“Lifthrasir” by Vera Vartanian
The pharmacy drawer popped open with the sharp cry of grinding metal. The snow blowing in from the shattered front windows couldn’t quite dampen the sound, and it echoed throughout the silent Safeway. Anya levered the drawer open with her screwdriver just enough to get her fingers in, and pulled on it until the iced-up runners gave. There could be any number of things they needed in these drawers, and it wasn’t like anyone else needed them. Things like antibiotics, painkillers…
“Office supplies. Great,” she muttered, shoving it closed. It was the third drawer she’d checked, and the big ones usually had bottles in them. She knelt down on the cold linoleum and started wedging her screwdriver into the fourth and final drawer, hoping Farah was having better luck than she was trying to get into the stockroom. They’d checked the shelves over thoroughly, but there was nothing left that was edible; it had all either gone bad or been taken, by panicked hoarders before everything fell apart, or by scavengers after. Feral dogs were everywhere, the hardiest breeds surviving even the deep cold of the Long Winter. That was why Farah still carried that pistol, long after they’d lost hope of seeing another human.
The fourth drawer popped open just like the others. “Jackpot!” Rows and rows of boxes neatly lined up. Medicine for sure. She snatched her flashlight from her belt and shone it inside, and sighed. Sudafed. Nothing but Sudafed, locked up when junkies trying to cook meth was still an issue. “Well… at least my nose will be happy.” She shoveled a few of the boxes into her pack, then shouldered it and hopped the counter back into the main store. The snow, inches deep on the floor, muffled the sound, and she trudged through it back to where she’d left Farah, still struggling with the ice-encrusted stockroom door. Little had changed. “Hey. No luck, I see.”
“Nah. Bastard thing’s stuck good and tight,” Farah said, leaning against a crowbar she’d managed to work into the gap between the door and the frame.
“Here,” said Anya, shrugging off her pack and edging up next to the taller, more athletic girl and wrapping her own hands around the crowbar. “Let me give you a hand with that.” Farah braced her leg against the wall, and the two pulled together. The door gave with a sound like an enormous sheet of paper tearing, little shards of ice raining down on the girls as Farah’s foot gave way and she fell, taking Anya to the floor with her in a heap.
“Ow. You okay?” Farah slowly got to her hands and knees, looking down at Anya.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, brushing ice from herself. It didn’t matter, but it kept her eyes from meeting Farah’s.
“Guess you’re not the skinny little nerd I dragged into the forest anymore, huh?”
“Living like this will do that to you. Will you get off of me?”
“Oh! Sorry,” Farah muttered, shuffling to the side. “You know I, uh, didn’t mean anything by it, right?”
“I know, I know. It’s fine.” Anya sat up and pointed to the door. “At least we got in.”
“Yeah! Come on, let’s check it out.”
The stockroom was dark, and warmer than the frozen front of the store. Before they’d taken more than a few steps inside the smell of rot became overwhelming. Anya coughed, trying not to gag as Farah pressed on, her lantern casting the first light the room had seen in months.
“That’s disgusting, what is that?” Anya said, covering her mouth and nose with the sleeve of her coat. The relative heat of the room did her stomach no favors when combined with the stench.
“Smells like half a ton of bacon, if you ask me,” said Farah, laughing quietly.
“That isn’t funny!”
“Hey, sorry. I mean, it’s not like anyone was buying it, right?”
It didn’t assuage the anger sitting like a rock in Anya’s stomach, but she knew Farah was right. It may not have been rational, but when things got so bad traditional burials were banned under the auspices of public health, people tended to get irrational in a hurry.
“Just don’t make jokes about that sort of thing. I know you don’t care about your family, but I care about mine!” She sniffed, her nose running with more than just the chilly air as she wiped away the first ghostly signs of tears.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” Farah said, sighing and leaving the lantern on the floor as she returned to Anya’s side, wrapping her arms around the crying girl. Anya didn’t reciprocate, only leaning into the embrace. “I’m sure they’re fine. They live in the middle of nowhere, right?”
“Yeah,” Anya whimpered. It was the lie they’d been telling each other for months. now – that Anya’s parents back in Nebraska were fine, their farming community isolated enough to be spared from both the flu and the nuclear exchanges. That they could have escaped before the creeping ice paralyzed the roads. That others had survived besides the two of them.
Neither really believed it, not after five months. They hadn’t seen a living human since they emerged from hiding in the woods behind St. Rita’s in January, driven out by the need to scavenge for food. They hadn’t heard a plane fly overhead in months; seeing one was out of the question, with the constant dark grey clouds crowding the skies. They had trudged ever southward only in blind hope that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as bad there.
“Listen, I, uh.. I’m going to go cut down a couple of those dead saplings out front, okay? I think this place is big enough we can get a fire going safely. Won’t that be nice?” Anya nodded, and Farah gave her one last squeeze. She held on just a little too long before she went to retrieve her hatchet from her pack. “You keep looking for cans, okay? I’ll be right out front if you need me for anything.”
“Okay,” Anya said, rooted to the spot. She was convinced it was getting worse, not that she could really blame Farah. It had been one thing at St. Rita’s. Farah had only tried to kiss her that one time, and followed that debacle with a week of tear-stained notes slipped under her door late at night, laced with pleas to forgive her and just let things go back to the way they used to be. Thank God her roommate hadn’t found any of them. Their friendship had recovered. Even if Anya was off-limits, Farah had had other girls she could pursue, other girls she could fixate on for a while before getting bored and moving on to the next one.
It took Anya a moment to start moving again, to move from crate to crate, cracking them open with Farah’s crowbar. The first few were produce crates, full of fruit and vegetables that had long since gone bad, but after a few crates she hit the jackpot, and her mouth began to water the moment she saw the labels. “Baked beans!” She began to fish them out, checking each one carefully for dents or swellings. If this crate survived the looting, it might have been languishing back here for months, even years beforehand, and the last thing either of them needed was botulism poisoning. Soon she’d built up a small pile, and moved on to collecting the other things Farah would need to start a fire. Cement blocks for a firepit, and some kindling – the H3N6 influenza safety pamphlets in the employee restroom would do handily. It wasn’t like anyone was going to read them now. By the time Farah returned with a bundle of thick sticks, Anya was ready. The two of them ate their baked beans in silence, treasuring the feeling of hot food slipping down their throats, nestling in their stomach like embers.
While Anya carefully put the fire out, Farah laid out the sleeping bag. They only carried one, so they could share body heat on cold nights. Anya would rather have had her own, but Farah had been right: better to be merely uncomfortable than to be hypothermic. Or dead. She stripped off her heaviest layers, folded them neatly despite their threadbare condition, and lay down next to Farah, zipping the bag up around them.
“Geez, your hands are like ice,” she said, laughing.
“They’re always cold, Farah, look outside.” But she couldn’t help but smile. She’d always liked Farah’s laugh. Even when it was quiet, it was like a dam had burst and nothing could stop the water from pouring out. She’d been known to go on for minutes at a time.
“Well, give ’em here,” she said through her laughter, reaching across Anya and taking both of her hands in her own, and rubbing them gently. Her skin was callused and rough, more than a little chapped from exposure to the Long Winter. Anya’s hands slowly warmed, but the gratitude she felt was quickly replaced with a tight, stretching feeling that crawled up her body from the pit of her stomach. Farah wasn’t letting go. She held on tightly, rubbing Anya’s hands no longer a concern, as she spooned in close to her. Her breath was hot on the back of Anya’s neck.
Anya shut her eyes. It was Farah’s birthday, she reminded herself. Farah had stopped keeping track of the days, but Anya couldn’t bring herself to. Farah wouldn’t receive any gifts from her father this year. He wouldn’t be there to spoil her rotten as she returned home from another school year away, wouldn’t remain happily oblivious to what his little angel got up to at the school where he’d sent her to keep her innocent and pure. Anya sighed, and crushed that uncomfortable feeling back down into her stomach. As much as Farah’s affections bothered her, she knew that Farah’s pain went so much deeper. Anya couldn’t be cruel to Farah, not today. She deserved a little light in such a dark world, chained by fate to a woman who could never return her feelings.
“Happy birthday,” she whispered, but Farah was already asleep.
About the Author
Vera Vartanian can easily be found on most social media sites, either under her name or the handle impulsiveIngenue. She is a gamer, a roleplayer, a trans woman, and a voracious reader. Vera writes because she must, because the worlds within her demand it of her. She lives in Davis, CA with her partner, Vivian, and enough dice between them to flood a small town.