Jacob presses his face against the tinted glass on a vending machine, wide-eyed like a child. There, stuck in one of the metal spirals, is a chocolate bar, maybe the last one ever. I liked to eat chocolate (those little heart-shaped ones that come in packs of twelve) every Friday in between third and fourth period. Sometimes, I brought an extra box to share with my friends and Jacob. We would gobble them up in minutes. I used to live in the land of plenty. Now, I live in the land of want, and I want that chocolate bar so bad it’s insane—absurd, even.
Jacob sticks his hand through the slot of the vending machine. “I can’t reach it,” he says.
“Check to see if it’s still on,” I say. “It might be one of those battery-operated ones that doesn’t need electricity.”
Jacob wipes some dust off the digital panel. “It’s on! Wow, that’s some battery!”
Keeping quiet isn’t one of his best skills so I shush him. “Great, but please keep your voice down.”
“It costs a dollar.” He digs around in his pocket. “Hey! I have three quarters. One more and we can get it.”
It’s so weird that Jacob has quarters in his pocket. I wonder how long they’ve been in there.
“I’ll look around for a quarter,” I say.
“Don’t waste your time. I’m going to break it.” He pretends to punch the glass.
“No. Too loud. We’re not in a hurry and we want to stay quiet. Let’s see if we can find one before we do something drastic.”
I begin scanning the ransacked shelves in the far corner of the party store. There’s nothing left on them, not one drip of pop or speck of food. The walls and floor are disgusting. Traces of dirt and dried blood are everywhere. Muddy footprints chaotically overlap each other like some modern art piece. Whatever was considered valuable was taken a while ago.
I check the area where the frozen food used to be. I take off my red backpack which I’ve had since freshman year and set it on the ground. It’s still going strong almost four years later. The exterior of my bag is covered with an abundance of items: yellow emoticons, an American flag pin, a patch in the shape of a cross, and three stickers that say ‘Kiss Me I Gave Blood Today’ from my donations. It’s not boring to look at, that’s for sure. The bright green lizard keychain my brother Victor gave me a few years ago is clipped to the bottom. I used to call it my good luck charm, but that term has been expired from my vocabulary. Luck doesn’t exist.
Hanging off the side of my bag is my most important item: an aluminum bat, Louisville Slugger, exactly like the one I used to swing playing varsity softball. Coach said I was the smartest hitter on the team. Not the best or the strongest, but the smartest. I got a lot of walks, and when I swung, I made it count. Jacob rigged a small hatchet to the end of the bat with some gaffer tape. It’s a beastly looking thing. I don’t like using guns. That’s Jacob’s job. On our scouting missions, he carries a rifle; and on our food runs like this one, he carries a shotgun. My bat is the perfect weapon for three reasons: it’s not very loud, it’s easy to hold, and it never runs out of bullets. Gripping the handle comes naturally to me, familiar, yet for a different purpose. There’s something about swinging it that reminds me of old times, my old life.
“Find one yet?” Jacob says, his eyes still locked on the candy bar. He pushes on the glass with his hands, testing to see how hard he needs to hit it for it to break.
“Not yet,” I say.
“T-minus two minutes before I smash this thing.”
“Hold on. Let me check the counter before you get into destruction mode.”
It’s probably a moot point, but it’s better to be sure before Jacob decides to break the glass. We need that candy bar. We don’t have a lot of food, and the food we do have is boring and stale. We need a spark right now.
I pick up my backpack and walk over to the counter and quietly push aside a pile of chip wrappers. The register’s smashed on the floor; empty, other than a few old receipts. Lotto tickets are spread across the tile, Money Match and Take 5. My stomach growls. What does chocolate taste like again? Is it sweet? Is it chewy? Does it melt in your mouth?
I block out the aching hunger in my belly and start looking behind the counter. There’s a tall shelf on the back wall, mostly empty except for a row of cigarette boxes and jars. One of the jars is full of shiny silver objects. Round objects. Maybe it’s the old tip jar that used to sit next to the till?
I immediately stand on my tippy-toes and reach for the jar. My fingers briefly touch the glass, but I’m unable to get a solid grip. A few more tries and I know I’ll get this. Watch out quarter, you’re going to be mine soon.
I stretch my arms higher, balancing on one foot like a ballerina in the Arabesque position. The shelf wobbles a wee bit and I push my body into it to stop the metal frame from shaking. I grab the jar and excitedly twist off the lid, dump out the contents, and fill my hands with dozens of qu—
Washers. Loads of washers. Rats! I knew it was too good to be true.
I lean forward to set the jar on the counter, forgetting that my body was securing the shelf. A few cigarette boxes crash to the ground. Jacob zips his head to the side to see what I’m up to. Other objects begin falling, creating a commotion loud enough to wake the dead—specifically the undead. I try to push the shelf back up against the wall, but it’s too heavy. In a panic, I get down and wedge myself into the cupboards underneath the counter. The metal shelving slams into the top of the counter, bowing in the middle, pinning me underneath its steel frame. A box of straws spills on me. My backpack gets covered with the washers from the jar.
Frantic footsteps rush over to me. “Rory!” Jacob says.
I know he’s concerned because he called me Rory instead of Aurora. Maybe he does this because two syllables are easier to yell than three. Thankfully, I’m fine. Just scrunched.
“I’m ok,” I say. “But I could use a little help getting out of here.”
Jacob pushes away broken glass with his feet, clearing a path. I crawl out from under the shelf and quickly stand.
“You’re shaking,” he says and hugs me. The reassuring touch of his hands calms me down.
I get scared when we’re separated, even from a petty thing like a shelf blocking my escape. Jacob does too, sometimes. We’re weak for each other, but our love is strong, like a bridge of iron connecting two parcels of land. When the world tries to break us, our love is the one constant holding us together.
“What were you trying to do?” he asks, his tone one note away from scolding. He squats down and brushes away broken glass that’s stuck to my jeans.
“Find the imaginary quarter, of course,” I say, mimicking my acrobatic actions to help him get a better sense of things. “There was this jar that looked like it was full of quarters but, instead, it was full of washers and bolts. I was sure I had found the jackpot.”
“Was it at the top of the shelf?”
“Why didn’t you—”
Loud banging interrupts our conversation. Our eyes lock onto the utility closet in the corner of the store. There’s grunting and growling coming from behind the door. There’s a key snapped off in the lock. The bolts in the hinges thrust outward after each aggressive hit.
It won’t be long before they’re out.
“Oh no! They’re here!” I say. “They’re here and I woke them up!”
In this new world, there isn’t a lot of food, there’s plenty of bad people, but the worst threat is the remnants. At first, I thought it was a joke, a fake story like the ones I often saw on social media polluting my news feed. According to early reports, a small cafe in Boston had turned into a nightmare. All of its patrons suddenly started attacking each other. Men tried eating their wives, children tried eating their parents. They had turned, their appetites fixed solely on human flesh. I scoffed at the ludicrous story and went about my day. It didn’t take long for me to realize that what I had heard was true. It was something in the air that caused it to spread so quickly, something that turned good men and women into monsters. By the time the plague reached my town, most of the country was dead. Those of us who were immune were stalked by the remnants, the hunger inside of them never satisfied. Like a swarm of locusts devouring a crop, we were overrun by their numbers. The first time I was bitten, I freaked out that I was going to turn into one of them. That never happened. The movies got it wrong. Their bites only end up leaving a nasty scar, but where there’s one; there’s three, or seven, or a hundred. Those bites can multiply and become life-threatening. And I don’t even want to think about what’s been in their mouths.
“Let’s go,” Jacob says. “We don’t know how many are in there.”
He starts pulling me to the exit when I remember …
I sprint across the dirty floors and crouch next to the fallen shelf, swiping at the straps on my backpack. The remnants frantically slam their bodies against the closet door. I imagine their mouths dripping with blood, salivating at the thought of partaking in my flesh. A sane person would ditch the bag and leave, run as fast as they can and never look back. But this isn’t any bag; it’s the last thing I have left from my family. I won’t let it become another blemished relic wasting away in some abandoned store.
“Come on, Rory; we’ve got to go now!”
Jacob’s words are a jolt of electricity to my body. One more swipe and my fingers latch around the straps and I pull my bag out from under the shelf. Finally, we can get out of here. The headband on my head is soaked with sweat. I think I sweat more than Jacob. Who’s got time to care about looks, though, when remnants are trying to eat you alive?
The closet door smashes open, interrupting my celebratory mood. I set my eyes on the two—no!—three remnants storming out of the closet. The first one is an older male. He has bright bloodshot eyes and blood covering his mouth. A silver name badge is stuck to his uniform: ROGER MAYFIELD, possibly the former store manager. The other two remnants are younger boys, both wearing old basketball tees. One of them is missing his arms. I look down and realize Roger has one of the arms in his hands, a snack for later. My stomach knots up tighter than sailor’s rope.
Jacob brandishes his shotgun and fires at the armless boy, striking his face. The boy growls, his jaw hanging like a loose button on a shirt.
The remnants flock toward Jacob. “Some help, please,” he says.
“Coming,” I say.
I unstrap the bat from my bag and hold it like I’m back at home plate—two outs, down by one. This feels like my fault. I should have let Jacob break the glass instead of grabbing that stupid jar of not-quarters.
I dash past rows of empty shelves, jump over a broken advertisement for doughnuts, and swing at the other remnant boy, missing his head by inches.
Strike one, I guess.
The boy halts his prowl and glares at me. He’s either angry or annoyed, remnants don’t have a wide range of emotions other than constant rage. The boy chomps his teeth into his bloody gums and lunges at me. I swing at his head, practically making it spin all the way around when the bat connects. Blood sprays against the nearby shelves. The boy falls to the floor, his face smashed in. My finger hurts for some reason, but I block out the pain and take a couple of giant breaths.
Jacob continues firing at the armless boy and Roger, but they’re not going down. Jacob’s never been the best shot. He needs to practice more, but bullets are rare. The boy’s dangling jaw swings back and forth like a pendulum. Roger ditches his snack-arm and reaches out his hands.
Take your time, Jacob. Aim, breathe, shoot.
“I’m coming, Jacob,” I say and run toward Jacob.
Jacob pins himself between a Slurpee machine and a counter full of coffee cups and filters. He pulls a few shells from his pocket and tries reloading. They slip out of his hand and fall on the floor.
I swing my bat at the armless boy, knocking him to the ground. His jaw goes flying across the room, and for a brief second, I imagine it’s a softball soaring over the fence.
Home run. Game over.
Roger swipes at Jacob and misses. Jacob jabs the butt end of the shotgun into Roger’s head, causing him to fall backward. Blood spurts up in the air and lands in Jacob’s beard. It makes him look unsightly, devilish. I hate seeing him so gross and I try to ignore it.
The armless—and now jawless—boy begins twitching and flopping around like a fish on a dock gasping for air. It looks like he’s in pain, but that’s not it. Remnants don’t feel pain like me. He’s trying to figure out how to stand up.
(get em get em get em)
I turn my bat around to the side with the blade and drive it into the boy’s skull, splitting it in two. A mist of blood and flesh splashes my face. Fortunately, my headband takes the brunt of it, avoiding the disaster of turning my brown hair red. A droplet of blood hits my lip and I inadvertently taste it. Revolting. Good thing I’ve got an empty stomach, otherwise I’d be hurling.
I look over at Jacob as he sticks the shotgun into Roger’s mouth, pulls the trigger, and blows off the top of his head. It’s such a deranged moment, yet it washes over me like rain striking a speeding car. I’ve never seen one go like that, like a tomato from my grandpa’s garden getting thrown against a brick wall. We’ve killed remnants before, we’ve gotten bloody, but I feel strange. It’s almost as if I didn’t care about what I was doing.
It’s almost as if I liked it.
(you did you did)
No, I didn’t.
Maybe I did like it. Maybe I liked how the man’s head blew to smithereens, or how the boy’s jaw reminded me of a home run. Maybe I liked it because of how in control I was, the anger, yes, the rage flowing from my hands, into the bat, and then one swing before it was over. That’s all it took. One swing, can you believe it?
(see what you’re capable of with just one swing)
A slight clinking noise interrupts my disorganized thoughts. A round piece of metal rolls out of Roger’s pocket, does a few circles, and falls flat on the tile floor. I bend down to pick it up. My thumb and index finger rub against its rigid edges and I laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Jacob asks, no doubt seeing how psychotic I look with blood on my brow and lips, a look of insanity beaming from my eyes.
I place the object onto Jacob’s palm and close his hand. I like to play surprise games with him, ones where I know something that he doesn’t. It’s the joy of seeing his smile when he figures it out.
He opens his hand and holds a coin up to the light; the big ol’ head of George Washington, his curly hair tied into a ponytail, looking profound. I can practically smell the candy bar. Smells like victory. Smells like crispy, delicious chocolate too. I guess we don’t need the coin anymore since the dismemberment of our three unwelcome friends means we can go ahead and smash the glass, but there’s something significant about finding what we had sought in this wretched place. I feel like this is important, this is special, a sign for better times ahead. I can’t be sure, but I can be hopeful. I have to be.
Or maybe it’s just a stupid, insignificant quarter. Either way, I’m getting my chocolate.