Submitted into Contest #60 in response to: Write a post-apocalyptic thriller.... view prompt


Adventure Science Fiction Thriller

I have learned that it’s not about what’s left behind when the dust settles, but who is left. There weren’t many of us to begin with after everything that happened, and those of us who made it still aren’t sure exactly what exactly caused the end of the world. Sure, we all have our theories, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t to me. I’m a bit more concerned with the fact that my heart’s still beating. I’d like to keep it that way.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen another human being in at least a week. In another life that would have been troubling, but I find that I breathe freer in the solitude. Of course, I never really breathe free anymore. No matter how far into the wilderness I go, there’s always a fine red dust clinging to the air. I can’t remember the last time I saw the sky. It’s just a shadow of what might be a cloud or a beam of weak sunlight through the dust. And utter silence.

Several days ago, I found a little mountain grove of dying pine trees and set up camp there. I don’t ever stay in one place for long, but something about this spot has me lingering. It’s secluded and quiet. Low visibility, but with the ever-present dust in the air, seeing isn’t really an option anyway. At some point I’ll have to leave to find food, but that’s a problem for another day. For now, I’m just enjoying the chance to rest.

It’s hard to be present in a place like this. The scent of pine needles and dead leaves, crushed under my shifting weight. The tickle of a flyaway hair on my neck. Faint creaks in the branches. Red dust dancing in the air. A breath in—hold—and out. The mind tends to wander…

I think it was two weeks ago, maybe three, when Holly and I parted ways. I’ve forgotten her face already, and the sound of her voice. I only knew her for a few days, really. We met with her cold knife laid flat against my throat. We were both headed west, and she thought I was following her. I still don’t understand why she didn’t kill me on the spot. It would have been the smart thing to do. But she didn’t, and here I am, thinking about her. I have no clue where she is now. We walked together for a few days, just close enough to one another to see each other’s silhouettes through the dust. She only ever talked in the hushed tones of someone who knows that any wrong move could be the end.

She told me that she sometimes dreamed about the way the world used to be, but that the dream always ended with everything dissolving into red dust. I told her that I once attacked a tree stump because I thought it was a man watching me. Our hands touched that first night together while we were reaching for another bite of the canned corn sitting by our fire. I had forgotten what another person’s skin felt like. It was warmer than I remembered.

We never talked about who we were before; it’s strange how those versions of ourselves have become so distant they feel like another person entirely, someone not worth mentioning. When she asked me my name, I realized I’d almost forgotten how to say it. The word felt heavy and wrong on my tongue, like saying ‘shit’ for the first time. She laughed when I told her that and asked if she could call me Shit instead of Joy. I laughed too, for the first time since the end of the world, and I said she could call me whatever she wanted. She decided to call me J, which I didn’t even realize was on the table. I liked it.

Holly liked poetry. She recited a poem from memory every night before she fell asleep. It was oddly comforting to hear her whispering to herself in the dark. She liked to make up poems, too. Sometimes they were just simple rhyming couplets or pithy little sayings. One day she spent two hours making up an epic about a rat named Roger. I don’t remember any of it, but it made me laugh.

I open my eyes to discover that I had fallen asleep. For a moment, I wonder if my memories of Holly had been part of a dream; she holds a curiously undefined place in my mind that sometimes feels imaginary. It’s impossible to tell how much time has passed because I’m lying in complete darkness. I debate starting a fire but it doesn’t seem worthwhile; I’m not cold and the darkness stopped bothering me a long time ago. I think I’d actually enjoy it if I could see the stars. I suddenly miss the hum of crickets on a warm summer night. The quiet is safe, but in this moment it seems to swallow me. Another time, I might fight it, but right now I close my eyes and let myself drift into the silence.

It’s early in the morning when I open my eyes again. The red dust in the air is dark and coagulated in the thin morning light. I sit up and stretch, and for a moment I almost remember Holly’s face. I cling to that image, but it vanishes as quickly as it came. My heartbeat sounds loudly in my ear. Thud, thud.

My heart? No, the thudding of drums.

I am on my feet before I really know what to do. My bag is mostly packed, and I scramble to pack the remainder of my things and clean up any trace of my presence. I shoulder my bag and slip out of my grove of trees.

Thud, thud. The sound is distant, coming from the northeast, maybe, I don’t know. I do know it means that I have to run. I am being hunted.

My shoes are wrapped in cloth that I’ve torn from old clothes, so my footsteps are silent I race down the mountainside. My head spins, searching for a way to escape. Hiding isn’t an option if they are close enough to hear. And I cannot let them catch me, no matter what.

Thud, thud. Months ago I stumbled, quite literally, upon one of their victims. He was beaten, his supplies and clothes stolen, close to death. He told me they tracked him for weeks, waiting for him to slip up so they could catch him. He told me, his voice trembling, that when they found him they circled around him and lit a fire. He said that the smell of their burnt offering to the red dust was somehow worse than the pain of losing his hands and being left for dead.

“If you ever hear the drums, run,” he whispered. “Run and pray to every god you know.” I’ve been running west ever since, trying to avoid his fate.

Thud, thud.

I race down the slope for hours. Eventually, the terrain begins to even out beneath my feet. The dust-laden air is still thin, so I assume that I’ve made it into a mountain valley. Dead grass crunches almost imperceptibly beneath my feet like tiny brittle bones. The sound of drums is more distant, but still echoes through the air.

Thud, thud. I haven’t run in a while. My breath is unsteady and tastes of dust. I’d forgotten how disconcerting it is to run without being able to see where you’re going. Just when I realize how lucky I am to not have stumbled yet, I trip over something. Before I can register exactly what happened, I’m sprawled out on the ground, my whole body frozen in surprise. There’s a sharp pain in my right shin where my leg hit whatever it was that tripped me. I bite down on my lip to keep from cursing aloud. I can’t give away where I am.

My arms feel tingly and I’m sure that I will feel the tiny cuts and scrapes in my skin soon, but I’m grateful that this was a minor fall. Nothing feels broken or otherwise out of place. I sit up and take a moment to catch my breath, leaning against the rock I stumbled on. The stone is cool against my overheating body. I wish could stay here a while.

Thud, thud. When I reach down to inspect my shin, my hand comes back wet with blood. It doesn’t feel like a deep gash, but I can’t run around with an open wound. I swing my bag around find an old shirt that I normally use to filter dirt out of my water. I tie it tightly around my leg, wincing slightly at the pressure, and stand. Luckily, my leg holds my weight without any serious complaints.

“Okay, you got this,” I whisper to myself. My voice is so hoarse with disuse that I can barely understand the words.

I take off again, limping away from the sound of the drums. The dust begins to coat the inside of my mouth and throat despite the cloth I’m wearing as a mask. I am being filled with mud, transformed into earth. The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind and I chuckle to myself.

Thud, thud. Right. Now is not the time for jokes, even morbid ones. I see the dark shapes of trees sparsely spread in front of me and sigh gratefully. A bit of cover is good. As I keep pushing on, though, the trees become denser and force me to slow down.

I pause for a moment to listen. The sound of the drums is faint now, muffled by the half-living trees around me. I breathe a bit freer and take a sip of water from my last full flask. Based on the sound of the drums, I guess I’m about a day ahead of my pursuers. I remember reading once, before the world ended, that humans survived in primitive times not because of their superior strength or speed but because of their endurance. A human hunter didn’t need to outrun the prey, just outlast it. I wonder if I will be able to outlast the Drummers. Right now, they have all the advantages and I’m running out of time.

There’s no point in wasting all my energy in a panic-driven flight, so I sit down gingerly under the cover of a nearby tree. My leg still aches but I think the bleeding has stopped. Before I can settle in, I hear rustling in the trees nearby and leap to my feet.

I hold my breath, listening for another sound, and reach for my knife. I don’t hear anything now, but that doesn’t mean I’m alone. I look around, taking painfully slow breaths to be as quiet as possible. There isn’t much to see through the dust, just the vague silhouettes of trees. I wait in utter silence for a few minutes, but there is nothing. No sound, no movement. I don’t think I imagined the noise, but I suppose it’s possible. Carefully, as quietly as I’m able, I sit back down, hyper aware of my surroundings. Only after a long period of quiet does the tension in my body begin to release. I begin to dig through my bag for some food.

Just then, someone grabs my arm and pulls me backward, dragging me along the ground and away from my knife. I kick my legs and thrash around, trying to free my arm from the vice-like grip. I try to look at my attacker, but I'm struck in the face. Warm blood streams into my eyes, obscuring my vision. I reach with my free hand for an anchor or a weapon as the attacker pulls me along. There’s nothing but pine needles and dirt.

“Let me go!” I whisper fiercely. I’m still hesitant to break the silence.

Whoever it is that grabbed me is too strong for me and moving fast. I stop thrashing and wipe the blood away from my eyes so I can look around. There’s a tree coming up to my left. I swing my body violently and wrap myself around it. The trunk knocks my breath from me, but the sudden jolt surprises my abductor enough for me to twist my arm free. I finally get a look at him through the dust. He is easily twice my size. He lunges towards me and I scramble further under the tree, kicking his arm away.

He snarls, dodging beneath the branches of the tree, and lunges again. My hand catches on something as I dodge. A large rock. I wait until he is nearly on top of me and swing the stone as hard as I can at his head. It connects with a disgusting thwack and he slumps onto the ground beside me, unconscious or possibly dead.

I struggle to catch my breath and calm down. Standing, I glance around, hoping that he was alone. I have to think fast. Is he one of the Drummers? I race back to my bag and sling it over my shoulder, not wanting to stick around to find out. I’m about to take off running when something catches my eye. I glance over towards my attacker—still motionless on the ground—and decide to investigate. Several hundred feet away from where he lays is a lean-to. It's so well hidden, I almost didn’t notice it. Inside are supplies and a makeshift bed. His shelter, I assume. It looks like he’s been here a long time, judging by the pile of empty cans in the corner. He can’t be one of the drummers, then. They don’t stay in one place for long.

I notice a coil of rope in the shelter and realize that this is my opportunity. It takes me less than fifteen minutes to drag my attacker’s limp body over and tie him securely to the tree where I escaped. I survey my work and wipe the grime from my hands onto my pants, satisfied. There’s no way for him to get out of this.

As I reach down to pick up my bag, he jerks awake. I jump backward. He tries to move, confused for a moment. When he realizes that he’s bound, he begins to panic and struggles against the rope.

“Good luck,” I say, finding my voice. “I’m very good at tying knots.”

He looks at me, really looks, and roars primitively. His deep, raspy voice echoes through the trees.

   “I’d keep it down if I were you. They’re on their way.”

“Who?” he asks viciously.

“The Drummers.”

He is silent. I wonder if he’s heard of them.

Thud, thud. The drums sound closer now. I can tell he hears them, too.

“Let me loose,” he says.

I laugh.

“Seriously, I’ll give you whatever you want.” I can hear the fear creeping into his voice. It reminds me of something, but I can’t place the memory.

“You know, I was getting nervous that I wouldn’t find someone in time,” I say. I turn and begin walking away. He deserves it, I think to myself. Who knows what he was planning to do to me.

Thud, thud.

“Please!” he calls urgently. I keep walking, ignoring him as he screams and swears and finally begins to sob. That's when I realize who he reminds me of: Holly. Holly and the others I left behind as offerings. After a while, their voices all start to sound the same.

I stop for a moment to thank them before breaking into a run. After all, they’re the reason I’m still alive, that I’ve outlasted my hunters this long. They're the ones who taught me that it’s not about what’s left behind when the dust settles, but who is left behind. 

September 26, 2020 00:42

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Anna Romano
16:48 Apr 02, 2021

Wow! Was not expecting the mc to be the badguy lol. Well done on the ending....however, you said she and Holly parted way...i suppose they did, but it kind of came across as confusing


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Thom Brodkin
20:55 Mar 08, 2021

I decided to go back to the beginning. Read your first Reedsy story and I am not disappointed. There is so much to unpack from this story. The fantastic descriptions of the post apocalyptic world. The intense and disconcerting loneliness. The primal need to survive and just enough of a glimpse of the world that used to be to allow the reader to find themselves in the story. You are a very versatile writer. Each story feels so different. I admire that talent. Great job. Great first story. Take your time and read another of mine whe...


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Musfirah Bushra
20:13 Oct 01, 2020

Excellent story! Simply loved reading it. It has a really nice flow, which made it a fun read. Also loved how you wrote the first and last sentences. This was a bit too descriptive in the starting, not really my style, but loved it anyway.


Claire Lindsey
17:01 Oct 02, 2020

Hi Musfirah, thank you for your comment! I'll definitely take your thoughts into consideration in the future and watch for slow pacing at the beginning of my stories.


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Aafia Hanya
19:56 Oct 01, 2020

OMG!!! unexpected.. really unexpected... my heads thudding.👍👍👌👌💜💜


Claire Lindsey
19:59 Oct 01, 2020

Thank you Aafia!


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Rayhan Hidayat
12:31 Oct 01, 2020

WOW, I didn't expect that reveal. I was wondering what on earth could've made her split from Holly when they seemed to be getting along just fine. You did a great job fleshing out the lone wolf aspect of the character, which I expect living in a world like this would turn anyone into. My favorite thing about this is how ambiguous everything is: the cause of the apocalypse, the Drummers, etc. It gave everything a spooky, borderline-horror atmosphere that made for a compelling read. My only critique is to do with concision and brevity (whic...


Claire Lindsey
19:29 Oct 01, 2020

Hi Rayhan! Thank you so much for your feedback, I'm glad to hear that the thriller/horror aspect came across. This is my first time trying to incorporate that genre in my writing, so I wasn't sure how it would read. I definitely agree with you that there are places where I can condense my writing, and I'll keep that in mind for next time! Thanks again!


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Graham Kinross
13:05 Aug 17, 2022

I like the villain reveal. Great twist.


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23:23 Feb 15, 2021

Great job! This kept me on the edge of my seat!! You did a great job of all the descriptions and detail, one thing though, try to do more showing not telling, apart from that awesome job!


Claire Lindsey
23:44 Feb 15, 2021

Thanks Lily! I’ve been working on that with my newer stories, but the reminder is helpful 😊


23:48 Feb 15, 2021

No problem <3


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