(Because I wanted to write a story about girls being friends and post apocalypses; be aware there is some violence.)
It was the one way of staying in contact with people easily, because most people you knew were probably dead, and phones were something you ditched pretty often because stuff was less important than your life. If you could even get signal. The message boards were not always trustworthy. You might run into a psycho who wanted to kill you quite dead or do even worse stuff to you. If you could even get on the internet. Val had met a few of those and some who were quite decent would have been nice if they weren’t terrified for their lives. Some were already dead when you got there.
But the address was very near where Val was already, and it had been posted minutes ago with help! written in all caps, and if Val lived her life unwilling to ever take the risk of helping someone else, she might as well be dead already. So Val figured she really had to go.
“Can you cut my hair before we go?”
It wasn’t the weirdest thing someone had asked Tess to do during this crud show. Still, she turned to the girl who was sitting on the counter, in the only room in the house without windows, and blinked at her. “What?”
“My hair,” the girl, who had come in after knocking for a long time and explaining that yes, she had killed the zombies that were in the house, yes, it was unlikely that any were going to follow her here, and who Tess had only let in after putting a gun to her head and waving a torch in her face to check that her pupils dilated, and gone through numerous other checks for the infection.
Then the girl, covered in blood and guts, had doused herself in peroxide and alcohol to decrease any risk of infection and had produced a vacuum-packed pair of store-fresh jeans, underclothes and a tank top, and changed into them quickly. Where she had gotten a vacuum sealer Tess had no idea. All she carried was probably looted but Tess had no room whatever to judge. The girl cleaned her weapons impeccably and sharpened ax and knives, and asked if Tess had any spare rounds for her rifle. She looked disappointed but unconcerned when Tess had said no.
She’d took it for granted that Tess would come with her when they left. She’d explained that while she traveled on foot often, she currently had a massive truck, and could drop Tess off at one of the pick-up points where the military would come get people. They were mostly in urban areas, near some of the libraries, which for the most part had survived.
Tess was understandably skeptical, but when she’d gone outside before and swept the house she had realized that yes, the amount of the diseased here would have been way too many for Tess to kill on her own. This Val, whoever she was, could do a lot of damage for a maybe eighteen-year-old with messy shoulder-length (were they brown or just dirty?) curls and knee-high boots the girl clearly adored. And Tess had more bullets.
Tess was surprised Val was going to let Tess come at her with scissors.
“I just want it close to my head. It doesn’t have to be neat. It’s just way easier to take care of. Harder to grab hold of. I don’t get to wash much. Reminds me, I should wash it while we have a sink. That soap is probably horrible for it but I think I have some coconut oil in my bag if you want to wash yours too.” Val began to wash her hair with the antibacterial soap that was drying out in the bottle as she spoke, and Tess felt something akin to vertigo in response to these unexpected events.
“Um. Sure. I’ll wash my hair. And—if I cut your hair, will you cut mine?”
“Sure. Yours is pretty. Would you like some coconut oil as well? I know it seems illogical to grab stuff like that. But I’ve been trying to control my acne and hygiene generally. You know how bad it is to have open wounds anywhere on your body if you go hunting for the things? Or even if you’re just likely to bump into them?”
“Uh, I can guess.”
“It’s bad. There you go. The sink is all yours. I’m actually really surprised the water’s any good here. The processing plant has to have been deserted. There aren’t any towels here, are there?”
“Don’t seem to be?”
“Oh well. Our hair will dry quicker once it’s shorter. If you don’t care how it looks combing it isn’t is as important. Here are the scissors. They’re sewing scissors, and I have a sharpener, so not ideal but they’ll probably work?”
Tess got to work. She was terrible at cutting hair, apparently, and apologized to her savior multiple times. Val was jolly about this, joking with gallows humor that her hair would finally match the rest of her, and Tess finished pretty quickly since Val didn’t seem to care if it was messy as long as it was good and short. It looked like bedhead. Kind of patchy. Val took out some coconut oil and massaged it into her scalp with an expression of bliss.
Tess washed her own waist length, impractical hair, sort of glad Val had suggested this. The water was very cold. She got soap in her eyes, but her hair had probably been so greasy and disgusting. She saw the color of the water from her hands and hair and cringed.
Val didn’t seem to care. She rinsed her head in turn after finishing with the coconut oil and applied a bit of what looked to be cold cream. Then she got to work on Tess’s hair, quick and efficient, lopping off long, curly black strands. She turned Tess to the mirror. “What do you think?”
Tess unexpectedly adored the short hair. Her long hair had framed her dark-skinned face in a way that just made it appear younger without her once customary make-up, but the short hair made her look blunt and capable, if not graceful and capable the way Val did. The baby fat in her face had almost completely gone, making her look much older as well. Val massaged coconut oil into Tess’s hair, and then shared some of the cold cream. Both girls washed their faces and used a little bit of the coconut oil on their skin and then repacked the army backpack Val had carried and the meager belongings Tess still had.
They cautiously went through the house. A few of the diseased were at Val’s truck. Val made an irritated noise, and muttered something like, “And I’d just cleaned my stuff up, too.”
Tess took out her sawed-off and shot the first right between the eyes, and shot the second and third in nearly immediate succession. The third was still running at them.
With a single blow Val took the head off it. She whistled. “Respect. You’re sharding good with that thing.”
“Thanks. My dad showed me how. Before all this. He was ex-army. Marines.”
Val looked like she wanted to ask about him, but she didn’t. One of the things they’d learned was that the young were less vulnerable than the old to the disease.
She welcomed Tess to the truck and begin cleaning her ax off with Clorox she dropped into a brown paper bag she apparently intended to leave to incinerate. Tess locked the doors, feeling nervous.
Val saw Tess’s expression. “Don’t worry,” she said, her voice soft. “You can keep your gun aimed at me if it makes you feel better.”
Oddly enough, just hearing that made her feel better. She lowered the gun into her lap. She kept the safety off.
They drove through the city, Val glancing now and again at the gas in the truck. Tess unexpectedly found herself utterly exhausted, just staring at Val with fascination born of wariness and weariness. Val’s hair was not brown, as Tess had first thought, but was red, auburn really, still damp now. Tess began to methodically clean her guns. She needed to pick up more ammo, somewhere. She told Val this and Val nodded.
“There’s a map in the dash. Several maps. One of this city, I think. It’s not like there’ll be landmarks or anything, but we could look for a—holy flying flippers!” One of the diseased was rushing the car. They were maneuvering through a street crowded with stopped abandoned cars. This diseased looked old.
The scientists said that the gories were most dangerous when they were new. They were cleverer, apparently, less mad. But the older the diseased, the less they cared. Any self-preservation was gone, and their only desire was to eat. She had seen them glut themselves on paper. On stone. On rotten roadkill. Once she had seen them eat an entire family, even as Tess shot them to pieces, crying so hard she could barely see. They turned on and began to eat each other, only a few seeking the place Tess was nested. But if their only desire was food, their only purpose was to spread and multiply. And they were so much better at both than the newly minted sick. Something awoke inside their bodies, an instinct for killing, a wild energy that scientists could not explain.
Val slammed on the gas. Tess loaded her gun, but didn’t dare open the window.
The diseased slammed into the windshield. Its claws sunk into the metal on one side and the glass cracked.
“Get your stuff where it will stay still!” Val yelled. “I need to get this thing off and I’m going to have to hit some things maybe!”
Tess had no machine gun, but she wished for one. She wanted to unload the clip into it. They could keep going with bullets in their heads.
Val squirted the thing with windshield wiper fluid and flicked the wipers. Tess had no idea how Val could see where they were going.
Tess took out her favorite of her guns. It was the heaviest caliber. She had three rounds left.
Val slammed the car into something. The gory’s leg was a bloody stump now, and it was screaming and laughing, it’s one eye crazed. The other eye was a clawed out scarred hole.
The diseased smashed a fist into the windshield and the glass made a spiderweb of cracks. With shaking hands, Tess raised the gun. “I’m going to shoot him. Unbuckle your seatbelt and through the seat back. It’s going to come through the windshield.” She had to make this shot. If it was blind, even if it was still alive, they would have a chance.
Val slammed the parking brake on and they stopped so abruptly Tess’s head jerked. But her hands stayed steady. The bullet went through the gory’s eye, shattering the windshield.
Instead of obeying Tess, Val went forward as the gory flew forward through the shattering windshield and sliced her ax straight through the creature’s neck. It’s head landed in Tess’s lap.
Tess flung open the truck door and vomited, her body expelling every bit of food it could. The blood was everywhere, even though the creature that was bleeding had been dead far too long.