Some stories begin with a concept.
Others, a character.
This story began with a saying: “only the roaches will survive.”
Some people believe that after the apocalypse, all that will be left is roaches and radiation. I don’t agree. People are resilient and resourceful.
And as long as humanity survives, so does hope.
This story is one of 5 post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventures collected in Boys & Their Monsters, a short story collection about young men facing great odds at the end of the world.
They fight back—against wild beasts, their own inner demons, a hostile world.
They defeat their enemies by holding on to their hope.
Hope for a brighter future. Hope for a better life.
Sometimes, mere hope to survive.
But always hope. It’s what helps us put one foot in front of the other when the whole world seems lost. It’s what bolsters us in the dark times.
A hopeful apocalypse… now that’s my kind of story.
Boys & Their Monsters
Read 5 original post-apocalyptic science fiction stories for free right here.
Make Like the Roaches and Survive
by M.G. Herron
People used to say that after the apocalypse, only the roaches would survive.
Well, there were roaches all right. Plenty of ‘em. They seethed like a chittering brown tide through the cracked foundation and broken waterpipes in the basement of St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center. But that’s not all that survived. The roaches had company—me.
Things would have been simpler if it was just the roaches. Whoever imagined that only the roaches would make it had been deceived by the simplicity of the notion. Life is never that simple, and, as I would later learn, the apocalypse left behind all sorts of violently shaken stragglers in its wake.
The basement storage room of St. Mary’s that saved my life was once lined with wire racks. Those racks had been stacked with cardboard boxes of medical supplies—alcohol swabs, cotton swabs, tongue depressors, and the like. Eventually, I turned the place into a sort of den slash bedroom by pushing the wire racks all to one side, and laying down cardboard boxes to serve as a sleeping pallet on the other. It wasn’t the best bed I’d ever slept in, but trust me, if you’re desperate enough, you can get used to anything.
Fortunately for the cockroaches and me, the storage room had originally been constructed with an alternate purpose in mind. In early 1959, the basement had been designed to serve double duty as a fallout shelter. In paranoid times, it seemed a sensible hedge against the possibility of a nuclear strike. I thanked God every day for that healthy dose of paranoia, especially in the first few weeks, when I could still hear the fighting happening outside.
I’d wager that none of the hospital’s Cold War architects had imagined the shelter in the basement of St. Mary’s would make it through the ’60s unused except as a depository for plastic gloves and saline solution. I only knew it was a bomb shelter because, during the summer after my junior year of high school, I got a job at St. Mary’s as a janitor and spent a lot of time in that basement.
My Aunt Maria, the woman who had been saddled with the burden of raising me in Pueblo while my delinquent addict mother wandered from one flop house to another, helped me land the job. I’d done lawn work, hedge trimming, and window washing on an ad hoc basis all through my childhood. This was my first official employment, though. It wasn’t glamorous, but that was fine because I didn’t expect it to be. Mostly, I spent my days slopping a bleach-soaked mop across the floors, emptying trash cans, and lugging heavy boxes up and down the basement steps.
The job did afford certain freedoms. For example, I spent countless hours that summer hiding in the basement and watching funny YouTube videos on my phone. I was doing just that one afternoon, late in the summer, when my cell connection cut out, and the box-laden wire racks began to vibrate against the cement floor.
As I tried to sit up, the ground bucked and shook in a violent earthquake. Klaxons began to blare in the basement, nearly deafening me. A woman’s scream cut through the noise, only to be ended abruptly. Ambulance sirens wailed somewhere off in the distance. Three sharp gunshot reports echoed outside.
That was all I heard, at first. That was all the warning anyone got.
No one knew the Invaders were coming until they were upon us. Years later and miles away, all I’ve managed to kludge together is a partial picture of the strange beings from outer space that descended on our planet like a plague—a bipedal giant glimpsed through the fog. The desiccated carcass of one of their lizard-like cows. A vast footprint in the forest big enough to lay my whole body down in.
What I do know is that humanity was not prepared for the speed at which they cut across the world. The Invaders leveled cities, disabled the grid, shot our satellites out of orbit. Their superior forces sliced through the Armies and Air Forces of planet Earth like scissors through construction paper.
At the time, in that cramped little storage room surrounded by shelf upon shelf of boxes, I didn’t know what to think. Clearly, we were under attack. But was forty years after the Berlin Wall came down too late for the Russians to take their revenge?
Two things seemed certain: I was frightened out of my wits, and I needed to get home to my aunt to make sure she was okay.
Would you believe me if I told you I tried to make a break for it then? Would you believe me if I told you I managed three steps before a forty-pound box of saline solution tilted off a top shelf and clobbered me in the head, knocking me unconscious on the basement floor?
It was the luckiest moment of my life.
If you can call a man who survived the apocalypse lucky.
That box to the cranium kept me from running out to a certain death.
When I woke it was fairly quiet and extremely dark. If I had to guess, no more than a few hours had gone by, but hell, I could have been wrong. The way my head was aching, I couldn’t be sure about much of anything. I heard a low rumbling in the distance, like several dozen backhoes and bulldozers were agitating all at once…or maybe it was a line of noisy cars rolling by in the distance as people attempted to flee the city.
I didn’t know because I couldn’t see. I explored the dark basement and quickly learned that the steel and stone frame of the demolished hospital had fallen down on top of me. I could still access much of the basement, but several rooms had been filled with a landslide of rubble. A fog of dust still hung in the air and tickled my nose.
I located a battery-powered flashlight and saw that, while I didn’t have a hard shell to protect my body like my invertebrate cockroach friends—the little turds were everywhere by that point, must have been a colony in the walls—the sturdy frame of the fallout shelter had performed a similar function, and prevented the storage room and my fragile human body from being pulped.
Picking my way carefully through the now-cramped corridors, climbing over rubble and through a wall, I discovered that the stairwells leading up had also caved in.
And I was trapped inside.
As a panic attack overtook me, explosions, gunfire, and the shouting of people detonated outside, practically on top of me. Nothing penetrated the rubble, but it was enough to send me scurrying back to the fallout shelter at the center of the basement. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried myself to sleep that night, and for several hellish days thereafter.
Eventually, though the noise of the fighting did not subside for several more days, I regained control of myself long enough to realize I had been lucky. Fate had kept me alive. Who was I to tempt her twice? I worried for my aunt, as she must have been worried for me…but if she hadn’t gotten to safety by now, how was I to help her?
At least here, in the basement, I had a chance to survive this. I decided to stay put. To wait it out while I planned my escape. It was the smart thing to do.
How long could it last, right?
Over the following weeks, the noises of war were slowly replaced by a deathly stillness. As for water and food, I survived on the vast inventory of pre-packaged goods that had once been intended for the hospital cafeteria. I was the one who lugged these boxes of supplies to and from the basement on a daily basis at St. Mary’s, so I knew more or less where to find what I needed.
I ate the fresh and the frozen stuff first—starting with the ice cream, of course. Most of it had thawed by the time I shifted enough rubble to locate the deep freezers. The vast majority went bad before I could even touch it.
After that I turned to the dry goods. By then I’d realized I needed to ration the cans of corn and beans, the jello, and the jugs of water I found. When a jug went empty, I put it next to a crack in the roof that leaked rainwater into the southwest corner of the basement.
The makeshift rain catch was how I made the acquaintance of the first non-insectoid survivor I’d seen in days, a feral brown tomcat who came to be my companion and roommate.
I don’t know if he had been in the basement with me the whole time, or if he had found his way from elsewhere. Either way, once he realized I had access to clean water and food, and plenty of it, he stuck around.
And I don’t mean he ate the ice cream or the jello. He did eventually, but not at first. Instead, he hunted the roaches. A good thing, because they were beginning to gross me out by that point. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to waking each morning with the fat things crawling all over my limbs and chest.
Hunting the swift insects in the dark was a great sport for him. For the first few days after our initial meeting, he feasted on them greedily. After that, he rationed them as fastidiously as I did my jello. And I only occasionally found a roach on my bed of cardboard boxes.
It took me several weeks, however, to truly befriend the cat, who I named Roach, in honor of the staple of his diet and his brown fur. You know how cats can be, right? Standoffish in the best of times, even more so after an apocalypse. If Roach wasn’t hunting, he was hiding in his own little den, squirrelled away in the cracked foundation of the building. It took much careful coaxing, but he finally let me brush his filthy coat out with an old plastic comb until it had recovered its copper luster.
Many more weeks passed. I shifted rubble and searched for a way out. It was an overwhelming task and I spent a lot of time stubbing my toes on loose rocks and just getting my bearings in the darkness, as I knew I couldn’t rely on the flashlight forever.
Apart from Roach, no one else ever came looking for me. I counted my canned goods and became as feral as the cat. Roach and I both got thinner. I’m not sure how long we were down there. Eventually, I gave up on the idea that someone might come back for us. By the looks of things, we really were on our own.
I had been using one of the defunct deep freezers in the northeast corner—as far away from the source of fresh water as possible—as a toilet. One day, I was forced to close the whole room and pour bags of cement mix on top of the refuse because the stench had become overwhelming. This had one good side effect—it made me realize that if I didn’t want the basement to double as a stinking grave, I would have to find my own way out, and fast.
The shelter had saved us, but it couldn’t sustain us indefinitely.
I began to look for a digging implement, but I couldn’t find a shovel. A hospital has need of many instruments, but a shovel is not one of them. Eventually, I settled on a metal serving spoon and a big soup pot from the cafeteria supplies, and began to dig.
Roach watched me work, but he never helped dig. Selfish little bastard. But I adored him. He kept the roaches at bay for me, and even took to sleeping with me at night. Nothing comforted me more after a day of shifting rubble than eating jello with Roach, and then laying down and letting his soft purring lull me to sleep.
I rolled off my cardboard bed one morning, and sat picking at the dirt under my nails, contemplating our escape. We were down to less than a hundred items of packaged food. My anxiety had doubled because water hadn’t dripped into the southwest corner for many, many days. It had dried up before and come back with the rain, but what if it didn’t this time? I dare not wash the dirt off my hands more than once a day, for fear of wasting water we may later need for survival.
I was doing a morning check of our inventory when I realized that Roach was missing.
“Roach?” I cupped my hands over my mouth and yelled louder the second time. “Count Cockroach Apawcatlypse!”
His full name sounded ridiculous when you screamed it out loud like that. But I’d spent a long time trapped in that basement with only a cat for company, and I had to entertain myself somehow lest I go mad.
My voice fell flat in the darkness.
There was only one place Roach could have gone. Of course, it was Roach who had given me the idea in the first place. I figured it was how he got into the basement in those early days. A fissure in the eastern foundation had been torn open and filled with rubble when the building collapsed. Two big pieces of stone had wedged together here, leaving just enough space for a cat to crawl through.
If I was right and Roach had used this hole to crawl into the shelter, it seemed the most promising way to keep my shelter from becoming a coffin. So that was where I had begun to dig.
I was afraid moving stones from the pile that had formed after the building collapsed would cause another cave-in. So instead of trying to play jenga with my life, I chipped into the cracked and crumbling foundation below the cave-in spot, and started by digging down.
It took a long time, but eventually I broke through the foundation into the loose earth. At that point, I changed directions and started to expand the tunnel outward, perpendicular to the building. My plan at that point was just to dig as far out as I possibly could before surfacing. I figured the ground on the other side was probably topped with rubble twenty feet out from the wall, so I needed to get at least twenty feet out if I wanted to come up to open air, rather than under another pile of stone.
I managed to carefully expand the tunnel until it was a hole big enough to crawl through. With hours of painstaking work, I made a tunnel about twenty feet long. It began to angle gradually upward the last ten feet.
I had always planned on taking Roach with me, but he was a wild creature and couldn’t have known that. Perhaps he’d run at the first sign of freedom. I couldn’t blame him. If he never came back, I wouldn’t be mad, but the thought brought unexpected tears to my eyes.
I realized, in that moment, what my companionship with Roach had become to me. Faced with the fact that I might really be left to survive on my own, a tightness began to gather in my chest.
“Roach?” I said.
My breath came shallow and tight as I squeezed through the hole in the floor.
I gasped when I saw the ray of light at the end of the long dark shaft.
The rough edge of the foundation tore into my forearms as I dove into the tunnel. I crawled forward, the dirt working its way into the fresh scrapes. I ignored the pain and army crawled quickly to the end of the tunnel. The surface was much closer than I had expected. I seemed to have stopped a mere six inches from the open air the day before. Roach had pressed through, a tiny little opening barely big enough for my hand.
I yanked down clods of dirt to expand the opening, and stuck my head through. It was dusk, or maybe dawn. Eerily quiet, but…was that insects chirping? I could hardly believe it. The wind blew through the air, cooling the sweat on my brow.
I shoved my shoulder through the hole and pushed myself up to my feet. We had come out in a garden area on the side of the hospital, right next to the sidewalk. My guesswork measurements had been good. I took deep, fulfilling breaths of fresh air, the first it seemed I’d taken my whole life. I didn’t even know fresh air had a taste. After that moment, I’ll never forget it.
When I had gathered my breath back into my lungs, I shouted, “Roach! Where’d you go, boy?”
I whirled around. I had been right about the hospital, too—nothing but a pile of rubble. My worn and filthy sneakers crunched on broken shards of glass and pebbles and dust. No cleaning crew had ever returned to this wreckage. There were a few abandoned vehicles in the parking lot, a few turned over on their sides, others with bullet holes riddling their doors and windows. Several trees with no leaves still stood nearby. Was it autumn, or had they been killed in the fighting? The grass was burned, browned. I kicked empty shells across the cracked pavement. There were a couple skeletons, picked clean of meat and obviously human. Everything was covered in dust. The night was dark, and the streetlamps hadn’t come on—would probably never come on again.
A chill breeze sliced through my threadbare and ragged overalls, the same work uniform I’d been buried in the basement wearing months ago. I sniffed and wrinkled my nose. Out here in the open air, they stank. I stank.
“Roach!” I called again.
I ran around the corner of the building, searching for the brown cat—and finally saw him, sitting in the basket of a metal grocery cart, his shining fur lustrous brown in the gloaming halflight. I glanced up and saw an array of stars spread above me in the sky. Tears blurred my vision again. I took several deep gulps of cold air, then walked toward Roach, slowly and carefully lest I startle him.
Roach showed his teeth and flattened his ears against his head in a goofy little grin as he turned toward the cool breeze. Then he picked up one tiny, white-tipped paw and laid it on the handlebars of the grocery cart.
I gripped the cool plastic handle with both hands and grinned back at him.
“You gave me a good scare, you clever little rascal.”
Roach meowed pathetically up at me from the basket of the grocery cart as we rolled north along I-25.
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you, buddy,” I said. “I’m hungry, too. But you know the rules, we only eat when we stop for the night.”
My stomach growled anyway. Roach mewled at me a second time.
“Rules are rules,” I muttered, more to myself than to the cat.
After I followed Roach to the surface, I had hoped we would find other survivors in Pueblo. In fact, I had expected it. But after exploring for three days, I became convinced the city had been completely abandoned. Most of the buildings were in ruins. The ones still standing stood barren, stripped clean of food and water. I did find clothes that fit me in a couple houses, and pulled some long johns on under my overalls for extra warmth.
As near as I could tell, after the fighting I heard, the people who remained had taken what they could from their homes and run. But where had they all gone?
Aunt Maria’s apartment building had been blown to smithereens, so that option was taken off the table for me—probably a good thing, as I don’t think I could have handled the trip down memory lane.
I had the option of bunkering down in another house nearby—there were plenty, and I had my pick of them. However, I quickly abandoned the idea. I’d had quite enough bunkering down for one lifetime by that point.
I spent another day or two searching for a car. It wasn’t hard to find the keys to a vehicle. Plenty of cars were simply left in the street, their doors ajar. A few even had keys inside. But most of them wouldn’t start, and each car whose batteries still worked had an empty fuel tank. I imagined that if the supply chain had been severed by whatever war had devastated the city around me, gas had been scarce for some time. I found an old Honda Civic with a little juice in the tank, and drove around verifying that there was truly nothing left until it died, too.
I finally returned to the grocery cart and began to formulate a plan. My theory was that if there was no one in Pueblo, maybe there were survivors in Colorado Springs. If not there, then I could try Denver. Using the cart to carry what supplies I had left, I could make my way north.
Worst case scenario, I ended up bunkering down in another city. What’s the difference what city you end up in if you’re just waiting to die? Now that I was no longer trapped, I had to try to find other people. Besides, both Colorado Springs and Denver were bigger cities than Pueblo, and I figured that meant there was a better chance of finding survivors.
The grocery cart Roach found turned out to be in fairly good shape. It had been filled with wood, presumably for someone’s fire. I unloaded the wood and wiped the cart clean of dust using old towels from the basement shelter. The back right wheel wobbled slightly, and squealed with a horrible racket until I squirted some olive oil into the bearing.
The cart itself I filled with the rations from my shelter. It only took about an hour to pack every cup of jello, bottle of olive oil, can of beans, and jug of water I had left into the cart. I tied it all down with a tarp and secured the tarp to the cart with bungee cords. There was just enough room left for Roach to sit in the child’s seat of the cart, near the handles.
We had been walking north ever since.
Roach jumped down from the cart as I-25 began to incline. I walked faster so that the cart’s momentum would carry me up the hill a ways. When my momentum ran out, the weight of our dwindling supplies pressed down against me. I pushed harder. My legs ached and shook with the effort—not because the cart was that heavy, but because we’d been walking all day. I grunted as I finally crested the hill, and gazed down into another valley that looked much like the one we had just passed through.
I-25 swept into the valley headed north. A few abandoned vehicles dotted the shoulder of the road on either side. The landscape beyond was hilly high prairie, dotted with houses and sparse patches of leafless trees gathered in groups of ten or twelve as if they were huddling together against the cold.
Roach padded up beside me. I bent down to scratch his head. I sighed, my breath a cloud of fog in the air in front of me. It was getting colder. Where had everyone gone?
In the distance, a coyote howled. The hackles on Roach’s spine lifted. He hopped back up into the grocery cart basket and crawled down under the tarp, so he was laying with the cans of beans to one side and two jugs of water on the other.
“Not exactly the survivors I was hoping to run into, either, boy. What do you say we find another minivan with those lay down seats where we can spend the night?”
Roach meowed at me again, the pathetic sound muffled by the tarp. I stepped forward, my hands firmly holding onto the grocery cart with all the food and water we had left, as we went down the road into the next valley.
We didn’t find a minivan that night, but settled for a big Ford truck with leather seats and a king cab. I parked the grocery cart next to the driver’s side door and made sure the tarp was tightly secured, then grabbed a can of corn and a package of dry ramen, along with a water jug—my meal for the evening—and climbed into the cab of the truck. Roach hopped in with me, curled up in my lap, and shivered. I lay my hands on the cat, trying to impart what limited warmth I had to the poor creature.
He wasn’t built for this. Neither of us were. I shifted my overalls on my bony shoulders, pulling them up without displacing the ball of cat in my lap. It was only once we were on the road that I realized how thin I’d become. My overalls hung off me like a scarecrow.
I shook out my numb hands and breathed into them, trying to warm myself up. I’d ripped up a t-shirt to wrap around my hands in the absence of gloves—apparently no one had forgotten their gloves in their flight from Pueblo, for I found none in my search.
I hadn’t realized how much being buried beneath all that rubble had provided insulation and warmth until we spent the first night outside on the road. We didn’t even make it through the night—I began walking again before dawn just to get my blood flowing. After that, we began using the abandoned vehicles we found along the way as campers.
The sun fell below the horizon. Daylight faded as I ate my corn and dried ramen, chasing it with little sips of water. I dished some food into a little bowl I’d found for Roach, and poured water into it. He ate carefully, slowly, first slurping the water and then eating the softened noodles and kernels of corn.
Through the windshield of the truck, I watched as a light dusting of snow began to blow across the road, making swirling patterns of black and white in the dusk. When he was done eating, Roach got up, circled, and resettled himself on the seat so he was pressed up against my leg. He began to purr softly, his body vibrating pleasantly against my leg, and we both fell asleep.
I woke to the howling wind and a heavy thump. Leaning up to look out the window, I saw that the grocery cart had been knocked onto its side. The tarp was loose, waving like a flag in the wind. Rubbing my eyes with one hand, I used the other to open the door.
At the same time as a flurry of snowflakes blew inside the crack in the door, something barked and a set of gnashing teeth nearly took off my hand.
Roach hissed and jumped in front of me. A coyote stood with its two front paws on the running boards and peered hungrily up at the cat. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth, and saliva dripped onto the leather seat. When it saw Roach, it inhaled sharply and lunged, snapping its teeth together. Roach screamed, his claws coming out—the same claws that had speared so many cockroaches on their slender tips. He swiped down and swatted the coyote right in the nose.
The dog yelped and fell backward, scrambling to its feet. It circled once, and without warning, leaped back up into the truck.
I had recovered from my shock by then, enough to slide forward on the slippery leather seat and kick two sneakered feet squarely into the coyote’s throat.
It bucked and fell heavily back to the ground with a snarl. Roach hissed again at the coyote, absolutely fearless. I lunged forward, grabbed the handle of the truck door, and slammed it shut.
The enraged coyote scrambled to its feet outside, and threw its body into the truck door several times. I tensed and twitched each time the beast scraped its paws against the seam of the door, trying vainly to rip it open. I tried to remain calm, and focused on my breathing. Roach paced along the dashboard several dozen times, then hopped down into my lap again, protectively, sitting upright and perfectly still like a sphinx.
We were forced to watch, by the refracted light of the moon off the snow, as the coyote angrily ripped the tarp off the overturned grocery cart, and scattered our remaining food supplies. As a Colorado kid, I knew coyotes weren’t usually dangerous. Someone once told me that only two incidents of coyotes killing people have ever been recorded in the United States—coyotes hunt alone, they said, and they’re scavengers.
But maybe this one was starving, and maybe it was desperate. It did, at least, seem to be alone.
The coyote crept around our car for another hour that night, gorging on the food and sniffing around the truck. Roach and I waited in an exhausted, tense stupor for the sun to rise and the daylight to scare it away.
When the wan light of dawn spilled over the mountain peaks and into the valley, the coyote slinked back into the countryside and I warily exited the truck.
Our supplies had been scattered across the ground and then covered in a quarter inch of snow. The dozen ramen noodle packages and handful of jello cups remaining had been torn to shreds and then soaked through. Plastic and paper packaging was ripped up and scattered on the ground. Only it wasn’t just paper and plastic to me—it was days off my life, too. The stinking coyote hadn’t eaten half the food it tore open. My heart sank at the sight of such waste.
Roach sniffed at some of the scraps and meowed. Then he prowled around the other side of the truck. Walking in the paw prints of the coyote really impressed upon me how small Roach was in comparison to the lanky canine.
I lifted the grocery cart and covered it again with the tarp, which had been torn and ripped, then set about to collect the remaining cans and the jugs of water. I contemplated eating the noodles on the ground. What if that thing had rabies?
The cans of beans and corn were, fortunately, mostly intact. The coyote punctured a few cans, but the metal must have hurt its teeth because it didn’t keep trying on the rest. As I stacked the cans back in the cart, my sinking heart fell down a crevice. After the cans the coyote had punctured, there were only twelve left. As for the water…one jug had been punctured with a U-shaped bite mark near the bottom, and most of the water had leaked out overnight. Only a smallish ice cube remained. That left me with one full five-gallon jug, and the half-empty one in the truck.
To hell with it, I thought angrily, and set about gathering the punctured cans and any chunks of noodles on the ground that still had some solidity to them. What the coyote left was damp and covered in dirt. I found a chunk of noodles the size of my thumb, brushed off the dirt, and lifted it to my mouth. I chewed with determination, ground the dirt into my teeth, and forced myself to swallow.
Then I sighed. What would my Aunt Maria think if she saw me like this? She’d see a survivor, I thought. With only a low-paying nurse’s job, her sister’s rehab bills, and her sister’s abandoned child—me—to support, Aunt Maria had instilled a survivor’s mentality into me. Not just how you can thin milk with water, or how to pick the good stuff from the piles of clothes at the Salvation Army, but the mental fortitude one needed to survive poverty.
What had happened with the coyote was a setback. But I knew we weren’t far from Colorado Springs. I could scavenge for more supplies there.
I found another good chunk of noodles, and put it into Roach’s bowl.
“Can’t let this go to waste, pal,” I said.
He gave me a look of pure contempt, but after a little sniff, and deliberately turning his back to me, he ate it in two big bites. I put some fresh water in the bowl. He drank that right up, too.
“Good boy,” I said, and put his bowl back into the grocery cart.
We set to walking again. I was missing a few bungees, and the torn tarp flapped in the breeze, but on the bright side the cart was lighter and the way was mostly downhill, so we made good time. After a couple hours more, we entered Colorado Springs. And as we did, a fog descended over the city.
Hope struggled to rise in my chest. I tamped it down. The city of Colorado Springs turned out to be a lot like Pueblo. It was a bigger city, of course, but it looked just as empty now, just as used up. Every vehicle had been drained of fuel. Strip mall storefronts had been busted open, ransacked, and torn apart. More than a few desiccated skeletons lay in the streets, their bones long ago picked clean by scavenger birds.
As our shadows grew long, I moved off the main drag and into the urban neighborhoods, where small houses stood packed close together. It was cold, and the cold seemed to thicken the fog as I climbed further into the suburbs. I figured if the visibility got bad, I could hide in a house nearby for the night, so it was safe enough to keep searching.
I began to search the houses and quickly discovered that every pantry in every house had been picked clean. I walked two miles uphill to a bigger, more remote neighborhood. The houses here were small castles. I kept searching, only to find more of the same.
Standing in the stripped-bare pantry of a suburban home the size of a royal palace, I realized something.
It was a fact of such consequence that it finally made its way past my lizard-brain survival defenses, and dropped a lifesaver of hope—real hope—into my thoughts.
There are other people nearby. People running for their lives didn’t have time to clean their pantries out to such a thorough extent. They’d take what they could carry and flee.
That meant that someone else had come back for supplies. And not just one or two people, because these pantries were picked clean like the skeletons I’d seen in the streets.
If someone had picked the pantries clean, that implied that someone else had survived.
Which meant that maybe if I could find them, I could survive, too.
I heard a furious yowl from the front yard of the house. I ran through the kitchen, the living room, the front hall, the foyer—and when I came outside, Roach was standing there, hackles raised, tail up, claws extended, his whole muscular body tensed for a fight.
Arrayed around him in the thickening fog were not one, not two, but three coyotes. Their teeth were bared. Saliva dripped down their bloodstained lips.
Lots of folks expect wild creatures to give some kind of warning before they attack. If you’ve seen enough movies, you might even expect the coyote—or the bear, or the wolf, or the supernatural beast from Down Below—to growl deep in its throat and puff itself up menacingly while you stand, stunned, staring at it.
Let me be clear about something—real predators give no such warnings. Not if they actually plan to kill you. Their survival is predicated on their ability to rip the throat out of their prey before so much as a gasp of surprise can escape. If you’re the prey, it starts with silence and ends with violence.
The first coyote darted forward, slavering jaws snapping. It was an old dog, with grey fur that faded to white with red bloodstains at his muzzle.
Even with no warning, Roach saw the attack coming. He, too, was a predator. He rose lightly on his hind legs as the coyote advanced, slashing down once with each front paw, drawing gashes into the grey muzzle. The coyote snarled in pain but kept coming. It barreled into Roach and drove him flailing backward.
Of the other two coyotes, one was tan, with scabbed-over scratches across its nose. That must have been the coyote who had been raided our stash the night before. The other was a dark, reddish brown color. All three of them had tall pointy ears, which now lay back close to their heads, and pointed yellow-white teeth.
So much for the theory that coyotes hunted alone.
As the grey one pushed Roach back, the tan one lunged at the cat’s blind side and got its teeth around a furry back leg. The coyote wrenched from side to side, causing Roach to scream in pain, swiping his paws out toward the tan coyote and mewling angrily.
I lunged forward, let out a bloodcurdling scream of my own, and stomped down at the tan coyote, who had its jaws clamped around my cat’s leg. I managed to connect a sneaker to its head twice, but it kept its jaws clamped tight, and my blows only seemed to anger it further.
Roach turned and swiped at the tan coyote with his claws. He moved so fast all I saw was his front legs in a blur of motion. The tan coyote let out a high-pitched yelp, released its hold on Roach, and whimpered as it skittered backward. It lay down on the ground a few feet away and used its paws to wipe at its face. Blood dripped down its muzzle into the dirt. The tan coyote made a terrible crying sound. I blinked, and realized that Roach had used his claws to take out one of coyote’s eyes.
As I watched, shocked and disgusted by the sudden violence, Roach shook the eyeball off his claws and the third coyote jumped me. I bent down to grab a rock I had spotted on the ground and the great jaws sank into the thick flesh of my thigh faster than I could react, piercing straight through my worn overalls to the skin beneath.
The red coyote shook like a dog with a rope it didn’t want to give up. I cried out and fell to the sidewalk, striking my head on the pavement.
The rest was a blur. I know Roach jumped on the red coyote who had attacked me, raking his claws across the creature’s face and eyes the same way he had the others, until the dog released its grip on my leg. I know the old grey coyote hit Roach a second time, driving him out of my line of sight.
I felt a warm, wet sensation on my thigh. I gripped my leg and breathed in and out through teeth clenched against the pain. Blood soaked the cotton t-shirt I’d wrapped around my hands for gloves. The chill air filled with the distinctive copper scent of blood. I tasted copper in my mouth, too. I had bit my tongue hard when my head struck the pavement.
There were more growls from the coyotes, yelps from Roach, the sound of gnashing teeth, all echoing through the thick fog—but moving away. Or was I fading? I struggled to sit up. I couldn’t see them anymore. The fighting had taken the animals away from me into the yard of a neighboring house.
The ground shook once, twice. I glanced around, looking for the animals. The coyotes whined a few times, and then they were stumbling, running, loping away.
I struggled to my feet—and that’s when I saw him.
The massive humanoid figure visible through the fog towered over the two-story houses around me. He had long, long arms that reached down to where his knees ought to be. He was…not wearing clothes, but not exactly naked, either. His head was huge for his thin frame, the size of a house itself. I couldn’t make out his features, but I saw him turn his head to watch as the animals ran for cover. Then he glanced down at me from his great height, before turning and lumbering away.
I struggled to my feet, shouted for him to stop, to come back, to help me. You see, I didn’t understand then what the invader was—but I knew without a doubt that if I didn’t get help, I was liable to bleed out. I took the chance—and only made it three steps across the thin layer of snow before my injured leg buckled and sent me sprawling back to the cold, unforgiving ground.
The Earth trembled with each step the giant took, until he faded into the fog. The world went still.
I lay there as my breathing slowed. I took the cloth from around my hands and managed to tie it tightly around my injured thigh, still oozing fresh red blood. Then I lay back and waited to die.
It was only a matter of time before I ran out of food and died anyway. Why not just let go? I almost felt warm for the first time in days. I closed my eyes.
An interminable time later, something rough and wet licked my numbed face.
“Stop,” I mumbled. I pushed it away weakly. “Let me die.”
I raised my hands to cover my head. A ragged creature scraped its tongue along my neck. It was a familiar wet scratching feeling.
“Roach?” I croaked.
The bright spot of a flashlight swept across me. Footsteps approached—normal size footsteps. Boots squishing in the layer of sleet.
“How in the blazes…” the man called out, turning his head. “Hey! Over here!”
More footsteps. Hushed voices, whispering to each other, tense and clipped.
“Must have been. Never seen them attack a person like this before.”
“They’re desperate like the rest of us.”
“I don’t think they were after the boy. They must have been after the cat, and the boy got in the way.”
“The little fella brought us back to him, though.”
“Doctor, over here.”
A figure smelling faintly of antiseptic but wearing a leather coat knelt by my side and shone a light in my eyes, and then down across my injured leg.
“Lucky he didn’t bleed out. Get him in the car.”
“Boy,” someone said as they shook me. “Boy, what’s your name?”
I opened my mouth to speak and all that came out was a croak. Someone tilted a canteen to my lips. I drank, too fast, and sucked some of the water down the wrong pipe. I coughed.
It had been a long time since I’d said my name out loud, but I hadn’t forgotten it.
“Cam,” I managed to say at last. “My name is Cam Coleridge.”
After a thorough examination, twenty stitches without anesthesia, and a thick gauze wrap secured tightly around my thigh, the doctor informed me that the extra pairs of long johns I had put on under my jeans probably saved my life. The coyote’s teeth had shredded my flesh, but the extra layers of cloth prevented it from going deep enough to sever my femoral artery.
The men who found me turned out to be a group of about a hundred cadets, teachers, and school administrators—all former military or military officers in training—who had bunkered down in the Air Force Academy outside of Colorado Springs during the first waves of the invasion. They had jeeps and guns and snowmobiles and dirt bikes. That explained why Colorado Springs and even Pueblo was so picked over. These people had survived, and picked over the city for extra supplies. As it turned out, they also had their own nuclear fallout shelter under their own hospital on the academy grounds.
Their bunker was bigger than mine had been—you can thank earmarked government funding for that—and their leader was a big, dark-skinned black man with proud, straight shoulders and hair shaved close to his head. His name was Captain “Jax” Jackson Hollow and he debriefed me after the doctor had seen to me.
“You’re a survivor, kid,” Captain Jax said.
“Like the roaches,” I responded.
He cocked his head and squinted at me. “What happened to you? Tell me your story.”
I told him everything, starting with the cockroaches and the attack on Pueblo. He took careful notes in tiny lettering on a yellow legal pad.
“After the coyotes ran off, I passed out. And your guys found me.”
“Did you ever locate your Aunt Maria?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Is there anywhere she could have gone? Somewhere safe?”
I shook my head. “She had her apartment. But that was it.”
“I’ll pass her name around. We’ve made radio contact with several survivor colonies around the country. Maybe she’ll turn up.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Roach nudged open the door to Captain Jax’s office, meowed, and hopped up into my lap. The captain shook his head and just stared at me.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I shifted Roach off my injured leg, which throbbed under the bandages. They didn’t have any pain medicine, the doc had informed me apologetically, so I had to make do without. It could have been worse.
“Can I ask you something, sir? That thing I saw in the fog.”
He nodded. “One of the invaders.”
I nodded. “Why did he scare the coyotes off if he wasn’t going to help me? And if they’re the ones who attacked us, if we’re the enemy, why let me live?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you. Since they won the war, they’ve become far less aggressive. They don’t bother us when we go scavenging in Colorado Springs or Denver. They never come near any of the survivor colonies, as far as we can tell. For the most part, they seem to stay penned up in their own areas, and leave us alone.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Tell me about it. But I’ll take what relief we can get. Things are hard enough now without fighting an active war, too.”
“That makes sense.”
“Your aunt would be proud of you, son. You’re the only survivor we’ve found in the last six months.”
“The only two survivors,” I said, sinking my fingers into the tomcat’s clean brown fur. Someone brave had given him a bath while they were cleaning me up.
“Aye,” the captain said. “He’s lucky to have found you.”
“And I’m lucky to have found him.”
Roach rumbled his soft agreement.