Xander wasn’t afraid of dying. Those days had passed. Learning quickly from his mistakes had left him stronger. It had helped him realize there was no blueprint on how to live now, survival was all that mattered. Unlike most of the people he’d encountered he still had a conscience, he wasn’t cruel like them, but the world was harsh and unforgiving and he pretty much decided there was no God to judge him. The only person who could judge him now was himself.
The weak had disappeared quickly, and by weak he mean the rich, the successful, the people who depended on wealth and living at the top of society to survive. The ones who thought having to start a fire only happened in disaster movies, and camping was akin to living like an animal. The people who were unable to cope, unable to adapt, unable to survive.
His parents had been in the first wave of victims of the end of the world. Looking back he knew they were crazy not to have acted sooner, or at all. They had been weak, they refused to leave, refused to believe the worst. They gave up their chance of an escape, believing the world would right itself and their place in the old world would be restored. Xander had known better, even then. That had been the start of a new world, the old one vanished. They would never have survived in this new world.
One night, huddled up in the attic of their house cold and hungry, still hanging on to the ridiculous hope, their house had been raided. Xander remembered the fear, he and his brother hiding while his parents made a stand. Their last.
Xander would never forget that night, as tragic as it had been he’d also witnessed the remains of humanity. One of the raiders, someone he didn’t recognise, a stranger, had begged the others to spare Xander and his brother’s lives.
Maybe it was cruel, leaving two orphaned kids to fend for themselves but Xander couldn’t look back, that act of selflessness meant he was still alive today. The whole thing had been over in minutes and once the raiders left he’d done what his parents didn’t, he’d packed up everything he could and ran, taking his brother with him.
The world was different now. You had to fight to live. Stealing, killing, fighting, running were how to survive. It wasn’t much of a life but it was worth fighting for.
Xander remembered reading books about it when he was child. Post-apocalyptic worlds where after a massive war or disaster and a new world came to be, with rich and poor, sections, districts, factions and divides in humanity. Worlds where the future became better than the past after the lead character risked everything to make the world right again.
This was real life, a living hell, no food, no money, no family, just you against the world. The truth was every last God forsaken person on this planet was equal, a complete and utter level playing field, with every one of them fighting for the same damn things. No big fantasy waiting to be fulfilled.
Xander made his way down a cold and deserted street. The eerie quiet had stopped creeping him out years ago. Every house he passed was the same, empty. Of life and contents. The few people left in the town had cleared out every house of all valuables years ago. Not trivial things like jewellery or TVs but food, clothes, blankets, weapons, anything that could actually come in useful.
Xander had given up looking for anything in this town, it had taken a week but he realized there was nothing here but the same old skeletons in the closet. Take that how you will.
He made his way back, after another unsuccessful night, to the safe house where the kids were waiting for him, his brother and another boy around the same age. Xander had found him in the early days after breaking into a house hopeful he’d find something, instead he found the kid, who had managed to survive by stealing from around the neighbourhood and shooting anyone who came near him. Including Xander. Right in the arm, he’d needed six stitches and the bullet removing.
They had managed to find a doctor. They were rare these days to say the least. But people with skills like that made a killing in his world, they had the ultimate protection, no-one was stupid enough to kill someone who might save their life one day. It had cost Xander a fortune in trade, but she had saved his life after she’d managed to stich him up.
But after all that it turned out that the kid was resourceful and good with gun, and definitely wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger. Not to mention company was priceless these days. It had been the three of them all alone for as long as any of them could remember.
As for the safe house, Xander guessed some people had known what was coming and had prepared. The technology was incredible compared to how the rest of the world lived now, it was like something out of a movie, not that there were any of those anymore. But don’t kid yourself, the technology wasn’t because all this is crap was happening in some far off future, more like the opposite. After governments crumbled there was no-one left to keep secrets anymore, all the hidden and experimental technology, drugs, weapons, everything, became everyone’s. The people who were smart enough to make safe houses were clearly smart enough to get their hands on that stuff too. And smart enough to hide them, most people couldn’t find the safe houses, but Xander knew what to look for.
Xander was only a few streets away when he heard something close. After the dead silence, this was ear shattering. He knew exactly what the sound was, it was the same sound that ended his parent’s life. The gun went off again and by the sound of it, breaking glass.
He quickly loaded up his crossbow and stalked ahead faster, and as he rounded the next corner Xander saw the shooter. Three men were crowding around a teenage girl who was backed up against a wall. Xander’s stomach turned to ice until her saw she had a bag. Petty thieves he could handle, anything more and a crossbow to kill them would have been too merciful.
The girl, he noticed was doing a pretty good job on her own, but her knife against a gun could only do so much. Xander charged forward and fired. The man with the gun fell, dead. His gun fired as it hit the floor and shot another of the men in the leg. Xander finished him off and the girl screamed, blood splattering her.
The last one tried to run but Xander managed to shoot him in the back and he fell flat on his face, exactly where his body would stay until animals or cannibals picked his bones clean.
“You killed them.” The girl’s face was ashen as he approached her.
“You’re welcome.” Xander lowered his crossbow.
“No, I mean thanks … but, I had it under control.” She regained her composure quickly and snatched up her bag, struggling to hoist it onto her back.
“Sure you did.” He wondered what she had in the bag, it was clearly heavy, and if it was food or supplies he wondered where she’d managed to find it.
“They were just a couple of jerks,” she mumbled. Xander couldn’t read her expression.
“Jerks who would have killed you.” He noticed broken glass at her feet and looked up to see a smashed light bulb, not that it would have worked. A shard had caught her and left a small cut by her eye.
“They wouldn’t have killed me.” She swallowed hard looking sick. The girl clutched her stomach and turned to vomit. Xander opened his mouth to say something but she vomited again and dropped to her knees in the broken glass.
At a loss of what to do he knelt next to her and patted her back.
“Don’t touch me!” She swatted his hand away and shot up, storming off. She only got a few metres before she stopped and spat a foul taste from her mouth and pulled her hair back into a loose bun. As her hand brushed her face she felt the blood and her knees went weak, adrenaline leaving her and she suddenly felt the pain, both her eye and her knees. She leant against the wall for support feeling blood seep down her legs.
“Need some help?” Xander called from behind.
“No!” she snapped, cursing herself for being so stupid and getting herself into this mess. “I don’t need help. I can look after myself.” She limped a few feet before losing her balance and crying out in pain.
“You need help-” He reached a hand out to steady her.
“Stop!” She backed away from him, looking almost scared.
“What’s the matter?” he asked startled, holding his hands up in surrender.
“You killed them.” She croaked and covered her face with her hands.
“I’m not going to hurt you. Don’t you think I would have by now if I was going to?”
“It’s not that …”
“Then what? You can’t have never seen a dead body before.” When the world first ended corpses littered the streets, until something found them and then just bones were scattered everywhere.
“I’ve never seen anyone die,” she admitted.
“Sorry for saving your life.” Xander crossed his arms irritably.
“I’m not judging you. I’m just freaked.”
“Well, you might be freaked but I’m Xander.” He decided it was pointless to be angry with her.
“Uh, no corny introductions, we’re both still alive isn’t that enough.” She stood up straighter wiping the blood from her face with her sleeve. “We must be doing something right.”
“I guess so. Sounds like we’ve both had to do things we’re not proud of.”
“Hasn’t everyone since the world turned to shit?”
“Guess we’ve both got our demons. So, what is your name?”
“Hazel,” she answered reluctantly.
“You’re hurt, we found a safe house I can help you there, if you’ll come with me.”
“Wait, whoa, we found a safe house?” she looked at him, befuddled.
“Me and two kids, and yeah that’s how we’ve managed to stay alive.” Xander was suddenly pleased he’d impressed her.
“I’ve got a kid with me too, she’s waiting for me. As awesome as a safe house would be, I can manage.” She knew she’d kick herself for turning down help but in this world she didn’t know if she could trust him.
“Listen, I mean it, you’re safe with me. If I couldn’t help you I’d be long gone by now.”
“Charming,” she furrowed her brow, agitated. “You certainly know how to talk to girls.” Oddly it was reassuring, that meant he was genuine and not another user.
“Actually no, not in the slightest.” Honest too, she thought. “Fine, then not for help, for company. You’re the first person I’ve met in a long time who I can relate to, most people are out to kill not defend.”
“To defend you.” She couldn’t argue with that, he’d saved her life, maybe she could give him the benefit of the doubt and if he turned out to be full of bullshit, she always had the knife.
“Fine then Xander, you win.” She threw her hands up at a loss. “But we have to pick up Lissa first.”
“Sure.” He started forward but suddenly realized she wasn’t following him.
“Keep up genius!” she called back to him over her shoulder. “My place is this way.”
He jogged to catch up. “So what’s your deal?”
“You know, your story?”
“Oh.” She suddenly looked uncomfortable, even embarrassed. “My story is pretty boring I guess.” She shrugged but her face turned to stone and her jaw tensing like she was fighting to keep a straight face, despite that Xander noticed she was fairly pretty. “My parents left one day to try and find food and never came back. I got scared and went to find them, all I found were their bodies.” She kicked a stone aimlessly. “I did the only thing I could, I ran. Not long after that I found Lissa, I saved her from a group of guys.”
“Like the ones tonight?”
“Worse. Way worse.” Her voice was quiet as she spoke. “But I had my knife and fought them off. I couldn’t kill them, but we managed to get away. And we’ve been on the run ever since.”
“I guess my stories pretty similar-” He was cut off when Hazel screamed as they rounded a corner. She bolted and Xander floundered for his crossbow in shock.
Hazel was sprinting towards a burning building. “That’s what you get for killing them you little whore!” Two guys were standing watching the blaze, friends of the arseholes he’d killed Xander guessed. And this was their revenge.
“No! Lissa!” Hazel cried and tried to fight her way into the house.
One of the guys grabbed her and threw her to the ground. They hadn’t noticed Xander and he fired a shot that hit him straight in the chest. He fell forward and Hazel rolled out of the way before he landed on her. She flew to her feet and screamed plunging her knife into the stomach of the other man. “That’s for Lissa!”