Do you feel it? It’s that churning in your gut, the sickening plunge of icy adrenaline and fear. It’s that moment before the dive—that instant before you make a choice. I made it—I took that leap into empty space. And now, I need to live with the consequences—or die by them.
It flickered in the dim light of the room, metal surfaces catching the glow of candlelight with their faint curves and faceted edges. The silver stood out, bright against the black material behind it as conversation murmured and echoed through the small room.
Alexa found her eyes drawn again and again toward the metal—toward the pin on his hat. The stylized crown winked back at her, framed against the dark cloth, as he shifted in his seat. He says Natasha gave it to him—probably true. But why wear it now? She felt a small shiver run down her spine as she quickly directed her gaze elsewhere, trying not to think of the implications. A message? A warning? Or just a coincidence?
The room felt cramped. All of the gang leaders had shoved themselves into the small space of the Kennel, forming a loose circle. Commander Dantes sat in one of the chairs, weapons set aside for once as his steely eyes watched the proceedings. Professor Barnes’ pale face stood out against the gloom, and Sloan with his dark hair and metal armor kept himself pressed against one of the bunks on the side. Alexa herself stood by the door, pushed near a jug of water on a small table as she tried to stay out of the way of others. Everyone watched the man speaking—the man with the pin in the shape of a crown—Mickey.
“If it were up to me, I’d make up an anchor up for each of ‘em. But they’re expecting that sort a’ reaction. We’re goin’ ta have to play it smart.” His dark eyes scanned the faces around him before he continued, “It’s between my people and theirs, but we’re goin’ ta have to see what their next move is.”
“Them” happened to be the Bowery Boys, the Old York gang that had a bit of a problem with Bay Walkers—though perhaps “a bit” was an understatement.They apparently didn’t like non-Yorkers moving in on their turf—enough so that they would kill. Alexa shook her head, allowing voices to rise and fall around her—waves of sound that ebbed and flowed. This could be a problem.
Mickey’s voice suddenly rose above the others, grabbing Alexa’s attention as his accent sang out through the room, “The name o’ their leader is William Poole Rook—or Bowery Bill.” Mickey paused for a moment, his face hardening slightly as he glanced toward Alexa. For a brief second, his brown eyes met her green ones—then he continued, “He’s kind o’ a hero of Old York. Did a bunch o’ good fer some people. Tha’s why we need ta be careful with how we go ‘bout this. So I’d like ta hear any more ideas.”
More suggestions poured in, but Alexa wasn’t listening. Instead, her eyes drifted back toward Mickey’s hat—toward the pin that rested there. Ice climbed through her veins, spreading out across her body as her thoughts churned and turned, rejecting one possibility and then picking up another. He used that name. It’s no accident, then—no accident at all.
The conversation drifted to other topics, and Mickey rose from his chair, deftly maneuvering himself over to where Alexa stood. He scooped up a nearby metal cup from a small shelf, leaning toward her briefly as he filled it with water from the jug next to her. His voice murmured near her ear, “Any relation?”
Alexa turned her head slightly, watching him out of the corner of her eye. She traced the lines of his face—the way his mouth had formed into a grim line, how his eyes watched her, examining her critically. Trying to see if I received his message? There were several possibilities. Her response was offhand, casual, “Not that I’m aware. He’s a Yorker, after all.”
Mickey watched her for a moment longer and then he spoke again. Driving the point home. “Well you know what they say about Old York and Pure Bloods.”
Alexa raised an eyebrow, but said nothing in response. She tried to ignore her heart hammering in her chest, threatening to burst free. Mickey held her gaze for a moment and then looked away, moving back toward his chair.
A simple problem? No. It’s now a very big problem.
You never forget the sound of a burster’s scream. It’s high-pitched, haunting. It’s the sound a creature makes when its vocal cords have been eaten and ripped away. It’s otherworldly and terrifying—stopping your heart as adrenaline pumps through your veins. It goes on and on, halting you in your tracks as the monster hurtles toward you, yellowed nails grasping at your throat.
The one thing you can do—the only thing you can do—is strike back. There’s a split second where the creature raises its arm, and that’s the moment that you plunge your blade into its skull—before it can get any closer.
Unfortunately, Alexa didn’t have that option.
The monster’s face was inches from her own, its gaping mouth emitting a high wail that went on and on and on. Yellowed teeth gnashed within black, receding gums. White eyes rolled in the back of its head as it grasped at her, pushing her ever backward.
Alexa gritted her teeth, blocking the creature’s hands again and again with the hilts of her swords as she backpedaled. The sun beat down against her back, warming the plates of her armor as sweat beaded on her brow. She could feel her hair sticking to the back of her neck, a few pale strands blowing into her face. Grass brushed her ankles and legs as she kept moving through the field.
Normally, she would have killed the zed. But the fact that it was irradiated—the fact that destroying the monster would have caused the mission to fail—meant that she had to lure it away instead. Well this is more than a bit irritating.
There were others around her, others from DOC—the mercenary company—doing the same thing that she was. They shouted and waved, attracting the attention of the restless dead as they lured them away from the center of the field—away from the men and women digging up metal containers filled with death.
Alexa found her breath coming faster as she continued to back away. Speed versus speed. Her heart pounded in her chest, ringing in her ears. Despite the heat and the difficulty, she found herself smirking slightly. The town better hope I don’t die and come back as one of these things. Morbid humor—if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
She took another few steps backward; she was almost at the edge of the field now. Then, she could finally kill the thing—and start the whole thing over again with another zed. It’s about time.
That’s exactly the moment that she tripped.
She fell, remembering to curve her back slightly as she slammed into the ground. The breath whooshed out of her lungs as she gasped. Quickly, she placed her two swords up to block the creature that continued to scream at her, continued to swipe at her. Its long nails raked down the metal plates of her armor, releasing a horrible screeching noise as Alexa struggled to rise. Damnit.
And then others were shouting at it, luring it away. Alexa stood, her heart hammering as the slick feel of blood trickled down her arm. One more scar.
She turned and sought out another zed.
The girl sat in the corner, blonde hair falling in front of her thin face as her wide, brown eyes darted around the room—never settling, never still. Something dark covered her fists and spattered her clothing—something dark and red that crept up her arms and flecked the corners of her mouth and face.
Alexa watched the girl, feeling something in her chest squeeze as she slowly approached. Not her, too. She slowly held out her hands, showing that they were empty—as if she were dealing with a frightened animal rather than another person. Still as stone.
“Alexa?” The girl stared at her, almost choking on the word as her eyes widened even further. “Tell them to stay back!”
Alexa paused for a moment, glancing over her shoulder. A few people had followed her and were standing there, unsure. They shuffled their feet, glancing toward her, waiting for orders. It always surprises me that they listen. Alexa frowned faintly and waved a hand, “Stay back for now. She needs space.”
For some reason, they complied—quickly backing away. Alexa turned her attention back to the girl in front of her. She wore faded jeans and a ripped shirt. Her blonde hair was matted with blood and hung in front of a young face—no more than fourteen. She had pushed herself as far as she could into the corner of the room, cringing away from anyone who approached. So afraid. Slowly, Alexa kneelt down as she spoke as calmly as she could manage, “Don’t worry, Scraps. They’ll stay away. Now look at me.”
Slowly, the girl—Scraps—turned her eyes toward Alexa. She could see the fear in them, the hurt wariness that told more than she could ever say. Alexa forced herself to keep eye contact as she pushed down memories of the past. Pain raced through her body, fire that screamed through her and called to her—agony.
“Alexa, I don’t like it here. I need to…”
Alexa quickly spoke before Scraps could say anything more. No reason to let her panic herself with her own words, “You’re safe here, Scraps. I know that you feel like these people might hurt you, but they won’t.” She paused for a moment as she considered her next words. Her mind wandered back to the time when she had experienced that same fear, that same feeling. For a moment, memory trapped her, reminding her. Don’t let fear control you, Alexa. Then she continued, “Think of Corbin. Think of your family. Think of the people you love and trust. I know that you want to run—to hide. But think of their reactions. Think of how they would respond. Remember who you are, Scraps. Hold onto it—and hold onto your humanity.”
Scraps bit her lower lip, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. Then she nodded slightly, fear still flickering across her face, “Okay, Alexa.”
Alexa exhaled slowly. It was hard to see someone else like this—in the same state she was in just a few months again. It was hard being reminded of the Cure. But I might as well use my experience to my advantage.
She spoke again, encouragingly, “Just remember your name—remember everything important to you. Remember everything you are.”
Scraps nodded once more and reached out a bloodied hand, pale fingers trembling slightly. Alexa carefully took it in her own as she continued to keep eye contact.
“Keep fighting, Scraps.”
Starlight shone downward from the velvet sky, silvering the roads and slender trees. The hushed sigh of the wind mingled with the constant whirr of insects. A few fireflies blinked in and out of the forest, twinkling lights that flickered and then were gone again.
Alexa stood next to him in front of the Kennel, shifting her weight from side to side as she tried to ignore the slightly-sore feeling of skin that had just knitted itself back together. Just another scar. She turned to look at his pale face, noting how his shoulders hunched slightly—as if he carried the weight of the world. His dark eyes looked into the distance, staring at nothing in particular; the corners of his mouth turned down slightly, lips pressed into a thin line. He looks as if someone died.
They had been speaking for only a few moments—barely more than a handful of minutes. But it wasn’t going well, and Alexa kicked herself for not keeping it from him. Who am I to step in the middle of their affairs? She felt her mouth twist, forming a wry smile that quickly faded. Well that’s easy. It’s because you actually care.
Alexa spoke, her hushed voice murmuring across the space, “It’s not your fault. You didn’t ask for any of this. It’s them you should blame—the ones who caused this in the first place.”
His accented voice responded, more-polished and refined than her own. He spoke slowly, as if he were too tired to form the words any faster, “But they came for me. I’m the one that put everyone in danger. And I…caused her pain.”
Caused her pain? You didn’t. He did. Alexa responded quickly as she followed his gaze, her eyes looking out at the trees and darkened grass, “Like you said before, she needed to know the truth. You can’t base a relationship on lies and like you said, it was her right to know. She…cares for you. I don’t think that you could do anything to change that, even if you tried.”
There was a pause and Alexa glanced toward him once more. His eyes were turned downward, a grimace of pain briefly flickering over his features before they smoothed once more, “But she wrote to you. Not me. She didn’t ask for my help. And I…” Alexa noted the sharp intake of breath—of air he didn’t need. His eyes turned toward the road as he paused and then continued, his words coming out as no more than a whisper, “And I wouldn’t blame her if she never forgave me.”
Alexa shook her head slightly. He can be so stupid sometimes. She responded, trying to make him see—to understand, “She already forgives you. She never blamed you in the first place. It’s not your fault.” She watched him, noting that his expression didn’t change. He doesn’t believe me. She gritted her teeth slightly and continued, “Sometimes, I just want to take you two by the scruffs of the necks and shake you. You can be so thick…both of you. Don’t you see that…” She paused for a moment, hesitating. Should I say it? Her irritation fled as quickly as it had come and she glanced downward, allowing her hair to fall in front of her face. The pale strands tickled the sides of her checks as she exhaled, closing her eyes. He’ll be miserable otherwise.
She spoke the truth—told him what he needed to hear. But all he did was stare toward the forest—toward the city of the dead. The wind whispered through the leaves of nearby trees as the stars twinkled and spun above them. A few crickets chirped in the tall grasses that swayed with the breeze.
Finally, his dark eyes turned toward her, studying her briefly. Alexa watched him in kind, green eyes meeting brown. Then he spoke, “You look tired, Alexa. You should sleep.”
Abruptly, he turned, quickly walking back toward the building behind them. Alexa remained standing, watching him go; then she closed her eyes, taking a deep breath of air laden with the scents of honeysuckle and green grass.
If he won’t believe me, then maybe he’ll believe someone else.
We all have to live with our choices. It’s a part of life—the scars that we acquire over the years, riddling our bodies like tattoos and filling our minds with memories. Choice. Free will. It is our greatest strength, and also our greatest downfall.