Rose has been on the road for months now. It’s easy to lose track of time when society ceases to exist as we knew it. The days are fraught with danger but it’s also somewhat all the same. Wake up when the sun’s rays shine directly in her eyes, untie herself from the tree branch (so she doesn’t roll off in her sleep), scan her surroundings and wait until the coast is clear until she climbs down. Try to stretch out the constant crick in her neck to no avail. Pack up her things and start walking in the hopes of finding something better down the road.
She doesn’t have much. It’s just her machete, a water bottle, and little useful things she finds along the way, like an expired bottle of ibuprofen or a half-used candle she found in some wreckage that she carries in a backpack.
The most surprising thing is how little time it took for American society to collapse. Rose doesn’t know what things are like in other parts of the world. For all she knows, the rest of the world is watching the smoldering ruins of America and going, “Yeah, we’re gonna keep out of that.” She knows there are rogue groups broadcasting news over the radio since news stations are defunct, but she hasn’t been able to get her hands on a portable radio yet.
She’s not one of those doomsday preppers who had emergency supplies all set up. She’d naively thought that the government would keep them safe but as with many others, she’d overestimated both their compassion and their competence. When the plague swept through the world, other countries had issued mandates to keep the citizens safe, even if they complained and raged. They’d acted in the best interest of the people. America, on the hand, had bowed to the pressures of Murican rights and outrage. Government officials and multimillionaires had made as much money as they could dumping stock before they fled the country, letting the proletariat to deal with the consequences. The stock market had been destroyed; people lost everything. Money was more useful as toilet paper than currency. There was no use in working anymore. There was a period of uneasy uncertainty when everyone stayed inside and asked themselves, now what? But then prices spiked exponentially, and no one could afford anything anymore. People looted and fought each other over bread. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Left unchecked, the virus had mutated and developed separate strains. Some were even more lethal than the original virus, killing most of the population. Some left their hosts empty husks, living but unable to breathe. They didn’t last long. And some turned people into rabid monsters, mindless with rage. And it had taken less than two years.
In the before times, Rose had been an investment banker. She’d lived in a high-rise condo in Washington DC, working from home and thinking that it would all blow over eventually. When it didn’t, she’d stayed inside with her dwindling food supplies until she’d been forced to evacuate when her building was set on fire. She’d been able to grab a few things and stuff them into a backpack before she fled, but it wasn’t much, and it certainly wasn’t very helpful to surviving on the streets now. She remembers taking one of those silly quizzes in high school: how long would you survive in the apocalypse? Her final result was one week, so that hadn’t been encouraging, but it’s been several months now and she hasn’t died yet so maybe there’s hope.
She’s not sure what she’s looking for. Maybe she’ll squat for the winter in a nice beachfront property. She doesn’t have anyone. Her parents are dead and even if they weren’t, there’s no one left to keep the cell towers working. The breakdown of the supply chain means there’s no gas for transportation. People keep away from strangers, whether out of fear of becoming infected or being robbed by roving bands of bandits. Honestly, her only goal is to make it south before winter comes. She knows the south will be much more crowded in the next upcoming months, but all her other goals went up in smoke along with the collapse of life as she knew it. After that, who knew? Maybe she’d be able to cross the border into Mexico or further south in hopes of a better life.
In the past few months, she’s been sticking close to the I-95, scared of losing her way. If she’d known that the zombie apocalypse would happen in her lifetime, she would’ve paid more attention in Girl Scouts. She has about as much idea of how to find her way by stars as how to create nuclear fusion. She’s made her way through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and now Florida. Every time she passes a Welcome sign, she feels a ridiculous sense of accomplishment, and every time, she’ll look around for someone to share her triumph with before she realizes she’s alone. She’s so lonely, she’s started talking to herself.
So she’s in an only moderately looted gas station, considering the merits of Spongebob-shaped ravioli vs regular Spaghetti-O’s out loud, when she’s ambushed.
Okay, ambushed is probably too harsh. Surprised is probably a better term. But to someone who’s been on her own for months without human contact, it seems like an ambush.
“Oh!” the woman gasps when she stumbles upon Rose crouched on the floor, mumbling to herself.
Rose bares her teeth and prepares to scuttle away, but she notices that the woman is well-fed. Her hair is sleek, her teeth are all present and accounted for. Her clothes have been mended several times, but she’s not filthy like Rose. Her eyes are clear, and she hasn’t done anything but startle at Rose’s presence. She doesn’t seem sick.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says, backing up slowly. “I didn’t realize there was anyone here. I’ll just uh…go.”
“Wait,” Rose croaks, stuffing both cans into her backpack and standing.
And like a fool, the woman pauses.
Which is when Rose springs, drawing her stolen machete. The woman has no time but to squeak before Rose is behind her, her blade against the woman’s throat.
“What’s your name?” Rose growls, trying to sound like she knows what she's doing rather than scared shitless.
“Jane,” the woman whimpers. “Please don’t kill me, I have a son. I was just trying to find some gum for him. It’s his birthday and—”
“Shut up, I didn’t ask!” Rose says. She’s trying to think. She’d pulled a knife on this woman on a whim and now she has no idea what to do. There are fifty ways this could end up with her dead, but she’s so desperate for what this woman has, and apparently the best thing she could think of on the spot was to threaten her. “Where do you live?”
“In the middle of nowhere.”
“Why do you look like that, then?”
“Okay, look, it is 2021. I know we’re living in a dystopia, but I would’ve thought that racism was a thing of the past—”
“Don’t be stupid. I couldn’t care less that you’re Latina. I want to know where you’re getting food.”
“Oh. I live in a commune.”
“Show me. But I’m warning you, if you try anything, I will slit your throat.”
“Okay. Please don’t hurt me.”
It’s very slow going. Jane, despite her passivity, is in much better shape than Rose is. Rose has to try to keep her breathing even to cover up that she is having a hard time keeping up, in addition to being careful not to jostle Jane and accidentally cut her. Climbing over rubble while trying to hold someone hostage isn’t something she ever anticipated doing.
It takes most of the day but Jane shows her through a wooded trail hidden behind an abandoned construction site. Idly, Rose wonders if she’s leading her to a swamp where she’ll be pushed in and devoured by gators. She doesn’t know anything about Florida besides old people and Florida Man memes. But that was before.
Eventually, they reach a clearing. There are a few roughly made huts out of scrap from the construction site arranged around a firepit, but by far, most of the space is taken up by…
“A garden,” Rose breathes. She hasn’t had fresh vegetables in she doesn’t remember how long. Mostly she’s been eating berries and whatever she can scavenge from houses and stores. It’s been an adventure in what will make her violently ill. And she knows that she could be eating something that could straight-up kill her, but her personal philosophy can be best summed up as, “If I die, I die.”
Jane gives a little cry and Rose remembers she’s still holding a knife to her neck. She pushes her away, sending Jane sprawling. At the commotion, several heads poke out of the huts.
“Mateo!” Jane gasps, scrambling to a dark-haired boy and scooping him up, watching Rose with terrified eyes. Two Latina women who bear a resemblance to Jane crowd around her and push her back, away from Rose. A blonde woman presses two blonde girls closer to her and shrinks back into her hut.
Now that Rose is here, she isn’t sure what to do. It seems impolite to ask for some of their food after she threatened one of them. She’s trying to figure out how to word her request when she’s actually ambushed. A man barrels out of the woods behind her and tackles her to the ground. She’s trying to reach for her machete when he knocks her out with a punch to the temple.
When she comes to, there’s a rag stuffed in her mouth. She’s been tied up and there are a bunch of people staring at her, having a hushed argument.
“We need to kill her,” a Latino man who looks vaguely familiar says.
“Rogelio!” a woman who’s holding him back (his wife?) says.
“No, he’s right,” the older Latina woman says.
“Ma! We’re not killing anyone!”
“She threatened my baby!” Rogelio hisses.
“Not a baby, Dad, but I appreciate the sentiment,” Jane says, still holding Mateo.
“Me neither!” Mateo protests, squirming in her arms. “So can you put me down?”
“Not until we decide what to do with her,” Jane says sternly. “Michael?”
The man who’d tackled Rose looks troubled. “I don’t want to kill her, but I don’t know what else we can do now that she knows we’re here. For all we know, she could lead other people to us and who knows what they’ll bring with them.”
“We can’t risk it,” the blonde woman says in a light accent. “I vote for killing her.”
“Are you not for killing her?” Petra asks. “She held a knife to your throat. I’d kill anyone that did that with my bare hands.”
One of her girls looks up at her. “I’d kill someone for you, Mommy.”
“Thank you, Anna.”
“I’d kill someone for you first, Mommy.”
“You’re just saying that because I said it first!” Anna says.
The twins start slapping at each other’s arms, but quietly.
“Stop fighting, girls.”
Jane turns to the last member of the group, who hasn’t spoken yet. “What do you think, Luisa?”
Luisa stares at Rose. Rose stares back resolutely. She’s already been caught talking to herself, held a stranger hostage, been knocked out, and woken up gagged and bound (and not in a fun way) today. There’s really no lower she can sink.
“I think she can be redeemed,” Luisa finally says.
Petra rolls her eyes. “Of course you want her to stick around.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Luisa fires back.
“You’re such a bleeding heart.”
“I think we could use a little bit of compassion, considering the state of the world.”
“Are you sure she’s not sick?” Michael asks.
“Positive. I mean negative. Her test came back negative.”
“What do you think Raf would’ve thought?” the oldest woman asks quietly.
“Who cares? He’s dead.”
“Have some respect, Michael,” Luisa snaps.
Michael sighs. “Sorry.”
Luisa closes her eyes and takes a breath, steadying herself. When she opens her eyes, she says, “Well, I suppose it’s really up to you, Jane, since she kidnapped you, but in my professional opinion, she looks half-starved. I think she was just looking for some food.”
Rose nods vigorously.
“That’s always what the villain says before she slaughters everyone. In Pasion Intergalactica—” Rogelio starts.
“This isn’t one of your telenovelas, Rogelio,” Petra says.
“I’m just saying, there are applicable situations to be found in my body of work.”
“What’s everyone’s votes?” Jane asks.
The oldest woman, Rogelio, and Petra are in favor of executing her. Rogelio’s wife(?), Luisa, and Michael (but by a very small margin) vote to let her live.
“We’re not murderers, Jane,” Michael explains. “Zombies are one thing when our lives are in danger, but killing another normal person is something else entirely.”
“You’re the tiebreaker,” Rogelio’s wife says to Jane.
While Jane is biting her lip, her guilty eyes boring into Rose’s, the kids pipe up.
“Let’s kill her!” the twins say.
Mateo hides his face in Jane’s shoulder. “I don’t want to see anyone else die after Dad.”
“The three of you are too young to participate in this discussion,” the older lady says.
As Jane is deliberating though, there’s a loud rustling from outside the hut. Something is moving through the tall grass and is making no attempt to keep quiet. Everyone freezes. They look to Michael.
He creeps to a hole in the structure and peeks out. Immediately, he makes a quick flurry of hand motions that must mean something to the others because everyone moves. Silently, Jane, Petra, and Luisa seize one of the kids. The other two Latina women pull out weapons: a baseball bat and an axe. Rogelio has a slingshot. Michael has a gun in one hand and counts down with his fingers on the other. When he lowers the last finger, they burst into motion.
The group with the children moves behind the armed group, splitting off to another (presumably better secured) hut as the others provide cover. Rose cranes her neck to see what’s going on, but the woman with the axe is blocking her view. There’s the earsplitting bangs of the gunshots though, underscored by the telltale sound of wet crunching though. Attackers. Bandits? No screams. Zombies, then.
Rose makes what urgent noises she can through her gag. The woman turns around. “What?”
Rose shakes her bound hands and motions with her head toward her machete, lying just out of her reach.
“You need your machete?”
Rose nods forcefully.
“To help us?”
She nods again.
The woman hardly takes a second to think about it before she’s sawing through Rose’s bonds. Rose pulls the rag out of her mouth with a grimace. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me until you’ve followed through on your good intentions.”
And with that, they both charge into the fray. Rogelio and Michael are behind the other woman, trying to pick off zombies before the woman can be overwhelmed, although she’s piling up quite the body count with her baseball bat alone. There’s that wet crunch as one of their heads explodes on impact with the bat. It’s gruesome as all hell, but the only way to kill them is by severing or destroying the head. And it looks like Rogelio’s aiming for the eye sockets. Judging by ones that suddenly jerk and collapse, his aim is pretty good.
Rose nearly loses her breath when she sees how many there are, but she presses on (not in the least because hot on her tail is a woman with an axe.) At least fifteen of them. She’s never seen so many in a horde before, and never this close. Michael curses when his gun clicks and fumbles to reload. Rose and her liberator pass him by.
The three women mow down the rest of the zombies, cutting and slashing and hacking. Occasionally, Rogelio gets to one before they do.
In the end, there’s only blood and twitching bodies and heavy breathing. They all stop to listen, trying to hear if the commotion has drawn out any more zombies. It feels like an eternity before Luisa, who’s climbed a tree for a better vantage point, waves down to them.
Rose looks at her fellow warriors, seeing her same expression mirrored on their faces. She and the women are covered in blood and bits of brain. Their faces are haggard but there’s a grudging respect in their eyes for her.
Rose feels cheeky enough to press her luck. She spits out some blood. “So does this mean you won’t kill me?”
The adults that came within six feet of the zombies are quarantined. Since all news stopped after the collapse, they’re no longer sure of how the virus spreads. It could be transmitted through blood as well as through the air and if that’s the case, Rose and the other two women have a pretty good chance of becoming infected.
They’re each given their own foxhole.
It feels like entering her own grave when Rose is told to get into one, but she figures it would be a bad idea to disagree when they’ve seemingly forgiven her for her previous transgression. She sits for hours, staring at the dirt wall and listening to everyone else who wasn’t exposed tearing down the structures and moving further into the woods, away from the carnage. Three times a day, Luisa comes by to lower food and water to her and to check for signs of infection.
After months of walking and scavenging for food, this feels like a vacation, even if she is bored out of her mind.
“Hey,” she calls up to Luisa one day after she’s slaked her thirst. “How are the others?”
“Good,” Luisa says. “The kids are rabidly curious about you, but Jane’s doing a good job of keeping them away.”
“Because I held her hostage?”
“She hasn’t quite forgiven you for that yet, but it’s more because she’s worried about them getting sick.”
“And the other two women?”
“Xo and Alba?” Luisa asks.
“The ones with the baseball bat and the axe?”
“They figure we could use someone who can cut up as many zombies as you can. Just in case.”
“So they’ve changed their minds about killing me.”
Luisa shrugs. “It depends on if any of you show symptoms of the virus. So far, so good. Three days down, eleven to go.”
“What happens if one of us gets sick?”
Luisa doesn’t say anything, just peers down at her for a while. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
The next day, before Luisa can lower down Rose’s breakfast and vanish, Rose asks, “What about the test?”
“When I was tied up, you guys said you tested to see if I was sick. Can you do that now?”
“We have a very limited supply of tests.”
“Do you import them?”
Luisa snorts. “We live in the middle of the woods. What makes you think we import anything?”
“Well, how do you get them?”
“I make them.”
“I used to be a doctor before everything went to shit. I dabbled in immunology during my residency and one day by happy accident, I found out that a certain compound will turn blue if exposed to the virus. But it’s very hard to obtain so we only have a few tests that are only used in emergencies. I’ll test the three of you at the end of quarantine to see if you have the virus in your system.” She gives Rose a small smile. “You must be really special to get two.”
It’s not much, but it’s been so long since Rose has seen another human smile at her that she closes her eyes and replays it in her head again and again and again.
Rose starts when a shower of dirt rains on her head.
“Psst, hey! Are you alive?”
She looks up. Three little faces peer down at her.
“I told you she wasn’t dead,” one of the girls says smugly. “You owe me an acorn.”
The other girl grumbles under her breath.
“Why did you think she was dead?” Mateo asks.
“We hadn’t heard anything in a while. You can at least hear singing or snoring or something from Abuela and Bisa.”
“Well, I’m not dead. Not yet anyway,” Rose says.
“Any chance you could speed that up?” the unlucky girl says. “I don’t have an acorn to give Anna.”
“No can do, kiddo. I’m getting fed way too much good stuff for me to give that up now.”
But then, the kids all look up as one and scurry away. Seconds later, Rose hears Jane’s voice. “What have I told you about hanging out around the pits?”
Jane glances down at Rose for a second. Rose waves. Jane doesn’t say anything before she leaves her alone again.
“So how’d you guys all meet?” Rose asks after she’s scarfed down her meal: roasted squash with chunky potatoes and a side of fresh cucumber, and for dessert, a tiny, wild orange. She’s feeling sleepy and content, glutted with good food.
“We’re a family,” Luisa says simply.
“Not much of a family resemblance, I know.” She laughs. “It’s a strange set-up and an even stranger story behind the family tree. But basically, Alba is Xo’s mom, who is Jane’s mom, who obviously is Mateo’s mom. Xo and Rogelio dated in high school but then they broke up and lost contact. Xo had Jane without Rogelio knowing, who went on to star in telenovelas. Years later, I accidentally artificially inseminated Jane with my brother, Rafael’s sperm. Unfortunately, Rafael was then married to Petra and Jane was engaged to Michael. While Jane was pregnant, Petra and Rafael went through a nasty divorce and in retaliation, she inseminated herself with his other only sample. That’s how the twins came about.” She squints. “Am I missing anyone? I don’t think so.”
“Wow. Straight out of a telenovela,” Rose says.
Luisa laughs again. It’s a nice sound. “That’s what Mateo says all the time.”
“What happened to Rafael?” Rose asks.
She knows immediately it’s the wrong thing to say because Luisa tenses up.
“I’m sorry, I thought…” She trails off. She didn’t know what she thought. She knew he was dead, after all.
“He was tired of living like this,” Luisa says softly. “He went to look for help. We all told him not to but he believed there was something better out there for his family. Alba found his body a few days later while she was looking for supplies.” She shrugs. “It was a while ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Rose says, feeling awkward.
“He’s always been a dumbass, but I miss him.”
“He, um, he sounds like a real family man,” Rose says, pulling something out of her ass.
“He was,” Luisa says.
She leaves Rose alone with her thoughts.
On the thirteenth day, she gets a new visitor.
“Here you are,” a male voice says, lowering her the cup of water.
“Where’s Luisa?” Rose asks Michael.
“She’s with Petra.”
“Is she okay?” Rose asks, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth.
“Oh yeah, she just has a cold, but better to be safe than sorry with these things.”
“I have some ibuprofen in my backpack if she needs that.”
Michael smiles. “I’ll let her know.” He hands her her dinner. “So, um, I wanted to apologize for before. When we tied you up and were talking about killing you.”
Rose shrugs as she tears apart a mushroom with her teeth. “Totally understandable. But thank you, I appreciate it.”
But just when she thinks this conversation is over, he says, “Well, tomorrow’s the big day, isn’t it?” He stands up and brushes the dirt off his pants. “You’ll be able to get out.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Should I be?”
“We’re an interesting bunch of personalities. It takes some getting used to.”
There’s another pause where she thinks he’ll leave, but he’s still just standing there. She’s feeling generous, so she takes pity on him and says, “So what did you do before?”
If there’s something everyone loves, it’s talking about before.
“I was a cop. I was so close to breaking the case on a crime lord, and then you know, everything fell apart.”
“Were you really? That explains the gun.”
“Yeah, my old service weapon. I’ll have to get rid of it soon since I’m running out of magazines. Maybe get Rogelio to teach me how to swing a driver. I think he found some old golf clubs a while back.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Florida? Out of ammo? I find that hard to believe.”
He shrugs. “Things are scarce all over. The kids aren’t even that young and they’ve already nearly forgotten what toilet paper is. They’ve elevated it to something mythical.”
“It is something mythical,” Rose says.
There’s a small silence before he says, “It’s very different—very difficult—from life before. But if you wanted to stick around, we’d be happy to have you.”
“Because I’m good with a machete?”
“Well, yeah, but I think you’re growing on Jane too.”
“You are! I’ve known Jane since she was 21. I know when she’s letting go of her grudges.”
“She hasn’t even talked to me since I was put in this hole.”
He smiles. “Give it time. Just keep being your usual sunny, hostage-taking self.”
She rolls her eyes. “I’ll think about joining your ‘family.’”
He holds up his hands. “That’s all I’m asking for.”
It’s not much a choice at all, between wandering on alone or staying with people she may or may not be growing fond of.
In the morning, Luisa gives her a cheek swab and after a few minutes in the sun, the q-tip stays white.
“She’s healthy!” she proclaims.
Immediately, hands reach down into the hole and haul Rose up.
“Just so we’re clear, this isn’t like a weird sex cult or like a thing where you lull me into a false sense of security and then eat me, right?” is the first thing she says when she’s on level ground again.
Petra’s mouth twitches. “Guess you’ll have to stick around to find out.”
“Fair enough,” Rose says.
Luisa laughs. “Welcome to the Villanueva-Solano-Alver-Cordero-de la Vega family!”
“I thought we agreed it was de la Vega-Villanueva-Cordero-Alver-Solano!” protests Rogelio.
“It is definitely Villanueva first. It’s always Villanueva first,” Alba says, patting his arm in a consoling fashion.
Rose grins. It feels like a new beginning.