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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    ROBERT, SALLY AND THE WASTELAND By Konstantine Paradias
    March 19, 2013  Short stories   

    The first time Robert saw Sally, it was through the scope of his hunting rifle. Joey hadn’t gotten himself killed yet.

    “Let them at ‘er!” Joey’s voice echoed in Robert’s mind like a cartoon devil. “She’s a screamer, she’s gonna draw ‘em all on her, give us time to gather the supplies and get the hell out!” Robert found himself earnestly considering this option and put his finger on the trigger.

    He lined up the crosshairs to the back of her head, aiming for the tiny patch of exposed scalp where her pitch-black hair parted. His eyes traced the supple line of her neck, taking note of every tendon, every muscle as they clenched in unison under her skin. It made the walking cadavers that surrounded her seem all the more gruesome by comparison.

    Robert was about to squeeze the trigger and watch the familiar red blossom materialize in the back of her head, when she turned her back toward her unliving hunters and ran. Her eyes were like November clouds, pregnant with rain. Without missing a beat, Robert aimed slightly to the left and planted a fine crimson flower on the forehead of one of the creatures, just as it was about to grab her.

    She sprinted for cover. Of the remaining cadavers, two were distracted by the sound of Robert’s rifle and gave up the chase. Three stayed on target. Robert followed Sally’s progress through his scope, as she closed the distance toward him and Joey. It had been a while since he had seen a woman, though for the life of him, he could not say how long (his watch had finally given up on him on October the 21st, six months into the end of the world). She seemed almost unreal in his eyes: the set of her jaw, the lines on her face, the swelling of her breasts against her jumper…

    Robert almost missed the cadaver that jumped out of the bushes and very nearly sank its teeth into her arm. His shot got it in the jaw, the bullet running through the bone, sending its teeth flying around. She kept running.

    “Go get her” Robert uttered and Joey complied immediately. He may have been a golden boy once upon a time, but now that civilization was gone Robert was calling the shots. She had just reached the base of the cliff where he and Joey had taken cover. The five remaining dead were making their way toward it as well.

    He lowered his gun and looked down at Joey, who was busy fending off two of the dead with his crowbar in hand, swinging it around like a madman. She kept on climbing past him, eyes fixed on Robert, on the safe haven at the top. Joey’s crowbar sank in a cadaver’s head and he fought to hold onto it. Another moved in and grabbed him by his shirt collar, ripping it off.

    Robert thought of Joey’s fit body, his toned muscles and how they must have looked in the cadaver’s eyes at that moment: like bavette on his arms and side, butler’s steak on his chest. Sure he’d lose a bit of flavor (what with the dead not bothering with cooking their meals) but that wouldn’t make him any less desirable. Robert took his time, cocking his rifle and slowly brought the scope to eye level, when Joey let out a scream, kicked the remaining cadaver in the chest and sent it tumbling down onto the rocks. The he followed Sally all the way up, to Robert’s position.

    “Thank you.” she panted.

    “Don’t mention it.” Robert replied. He had already holstered his rifle.

    “They’re coming up the hill! We need to go, now!” Joey shouted, pointing at the remaining cadavers, shambling up the rock face. Robert tossed him a backpack and they went down another path, easily avoiding their dead pursuers. Robert kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead all the way to camp. Sally didn’t make a sound. Joey wouldn’t shut up.

    “What the hell, man?” he whispered in Robert’s ear. “You had that stiff. I know you had it, why didn’t you take the shot?”

    “You were in the way.”

    “Oh, that’s bull! Back in Mesa, you took that one down through the store window and it was right next to me!”

    “You weren’t in the way then.”

    “I could have died, you bastard!”

    “You didn’t though.” he said as they reached camp. It was nothing more than an old RV, set by an abandoned mine, its entrance long since collapsed. Robert thought back to when they’d first found it: about the man-shaped bundle under the sheets that smelled like week-old garbage with the consistency of roadkill cats. Robert had smacked it once on the head, cracked it open to make sure. Joey put him in a sack and buried him under some rocks to keep the vultures away.

    Now, the inside of the RV smelled like old sweat and machine lubricant. Sally didn’t seem to mind. She just crossed her hands and stared as Robert and Joey moved around, taking off the equipment, sorting out their supplies.

    “I’m Sally” she said and her voice barely even registered over the clink of bottles and tin cans on wood. When she spoke again, Robert was sorting through half a dozen containers of antibiotics.

    “I’m Sally” she said again and they both stopped. It was as if the previous events hadn’t even left a dent on their lives, as if the only woman they’d seen after a year of constantly fighting for their lives in the middle of the apocalypse hadn’t existed until she was heard that exact moment. They turned to look at her and she shrunk. She hung her head and kept talking.

    “I used to be a kindergarten teacher, so I guess I’m not real good with a gun.” she said. “But I know first aid and I can cook, if I can get a fire going!” she added. “I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want you to kick me out.” she muttered.

    “No one’s kicking you out.” Joey said and Robert felt suddenly cheated. He saw him put his arms around Sally and holding her, calming her down, reassuring her merely an hour after he had tried to convince Robert to leave her to the dead. “You’re among friends now.”

    Robert nodded and smiled. Jealousy writhed and cracked its tail inside his guts like a frightened viper. He didn’t say a word. Sally kept talking for a while. Joey kept holding her.

    “I came from Phoenix. I was with a group of people. We’d holed up in a fallout shelter. When food ran out, we…thought we could risk it. But Phoenix had got it way worse than we thought. We almost didn’t make it out that time.”

    “Sh, sh, it’s okay, it’s okay…”

    “There was this man with us, Ian Collins. He was Special Forces, SEAL or something. He kept us together. Those that were left of us after we almost got ourselves killed back then. There were six of us. We’d been about a dozen in the bunker.”

    “You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to…” Joey cooed, but Sally went on:

    “Ian helped us get out of there. He had what it took. We didn’t. There was a kid with us, little boy called Malcolm. He’d been bitten by one of the dead. His mom was a friend of mine, she made me swear I’d hide it. But I told Ian. And Ian waited until we’d gotten out of town and then he…”

    She didn’t cry. She teared up a bit, but she didn’t cry. Hard as nails, thought Robert.

    “Malcolm’s mom never forgave Ian. She tried to kill him once or twice. Ian never hit her, not once. I did, when she tried to shoot him in the back. He was our only chance. Then we reached the gas station by the interstate and there was a herd of the dead there, just out of sight. Ian didn’t see them, so they bit him and then they bit everyone else.”

    “How did you get away?” asked Joey, feigning interest.

    “We didn’t. I was lucky, just ran. You guys got me out of it.” she smiled at Robert. “Was it you? The guy who shot Ian, when he was about to bite me?” Robert nodded yes. Sally smiled at him.

    “So who did I kill? With the crowbar?” asked Joey.

    “Mr. Wilder. He was an asshole.”

    Joey laughed along with Sally and Robert went on with setting up the supplies. By the time he was done packing the antibiotics on the shelf, Sally was laughing at some of Joey’s made-up survival stories. While Robert was busy cleaning his gun and checking his ammo, Joey had cracked open the last bottle of whiskey in the world and was chugging it down with her.

    Robert was halfway through reassembling his rifle while Joey and Sally were writhing on the bed, tearing their clothes off each other. Robert finished his work and left the RV. There was thunder in his head.

    He took first watch and counted the time by Joey and Sally’s moans. By what he reckoned was Sally’s third orgasm, he knocked on the door and half-dragged Joey outside. Sally was sleeping on the bed, the moon peeking through the window at her naked form. Robert suddenly felt a strange longing, a desperate urge to have her, but he knew this wasn’t the way things were. Even now, even at the end of the world, he knew he couldn’t make her pick him.

    And why would she pick him? Why pick a wiry, balding survivalist over a pre-disaster golden boy? Why choose tenderloin over rib-steak? Why pick the man who saved her life over the pretty bastard who took her for bait?

    Robert lay on the bunk bed that night, his back to Sally. When Joey walked in, Robert kept himself wondering exactly how much pressure it would take to break a man’s neck with a single blow. They made love and Robert kept feigning sleep.

    ***

    “When are you going to tell her?”

    “Tell her what?”

    “That you wanted to leave her to the dead. That I was the one who thought we should save her.”

    “Hey, hey, man! We both did it, okay? We both risked our asses for her.”

    “Yes, but you were the one who wanted to leave her.”

    “That was then, this is now”

    “She’s a screamer. She’s gonna draw every one of ‘em to her! Isn’t that what you said?”

    “Jesus Christ, what is this shit? Where did this-oh you bastard. Oh, you bastard. You’re jealous, aren’t you? You’re jealous she picked me over you!”

    In his mind, Robert’s fist smashed against Joey’s jaw, spit and blood fanning out of his split lips.

    “Piss off, Joey.”

    “You’re jealous because she picked me! You just can’t get over the fact that she’d rather have me than you, aren’t you?”

    In Robert’s head, Joey pinned on the ground and the rock in his hands was rugged and just the right size. He brought it down on Joey’s skull and watched it cave in, popping an eye in the process.

    “Shut up, Joey”

    “Hey man, you were there! You saw me, I just saw a chance and I jumped at it! The lady made a choice is all!”

    In Robert’s thoughts, he had taken his bowie knife and cut Joey’s tendons and left him there to bleed out, the scent and his screams drawing in every dead and vulture for miles around to feast on his living brain.

    “Will you shut up? We’re exposed here.”

    “Okay. You’re not mad, are you?”

    In the confines of his head, Robert was killing Joey over and over again.

    “No”

    “Okay, then.”

    ***

    Sally was hunched over an old cooking pot, stirring its contents with an old wooden ladle Joey had found inside an abandoned department store. Chunks of canned meat were floating inside the stew. Sally was muttering an old song under her breath. Joey was in the RV.

    “Met a possum in the road, blind as he could be…”

    Robert patted the handle of his rifle. He joined in:

    “Jumped the fence and whipped my dog and bristled up at me.”

    Sally laughed and Robert laughed right along with her. She sounded like the clinking of fine china. He sounded like steel beads rolling down a lead pipe.

    “You don’t think we could find ourselves a banjo, do you?” asked Sally.

    “I don’t play the banjo.”

    “Neither do I. Joey used to play the piano, though. Got himself an award, back when it meant something.”

    The thing inside Robert coiled again and spit poison into his brain. The words rushed out his mouth before they were even outlines in his mind.

    “Joey wanted to leave you to the dead, back when we first saw you. I was the one who saved you.” Sally fell silent all of a sudden. The fire ebbed. Only the stew kept gurgling, oblivious to the dramatic tension of the moment.

    “You’re a liar. A dirty goddamn liar.” she said but even Robert (who never was much of a judge of character) could tell she didn’t believe a word of what she’d said. Sally walked inside the RV. She and Joey didn’t make love that night or any other night since then. She wouldn’t talk to Robert either.

    ***

    Joey got himself killed about a week later. Robert’s only regret was that he had almost nothing to do with it.

    They were crossing the Fiesta Mall on their way to Best Buy, looking for ammo and propane tanks for the RV. Joey was in a foul mood and accidentally tripped over a carefully set stack of paint cans, which tumbled and thundered across the empty space, stirring up every cadaver inside the building.

    They ran all the way to the third floor and locked themselves inside a gun store, but by that time the massed horde outside had grown so large it wouldn’t have any trouble bursting through the door and devouring them. Joey started praying. Robert looked for a way out instead.

    “We’re going to die.”

    “No, we aren’t. There’s a door in the back, leads to the storage. We can take the stairs all the way down and run through the parking lot. I just need you to-”

    “Just tell me this: you told her, didn’t you?”

    “Joey, shut up, okay? I need you to-”

    “You did! You told her everything! Goddamn you, man, how could you do this to me?”

    “You never deserved her, you stupid bastard.”

    As if following some unspoken cue, the dead burst in through the reinforced door that moment. Their putrid mass rolled inside the store and Joey barely had time to scream as cold, rotting fingers went for his hair and clothes. He fought with the terrible strength that comes from desperation, but it was hardly a contest. Joey was pulled into the mass and he became sirloin and rib steak and juicy bavette, wrapped in cotton threads.

    Robert ran across the store, back into storage, made his way to the ground floor and then ran from the mall all the way across Mesa to camp. Sally was waiting outside the RV. She knew exactly what had happened.

    “Where’s Joey?”

    “There was nothing I could do.”

    “How the hell did it happen?”

    “Dead got him.”

    “Was he alive, when they…bit down?”

    “No” Robert lied. “Shot him in the head. He didn’t feel a thing.”

    Sally walked away from him and sat by the mine’s entrance. Robert knew there was no point in trying to console her. He rummaged through Joey’s stuff, kept the useful ones and fed the rest to a fire.

    “You hated him, didn’t you? Because I picked him over you.” Sally’s voice came from behind him like a condemnation slipping through the lips of a Fury.

    “Yes. But I didn’t kill him.”

    “No. You didn’t. What the hell am I going to do?”

    “You can leave, you know. I wouldn’t blame you.”

    “Leave? And go where, exactly? Mesa’s swarming with the dead and even if I chose to leave this place, I wouldn’t know where to go. I can’t shoot, I can’t hunt, I can’t survive out there.” They were both silent for a while.

    “I need you.” she said.

    It wasn’t an I love you, or even a half-hearted I want you. It was a desperate, short sob, barely over a whisper. But it worked. Robert looked at Sally and pulled her in his arms. They made something that certainly wasn’t love.

    ***

    As Arizona summer retreated in the wake of winter, so did Robert and Sally. Mesa was tapped out, filled with the dead and the RV was hardly a proper refuge for winter. They trekked across the interstate, avoiding human contact (what little there was).

    They spent the winter in the penthouse of an abandoned apartment building in Tempe. Robert tossed the corpses of the old couple that lived there into the street. He taught Sally how to scavenge for food.

    In the spring, they left Tempe, which was suddenly drawing a large crowd of bandits, come to hunt for stragglers. They headed for Phoenix. Sally had to learn how to handle a gun.

    In the summer, Phoenix smelled like an abattoir as big as the world. The dead were starting to rot and crumble. There was a fire that engulfed half the city, so they sought refuge in South Mountain. By the middle of July, Sally would set her own traps and bring some game back to camp.

    In the fall, the world was silent. Sally hadn’t seen another person for days. Robert would let her handle a gun on her own and she knew she didn’t need him. She sneaked up on him while he was sleeping, holding the bowie knife that she used for skinning rabbits.

    All she had to do was drag the blade across his neck. Give him a big red smile.

    But the desire for revenge that had given her the strength to stick with Robert was no longer there. No matter how long and deep she searched her soul in that long instant she found out that murder was no longer in her heart. She didn’t love Robert but she didn’t want him dead either. She found herself lingering in that strange state between necessity and love.

    Robert’s eyes opened at that instant, transfixing her.

    And she brought the knife down, driving it through his throat and into the ground, twisting it as he choked on his own blood.

    He moved his hand slowly, wrapping his fingers around her wrist, gently squeezing

    Sally clawed at his face, forcing him to release his grip and drove the knife through his eye and into his brain

    She let go, the knife slipping from her fingers falling to the ground

    She reached out and grabbed his neck and choked him until his tongue slid out of his mouth, lifeless and bloated

    Robert got up and held her and there was a terrible weight in her chest that suddenly lifted, a door in her heart that was locked for a very long time and was now open

    Before he knew it, she grabbed the knife and plunged it into his back

    And Sally felt herself tilt and sway inside her own head, the emotional equilibrium broken, tumbling down inside her own mind, until the tears came and she held Robert tightly.

    She wept, he held her and then they were finally at peace there, at the end of the world.

    ***

    Author Bio:
    Konstantine Paradias is a Greek science fiction and fantasy writer. His short stories in English have been published on OHP’s Petulant Parables Anthology, Breathless Press’ Shifters anthology, EveryDayFiction.com, Schlock! Magazine, Static Movement’s Behind Closed Doors and Long Pig anthologies. His first fantasy ebook, Stone Cold Countenance, has been published by bibliocracy. com.

    He also has a writing blog, called Shapescapes, which you can find here (http://shapescapes.blogspot.gr/)

    7 Comments

    1. What an intense study of human nature, neatly encapsulated in short story form, the author manages to fit a world of emotions in the space of a pinhead. And its beautifully written too.

      Comment by bong on March 19, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

    2. Well done!

      Comment by Gunldesnapper on March 19, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

    3. Nicely done. I would definitely like to see more of this world and of Sally.

      Comment by Terry Schultz on March 20, 2013 @ 3:18 am

    4. twisted times of turmoil….

      Comment by JohnT on March 20, 2013 @ 3:19 am

    5. Great story. Keep writing and sending it. Bravo!

      Comment by John the Piper's Son on March 21, 2013 @ 3:54 am

    6. Thanks for the feedback! Do you really think this could be pulled off as a series?

      By the way, if you’re interested in more like this, you can check my blog, at:

      http://shapescapes.blogspot.gr/

      Comment by Konstantine Paradias on March 21, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    7. A series? well yes but only if you can offer sublimation for your remaining two characters.
      Sally is staying with Robert out of necessity not out of any real affection and this really cements her character. Its pretty much like what some people feel in their relationships.
      How will you resolve this without making a cheesy turnaround (avoid making her fall in love with Robert etc its not believable)

      As for Robert, he himself is an interesting character, he doesnt seem mentally or emotionally stable himself and i think he knows Sally doesnt love him (or ever will)even though he loves her.
      So what will Robert do in the future?

      And with ever persistent threats in their world im sure you can come up with a good diorama on how these two characters play off against each other and other characters.
      And whether they will be free of each other in what unpredictable ways.

      keep us guessing

      Comment by bong on March 21, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

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