The Alarms – Chapter Three

After a few weeks away, here is more of the story.

If you need to get caught up before reading this next installment, click here for the prologue, chapter one, and chapter two. Here is the continuation.

THE ALARMS

CHAPTER THREE

Footsteps falling solidly on hardwood floors slowly started to bring Dakota to consciousness. Her eyelids felt gummed shut, and it was a struggle to open them. Her head was still pounding from her fall down the stairs, and she fought to bring her eyes into focus. To make matters worse, the fever that she’d felt nipping at her for the past day appeared to have manifested in full, judging by the amount of sweat her clothing now carried. Moonlight filtered into the room from a window above her, bringing panic to her thoughts. How long was I out, she wondered. Is it still the same night, or have days passed? She attempted to get herself into a sitting position, before an intense pain through her left arm forced her to bite off a scream of agony.

The pain in her arm finished bringing her mind to the forefront, even as it threatened to drag her under again. Shaking her head gingerly, Dakota took a quick glance around her surroundings. She was in a small bedroom, perhaps a child’s from the time before. The room was sparsely furnished, and the paint was peeling off of the walls, but she could tell it had once been a powdery blue. The bed beneath her was shorter than she was used to, and her feet had hung over the edge. A narrow window high up on the wall brought the moonlight in, and a closet was placed in the far corner of the room. Gritting through the pain, Dakota tried to shift again, this time hoping to get the entryway in her sight. Her hair fell over her face, and she made to brush it away with her right hand, quickly discovering that it had been lashed to her waist. The knot had been tied hastily, but there was no way she’d be able to undo it herself with only one hand. At least, not without wasting precious time.

The footsteps that had woken her walked further away from the bedroom she was in. The seemed to move with a purpose, and, based off of how heavy they sounded, whoever was keeping her here was male. A quick shiver ran up her spine at the thought. She hadn’t been overly trustful of men before the world had fallen apart. The last thing she wanted in the aftermath was to find herself prisoner to one. She peered through her hair, trying to locate her gear, her heart sinking to see that the only thing in the room other than her and the bed was a small wash basin filled with murky water. Her mind reeled, trying to piece her way out of this situation. If need be, she could still use her left arm. The pain was excruciating, but anything would be better than falling victim to one of the raiders that had popped up ever since the monsters had come.

Dakota prepared herself, trying desperately to control her breathing. Her injuries, coupled with the fever, made the task impossible, and she blinked away tears of both pain and frustration. Steeling herself for the worse, Dakota inched to the end of the bed, preparing to piston her foot up should an assailant get too close. The frame creaked beneath her as she did so, sounding to her ears as loud as a jet engine. Clearly, whoever was walking the hall heard it also, as the footsteps quickly started growing nearer. Dakota tensed her muscles, ready to spring into action, physical condition be damned.

The doorknob slowly turned, and the door into the room opened a slight crack. Whoever was on the other side wasn’t taking any risks, which really wasn’t a surprise. Anyone who’d survived this long wasn’t a fool, and Dakota knew that she’d have to be almost perfect in her execution if she was going to get out of this. She shifted her weight slightly, allowing for a better kick with her right leg, her eyes never leaving the door frame.

The door leaned in a few inches, and stopped. A gloved hand reached in near the bottom, rolling an apple towards where Dakota sat. A moment of silence hung in the air, before Dakota cleared her throat. “Can’t very well eat that with one busted arm, and one tied to my side,” she said, her face thick and gravely with thirst. “Try again.”

“Consider it a small goodwill gesture,” the person on the other side of the door said. Dakota had been right about it being a man wandering the halls, and her heart sunk. She wasn’t about to easily accept anything from someone she didn’t know, but knew the odds were heavily against her. “Can I come in?,” the man asked.

“Don’t see why not,” Dakota replied bitterly. “Or are you always this polite to your prisoners?”

The door opened fully, and Dakota saw that, while the voice was male, calling her captor a “man” was a bit of a stretch. Before her stood a boy on the verge of manhood, probably around sixteen or seventeen, but he clearly hadn’t fully gained the self-assuredness that comes with full manhood. Young eyes peered out from under a heavy brim, and what little facial hair he had was sparse, almost patchy. A look of confusion was settled on his face. “Prisoner?” he asked. “Why on earth would you assume that you’re a prisoner?”

Dakota glanced down towards her bound hand. “So you just bind up everyone who you meet, huh? Doesn’t seem too neighborly.”

“Neighborly, no. Safe, yes,” he replied. “I don’t know you, don’t know what you can or will do. I wasn’t willing to take the risk until after we could talk.”

“We’re talking now,” she said. “So how about you just untie me, give me my stuff back, and we’ll consider this all in the past.”

He looked at her, a seriousness in his eyes before he suddenly burst out laughing. “The past?,” he asked incredulously. “Seriously? You’re talking tough, but you’re in no shape to be on your own right now. What if the alarms start ringing? Listen, girl, your best chance of survival right now is to let me nursemaid you.”

Dakota flinched, knowing that he was right. The fever was raging and would only get worse without proper rest, and she needed to get her arm splinted if she was going to use it down the road. Still, the idea of being beholden to anyone made the bile rise up in her throat. “Never call me girl,” she spat resignedly.

He took a couple of steps closer, reaching down to scoop up the apple. “I don’t know what else to call you,” he said. “Not like anyone carries around their driver’s license anymore. Maybe if you give me your name, I-”

“Not gonna happen,” Dakota said, cutting him off. “And don’t think I want your name, either.”

“Suit yourself,” he responded. “Didn’t figure you for one to make anything easy. How about I call you Apple, since that’s what’s brought this conversation around?” He waited for Dakota to indicate one way or the other. She did nothing to relay her feelings on it, but he felt comfortable assuming that any negative thoughts towards the nickname would have been quickly voiced. “Apple it is, for now. You can call me Patch,” he indicated patches sewn onto the military-style coat he was wearing. “You know, just so we’ve got something to refer to each other as instead of ‘hey, you’.”

Dakota watched him carefully. Patch reached into one of the coat’s pockets, and flipped out a knife. Her knife. He casually opened up, and sliced the apple carefully, removing a bruised spot from where it had fallen. Her stomach rumbled, and she wondered again how long she’d been out, but she didn’t let her eyes stray from Patch or his handiwork.

“Nice knife,” she stated.

Patch paused in his activity for a moment. “It is,” he admitted. “And you’ll get it back when you’re good to go. But, for right now, it’s mine.” He finished cutting the apple up, resting the pieces on the bed just out of Dakota’s current reach. He looked down at her bound wrist, flicking her knife against the ties. A couple of quick cuts, and her hand was free.

Dakota suppressed the urge to grab him by the throat, instead keeping watch on him as she carefully picked up a slice of the apple. Another rumble of hunger echoed through her body, and she carefully took a bite of the fruit. The flavor of the fruit exploded in her mouth, and she had to fight the urge to eat too quickly. Forcing herself to take slow, deliberate bites, she nodded a silent thanks to Patch.

A slight smile curled the corners of his mouth, before looking at her left arm, hanging limply at its awkward angle. “May I?”

Dakota narrowed her eyes, but nodded approval at him. Gently, he took her arm in his gloved hands, carefully probing at it. After what felt like minutes, but was probably mere seconds, he carefully put it back down at her side.

“Well, it doesn’t seem broken,” he said. “Dislocated, maybe, but not broken.”

Dakota finished another slice of apple. “And how would you know?”

“Happened to me a few times before the creatures. Usually playing football. Plus, I’ve seen broken bones often enough to know that your arm’s still too straight,” he explained. “Of course, you could have some minor fractures through, but my money’s on a dislocation. I can set it for you, if you’d like.”

She eyed him again. She didn’t like the idea of letting him touch her, but he had been helpful so far, and she needed to get back on her feet as quickly as possible. She also knew that letting her arm go without treatment would make it less likely she’d regain full use of it. Resigning herself to the truth, she nodded. “Fine, but make it quick. I’ve gotta get moving.”

Patch took her arm in his hands and, with a slow, steady pull, positioned it back into the socket. Dakota kept her mouth clamped shut tight, the pain washing over her, sweat breaking out on her forehead, muffled screams kept behind her lips. When Patch finally let go of her arm, she carefully leaned back on the bed, closing her eyes, trying to ward off the explosions emanating from her shoulder. Her stomach rolled, and the apple she’d been eating threatened to betray her.

“Sit up,” he commanded. “We’ve got to get that arm slinged, and you really need to drink some water before you pass back out.”

“I’m not going to pass out,” Dakota argued, fighting off a woozy feeling.

“You’re a liar,” Patch responded. “And worse, you’re not good at it. Besides, you need rest more than you need to argue with me. So sit up and let’s get that arm slinged.”

Begrudgingly, Dakota sat up in the bed, propping herself up with her right hand. Patch presented an old, ratty shirt, which he looped over her shoulder. “Not pretty, but it’ll get the job done”, he said as he fashioned a makeshift sling. Resting her arm into it, Dakota was surprised to find that it was already feeling marginally better. She had been so certain that she’d broken it, she never even considered the possibility that it had just been dislocated. Maybe Patch was more useful than his age implied. She looked up again to notice that he was standing before her, a canteen held out. “Drink a bit,” he urged. “And then rest.” Dakota took the canteen from him, carefully sipping at the cool water within. After she drank what she felt she could, she handed the canteen back.

“Thanks,” she said.

He nodded. “Seriously, rest. That fever’s nasty, and you need to start healing the arm, too. Besides, you look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.”

“Months,” she muttered, already feeling a wave of exhaustion wash over her. Laying down once again, her eyelids drifted downwards. Her mind wandered through disconnected thoughts, and sleep overtook her.

When she opened her eyes again, the room was lit with bright sunlight. A damp washcloth was draped across her forehead, and Dakota already felt her arm feeling incrementally better. Her mouth was dry, but she noticed that another canteen had been put within easy reach. She even felt that her fever had broken, and she found herself wondering if there was still some jerky in her pack. As much as she hated to admit it, she had run across Patch at just the right time.

Carefully, she sat up again, reached for the canteen and took a careful drink. The water tasted clean and crisp, and she allowed herself a little more before getting out of the bed. She listened for the sound of Patch’s footsteps, but didn’t hear anything. Rising to her feet, she approached the door to the small room, opening it.

Swinging the door open, Dakota realized that this room had been built inside an upper level of the barn. A few other rooms were set in a semicircle around the outer wall. Across from them, a balcony peered down on the barn floor below. Clearly the barn had been converted at some point before the world had fallen apart, with no evidence that animals had been cooped within for quite some time. Dakota proceeded to walk cautiously to the next room, not wanting to give herself away. After all, Patch had helped her, but she wasn’t willing yet to place too much trust in anyone, let alone some boy she had just met.

The first room she passed was a small, sparsely equipped washroom. The porcelain of the sink was cracked, and the toilet was in disrepair; still, the room was clean, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place years ago. It brought to mind the bathroom she had shared with her sister before Cynthia had gone away to college. She pushed the memory out of her mind and moved on to the next room.

Dakota opened the door, seeing what had clearly at one point been an office. A desk was positioned against a large window, overlooking the farm beyond. A rickety chair sat before it, and an ancient typewriter, broken and unusable, sat forlornly in the center. More importantly, as far as Dakota was concerned, her pack was resting on the floor. She almost pounced on it, opening the pocket where she stored quick foodstuffs. Her hands fell on a packet of peanuts, and she tore the package open, forcing herself to keep from eating them too quickly. As she took the edge off of her hunger, she started looking through the rest of her belongings. Much to her surprise, the only thing missing was her primary knife, and she knew that Patch had taken that with him. He clearly hadn’t thought to scavenge her supplies, which made her start to wonder exactly how he’d survived this long. “Maybe he was just waiting to see if I’d die,” she said to herself.

“Or maybe I was hoping you’d pull through, and we could work together,” came a voice from behind her.

Dakota jumped slightly at the sound, then turned to look up at Patch. His hands were bloody, and he was looking at her intently. He noticed her eyes look at his hands, then locked eyes with her once again.

“Rabbit,” he stated. “Thought maybe you could use a little meat in your belly.”

Dakota narrowed her eyes slightly, but then nodded in acquiescence. She looked past him out into the barn proper. “Why’d you move me?,” she asked plainly.

“The house wasn’t safe. You were hurt. And I’d already scoped out the barn,” he answered. “Honestly, I’ve been holed up here for a while, and I saw your approach. Not as stealthy as you think.”

Something about his answer rang hollow, but Dakota didn’t have the energy to press the issue right now. She still wasn’t sure how long she’d been out the first time, and she knew that she’d barely had enough food to keep her going even before the mishaps in the farmhouse. Since then, having eaten only an apple and some peanuts was not going to help her. As long as he was telling the truth about meat, she was willing to risk sticking with him a little longer.

She forced herself to visibly relax. “Sorry if I’m seeming ungrateful,” she said. “Haven’t had the best of luck the few times I’ve run across people, and I’ve gotten used to doing this all on my own.”

Patch nodded, then stepped aside. “Look, I understand,” he said. “But we’re not all out to get you.” He turned on his heel, and started towards the stairs leading down to the ground below. Dakota followed him, seeing what appeared to be the makings of a cook fire, along with a couple of rabbits piled nearby. She was still disconcerted by the amount of blood for two small rabbits, but her hunger got the best of her, and she left her pack behind before heading down the stairs herself.

Patch proved to be a quick worker, and before she could really dwell on it, he was roasting the rabbits over the fire. The smell of cooking meat drifted towards her nostrils, and she felt herself salivate over the notion. Dakota sat quietly, simply watching Patch work. For his part, he was economical of movement, and seemed content to prepare the meal in silence. Shortly before the rabbits were done cooking, he produced a can of green beans, and set it to cook, as well. In contrast to many of Dakota’s recent meals, this was going to be a feast.

The silence between the two continued through the meal, each more focused on the food than on each other. Dakota chewed her food carefully, relishing the taste as it filled her mouth. She drank from the canteen to wash down some of the less tender morsels. Across the fire from her, Patch alternated between eating his meal and staring into the fire itself. Before long, the rabbit and beans were gone, and the crackling of the wood started to die down. Patch stood, pouring water over the fire before kicking dirt at it. He then clapped his hands together, and walked out of the barn.

The act of putting the fire out had snapped Dakota out of her reverie, and she couldn’t help but wonder where he was heading. Carefully, she rose, moving to the barn door to keep an eye. It was then that she noticed a water pump, clearly hooked up to a well or something. Patch was steadily pumping water into a bucket, and had a canteen lying nearby that he looked prepared to fill as well. The placement of the water pump explained why he’d been able to freely offer her water before, and also helped explain the washcloth that had been on her forehead when she woke up. What it didn’t explain was why he had eaten his meal with hands still covered in blood. Dakota was about to ask when Patch suddenly looked off in the distance, concern crossing his young face.

“What is it?,” she started to ask, but was stopped when he held one finger up to his lips, asking for silence. Stillness hung between the two for a few seconds before she picked up what had grabbed his attention so forcefully.

Across the still air, through the sun’s rays, Dakota’s heart fell. The alarms were ringing.

The Alarms – Chapter Two

To those who have been reading this story thus far, thank you so much. I’m honestly still not sure how long its particular legs are, but, for the time being, it’s got enough juice to get another chapter. If you want to catch up before reading this, you can find the prologue here, and chapter one here. Now let’s go with chapter two.

THE ALARMS

CHAPTER TWO

Dakota’s head was throbbing. The sun had been almost unbearable for the past three days, and she was severely rationing her water, not wanting to trek back towards the river until she made it further downstream. It had been almost a full week since she had encountered the collapsing man, but she saw every instance in the moments where she allowed herself to close her eyes. At night, the wind seemed to carry his words to her across the empty prairie, and she had to push herself to the point of exhaustion every day to try to drive away the dreams at night. She wasn’t even sure where she was going at this point; all she knew was that she needed to leave the city, and that man’s final gasps, far behind her.

Her eyes scanned the horizon, looking for anything that could provide some shade, at least from the hottest part of the day. Spying a copse of trees a few hundred yards off, Dakota started making her way towards them. She didn’t necessarily relish the idea of being where something could sneak up on her, but she knew that her body would give out if she didn’t. Besides, the last thing she needed right now was heat exhaustion, especially if she was right about the fever lurking in her system. As a child, she’d learned that lesson the hard way, and had been forced to spend a few weeks in the hospital before she was considered healthy enough to leave. Now, with no real medical care, it wasn’t a risk she was willing to take.

Moving through the tall grass, Dakota kept her eyes focused on the copse of trees. A nagging voice at the back of her mind told her that they were a trap, meant to lure foolish travelers to an early demise, but she kept pressing on. As she neared the area, she listened intently, hoping beyond hope to hear a bird sing or perhaps the rustle of a rabbit nearby. No sounds emanated from the thicket, and the humid air hung heavy all around her. The copse itself was a dark thumb, jutting up against the sunbathed land around it. The shadows carried a promise of cooler air, and, perhaps, maybe even some edible roots or berries to help replenish the exhausted young woman approaching.

As she reached the first tree, Dakota rested her left hand lightly against its bark, her right slipping down to unclasp her knife. No sound wasn’t always an indication of a vacant space, as Dakota had learned, and she didn’t want to be caught off-guard. Sliding her knife from its sheathe, Dakota began inching around the copse, keeping the trees to her left, eyes scanning quickly for any movement. It wasn’t until she had completed the full circle that she relaxed her tense muscles, slipping between the trees to the shaded space they provided.

Hidden from the blazing sun, Dakota ran her fingertips along the ground. It was a habit she’d originally picked up as a child; one that carried fond memories of digging for worms to go fishing with her father. Now, she almost did it subconsciously, relishing in the feel of the cool dirt beneath her hands. She eased herself into a sitting position, her knife across her thighs and her back against one of the more centrally located trees. As good as it felt to rest her muscles, she knew that she needed to stay vigilant. She’d run across too many bodies left behind by those who had dropped their guard for an instant. Her head still ached, but the pain had subsided somewhat when she had entered the copse, and she allowed herself a few extra swallows of precious water, hoping to keep full dehydration at bay.

The sound of scratching near her foot jolted Dakota out of a small catnap. She tried to force her eyes into focus, gripping her knife tightly. Her vision sharpened enough to pick out a squirrel, emaciated and with bloodshot eyes, digging at the dirt nearby. Dakota cursed herself for the brief nap, and inspected the squirrel, not wanting to make any movements to startle the creature

One back leg hung useless from the hunger-stricken body. The squirrel’s teeth were jagged and broken, and she thought she could spy worms writhing in its belly. This close to the end, she thought, and it still struggles to survive. The squirrel was clearly intent on the ground, and hadn’t yet seemed to really acknowledge Dakota’s presence. Cautiously, she positioned herself as best she could, and, from her sitting position, let her knife fly through the air.

The blade flashed through the air, piercing the squirrel in the side. One pitiful shriek and approximately 10 yards later, the animal lay on its side, panting heavily, a small pool of blood forming around it. Dakota rose, retrieved her knife from where it lay, and approached the dying squirrel, prodding it gently with her foot. Lacking the strength to do much else, the squirrel gazed up at her, taking in oxygen in shorter, shallower breaths. From this vantage point, Dakota could clearly tell that the squirrel was diseased, but, sometimes, meat is meat, and even what little there was would be precious to her. Crouching down, she plunged her knife into the squirrel’s head, snuffing out the remainder of its life.

Working precisely, Dakota stripped the squirrel of what little meat she could find. She prepared a small cook fire, and sharpened a sturdy stick on which to roast her meal. The meat sizzled as it cooked, and Dakota hoped that she was able to heat it enough to burn away whatever sickness the squirrel had been carrying. Her mind wandered back to her first experience eating squirrel, the hunting trip with Cynthia, and the surprising joy she had discovered cooking and eating something she had caught herself. That joy was gone now, replaced by the need to survive, but the memory was a strong one, and Dakota felt the pang of loneliness yet again.

As she ate what she had salvaged, she peered through the trees out to the prairie beyond. The sky was starting to darken slightly, and it appeared as though there might be clouds moving in from the horizon. Clearly, she’d been asleep longer than she’d originally thought, and that meant it was time to get moving again. Ever since the creatures had first arrived, humanity had been forced to take on a quality of the shark; keep moving or die. Dakota kicked out the cooking fire, slipped her pack back on, cleaned her knife against the earth at her feet, and left the copse of trees behind.

She walked through nightfall, continuing to move northwards. The setting sun on her left had long ago been obscured by the approaching cloud cover, and she almost found herself hoping for rain. As a child, she had hated being caught out in any sort of foul weather, but now feeling rain on her face reminded her that she was still alive. The rains carried hope with them, and Dakota felt herself clinging to the last vestiges of that.

Another mile passed before Dakota noticed something that broke up the monotony of the plains. A large dark shape loomed ahead of her, almost another half mile away. Dakota stopped moving, sliding her pack off of her shoulders, and dug around until she found the worn and cracked binoculars. Even after they’d cracked, she’d kept them, knowing that even a broken advantage was still an advantage.

Peering through the lenses, Dakota was able to get a slightly better look at what she was walking towards. The dark shape was actually two shapes, and appeared to be a farmhouse and barn. The night was too dark, and she was too far away, to discern if there was any movement, but there certainly was no firelight coming from the buildings. Putting the binoculars away, she looked to her left, trying to see where the cloudline had reached. The clouds were still about a half-day away at their current pace, but she didn’t know if they carried anything more than a simple respite from the sun’s blazing rays, and didn’t want to take the risk of getting caught in a raging storm. Dakota replaced her pack, and started to move towards the buildings ahead of her, hoping they were still intact enough to provide shelter.

Covering the distance carefully, Dakota approached what she presumed had once been a well-manicured yard. However, with nobody to assert man’s will over nature, it was now impossible to tell where the yard ended and where the fields and crops had begun. Fencing had long been obliterated, and Dakota could only discern where the driveway had once been thanks to the garage’s location. Gotta be close to where a road was, she thought to herself. Could mean water nearby, too. She knew she was down to maybe one more day of severely rationed water, but hoped that maybe she’d stumbled on some good luck.

Dakota inched up to one of the windows at the front of the house. She peered in, seeing the front room in disarray, mostly from neglect. A wave of dizziness hit her, and she rested her head against the wall. Clearly, the fever that had been lurking throughout the past day was threatening to overtake her now, and her options were running thin. She bolstered herself, moving to the front door of the house. Her hand rested on the knob, and it turned easily. However, the door remained firmly closed. She mustered up her strength and threw herself against it. The heavy wood shook, but didn’t budge. Feeling along the doorjamb, Dakota felt what appeared to be nails stuck through. Smart, she thought. Irritating, but smart. Didn’t help them, though.

With the front door a non-starter, Dakota moved towards the back of the farmhouse. She toyed briefly with the idea of breaking a window, but she had already exerted herself more than the threatening fever really allowed, and she didn’t relish the idea of leaving a point of entry completely open. She didn’t relish the idea of only one exit, either, but that point would become moot if the back door had been prepared in the same way.

Luckily for her, Dakota found that the back door had not been nailed shut in any way. Unluckily, it was left ajar, and appeared as though someone, or something, had broken the lock. She secretly hoped that it had been the creatures who had done so, because scavengers all too often left behind nasty traps for their own protection. It was still a better prospect than the barn, however, so Dakota carefully pushed the door open further, and stepped into the abandoned farmhouse.

The back door lead into the farm’s kitchen area. Cast iron pots and pans were scattered across the floor and counters. An old, 1970’s refrigerator stood in one corner, complimented throughout the rest of the kitchen with an even older stove, and, almost inexplicably, a practically brand new dishwasher. The cupboards hung open, stripped bare of any foodstuffs. Dakota found a closed door that lead to a small pantry, but that had been emptied as well. Clearly, she wasn’t the first one to find this place.

Moving on from the kitchen, Dakota entered the dining room, and then into the main living space. Stairs reached up into the darkness of the second story, and, from here, Dakota was able to confirm that the front door had been nailed shut, in a fairly hasty manner. Another dizzy spell hit her, and she put her hand to her forehead. Burning up, she thought, knowing that the fever would hit with full force sooner rather than later. Looks like I’m going to have to hole up here longer than I’d hoped.

A scurrying sound came from above her, the distinct sound of rats scrambling across the upper floor. Carefully, Dakota mounted the stairs, wanting to make sure that the house was clear of anything more than vermin. The stairs creaked under her weight, and she walked as gingerly as she could, knife at the ready. At the top of the stairs was a short hallway, with only three doors, all firmly closed. With trepidation, Dakota opened each door in succession. Behind the first was a small washroom, and clearly what the rats had claimed as their own. None of the animals were visible, but she could smell their fetid odor in the air. She felt herself gag, and closed the door quickly, hoping to do what she could to block out the scent. The second door opened into a well-appointed office, complete with a balcony to look out over the farm. Rotting papers were strewn about the floor, and Dakota gathered some that looked like they might still be useful before she opened the third door.

What greeted her eyes took her a step back, against the office door. The master bedroom of the farmhouse had been converted into some sort of mass grave. Bodies were strewn about the floor. Some had clearly died mid-coitus, and were still connected in death. Others looked almost placid, despite the ravages of decomposition. The most concerning thing, to Dakota’s eyes, was that none of the bodies appeared to have been there for more than a few months. She started to back away from the room slowly, feeling dread echo through the pit of her stomach. One too many steps, and she tumbled backwards, arms pinwheeling as she tried to catch herself while she fell down the stairs. Her head thwacked heavily against the bottom landing, and a wave of darkness threatened to wash over her. She tried to push herself back to her feet, and yelped in pain, her left arm hanging at an awkward angle. Blood fell from a cut in her forehead, and her vision started to cloud.

The last thing Dakota saw before the blackness overtook her was a pair of heavily booted feet, approaching from the kitchen.

The Alarms – Chapter One

So, last week I wrote a little short story thing. That particular piece of writing had been percolating in my brain for a while, so it was nice to get it out for others to see it. There’s only one problem.

It didn’t let go.

What follows is a continuation of that story. For lack of a better term, this is “Chapter One”, and that was a prologue. If you haven’t read that yet, please, feel free to do so here, and then come back. Or read them in any order. Still not sure how far I’ll end up taking this, let alone how much I’ll end up posting here on the blog, but here’s some more.

THE ALARMS

CHAPTER ONE

The sun was filtering through the boarded-up windows of the rundown house. Dust floated through the air, gently catching the filtered daylight as it was buoyed about by ambient air currents. The house occasionally creaked, settling on its foundation in an uneasy fashion. There was no calming hum of electricity, no scent of gas burners heating up on the stove. Everything stood in a state of disrepair, and a neighboring tree had poked its way through one of the upstairs windows.

Dakota Florence took a deep breath, adjusted the knife on her hip, and started wrapping up her bedroll. She had almost started to think of this as a safe space; a place she could return to and start rebuilding a life. Instead, just like with every place before, the alarms had brought reality crashing back down around her, and it was once again time to move on. At least this place had been near a river, she thought, running her fingers through her grimy hair. Should be able to at least refill the canteens.

As Dakota packed up her few possessions, her eyes fell on a rotting book; The Stand, by Stephen King. She almost laughed, thinking how much better it might have been if King’s vision of the apocalypse had been what actually came to pass. Instead of plague, it had been monsters, but the end result was the same. Humanity was practically wiped out. Those few survivors were forced to band together where they could. And yet, even with the ever-present threat lurking somewhere in the darkness, humanity couldn’t help but fall upon itself. Too many good people had been lost, and too many more had fallen from their pedestals to baser natures. It was why Dakota preferred to survive alone, even knowing that doing so increased the chances that her time would be cut short.

Three years, she mused as she assembled her pack, settling it on her shoulders. Almost three years to the day since the world fell apart. The world had once been full of life. Offices were full of people milling about their workday. Highways were choked with traffic, all flowing from point A to point B and back again. Parks had echoed with the sounds of laughing children, and birds filled the air with their songs.

Then it all changed.

That was the day that “they” came. The day that humankind started losing not just the battle, but also the war. It all happened so quickly, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

Nobody knew exactly what “they” were. The news channels tried to latch onto a unified story, to bring people together into the fight, but descriptions were as varied as the victims. Some reports came in of terrible creatures with hideous fangs, maws dripping with caustic saliva. Others claimed that the monsters looked almost human, if you could only ignore the pupil-less eyes and elongated claws. Tentacles, aliens, demons; eye witnesses seemed to only be able to see their own greatest fears. The only thing that the reports agreed on was that, where the monsters went, death followed.

In the first week after “they” first arrived, the global population was decimated. Those killed ranged from the homeless and powerless to world leaders. The creatures did not discriminate, and they did not empathize. Prisoners were never taken, and remains were never gathered. Those world leaders who remained had attempted to band together, but old grudges died slower than the populace, and agreements couldn’t be reached in time. Religions found a common ground sooner, but were met with just as fruitless of efforts. The end times were upon the Earth, but no consensus could be reached to avoid any further destruction. Dakota had retreated to a cabin, one of the few places she had always felt safe.

Within one month, humanity had been reduced by half. Entire family lines were obliterated, and whole cities were wiped off of the map. The surviving populace started turning inward for answers, hoping against hope that this global event might somehow spare them and move away. Prayers filled the streets during the day, even as each night brought more blood to the gutters. The remainder of the military attempted to ration goods and services, assuming that this fight would be a long drawn-out siege. Air-raid sirens were retrofitted to be powered without electricity. Dakota hunted and cleaned her first squirrel since she was 12, after almost a week of practice with a throwing knife.

At the one year mark, the attacks seemed to slow dramatically. It may have been that the population was a mere shadow of its former count, or it may have been that “they” had adopted a new tactic. Fortified camps started to dot the landscape, and the survivors were forced to scavenge for food. Crude radio broadcasts sometimes crackled out, letting people know where they could find safety, but that safety was always short-lived. More than a few of the camps were left lifeless practically overnight, bodies strewn about, most with weapons still sheathed. The alarms warned those within earshot that the creatures were nearby, and those that survived were those that quickly moved on. Legends began to spring up of humans who had not only faced down the monsters, but survived to tell the tale, but those who were held up as heroes carried a hollow look in their eyes. Dakota fell in with a small band, two men and one woman. Seventeen days later, while picking through the pieces of an abandoned gas station, the alarms sounded, and Dakota ran. The rest of her band never found her again.

It has now been almost three years. Nature has reclaimed the cities, bursting through mankind’s attempt to control it. The act of moving from place to place, shelter to shelter, has become almost second nature, and Dakota can barely remember what it’s like to truly feel safe. Like others who have survived this long, she has seen the creatures with her own eyes, albeit through scavenged binoculars, giving her time to get away. Silence has become her closest ally, and the knife at her hip has become her truest confidant. Three years of running, hoping, and, above all, surviving.

Dakota sighed to herself as she pulled her pack onto her shoulders, the bedroll tied tightly in place. She honestly hadn’t expected to make it this long, and, if the nightmares kept plaguing her, she might almost welcome death’s embrace. She didn’t dread sleeping because of a fear of being defenseless; she dreaded sleeping because she was terrified of remembering how good things used to be, before “they” came. She wasn’t even sure what had become of her family. They hadn’t journeyed to the cabin with her, so she assumed that they were long gone, which just made the dreams that much more painful. However, her father had taught her to be a fighter, and she wasn’t going to back down yet.

Cautiously opening the front door of the house, Dakota listened again. She had heard the alarms an hour ago, but now only stillness filled the air. Maybe the operator finally got caught, she mused. The morning sun filtered down onto the cracked street, grass and weeds spurting up and destroying the asphalt. Absent-mindedly fingering the hilt of her knife, Dakota stepped out into the morning air, her eyes scanning the immediate area. Sensing nothing amiss, she turned to her left, moving the same direction she had been three days prior. Going backwards wasn’t an option, not anymore.

A short distance away from the house, Dakota found the river bubbling past, and she dipped her canteens into the cool rushing water. She even allowed herself the indulgence of quickly splashing some water on her face and through her hair, trying to rinse away some of the recent grime both had accumulated. As she was topping off her reserves, she found herself wondering if she had merely imagined the alarms in her head; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that her mind had tricked her ears. However, it was usually voices lulling her into a false sense of security, not warnings spurring her to action. She replaced her canteens into her pack, drew a deep, full drink from the river, and pushed her concerns aside.

As the noon hour approached, Dakota noticed the houses around her becoming denser. She hadn’t been paying close attention to where she was headed, only knowing that she needed to move away from where she had been. She had kept herself vigilant for the creatures, sacrificing closer attention to the path immediately before her, even though she knew full well that they stuck to the darkest hours. She had heard tales of them attacking during daylight, but chalked that up to a modern-day boogeyman, even seeing the irony of needing to have deeper fears than the actual ones lurking in the night.

Dakota had never felt truly comfortable in cities. It’s why she had immediately retreated to the cabin when “they” first arrived. Dakota firmly believed that her dislike of urban existence had provided her the opportunity to survive as long as she had. Even now, with the planet reclaiming the areas that mankind had attempted to tame, she felt an instinctive distrust. She couldn’t help but imagine the streets teeming with people, all of them firmly believing that their own concerns were more important than anyone elses. By the same token, the cities had been hit the hardest in the attacks, and there was often still plenty of non-perishable food to be scavenged. Sometimes venturing within them was a necessary evil, and Dakota’s stomach did its best to remind her of this.

A gentle breeze blew Dakota’s hair about her face, and she dug into a pocket, feeling for the leather band she used to tie it back. As she pulled her hair out of her face, and small glimmer of movement caught her eye. Dakota immediately dropped into a crouch, preparing to pull her knife from its sheathe. She looked ahead of her, trying see if it had merely been a trick of the light.

Again, a quick glimpse of motion was seen. If she hadn’t become so used to hunting squirrels for some food, she might have missed it. As it was, it was hard to make out exactly. Whatever was moving was approximately three blocks ahead of her, and the tall grass hid most of its form. It did seem to be moving towards her, and Dakota got herself lower to the ground, drawing her knife and holding it at the ready. She focused her breathing to a slow, cautious pace, silently cursing the fact that whatever was coming her direction was downwind of her.

The figure kept approaching, seemingly unaware that she was nearby. As it got closer, Dakota could see that it was another person, and one that had seen better days. He was walking with a pronounced limp, and she could see a dark stain on his pants leg. The man walked with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, and she could see his mouth moving rapidly. It wasn’t until he got nearer that she heard what he was repeating over and over again.

“And they came and they ate and they carved and they danced and they came and they ate and-”, the man muttered to himself, cheeks sunken, eyes hollow. Dakota felt an instant of pity. Here was a man who had recently seen death incarnate, and he had come out broken.

The man continued to draw nearer, repeating his hollow mantra to himself. When he drew within twenty yards of Dakota’s location, he suddenly stopped, casting his eyes about frantically. The words stopped falling from his lips, and his mouth began to open and close rapidly, as though his tongue was searching for new words. He took a cautious step forward, his wounded leg almost buckling under his weight. Uncrossing his arms, he looked skyward, his voice rising and finding a new chorus.

“The alarms, the alarms, the alarms,” he shrieked, his voice making Dakota’s blood curdle. “Have you heard the alarms, the alarms, the alarms?”

Dakota found herself inching slowly backwards, subconsciously trying to stay out of the man’s path. Suddenly, his eyes turned towards her, blazing with a new-found fire.

“The alarms, the alarms, the alarms,” he repeated. “The alarms are messengers. You are a messenger. You carry what you do not know.” As his words filled the air, he closed his eyes and turned around, looking back through the tall grass. Without warning, his body started to crumple in on itself, as though there was nothing inside to hold it together. Dakota fought back the bile that rose in her throat, until she heard his final sentence whisper through the air.

“They are coming for you, Dakota. They are coming.”

Dakota retched into the tall grass, feeling the sun’s heat beating down upon her.

The Alarm is Ringing

The alarm was ringing.

Dakota didn’t want to move. The covers were pulled up tight to her chin. Her mattress beneath her was soft, practically cradling her. Her hair was splayed across the pillows, a disheveled tangle from the night’s sleep. She knew if she opened her eyes and stepped out of the bed, the perfect peace of the morning would be replaced with the hectic bustle of the day. Content to let the alarm continue it’s clamor, Dakota shifted slightly, trying to capture another few moments of bliss.

“Kota, if you don’t get out of bed, you’ll be late,” she heard her mother calling from downstairs.

Slowly opening her eyes, reluctant to let the light of day filter through her eyelashes, Dakota resigned herself to finally getting out of bed. She could smell bacon cooking in the kitchen, mingling with the aromas of coffee and toaster waffles. Sitting up, she shifted to let her bare feet drop to the floor. The wood grain beneath her toes was cold, and she let a sharp gasp slip at the instant temperature shock. She grabbed a robe from her closet, slipping it on over her t-shirt and shorts, turning towards her bedroom door, her movements slow and languid.

A sharp rap on the door brought another involuntary gasp. “Seriously, Dakota, it’s your first day at the new job,” her father was saying. “You can’t start out on the wrong foot.”

“Be right there,” she mumbled, her voice gravely from sleep.

Dakota heard footsteps echo down the hall before their sound disappeared. The hallway had always carried an echo to it, but the stairs between floors obscured footfalls, a phenomenon that often had Dakota wishing it had been her bedroom at the top of the stairs, and not that of her younger sister, Cynthia. When Cynthia had left for college, Dakota had petitioned for the quieter room, but was rebuffed at every turn by her parents. She waited another minute, then opened the door, leaving her bedroom behind.

The hallway ahead of her loomed darkly. This isn’t right, Dakota thought, but she couldn’t place exactly why. The hallway lights had clearly burnt out, and her father hadn’t gotten around to changing them yet. That was the only thing that made sense, and she pushed the darkness out of her mind, stepping towards the stairs leading down to the main level of the house.

Her footsteps echoed around her as she walked the bare floor of the hall, passing doors on her left and right. More doors than should have been possible for such a relatively small house, but Dakota didn’t dwell on this irregularity. She must not have been paying close attention, given that her head was still addled from having just woken up. Behind her, the door to her bedroom swung closed on its hinges, resting against the door jamb with a solid thud.

The alarm was ringing.

Blinking her eyes to adjust them to the darkened hallway, Dakota saw the stairs before her, still hearing the sounds of her mother bustling about in the kitchen. The scent of breakfast hit her nose once again, causing her to salivate unconsciously. Had she eaten the night before? She couldn’t remember clearly, but knew that the hunger she felt now was real. The sound of a departing car told her that, once again, she’d missed her father completely. A dull thought echoed through her head about how she’d been missing her father a lot as of late, but she worked to silence it, focusing instead on making her way towards the food she was smelling.

Her foot hit the first stair, feeling plush carpet tickling her bare skin. She’d never understood why the stairs were carpeted, while the rest of the house had been decked out with hardwood floors, but somehow this small stretch of fabric helped her feel like she was stepping into a new world every time. On the third step down, the carpet had some bare patches worn into it, but Dakota didn’t linger as she descended.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Dakota saw muted sunlight filtering through sheer curtains. The living room was adorned with floral-printed furniture, and a stately, albeit dusty, coffee table. That table is always one of the cleanest things in the house, she thought. Once again, however, she didn’t dwell on the thought, feeling the pull of her appetite drawing her towards the kitchen and, beyond it, the breakfast nook where the family always ate.

Exiting the living room brought Dakota into a small office area, where the printer was currently spitting out pages and pages of some manuscript. Her mother was an aspiring writer, busy churning out page after page of unpublishable fiction, filled with characters and situations liberally stolen from whatever happened to be on television the night before. Dakota kept moving, letting the paper pile up, spilling onto the floor. The open door at the other end of the office was bathed in bright sunlight, and her feet kept drawing her forward.

Entering into the kitchen, Dakota felt the sun wash over her. Sitting on the counter was a plate, with crumbs left behind. There was coffee brewing, but no carafe was underneath to catch it, creating a dark spill across the kitchen floor. A pan of some meat was on the stove, long since burnt beyond recognition. The burner itself was set to high, but no flame was visible. The lack of a gas odor told Dakota that the connection to the stove had been severed, but she couldn’t tell exactly how long ago. The scents that had brought her from her bedroom initially had been replaced with a musty, stale aroma, and there was a chill in the air.

Dakota stepped around the kitchen island, moving towards the large windows at the back of the house. As she stepped in the dark spill underneath the coffee maker, a sticky residue clung to her bare feet, causing her to leave clear footprints in her wake. The windows beckoned her, and she moved slowly towards them, trying to peer through the partially closed blinds to the world beyond.

The fence that ringed the backyard was decrepit, rotting through in most places. The grass in the yard had long overgrown, and Dakota watched as a plume of smoke arose from nearby. None of this is right, she thought in a panic. This can’t be how the world is. The sky was slowly filling with smoke, blotting out the bright sun. Feeling fear grip her, Dakota moved to the back door, swinging it open, only to be assailed with a rotting smell. Her stomach fought to keep its meager contents inside, as she inched cautiously out of the house.

As her foot touched the grass outside of the house, Dakota’s eyes flew open. She looked around to see the ramshackle room she was in, felt the thin mattress beneath her body, and sat bold upright. She cursed the dream for coming to her again. The dream that had plagued her ever since the world fell apart. The dream that always carried the remembrance of the peaceful times before, and the dream that always ended with the world destroyed. The dream that threatened to overwhelm her even while driving her forward.

Dakota took a deep breath, smelling smoke in the air. She pulled her heavy boots on, lacing them high before pulling the hood of her ragged sweatshirt over her hair. She slipped into her jacket, checking its pockets to make sure that all of her meager possessions were still there before she wrapped a scarf over her mouth and nose.

“I’ve still got some time before this place is overrun. Better get moving,” Dakota said to herself, pulling on her thick gloves.

The alarm was still ringing, and Dakota finally took heed.