Updated: Sep 1, 2021
I hate the grocery store. I hated it before the world spun off its axis, but now, I hate it with a ferocity I didn’t know was possible. I look in my open fridge, frowning at the lack of anything palatable. If tumbleweeds could blow around in here, they would. Briefly, I consider texting my best friend, Pen, to see if there's anything edible in her apartment upstairs. Then I remember she's on night duty at the hospital starting tonight, so she’s probably resting. Even so, she'd likely tell me this is a great opportunity to “get out of my head” and “lean into a growth edge,” or some such nonsense. She's big on the whole being your best self thing, despite the completely terrible state of the world.
I dig around every single cabinet in my kitchen, hoping and praying I might have accidentally stuck a box of noodles, or something, in the wrong cabinet. The search is a bust, though, and the fact that I really need to go to the grocery hits me; I’d better get my list together.
Batteries, because a girl has needs. Ramen. Easy Mac. Being single and alone rocks. Although, with the post-pandemic state of the world being what it is, single and alone is preferable to the alternative. I don't even talk to my neighbors since the virus. You just can't trust anyone anymore, especially men. No one wants to be around when a dude Awakens.
Chewing my lip, I decide to text Pen anyhow and see if she wants to go with me. She texts back right away and says she’s up for it and heading down.
Turning from the kitchen, I slip past the end of the island to grab my things but accidentally knock a stack of books and utensils off the countertop. They clatter to the ground, the books slapping flat on the floor.
The sound of the books hitting the ground rings out like a gunshot in my apartment. I wince and freeze, immediately transported back to the worst day of my life. Like a terrible movie, scenes from that day run through my mind in a never-ending loop as icy fingers grip my lungs.
My twin brother, Tyler, crashes through the front door of my parents’ house, bleeding out of his eyes, nose, and mouth. Blood trails behind him as Tyler falls to the ground; my mother screams while my father dials 911. I can feel Tyler’s death grip on my arm as I fall to my knees by his side and he thrashes wildly. When he goes completely still, my own heart stops, until Tyler sits up and looks at me through blood-filled eyes.
He’s different; I know it immediately. He is no longer my twin brother, but something sinister and deadly. Predatory eyes stare hungrily at me through my brother’s familiar face, blood and saliva dripping steadily from one side of an angry sneer.
I yank my arm out of his hand just as the sound of his bones breaking cracks through the silence in our living room. My mother starts screaming as we watch Tyler’s body break down and re-form like something out of a horror movie until my gangly sibling stands in front of us, nearly seven feet tall and built like a truck.
The first rage-filled roar that erupts out of Tyler’s mouth has my mother flying to my side, grabbing me by the arm and heading for the door where my father fumbles with a shotgun. I briefly wonder where he got it from, then a boom nearly shatters my eardrums as my father lets off a warning shot into the living room. We scramble out into the street as Tyler roars behind us, and then there’s the sound of hundreds of boots on pavement as a government task force piles into my family home and drags my brother away, screaming. No, not my brother—a monster. Because that thing in my living room is no longer my twin.
Cold fingers move to grip my throat as I struggle to suck in a breath, panic bubbling up from my stomach as my cheeks heat and my chest flushes. I’m barely aware of Pen snapping her fingers in front of my face to get my attention. When did she come in?
“Mal, Mal! You’re not there; you’re safe,” she shouts in my face, snapping her fingers rapidly right in front of my nose. Sucking in a deep gasping breath, I flash my eyes to hers. They’re green and familiar, and kind; I recognize my best friend and the familiar concern on her elegant Irish features. Pen strokes my hair gently as she counts with me.
“Breathe in, honey, ten counts and then out with me, ‘kay?” I can’t even nod, but I watch Pen’s lips as she starts with “one.” In and out, I gasp for breath as my first try barely fills my lungs. My cheeks and chest feel like they’re on fire as I grip Pen’s hand hard and try to follow her steady and patient breathing.
By “six” I can feel the air filling my lungs, and the intense panic that hits me when I remember Tyler’s change is slowly receding. Pen rubs my arms helpfully as my breathing evens out and my cheeks flush again, this time with embarrassment.
“It’s still happening, huh?” Her voice is soft and gentle, and I can barely look up as I nod miserably at her. So many random things remind me of the day I lost my brother to the virus. Most days my anxiety is what I'd call “light.” A little rumble in the pit of my tummy, a general sense that things aren't right, the need to hold my hand over my heart to make sure it's not beating erratically. But, occasionally, true panic hits me hard, and I feel physically awful. Pen says it's a normal response given the last three years of humanity's collective lives, but it still sucks. I'd love to think there's a future when books falling off the countertop don’t send me into full panic mode. But then, a lot of things send me into panic mode these days.
“You still want to go to the store?” Pen asks softly, her brows furrowed with concern. I nod because I think it’ll be helpful to just get out, even though getting out is terrifying.
“Okay then, let’s do something with this hair.” She giggles, grabbing a band from her wrist and pulling my limp brown hair up into a topknot. I’m sure it looks cuter because she’s a whiz with this sort of thing, where I normally can’t be bothered.
Staring up at Pen’s beautiful porcelain skin and wavy red hair, I chuckle in resignation. She looks like an athletic pixie, whereas I’m maybe five feet of curves with what my mama calls “extra lovin’” around the middle.
“Why are you so perfect?” I grumble half-heartedly up into Pen’s face, tugging on one of her perfectly braided pigtails. She chuckles and thumps the tip of my nose with a wink.
“You mean, why do I get such pasty, easy-to-burn Irish skin when you’re beautifully tan in the middle of winter? You mean, why am I built like a stick, but you’ve got the hourglass figure all women want? ‘Cause yeah, if that’s not what you mean, I don’t want to hear it, Mal,” she chides, stepping back to admire her handiwork. “Besides, someone should admire how hot you look in this pajama rock star ensemble.” Pen guffaws loudly.
Pen doesn’t do anything by half measures. Every smile, every laugh occurs at full volume, and it makes me chuckle reluctantly along with her, pressure easing in my chest. Her exuberance used to really fill a room before, when people still got together in groups. These days, her mothering of me is the only thing that keeps me sane. Especially after my folks decided they couldn’t stomach losing Tyler and moved all the way across the country to get away from his memory.
Thinking about that sours my temporarily improving mood, so I grab my bag while Pen watches me in silence. When we leave the apartment and close the door behind us, panic rises in my throat again. Swallowing it down, I follow Pen’s lean figure down three flights to the front entry of our building. She opens the door and walks out into the fading sunlight effortlessly, as if leaving the safety of our building doesn’t matter to her. And I guess it doesn’t, because she does this every day to go to work.
I peek out after her and scan the street, but everything is still. The city still smells like New York, the air thick and dense. Two solitary cars drive by, a far cry from the hundreds of honking cars packed like sardines, as it was before. It feels like the whole world is collectively holding their breath, waiting to escape from the pandemic that plagues us.
A few people walk up the street in our direction, their faces covered by hoodies, clutching their bags tight as they approach. No one waves or says hello. This is the new normal; at least, it’s how life has been since the Awaken virus hit us three years ago.
Pen rolls her eyes exaggeratedly as she clomps down the stairs loudly.
“Mallory, honey, we’re not going to get snatched off the street in broad daylight,” she chastises, using my full name, which she knows I hate.
“We might,” I tell her off half-heartedly as I join her. We practically jog up the street, holding our purses close. When we pass our neighbor on his way back to the building, I don't even look up at him, although Pen gives him a broad smile. He doesn't stop to talk to us though, and we both carry on in separate directions.
“What are you doing?” I whisper-shout as she chuckles softly.
“Mal, you can’t ignore all men forever. If that dude starts bleeding and foaming at the mouth then, yeah, we’ll run. But until then, he’s just a guy.” My heart pounds in my chest with anxiety, because she’s right, but she hasn’t seen what I’ve seen. She hasn’t seen the virus turn a nice normal brother into a snarling seven-foot monster.
“Yeah, well, when you see a ‘dude’ Awaken in front of you, you’ll change your tune,” I snap. Pen doesn’t say much after that, but she sticks close to me as we power walk to the store. I’ve probably hurt her feelings, and she’s basically family, but sometimes I wish she’d be as scared as I am. Grabbing her hand, I thread my fingers through hers and squeeze, by way of apology. Pen squeezes back but doesn’t let go.
The walk isn't long, but I'm on edge the whole time, my fingers clutching my bag and Pen’s hand so tightly they begin to cramp. The city feels uncomfortably calm, but even beyond that, the winter air is heavy, hanging over my head like a storm cloud.
Being out in public for the first time in three weeks dredges up memory after memory. This time, three years ago, I was heading to Panama with friends when the news showed a strange pandemic plowing across the East Coast. It appeared to only affect men, and it caused a terrible reaction that turned them into insane, savage monsters. Trip canceled, I fled home and watched the virus tear my family apart firsthand. Men like Tyler are called “the Awakened,” although I think that sounds a little too poetic for a bunch of raving lunatics.
The virus first hit here in New York, and when it did, the infected men wreaked havoc on the city’s population, leaving bloody remains everywhere. They killed men, women, and children, and the victims who weren't killed were often horribly disfigured.
Glancing around nervously, I notice Pen is alert and aware, her jaw clenched in concentration. “How do you do this twice a day to go to work?” I ask her softly.
Pen smiles down at me and squeezes my hand. “I’m definitely more on edge now with the kidnappings, but I just try to stay safe, ya know? I don’t walk alone if possible, and I stick to the busy roads. It’s…okay.”
Chewing the inside of my lip, I nod and tuck my side in closer to hers for comfort. Women are disappearing with alarming regularity in the city, enough that the news has warned women against leaving the house at all. It’s ironic since the news also warns women about being anywhere near a man. Not sure who's expected to do the post-apocalyptic grocery shopping, but there you have it.
We round a corner, and the grocery store appears before us, brightly lit from within. Safety. I focus on the looming doors and pick up the pace, letting out the breath I’d been holding when the front doors whoosh closed behind us. There’s instant relief in knowing that there are others inside the store. Safety in numbers is an illusion, though. If one of the men in here Awakens in the store, we all die.
With that grim thought at the forefront of my mind, we zip up and down a few key aisles, gathering everything on my list. I recognize a few of my neighbors, but as always, we no longer acknowledge each other. It's horribly depressing.
Checking out takes two minutes, and the young cashier gives us a sad smile when she hands me the receipt. We face the front doors again for the long trek back to my apartment when Pen’s cell rings. I grit my teeth, shifting my bag over my shoulder as I pull my hood up over my hair.
Pen answers quickly, her voice carrying out of the store and into the empty street ahead of us. I glance around, dread pooling in my gut. Why can’t she just pay attention to getting home? I barely listen to her conversation until I realize she’s snapping two fingers in front of my face yet again, repeating my name over and over.
“Mallory, did you hear me?” she questions, her voice laced with concern. I jerk my gaze to hers as she continues. “The hospital called me in early for my shift. I’m so sorry; will you be okay walking back?” Her voice trails off as she bites her lip.
My face blushes as I realize she’s leaving me, and I have to resist the urge to beg her not to let me walk home alone. Ultimately, I remind myself she does this twice a day every day, and if she’s brave enough to do it, then I am too. True to my nature, I default to humor to deflect the situation.
“I think you forget I’m an investigative reporter; I’ll be fine,” I say lightly with a smile, trying to ignore the desperate panic that feels like it’s clawing up out of my stomach. My skin feels flushed and hot, and I wonder if Pen can see my cheeks burning.
She smiles brightly at me, twisting a piece of my hair around her fingertip and rearranging it up over my shoulder. Such a mom. “Text me when you get home, alright? I’ll try to come by when I get off.” I shift on my feet and hike my bag higher over my shoulder.
“Be safe getting to work, and don’t look in any dark alleyways,” I joke.
Pen giggles and hugs me tight to her chest, crushing us together. “I promise not to look into a single alleyway or doorway or even a hole in the ground, scout’s honor,” she whispers into my hair.
When we walk out the doors, Pen gives me a teeny wave before turning and heading up the street, pulling her hood up over her beautiful red hair. I watch her round a corner before turning back in the direction of our building. The empty street feels enormous and crushing now that I face the prospect of walking alone. I chide myself because, if I got out more like Pen did, I probably wouldn’t be so scared. Doing hard things helps us grow, though, at least that’s what she tells me. Tucking my bags tight up over my shoulder, I head back in the direction of the apartment.
Two blocks from the building, excitement at being nearly home floods my system, and I smile, relieved. I haven’t passed anyone, and I’m just about there. I pull out my phone and send Pen a triumphant text, but just as I send it, prickly awareness suddenly stands my arm hair on end. Goosebumps cover my whole body in a flash, and I dart my head around, looking for whatever's wrong. The horrible feeling that I'm being watched chokes me as I snap my head from one side to the other. I don't even realize I've stopped until I look into the alleyway across the street and see him.