“I am not wrong.”
Luisa’s stare is indignant, firm. She folds her arms over her chest and raises a defiant eyebrow. A bead of sweat slips down her neck, the luminous trail it leaves behind a stark contrast against the tan skin exposed by her open collar. It settles on her shiny collarbone for a moment before slipping past three open buttons and into her military issue button-down.
Petra’s stretched out in the dry grass a few feet across from Luisa, gazing upward. A few flies circle her head lazily. Her eyes are as blank as the empty sky that stretches endlessly above them.
“I’m not,” Luisa repeats, the words empty of her characteristic emotion.
Oklahoma summers are hot and dry in a way that drains the humanity from you and makes you watch as it blows away in the dirty wind. There are no roots to hold down the untilled soil that once held cornstalks and soybean plants, so it drifts aimlessly across the fields.
“This is the ninety-seventh day without rain,” JR says, scribbling a number in her notebook, “You really think the drought will end in three days?”
“It’s going to rain soon. I can feel it in my bones,” Luisa says.
“I’m not risking anything on Alver’s bones,” Petra says. “I’d give it another month.”
JR pauses for a moment, brow furrowed as she studies the page. “So Petra’s got an unused ponytail holder on a month from today, I’ve got a pencil with an eraser on three weeks, Rose has a nail file on five weeks, and Luisa’s got a day’s worth of rations on this Friday.”
Petra sighs. “Luisa’s going to die of malnutrition.”
“She’s an optimist,” Rose says. “There’s not many of them left. Let her have some faith.”
Rose drains a quarter of her water bottle into her mouth and wipes the excess on the back of her hand. Her thumb pauses at the split of her lip, the crevice where the wind has bitten through her flesh. It does not bleed, but a scab has yet to form over the tender skin.
“Look where optimism got us.” Petra gestures vaguely at the barren fields that surround them on all sides.
The sharp sound of a whistle interrupts them. There’s a brief shuffle, and then they’re marching again.
The sky is on fire when they arrive at camp, orange flames licking the hard lines of the horizon. The waning light sets the scene before them ablaze, casting long shadows that cling to the ground.
The camp is little more than a few slumped tents huddled around a charred fire pit. There are four posts spread widely apart at the far edge of the settlement. A large piece of cloth that once sheltered the area now flaps freely in the wind, tethered only to a single post. The river that once flowed down from the hills on the eastern side is now dried up.
The last people to stay here are dead. No one says it, but everyone is thinking it.
Rose and JR dig their stakes into the ground a few feet from Petra and Luisa, who have given up on their tent in favor of their rations. Tonight’s meal is cheese tortellini in a thin red sauce, a chunk of bread, and a few hard candies that have no flavor apart from their sweetness.
“Whatever is inside these things is definitely not cheese,” JR says as she squeezes the last of her sauce packet onto her tray. “This is a disgrace to Italian food.”
“At least it’s not beef goulash again,” Petra says, grimacing.
“Did anyone else ever think tortellini look like little vaginas?” Luisa asks.
Rose laughs sharply as she turns to see Luisa easing the folds of the pasta apart with two fingers, grinning wickedly. Petra is significantly less amused.
“Alver needs to get laid,” JR says. “Clearly it’s been too long if your food starts to look like genitalia.”
“Genitalia?” Luisa snorts. “Why can’t you just say vagina? I don’t want anyone to think I’m interested in sucking dick.”
Rose’s words are quiet, measured. “Trust me, no one thinks that.”
She feels Luisa’s gaze like a flickering flame on the curve of her jaw, the nape of her neck. The warmth spreads through her slowly, lingering long after Luisa looks away. When she looks up again, JR’s made some kind of lawyer joke, and Petra’s leaned just a little too close to her, her hand placed just a little too high on JR’s thigh to be an unconscious gesture.
They’re up before the sun, lacing their boots in the darkness.
Someone’s started a small fire in the pit and is heating a kettle of water for coffee, a luxury they haven’t been able to afford in five days. They take turns filling their tin cups with the bitter liquid and burn their tongues in the haste to quell the withdrawal symptoms that have begun to spread through the company.
Petra’s fixing her hair in a cracked mirror by firelight while JR watches from the entrance of her tent in a not entirely disinterested manner. Luisa is leaned against Rose’s shoulder, talking about her brother again. He’d been drafted a month before her and sent to fight the infestation in Boston. She hasn’t heard from him since. Rose has heard the story at least a dozen times, so she enjoys the warm weight of the other woman’s body instead. When Luisa turns just so, the light catches the flecks of gold in her eyes.
Orders have changed.
Upon finding the camp completely abandoned, the lieutenants have decided to slow their march. They must be much closer to the infestation than expected. The danger of the situation has the whole company thrumming with a nervous energy. Their advance is slow, wary. They lack soldiers, proper weapons, and fresh water. Their knowledge of the opponent is limited; few have fought and lived to tell. They are advancing into their own graves.
When they stop for rest, Luisa’s hands shake violently when she tries to open her water bottle. Rose opens the bottle for her, strokes her hair until the tremors subside.
“What would you do if it was your last day on Earth?”
Luisa’s setting a three of hearts on top of a four, asking the question like she’s just now thought of it. Rose knows better.
“I’d want to spend it in Italy. I love the language, the food, the architecture, the culture,” Rose pauses briefly, “the women. What about you?”
Rose reaches out to add a nine and ten of spades to a jack.
Luisa sighs. “I don’t know. I always thought my last day would be when I was really old and wrinkly with a dozen grandkids on a beach somewhere. But now the world’s gone to shit and we could be dead tomorrow.”
“Everyone makes a big deal about the last day, but I’d be okay if mine was an ordinary one. Cramming a whole bunch of things you love into a single day won’t negate a horrible life.”
“I know that. I just… if it were my last day, I’d want to spend it surrounded by the people I love and I don’t even know if my brother is alive. I haven’t seen my dad in five months. You’d really be happy if this were your last day?”
Luisa’s propped up on her elbow, mirroring Rose’s position across from her. The deck of cards between them is dwindling, and the game is almost over. Tomorrow, they will wake early and live the same day over again, but for now, there is only Luisa in the evening light, her dark hair loose around her face. Rose’s split lip throbs.
“I’d be okay with that.”
Their fingers brush over the cards.
Rose is half-asleep when she hears the sound of footsteps outside her tent. She’s bolt upright in half a second, her heart in her throat when Petra pushes her way into the tiny tent she shares with JR.
“Scoot over,” Petra hisses, bedding in hand.
“What the hell,” JR mutters, turning over.
Rose moves closer to JR as Petra collapses on the ground next to her. It’s a tight fit, and Rose lies on her back to avoid brushing up against Petra on her left or JR on her right. Privately, Rose wonders what would happen if she were to leave the two of them alone in the tent.
Petra huffs. “Alver sexiled me.”
JR laughs a little at this. “Good for her.”
“Who’s she with?” Rose cringes the second the question leaves her mouth.
“Barnett. I always thought she had a boyfriend,” Petra says.
JR’s laugh is genuine this time. “Barnett is and always has been gay as hell. Your gaydar is terrible, Andel.”
It’s going to be a long night.
There’s no coffee this morning, and Rose misses it dearly as she watches JR and Petra trade dried fruit. It appears that Petra only likes the cranberries and golden raisins while JR prefers the black raisins and cranberries, so they’ve emptied their packets onto an empty tray and are now fighting over the cranberries.
Luisa emerges from her tent, half-dressed and rubbing at her eyes. Her hair is sticking up at odd angles, and she draws attention as she moves across the campus to join them. Susanna is a few steps behind her, a poor attempt at a staggered entrance.
“Hey Barnett, want to sit with us?” JR offers. Susanna gives the four of them a pointed glare before situating herself on the opposite side of the camp.
“What the hell happened, Alver?” Petra asks.
Luisa shrugs. “I did something she wasn’t into.”
“Where’d all that signature smoothness go? Losing your touch?” JR says.
Luisa mumbles something under her breath.
“What?” Petra asks.
Luisa looks sheepish. “I may have accidentally called her the wrong name.”
Petra lights up. “Holy shit, whose name? Your ex wife?”
Rose accidentally catches Luisa’s eye, and Luisa turns away quickly, looking anywhere but at her.
“No one you know.”
They’re camped near an abandoned barn tonight, so after the sun has set, their platoon gathers inside to eat and play games. The barn has no doors on either side, but it’s nice to be inside something other than a tent for once.
“Truth or dare,” Petra asks JR.
“Do you have a question or not?” JR asks.
“Who do you miss the most?”
JR looks down. “My mom. She’s… she wasn’t doing so well before I left, and I wanted to be there to take care of her.”
There’s a lull, and Rose takes a sip of the flavored drink that had been part of the rations for tonight. It tastes almost like lemonade, and she fights the memories that it stirs in her.
“Andel, truth or dare,” Luisa says.
“I dare you to kiss Ramos.”
Petra and JR exchange a glance, and Petra blushes, looks away.
“The dares have all been tame so far and I don’t want to kiss… someone just for the sake of the--.”
JR seizes Petra by the collar of her shirt and kisses the rest of the sentence out of her mouth. Petra goes perfectly still for a moment before deepening the kiss.
Luisa turns to Rose. “They needed a little push.”
Rose swallows. “Truth or dare.”
Rose closes her eyes for a moment, breathes in the night air. “Whose name did you say last night?”
Luisa’s hand comes up to cup Rose’s cheek, and Rose feels her skin go hot and cold beneath the touch. It is both too much and not enough. Her breath catches in her throat.
This is when they hear it, the low groan that they have lived in fear of for the last year. It is echoed by a chorus of others. They are surrounded.
Sweat pours down Rose’s face.
At least she hopes it’s sweat because the alternative is blood, but there’s far too much adrenaline pumping through her veins for her to focus on anything but her opponent in front of her, the movements of her own weapon.
She hadn’t been expecting them to be this fast, but she’s adapting. She waits until she can smell its hot breath before she plunges the sword into its chest. She both sees and feels the blood erupt, spraying her face and clothes. It’s warm and metallic, running down her cheeks as she pulls her sword free. She watches the life drain from already dead eyes.
Time ceases to exist.
There is only the foot she puts in front of the other, the slip and slide of her sword as it enters and exits the bodies where people once resided. Now, there is only feral hunger, a desire to survive. She wonders, fleetingly, if there is a real difference between the workings of her mind and her opponent’s in this moment, wonders if her eyes are just as empty as theirs.
Rose wakes to the sound of Luisa’s voice, the insistence of her arms.
She’s shaking Rose violently, as though she’s trying to wake her from the dead, and then it occurs to Rose that she might be. When she opens her eyes, Luisa is wild above her, tears pouring down her cheeks, her hands slick with blood.
“Rose!” she shouts, her voice rough and desperate.
Rose runs a hand up Luisa’s arm, cups her face the way Luisa had cupped hers a lifetime ago. Luisa’s eyes go wide, and she stares at Rose for a moment, the realization coming to her in waves. She can almost see it, the moment when Luisa recognizes the life still inside of her, the moment when she looks at her the way she’s always looked at her. Like nothing else matters.
Luisa clutches at her fiercely, hugs her with enough force to take her breath away. “I thought I lost you,” she whispers into her hair, “I thought I lost you.”
Above them, the sky is the color of dark bruises, clouds swollen with promise. Rose runs her tongue over her lip. It is beginning to heal.
“I’m in love with you,” Rose says.
Luisa kisses her. It pours.