The Living: I
The clamminess of my little brother’s skin glued his palms to my shoulders as I trekked along with his weight on my back. The exhaustion from lack of food and good sleep gnawed at my strength, but I pretended to be fine. For him. I would survive for him.
A gust of wind had me diving behind the nearest dumpster and holding my breath. My juvenile brother tugged at my braid and whined, “It’s nothing.”
A stern glare over my shoulder and he thought better of further argument. Once he stayed silent, I tuned into every miniscule reverberation within earshot. The breeze whistled through the alley, attempting to obscure any signs of trouble. Starving, frightened rats scratched within the depths of the rubbish strewn about, as helpless and hopeless as us. No food or comfort would come to them. We already learned that the hard way.
After I became satisfied that no whispers floated on the wind, I crawled from hiding and tiptoed along at a more careful pace.
“We’re never gonna make it at this rate,” Jackson muttered in my ear.
I crammed an elbow into his side and he refrained from anymore commentary only after groaning from the mistreatment.
My fingertips rattled along the bricks until the corner angled away. I stopped with a jerk, every muscle stiffening. Beyond the shadow concealing us lay the sunshine and exposure of the street. Abandoned, immobile cars scattered the pavement and streetlights failed to signal anymore. To the untrained eye, not a soul wandered this lonely city. But we knew better.
I set my sights on the darkened alley across the way, only a stone’s throw from where we stood. Without needing prompting, Jackson slid from my back and crouched down as low as he could.
I joined him on the ground. “You know the drill.”
“Out of sight, not a sound,” he nodded.
“Good.” I ruffled his hair with a smile. “You’re finally learning.”
He indignantly smoothed the filthy locks back into place and then crept into the sunlight. I ushered him along until we rested our backs on the side of the first car, catching a breath in the concealment of its shade. Counting to three on my fingers, we scurried in single file around to the next one. Another countdown, and a battered police car covered us. One more lane and a sidewalk to go, then the secluded back alley would accept us into its arms again.
Yet my fingers lingered on two as a new wind picked up. The air whipped by my cheek, almost exactly as before, but I noted the uncharacteristic, biting cold nipping at my flesh, eager to tear it from me. My brother realized it too and his complexion flushed white.
I clasped a hand over his mouth before he could panic outright and I hurled us onto the rocky asphalt, ignoring any scrapes. The nearby danger cancelled out any concerns of cuts or bruises.
The chill doubled and redoubled until crystals caught on our rapid exhales. The tiny fog of our making drifted from us and every instinct urged me to snatch the ice from the air before it gave us away. But my movement would likely draw attention before condensation would, so I suppressed my shivering hands from action.
The whoosh of the wind that masked our greatest enemy finally let a voice peep through, exactly as I expected it to. A hushed breath of speech swirled through the air current like a bird gliding through a raging rainstorm on the sea. A woman trilled in harmony with the gale, a part of the discordant melody. “Hello?”
My heart seemed to hammer in answer to her and I clenched my free hand over my chest, worried that the beat of life might somehow be discerned over such a distance. Jackson vibrated so violently that I rested much of my weight on top of him to keep the loose gravel underneath us from grating. The cold burrowed into every pore and seemed to nail us in place, holding us hostage until its master could find us. A tear welled in my brother’s eye and I pressed my forehead against his in a pathetic attempt at comfort, yet my own fear seized me just as tightly.
“Hello?” the woman cooed again, her words more unmistakable the closer she drifted. “Is anyone there?”
My spine stiffened as her indistinct form swept into view, in the first car lane we passed and two vehicles down. The shape proved difficult to focus on, as always, but I forced my eyes to affix on her. I believed she was likely causacian in life, though the complexion of everyone muted to such a colorless pallet after death. The curves of her body undulated eerily, the hazy outline of her feet not bothering to contact the ground where she strode. With every onward jolt, her figure swayed unsteadily, no rigid shell encasing her to balance the movements. The murky silhouette stretched forward, her neck elongating and nearly detaching from the rest of her, and the waist of her bare torso swung off its axis every step, her lower half slipping out from under the upper. The gray cloud of her naked soul so inconsistently resembled a human it could have been mistaken for a billow of steam if not for the darkened, hollow sockets where her eyes used to be. Every glance seemed to bear the penetrating scowl of the grim reaper himself, damning your spirit in the span of a look.
As luck would have it, those sockets skipped over us and sang out further down the street. “Are you there? I think I heard you. Why do you hide?”
The second her back turned on us, I tossed Jackson over my arm and sprang around the cop car to the last lane. I dropped him back down next to the oversized tire of a pickup truck and froze. The wind had stopped, but not of any natural phenomenon. The passage of our unwanted, undead guest halted short, and the frigid breeze halted with her. The icy, still particles of the air settled down in place, blanketing sharply onto any living tissue it could reach. A shiver coursed through my limbs and I gripped the rim of the wheel to keep from collapse.
The tiniest flow of air brushed by, but now in the opposite direction. She was coming back.
To be concluded in The Living: II...
© 2020 by Kelsey Garber