Sunday evening, they sit in the living room and share a beer. It’s the last beer. The 30-pack Nathan had picked up from the corner store had gone faster than they’d thought. They are down to a lot of last things. The last beer, the last slice of bread, the last gallon of gasoline in the too-small generator. Riley wraps herself in another blanket and tugs a knit cap down over her ears. She turns to face Nathan on the couch and tucks her feet under his legs.
“How much longer do you think we have here?” she asks him quietly. He’s reading a book in the candlelight, his thumb marking the chapter ending where she knows he’ll stop for the night. It takes him a moment to register she’s said something but she’s patient.
“Uhm,” he starts, trying to keep the last few words he read from slipping out of his mind. He flips the book over on his lap and his free hand pinches the bridge of his nose. “Probably just another day or two at this rate.” He leans backward and fingers open a crack in the curtain behind the couch. The night sky is blooming to a deep blue-black and the full moon is pouring just enough light onto the patio that Nathan can see his tripwire glimmering between the broken posts of the garden gate. He looks out beyond the gate across the neighboring pasture and his eyes roam the tree line. Darkness turns cloudy that far away, but he feels safe in the stillness of the shadows.
“It’s been pretty quiet out here,” he adds softly and lets the curtain fall back into place. “If we can find more gasoline, we could stay longer. Do you want to try going back into town?” He closes the book, tucks it between the couch cushions, and pulls Riley’s feet out from under his legs. “How’s your ankle feeling tonight?” He gently rolls one of her woolen socks under her heel and runs his fingers lightly over the revealed bruise.
“It’s okay,” she says with a smile and a sympathetic head tilt. Her accident had hurt Nathan more than it hurt her. She knows that he blames himself. “I’ve been doing the stretches Doc recommended and using that heat salve she sent us. It’s helped a lot.” She watches his face in the candlelight, notices the tension in his jaw. “I swear, honey,” she whispers, “It feels fine.” She scoots toward him and gently takes his face in her hands. “I’m fine,” she adds with a kiss. His lips are cold and rough, but they yield quickly to her earnest and eager affection. She closes the remaining distance between them and the blankets fall away from her shoulders.
Later, when the heat has left their bodies and they are bundled together in bed, Riley thinks about the accident. Nathan is pressed against her back and his low, steady breathing acts as her anchor as she loses herself in the memory.
It could have been so much worse. It had already been a bad day in town with narrowly avoided run-ins, but they were on their way back to the house. ”Just one last stop,” Nathan had said as they walked side by side down Main Street. He peered in the window of the old pharmacy before shouldering open the door and slipping inside. He said hello at the front counter and headed for the far wall. Riley kept pace behind him, her backpack riding high between her shoulder blades.
“What are we looking for,” she asked as she glanced around the quiet store and noted the rear exit sign bolted high on the wall two aisles over. “Can I help?”
“Pink box, purple label,” he murmured as he pushed aside a stack of nondescript white boxes and reached toward the back of the shelf. “Spring is coming and spring means pollen. Pollen means sneezing and itching and being miserable in all the ways a person can be miserable. I’d like to avoid that if at all possible.” He smiled and pulled a faded pink box off the shelf. “There we go,” he said triumphantly. “All right, I’m ready. Let’s go.” As Nathan started back up the aisle, the front door creaked open and a brisk winter wind whistled overhead. He froze and pulled Riley roughly behind him. Her breath caught in her chest as she steadied her hands on the small of his back.
“Wh-“ she started to ask, but Nathan spun on his heel and placed a firm hand over her mouth. He held a finger to his own lips, his eyes wild with fear. He turned again and ducked his head, trying to see between the aisle stacks toward the front door. A footstep fell heavy onto the cracked tile of the entryway. Then another. The door creaked again and was closed. The storefront was silent once more. Nathan motioned for Riley to follow him, and took small, quiet steps toward the rear exit. Riley crouched in Nathan’s shadow, the terror piercing her chest like a bullet.
As they turned around the end of the aisle and inched closer to the exit, small sounds started to come from the front. Papers were shuffled. A plastic pill bottle fell to the floor. Another heavy footstep. And then…
“Nathan. I know you’re in here.”
Riley barely had time to register the next sounds as the pump-action of a shotgun and spent shells falling to the floor before the shelf above her head erupted in a shower of wood, plastic, and pills. Nathan pulled Riley forward and threw himself against the exit door. It was stuck fast. Another shot knocked a crater in the plaster a few feet away. Laughter echoed alongside the ringing in Riley’s ears. Above the noise, Nathan screamed at her to stand back. He took out his own gun and aimed a series of shots into the lock and kicked the door fully open. He grabbed Riley by the straps of her backpack and shoved her through the doorway into the empty and waiting alley while he fired another set of shots toward the front door.
What he didn’t know was the alley’s blacktop was three feet below the doorjamb, and the pharmacy’s back steps were made of crumbling concrete. The ferocity of Nathan’s push had taken Riley by surprise and she’d tripped on the way out the door, her ankle rolling on the first step. She’d hit the asphalt face first, followed by her knees and elbows. She’d laid there, dazed, for just a moment waiting for the breath to reenter her lungs. Before she had a chance to sit up, Nathan had landed beside her and was scooping her up into his arms and barreling down the alley. They’d disappeared down the side streets and out of town without a word exchanged between them.
They made it back to their stolen home before sundown, Nathan still carrying Riley over the tripwires and through the broken patio door. He laid her gently on the couch and surveyed the damage: a split lip, her palms and knees skinned like she was a child who had fallen off her bike. Her ankle was already the size of a softball and mottled with red, purple, and blue.
The next days were tense. Nathan didn’t say much as he reinforced their traps and sent notes to the commune across the farmland. When Doc had sent a care package with salve and strict instructions for rest and advice on stretches, Nathan delivered it to Riley with tears in his eyes. Every time she winced, he reached for her. For nearly a week they thought her ankle was broken. It had continued to swell and turned a storm of colors. But one morning it was… less. Less stiff, less painful, less swollen. And it had continued to get better. It was practically back to normal now, but the bruise still lingered.
Nathan sighs in his sleep and Riley lifts from the memory. She shifts under the blankets and pulls his arm tighter around her waist. Normal, she thinks. Their life hasn’t been normal in over a year. She chews at a dry spot on her bottom lip and closes her eyes. She waits for sleep. But just as she drifts off into a world with full bellies and without shotguns, a cacophonous peal of bells rattles them both awake. Someone crossed the tripwire.
Someone is coming.