“Three hundred sixty-four fucking days.”
Raindrops pelted against the plexiglass skylights, making the usually dim warehouse even dimmer. The interior was shrouded in shadows. Ghostly. But Sofia was accustomed to that now. The rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving stood like soldiers in formation, the dust-covered forklift facing them resembling a stern drill sergeant.
Squinting at the newest hash mark she’d scribbled on the concrete wall, Sofia capped the Magic Marker. She pinched her lip between her teeth and chafed her arms for warmth.
Three hundred sixty-four days in seclusion, not daring to depart the confines of her haven. No human interaction. Sweltering temperatures during the summer. Arctic conditions in the winter. Mornings spent pacing the aisles, sure she was losing her sanity. Reading the magazines she’d taken from the employee breakroom aloud just to hear a voice. Eating tinned soup straight from the can. Washing with a rag in the staff restroom, the water freezing.
A crack of thunder reverberated, then bursts of lightning illuminated the warehouse through the skylights like a strobe light. It jolted Sofia back to the present. Hefting her plastic crate from the shipping and receiving counter, she climbed the metal stairs to the manager’s office—Howard’s office—which overlooked the hushed warehouse. The stacked pallets that served as her bed were situated between the desk and the wall. Sofia lowered wearily to it. Draping her tattered foil blanket around her shoulders, she sniffled from both cold and emotion.
Was anyone alive out in the real world? What if she was the only survivor? The crates of food would spoil before she could eat it all. Then what? Starvation? Rubbing her hands to create friction for heat, Sofia reflected. She had tried contacting her friends repeatedly, her cell charging in the outlet behind Howard’s desk. Her calls and texts went unanswered. Sofia had been certain that after a couple of days things would blow over. That Mama and Daddy would phone to let her know they were booking a flight home. They hadn’t.
For a while, the internet functioned though her social media platforms were down—Sofia had no way to connect with her followers. She scoured the results of her searches. News outlets were apparently defunct. Instead of articles and broadcast news, Sofia found shocking MeTube videos. Uploaded by a panicked populace, they highlighted anarchy—looting, disorder, lawlessness. Random violence. Brawls over resources. Once victorious, the winner abandoned their battered adversary on the pavement, their wounds leaking lifeblood that flowed into the gutter like a scarlet river.
What if somebody saw the entrance to Spenser Suppliers and, nosy, broke in to investigate? Once they realized it was filled to the brim with nonperishable foodstuffs, Sofia would be in grave danger. They’d see her as merely an obstacle. She’d be as disposable as the people in the videos. The thought terrified her.
Why hadn’t she had the foresight to comb Daddy’s den for his gun before driving to the warehouse?
Sofia had watched in horror, biting her knuckles to keep from shrieking at the savage inhumanity unfolding onscreen. When she was sure there was nothing worse to be seen, more recordings were uploaded that left her blinking in disbelief.
Vloggers, dumbfounded, editorialized and documented the dead awakening.
Bodies supine on the streets lurched to their feet. Their faces lifted to the heavens. They loudly snuffled the air. Then, they stilled. Squatted. The creatures launched up as they fixed on a target in the crowd. People scrambled to evade them, trampling those unfortunate enough to lose their footing. The slowest of the bunch were picked off first.
Before long, there were no more uploads. Sofia refreshed the screen obsessively, desperate for more information. It was almost a blessing when her phone stopped finding a signal.
The warehouse, first Sofia’s salvation, became her prison. Submerging into a profound depression, she’d curled up on the carpeted floor in Howard’s office and slumbered. What else was there to do but sleep and hope that when she woke the nightmare would be over? Hours blended into days which stretched to weeks, the hash marks on the wall the only confirmation of the passage of time.
One day, Sofia dreamed of Mama.
“I didn’t raise you to give up, querida,” Mama whispered softly, patting Sofia’s cheek. “This won’t last forever. You’re resourceful. Strong. You’ll survive. You have to.”
The dream roused and renewed Sofia’s determination. As she scribbled her sixtieth hash mark on the wall, she vowed to take her car, to look for others. There was plenty to share at the warehouse.
Weaponless, Sofia took a nine iron from the golf bag in the corner of Howard’s office, intending to hunt for the keys to the lobby entrance.
She’d never heard any indication that what happened to the dead online had happened to Howard the Creep, but Sofia decided to be wary.
Metal double doors led to the lobby, where she’d left his corpse. Gripping the golf club, she’d tentatively opened one of the doors, her heart beating hard in her sternum. The sun shining through the plate-glass windows facing the parking lot was blinding. Gagging against the sickening stench that drifted to her, Sofia put a hand over her mouth and peeked into the lobby. Shuffling, a clack of teeth, then a flash of movement.
Howard barreled toward Sofia, the sunlight encompassing his form in a gilded aura. He traversed the lobby in seconds. Stinking of rotted meat, his flesh was mottled. His once brown irises were now milky white.
Releasing her golf club, Sofia used both hands to force the door shut. It wouldn’t latch. Howard rammed against it. It smacked Sofia’s forehead. Stunned, she lost purchase, her feet skating across the floor. She clung to the doorknob as she stumbled.
Howard’s fingers slithered around the edge of the door jamb. Snatched at her. Sofia screamed, recoiled. Clambered to get her bearings. Put her shoulder to the door and used her body weight. The door bounced against the jamb.
Why wouldn’t the damn thing close?
The golf club’s handle was in the way.
Sofia kicked at it but missed. Howard’s icy fingers touched her wrist. He was milliseconds from getting in! Doing the only thing she could think of, Sofia let the door go. Positioned herself in the opening. Bringing up a foot, she booted Howard in the family jewels. He teetered back.
The club! The toe of Sofia’s sandal connected with it, and it skittered into the lobby. She slammed the door just as Howard rebounded, his fingers curling around the jamb. Red-black blood sprayed Sofia’s dress as his fingers were sliced clean from his hand. The digits plummeted to the concrete floor near her feet.
Stomach heaving, she bent. Vomited. Wiping her hand against her mouth, Sofia straightened. Tears and snot tracked down her face as she bawled. Howard struck the metal doors. Would he get in? If he did, she was dead.
Like an automaton, Sofia unbuckled the belt from her dress and tied it around the doorknobs. She prayed it would be enough to keep him out.
The doors rocked in their frames. Sofia backed away.
Moments lasted an eternity but Howard quieted, his interest waning. Sofia sensed him pressed against the metal. Swallowing, she tiptoed over and brought her ear to the door. He snuffled as he sniffed at her scent.
A goose egg was forming on Sofia’s forehead—her brain felt muzzy. There was a bulky wooden shelf overflowing with office equipment and printer apparatus. Inching the shelf over until it blocked the doors, she then sagged against it.
Howard possessed the keys to the lobby entrance, the only logical egress. Although there was an exit by the shipping counter, Sofia was leery about traipsing all the way around the perimeter of the building to the parking lot. More of those things could be out there—she’d be too vulnerable. Plus, no keys meant she couldn’t secure the door behind her.
Howard had become her prison guard, keeping her incarcerated. Sofia wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Tears in her eyes, she cursed her weakness. Her fear.
Dejected, she went to the restroom to wash.
Electricity had quit working on day sixty-seven, the boiler along with it. The summer had been awful, but winter was interminable. Agonizing. Teeth chattering, Sofia had shivered as she layered up in every outfit from her suitcase. A foraging exploration netted a first aid kit with a throwaway foil blanket. It proved inadequate. Suffering terribly night after night, Sofia questioned whether she’d live to see another day. Her only companion was her sore rib cage from an unrelenting, barking cough.
Now, the cusp of spring pledged a reprieve from the frosty temps, along with the first anniversary of her confinement. Something in her bones told her Mama and Daddy were dead. That everyone she’d known was dead. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew.
Sofia was an orphan. She wore the crushing melancholy and loneliness like a weighty shawl.
Sitting on her pallet bed with her legs crossed, Sofia toyed with the last present her parents had gifted her—a charm bracelet, crafted from Ecuadorian gold mined from the village where her mother had been born—and remembered Mama’s words.
Expression determined, Sofia took a cardboard packet from the plastic crate. Unwrapping the chocolate iced Little Sallie snack cake, she said, “Happy twenty-first birthday. You’re gettin’ out of this place. Soon.”
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