A Vacant Earth

The sun was shrieking. Its earsplitting cries rang out across the blue sky, screaming so loud that Jacob could feel the shrill tone piercing his brain. The grass around him was crying out its own response, mimicking the sun’s wails as the wind slowly carried the cacophony to Jacob’s eyes. He could feel the sun reaching out to claw at his skin to force its heat onto him. He could feel the wind repeatedly jabbing the grass’s spikes into his legs. Even with his eyes closed, the harsh lights and colours bled through his eyelids. The sun and heat was only there to spite Jacob, just like the days before the New God. Once the bleeding light became too much for him, he sat down with his eyes still closed and buried his face in his hands. He wished for the night to come quickly, just like he would in the days before the New God.

Unlike those days, however, he’d get to see what the moon had become. Or, rather, what it always was: A pale shell of the New God’s egg. After the New God hatched from it the previous year, the moon’s fragments would be smeared across the sky in a fine, white streak. At nighttime, the ring would give off a gentle glow, filling the land below with just enough light to make the darkness bearable. In the mornings, if Jacob was lucky enough to wake before sunrise, there would be a dazzling gleam of orange and red emanating from that streak of the moon’s remains. Somehow, that gleam looked more beautiful than the ocean sunset it resembled.

It almost made Jacob glad that the moon gave birth to the New God.

No, Jacob thought to himself, Not if Francis isn't enjoying it.

Jacob’s thoughts were broken by the sound of footsteps coming to him from behind.

“Tobias?” Jacob called out, not wanting to open his eyes.

“Yo,” Tobias greeted him as he stopped just a few feet away, “I’m back.”

“You run into anything?” Jacob asked.

“Nah,” Tobias reported. “Two days to get to Francis’s house. We good to go?”

Jacob paused for a moment before rubbing his eyes and standing up. His eyelids slid open, the shrieking of the day pierced through his pupils, and Jacob blinked a few times to muffle the screeches.

“Yeah,” Jacob picked up his backpack. “We’re good to go.”

“Good,” Tobias double-checked his belt, making sure his Glock G19 was still holstered. He looked across the field to the edge of the hill, eyeing the tips of skyscrapers at the horizon’s edge. Even from miles away, he could see the moss and vines that had taken downtown Cincinnati hostage. With any luck, they’d be close to the city limits by sundown.

“I don’t think we should be cutting through the city,” Jacob said, turning to Tobias. “You know the pigeons are gonna kill us.”

Tobias just shook his head.

“Nah, man,” he replied, “Going around it will take two extra days; I don’t wanna spend too much time moving around.”

Jacob bit his lip and grabbed the Remington 870 that he’d slung across his front. On both of their past visits to the city, he and Tobias were flirting with death. The thought of those concrete towers were enough to remind Jacob of the pigeon swarms. He looked at Tobias, whose face lacked any fear or worry. In fact, he almost seemed to be soothed by the prospect of trekking through the pigeon-infested city.

“We’ve made it through there twice without getting ourselves killed,” Tobias reminded him. “Besides, you have a shotgun this time. You could take those birds down easily.”

Jacob nodded slightly at first, then more vigorously. He adjusted his backpack and looked forward to the city.

“Let’s do it,” Said Jacob.

The two travelers were sure to travel down the center of the highway, straying left or right only to move away from a roadside forest. Those places were the most unpredictable. Jacob’s eyes stuck to the trees, carefully examining the contours of each one for signs of movement. He hoped to God – the one he believed in before the New God – that the wind would be behind any movements he saw. Step by step, tree by tree, Jacob bated his breath and kept his hands on his Remington. A sudden voice from behind took him by surprise.

“Who do you miss the most?” Tobias asked. Jacob stifled a yelp, and somehow even managed to keep his trigger finger from curling inwards.

“Shit, sorry!” Tobias apologized as Jacob stopped to catch his breath.

“Jesus Christ…” Jacob took in some lungfuls of air before continuing, “Nah, it’s fine… I was just trying to keep an eye on the trees.”

“You want me to walk in front?” Tobias asked. Jacob shook his head.

They went back to walking, and after a minute of awkward silence, Jacob finally answered Tobias’s first question.

“I don’t know, man,” Jacob’s voice had an air of thoughtfulness to it, although he saw the words themselves as a bland response. He rolled names and faces around his head. His girlfriend, his family, his friends, even his pets. It was hard to say whose lives he valued and whose lives he didn’t care about.

“I wanna say Francis,” Tobias said, “I mean, he was my closest friend. Any time, and I mean any time I needed someone, he was there.”

“Look, it- it’s hard to think about,” Jacob said as he turned his eyes back to the trees, “Of course, I miss Francis. I miss my family, too, but… You know, I miss Milo, I miss Cookie, I miss…” Jacob was sure he’d have more names to put out, yet his voice faltered just after naming his own pets.

“What about your girlfriend, Mel?” Tobias asked.

Jacob didn’t respond.

“Well, you two weren’t exactly-” Tobias cut himself off. “Nah, forget it.”

Jacob just looked to the trees and watched the branches and leaves sway back and forth in the gentle breeze. He followed the branches’ movements, making sure that any swaying was due to nothing but wind. If a branch moved, he asked himself if it was swaying. If it was swaying, he asked himself how high it was. If it wasn’t too high up, he’d ask how suddenly it moved.

If a high branch gently swayed left and right, it wasn’t any cause for concern. But if a low branch suddenly bounced…

Come on, just break the fucking pattern already, Jacob thought, desperately hoping that the slight aberrations weren’t in his head.

But the danger didn’t come from the branches.

Jacob immediately halted once he caught sight of a brown mass slipping through the tree trunks. He held his arm out to stop Tobias, then waved the Remington’s muzzle towards the forest. Tobias drew his Glock and the two took their stances, ready to fire at any moment.

“Hey, who’s there?” Jacob called out. He hoped for some vagabond or merciful survivalist to reveal themself, but his words simply drifted into the woods and lost themselves in the brush. Jacob slowly reached into his pocket, drew four 12-gauge shells, and slipped them into his Remington. The brown mass zipped out from behind one tree, going straight to the one beside it. It kept swishing back and forth from tree to tree, moving far too quickly for either Jacob or Tobias to shoot at it. It moved left, then right, then left, then left again… Right, then right, then left, then right… Left, then left, then left once again… The two comrades kept up with each slip, noting each tree the creature hid behind. Left, left, right, stop. Left and back, left, stop. Right and forward, left and forward, right, right, stop. Right and forward, left and forward, then a stop that lasted longer than any other. Jacob whispered for Tobias to hold his position, then took a few steps to the right.

A golden flash sparked from behind a tree, and then revealed itself in the form of a giant, antlered beast on four legs. A golden aura surrounded it, imposing its power to be far above the two men. Jacob barely had time to take in the creature’s presence as the beast shot straight towards him. He immediately squeezed his Remington’s trigger and dove to the right.

“Shoot it, shoot it!” Jacob shouted, knowing that his own shot was a miss. He rolled onto his back in time to see the animal struggling to stop in its tracks. Tobias let out three shots, all puncturing the creature’s flesh. The beast staggered, yet somehow managed to keep itself on its feet. It slowly turned around as Tobias shot at it twice more. The beast squealed and lowered its head as its antlers swelled, morphing back towards its body and forming a cage of skeletal armor that gripped the host’s torso. Jacob was back on his feet by that point.

“Dive to me if it charges you!” Tobias called out.

“Right!” Jacob called back, pumped his Remington’s slide, and took a second shot. Two branches of the beast’s armor shattered, shoving the creature to the side and tilting it off-balance. Again, it stayed on its feet. Jacob pumped the slide once more and started to line up the next shot.

Wait, Jacob froze as he came to a sudden realization. This thing’s legs are totally unshielded. No bones around them at all!

The creature clawed at the ground, readying another charge as Jacob lowered his aim. This beast’s legs were a bit slim, making for a hard shot. Judging by the creature’s height as a whole, those legs must have had some density to support its weight. They might have even been too dense to be broken by a shotgun blast, but Jacob didn’t have the time to second-guess his next move. His shot was lined up and the creature was springing forward. Jacob squeezed the trigger once again.


The beast’s foreleg turned into a red mist once the pellets came into contact. The animal fell headfirst into the ground, rolling onto its side and letting out long-winded squeals as it flailed the bleeding remains of its leg. Jacob pumped his Remington and aimed for the spot where he’d blown off the armor. The beast’s death was announced by an earsplitting crack from the shotgun, then punctuated by an outward spray of blood and entrail fragments.

Jacob turned away from the corpse and ejected the last spent shell.

He then fell to his knees and vomited.

The apartment building that they found that night had a view of downtown from the window. At least, it would have had a view before the New God. To Jacob and Tobias, there were only heaps of vines crawling into the building, slipping past the edges of window panes and through cracks in the glass. Streams of moss poured from each window, some making it to the floor where they had formed deep green puddles. The duo was sure to sleep as far from the windows as possible, lest an herbivore come for food and mistake the boys for hunters.

The night passed, wrenching Jacob's gut as the seconds crawled by. The windows had no room to welcome the soft glow of the moon’s fragments into the apartment. The vegetation instead demanded that the glow turn itself green before entering, which infected the apartment with a sickly aura. Jacob kept his Remington’s muzzle pointed towards the verdant invasion as he sat back against the opposite wall. Tobias was sleeping on the sofa just beside him, and the occasional snores would be the only gentle alarms keeping Jacob alert. Hours crept by without even the wind disturbing the room’s calmness, while Jacob prepared for the storm. He didn’t notice his vision blurring and his head spinning until it was too late. Jacob had fallen asleep, leaving himself and his ally completely defenseless.

Jacob bolted awake as soon as his consciousness returned. He patted down his body to make sure that no supplies – or body parts – had gone missing. He snatched his backpack and ripped it open, frantically taking note of its contents: Nine 12-gauge shotgun shells in the front pocket. Eight still-unexpired cans of food, a change of clothes, and a bottle of Smirnoff vodka in the main compartment. Jacob quickly stood up and looked over to the sofa. Tobias was still sleeping there, just as he was before Jacob passed out. Jacob sighed and leaned back against the wall.

“Thank Christ,” he said aloud.

After Tobias awoke, Jacob had him search his own bag for any missing supplies. Once they’d ensured that everything was accounted for, the two searched for any canned foods or ammunition, which they didn’t find.

“Damn, they don’t even have any Spaghettios?” Tobias griped.

“I think whoever lived here must have survived the New God’s harvest,” Jacob noted.

“Damn, that’s lucky,” Tobias replied, “Hey, do you remember that guy we ran into last week? What did he say the chances were of both of us surviving?”

“I think he said five percent, right?” Jacob answered.

“Nah, nah, he did the math and found out that ninety-five percent of people and animals died,” Tobias corrected. “But the chances of us, two best friends both surviving, was…” Tobias bit his lip and knocked on the wall to jog his memory. Jacob started doing the math in his head.

“A fourth of one percent, I think,” Jacob answered.

“Nah, man, nah,” Tobias shook his head. “That’s way too small, we’d never be that lucky. I mean, people were just falling over in the streets and dying, there wasn’t anything they could do to save themselves. Do you actually mean we were both fortunate enough to just… not have that happen to us?”

“Well, we’re still alive,” said Jacob.

The two of them stood still, brewing in unspoken dread for some number of minutes. Without a word, they eventually broke their paralysis and headed outside.

That day’s forecast was a wecome contrast to the previous one. The sky had wrapped a warm, grey blanket of clouds around itself and shielded Earth from the sun’s glare. A haze of fog soothed Jacob and Tobias with its soft touch. The air kept itself still, giving way for the two vagabonds to pass it by as they wished. A grey filter had worked its way into the air to make every sight easy on the eyes. Jacob took in a deep breath, letting the humidity clean his lungs in preparation for today’s journey.

“One more day to get to Francis’s house,” Tobias said, looking at the dark silhouette of the city ahead of them, “We good to go?”

“Yeah,” Jacob patted his pocket where he’d managed to stuff five 12-gauge rounds. “We’re good to go.”

It didn’t take long for the duo to reach the downtown area. By the time they did, Jacob’s Remington was fully loaded and his eyes were tracing the tops of each building. Tobias walked in front and kept his own eyes on the road ahead, looking left and right each time they passed an alleyway or walked through an intersection. Jacob’s hands were tightly wrapped around his Remington, though his grip wasn’t as fast as the previous day.

“You know, it’s a good thing we ran into that deer yesterday,” Jacob admitted. “I’m just thinking of it as target practice.”

Tobias chuckled, keeping track of any building entrances that they passed. If even one pigeon chased after them, it could easily break a window or glass door, then call for a swarm to attack. Since almost every building had a glass storefront, and almost every glass storefront was broken, the key was to look for any doors inside that would lead to maintenance hallways or storage rooms. As much as Jacob hated those kinds of places, they were much more comfortable than being shred to pieces.

“Hold on,” Tobias said, stopping in his tracks. Jacob’s eyes flicked away from the towers, instead looking straight ahead. Some yards down the road was a large, rust-colored splatter on the asphalt. It took up three fourths of the road’s width and had a squirming mound of green chitin writhing in its center.

“Looks like a swarm of flies,” Tobias warned.

“All right, we’ll circle around,” Jacob responded. As the two retreated to the previous intersection, Jacob grabbed Tobias’s shoulder.

“Birds,” said Jacob.

Tobias looked up to see somewhere between five to ten hawk-sized pigeons, all lined up across a power line in front of the duo. Neither of the men could feel the presence of the birds’ auras, but they knew they would feel it soon. With too many targets to shoot, Jacob and Tobias both knew that the only option was fleeing.

“Left,” Tobias whispered. He and Jacob inched towards the intersecting road on their left. Jacob’s attention stayed to the pigeons while Tobias turned to keep track of the fly mound. A breeze swept in from the mound’s direction and swayed the pigeons’ power line. The wind picked up, and the fly mound started to buzz. It then grew louder, then louder, then louder still, until the mound shattered. The flies had split apart, dispersing into a droning green cloud that was barreling directly to the duo.

“Get the fuck out of here!” Jacob screamed and pushed Tobias forward. The two sprinted down the road as fast as their legs would allow. Just behind them, they could hear the pigeons screech and flap their wings. Were they going after the men or the flies? Jacob couldn’t risk looking back to see for himself. All he could do was put one foot in front of the other while keeping an eye out for safe building entrances. Two sparks could be heard behind the boys as the creatures released their auras. The droning buzz turned into a deep hiss while the screeches became piercing howls. Jacob prayed that the beasts were only after each other.

“There!” Tobias called out. He grabbed Jacob’s shirt and towed him to an overgrown storefront. The glass walls were all shattered, and a metal door sat behind the cashier’s desk. Tobias vaulted over the desk, and Jacob followed suit as his friend pulled the door open. Tobias screamed for Jacob to go through the door, which Jacob didn’t hesitate to do. Just as Tobias was pulling the door shut behind him, a glowing-white pigeon tore through the opening and blew past Jacob. He yelped and instinctively grabbed his Remington.

once the door shut, the hawk-sized pidgeon's aural glow was the only source of light in the room. Steel spikes stood in place of its feathers, all reflecting the creature’s own glow and blinding Jacob. It looked at him, opened its maw of a beak, and blasted a shrill tone as Jacob struggled to point his Remington at the bird’s exact location. He wasn’t even sure if the pellets would blast through the razors embedded into the pigeon.

It was the same gamble that he made with the deer.

Jacob couldn’t hear his Remington once he pulled the trigger. He couldn’t see the pigeon’s glow, either. All that he could take in was the black space ahead of him and the ringing in his ears. He felt his knees hit the cold floor below him, and he felt his own hands wrap around his head. He clenched his teeth, writhing on the ground as his brain rang out and shook the walls of his own skull. He felt a hand on him and swatted it away before realizing whose it was. He let Tobias put one hand on Jacob’s shoulder, then the other hand on Jacob’s other shoulder.

The light was gone. The room was silent. The world was dead.

Yet, somehow, the two boys were still alive.

Jacob’s ears were still ringing by the time they’d gotten to the other side of the building. Tobias had been walking ahead of him, flashlight in hand, speed-walking through black concrete corridors. The longer they stayed inside, the likelier they were to run into something that would corner them. A rat, a raccoon, a pack of cockroaches… Jacob’s gut twisted at the thought of any one of them. He wasn’t sure how much more blood he could handle spilling in a span of two days.

Jacob didn’t expect the sight of the city to be a welcome one, but as Tobias cracked open the door to the outside, Jacob was eager to leave behind the noir maintenance tunnels.

“How’s your hearing?” Tobias whispered.

“Huh?” Jacob replied.

“I said, how’s your hearing?” Tobias said a bit louder.

“Oh, it’s not good,” Jacob shook his head. Tobias sighed and looked back outside.

“All right,” Tobias spoke at a normal volume, “It looks like we have four more blocks until we reach the edge of the city.”

“What are you thinking?” asked Jacob.

“You take the front,” said Tobias, “That way you don’t have to worry about listening for something behind us. I can watch our sides and keep an ear out.”

Jacob huffed and bit his bottom lip.

“Look, we can’t say here,” Tobias continued, pointing a thumb at the passage they just came through, “I know we can’t be sure if the birds are gone, but we also don’t know what’s back there.”

“All right,” Jacob said with a nod, “Let’s do it.”

The pair stepped into the open with Jacob at the head. His eyes immediately went to the rooftops, which looked completely stark. His eyes went to the road ahead. Also barren.

“I don’t hear anything,” Tobias reported, “We’re good to go.”

Tobias sent Jacob forward with a pat on the shoulder. Jacob took one step forward, and froze right away.

“Come on, man, let’s just get out of here,” Tobias urged.

Jacob's breathing sped up for a moment. He bit down on his lip, but as Tobias patted his shoulder again, Jacob's breath slowed.

"Okay... Okay," Jacob nodded and set his back foot ahead of his front, pushing himself onwards through the vacant street. He looked ahead, occasionally flicking his eyes to the rooftops as he walked straight onwards. Once he came to an intersection, he paused to look left and right.

“Looks good,” Tobias said with another pat on Jacob’s shoulder.

“All right,” Jacob said as he pressed on.

Jacob didn’t know how long it was taking to get across the city, but each second took a whole minute just to pass. The minutes themselves lasted full hours until, at long last, the pair had passed the final building.

“All right,” said Tobias, “We’re almost in the clear. Half an hour to get to Francis’s house.”

They kept on, and a minute in, Jacob struck up another conversation.

“Francis meant a lot to you, huh?” he asked Tobias.

“Damn right,” Tobias said back, “Knew each other since fourth grade.”

“Ten years,” Jacob said with a whistle, “Eleven by now, right?”

“Yeah,” Tobias sighed, “Been a rough year. But hey, at least we still have plenty of Chef Boyardee to go around.”

“Ah, he eats that shit by the canful,” Jacob said with a snicker.

Eats it?” Tobias laughed, “He drinks those things! No fork, no hands, nothing. He just slams them back and asks for more.”

It was a long road to Francis’s house, but the conversation made it bearable – pleasant, even. By the time the duo reached the front door to Francis's house, their spirits were high up.

“Well,” Tobias said through a wistful sigh, “Let’s give this man a party.”

Tobias pushed the door open, revealing a florist’s dreamhouse. The wood flooring had begun to crack, with the tangled knots of a nearby tree’s roots slowly invading the home. Vibrant flowers bloomed from the vines that adorned the borders of the windows. The stairwell beyond the doorway still remained, but the wood had dampened to rely on the thick vines holding each stair together. Another vine had coiled around the railing, blooming violet flowers along its body.

Tobias led Jacob upstairs, where half of the roof had given way. The clouds above the two companions were the only things keeping the sun from piercing their skins. The two of them took a left at the top of the stairs, and at the end of the hall, Tobias pushed open the door to Francis’s bedroom.

“What’s up, man?” Tobias said as he strode in.

The room itself seemed to be untouched since the New God’s harvest. A custom-built computer sat beside a desk which leaned against the wall. A bed sat across from the desk, and between the two furnitures sat a limp skeleton. One arm was wrapped around a stuffed plushie of a beluga whale, while his other arm was splayed beside him, holding on to an empty bottle of whiskey.

A single vine had found itself curled around the skeleton’s spine, snaking through the slits in the ribcage and finally blossoming a lone, violet flower over the skeleton’s left eye.

“Hey Francis,” Jacob said, pointing to the empty bottle, “Did you finish that without us?”

“Ah, no worries, no worries!” Tobias said to the skeleton as Jacob took off his backpack.

“What, you think we forgot what day it was?” Tobias continued, “June. Fuckin’. Third.”

“Check it,” Jacob said as he pulled the bottle of vodka from his backpack, “This is for you, man. Happy birthday.”

Tobias and Jacob both approached the skeleton and knelt beside it. Jacob unsealed the bottle of Smirnoff, screwed it open, and held it up to the skeleton’s mouth. He slowly lifted the rear until vodka streamed out of the bottle and through its jaw.

"Drink up, France," Tobias said with a smirk.

With a grin on his face, Francis enjoyed every last drop.


A Vacant Earth was honestly the easiest out of this collection for me to write. All I had to do was use a world that I had already crafted for the sake of storytelling, then put some characters (my friends) into it and let them have fun. The friends in question: Tobias and Jake. Honestly, as much as the focus was expected to be on them as characters (as the assigment required), I wanted to imagine what my friends' actions would be in this sort of situation. Jake’s always a bit anxious, so putting him in a survival situation was easy: think of what he’d always do, and exaggerate the anxieties. Tobias was a bit harder, since he’s the ready-for-anything sort of person, so I gave him an air of “calm recklessness.” He’d put himself into situations he should clearly avoid (the city), but stay calm when he has to get out of his own messes. Of course, it was hard to imagine putting my friends into a story without myself being present somehow, so the Francis character was born... and swiftly killed. That would naturally spawn the goal of the two characters: paying their respects to a friend one more time.