We Caught Fire At the End of the World by Christine Makepeace

She pumped the brake, fast and hard. The tread of her boot slammed against the floor as she stomped the pedal.

Nothing happened.

It was like sinking into sand.

Her right hand gripped the emergency brake, and she yanked up, grunting behind the force. The ’76 Chevy veered sharply, skidding in the loose gravel. She thought she’d slowed down enough to miss it. She thought she’d regained some control. She thought a great many things as the rusted yellow car wrapped itself around a tree.

She thought about her son—her mother. She thought about the sun, and she wondered why she’d fought for so long.

***

“You just keep pushing, that’s all you can do.” Bland tossed his pack on his back and looped his arms around the straps, playing at cool and casual.

“Is that an accusation, or a compliment?” She shook out her long, dark hair. With deft fingers she wrapped it in a bun, momentarily transported back in time. The air picked up and tickled the moist nape of her neck. There was a rustle beside her, and she glanced in its direction, certain she’d see Dom running toward her, fat and wobbly.

Her gray eyes strayed only for a second. She knew there was nothing good coming her way, nothing real. The sun left red splotches on her body, and she stared at those instead. She didn’t miss her smooth caramel skin—that belonged to the past. She reveled in her blisters, welts, and burns.

“Harts, everything I give to you is a compliment.” Bland wiggled his eyebrows. “Let’s get moving, though. We should get back to base soon. Ruff and Brown’ll be pacing like caged animals if we’re any later.”

“Let them pace. I’m looking...” Harts heard it again, the rustling at her side. “I think there might be a rabbit or something over here.”

“Really?” Bland said, perking up. “Stuck in one of our old traps?” There hadn’t been much to hunt in recent months. Meat was a memory, and his mouth watered at the prospect.

Harts got down low; she angled her sinewy body and stalked toward the swaying leaves. She’d like to hear Brown give her lip when she came walking in with dinner. A bead of sweat trickled over her nose and continued down her cheek, coasting across her neck and seeping into a dingy tank top.

Slowly, she slithered, unwilling to alert whatever continued to make the leaves dance. She could sense Bland behind her, could hear his breaths. She focused on them, clearing her mind as she approached the bushes.

She’d make Ruff clean the kill. With a stifled chuckle, Harts pictured slapping a squirrel down on the immaculate slab of stone Ruff used as a kitchen counter. The woman hated prepping squirrels. She’d complain the whole time, and Harts would sit and laugh, boots off and feet up.

Bland cleared his throat and Harts flinched. She tried to refocus, but he was right. The two holding down the fort would be starting to worry. No one ever stayed out to watch the sun descend. It was too dangerous. If you played chicken with the light, you were certain to lose.

But she had to see what was there, now just out of reach, past a flimsy wall of branches.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” her mother’s singsong voice echoed in her ears. 

Harts didn’t like to think about death, or dying, or being killed. Sometimes it just sounded too appealing.

Her fingertips grazed the leaf cover and she peered into the small windows between growth. Something was definitely moving. It was partially obscured, but she could see one of Ruff’s snares. Placed there long enough ago that it had been forgotten, it had finally earned its keep.

Harts wanted the animal to remain calm—not give her any trouble. She turned back to Bland and motioned for one of their makeshift spears. The path of least resistance was to stab it through the skull.

There were many things about the world that Harts couldn’t stomach; things that she refused to think about lest she end up jumping from a cliff or slicing into her own veins. Hunting, and the brand of problems that accompanied it, were not among those unthinkable things. Many of the new world’s problems could, in fact, be solved by jabbing a sharp object into something’s skull. Harts liked that—maybe more than anything else her current lifestyle offered.

Bland soundlessly tossed the heavy poker over. It was a mostly straight piece of rebar with a sharpened point. Harts loved the weight of it in her hand. Sleek and minimal, but incredibly effective, its heft gave her a jolt of calm confidence.

She used her left hand to move the leaves out of her sight line, and she raised the spear. The noise that rose from her throat was not a scream. Harts was proud of that. What she grunted out was more guttural—a war cry.

At her back, Bland instantly dropped his pack and uttered his own cautionary croak.

“It’s one of them,” she called, unnecessarily loud. The adrenaline coasted through her tired body. “It’s one of them...”

“It’s alive?” Bland asked, still flanking Harts, giving her room.

“Close enough.” She pulled the branches back further. “Nearly gone.” She leaned in closer, the putrid smell smacking her in the face.

Harts had never seen one during the day. She wanted to turn to Bland and ask him, like a child, why one was out during daylight. The smell told her it was dead, but its body heaped in the shade, twitching just enough to rattle the trees, told another story.

“Was it out here hunting? What happened to it? Why is it so far from the city?” Bland rattled off questions as they popped into his head, and Harts did her best to ignore him.

It looked like it was dead, with its waxy, sagging flesh. They were so taut and shiny when they were in good health. They had always been so beautiful when they chased her.

“How’d it get stuck out here?” Bland continued to fire off questions while keeping his distance.

“How do we manage to get stuck near the city at sunset?” She glanced back and gave him a rueful nod. “A miscalculation.”

“And you’re sure it’s not dead? We should kill him.”

“Her.”

“Huh?” Bland asked.

“It looks like a she.”

They didn’t wear much in the way of clothes, and even then it was always relatively genderless. Hair length meant nothing; it just kept growing, unchecked like an untended yard. But the teeth—you could tell a lot from their teeth.

From what Harts had gleaned, men had short, thick canines. They ripped and tore, usually killing their prey. It wasn’t entirely an act of animal abandon, but victims typically bled out before they turned.

Women though... Their canine teeth were long, needle like protrusions that impaired their speech. Their victims almost always turned.

Harts would never claim to be an expert, but survivors had to be observant. A group she was with early during these new times housed a pair of doctors. They spent their time tracking and recording things. They had theories and ideas, many of them about the reproductive nature of the female infected. It all seemed meaningless in hindsight. Mendoza was the couple’s name, Harts remembered. They has been very kind while she was in her near catatonic state.

“Let’s get going!” Bland broke into her thoughts.

She hesitated, half turning away from the crumpled body hidden in the shade. “I just—just give me another minute.”

“Why?” Bland asked, impatience and fear creeping into his voice. “What’s there to look at? Jab it and let’s go.” He shifted weight from foot to foot. “There could be more,” he said in a lowered voice.

“Stay in the sun and you’ll be fine,” she dismissed, reaching into the clearing, past the curtain of leaves.

She turned back just in time to see the mouth clamp down on her arm. Thin, serpent-like fangs dug into her flesh, and in her shock, Harts swore they hit bone.

She dropped the spear with a hollow thud. Her fingers tangled in baby-fine hair as she ripped the thing’s head from her forearm.

Harts said nothing. She simply pulled the half-dead thing forward into the sun. Its weakness was obvious, flailing only for a moment before slumping back silently. Its yellowed flesh became cracked and red, like magma.

It all happened so fast, Bland only registering alarm once the body was exposed and smoldering.

“They hate the sun,” Harts murmured, right hand instinctively clutching the bite.

“What the fuck?” was all Bland could muster.

Harts cracked her neck, kicking the rebar out of her path.

“What the fuck, Harts?”

“She was hungry.”

“Fucking clearly!” Bland roared. “What just happened? It’s broad-fucking-daylight!”

“She was in the shade.” Harts walked slowly past the body. They were grotesque even when not burnt to a crisp. “Because they look so much like us,” she whispered.

“What? Fuck it. Let’s go.” Bland turned toward the rusted-out car they used for shorter recon trips.

“Base isn’t too far off—it’s still early.”

“What? Yeah, it is. What?” Bland’s confusion rose and he tipped his head to the side.

Harts circled the vehicle, sliding up to the driver’s side door.

“You’re driving?” he asked as she pulled the door open with a wince.

“Yeah, I’m driving, Bland.” Her head hung loosely from her rounded shoulders, weakness already wrapping its fingers around her muscles.

“What the fuck is happening?” Bland asked, panic rising in his voice. His eyes darted over Harts’s body. They finally settled on her arm, and she knew he knew.

“Bye, Bland.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he repeated. “No, no, no. This isn’t happening. Tell me this isn’t happening.” The circles around his eyes darkened like storm clouds.

“I can’t lie to you.” Harts offered him a sad smile.

“Don’t ask me to kill you.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to.”

The look of agony drained from Bland’s face and was replaced by pure panic. It was the face of a drowning man. “You’re taking the car.”

“You can walk back. You’ve got plenty of time.”

“Why are you taking the car, Harts?”

“If you start walking now, and you stay in the sun, you’ll get back no problem.”

“You’re taking the car. And you’re leaving me to walk through the woods with no backup. What are you doing, Marissa?”

“Don’t call me that,” she hissed.

“Are you going to try and find them?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do!” she screamed. “I’m fucking dying. Literally. I am standing here, and I am dying. And I’m taking the car. So start walking.”

“Do you have a knife?” Bland asked, with something closer to his usual composure.

“I have a knife.”

“Right into your carotid and you’ll bleed out before you can even think about replenishing.”

“Got it,” Harts impatiently swayed toward the car’s interior.

“I hope you don’t find them.”

“I don’t think I will. But she’s calling me.”

“They’re always calling you, Marissa. I hear my wife every day. I hear my boys.” Bland’s eyes squeezed shut, then reopened with resolve.

“You don’t think I’ll find them?” she asked, childlike and small.

“You know you won’t.”

“Tell Kristen and Kate I’ll miss them.”

“No you won’t.” Bland’s mouth twitched as it reached for a smile. “We’ll miss you though.”

She took a deep breath and slid behind the wheel, her arm throbbing with every beat of her heart. “Don’t be mad at me, Jerry,” she motioned around the car’s interior.

“Never. It happens to us all eventually.” 

Harts pulled away, the tires screeching as she turned towards the dirt road. She didn’t look back, afraid to see Bland’s minute silhouette walking alone through the trees. 

She’d let him down, and stolen their car. She could hear her mother’s whisper in her ear, but this time it offered no words of wisdom. Harts pressed on the gas.

The light began to sting her eyes around sunset. The tank was low, and for half an hour or so, she thought she might get lucky enough to burn to death.

But the sun sank lower, and as her skin tightened like a drum, she cared less about the gas in the car, and more about the voices in her head.

Once on a main road, she sped faster. Dusk was turning to twilight, and as the light dimmed, so did Harts.

Every inch of her itched, and she struggled to keep both hands on the wheel. Darting around the corpses of long-abandoned vehicles, she needed all her focus, and that focus was beginning to weaken.

In the dark, she drove with abandon, and with no headlights. Her eyesight was sharp and it pierced through the shadows. Her mother called to her across the distance. Her siren songs were murmured promises that Harts knew she couldn’t keep. They were lies about her son—about his smile and his eyes—that were impossibly cruel.

Harts had heard it got worse as you changed. As your body—your body, the one you knew and could control—died, they could see where you were. She could always hear the distant words of her mother, cooing to her like a proud parent. It’s what happened. It was the most unbearable part of the new world.

Bloodlines reached out over the distance and drew their kin to them. It was diabolical, but also biological. Harts tried to remember this whenever she heard the call. Her mother was not her mother anymore, and the thing that cried out to her was merely trying to rally its clan.

But once their juices got mixed up with yours, you were a goner. The lure of the voices, the promise of acceptance and safety, it became your world. Harts had understood it before, but as the pull propelled her across the landscape, she got it. There was no other choice.

She drove faster, knowing the tank was close to empty and prepared to walk to rest of the way. Her body was nearly through shutting down, and soon it would reboot. She’d be stronger, ready to continue her journey. Harts could feel her organs grinding to a halt. It was as though her fluids were turning to sand.

But her mother called out, and her foot sat heavy on the gas. So heavy that she took a curve in the road much too fast. Limbs still weighted and poisoned, she was slow to react. The worn tires dug into the gravel but found no purchase. Harts skidded as the brakes failed—she coasted into the tree line as she popped the emergency break.

Metal split into wood and the sound was thunderous. It echoed through the forest and, for a moment, drowned out the voices.

Harts looked down past the steering column and saw bone, shiny in the moonlight. With a clear head, she remembered the look of pain in her mother’s eyes as their neighbor ripped into the tissue paper-thin flesh on her wrist. The blood was so dark, like honeyed wine. It covered the front of her white sundress.

Harts had known their time together was over. She grabbed Dominic and ran; she didn’t stop until they were halfway across the country. There was nothing but silence in the weeks that followed. Harts could only assume there was no transformation. So she mourned her mother as such.

But there had been a call. One that she couldn’t hear. Her mother reached out for Dominic. She whispered lullabies as he drifted off to sleep. She followed close behind them as Harts foolishly pushed west, thinking she was gaining ground in her escape of the inevitable.

Harts had dozed, and Dom, so small and so sweet, scurried away from her on unsteady legs. She woke to find her mother’s face buried in his pudgy thigh—baby fat still padding his frame.

There was no fight, even though Harts had charged, blade in hand, towards the nightmarish tableau. Her mother let the boy fall to the ground, his cheek pressed against dark soil.

Harts held him as he bled out. His whimpers were muted and he died before the sun kissed the treetops. She carried his body until it was ice cold. And then she carried it further. She kept Dom with her until she met up with the group. They made her bury her son.

Pinned in the car, trapped, her mother’s voice echoed in her brain. The words spoke to a visceral, animal need in her. The need to hunt. Eat. Gorge. Commune. The need to be with her own.

Dominic was her kin, and he was gone. Even as the need prickled in her blood, Harts’s anger pounded just as loud.

She pulled the knife from the sheath at her hip, her legs heavy and dead beneath the engine block. She slid the blade across her wrists, smiling at the shock of cold metal. She could barely move. She was losing blood, and lacked the strength to pull herself from the vehicle. She couldn’t have continued on if she’d wanted to.

And a quickly-growing part of her did. She was losing the fight she knew she’d never had a chance to win.

Marissa wanted to die with her memories of her son, not possessed by the lies and promises of a monster. She pushed the knife into her vein and dragged it up towards her elbow. She was distantly surprised the blood was still red—almost black in the night.

Heavy and woozy, she passed out with the phantom weight of Dominic on her chest; the inevitable sunrise wrapped around her like a blanket. If losing her tainted blood didn’t kill her, at least she’d burn to death.


---

Copyright Christine Makepeace 2019

Christine Makepeace is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Previous published works include a modern Gothic novel, essays on film, and most recently a piece of short fiction for Nonbinary Review’s Shirley Jackson collection. More credits can be found at christinemakepeace.com.

Christine is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. Her work is also available in the Horror Library.

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