Every night I have dreams. Sometimes they’re about Before, and other times they’re about the Way Back. I do everything in these dreams and unlike reality I was never alone. There was always a person with me. They changed every time, but I knew deep down that they were the same person. We slayed dragons while wearing clunky suits of armor, and we protected villages which became towns, and those became cities. We explored abandoned buildings together, but not like the abandoned buildings Now, the ones from Before. We were always together, no matter what era it was, and when I would wake up alone in the Wastes I would always feel like a piece of me was missing. I tried to convince myself that it was just my imagination. The books that survived the bombings were my only form of entertainment, so they could have been influencing my subconscious mind. As for the person’s changing appearance, it could be explained by the fact that I hadn’t seen another human being since I was little. I was alone, surrounded by scorched earth and buildings that had been reclaimed by nature’s new and twisted forms. It was reasonable that I was searching for companionship in my mind. Despite my reasoning, I couldn’t help but cry for the life I could have had. The life that the me in my dreams had.
It was early in the morning and I was packing up my camp when I heard metal rattling in the distance. There was no wind, meaning it had to be something living. After the bombs had been dropped, their chemicals warping the world around them, people would run to noises like that. They hoped that it would be something familiar. Another person or some sort of animal perhaps. Instead they would find Mutations. Mindless eldritch horrors that roamed the Wastes searching for their next meal. Mom and Dad were smart. While others ran toward strange sounds, they taught me to run away. I crammed my blanket into my bag and kicked some dirt over my fire to extinguish it. The rattling became clanging, and a ghostly howl floated through the air. It had caught my scent, meaning the hunt was on.
Running through the junkyard that was left of humanity was difficult. Not turning around to see how close my pursuer was was even more difficult. Occasionally I thought I felt it breathing on my neck, or one of its claws brushing against my legs. I had to keep a level head, even though every cell in my body was screaming at me to sprint away. That was what prey did, and while I wasn’t the apex predator in the new world, I was not prey. I took a sharp left, and a few seconds later heard the Mutation crash into what used to be a billboard advertising some sort of soap. It screeched and I could hear it pick up the pace. It was angry, but I was prepared. There was a gun at my side, a sword at my back, and a dagger in my boot. I needed a higher vantage point. There was a building in the distance that was more or less still standing. If I could get into it and find a stairwell, I could get to the top and shoot the Mutation until it was dead. With this new destination in mind, I put on a new burst of speed, vaulting myself over piles of rubble in the hopes that they would slow it down. The building grew closer and closer, looming over me and promising safety. I kicked open the rusted door and ran up the stairs. I could hear the Mutation trying to cram itself through the door, but for the moment I was safe. I ran past skeletal remains of both rats and people alike. Judging by the state of the bones and the building, they probably had died from disease rather than the initial blast. I pushed the door to the roof open and drew my gun. The Mutation was already climbing up the side of the building, and I took a good look at it. Its face was melting, flesh resembling something more like goop. It had long fingers with even longer claws, and its eyes were lifeless and unseeing. The thing was already dead, the chemicals from the bombs keeping it moving and on the hunt. I pointed my gun down and flicked the safety off. There was a bang, and the Mutation faltered. I startled at that, and someone pulled me away from the ledge.
“You’re not going to get anywhere with that pea-shooter.” The mystery person said. They had goggles on, and a scarf over their face. It was the first living person I had found in years and I couldn’t even tell if they were human or not, but for some reason I trusted them. They went back to the ledge with their rifle and fired another shot. I drew my sword, ready for the Mutation to launch itself onto the roof. The mystery person looked back in my direction, “Are you good with that thing?”
“I’ve been using this thing since I was ten years old.” I spat, not liking the tone in regards to my sword. It had been my baby since I found it, the shiniest thing in the pile of wreckage that used to be a weapon store. The mystery person shot at the Mutation again with a grunt.
“I need you to cut off its head. Guns can only do so much.”
I nodded, readying myself to fight. The Mutation hauled itself onto the roof, and the mystery person rolled out of its way.
“By the way, don’t let it absorb you!”
“What?” I yelled back, unsure if they had said something about being absorbed over the sound of the Mutation screeching. It brought a fist down, and I jumped out of the way before it could crush me. I ran forward, slashing at its hand and it roared in pain, goop pouring out of the cut. The mystery person shot again, and the Mutation whipped around.
“Now!” They yelled, running from the Mutation’s grasp. I launched myself onto the Mutation’s shoulders and immediately started sinking into it.
That’s what they meant by absorb I guess, I mused as I lifted my sword above my head. There was no time to waste. I brought the blade down and severed the Mutation’s head from its neck. It let out a dying gurgle, and then it exploded. Everything went black as I was thrown through the air, and the last thing I thought was I can’t believe I’m going to die after all that effort.
I woke up under a pile of blankets, and there was a cheery campfire going. The mystery person sat on the other side of it, staring at me. I think they were staring, at least. I couldn’t tell with the goggles.
“Morning, Sleeping Beauty.”
Ah, so they were staring at me. I raised a hand in greeting, “Hi. What happened?”
“The Mutation exploded.” The person shrugged, “I thought you knew that was going to happen.”
“I don’t kill these things often.” I rubbed the back of my neck. My entire body was sore. They hummed softly, “Oh. Well, I caught you before you went over the edge. You’re welcome by the way.”
There was something familiar about the person. They held out a gloved hand to shake.
“Names are a bit dangerous these days, so you can call me Belladonna.”
Atropa Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, was a poisonous plant. It seemed like Belladonna knew their flower meanings.
“You can call me... Zinnia.”
Zinnia, for absent friends like the person in my dreams. I took Belladonna’s hand.
“Well, Zinnia. How about we stick together for a while? We make a pretty good team, and I doubt either of us will survive long on our own in this crazy world.”
Perhaps the friend from my dreams was closer than I thought. Something about Belladonna felt right in a way that hadn’t existed since Before. It felt like when the person in my dreams would look at me and smile.
“Yeah, that sounds good.” I tried to play it off as nonchalant, as though having someone to talk to wasn’t the most amazing thing that had ever been offered to me. Belladonna straightened, and despite not being able to see their face, it seemed like they were smiling.
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” They pushed up their goggles, and in their eyes swam hundreds of thousands of lives. They were timeless eyes, like the ones I saw in my dreams.
The ones I saw when I looked at my reflection.
“You know what? I think so too.”