way she can. No judging. But this could be dangerous for me, considering that I’m the only young female in the group. Maybe the fact that I’m Boyd’s sister will keep me safe.
I keep a hand on my knife belt and think longingly of my baseball bat that I had to leave behind. These thugs look like any other nomad bunch in the After. Dirty, ruthless and brutal. I’ve no doubt they’ve murdered and pillaged their way here, because I’ve dealt with their kind a dozen times before.
The thing I can’t figure out is this Azar guy.
The leader of most nomads is usually the most savage one of the bunch, the most bloodthirsty. He’ll be the first one to use his gun and the last one to put it away. So I’m a little confused when Azar stays inside the van while the others go raiding the hotel. It’s not until the place is cleared that one of the nomads heads back to the van and knocks on the back window that he emerges.
And then I try not to stare. Boyd said Azar was an albino. Maybe he is, but there’s something about the way he moves that’s a little too creepily familiar. I’ve seen those strange, fluid movements before, I just don’t know where. He’s covered in fabric from head to toe, like a post-apocalyptic Berber of some kind, and he’s wearing sunglasses. For all his weirdness, though, the others are deferential to him, opening the door so he can go inside, and then rushing after him, as if this guy’s approval is all they want in their lives.
So stinking strange.
Boyd bounds up to me and gestures at the hotel. “Come on, we’re staying here for a while. Looks like pretty sweet digs. Nicely stocked food pantry and everything.”
“Super.” I try to sound more enthusiastic than I am. “So…what’s with this Azar guy?”
Boyd just grins. “You’ll see soon enough. Quit asking, chota.”
Sure. I’ll quit asking as soon as I get some answers.
I get a room of my own inside. I suppose that’s a plus. It’s next to Boyd’s, but it’s got a lock and deadbolt, and inside there’s a chair that I can shove under the doorknob to make sure no one can get in. Already I don’t like the way some of the guys are eyeing me, but I’m on to their kind. No one’s going to take me by surprise in a dark corner. I’m not that kind of fool. The After beat that out of me long ago.