Juno

A young girl tries to survive the apocalypse alone.

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1. Juno

The world in which she lived was no place for a child. However, the sad fact was she did live there, and she was a child, and she had nowhere else to go. Her father had always taught her that it’s sensible to always make the best of a bad situation, even when all options seemed to be exhausted. And so, she decided that was what she’d do. She’d been doing it – and doing it well – for three years now, and she’d concluded that it was better that way.

The silvery-grey fog that hung low over the wiry streets had congealed into almost a solid matter. If she took off her face mask, she could taste it, thick and tar-like on her tongue. She was sensible enough not to do so. It was bad enough that the smog glazed her goggles, like tinted windows on a blacked-out car. But she knew the streets well, and she navigated them with ease. Besides, there wasn’t much to see. All that surrounded her were the metal skeletons of cars that hadn’t been driven in years, and high-rise buildings that crumbled like old plaster being rubbed through your fingers. Maybe it had been a beautiful place once, but that was a past she’d never known.

Her boots made noises like radio static as she headed for the bar. She needed new ones, but they’d have to wait. She had other priorities. Things that were more important to her. And she was going to get them. Today.

The entrance to the bar said no children, but she’d earned her right to play there. They knew her face by now. She’d stayed too long. By the next morning, she’d be gone. She’d have to find some other place to play.

Inside was dark – though less so after she cleaned her goggles. There was a low murmur in the room, the sort created by weary men grumbling of their misfortunes over watered down beer. Glasses clinked, a delicate noise in the midst of broken masculine egos and despair.

A round table housed a group of men who sagged over the sides of their seats. Men with scraps of metal punched through their ears, noses, eyebrows, beards, cheeks. They looked up as she approached. She recognised one – Eros. He had his eye on her crossbow, as he always did.

‘You playing a round?’

She nodded, drawing up a chair. He kept a suspicious eye on her. He’d played her enough times to know that she almost always won, but she never cheated. Still, he was sure he’d catch her out some day. He dealt the cards, his eye on her as she peeked at the cards before

Everyone at the table had two playing cards in their hands, and five were laid out on the table. In the centre of the table was a pile of objects, used instead of chips. The stakes were high in the game, with precious items up for grabs; a lighter, a pencil, a wad of paper, a cereal bar, a knife, a sheet of plastic. Eros’ eyes gleamed as he watched her.

‘That’s a fine crossbow you’ve got there, missy.’

She nodded. Eros waited for her to say something, but received no more response. He frowned.

‘Take up your cards, girl.’

She did as she was told, though she preferred to keep her cards face down on the table after she’d looked. She didn’t like to anger anyone if she could help it. The men and women there were always looking for an excuse for violence.

The first three cards of five that lay in the middle of the table were overturned. She didn’t blink, or even look at her cards as the men muttered to themselves. One man threw down his cards, arms folded and lip pouted. He’d lost a good knife to those cards. But she had more in mind than the bounty the men had bet in the game. What she really wanted was by Eros’ feet. It wasn’t worth much to anyone, but in one of the rare incidents where she’d lost, she’d given up her most prized possession.

Small Bear.

Eros had no use for Small Bear, of course. He was a tattered old piece of cloth with one button eye sagging, droopy on its tattered threads. Eros had laughed when she put it on the table, her only item to bet. When he won, he’d taken it for no reason other than he could. Now, during games, it sat by his feet, unloved and staring at her with its remaining eye. If this was her last day here, she wasn’t leaving him behind.

Eros turned over another card on the table. Half the players groaned, folding their cards. But Eros stood firm. He caught her eye.

‘What do you say we…raise the stakes?’

It was the response she’d hoped for. She nodded. Eros dug in his pockets and brought out a gun. Mutters circulated the small crowd of people watching. Eros placed it on the bounty pile, and then looked at her expectantly. Silently, she placed her crossbow on the table. Eros’ eye gleamed.

‘Shall we play the final card?’

She shook her head. She wasn’t done. She reached under the table and grabbed Small Bear. She put him on the pile and stared defiantly at Eros, daring him to challenge her. He chuckled.

‘Should’ve known. Let’s do this. Winner takes all.’

She stared at her cards, fingers drumming against her leg. She nodded to Eros, allowing him to reveal the final card. Those crowded behind him gasped at his hand. Eros’ smile said it all. He laid his cards out on the table.

‘Straight.’

The simultaneous intake of breath around the table didn’t surprise her. They thought she’d lost everything. But she knew better. She laid her cards out on the table. Silence ensued.

Straight flush she thought.

She swept her winnings off the table into her bag. She resisted the urge to bury her face in Small Bear’s musky fur, arranging him comfortably in her backpack. Her crossbow returned to her back. Eros’ mouth hung open, his eyes wide. She began to walk away without looking back.

‘Hey! Get back here! I want a rematch! I’m not done with you!’

But I’m done with you she thought. She had what she needed. It was time to move on. She doubted he’d come after her. Chasing a young girl for what she won fair and square wouldn’t reflect well on him, even if he had just lost his most important possession.

As she left the joint, she pulled her cloth scarf over her face, and covered her eyes with her goggles. The game had tired her, but she had to keep moving. That was the way of her life – always keep moving, or never get going again. She didn’t know where she’d be going next. It didn’t matter. Most every place was exactly the same.

 

Her hand fumbled for the walls. She’d been outside too long, and the sickly fog was beginning to blister her skin, even through her clothing. She’d be covered in sores for weeks. But she couldn’t stop until she found proper shelter, and so far, the city hadn’t been forgiving.

The fog was particularly bad here. She knew she should have gone south instead. But she’d already been south. South had given her everything it had to offer. Besides. She couldn’t go back. She had to go forwards. That’s what her mother had taught her. If you don’t go forwards, make progress, then what’s the point?

Through the fog she crept. She could hear her own breathing behind her face scarf. It was so quiet, it seemed the world could be dead. But she knew better. Dying, yes. But not gone yet.

She heard the yells long before she saw who they belonged to, but she had her crossbow at the ready in seconds. Yelling meant fights, and fights meant injuries. Injuries meant death, and that meant she could pillage the bodies. She had the upper hand. They’d never see her coming.

The three figures came into view when she was barely a metre away. Her first arrow lodged into a woman’s back and she crumpled. Before the other woman could retaliate, an arrow had buried into her neck.

A boy whimpered in the smog. She reloaded, ready to shoot. He didn’t have any weapons that she could see. His eyes were blue and wide behind his grubby goggles, and his carroty hair a relief from the grey. She took a liking the young boy right away, but she didn’t have space in her life for pleasantry. She advanced on him, her arrow trained on his heart. She’d make it quick.

‘Woah, wait...please don't shoot. I...you just saved me, please don't hurt me. Are you alone? We can stay together! I have supplies, I have a shelter...’

Her eyes squinted at him. He couldn’t be much older than her, though he acted younger. He didn’t seem the type to cause trouble – she didn’t think him capable. She felt her skin crackle. The fog had burned through the sleeves on her jacket, leaving her skin raw and flaky. One word stood out from his garbled speech.

Shelter.

The boy seemed to think his speech had failed. He closed his eyes in acceptance, waiting for her arrow to bury into him. She waited, not sure of her own mind. She poked the boy with her arrow and he gulped. She saw his Adam’s apple shift. She lowered the weapon, but kept her hand on it. The boy’s eyes opened and he was met with her cold stare. She began to collect the supplies from the dead women. One gargled at her, still clinging on to life. She silenced her with a swish of her knife. The boy was staring at her as she straightened up. She tilted her head. What are you waiting for, boy?

The kid sighed. “Wow…you had me worried there. I’m Milo. Are you…do you need a place to stay?”

She nodded. Milo shifted his backpack on his shoulder, his breathing still shaky from the ordeal of the last five minutes.

“Let’s go.”

She began to follow him closely through the fog. She kept a hand on her crossbow with the arrow trained on his back.

 

They descended into darkness. It was the apocalyptic fashion to live underground, where the fog seemed to be less present and it was a little easier to breathe. Visibility was better there too, even in the darkest, dankest of places. Still, she tread carefully, the wooden steps creaking beneath her.

As her eyes adjusted and she wiped her goggles, she saw that the basement was bare aside from a stained mattress in the corner. Milo threw down his backpack on it, spilling out the contents. She, on the other hand, stood warily at the base of the stairs, still clutching her crossbow. Milo’s face was shadowed as he looked back at her and laughed. The sound made her want to back away. Laughter had no place in their world.

‘You’re a nervous little mite, aren’t you?” he said. His words were punctuated by the constant dripping that came from the rotten ceiling, but she didn’t reply. He chuckled throatily, turning his back on her. ‘Don’t say much neither.’

Milo began to root through the contents of his bag; a tin mug, some twigs, a tin of beans, several batteries, a banged-up flashlight and a lighter. He arranged the twigs in a pile and flicked the lighter at it, cursing when it refused to light.

‘Been collecting these twigs for weeks. They’re few and far between, am I right? Now they won’t light, goddamn it. Must still be damp.’ Milo finally looked up at her and crumpled his forehead. ‘You can make yourself at home, you know. I know it’s not much, but it’s better than being above ground, right? Sit down. I mean, if you wanna.’

She didn’t move. Milo shrugged and turned back to his makeshift fire. Sparks flew from the lighter and finally caught on the twigs. Milo’s face turned red, his face heated by the embers of the fire. He opened his tin of beans and placed them on the twigs, watching the fire claim the can.

‘I’m bloody sick of beans. It’s something though, I guess.’

She stood very still. She wondered if she stood still as a statue, Milo would start to ignore her. Milo raised his eyebrows.

‘Still nothing, huh?’ Milo waited for a reply he knew he was unlikely to get and then laughed. ‘First person I’ve spent time with in months and you’re mute. Typical. Someone do something to you? They cut out your tongue?’

It wasn’t unheard of those days, but she shook her head. Her tongue worked just fine. When she wanted it to. Milo shook his head, impatient with her uncertainty.

‘Look. You saved me. I’m not going to hurt you. If you like, I’ll sit over there, and you can have a seat on the bed. Then when the beans are ready, you can have some, yeah?’

She finally decided she should take a seat. After all, she couldn’t stay standing for the entire duration of her stay. She shuffled, keeping a several metre distance from Milo at all times. She edged in a circle around him until she found herself in the corner. From there, she could see the entire basement. She could see Milo when he got up and moved himself into the opposite corner. She hugged her knees and he mimicked her position, staring at her. It made her feel uncomfortable, the copycat game he was playing. He’s harmless she reminded herself. He can’t hurt you.

The bean juice in the tin began to hiss and bubble. Milo got up and inspected them, poking them with a disfigured fork. He smiled at the triumph of succeeding in heating them up. He poured half into his tin mug and offered her the can. She stared at it suspiciously.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I bet you’ve not had a hot meal since before you were born. Little squirt like you, I bet you don’t even remember ovens and microwaves, do you?’

She did, actually. She remembered the ping it would make when her hot milk was ready. But she didn’t tell him that. Milo waved the tin at her.

‘Go ahead. The tin’s a bit hot, but you’ll be fine if you’re careful. I’ve got a spare spoon, you won’t have to dig in there with your fingers. Five-star service, huh?’

Her mouth twitched. Apocalypse humour always made her want to smile. But she didn’t. She did, however, take the tin. Milo handed her a spoon and sat down beside her, digging into his beans with a wet squelch of his mouth.

‘You’re there first person I’ve come across in weeks. You and those women, that is. It’s funny, isn’t it? You won’t see anyone for months and then a whole bunch show up at once.’ He shook his head, smiling at his own one-sided conversation. ‘To be honest, I’ve just been hiding out down here. I don’t get any bother. But a guy’s gotta eat. That’s why I ventured out today. Looking for some grub, I guess.’ He paused. ‘You travel alone too?’

She nodded her head. It was a barely there movement, and she didn’t look at him when she did it. But he noticed anyway. He seemed pleased with the progress.

‘Gets a bit lonely, huh? It’s been a long time since I saw my old friends, my family. I don’t know where they were sent, when the war began. We all got separated. You know how it is. Kids to the cities, adults to the front line.’ Milo trailed off, biting his lip. He was silent for a few minutes, and she was certain he’d end the conversation there. But then he picked up where he’d left off, as though the lull in his speech was natural.

‘I doubt they’re alive. I mean, how could they fight something they couldn’t see? Something they didn’t understand? Something that bullets can’t pierce. But still…I still hopes they’re safe. I can hold on to that thought, right? There’s gotta be something that gets me through.’

She turned her head to look at him. Without his mask, without his goggles, without his pride, he was a damaged little boy. He hung his head, staring at the beans sat in his mug going cold. They’d taken on a slightly furry quality, the red sauce turning grey. She knew how he felt. No adult was spared the front line. Unlike him, she knew her parents were dead, though. Maybe he did too, really. He just wanted to live in denial.

She hesitated before reaching over and patting his knee. Milo looked up, smiling a little. She smiled back.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Milo said. She nodded, looking away again. She could tell he was still watching her as she scooped lukewarm beans into her mouth. He followed her lead and swallowed some beans, wincing.

‘Fucking beans, eh?’

She hid a smile, covering her mouth and giggling. Milo smiled back, happy to have earned a laugh from her. He cocked his head to the side.

‘What’s your name, little girl?’

It was a secret that hadn’t left her mouth in an age. But when she finally whispered her name, he told her he loved it.

‘A Roman goddess, hmm? To what do I owe that pleasure, Juno?’

She didn’t reply aloud, but in her head she said the pleasure’s all mine.

 

He slept like a baby – a rarity in the apocalypse. Juno watched him sleep for a while, wondering if she had the courage to betray him. Just do it she told herself honour has no place in survival.

She was almost ready to go. She had her crossbow handy, and her backpack was already secured on her shoulders. Now all she had to do was take everything Milo owned.

It wasn’t one of her finer moves, she admitted. He’d done nothing but make her welcome, and she was about to betray him. But she barely knew the boy. She had to think of herself. That’s what she told herself as she took his rucksack and swung it over her shoulder.

She headed for the stairs slowly. One wrong step on a creaky floorboard and she’d be caught. She made it to the stairs, and looked back at Milo. He was smiling in his sleep. Juno looked at the stairs, then back at Milo, then back at the stairs.

Why did he have to smile, goddamnitt?

Juno sighed, replacing Milo’s bag where she’d found it. She could just leave in the morning, when it was safer. She’d thank him for his hospitality and be on her way.

She shed her backpack and weaponry, curling up on the floor. She knew she wasn’t likely to have another good sleep in months. For the first time in a long time, there was someone else around to keep her safe.

 

She woke with a knife to her throat. She could feel the warm metal on her blistered skin, and Milo’s hot, stale breath on her face. The only sound was water slowly dripping into a pan on the other side of the basement.

‘Don’t move, or I’ll kill you,’ he said uncertainly. He cleared his throat, his eyes darting around. ‘I…I want the crossbow. And I’m keeping your knife. Hand it all over, and I won’t have to hurt you.’

She rolled her eyes. She should have known. She should have known never to trust anyone, but herself. She slammed her knee into Milo’s stomach and he groaned, toppling away from her. Calmly, she took up her crossbow and slid an arrow into the weapon. Milo stumbled to his feet, the knife slipping in his sweaty hands. He caught it by the blade, wincing as it pierced his skin. He rearranged it in his hand and held it up at Juno, trembling.

‘I’m not afraid,’ he said.

You should be.

She released the arrow before he could complete his first step towards her. It found home in his chest and he collapsed forwards, driving the arrow deeper into his body. He coughed, glaring up at Juno as blood drooled from his lips. Juno slowly moved towards the boy. She pressed his face to the ground with his boot. She expected to see the face of a child whimpering beneath her foot, but there were no more children left. Only young souls with old hearts. Children who had learned that to be an adult was the only chance for survival.

It was ironic, she supposed. That the one person she’d spared was the one who almost ended her. She was glad of it. She’d learned her lesson.

He passed quietly, which Juno was glad of. Afterwards, she stripped him of his jacket and thick cargo pants. She left him enough to preserve his dignity. Then she dragged him up the stairs, out into the street. The fog was thicker than ever. So thick, that when she dumped his body on the doorstep, he left her eyesight the second she let go. She closed the door behind him. A few days outside and he’d be gone completely. It would be like he never existed. Not even his bones would remain.

Still, Juno thought as she settled on her mattress to sleep, cuddling Small Bear to her chest he was useful for one thing. He gave me beans.

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