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Fox

I couldn't say what woke me up. A chill in the air, a noise in the distance, or a strange dream? I didn't know, and I didn't think I ever would, but whatever it was I ended up with my breath held, eyes wide and staring up at the high ceiling above me. Nothing moved except my pulse, pounding in my ears as I strained to hear over it. The prickling feeling of being watched didn't cease for what felt like hours, and I kept stone-still and waited until it did. I hadn't heard or seen a thing, but something in me had been screaming danger.

Finally, when instinct released me, I rolled over and pushed myself to my feet, back aching from lying on the hard floor for so long. I popped my neck and then my knuckles and looked around me. I was surrounded by shelves of boxes, stacked far up above my head. I pulled one out experimentally, tipping the box partially off the edge of the shelf so that I could see inside. It was filled with cans; further inspection showed them to be all labelled identically with the same colorful brand of mixed fruit. My stomach twisted painfully at the sight, growling at me demandingly. I couldn't remember the last time I'd eaten.

I shoved the box back into place and looked into another, this one filled with boxed pasta. A few were bent or torn, letting piles of dry noodles spill to the floor, but most seemed to be intact. A third box was just cases of bottled water, and I ripped the top one open and snatched a bottle up. It was lukewarm and tasted vaguely like plastic, but I was thirsty and it seemed safe enough. I doubted there was much to be worried about here; I guessed it was some sort of storeroom.

I turned around to study the room and headed for the only door in sight, which swung freely and closed behind me. I stopped just a couple steps through to the other side. I heard the soft thump of my water bottle falling to the floor and a laugh burst out of me.

A grocery store. Of all the places to wake up, I was in a grocery store. "Oh, thank god!" I shouted to nobody, rushing to the closest aisle. Two rows of blissfully unhealthy breakfast cereal greeted me and I tore open a box of sugary, chemical-filled obesity flakes. I didn't pause to think about where I was, or why; I didn't care at the moment. I wanted food, and then I'd look for answers.

The store was empty and dead-quiet, not a single person or flicker of movement in sight. The lights above were dead, though pale light filtered through somewhere, making the whole place dim and shadowy but not dark. I felt like I should be unnerved but it didn't strike me as unusual. I should have been freaking out, waking up in an empty grocery store full of dusty, stale food, with no clue where I was or how I had gotten here or anything at all, really. Freaking out was what anybody else would have done, but I felt perfectly calm.

With nobody to weave around or through it didn't take long to check each aisle and room of the store and confirm that I was alone, though I hadn't doubted it. The entire place was too quiet and still. Everything had a good coating of dust on it, showing how long this place must have been empty. I stayed away from the refrigerated and frozen food aisles as much as possible, realizing how long the electricity must have been off after the first time I'd wandered in that direction and been met with a gag-inducing smell. Fortunately, there was an enormous stock of flashlights and batteries, and I loaded a few flashlights as soon as I came upon them.

But aside from the food that had gone bad in a less pleasantly subtle way the store wasn't the worst place to be. I could probably survive for a good time here, if I found I had no alternative; there was food, water, medical supplies, weapons—everything a girl could need to survive. If this was the zombie apocalypse it would be the ideal shelter, provided I could close up all the entrances. As it was it felt like I'd missed some kind of apocalypse, and I wasn't about to rule zombies out.

My curiosity drove me to the front doors, the automatic ones broken and stuck closed but the others unlocked. The parking lot was empty, as was the street beyond. Both were strewn with old litter—discarded soda cans and receipts, dropped pens and scraps of grocery lists. My feet crunched across gravel and glass from what looked like a broken beer bottle as I ventured cautiously out. The yellow painted lines had faded until they had become almost indistinguishable from the dirty asphalt. There was nothing major that indicated danger or that something horrible had happened, but it all together made the area unsettling. Empty and lifeless. There was a peace to it, but also something that made my skin prickle as much as it had when I'd first woken up.

I couldn't remember if I had ever felt so alone, but I found it hard to believe that I had.

I wasn't scared. I had what I needed to survive, as long as I was careful, until I could get my answers. All of this was certainly disconcerting, but I could survive it. I could do that much. And my memory would come back, I was sure. With time.

I crossed the empty street to a little shopping center—a dollar store, a trendy-looking clothing store, a craft store, and a pet shop. I checked each one, finding all four to be unlocked and empty of people. The longer I searched, the more uneasy I felt. They weren't in disarray, only dusty and old. It was as if all the people had vanished one day in the middle of their normal lives, leaving everything how it had been seconds before. The pet shop was the worst, with flies buzzing around in swarms and the smell of decay thick in the air. I saw what I thought was a rat scurry into a shadow when I nudged a fallen bag of dog food with my foot. A faded green sign cheerily exclaimed that hamsters and guinea pigs made perfect pets for children, swinging above a row of glass cages. I glanced into one and gagged, and couldn't bring myself to continue deeper into the store. Clearly the people, whatever had happened to them, had left more than supplies behind.

I retreated back to the grocery store, retracing my steps to where I'd woken up. The back room was as dusty as everywhere else, and smelled like stale food and abandonment. It had been a long time since anybody had been back here, longer than it would have taken for me to wake up if I'd been knocked out by a fall or blow to the head. A tremor ran down my spine at the thought of how long this place had been empty.

I crouched down beside where I'd woken up—the dust was smeared from my movements, and footprints led away from it—and my brow furrowed. The dust and dirt were disturbed, but still there. They hadn't settled around me. I'd laid down well after there had been a nice layer built up. There were no blankets or supplies stocked up besides the food to show that I might have been living here. Nothing at all to show that I hadn't been placed here before waking up.

I moved the boxes around, searching for something among them that might give me some sort of clue. I didn't see anything, but as I shifted one box I heard a crackle. I followed it down to the floor, to where a paper had fallen below the shelf. I pulled it out and unrolled it, flattening it with both hands. It was crisp and clean, starkly new against everything old here, and just the sight of it made my nerves buzz. Its edges were torn and bent in places but it was mostly intact, though unhelpful. It was random shapes, black on white, creating no kind of sensible picture or anything. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Irritated already, I sat back up and let it curl up on its own. Something else was stuck to the back of it, a folded piece of notebook paper, and I grabbed at it, hoping it would actually be something helpful.

It was nothing but a few words addressed to Fox, but my hands shook as I read it again and again.

Fox,

Remember, keep your wits about you.

The feeling of being watched returned with a fierce swiftness, and I spun in a circle expecting to see eyes hiding among the boxes. There was nothing. I was alone.

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