“June 18, 2042
Jesus, I thought yesterday was a s**t show. Now I have a windshield with bullet holes in it, Raiders that’ll most likely be looking for me, and a girl that says I owe her a new motorcycle traveling with me. She says her name is Chloe Williams, and it’s hard to get a read on her. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens. Fenix seems to like her. Well, after she quit pointing a gun at me anyway. I’ll keep an eye on her for now.
It had been quiet for a couple of months when I decided to leave Fort Collins, and in the last two days, I’ve seen more action than the entire time I was there… The Marines show up and get attacked, this girl decides to take on the Raiders… What’s next?
I’m worried about the Raiders now. They don’t take kindly to their own being taken out, and they’ll likely be looking for us when they realize what happened. I know I killed a couple of them, but I’m pretty sure there were survivors. I don’t know how much Intel they have, or what their connection to Chloe is, but we’re going to have to tread lightly. I think I might have to take Jackson up on his offer after all. Or at least see what he knows. I’ll take Chloe to Pueblo and we’ll go from there. The girl’s angry, and she has a lot of fight in her. Honestly, she kind of reminds me of me, and I don’t know yet if that’s a good thing.
I told myself I’d quit doing this, quit getting involved. But when s**t hits the fan, I can’t help it. My first instinct is to jump in. I dunno, maybe I need a purpose. Or maybe I got a death wish. Ever since Lydia and Scarlett…”
Joel awoke suddenly in a cold sweat, sitting up quickly with his pistol at the ready. The sudden movement startled Chloe and Fenix both awake as well, the loyal dog looking around with his ears perked and listening, while the girl in the old black motorcycle jacket frantically looked around, pulling out her own gun. After seeing nothing and realizing it was a nightmare that woke him, Joel lowered his gun and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, sighing deeply.
“What the hell was that?” demanded Chloe as she looked back to Joel. His face looked dirty, as everyone did these days, but he was covered in sweat and looked paler than he did yesterday, as if he’d seen a ghost. Upon seeing the state he was in, her tone changed slightly to standoffish concern. “Jesus. Are you ok? You look like s**t.”
Joel, despite knowing she was right, said, “I’m fine…” He holstered his 1911 and looked at his watch. 6:37am. “Since we’re all up now, let’s get ready to go.”
“Do you… get them a lot?” Chloe asked.
“What?” questioned Joel, now being the one to sound standoffish.
“Nightmares…” the girl’s voice, as well as her features, softened for the first time since the two had met. “Sometimes the monsters in our dreams are worse than the real ones,” she said with a sadness born from loss. Joel noticed this change in her demeanor as her words hit home. Perhaps the two survivors really weren’t so different.
“Yeah… Tell me about it,” Joel replied, contemplating Chloe’s words as he relaxed his stoic features. “Sorry, uh, if I scared you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’d rather wake up to a cup of coffee, but that woke me up just as well.” Chloe laughed. Joel chuckled as well. “Since we have more light now, I’m going to look around the house again, see if there’s anything else worth taking.”
“Good idea,” said Joel, “I’ll join you in a minute.”
“God I miss coffee…” Chloe said, more to herself as she turned and left the room to take a look around.
Once she was out of earshot, Joel looked to Fenix and whispered, “What do you think boy? You like her?” the dog’s tail began to thump on the floor. “Maybe Jackson’ll take her in. Hopefully his ‘safe zone’ really is safe.” The canine continued to stare at his partner, tail softly thumping on the ground.
With a grunt, Joel got up and said, “Well, let’s see if we missed anything,” and began searching the house, empty backpack in hand. He walked out of the living room to the hallway, and not seeing Chloe, assumed that she had started at the back of house. The first door he came to was closed, and upon opening it, he revealed a tidy, albeit dusty, bathroom. Stepping inside, Joel noticed a bathtub, sink, mirrored medicine cabinet, and toilet. As he reached his hand up to open the medicine cabinet, he paused. Looking in the mirror, he took in the sight of himself for the first time in a while.
His beard wasn’t too long, but unkempt. His crystal blue eyes were contrasted by the dark bags underneath them. His hair was shorter on the sides than the top, the sides reaching about an inch, while the top was closer to 4 inches. It was greasy and dirty. Joel’s skin was tanned from the elements, with the exception of his many scars, including one above his left eyebrow that was slightly darker in comparison.
The clothing the survivor wore weren’t in much better condition. A dirty grey button up with the sleeves rolled up sat under an old, but well maintained, leather shoulder holster that was home to the Colt, and worn and torn blue jeans. The new boots Joel had found at the pawn shop were a nice change though.
He tried the faucet and was met with disappointment. “Of course there’s no water…” he chided himself. He moved to the bathtub. Inside he found shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, all about halfway full. He smiled and put the items in his pack, then left the room to search more of the house.
Chloe and Joel met at the tailgate of the old Dodge pickup to share what they had found. “So, find anything good?” asked Joel.
“Not much really,” Chole responded. “Some towels in a hall closet, an old Zippo, some silverware and a knife set.” She set the items on the tailgate with a defeated sigh. Fenix appeared, setting his front paws on the tailgate as well to sniff and inspect the treasures.
“Not bad…” said Joel with a smirk. “But my haul was a bit better,” he pulled out an axe. “Found this by the back door. Found some electrical and duct tape. Aaaaand…” he dropped the cleaning products from the bathroom triumphantly. “These!”
“Oh my God!” Chloe gasped. “Is that…”
“Does the shower…”
“Damn!” Chloe’s excitement dwindled into disappointment.
“But, there is a lake. It’s better than nothing.” Chloe’s emerald eyes brightened, a look of excitement taking over her features. For the first time, Joel realized how gorgeous she really was. She stood about 5’4″ compared to Joel’s 5’10”, causing her to look up to meet his gaze. She had a dark smoky eye to complement her emerald green eyes. Her worn black leather jacket fit her like a glove, showing off her strong, athletic form alongside her ragged skintight jeans and shin-high biker boots.
“Tell you what,” he continued, “take these, go to the lake and clean up. I’ll go finish up in the house and give you some privacy.”
Chloe bounced excitedly, grabbing the bottles and a towel, before turning to her new companion and saying, “You better not be a perv and spy on me…”
“You’ll have the lake to yourself, no worries,” Joel promised. “I’ll leave Fenix outside. Just in case.” He then looked to the dog, pointing to Chloe and saying, “Fenix, guard.”
“I can live with that,” said the girl, before turning to the canine and scratching behind his ears, rhetorically adding, “You’re not a perv, are you?” and with that, the two trotted off towards the lake in the warm spring morning.
Joel turned and walked back into the house, when he remembered something Chloe had mentioned that morning.
Most MREs had coffee in them, and Joel had saved everything he hadn’t used. He searched through his meager belongings, until with a triumphant “Ha!” he pulled out the coffee packets.
Chloe walked back into the house, toweling off her hair, the German Shepherd walking by her side. When she entered the main room, she paused, sniffing the air.
Joel, who had been facing away from the door tending to the portable stove, looked behind him at Chloe with a tin cup in hand and took a sip to answer.
“I never thought I’d smell coffee again. You are full of surprises mister,” the wet-haired woman commented.
“Here,” said Joel, downing the last of his drink before he poured some more of the bitter elixir into the cup and handed it to to the girl. “Sorry, I only have one cup,” he admitted. “But it’s hot, it’s terrible, and it’s the best cup of coffee for miles around.”
Chloe let out a single chuckle as she took the cup, inhaling the steamy aroma. Then taking a sip, she let out a satisfied, “Mmmmmmm. I miss coffee.” Looking from the cup back to Joel, Ms. Williams added, “Lemme guess, now I owe you three?”
“Nah, this one’s on the house. I’m gonna go clean up too before we leave,” the bearded wanderer stated as he began to make his way to the door, Fenix on his heels.
“You keep this up, I might actually start to like you Mr. Knox,” informed Chloe.
“It’s Joel…” the man called back, not breaking his stride. “And you better not be a perv and spy on me.”
Joel had cleaned himself throughly and quickly, the vulnerable feeling of nakedness an unwelcome side effect of his outdoor bath. But as birds sang out their territorial warnings, he pulled on his jeans, and the cleanliness he felt was well worth it.
As he continued to get dressed, moving on to his socks and boots, Joel paused. The birds, the bugs… they had fallen silent. Looking to Fenix, he confirmed his suspicions. The dogs full attention was focused on the orchard. He had felt it too. Slowly, Joel turned his head towards the budding apple trees.
“Whatcha got boy?” he softly asked his canine companion. The dog stood from his sitting position slowly, still intensely focused on the tree line. Joel noticed the hair on his arms rising, but it wasn’t until his pistol gave him a small shock upon grabbing it that it clicked.
“Oh s**t…” he said, as an out of place gust of wind stirred the surrounding vegetation and rippled the top of the small lake. “Truck… Get to the truck! Go!” he ran towards the house as fast as he could, a clean, red flannel button up in one hand, as he slung on his shoulder holster with the other.
Once the sprinting survivor was within yelling distance to the house, he screamed, “Chloe! Start the truck!” the girl stepped out onto the porch, a confused look on her face.
“What?” she yelled back, sensing something was wrong.
“We got incoming! Start the truck!” Joel repeated.
Chloe started heading for the truck, before sliding to a halt and turning around yelling, “Keys!”
“Dammit…” Joel reached into his back left pocket, noticing that his loyal friend was still beside him and withdrew the keys. Thinking quickly, he slowed his pace just enough to awkwardly clip the carabiner of the keys to Fenix’s collar, then shouted, “Fenix, to the truck! Double time!”
The dog took off at an incredible speed, leaving Joel behind for the moment. Chloe, who had seen all this transpire, headed for the truck as well to await the canine, as well as the keys.
When the speeding Shepard was halfway to the truck, the Fissure blinked into existence, shaking the ground violently with its arrival. Chloe turned to look just in time to see Joel lose his balance from the rumbling earth and tumble to the ground, rolling somewhat gracefully into a kneeling position and pulling the 1911 from its holster.
He watched the void.
“Come on,” the weary survivor muttered. “What are you gonna throw at me?”
The water rippled in the distance. The grass and trees swayed and shook with the unnatural wind. The tension was palpable as Joel and the anomalous aperture seemed to stare each other down.
Then they came. Over a dozen flying bat-like creatures the survivor and his canine companion had only seen in the low light of night came flooding from the tear.
“Screechers?” the word came out as a question. Of all the beasts and creatures he expected to come out of the abominable hole, they were not one of them. One of the flying beasts screeched loudly, hence the name Joel had given them, and upon receiving the sonar like echo back, the creatures oversized ears darted around before it snapped its eyeless, wolf like head towards Joel’s position. The Screecher went into a dive on a collision course with its target.
The ex-marine took aim and fired two shots before rolling out of the wounded creatures path. It crashed into the earth hard, writhing and screeching. The remaining creatures now knew his position.
A fourth distant shot rang out. Joel turned to see another monstrosity that had targeted him was now falling from the sky. Adjusting his gaze to the house, he saw Chloe. The SIG 716 was in her hands, resting on the hood of the truck for stability.
“Move your a*s!” she yelled, her jade eye never leaving the scope as she fired another shot after the words had left her lips. Joel obliged, and again started sprinting the 500 feet for the truck. Out of the corner of his eye he saw another Screecher start to dive towards him. Chloe fired again, and the beast fell from the sky in front of Joel, causing him to jump over the lifeless corpse.
400 feet. Chloe continued to fire on the pursuing pack of nightmares, Fenix barking wildly beside her unable to do anything else. Joel continued running with no choice but to trust the woman who skillfully wielded his rifle. Some of the horrid creatures had begun flying towards Chloe, her location easily pinpointed by the crack of the rifle. The sprinting survivor fired a few rounds at one of them, hitting it at least once as it was flailing towards the ground. The female marksman fired at another, dropping it from the skies.
300 feet. The Fissure was still open behind Joel, a low hum emanating from it. Then another sound came from the blackness as only an echo of its origin. Joel didn’t recognize it. But he did not like it. It came again, louder this time. It sounded like a grinder on sheet metal through a bull horn. The man looked up to see that the hellish roar even had the Screechers disoriented as they began to flee. Chloe could see something begin to emerge from the rift, causing her expression of determined defiance shifting to one of confused worry. Her eyes widened and her grip the rifle tightened as she mouthed, “What the fu…” Even Fenix had quit barking, instead now quietly growling, his ears pinned back against his head. Joel, being too far away, could not see the girls expression, only that she had frozen. He chanced a glance behind him, and immediately wished he hadn’t.
200 feet. The creature that had been birthed from the shimmering darkness was one neither of the survivors had ever seen before, but was most unsettling. First to appear from the void was its maroon colored head and arms, its clawed talon-like hands digging into the dirt searching for purchase. Its head slightly resembled that of a malevolent tortoise. Terrifying, razor sharp teeth and fangs filled its maw, with hate filled crimson slitted eyes taking in its surroundings. Then it quite literally slithered the rest of its snake-like body from its prison. The monstrosity was not enormous, nor was it small, the bulk of its grotesque mass about the size of a small sedan. Joel took this all in in a matter of seconds, then redoubled his efforts to get to the truck. Chloe snapped out of her disbelief and fired at the newcomer, hitting it in the chest. It screamed, more in anger than pain it seemed, and began to charge.
100 feet. Chloe fired three more times in quick succession, hitting the demonic serpent twice. The creature roared like thunder and moved like lightning, quickly closing the distance between Joel and itself.
“He’s not going to make it,” muttered Williams, as she lifted the rifle and ran around the Dodge the hop in the driver seat, throwing the SIG in the backseat and starting the truck before the door was closed. Fenix, as before, jumped through the open passenger window. Chloe dumped the clutch and the old Dodge spun out towards the running man. For a moment, Joel thought his new companion might leave him, until he saw Delilah revving towards his position. The truck slid sideways, the passenger door swinging open for Knox as Chloe kept the truck rolling. Joel ran alongside the moving truck, grabbing the bottom of the door’s window and the bracing handle above, and pulled himself into the old Ram as it gathered speed again.
The snarling serpent screeched an angry scream as its meal was seemingly escaping. Williams looked into the mirror to see that the belligerent beast was still gaining on them, albeit at a slower pace. But it was coming.
Panting heavily, Joel managed to whease out a “Rifle?!”
“Backseat!” the girl responded, as she dropped a gear and turned the wheel sharply to the right. The truck slowed slightly, and the sound of flying gravel was interrupted by the bark of rubber meeting asphalt as the Dodge turned onto the highway. The snake-like body of the clawed Fissure creature however did not need to slow to make the turn and the beast had gained on the survivors, now only 40 feet behind Delilah and slowly getting closer.
Still gasping for air, the man turned and saw his SIG was on the floorboard, leaning against the seat. Fenix was in his seat as well. Laying down, but still visibly tense. Joel grabbed the rifle and checked the magazine. 5 rounds. That meant one in the chamber for 6 rounds total. It would have to do. He clicked the magazine back into the 7.62 rifle.
“Keep it steady!” said Knox, leaning out the window and facing their pursuer as Williams grabbed another gear. She said nothing in response, instead focusing on the road. Joel hooked his right foot under the seat, brought the stock to his left shoulder, and took aim. It felt awkward. Although he had trained to shoot from both shoulders, his right hand was dominant. That fact, coupled with his exhaustion from the sprint, and the movement of the vehicle would make for a difficult shot.
The proximity of the enraged monster made the scope useless, so with both eyes open, Joel fired. The shot went wide and caught the creature in its muscular arm. In response, it bellowed an ear splitting roar, more determined to catch its meal than ever. The survivor fired again.
He fired a third time, hitting the slithering beast in its abdomen. It roared again and raised itself a little, seeming to keep the wound from scraping the ground.
Then Joel got an idea. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Raising the rifle again, he took aim the bottom most part of the snake like thing he could see, and fired. The bullet went low, hitting the asphalt before ricocheting upward into the creatures torso. The shot was quickly followed by another, which hit the monster just above where its scales met the road.
The creature stopped, and with both of its large arms, punched the ground and ferociously roared in rage and pain, breaking the asphalt and shaking the mirrors of the truck. Joel flipped the monstrosity a middle finger in retort, and climbed back into the cab of the truck.
“Did… Did you really just flip that thing off?” Chloe asked, a look of bewilderment on her face. The scarred survivor and the Raven haired woman stared at each other for a few seconds before a slight smirk crossed Joel’s face. Chloe burst into laughter at the absurdity of the gesture, and even Joel had to chuckle. Fenix, sensing the danger had passed, relaxed, and was panting happily in the backseat.
Joel felt weird sitting in the passenger seat as he gazed out the window. The last time he had sat in this seat was over a year ago when he had found the truck and was looking through the glove box for supplies. As he contemplated this, Chloe’s voice broke the silence.
“We’re almost to Boulder,” she said as she pointed at a sign post revealing that Boulder was 26 miles away. Joel grunted in response before turning to look at the woman as she drove on.
“Can I ask you something?” he said.
“Maybe,” she answered, eyeing her newfound companion suspiciously.
“Why were you attacking those Raiders by yourself?”
“Why does it matter?” she retorted, her voice somewhere between annoyance and sadness.
“Well, if we’re going to be traveling together for a while, I need to know what to expect. You seemed different dealing with them.”
“How so Joel? I was fighting for my life, same as earlier today,” her voice was now more annoyed than sad.
“No. You attacked first. And you were being reckless. At first I thought you just didn’t know what you were doing, but the way you handled yourself today? You were calm and calculated. You were focused.”
Chloe let out a defeated sigh. “They… took something… someone… from me.” As she spoke the words, her emerald eyes began to gloss with the beginnings of tears. However, her pride would not allow them to stain her cheeks.
Joel silently regretted asking, but had at least gotten his answer. “Okay,” he said, and let the matter rest, changing the subject. “So when we get to Boulder, if it looks dead, we should try to do some scavenging.”
“Yeah,” said Chloe absently, and the two continued to Boulder in silence, the dog asleep in the backseat.