At the End of the World

One of our two fabulous Honorable Mentions for the 2017 Halloween Fiction Contest – a gripping story about a monstrous future. 

By Ashley Storm

The only thing worse than a Nazi skinhead is a Nazi skinhead at the end of the world saying, “I told you so.” ‘Course, now Dirk, my troglodyte stepbrother, has dropped all the race war bullshit and acts like an alien invasion was what he and his friends had planned for all along. I have to admit the stockpiled guns and ammo, the MREs that taste like cardboard, and the hidden cave in the woods have come in handy, even if it makes me sick to think of the reason they had it all. Nothing’s more equalizing than an apocalypse.

“Fort!” © jyllish https://www.flickr.com/photos/jyllish/2796195309/

“Run, asshole!” Dirk races by, followed closely by a couple more members of the group. They yell at me too.

“Come on, Demon!”

“What’s wrong with you, man?”

“Demon! Run!”

I should listen, and run with them to the safety of our hideout. Instead, I slow my pace. More and more, I’ve been fantasizing about death. I’ve considered a gunshot to the face, but rule number one at the end of the world is don’t waste the ammo, and as much as I hate Dirk and his merry band of racists, I have to admit it’s a good rule. Jumping off a cliff or a bridge could work. Then again, you hear of people surviving falls, and a slow death in agonizing pain would be pretty shitty.

Being devoured by a forest fire started with alien-tech flame-throwers? It would be painful, yes, but quick. And I wouldn’t be the first since their arrival – or even the billionth – to die by fire.

I fall to my knees and look up at the lush green canopy. The leaves provide a shield against the blistering August sun, but when the fire reaches them, they’ll burn to ashes.

We’ve been running all afternoon, first from the alien ships, and then from the spreading wildfire. I’m tired. Tired of running. Tired of being surrounded by monsters, human and non-human alike. I may be the last decent person on Earth. I think I am. There’s no evidence to the contrary. There are few humans left, but the ones I’ve come across have all been variations of Dirk & Co. Hateful. Bloodthirsty. Ready to kill.

Am I any better? I’ve done terrible things. Does it matter that I hate myself for the things I’ve done to survive?

Something hurtles through the underbrush. A squirrel. It scampers past and I swear it looks at me as though I’m insane. If it could speak, I’m pretty sure it would echo Dirk. Run, asshole!

Something larger crashes toward me. A girl. Dirty and sooty. I can’t even tell what color her hair or skin is. She stumbles in the dense understory of the forest and falls. Hard. She struggles against the thorny tangle of brush and screams in frustration. I’m ready to die, but it’s clear that she’s not.

Would a decent person let a girl die at the end of the world? I don’t think so.

I push up from the ground and sprint to her side to drag her out of the weeds that have nearly swallowed her. Once she’s on her feet, we run, fast and hard. The winds shift, and the fire no longer pushes in our direction, but it could come roaring our way again any minute. We reach the rock wall that leads up to the cave hideaway. “We have to climb,” I tell her.

The climb is difficult, which makes the cave a good hideout. She doesn’t hesitate. She grasps one handhold, then another, heaving herself up the wall. When we reach the top, she collapses to the ground, gasping for air. Falling down beside her, I wait for my pounding heart to slow back to normal.

She turns to look at me, tilts her head to one side, and reaches out to touch the mask that hides my face. It’s blood red with an evil grin. It was part of a devil costume. It’s uncomfortable, especially with the full beard that’s taken up residence on my face. No razors, shave cream, or indoor plumbing at the end of the world. Dirk makes fun of me for wearing the devilish face, but I know it freaks him out. It freaks everyone out.

“Halloween,” she says.

“Every damn day,” I respond.

“Without the candy.” She smiles, but it’s bittersweet.

 


 

Dirk and the half dozen others who share our cave hideout stare at her hungrily as she chugs water from a canteen. None of us have seen a woman – any woman – in weeks. Aside from rotting corpses, that is. We come across one from time to time, some fresh enough to still tell their sex.

She says her name is Lacy. Even caked with layers of dirt, she is lovely. I can see now that her hair is the color of autumn leaves, the dark orange ones, my favorite. I wonder if I’ll live to see autumn. Do I want to? Looking at Lacy, I think I might.

Dirk clears his throat. “I think they’re finished playing with us for the night.” Everyone murmurs words of agreement.

In the movies, alien invaders always have a mission: to mine Earth’s resources, to share knowledge with us, or to dominate the universe. Turns out we’re just here for their amusement. They could end us quickly. Instead, they toy with us. They chase us in their ships, pushing us where they want us, into rivers, off of cliffs, into other bands of humans who shoot first and ask questions later. They rain fire down upon us. Sometimes they simply vaporize us with their lasers. It’s like a video game, but we’re the targets. And no one knows the end game.

 


 

Dirk and the gang love to hunt. They enjoy the kill. That we have meat to eat, well, that’s an added bonus. They make me want to vomit, but the smell of an animal roasting over a fire touches something deep in me. Something primal. All thoughts leave my mind until nothing’s left but the desire to calm the grumbling beast in my stomach. It’s been over a week since we’ve eaten fresh meat, but Dirk and Co. managed to kill a wild turkey today. I swear nothing has ever smelled so good.

“Why do you wear the mask?” Lacy asks. Her question pulls me back to the present.

My mouth had been watering at the smell of roasting meat, so I have to swallow before replying. “It hides my face.”

“Devil Mask” © konsumterra https://www.flickr.com/photos/konsumterra/2097823362/

“Why do you want to hide your face? Are you gross under there? Are you Night of the Living Dead under there?”

I laugh at the Beetlejuice reference. That was one of my favorite movies. Before.

“Maybe.” I smile, but she can’t see it.

The truth is, I grabbed the mask out of the box in the basement two nights after the ships appeared in the sky. The first day of the attack. The day my mom and stepdad were vaporized in the blink of an eye.

Dirk and I somehow survived. “Stop crying, asshole,” he said as he ransacked the house. My stepbrother hadn’t called me by my real name in years, and I appreciated the bit of normalcy in the midst of the world dissolving around me.

He grabbed a rifle and a handgun from the gun safe and stuffed his pockets with ammo. “I know a place. But we’ve got to stick together or we’ll never make it. No effing tears!”

But I couldn’t keep them from sliding down my face. It struck me that I didn’t know much about the inner workings of the human body. How were tears formed? Were they stored somewhere? Could you run out of them? I put on the old Halloween mask so Dirk wouldn’t see me cry. But once the tears ran dry, I never took it off. Now it’s part of me.

Lacy’s eyes drift lazily from the fire to me. “Do you ever take it off?”

AJ, a friend of Dirk’s, laughs, and a few others join in. They’ve been eavesdropping. “I’ve never seen Demon’s face. Not once.”

“That is his face,” someone chimes in. “Dude’s a beast.”

The group laughs, but it’s a nervous laughter. The mask makes them uneasy. They never know whether I’m smiling, or frowning, or flushed with anger – about to snap. To them, I am Demon. Not alien, but not normal, either.

“Hey, girl,” Dirk says, changing the subject. “Where you from?”

“Around,” she says.

“A little girl shouldn’t be out there all alone,” AJ sneers. “You need a strong man to protect you.”

She snorts. “Like you?”

His nose flares with anger. He starts for her. Before I’m even standing, a knife slices through the air and slams into the ground less than a centimeter from his shoe. We all turn to stare at Lacy.

She has another knife ready, the blade balanced between her fingers. “Thanks, but I can take care of myself.”

 


 

Dirk and Co. have been asleep for hours. Lacy will hike out at dawn, when there’s no danger of tumbling over a cliff in the dark, but for now, she sits with me by the fire. It’s nothing but dying embers, glowing orange in the night. Perfect for roasting marshmallows. But there are no S’mores at the end of the world.

“They call you Demon.”

“They call you Lacy.”

“That’s my name.”

“Demon’s mine.”

“Has it always been?”

I shrug. “It is now.”

“What was it before?” She’s staring at me so intently that it feels like she’s looking through the mask.

I don’t answer. I don’t like to think of the past. There’s no going back, so what’s the point?

“It’s not who you are,” she says.

“You don’t know me.”

“I know you pulled a stranger out of the woods when you didn’t have to.” Her hand brushes the cheek of my mask. “You really should take it off.”

Just like that, I’m a regular 17-year-old guy worried that the gorgeous girl will think I’m hideous. I’m average, at best, on a good day. After weeks without a real shower, with dirt and tears and sweat and God knows what else collecting under the mask, maybe I am Night of the Living Dead under there.

I shake my head slowly. “Maybe someday.”

She nods. “I’ll hold you to it. Someday.”

We listen to the crackle of the logs in the fire, the crickets singing their evening song, the hoots of the barred owls. It almost feels like a normal summer night. It almost feels like Before.

 


 

It’s early. The last of the stars are dimming, and the sun has begun its slow creep from the horizon. Lacy and I sit on a boulder outside the cave while Dirk and the others sleep. They won’t wake up for hours. We venture out for supplies when we need to, but otherwise, we mostly hide in the pitch black of our cave, and most of that time is spent sleeping. I wonder how many generations it will take for humans to devolve into slimy, blind cave fish.

She’s washed the grime off her face, and she’s so beautiful it’s painful. Nothing has a right to that kind of beauty at the end of the world.

She holds up a piece of rope. “My ponytail holder broke. Think anyone will miss this?”

“Nah. It’s all yours.”

“Thanks.” She twists her hair into a bun and ties the rope around it. “I’m heading out in a few minutes.”

“Leaving so soon?” My feeble attempt at a joke doesn’t hide the disappointment in my voice.

She leans into me, nudging me playfully with her shoulder. “I want you to come with me.”

My eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “Where?”

Does it matter? Dirk and his buddies have kept me alive this long, but until I met her yesterday, I wanted to die. Now, there’s a faint glimmer of hope that something good and pure still exists in the world.

“About ten or so miles from here there’s an old church. I live there with my family.”

Family. Suddenly my heart aches with all I’ve lost. “My parents died in the first attack.” Along with most of the world.

She nods knowingly. “Mine too.”

Oh. “I’m sorry. But you still have family?”

She chews her bottom lip. “I didn’t know them before, but they took me in. I owe them everything. The congregation. There are about forty members of the church.”

I snort. “Do you pray and sing Kumbaya? Sacrifice lambs? Things like that?” Before the words have finished spilling from my mouth, I feel like a colossal jerk. “I’m sorry. I –”

“No,” she interrupts, her voice hard. “We don’t sacrifice lambs. But we do sing. We haven’t completely given up on life, like some cave dwellers.”

Shame wells inside me. “No offense.” I pick nervously at the few threads still straining across a hole in the knee of my jeans. “It’s just . . . I have a hard time believing there’s a God. Why would he allow them to destroy his creation, you know?”

Her face is serious, thoughtful. “Maybe they’re gods, too.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

She shakes her head. “Just the ships.”

I nod. I haven’t found anyone who has actually seen one.

“Why are you out here all alone?”

She frowns. “I was looking for . . . supplies. Then it started raining fire. They pushed me here.” She’s silent for a moment. “Maybe they wanted us to meet.”

I chuckle. “Yeah. We’re contestants on their new reality TV show.”

She laughs. “The Bachelorette meets Survivor.”

We laugh until we’re gasping for air. It’s not really funny, but there are few things to laugh about at the end of the world. When the laughter fades, neither of us says anything for a long time. We bask in the first orange-gold rays of sunlight. It’s a new day.

“I’ll go with you,” I say.

 


 

The cave has a small opening that you have to crawl through, but after ten or so feet it opens up into a large chamber big enough to stand in. I gather supplies in a backpack: guns, ammo, food. Okay, so I’m stealing, but theft is a fact of life at the end of the world.

As I’m crawling out of the cave, I hear someone behind me.

“Asshole,” Dirk hisses. “What are you doing?”

“Shhhh.” We scramble out on our hands and knees. I stand and slowly turn to face him. He’s already on his feet.

“What are you doing?” he repeats.

“I’m leaving.” It’s hard to say the words. We have a bond, whether I like it or not. We’ve never been friends, but we have known each other most of our lives.

“Don’t go.” Despite our shared history, the plea in Dirk’s voice takes me by surprise. “We have everything we need here. We’re surviving, man.”

“I want to do more than survive. I want to live.” For the first time since losing my parents, tears sting my eyes. I turn away from him even though I know he can’t see.

“Damon.” He’s the only person alive who knows my real name, and he hasn’t said it in years. “If you leave here, you’ll die.”

He could have left me behind to die the night of the first attack, but instead he brought me to the cave. Because family is family, and even if you don’t like each other, it’s hard to walk away. I understand that now.

Without turning back to face him, I whisper, “Take care of yourself, brother.”

 


 

It’s a grueling hike, so Lacy and I spend most of it in silence. When I think I can’t take another step, the trees open into a large clearing. In the middle sits a weathered church that may have been white once. It’s too open. Too exposed. Suddenly I long for the safety of the cave.

Sensing my uneasiness, Lacy pats my back. “We won’t ask you to handle the snakes for at least a month.”

My head snaps in her direction. I’m relieved to see a grin on her face.

“No snakes?” I say.

“No snakes,” she promises.

“But you do sing Kumbaya?” I ask with a mock shudder.

Lacy laughs. “No Kumbaya either.” She looks toward the church and then at me. “You can go back, if you want. It’s okay. I’ll understand.”

I start to walk toward the clearing, but she grabs my hand. “Wait.”

I turn to look at her. “Yeah?”

“You’re not Demon.” She reaches up to remove my mask. I let her. As soon as it’s off, I feel naked and exposed. Weak.

“That’s better,” she says.

“I doubt it.” I brush my beard with my fingers. She’s looking at me, really looking at me. No one has done that since I put on the mask. She sees me, and doesn’t seem to hate what she sees.

I smile shyly, and she smiles back. “Damon,” I say. “My name is Damon.”

 


 

“Abandoned Church” © Bill Devlin https://www.flickr.com/photos/billdpix/15240032771/

Lacy introduces me to a tall man with a toothy grin. “This is Preacher.”

“Welcome, welcome,” he says, pumping my hand up and down. “We’ll be eating soon, but I bet you’d like to clean up first. Am I right?” The broad smile never fades. It’s been so long since I’ve been around a happy person that it’s unnerving.

Preacher leads me to the bathhouse. I was expecting something out of a western movie. Barrels of water, sponges on sticks, that sort of thing. Instead, it’s more like a shower at a campsite. Modern plumbing doesn’t exist anymore, but he shows me a hand pump that releases water from an overhead container. He hands me a bar of soap, and it smells so wonderful that I can’t help but hold it to my nose and inhale deeply.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Preacher asks. “Some of the ladies of the church are excellent soap makers.”
I expect him to leave, but he continues to talk. It’s a little strange showering in front of him. I wish I still wore the mask.

“Everyone has a role to play.” He prattles on about different church members and their jobs.
I work the soap into a lather to wash my hair. There’s something stuck in it that doesn’t want to wash out. Finally, I give up trying. I’ll just cut it out. I need a haircut anyway.

“Take Lacy, for example. She’s our best recruiter,” he says.

Wait. What? “Recruiter?”

“Yes, didn’t she tell you? She left a few days ago to find a young, able-bodied person to join our flock. And she came back with you.”

“No,” I say with a frown. “She didn’t tell me.” What if she had run into Dirk first? Would she have brought him instead of me?

Preacher goes on, as if I hadn’t said anything. “She never fails to find a worthy specimen, our Lacy.”

Specimen? I’m annoyed now. I know I shouldn’t be. Even if she didn’t care who she brought back, I’ve won the end of the world lotto. Shelter, food, that glorious bar of soap. So what if my role is the able-bodied young man? I’ll probably end up doing manual labor, but I have no right to complain.

After I’m clean, truly clean, for the first time in recent memory, Preacher leads me to a picnic table stacked high with food. Roasted meat. Plump vegetables from the gardens, red tomatoes and summer squash and countless types of lettuce. There’s even sweet tea.

“Eat your fill, son.” Preacher pats me on the back and leaves to mingle with his congregation.

As I’m polishing off a second chicken leg, Lacy appears at my side. “It’s nice to see a human under all that filth.”

I laugh. “For the first time in a long time, I feel human.” It’s the truth, and there’s no point in denying it. The cave had supplies to keep us alive, for awhile anyway, but the church has gardens and rain barrels and soap. “This place is amazing.”

“It really is,” Lacy says. She tucks a loose strand of red hair behind an ear. “When you’re finished eating, we’ll start the welcoming ceremony.”

“The welcoming ceremony? I don’t have to sing or dance, do I? You said no Kumbaya.”

She grins. “Nope. You don’t have to do anything but stand there while everyone welcomes you.”

“I guess I can manage that.” There’s doubt in my voice. I’ve never liked being the center of attention.

She laughs. “I have faith in you.”

 


 

I really do just have to stand in place. One by one, the members of the congregation approach, welcoming me to the church. Afterward, they form a circle around me, clasping hands. Preacher is the last to shake my hand. He gives me his trademarked toothy grin. “We all have a role to play, son.”

He joins the circle and grips the hands of those on either side of him, completing the circle. They slowly take a step back, and then another. As they back away, they whisper something I can’t make out. It’s unsettling.

“What?” I call out. “I can’t hear you.”

In unison, they tilt their heads upward. Organized religion has always made me a little uncomfortable, but this is downright creepy. Every instinct in my body says to run. I look at the circle of clasped hands, searching for the weak length. I’m ready to make a mad dash, Red Rover-style, when I spot Lacy.

She’s not looking up with the others. She’s looking at me. She gives me a reassuring smile and I relax. This is just some sort of ritualistic acceptance into the group. Weird, but religion often is.

A burst of wind hits me from above, nearly knocking me to the ground. It feels as though twenty helicopters are hovering above us. I raise my head and see the shiny metallic bottom of an enormous ship, not quite gold, not quite silver, not quite copper. Otherworldly.

They’re here.

Adrenaline pulses through me, and I make a mad dash to break free of the circle. After one and a half strides, my joints lock in place. I’m frozen. A spotlight shines directly on me and I can’t move a muscle, not even my eyelids to blink. I watch, helpless, as the circle of people fall to their knees and hold their arms to the sky. They’re no longer looking up. They’re looking at me.

They’re still chanting, a little louder now. And louder still. Their voices crescendo as my body is lifted off the ground. Unable to move, to scream, I finally hear their words.

“Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for your sacrifice.” They’re shouting now, as my body nears the ship. I hear a hatch open, or maybe just feel it, but I can’t look up. Oh, God. What are they going to do with me? I pray, possibly for the first time in my life, begging God – any god – to save me.

The voices abruptly stop. All but one. From below, Lacy calls to me. “We all have a role to play. Thank you for your sacrifice, Damon.”

A blinding light envelops me, swallows me, until there’s nothing but darkness. I was right. All the good and decent people are gone. At the end of the world, only the monsters are left.

 


Ashley Storm is a tattooed lawyer who is passionate about civil rights and children’s books. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, 4 backyard chickens, an English Angora rabbit called Mr. Fluffypants, and an evil cat who rules them all. Her current works-in-progress include a middle grade novel and a chapter book series. Member of SCBWI.

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