Almost all humans were dead. At least, that’s what Joel had always been told. He only remembered the last three years, so he really had no frame of reference for what a ‘normal’ amount of humans would be. But, judging by the dilapidated state of the world around him, he assumed his fellow survivors were telling the truth.
It had been ten years since the apocalypse. Apparently, it hadn’t happened all at once; the massive death tolls had ebbed in large blows, each greater than the last. Joel was fuzzy on the details. Understandably, most people didn’t like talking about the collapse of society. Some of the older residents at the settlement enjoyed reminiscing about ‘the good old days’, but the torments, which is what most called the fluctuations of colossal death that had plagued the world for years, was usually off topic.
The high school that Joel and his fellow survivors lived in was hot this time of year. Summer storms weren’t uncommon in this part of Wyoming, but the air was dry and stale as he made his way up the concrete staircase that led to the roof.
It was his turn to take guard duty. At least one person was always on shift, and Joel had been given the dreaded night watch.
To his displeasure, Joel could hear another set of footsteps reverberating down the staircase he was climbing. Artie was on shift before him, and he was hoping to avoid a conversation with the shabby old man.
Joel supposed he had no choice. This was the only staircase to grant roof access. He braced himself as he rounded a corner and locked eyes with a scruffy, wrinkled face.
“Hello, boy,” he said slowly. “So you’re the one on watch now,” he shook his head in annoyance, as if Joel’s mere presence was an irritant. You’ll alert us if you see anything, right?”
Joel usually had a smile on his lips, but he felt it strain at Artie’s words. Of course he’d alert the settlement if he saw anything. Joel’s lack of memory and unusual arrival at the camp had initially unsettled residents, but most had come to accept him over the course of the three years he’d been living there. Artie was still wary of him.
Joel brushed his fingers along the side of his biggest scar, which ran nearly the entire length of his skull and across his left cheek. He assumed it was the wound that had caused his memory loss in the first place. A majority of it was covered by his dark brown hair, but Artie’s eyes still followed the movement, eyeing the mark warily. Joel couldn’t remember how he’d gotten it, obviously, but Artie had assumed it was devious, violent behavior. It fueled his, and a few other residents, belief that Joel was untrustworthy.
“Yes, Artie,” Joel said patiently. “I’ll ring the bell if I see anyone on the horizon.” He tried to remind himself that this old man had lived through the literal biblical apocalypse. It was understandable that he’d be suspicious of others, but the mistrust still stung.
Of course, Artie’s suspicions could be warranted. For all Joel knew, he could have been a murderer or a ruthless vagrant before his memories had been taken. He liked to think not, but the possibility was still there.
“Sandra’s up there,” Artie said in his gruff voice, once again interrupting Joel’s thoughts. “Arrived about ten minutes ago. Said she wanted to talk to you.” Artie was a nosey old man and was doubtlessly hoping Joel would enlighten him as to why the camp leader’s wife wanted to talk to him. Unfortunately for Artie, Joel wasn’t about to be forthcoming with any details.
“Thanks for the heads up,” he responded before quickly ascending the stairs, taking them two at a time. It only took him another thirty seconds before he reached the roof.
As Artie had promised, Sandra sat near the edge of the building. Her long legs dangled over the side of it, her boots scraping the sigils that had been carved into the exterior.
She slowly turned her head towards him, a lazy smile pulling at her face. “Hey, sweet pea,” she said in her southern drawl. “I was hoping I’d get to talk to you.”
Joel took a few hesitant steps forward, before gently lowering himself beside her. Sandra and Nan had always put him at ease, the maternal figures that they were. Even though Nan ran Skyline, one of the largest human settlements in Wyoming, she and her partner had only been kind to him.
“You’re up to something,” Sandra said bluntly.
Joel could feel his heart beating faster. “What?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, kiddo. You’re planning on leaving, aren’t you?”
“I’m–, I wouldn’t–.” The protests died on Joel’s lips. There was no point in lying to Sandra. Her and Nan seemed to know everything. “How did you know?”
“Nan said you would. She said that you haven’t been the same since Maria and Luca left on their trip.”
“They should have been back over two weeks ago,” Joel said, his stomach churning. “People have been disappearing out there. I should have gone with them on their route. It’s my fault that–”
“What?” Sandra cut in. “Your fault that you twisted your ankle couldn’t make the trek to Montana?”
Joel shook his head, guilt creeping into his gut. “New Helena was too far for them to travel on their own. I should have asked them to wait. If I had been with them–”
“Do you really think one more person could have prevented whatever it is that’s holding them up?”
Joel kicked his boot hard against the building. It made a satisfying thud noise on impact. “Maybe,” he said.
Sandra wrapped a warm arm around him, her many bracelets jingling in the process. He returned her hug as she kissed him on the cheek. Though he doubted she’d had any access to perfume for years, the scent of rosewood and vanilla filled his nose.
“It’s not your fault,” she said simply. “The twins are adults, and more capable at survival than anyone here. More capable than you,” she teased, bopping him on the nose.
That was true. The world had ended when Maria and Luca were only ten years old. They’d been raised by a father with extensive military training years before moving to Skyline upon his passing. The twins had tried to teach Joel how to fight, but it just wasn’t in his nature. He also knew he’d never be at their skill level. They were amazing at combat. It was part of why Joel was so nervous. Something truly terrible must have happened for the ruthless duo to be delayed.
“I have to go find them, Sandra,” he told her. Maria and Luca were his friends, his family. He’d been thinking about it for days, and had finally committed to the idea. The thought of venturing across states alone made him break out in a nervous sweat. “I’m going to leave and track them down. Make sure they get back safely.”
Sandra pursed her lips in disapproval. “And you were only going to leave us a note instead of giving a proper goodbye?”
A fresh wave of guilt washed over him. “I didn’t want you to talk me out of it. And I wasn’t sure, I knew it’d be hard to…,” he trailed off. Goodbyes were hard for Joel. He supposed it had to do with his abandonment issues, but there was no point in psychoanalyzing himself. It’s not like there were any therapists out here anyways.
“Nan will want to talk to you before you go.”
Joel let his eyes scan the empty horizon, briefly glancing at the crops they grew on what had once been a football field. It was starting to get dark. The melodious sound of chirping crickets already filled the air. “It’ll be late by the time I get off this watch shift.”
Sandra grunted as she moved herself to a standing position. “Then come see Nan in her office whenever you wake up tomorrow. Hopefully it will be an uneventful night.”
Joel hoisted up a gun he hoped he’d never have to use.
“We haven’t seen any bandits or biblicals on the horizon for a few weeks.” He ran his fingers over the sigils carved into the wall that protected their settlement. His eyes searched the distance for the angels and demons that had ruthlessly invaded their world during the apocalypse. “Hopefully there won’t be any for a long while.”