It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. The crunch of the snow underneath our boots filled the cold air. The farther north we traveled, the colder it was getting. We must have been somewhere in upper Washington state, but we couldn’t afford to let the winter delay our journey more than it already had. Lead would not let so many months of miserable travel for our people go to waste with lost lives due to our inability to get to Northerton Fortress. The ever-growing shelter for survivors of the nuclear bombing was midway into Canada, right in the center where the cold winters were long enough to effectively slow down the infected, but the summers provided ample time to grow crops and sustain life- as much as that was possible anymore. Lead thrust his arm out in front of me, his other hand firmly gripping his machete at his side.
“What is it,” I signed to him, thinking he might have heard something.
“I think I see people in the tree line ahead,” he signed back. He then conducted his ritual-like habit of counting the heads of our group members while I took out my telescope and searched the forest in the distance. Eight people I counted. I’d never seen a group so big since before the bombing. Their gas masks obscured their faces, making it difficult to accurately discern their age ranges. One pair held hands, seemingly siblings because of their height difference. Most appeared to be male, and the figure holding hands with their smaller sibling seemed to be the leader of the group, despite their stature.
I motioned to Lead to take the telescope so I could check on our group myself. Jesus, Lead’s twin brother, signed to ask what made us stop. I signed to him, Cole, and Rebecca that there was a large group of eight people across the field. I brushed a few strands of little Xia’s hair behind her ear that had fallen over her gas mask while she slept in Jesus’s arms. She was only 3 years old and had been the main reason we avoided assimilating with other groups until now. Her safety was the most important thing to all of us, and we refused to jeopardize that before safely getting to Northerton. If others got attached to her or she grew attached to them, it would be difficult if they were to die from an infected. The bigger the group, the worse the risk of getting into some threatening situation with infected or experiencing food shortages.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to take my telescope back from Lead and placed it back in the holster on my hip. His eyes were wary through the slightly tinted plastic of his mask as he signed to me.
“What do you think we should do?” I pondered a moment as I looked toward the distant figures. There were a few smaller than the rest, clearly kids, which meant a higher likelihood that they were affable. They held a few long swords and wore guns strapped to some of their backs; the essentials. But one thing stood out to me that tipped the scales, and I knew it would make Lead agree with my decision.
“They have a map.”
Lead nodded his understanding and took his backpack off to take out a flag we carried to indicate to far away people that we were peaceful and either passing by or were offering to trade. Cole retrieved his baseball bat from the bag he carried, and Jesus handed Xia off to the oldest of our group, Rebecca, after she had retrieved some food and Xia’s blanket from her own pack. I began walking forward, flanked by the twins to make our party seem bigger than only six. The field was large, and we still had a decent distance to go when we saw one of the figures throw their hands in the air, the way someone would surrender, and began to wave to us. Jesus tensed and stood in front of me protectively while Lead placed a hand on my shoulder and pulled me back a little. Though I was the co-leader with Lead, and he usually insisted on me making decisions for the group, the twins were a couple years older than me. The two year difference between us seemed to draw out some sort of brotherly instinct from the pair every time a possible threat occurred.
I smiled under my gas mask and gently pushed past Jesus, nudging Lead’s hand off in the process. I took a stance a little ways in front of my people and slowly raised one hand in the air. I kept completely still. The people by the tree line grew excited and began jumping and waving their arms at us. Their voices were distant and unintelligible. I heard the soft crunch of snow behind me and felt Jesus’s hand on my back, encouraging me forward. The eight strangers met us halfway across the field.
“Hey,” called a high voice, the hand of its owner attached to a child who held on to her for dear life. “Hi there! It's been forever since we’ve seen other people around! Well, alive ones, at least.” Her morbid joke caught us off-guard. I heard Cole’s baseball bat shift in his hands behind me and the twins shifted closer to my sides. The woman seemed to notice. “Oops. Sorry. It probably sounds a little weird to make a joke like that, huh?” I nodded slightly.
Lead called to them, “Are you all headed somewhere or just wandering and trying to survive?” I elbowed him for the standoffish tone he used.
“Forgive my co-leader for his tone,” I called gently. “He’s supposed to leave diplomatic relations to me.” I observed the shorter heights of two members, a little taller than the smallest that still held the hand of who I assumed was their leader, since she was the one speaking to us. “We aren’t used to seeing groups so large that have children. I assume that means you stay near this area.”
“Well, sort of. I’m Leigh, by the way. The tiny one here is my brother Loren.” Loren gave a shy wave from behind his sister. “The others that you probably referred to as kids are Tess and Ethan.” It occurred to me at that moment that Leigh might have assumed that we would give effort to remember these eight new names and their relations to each other. I was terrible with names, but I decided to try my best, despite the fact that I may never see these people again. A man in a cowboy hat with a Texan accent stepped forward.
“I’m Kyle,” he said. “Ethan’s my younger brother.” He placed a large, gloved hand on the teenage boy’s head, making Ethan push his hand away in angst. “Be polite, now. These kind folks decided to communicate with words instead of bullets.”
“You say that like that’s what you’re used to,” Lead said.
“Folks just ain’t as friendly as they used to be, is all,” Kyle responded, clear sadness in his voice. “If any of us is used to that, though, it’d be Ken and Charlie here.” He motioned to the man with a sword on his back, apparently Ken, and another who I couldn’t tell the gender of, Charlie.
“Are we really going to stand here in the cold and introduce ourselves?” That voice was British. Interesting.
“Yes, Harrison,” said the tall older man with a gentle Louisianan accent. “I’m George. Excuse any rudeness you might hear from us. It’s been a long time since we spoke to any nice people.”
“Don’t worry, George,” I said. “It’s been a long time for all of us. We understand.” It had been so long since people were kind enough to offer their names first instead of demanding we state our business. We, too, were guilty of hostile behavior in the past, but our experience had taught us that trust in the kindness of strangers was a luxury we had no access to anymore. “These are the twins, Lead and Jesus,” I said, gesturing to the protective figures beside me. “Blondie in the back there is Cole, this is Rebecca, and this,” I took the now awake little girl from Rebecca carefully as I spoke, “is little Xia.” She held onto me tightly.
“Forgetting something,” Jesus asked, flicking my head just above my gas mask. I rubbed the spot, pouting at him. “Our leader who forgets everything here is Peaches.”
“Why, that there’s a mighty sweet name, Peaches,” Kyle called, placing his hands on his hips. “It’s nice to meet y’all.” He tipped his hat to us, and I finally noticed his cowboy boots. Not exactly the best for winter. “It sure is getting late. Did you folks have someplace to stay tonight?”
“We don’t need one,” Lead said defensively, “we’re traveling through the night.”
“It’ll be awful cold tonight, ‘specially for the little one,” George said.
Leigh spoke quickly: “We have a shelter.” She pointed west. “A ski-lodge. Not far away. And we have plenty of food. You could stay with us.” Jesus moved slightly to stand between the strangers and Xia.
“Thank you, but-” Lead started, but I cut him off quickly, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Hold on, Lead,” I whispered, “maybe we should take them up on their offer. Xia’s cold and tired. They have a map too, and it’s obvious they know the area.”
“What? We don’t know these people, Peaches. It’s a huge risk.”
“They’re risking more just by telling us where they’re staying, Lead,” Rebecca scolded.
“My feet are killing me, and I ain’t walking through another cold-ass night and neither is my baby.” Rebecca gently took Xia back from me. Once she had decided on something that included Xia, no one dared to argue. I turned back to Leigh and her people.
“Leigh, was it? If you really don’t mind, then we’ll gladly accept. Please, lead the way.”
By the time we arrived at the base of the mountain the ski-lodge was on, the sun had just blinked its last strands of light from the horizon. George booted up their generator to the ski lift from the bottom platform that carried us to the big structure. I sat on a chair next to Leigh, despite protests from the twins.
"It's a nice view up here,” I remarked.
“Glad you think so. I love it. The circumstances that led to living here may have not been the greatest, but we’re thankful for what we have.” Leigh looked down at the snow far beneath our dangling feet. “It’s safe. People don’t bother us up here. And any infected ones we’ve encountered just fall down the mountain with a good push.” She made a mock push with her hands and giggled. It was a really nice laugh.
We reached the top and hopped off. The ski-lodge was even bigger than we thought, and I could tell the twins were gawking at it through their masks. The inside was so warm. Kyle started up the huge fireplace and it lit up the room, showing comfortable couches and chairs near the two staircases that led to upstairs hotel-like rooms. I turned to Leigh to comment on the coziness only to be pulled away from everyone else being guided around by Kyle and George. Leigh took me by the hand towards a kitchen hidden behind one of the staircases.
“What are we doing over here?”
“It’ll be easier to talk in here,” she said, opening a large steel door that led to a second steel door. It was clearly a freezer to store food. She opened it up and I watched the cold air spill onto our boots. She led me to the back of the freezer to yet another door.
“Where are you taking me? Narnia?”
She chuckled at my joke. Leigh pulled on the heavy lever and yanked me into the small room as fast as she could and shut the door. The room wasn’t what I expected. She pulled on a string hanging from the ceiling and light flooded my vision. There were shelves of supplies and a small table with four chairs surrounding it. I watched Leigh as she flipped the switch of a space heater and took off her winter coat.
“What is this place?”
“It’s our emergency panic room. Locks from the inside and completely insulated. I come in here a lot, though. It’s almost my room at this point.”
“Wait, insulated? You mean…” I trailed off as the words sunk in.
Sure enough, seconds later I watched Leigh take her gas mask off to reveal her model-like features on flawless ebony skin. I hadn’t seen anyone take their gas mask off. I hadn’t seen a non-infected person without one since before the bombings, even. I’d never taken mine off before. I had adjusted it and pulled it away from my face on occasion in enclosed spaces for comfort and everything, but never fully removed it. And this woman standing in front of me, about the same age, same leadership role in her group, seemingly just as intelligent, had shattered all that experience in seconds. And she was…very pretty, too.
It took me a moment before I realized she had already shed down to a long sleeve shirt, warm leggings, and socks. The room was already warm. Too warm to keep my winter coat on, but there I was. Still wearing it. Leigh sensed, or more likely observed my obvious hesitation and slowly reached for the metal clasps of my winter coat. She began to un-snap them for me, almost like one would do for a child, except the way she did it was much slower and more methodical. Once she had pulled the thick zipper down, she gently pushed my heavy coat off my shoulders. My crewneck was still too warm for the room that was now a nice temperature perfect for just a long sleeve and leggings, like Leigh was wearing. She blew out a light chuckle when I didn’t move again. My body and my vocal chords weren’t responding to a single command I gave them. Leigh gently pulled my gas mask off. She helped me sit down on one of the chairs, and sat across the table from me. She pulled out a chessboard and began setting up the pieces.
“We’re…going to play chess?”
“Yeah, why not?” She gestured for me to make the first move. I gingerly placed a pawn forward. A short while later, she had won quite easily. “Good game, my friend.”
“I lost pretty hard, though.”
“Nothing wrong with that. As long as you have fun, the outcome doesn’t matter.” She was right. I did have fun watching her and listening to the calming clack of each piece on the board. Her next comment, however, came out of nowhere and caught me off guard. “You’re really pretty, by the way. Are you with one of the twins in your group?”
“No no, definitely not,” I said quickly. “They’re like my brothers.” I didn’t realize why I was so frantic to clear that assumption from her mind. “I’m uh…I’m alone in that regard.” I felt the hotness of my cheeks rise slightly. Leigh nodded.
“Me too. Not many girls to choose from, unless you’re willing to romance an infected.” She laughed. It was a beautiful laugh. But why the sudden change in subject, I wondered.
“Why do you ask?” She shrugged.
“That’s what killed the cat, you know.” She smiled big.
“Well,” she said as she moved to the chair next to me, “I’d rather be a curious cat than a boring human.” She had gotten very close to me and I could feel my temperature rising. She leaned farther forward to the point that our noses were almost touching. “A cat is more adventurous, too. Much more fun than being too afraid to take a chance.” Then she kissed me, slow and passionately. And I knew it was the start of an unforgettable night.
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