Remains — Chapter 1
I no longer recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I knew my visual appearance a certain way at one point in time. I knew it very well. But now that image is lost. I feel no relationship towards the girl in the mirror anymore. I have long, wavy brown hair, not a short, choppy do interrupted by a shaved undercut. My eyes are lined with black liquid liner, not dark shadows from lack of sleep. My skin is smooth and glowing, not makeup free and pale, showing off my blemishes. I don’t have a scar slashing through my left eyebrow. But the girl in the mirror suggests otherwise. The me I once knew is long gone.
I wrench my eyes away from my reflection in the fitting room mirrors and gaze down the length of the store. It’s virtually untouched, one of the few places that is. The clothing is folded in pristine condition or hanging in its proper place, the black and purple posters on the walls separating different collections, the mannequins posing upright on their stands. The only evidence that any time has passed is the thick layer of dust on the gray tiled floor, black shelving, and black speckled cash desk. No one cared about fashion after everything changed. For a moment I imagine I’m at work. The store is empty and dark because it’s early morning before we open. I’ve just clocked in, and I’m going to go to the back to turn on the lights, then I’ll open the tills and adjust yesterday’s payroll.
“I still say we just break it open,” a voice interrupts my thoughts.
“Don’t be an idiot,” another voice hisses. “Anything we do to force it open will cause too much noise. They’ll be on us in minutes.”
I delve back into my daydream. I just checked the clock. It’s 9:59 AM… Time to open the doors.
The bodies moving outside the transparent rolling grille doors are just customers waiting to shop.
I blink and look over. There’s a frown on Pocket’s face, and his arms are crossed. He isn’t happy.
A small, heart-shaped face appears in front of mine, blocking my view of him. “Honey, do you remember it yet?” It’s uncanny how Scavenger looks almost exactly the same as before the change, whereas I look like a completely different person. Other than her long blonde hair that she once wore down most of the time being constantly up in a ponytail, and a certain dimness in her blue eyes, she’s still herself. Visually, anyway.
I exhale and look down at the open cupboard doors behind the cash desk, wherein sits the solid, locked safe, mocking me. There is complete silence, other than the occasional moan, grunt, and shuffling of feet coming from outside the store.
“I need to just not think about it for a minute,” I respond. “Then hopefully muscle memory…”
“Goddammit,” I hear Meat whisper. “We’re fucked.”
I lean against the cash desk, staring at the black screen of the till monitor. My hand twitches towards the mouse, gently moving it over the old mousepad. But the screen remains black. I feel a wild, odd urge to punch something.
I whip around, crouching down in front of the safe so that the weapon attached to my hip clinks against the floor, and punch in a series of numbers with my thumb. A red light flashes next to the handle. I type in different numbers, again with no success. I grit my teeth and press the heel of my hand into my temple. I was a keyholder here for two years. How could I forget the safe code after only six months? I lower myself onto the cold floor and sit cross-legged in front of the safe. My eyes close, and I cast my thoughts back to my old life — university, work, boyfriend. I had just switched majors from visual arts to creative writing, which I was very excited about. My retail job wasn’t the best, but I loved my boss and coworkers. And Michael. We would lie in bed facing each other, and I would look into his eyes. I would admire the web-like tendrils in his chocolate brown irises until I could see his soul. My hand reaches out again, and I press six buttons without even looking at the keypad, clinging to that memory.
A high-pitched beep, a flash of green, and I turn the handle. The safe swings open.
“Good job, Honey.”
“You’re the bomb!”
But when I look up at Pocket, his gaze is glued to the front of the store, keeping a lookout. He doesn’t respond to my success in any capacity. I shove aside the plastic bins in the safe that are filled with cash and remove a sealed envelope. I rip it open and pour out its contents. Five keys of different shapes and sizes spill onto the tile.
“It has to be one of these,” I say.
“Well, let’s try them.” Brains bends down and scoops the keys into her palm, and squeezes my shoulder reassuringly as she straightens up again. I get to my feet as well.
“We’ll have to go one at a time,” Pocket says, stopping the four of us in our tracks as we take a collective step towards the Employees Only door. “There’s a space here where the mannequins won’t block their view.”
He’s right. There’s a moderately sized path between the cash desk and the backroom door that leads directly to the front of the store and, unfortunately, is utterly unobstructed, meaning the bodies outside will have a clear view.
“Smallest first,” he says.
Everyone’s eyes turn to me expectantly, but I’m already moving. Crouching to make myself even smaller, I shuffle across the open path very slowly, trying not to attract any attention with my movement. I push open the Employees Only door, and my blood runs cold as a bell rings. The sound seems as loud as a gunshot. Almost instantaneously, the sounds from outside increase in quantity and volume.
I look back over my shoulder at the others. Their reactions have all been the same — to freeze in place. Pocket, Scavenger, Brains, and Meat look like action figures, unmoving, in odd positions — a leg sticking out, about to start running, or an arm drawn up into the air mid-action. I remain in the doorway to the back room, holding open the door. I can’t allow the bell to ring again. I inwardly scold myself. Only half an hour ago we had gone into the backroom to check it out, causing the bell to ring. There were no bodies outside the store to agitate at that time, however. But I should have remembered, even if I didn’t expect to be going through the backroom door again. We remain as still as the mannequins for a moment, waiting to find out whether they would lose interest.
A loud bang makes us all jump. The startling noise is followed by more banging and the rattling of the rolling grille doors.
“Let’s go!” I cry.
As the others dash across the unobstructed gap, the screams begin. The banging becomes more violent and frantic as I hold open the door for everyone. I take a final look at the store as Brains, the last in line, crosses the threshold into the backroom. Its unspoiled condition allowed me to relive my old life for a moment, but soon it will be just as devastated as the rest of the world. I tear my eyes away and let the backroom door slam shut, just as I am starting to hear the creak of bending metal from the front doors. It doesn’t matter if the bell rings again now. They’re breaking in either way.
Meat and I grab one of the tall, thin sets of lockers next to the door and pull it down. It lands with a crash, blocking the door. It’s lightweight for a set of lockers, though, and won’t hold them for long.
The back room is filled with unopened boxes and metal bins filled with clothing wrapped in plastic: unfinished stock. The mobile shelving units are filled with neat piles of folded dress shirts and sweaters or hanging dresses and suits. Dust kicks up behind our feet as we move over to the manager’s desk, upon which the monitor for the surveillance system resides. Everyone is gathered by the desk, watching Brains, who is crouched in front of a small black filing cabinet on the floor next to it. She shoves a key into it and turns.
She tosses the key away and grabs another from her handful. The second one works, and she slides open the drawer.
“Honey, her name?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice. The noises outside are that of something breaking — the doors — and the screams are becoming clearer.
“Her first name is Liz. I don’t remember her last name.”
Brains begins digging through the file folders rapidly, hands shaking.
“I left the key in the front door,” I announce. “I won’t be able to turn off the alarm for the stock door.”
Scavenger looks at me. “Will it still go off with no power?”
“I don’t know, but the safety lights are still on,” I reply, looking up at the dim lights in the ceiling. We haven’t had to use our flashlights yet.
Meat anxiously rubs a hand over his mouth. “The alarm is probably connected to the backup generators as well.”
I exhale shakily. This was meant to be a simple in and out, but nothing is going right. Outside, Tank is probably wondering what’s taking so long. He’s probably imagining the worst.
Suddenly, a sound like an explosion can be heard from the other side of the backroom door. A mob has entered the store. Running footsteps and screaming, shredding fabric and things falling.
“Brains!” I have to shout over the cacophony of noise. “We have to go. Now.”
“Got it!” she stands. “But there are two Elizabeths.” She holds up two folders.
“Bring them both!” we all shriek in unison.
I spin and ram through the stock door. The alarm rips through the air, but we don’t stick around long enough to witness the aftermath of the noise. Our footsteps slap against the concrete floors of the mall’s service corridors, enveloping us in a rhythmic echo. We almost can’t hear their screams follow us through RW&Co.’s stock room door.
We follow the Exit signs until we burst out of the building into the mall’s main parking lot. We are outside again, finally. The sun shines brightly overhead, but the sight that greets us is horrific — hundreds of people, scattered across the parking lot, killing each other. People are charging at each other, tackling, biting, clawing, ripping, spraying blood and flinging guts everywhere. Off in the distance, in the middle of an intersection past the corner of the parking lot, an enormous, modified pickup truck is doing donuts. Its tires squeal on the asphalt, leaving smoky black skid marks. The horn blares, drawing the attention of a little over half of the parking lot’s occupants. They stop what they’re doing, dropping dismembered limbs or removing their jaws from someone’s neck, and run at the pickup, screaming all the way.
As for the rest, our appearance doesn’t go unnoticed.
Not twenty feet away, a face turns in our direction. His pupils are dilated, the whites of his eyes now red from countless broken blood vessels. Dark veins are visible under his skin. His mouth and hands are stained red, and his body trembles and twitches violently as he turns to face us. His lips peel back, revealing filthy, chipped teeth and he shrieks with rage. He breaks into a sprint, charging. More and more faces turn towards us, their screams layer upon each other, and I can feel the vibrations of their pounding feet.
We instantly form a circle, our backs to one another, and draw our weapons. They’re upon us in the blink of an eye. Meat’s kukri slashes downwards, nearly splitting one of our attackers in half. Brains and Scavenger, the sisters, swiftly and expertly penetrate skull after skull with their deadly daggers. Pocket’s brass knuckles glint in the sun as they slam into a jaw, unhinging it with a crack.
I widen my stance and glare into the face of the man who first noticed us as he enters my swinging radius. My aluminum baseball bat flies off my shoulder as I holler with fury and pain for what I’ve lost and what I’ve become in this, the apocalypse.