Photo taken by Tara Cameron all rights reserved

Fine in the Face of the End, Again

Tara Cameron
Mar 15 · 46 min read

An ANGEL Technician Report

By Tara Cameron

Cass pulled the Aims Commodore around a massive pothole stretching two-thirds of the four-lane highway, the warbling voice on the radio cutting in and out again as the truck momentarily rode the shoulder. The last dregs of the sunset reflected in the rear-view mirror were temporarily obscured by the hazy cloud of dust the Commodore’s big black tires kicked up as the truck skirted the very edge of the enormous pothole. Cass found she had little time to admire the setting sun anyway, a massive chunk of highway springing up only feet from the front tire just as they were clearing the worst of the sinkhole. It left her barely enough room to steer the truck through without going over the edge. Cass gripped the steering wheel tight, slowly inching the hunk-of-miracle-junk truck forward on what passed for a road these days.

In reality, the highway Cass and her two companions were currently bouncing down was little more than a few small patches of pavement interspersed between large potholes and chewed up mounds of asphalt and concrete. A sign of the times, the lanky woman behind the wheel chuckled to herself as she guided the grumbling old Aims Commodore pickup around the wreckage.

The crackling voice struggling out of half the speakers in the rusted-out behemoth, which was, coincidently, singing about the end of the world, kicked back in as she finally managed to clear the monster pit. Cass was about to join in with the annoyingly cheerful whine and sing along when the speakers cut out altogether.

Cussing a colourful string of expletives, she reached forward and smacked the dashboard of the mid-21st-century relic with the side of her misshapen fist. The stump where her right pinkie finger once happily resided, a souvenir from her last jaunt into Typhoid Mary’s territory, hit a crack in the faded black plastic on the third thump. The sight of the re-opened scar gushing bright red spurred Cass on as she closed her fist around the sticky mess dribbling down the side of her hand and proceeded to hammer on the grungy panel harder than before. After a half dozen more solid thumps and many more choice words from Cass, the music eventually came back on.

She cracked a tiny evil grin when she saw the noticeable new impression in the shape of her injured fist permanently imprinted in the dash, but the satisfaction was short-lived. No sooner did the smile form on the triumphant woman’s chapped lips before it was quickly replaced with a grimace of pain as the remaining speakers, thought completely non-functional before that moment, unexpectedly came blaring back to life. All at once, the three companions found themselves surrounded by a thunderous voice proudly proclaiming just how fine the singer was with the end of the world.

“Bully for you that you’re so goddamn fine in the face of the end of all civilization, buddy, but I’m sure as shit not,” Cass hissed while desperately fumbling for the volume controls.

She was still spinning dials and pressing random buttons when another hunk of pavement seemingly sprung up from nowhere, appearing dead-centre between the Commodores’ headlights. It took all Cass’ skill, and a large dollop of luck, to keep the wretched machine from rolling into the ditch. The deafening music, jostling truck, and yet another round of verbal gutter gymnastics from Cass, did a thoroughly splendid job of waking up her two companions as she wrestled the stubborn truck back toward what was left of the road.

All the while, the tattoos running up and down both Cass’ muscular arms danced as she strained to keep the monster machine in line while anxiously staring at the rear-view mirror, watching as the tail end of the flatbed missed the rubble by a matter of millimeters. Seeing them skate that close to disaster, practically dancing along the edge of it for what felt like an eternity, Cass was sure she could now accurately describe the taste of her own heart, as it jumped into her throat at the sight of the back bumper skimming the chunk of asphalt.

Cass’ twin brother Maddox, the cause of her current predicament and most others she found herself in, was rubbing his sleepy green eyes with two disfigured fists of his own, one of which also had an angry red scar where his pinkie finger should have been, Mary’s idea of poetic justice. Cass couldn’t help but shake her head in amusement, her ratty black ponytail swishing back and forth against her undercut, as her brother proceeded to repeat her earlier string of seaman-worthy profanity before his eyes had fully opened.

Meanwhile, their silent travelling companion curled up on what was left of the tiny bench seat behind them, sandwiched between enough hardware to make even the most well-armed militia wet their pants in excitement, quietly sat up. In her usual spooky manner, the girl began scanning their surroundings before she was upright, her stormy grey eyes shifting from mesh-covered window to mesh-covered window and back again.

The peculiar silent child hadn’t spoken a word in the three years since the twins first stumbled across her, wandering aimlessly through a wooded area outside a deserted middle-of-nowhere hamlet. Today was no different. The kid sloshing around in the back seat between the array of weapons and bags of ammunition was as silent as the day they’d found her. The older woman sometimes found herself unwillingly running through all the reasons a young girl would go silent like that when she couldn’t sleep, none of them made for pleasant bedtime stories.

She didn’t have time to chase that particular rabbit down that particular dark twisting hole, the sensation of the peeling leather wheel as it spun violently in her hand bringing her slamming face-first back into reality. The disgruntled hunk of junk was trying to make a break for it, straining against the tenuous hold Cass had on its reins. She hastily jerked the wheel backward, the truck fishtailing out of control for a moment. As soon as she had the Commodore straightened out again, Cass drove a thick-soled black boot down on the brake pedal until it hit the floor, bringing the Commodore skidding to a stop.

The cab of the truck filled with a rainbow of colourful profanity as the siblings swore in tandem, at their predicament, each other, and the debris. It was an epic display of vulgarity that would have made anyone’s mother cuff both siblings upside the ear, although the abundance and creativity on display suggested their ears had never been in such danger. When they finally managed to regain control of themselves, all three passengers peered around to the back window of the cramped stale cab almost in unison to stare at the cause of all the commotion.

What at first, Cass had mistaken for a hunk of concrete, upon further inspection, turned out to be nothing more than a large pile of rags and rubble. Breathing an inward sigh of relief, she chastised herself for causing such a ruckus over nothing but some ragged clothes and mouldy blankets. Her hand was already on the keys still hanging from the ignition, half turned to face forward once more when Cass caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. Turning back toward the rear of the truck, she could see the lump was now shifting and withering as if sprouting forth from the crumbling blacktop.

Muttering a few extra choice words under her breath, Cass reached for the shotgun sitting between her and Maddox, unmindful of the blood dripping off her elbow and onto the console beneath, that was until her brother’s iron grip closed around her arm. His voice low and filled with disbelief, he whispered in her ear as if the pile of rags still jitter-jiving some thirty feet away might hear them.

“Oh, sister dear? Are you purposefully trying to Nancy Drew yourself into a Darwin Award, or have you finally just gone stark-raving mad? Get your ass back in this truck, before we all end up filet mignon yeah?” he hissed, his breath warm against her cheek.

Their missing people, three of the last supply runs vanishing in as many weeks, had been the only thought on Cass’ mind as she reached for the weapon. Four of the missing runners were friends of theirs, and some of the best scavengers and survivalists in Dogtown, and all had disappeared without a trace. She was about to remind her brother as much when she was cut off by a familiar howl that seemed to fill both the cab of the Commodore and Cass’ skull to capacity.

Pulling her eyes away from Maddox, she could see the rags rising from the road, the ghost of civilization’s past come to haunt them through the apocalypse. The creature continued to scream, Cass’ head bursting at the seams as the thick meaty sound reduced all conscious thought to a shrieking hum.

The sound a thal makes when it senses prey is like nothing Cass had ever heard before. She’d been only seventeen when the defects began appearing throughout the developed world, a slow-burn of the human genome that eventually left a path of nightmarish destruction in its wake. It’s a sound felt all the way to the marrow, an old geezer once remarked. He’d been a fellow Survivor on the Road back in the early days. Cass could also recall in vivid detail the hum that accompanied the death throes of the old man, felt down deep in her marrow, as the thals tore his frail, malnourished body to pieces a few weeks later.

Rags continued to wail, the high-pitched screech joined by at least three more as Cass frantically searched the roadside in either direction for the miserable mutie’s friends. She could feel the thrum at the base of her skull worsen as she whipped around to see the wretched creature was now fully upright. She watched with growing unease and anger as the thing that used to be a man reared up to his full height, well over six feet, and began yowling up at the rising moon as the scraps of cloth swaddling his skinny frame flapped in the breeze. Tilting his head back, Rags let loose one last primal scream before clumsily sprinting toward them.

“Cass!” Maddox screeched as a second thal leapt onto the Commodore’s hood, appearing as if by magic from the gathering shadows at the edge of the ditch. Cass barely had time to drop the double-barrel back in its place before another rag-covered, red-eyed thal rushed, screaming at her window.

She gazed at the dirt-caked claws pounding ferociously on the mesh covering the glass, stunned by the sudden violent onslaught. It quickly became apparent the miserable wretch was willing to cut itself to ribbons if it meant a chance at plunging its grubby fingers into her eye sockets. She sat hypnotized by the sight of Berserker ripping his hands to shreds. Bits of skin stuck between the mesh, blood spraying the glass below as his wrist caught on the metal, slicing it wide open. One hand now completely non-functional, the deranged creature still refused to give up, even as two of his fingers ripped free from his other hand. Berserker’s assault on Cass’ door was relentless.

The trembling woman, her anger quickly outstripping her fear, felt more than heard Rags launch himself onto the flatbed of the bulky old machine, unable to tear her eyes away from the grotesque display at her window. Their caterwauling approached a deafening pitch, momentarily blotting out all other sound and turning her screaming brother into a silent movie star as Cass’ anger solidified into fury.

“Screw this!” she snarled to no one in particular. Slamming the stick shift into drive, she rammed her foot back down on the gas pedal, the tires squealing in protest as they spun in place for a moment. Cass and Maddox in unison shouted at the girl to get down as the truck sputtered and shot forward.

Another thal came scampering out of the shadows, latching itself onto the passenger door like a spider monkey as the tires finally gained purchase. The dirt-caked fingernails, covered in sparkly pink nail polish, began raking the parallel bars welded across her brothers’ window as the Commodore started picking up speed. The sight elicited another bout of half-crazed giggling as Cass jerked the pickup truck to one side and back in an attempt to shake the damn things off. The two atop the car succeeded in hanging on. Berserker wasn’t quite as victorious.

The rabid beast giving his all trying to rip the mesh off Cass’ window disappeared beneath the Commodore’s over-sized tires. The wretch was sucked beneath the gargantuan machine with one final yowl that cut off midway through, replaced with a wet squelching sound that Cass had to admit gave her a disturbingly gleeful sort of satisfaction as Berserker was ground to chuck, reduced to a trail of gooey chum and broken bones stretching out several feet behind them.

Spotting the sparkly nails out of the corner of her eye as her calloused hands continued expertly working the steering wheel, pulling the truck back hard in the opposite direction, Cass assumed Pink Polish also managed to hang on. Her hysterics promptly turned into full-blown bellowing as the two thals danced atop the hood, broken marionettes jitterbugging wildly with the motion. She also realized she’d been mistaken yet again as the movement brought Pink Polish’s hand and forearm flapping into view, but only her arm. The truck spun, shiny white bone protruding from the torn remains of Pinkie’s flowery dress sleeve as it fluttered in the breeze. The severed limb swung wildly back and forth but held tight, a demented caricature of a backward wave.

Her attention was pulled back to the dance-off still hopping about on the trucks’ hood, the braying thal and his wailing date putting in a performance sure to win first place if it were allowed to go on much longer. The gnashing faces, with their jagged rotting teeth and leathery skin, were mere inches from the bars crisscrossing the front windshield.

Cass’ laughter ended abruptly, stuck in her throat as she watched Ripper desperately pulling at the reinforcements covering the front windshield, clawing at the gritty glass beneath. Hunks of skin tore off, lodging between the metal bars as Ripper did an eerily similar re-enactment of Berserker’s earlier performance. Meanwhile, Girlfriend was ripping her fingernails ragged, tearing at the straps holding down the hood as if still in possession of the rudimentary knowledge of the importance of what lay beneath.

Step right up lunatics and knuckleheads and take a gander at the greatest medical achievement in human history, Cass thought to herself sarcastically as she jerked the wheel back, feast your eyes on the final wonder of the world.

Ripper, once an everyday Joe, just a run of the mill slob before said medical miracle, lost his death grip on the metal grate and began slip-sliding across the hood, the buckle of his belt leaving deep grooves in the faded black paint. Cass let out a lungful of air she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as he slithered backward off the side of the truck. “That better be a sign of our changing fortunes,” Cass grumbled under her breath as Ripper’s grasping hand clasped around Girlfriend’s muck-splattered leg, pulling her down with him.

Bile rose at the back of Cass’ throat as she watched the emaciated bodies reduced to a sticky mess in the time it took the pair to travel the length of the truck, leaving another set of brownish tracks in their wake.

“Enough, dammit!” Cass hollered more at herself than anything else. Slamming her boot down on the brakes one last time she watched with horrified fascination as Rags became airborne, a collection of tattered clothes and rotted meat flying over the cab of the truck in a clumsy somersaulting arch.

The trio sat in stunned silence as the flailing creature came crashing down in front of the truck, their minds desperately trying to make sense of the grotesque tableau suddenly erected before them. Rags, sailing clear of the Commodore’s front end, had landed square in a pile of debris, an enormous piece of rusted pipe shooting upward out of the rubble and slamming straight through the centre of the creatures’ chest. Rags was pinned, the headlights framing him as if he were a rockstar. The three passengers gazed dumbfounded as a fountain-like stream of blood gushed forth from the cylinder’s mouth. Black sludge and chunks of meat sprayed the surrounding pavement in a wide arc, coating the front bumper and grill as they watched, transfixed by the macabre tableau.

Cass was trying to wrap her head around the sheer Lucky-fucking-Charms of it all when her brother’s renewed screams pulled the plug on the merry-go-round in her head. This time, there was no manoeuvring and absolutely no hesitation, she slammed the hunk of miracle junk into drive. The truck shot forward, side-swiping the Monument to Viscera as the evil little grin she’d been sporting earlier while driving her fist into the dashboard, once again spread across the irate woman’s angular features.

It wasn’t until the horrific display was lost in the gathering darkness that Cass finally loosened her grip and eased up on the gas. The blurred landscape around the truck slowly came back into focus as the Commodore trundled to a stop. Removing her trembling hands from the wheel, Cass let the beast idle at the edge of the non-existent highway as she concentrated on returning her breathing to something closer to normal.

Sitting there, staring blindly at her trembling hands as she waited for her heartbeat to slow, Cass’ mind ran over what had just happened. “That was a goddamn ambush,” the words came flying out even as she shook her head in disagreement, her ponytail whipping back and forth as the screwball thought escaped through her clenched teeth. It was impossible, that’s what it was, bloody impossible, her inner voice shrieked. She ignored the incredulous look on her brothers’ face as he turned to stare at her, working through every detail of what had occurred, running over every moment in slow motion.

Thals didn’t have the mental capabilities required to set a trap, Cass mused to herself as she ran through it all a third time. It was well-known throughout what was left of civilization, thals had the reasoning capabilities of a drunken toddler. Yet, the more she examined the situation with a calmer perspective, the more apparent it became that an ambush was precisely what that was. The thals had put out a decoy and laid a trap for unsuspecting travellers, for them. A trap inventive enough to have almost worked. They’d barely escaped, with nothing but sheer dumb luck to thank for their continued existence.

“Thunderin’ nut fucks!” Cass snarled as she banged her fists against the worn steering wheel. That was immediately followed up by an unintelligible roar as the cut on her stump began gushing anew, sending warm rivulets of dark red trickling down her forearm. Leaning her head back against the headrest, Cass wiped the grimy sweat off her forehead with the hand not coated in dried blood. She was silent for a few moments, glaring up at the tattered material above her, anger and frustration and fear mixing a heady brew.

There was no conscious thought, no decision made on Cass’ behalf as the dam broke and all the terror and rage flooded every fiber of her being. The two remaining passengers could do nothing but quietly watch as Cass went from zero to sixty in less time than it took to flip a switch.

“Son of a… Jackass… Asshat… Thal-fucker!” Cass raged to no one in particular, the plethora of expletives hampered only by the occasional lungful of air she sucked in to further fuel the fire. Each exclamation was punctuated by the sound of Cass’ bare knuckles slamming into the broken horn. She continued to rage at nothing, at everything, at the thals and the end of the world, at her brother, at herself, at her dead god until her voice became hoarse.

When Cass finally felt she’d expressed her pain and frustration adequately enough, she sat back again in stunned silence. Maddox and the girl held their breath for several heartbeats, waiting to see if the storm was truly over. It was Maddox that broke the spell once it was clear his sister was finally spent, in his usual grating fashion.

“Well sis, I must say, that was some of your best work. Bravo,” Maddox chuckled as he clapped two fingers of one hand against the palm of the other next to her ear. Cass shot him a death stare as she rubbed the bruised knuckles but chose to ignore the bait. Gritting her teeth to keep from going off again, she stretched around in her seat to grab the emergency kit they’d stashed there.

Awkwardly reaching around with her uninjured hand, Cass couldn’t help but give the girl a quick once over as she rummaged for the kit. It wasn’t as if she had any real doubts about the girl’s state, the kid was always fine. Even when faced with the immediate possibility of becoming fish-sticks, the kid was perfectly fine. In all Cass’ memory, she couldn’t recall one instance when the kid was anything but calm and composed. Still, Cass couldn’t help but check just the same.

The girl was sitting serenely in the middle of the worn bench seat with her hands folded in her lap as if just out for a nice leisurely Sunday drive. Her wide, intelligent grey eyes were trained on Cass as she hunted for the pouch of medical supplies. She supposed the girl might be a little paler than usual but otherwise appeared her typical stoic self. Cass straightened up, a small rectangular red bag in hand, feeling inexplicably reassured at the peculiar sight.

Cass gazed out at the landscape as she went about bandaging herself up. She noticed a new crack had joined the legion of smaller ones on the windshield, running from one corner to the other, cutting her view of the surrounding countryside in half. Cass surveyed the damage to the Commodore as best she could from the driver’s seat, the idea of exiting the cab far from her mind this time as she shifted to get a better look. From what she could tell, the front end of the Commodore was strikingly similar to the lumpy mess her brothers’ first ex-conquest reduced his car to after finding Maddox someplace inappropriate, the first in what would turn into a long colourful list of inappropriate places her twin would turn up in.

Maddox began his tradition of inappropriate bed-hopping just months before the human genome was destined to go up in spectacular flames, and with a pair of siblings no less, what Cass would come to think of as a Madd-mess. The mangled piece of scrap left behind after that fiasco had been a breathtakingly magnificent display of ferocity that even Cass couldn’t help but appreciate at the time. Angry Baseball Bat went to town on that poor used muscle car for nearly half an hour before sirens could finally be heard turning onto their block. The fit her twin threw as Cass stood there admiring the artful mess that for a brief time had been his pride and joy, paled in comparison after the epic rage-fit showcased by Angry Baseball Bat.

Cass found herself wondering if the fiery woman and her mighty bat were still around, on occasion. She liked to think Angry was still roaming the desolate landscape in search of prized machines to feed her hungry bat, although she’d never know for sure. As it turned out, the apocalypse wreaked havoc on one’s social life.

Shifting her attention away from the battered truck, Cass gazed out at the decaying city, just visible in the twilight, some distance off to her left. There were no twinkling lights, no movement, to indicate it was there. There were scant few tall buildings left, most everything crumbling and falling to ruin with no one to care for it. Cass had to squint to see it in the fading light, a ghost town that sprawled hundreds of kilometers off into the sunset. The city, she had no idea which one it was nor did she give a rat’s rear hindquarters, would soon be nothing more than a mountain of rubble, a grassy hill not long after that. Soon, much sooner than she would have thought possible, their entire civilization would be nothing more than a few thousand half-mad survivors and a collection of faded memories.

She finished dabbing iodine on the cuts crisscrossing her knuckles and began blindly pawing through the bag until her hand hit on the roll of gauze it was searching for. As she began rolling the yellowish bandage around her stump, Cass’ mind wandered back to the other survivors they’d stumbled across over the years. Right from the start, people willing to talk pre-downfall had been scarce, with most usually turning out to be of the Tinfoil-Hat-wearing variety. Cass and Maddox spent many of their nights during that first year listening to increasingly wild speculation about who or what exactly it was that paved the road to hell their species was now merrily dancing down.

Cass’ personal favourite to date was a big old’ Tin-Foil sombrero-wearing bear of a man that was thoroughly convinced an ancient virus thawed from the permafrost was the culprit. The moment Cass heard that doozy, her mind immediately spit up an image of a thal-a-saur, the true dino-killer, and in cartoon no less. The ludicrous vision had Cass busting a gut so bad she almost fell off the log she’d been using as a seat while her brother had sat watching her with a look of mild amusement on his face. Their guest, glowering at the twins from across the campfire, had been decidedly less amused. That night had been ages ago, Permafrost, Cass could no longer remember the old codger’s real name, had long since become worm food. One of the countless bloody and violent deaths she’d been witness to while traversing their delusional world, a broken civilization deaf to the sound of its own death knell.

Cass shook herself free of the wave of memories threatening to crash down on top of her. Now is clearly not the best time to go skipping down memory alley and peeking in flaming dumpsters girl, her inner voice chided while reminding her there was nothing but rot and rats in those dumpsters anyway.

Glancing over at the seat next to her, Cass could see her brother was once again snuggled up to the passenger door, snoring softly. They’d yet to cross into Mary’s territory, and she could already count one close call, and there sat her brother, sleeping like a babe in a warm bassinet. Cass resisted the urge to bounce his head off the grubby glass he was currently drooling all over.

As she pulled back out on the highway, Cass caught one last look at the ravaged city out of the corner of her eye as they passed by. With the sun almost erased from the sky, for one fleeting moment, she could almost picture the city as it was, the city of her youth, with its twinkling lights and constant traffic, people scurrying to and fro at all hours, a city teeming with life.

Then all at once, the picture faded, promptly replaced with her battered, exhausted reality. Cass shut her eyes, forcefully reminding herself that whatever it had once been, no longer mattered. The only thing that matters is what it is now, her inner voice sneered, a city that belongs to the dead and the monsters, in a world that was no longer meant for the human race, no longer meant for you.

Still nearly an hour away from their destination, Cass’ mind wandered back to the act of hara-kiri the trio appeared hellbent on committing as the scenery began to change. Pine and fir trees started sprouting up on either side of the highway, growing thicker as they passed, while her mind persisted in running circles and randomly churning out unhelpful commentary.

The sun disappeared behind the thick treeline, plunging the world into darkness along with the Commodore and its occupants. No longer able to see the front end of the truck, Cass flipped on the high beams. The shadows danced among the trees as the light swept over them, giving the forest an ominous feel bordering on cliché. A cold shiver rocketed down Cass’ spine as she scanned the treeline, her remaining fingers tapping nervously on the steering wheel. Travelling during the day was dangerous enough, doing it after sunset was akin to having a deep-seated death wish, but take into account their destination was Typhoid Circus and Mary’s Funhouse, the exhausted, anxious woman couldn’t help but question their sanity, and their chance of survival.

Yup, the voice nagged, and knowing all of that, here you are, still plowing full speed ahead, dumbass. A tiny mirthless chuckle escaped Cass’ pursed lips at her own snide comment.

The sudden noise immediately caught the girl’s attention, her image in the rear-view mirror lowering its head to one side as the kid gave Cass a quizzical look. Catching the girls’ steel grey eyes in the mirror, the older woman could only shake her head in response as she threw a quick glance at Maddox before fixing her own eyes back on the road.

Her baby brother, by all of four minutes and twenty-one seconds he would often remind her, hadn’t so much as twitched at the sound. Maddox, the instigator of said act of lunatic stupidity, continued to sleep soundly in the seat next to her, his usual, unaware self. Her twin and his bed-hopping antics were the cause of this and so many other near identical moments over the years. The frequency and astounding level of foolishness involved often had Cass questioning whether they were siblings, let alone twins.

She pushed the gas pedal down as far as she dared. The rage she’d felt at her brother’s complete disregard for his life, as well as the lives of both her and the kid, came bubbling back to the surface as the countryside was once more reduced to nothing but a dark blur. She found herself again struggling with the sudden urge to smack him upside his peacefully sleeping head. It was a feeling that hit Cass with such force, she had to hold tight to the steering as the urge to bloody up her brother’s pretty face overtook her once again, her knuckles turning a bluish white with the effort. The argument between them earlier that morning flashed through her mind as she steered around another large crater, this one spanning half the highway.

Cass had seen red as she stood on the porch of the General earlier that morning, most of Dogtown gathered in the square before her. Rage coloured the edges of her vision a dusty-rose as she’d stood helplessly watching Maddox raise his hand and volunteer them for the white knight suicide mission to retrieve Jonah ‘Mad Dog’ McDaniel’s daughter. Cass’ whole universe was tinged a deep crimson by the time her brothers’ voice reached her ears, offering up not just his but her services as well.

She distinctly remembered turning her attention to the pavilion in the middle of the square as her brother finished speaking. She could do nothing but stare in abject horror at the smile that spread over Dog’s weedy face as he lounged in his makeshift throne. She’d been about to make her way down the porch steps and toward Maddox when Dog turned and, zeroing in on Cass, shot her a dead-fish grin that stopped her cold.

At that point, Cass’ inner gremlin began screaming loud enough to make her physically wince as she stood fixed to the spot. Dog knows, he knows everything. He knew before walking up those steps, most likely known before calling the town meeting. Mad Dog McDaniel knew Maddox was sleeping with his one and only child. And the part that scared her the most, he’d known before Cass had.

As it was, she’d been harbouring suspicions her brother was seeing someone new for weeks, but not who it was. Not until she saw her brother’s mangled hand rocket into the air, did Cass realize what he’d gone and done. Had she known her brother was crawling into Marie Christina’s bed, Cass would have hogtied the numskull, thrown him in the trunk, and driven west until she hit the ocean and then, maybe, probably, would have let him out.

Her hands continued on autopilot, shifting the wheel slightly back and forth as she blindly avoided potholes and debris, her memory forcing her through the rest of her day. She’d barely been able to see straight, her mind reeling as she relentlessly tracked her brother through the crowd of milling townsfolk and back to his room over Kit Halliday’s store a couple blocks away.

Cass’ mind turned to molten rock as she stood there in that cramped gungy little room, staring down her oblivious brother after the announcement. Standing there, trembling with rage, she’d searched his pretty-boy features for any sign of remorse, guilt, something, anything other than what she found. Maddox stood there, chest puffed out, arms crossed, defiance etched across his handsome face, and not an ounce of remorse to be found. It became quickly and painfully clear to her at that moment, her dear soon-to-be-departed brother had absolutely no plan. Looking back, Cass was certain there’d been other, less important thoughts rolling around at the time, but she could remember none of them. The look on her brothers’ face was just one thing too much. After Marie, and then Dog, and Mary, Cass lost control.

For the very first time in either twins’ memory, Cass had actually raised a hand to her brother that morning. Before she could register what was happening, her arm went flying through the air, her hand connecting hard with the side of her brother’s face. She’d stood rooted to the spot then, stunned, as her brothers’ head rocketed to one side, not unlike those cartoon characters they’d spent countless hours watching in the youth detainment center that had been their home throughout most of their childhood.

Cass and her brother had only one rule growing up, that rule had seen them through a childhood of rundown detainment centres, dangerous and often violent peers, and caseworkers that couldn’t remember their names, family first and always. That rule hadn’t just gotten them through their childhood in one piece either, Cass almost positive it was what saved the twins bacon during the rioting and apoca-madness that followed not long after their release. From the time her brother could walk, he’d always enjoyed pushing the limits of that rule, but in all those years, Cass had never bit back. She’d been one of a select few that had never, not once, raised a hand to him, not out of anger, not to cause pain, that was, until today.

None of that could break through the fury Cass felt in the moment though, unable to recall any of their life together as her blood began to boil. All she’d been able to focus on was the torturous death her idiot-brother had volunteered them for as she stood there that morning watching the side of his face swell. Glued to the deep scarlet handprint on her brother’s cheek, all Cass could remember thinking was that she should have smacked him harder.

Irritated beyond measure, Cass had watched as various emotions galloped across her brother’s face before he finished an uneasy grayish-green as he crossed the finish line and hit reality head-on. It was part of the Madd-mess tradition, her brother always the last to arrive at the party and today had been no different. There were some things, she griped to herself as she shook the cobwebs from her brain, even a bloody apocalypse apparently couldn’t change.

The broken remains of their once bright and shiny civilization faded from view as the dense forest on either side of the highway swallowed up the remaining landscape, leaving the Commodore bouncing among shadows in the fading twilight. The trap laid for them by Rags the Amazing Gushing Fountain and his Dancing Marionettes had Cass twitchier than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs and the new surroundings weren’t exactly helping. Rubbing at the tiny hairs on the back of her neck as they performed a full twenty-one-gun salute, she pulled up a little on the gas pedal, her emerald green eyes searching the gloom when a long piercing screech came from somewhere off in the distance. A heartbeat later, another howl sounded in answer to the first, the second penetrating her brother’s sleep-addled brain. She had to give the knucklehead credit, he was upright, with the shotgun in hand, in a matter of seconds.

Cass gave a soft chortle at the sight as she slowed the Commodore right down to a crawl. Her brother twisted in his seat to face her, taking a moment to peer over her shoulder before opening his mouth to speak. She had no idea what it was her twin planned to say but, knowing him as well as she did, Cass suspected it might just be the final straw that caused her to snap and choke the life out of him. She didn’t get the chance to find out, the girl auspiciously choosing that moment to lean forward and place a light hand on her brother’s shoulder. Whatever especially inane comment Maddox had been about to make died on his sunburned lips at the feather-light touch. With her other hand, the kid pointed out the rear driver’s side window, directing the twins’ attention to the trees lining the far side of the ditch and away from one another.

The trees on either side of the truck began to sway violently back and forth, raining down pine needles onto the broken asphalt as Cass looked on with growing dismay. She’d been so lost in thought, she hadn’t been keeping a close eye out for uninvited guests. She wordlessly cursed first herself, for being so lax in security, before throwing up a double curse at Maddox for taking a damn nap.

Muttering yet another curse, this one out loud and at no one in particular, Cass could hear the snide inner voice briefly question the state of her sanity yet again, as she took one last look at the shaking pines before pushing her foot back down on the gas. As if taking on an impossible job in going into Typhoid Mary’s territory for a man that would reward anything less than perfect success with the removal of all their limbs wasn’t bad enough, no, the rotten cherry on top of all that, both she and her moron-brother decide to zone out while in hostile territory.

She continued searching her side of the road, looking for any sign of movement, while her right index finger tapped nervously on the steering wheel. From the corner of her eye, Cass noticed Maddox reaching up between them toward the roof of the cab, where the switch for the spotlight was mounted, his arm only half outstretched when the girls’ grip on his shoulder tightened. She watched as her brother’s hand hovered between them for a few seconds as if frozen before Maddox wordlessly placed it back in his lap. Cass caught sight of the girl shaking her head of white-blond hair in the mirror, in that silent, eerie way the kid had that suggested she knew something they didn’t. Cass had been mere inches away from death after having ignored that look more times than she cared to count. She’d learned long ago, it was always in their best interest to heed the kid’s warning.

She threw up a silent thanks to the girl, glad to have avoided at least one argument with her blockhead brother, making a mental note to count her blessings later. She suspected there would be plenty of opportunities for them to work through their issues afterwards. Or each others’ face, Cass had even money on which would come first.

She kept her eyes peeled for the innocuous marker they’d placed next to their turnoff, as well as any signs of Rag’s throwing an after-party, kicking herself for insisting the orange reflective flag be so damn tiny. The cottage they were heading for, one of the multiple hidey-holes left over from before the peace treaty, was no longer in regular use leaving the very existence of what Cass was searching for into question. She could no longer recall when the trio had last ventured out this far from town. The past three years had seen the twins and their odd companion settle in a place called Dogtown, putting down roots for the first time in the sibling’s lives. Named after the league of canines that temporarily claimed it during the fall, before Jonah and his goons took it back that was, their post-apocalyptic home was a compound run by a shifty-eyed lunatic that saw the apocalypse as an opportunity to re-invent himself.

Jonah McDaniel had once been a mild-mannered bean-counter type replete with a mini-van-driving wife, two-point-five soccer-loving kids, and a white picket fence, that used the end of the world as a means to act out his most intimate fantasy-self. With the destruction of his ordered reality, went that friendly Joe-Blow-next-door Jonah, an unstable maniac decked out in a John Wayne complex with a disturbed sense of humour and no respect for humanity, all that was left in his place. The man even went so far as to rechristen himself Black Dog. As far as Cass could tell, there really was no accounting for sanity at the end of civilization.

The reflective orange marker Cass had stapled to a sapling standing guard at the corner of their exit, at last, came into view. A small sigh of relief escaped from between her clenched teeth at the sight as she lifted her foot off the gas just a bit, slowing the truck to a more reasonable speed. Squinting through the mesh, she leaned forward, keeping a close eye out for the narrow service road that led to the cottage. More howling came from some distance down the highway back in the direction they’d left Rags and Friends. It was answered a moment later, a second yowl sounding off from somewhere in the direction they were heading as a pit in her stomach opened, yawning wide. Something about the way the fiends were chattering, almost as if communicating with one another, set Cass’ teeth on edge in a way the thals’ screams never had before.

The shrieking came again, this time from much closer on either side of them. The abominable creatures were moving toward the truck, their screams gaining a frenetic feel as the distance grew shorter. It was as if they could somehow sense the Commodore’s presence, and the three tasty meat-treats waiting inside. That can’t be, her mind argued, not from that distance.

The girl sat forward again but kept her hands to herself this time as Cass pressed her foot down on the gas pedal almost to the floor, pushing the Commodore to its limit. She barely kept hold of the steering wheel as they rounded the flashy little flag that marked the service road, the truck riding the very edge of the ditch the entire time. The frantic screeching continued sounding off from both directions as the truck raced down the short service road. Just as the ancient summer home appeared amongst the thick conifers, an angelic vision of safety in a sea of inky black, the commotion stopped, both creatures cutting off in mid-yowl.

Cass turned off the gravel road on the far side of the driveway, bypassing it all together, and pulled right up onto the dry patch of burnt grass that doubled as the side lawn. Easing off the gas entirely, she let the truck coast the last fifty feet and straight into a dense cluster of fir and pine trees that served as more than adequate coverage for the gigantic machine.

Wasting no time, they unpacked only what they would need for the night before hastily making their way in a tight formation across the lawn. Cass was in front, a battered nine-millimetre Dawking Platinum out and trained on the trees, with the girl following close behind, lugging a large dusty black duffle bag on each shoulder, while Maddox brought up the rear, the shotgun from the front seat out and pointed at the ground. As quickly and quietly as they could, the three made their way across the brittle yellowish-brown grass and up the steps of the ramshackle veranda without incident. As Cass cautiously tiptoed up the mushy wooden steps, she noted that their stalkers were staying quiet, at least for the moment anyway.

Swinging open the aging storm door, she paused to scan the main floor. They’d left it, and the upstairs, as they’d initially found them, using the rotten mess as cover. Blocking the entryway, she scoured the rubbish but could see nothing out of place. As far as Cass could tell, not one rotting lace doily or stick of mouldering furniture had moved so much as an inch since their last visit. Still, she refused to let an impatient Maddox, tapdancing at her back, and the kid through until she was thoroughly satisfied everything was exactly as they’d left it.

Gingerly picking their way across the warped floor to the back of the house, Cass paused for a moment. Holding a hand out to keep her brother from pushing forward, she waited, thumped a thick rubber bootheel on the floor as hard as she dared, waited another minute, listening intently for the tiniest squeak. Nothing but silence greeted them.

“Are we good?” Maddox griped impatiently, pushing past her outstretched arm and heading for the basement door at the back of the house, “if anything was waiting for us, maybe it’s just me here, but I’m thinking, they would have come at the dinner bell, don’t you, mom?”

Cass took a moment to flip her brother the bird before ambling after him, the kid following closely behind, Maddox already flipping back the locks on their hidden sanctuary as she and the kid came to a stop next to him. It took both siblings tugging with all their strength, each letting out a wild grunt before they got the heavy steel-reinforced door open.

Cass was the first to make her way out onto the rickety landing just beyond the door, the timeworn structure creaking and swaying beneath her. Taking care with each narrow sagging step, she gradually began making her way down to the dimly lit cellar below. She’d successfully navigated a third of the mushy termite-infested boards when she was sent scrambling for both handrails as Maddox and the kid followed suit, the staircase morphing into a pendulum under the additional weight.

“You gonna give us a show, sis?” Maddox joked as Cass clumsily threw both arms out, teetering on the edge of a loose board for several excruciatingly long seconds. Just as her feet were about to slip out from beneath her, Cass’ flapping hands finally found the roughened wood of the handrails, curling around them in a death-grip despite the many slivers already burrowing into her palms.

“Keep it up, little bro and a boxing match will be added to the evenings’ events.” Cass muttered from between clenched teeth, “and I’m in half a mind to make it a death match, ass-weasel.”

“I’m sorry sister-dear, I missed that. What did you say?” Maddox called back in a cheeky voice as Cass slide down the next two steps but didn’t go ass-over-tea-kettle thanks to finding the railing at the last second, adding it to the list of things to be thankful for later as she regained her balance. She took a well-deserved moment to throw some colourful sign language back at her brother, flipping him a double bird before hopping off the last step.

Glad to once again be on solid ground, Cass turned to face the only working door in the room as Maddox, and the kid fell in line beside her. A near-duplicate of the one at the top of the stairs, it was also reinforced on both sides, as well as sporting several deadbolts lined up above and below the handle.

It was one of only two doors in the cramped, musty basement. The only other entry in the basement was nearly identical to the one affixed to the front entrance, set deep in the opposite wall.

It was an oddity the three survivors spent many a night snidely debating since they first stumbled on the deserted summer home. During evenings when the thals were out in full force, Cass and Maddox would while away the time bantering about theories on what would drive someone to install a door that opened onto solid dirt.

Not long after arriving at Broke-down Cottage, during one of those idle conversations, her brother declared it the Door to Nowhere. Not long after that, the twins inexplicably found themselves muddling through a sheepish discussion where, although neither of them could rightly explain why, minimal reinforcement was agreed upon. Both siblings felt childish and more than a bit ridiculous at the time, but installed a steel plate to the inside, along with an extra lock above the rusted handle anyway.

As her brother elbowed by her and began unlocking the door to their room, Cass threw a glance back over her shoulder at the Door to Nowhere. Her eyes passed over the thick layer of brown grit covering the weathered wood, straying down toward the handle to see the deadbolt still locked, as it was every time she checked. “I need sleep,” she mumbled, quietly laughing at herself for being silly and paranoid.

“Double barrel on whichever cot has the least rat-shit on it!” her brother called out before turning the key in the final lock. Too exhausted to argue, Cass could only roll her eyes before trudging after the kid, but not before throwing one last glance back at the Door to Nowhere as she shut the door behind them.

After spinning each of the deadbolts back in place, Cass made a hasty beeline for the only remaining empty cot. She immediately went about clearing off the dust and extra blankets haphazardly piled atop the bed as her mind wandered to what tomorrow would bring. It just wouldn’t leave the subject of the trip, of Typhoid Mary, alone as she pushed the thin ratty blankets to the foot of the bed and began slowly wiping streaks across the ugly flowered comforter still tossed across the cot.

Just picturing the woman’s’ bulbous face, all wild eyes, and tangled midnight black curls, the end-times Medusa, set the stump on Cass’ hand to aching. Mary’s idea of a parting gift during their last visit to the Funhouse, losing a digit was the award for winning, the loser of that particular round of Circus fun taken away in a bucket. Cass wouldn’t have believed it possible to reduce a human being to what amounted to jelly in less time than it took to make toast, but Mary had proven her wrong that day, with gusto. That was just one of many gruesomely informative lessons Cass received in her brief time under Mary’s rigorous tutelage.

Cass’ mind refused to quiet as she plopped down on the shabby blanket, insisting she riffle through the flaming dumpster of memories from the twin’s last trip to Typhoid Circus and Mary’s Funhouse. Cass and her brother had both been witness to more than their fair share of folks that just couldn’t hack it post-civilization, mentally speaking that was. Some people just couldn’t wrap their heads around the end of the world and ended up falling off their nut; going loonie-toons; just plain cracking up at their reality falling apart.

As far as Cass could tell, there were two kinds of apoca-nuts in her experience. There were the snappers. They were the ones that were fine, perfectly fine; everything is fine, ma’am; we’re all happy-slappy fine; it’s all going to be absolutely fine. And they were, perfectly fine that was, right up until they weren’t.

The moment everything was no longer fine with a snapper, well they snapped. When that happened, it was like human fireworks going off, usually culminating in the snapper, along with any unfortunates in the vicinity, going out with a bang. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. No more worrying about how fine everything wasn’t.

If only Mary fell under the snapper heading, if only the twins, and what little that remained of humanity, were so lucky. But alas, neither the twins nor the now-defunct human race they found themselves unwilling members of, had any sort of good fortune left to their names, as evidenced by the advanced state of decay of both humanity and its wonderous toys. Nope, humanity’s luck had long since run out and right on schedule came Typhoid Mary. Mary’s sanity was slipping away in a slow burn, the type of apoca-nuts that eats away at a persons’ soul, one tiny piece at a time, devouring first them, and then the world if it isn’t stopped.

Mary had been moving past run of the mill and was well on her way to being psychotic by the time the twins first laid eyes on her and her Midway of Misery. With Mary, the apocalypse had taken her humanity, then her empathy and finally her sanity, one jagged piece at a time, until there was nothing left but the maniacal Medusa the twins first laid eyes on during the territory wars before the treaty. Cass could only guess at how the grand catastrophe would play out when there was nothing left in Mary but the fire. But she was absolutely sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she, herself did not want to bear witness to what was shaping up to be a spectacle not seen since the Great Fall, itself.

Spotting Maddox already asleep, curled beneath three thick fleece blankets, Cass frowned at her oblivious twin, once again overwhelmed by a sudden urge to walk over and pop him one right in the side of his peacefully sleeping head. Turning away from the muffled snores before she did just that, Cass quickly shoved both her fists beneath her thighs in a feeble attempt at restraining herself before she did something she was almost certain to regret.

Switching her attention to the other cot, Cass could see the girl had also stowed her gear and was sitting cross-legged atop a thin sheet. Seeing she had the older woman’s attention, the kid cocked her head to the side, giving Cass a quizzical look as she held her slim, delicate hands out in front of her, palms up, her way of asking what was wrong.

Gazing back at the kid, Cass considered letting loose all the boulders that were rolling around in her head. She was about to throw open the floodgates when the girl’s pale, drawn features were suddenly consumed by an enormous yawn. The sight quickly changed Cass’ mind as she took a closer look at the kid’s drawn face, noting the dark circles under the girl’s eyes and sunken look to her cheeks. The kid was worn right out. Snapping her mouth shut before the first words could escape, Cass simply shrugged her shoulders before motioning for the girl to lie back and rest.

The ghost-faced kid hesitated a moment, her head still jerked to one side as her peculiar silvery eyes passed over Cass. The two sat like that for a couple minutes as the kid scrutinized what felt to Cass like every millimeter of her face before taking her advice. Giving Cass a curt nod, the kid laid back, pulling the extra blanket folded across the foot of her cot up over herself as she went.

No sooner did her head hit the pillow and the kid was fast asleep, leaving Cass to chew on their predicament alone. She watched the kid for a few minutes, eyeing the steady up and down of her chest as she snuggled deeper beneath the thin quilt, before leaning back against the cold concrete wall her own cot was pushed against. Letting out a small defeated sigh, the exhausted woman tipped her head back, staring blindly up at the peeling paint above her as her mind went back to her earlier conversation with Maddox.

She hadn’t push hard enough. She’d known that morning as she stood in the cramped one-room apartment, her brother’s clothes and half-eaten containers of food strewn everywhere, she wasn’t pushing him enough. She should have walked him through why and how they’d ended up so wholly and utterly screwed and all due to him, yet again. She’d been ready, thoroughly prepared to lay into him once and for all, right up until the moment her palm had connected with his face, that was.

I should have had him bloody neutered, Cass thought, gently banging the back of her head against the wall. The apocalypse may have done a number on most social lives, but not her brother’s. No sir, not Maddox, not Apocalypse Adonis, Cass’ inner voice snipped, not unless he was the last person on earth. And even then, if anyone could find a workaround, it would be her brother.

Cass would never understand her brothers’ obsession with ‘dipping his wick,’ as he was wont to call it, any place warm. He was almost desperate in his search for some companionship of that nature. She’d never felt the urge herself, not before and certainly not after the human race flamed out. A source of near-constant amusement to Maddox, her complete lack of interest was often the subject of his brotherly razzing, when he wasn’t lamenting his confusion, that was.

As far as Cass could tell, her brother was stirring up enough apocalyptic romance drama for them both. Cass had long ago lost count of how many times her brother’s ‘Johnson with a little j’ had cost her dearly. The still mounting bill from picking up her brother’s mess even included one crooked but perfectly functional pinkie, that was until it was lopped off by a clown done up as Henry VIII. Mary had a fervid imagination, and the Funhouse was a mirror reflection of it. Cass had been following her brother while he chased after a piece of tail way back then too, only that time it had been some suave skinny dude named Dekker.

A tall drink of water with the face of an angel, a scowling avenging angel that was, Cass had Dekker pegged for trouble the second she laid eyes on him. Maddox wasn’t exactly picky about his bedfellows, but that one had been a real winner. It wasn’t until they found themselves trapped deep inside Typhoid Circus that she was finally able to convince her brother of the obvious, the guy had been nothing more than bait.

Maddox practically had a horseshoe shoved someplace uncomfortableby the end if that particular Madd-mess. Cass figured, had she not been exhausted, bruised, and missing a finger by the time they made it past the guards dressed as flying monkeys that patrolled the perimeter of the Circus, she most likely would have beat Maddox to death herself. That was the closest the siblings had ever come to a severe breach in their otherwise solid bond, that was, until the announcement in the town square. Climbing into bed with the daughter of their bloodthirsty, half-mad benefactor was quickly becoming one for the record books, even for the great Apocalypse Adonis.

Cass was beginning to suspect her baby brother’s ever-growing list of idiotic accomplishments might just be the sum total of his repertoire, and her life. Maddox goes to bed someplace wildly inappropriate, lands himself in a world of trouble, at which point, like clockwork, big sister, by all of four minutes and twenty-one seconds, enters stage left to dig him out. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Forever.

This time though, Cass mused sadly as she let out a yawn of her own, Maddox may have truly outdone himself in chasing Marie Christina into bed, and straight into the heart of Typhoid Mary’s territory.

Cass worried, the feeling deep down in her bones that something wasn’t right resurfacing as her eyelids began to droop. Absentmindedly, she rubbed at the aching stump where her finger once resided, letting out another yawn as her eyes closed all the way. Cass fell asleep then, visions of monarchal clowns covered in blood and Mary’s wild, manic blue eyes haunting the precious few hours of sleep left to her before the sun rose and their journey began anew.

She was still in the same upright position, slouched against the cold stone wall when her brother and their young companion woke her later that morning.

♦♦♦

The silent woman, that young girl bouncing around in the back of the Commodore’s cab now long gone, buried under more than a decade spent recording the dark and turbulent end-times of the latest hominid scenario, stood at the bottom of what had once been the gravel driveway leading to Broke-down Cottage. Her dark silvery eyes surveyed the bleak landscape, virtually identical to the ghost-town she’d passed by earlier in the day, a town once run by a madman believing himself to be a gunslinging desperado of the apocalypse.

Turning toward the squalid remains of that long-ago hideout, the tall, willowy woman began slowly making her way toward the thicket that once served as a hiding spot for a monstrosity of a truck. Coming to a stop in the middle of the drive, she stood stock still, customary when running through her memory files, as she flashed on the trio’s first day officially claiming the abandoned cottage as their own.

The memory played back before her eyes, the technician watching the transparent image of the muscular foul-mouthed woman that once considered herself the ANGEL’s guardian sweating and cussing up a storm as she hollowed out the thicket all those years ago. The technician remained there, staring at the spot where Cass once stood, drenched in sweat and swearing up a storm while beating at the underbrush with a machete almost as long as her arm, unable to help the small smile playing at the corners of her thin lips.

She’d enjoyed the woman’s company, had sympathized with the futility the subject had routinely expressed toward her existence. If the woman were being truly honest with herself, which her therapist was incessantly prattling on about, she recognized a great deal of herself in Cass. My therapist will love that revelation, the technician thought as she turned away from the thicket and toward the summer house if it could still be considered such in the state it was currently in. Making her way across the dusty hard-packed earth that could only be thought of as a lawn in the loosest of terms, the woman let out a soft groan at the prospect as she slowly picked her way up the sagging porch steps, mindful to avoid the pieces of shingle and weak spots in the wood.

Pausing on the top step, the woman glanced up to see several new holes in the roof since she’d last laid eyes on the tiny cookie-cutter summer home. She could see holes ranging from small enough to hold a bird’s nest to an entire bedroom exposed to the elements, siding falling off everywhere and not a single window with glass left in it. The last stages of civilization decay are always so depressing, the technician soundlessly lamented, another world, another test group reduced to dust.

The woman’s thoughts turned once more to the twins, and that final trip to Typhoid Circus, as she carefully picked her way across the battered porch. All three of them had survived that trip, although not for lack of trying on Mary’s part. And it had cost them, dearly.

They’d succeeded in bringing back Marie Christina, but not before Mary and her court of clowns drove the poor young woman stark-raving mad. The jabbering mess they returned to Dogtown had no resemblance to the beautiful vibrant woman the townsfolk remembered. Marie wasn’t the only causality of that trip, the twins each paying a steep price of their own. The schism in their relationship widening to a canyon by the time they left Mary’s territory behind in the rear-view mirror. With neither of the siblings watching each other’s backs any longer, the woman recorded their grisly deaths not long after. One more miserable end to another set of unfortunate subjects in yet another depressingly predictable testing scenario.

The memory nodes began cycling up for harvest as the graceful technician effortlessly leapt over a crater in the living room floor on her way to the back of the house. Cat-like in her agility, the woman, made quick, easy work of the obstacle course of rotting furniture littered throughout the living room, all the while, contemplating that transfer she’d promised herself she would put in a request for. She’d long ago lost count of how many times she’d gotten to the end of one of these depressing merry-go-rounds and promised herself it would be the last, only to end up back in the hominid simulation, having not filled out the paperwork for the transfer yet again. Many a wellness session had been spent dissecting the technician’s own repeated pattern, thus far to no avail.

Sliding around the overturned fridge that lay half blocking the kitchen door, the woman found herself turning to the question that always seemed to follow on the heels of her inner debate over requesting a transfer. As was so often the case, she couldn’t help but wonder why the General Overview Director insisted on repeating the scenario with the same material and parameters, let alone why the BUDDHA would continue approving it. The ANGEL occasionally doubted if the Final Supervisory Manager had any clue at all as to what was going on in her department.

The hominids division invariably culminated in some type of total self-immolation, yet, no matter how many times their GOD was informed of the subjects’ failure during the initial testing scenario, he refused to admit defeat.

The woman no longer cared to count the number of times she, herself had been witness to the astounding level of destructiveness the test material was capable of, the means varying but the complete and total annihilation of the habitat and all organic test material within it universally consistent. She was beyond wondering why the subjects themselves insisted on repeating the same mistakes, both large and small, to the point of failing to move forward in the CREATOR department passed initial testing. She suspected they shared more in common with their GOD than the goofball cared to admit. Her therapist often posited it might be some form of over-achiever syndrome. The technician suspected that was too optimistic, as was her therapist in general.

Stepping out onto the creaky landing, the technician was unsurprised to find the stairs themselves were nothing more than dry kindling laying in a haphazard pile on the cold stone floor beneath. After only a moment’s hesitation, the woman leapt out over the mess in a graceful, fluid arch. She landed without a sound, effortlessly clearing the wreckage by several feet, and immediately began scanning the room as the idea of transferring departments circled back to the forefront of her mind.

One of her fellow ANGELs had mentioned how wonderful the GOD of the Squamata division was at their last union meeting, very knowledgeable, kind, and above all, reasonable. Although, Percy did mention something about the subjects’ tails becoming rather cumbersome during evolution. And there was also the constant spitting to contend with, a prospect the technician found unappetizing, to say the least. The part that was truly holding her back, however, was the habitat. It rained, constantly. She’d be perpetually damp, until retirement.

The svelte, silver-eyed technician took one last inventory of the basement, a detailed image of the sister and brother sleeping that long-ago night playing out before her as she waited for the clock to run down. The twins hadn’t been her first family assignment, nor would they be the last. She’d seen numerous family units perish in a wide variety of ways during her time in the hominid division. Like the scenario itself, the individual test subjects repeated mistakes on a number of levels in a variety of sizes, without fail.

The entire basement began to dim, along with what was left of the current habitat, as the time on the scenario ran down. Soon the janitorial service would arrive to clean it all up, rewinding the clock to the beginning so that it could all be done again. The stately technician stood before the Door to Nowhere, waiting patiently as a soft light began emanating from around the edges, signalling the ANGEL’s shift was nearly up. She found herself invaded by a familiar melancholy that was, sadly, becoming a close personal confidant as the glow intensified, gradually consuming the rusty old storm-door.

The woman frowned as the door disappeared beneath a blinding white fire, the Squamata division weighing on her mind as she waited for the guys in HEAVEN to finish establishing the connection. How much of a problem could the tails possibly be, the technician couldn’t help but wonder as she readied herself for the return trip. It’s not as if the spitting lasted the duration, she thought as HEAVEN finally connected, Perseus mentioned a mere few hundred thousand years at most. It was an idea the dispirited ANGEL found herself warming to. I could learn to live with being damp all that time, she mused as she moved toward the glowing rectangle.

Her last thought before stepping through the warm light was a memory of the General Overview Director briefing her on her next assignment, something about the end of civilization at the hands of a glutinous rampaging baboon, and an orange one no less. The simulation went dark, the blazing door all the light left in the entire habitat as the technician paused just before crossing the threshold. Or was it a buffoon, she thought as she took the final step. The statuesque woman spoke for the first time then, one foot already disappearing into the light and sounding oddly like her long-dead companion, “Ah fuck it, I’m putting in for that transfer.”

Tara Cameron

Written by

Tara Cameron was born an odd duck and has been such her entire life.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade