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By J. L. Ender

I hated to see myself.

It happened from time to time. Living in the ruins of an old mall, there were bound to be a few mirrors around. Granted, I didn’t have much use for department stores anymore—I’d already raided most of the men’s departments for practical clothing—but exiting the building through Macy’s was more practical than going around.

My flashlight’s beam shone across racks of colorful clothing. Stray light reflected off a mirror set into one of the building’s support pillars. Before I could stop myself, my gaze caught my own reflection.

A haggard, grizzled face stared back. How long has it been? I wondered if I could find the time in the accumulated wrinkles and gray hairs. My best guess was twenty years since the bombs had fallen. I’d spent the first five of them looking for another human being, to no avail.

I carefully avoided meeting my own eyes.

“Can’t believe I missed one,” I said, my voice scratchy from long days of disuse.

I pulled out a dented aluminum baseball bat from my messenger bag and shattered the glass.

The next morning, I strode to the roof. I started every day with a good look at the surrounding area. I knew nothing would be different about the weed-choked parking lot and abandoned restaurants nearby, but I had to make sure. Once, I’d failed to notice a building I’d intended to raid had collapsed. I’d wasted a day traveling there to find myself with nothing for my time but a pile of rubble.

I don’t like surprises, and I don’t like wasting time. The irony wasn’t lost on me. The world ended, but I still stuck to a schedule.

There was nothing new, except…

A flash of white.

White was rare in those days. The bright perfection of the woman’s shirt drew my eyes like a neon sign in the night, its color a link to the past.

Not possible.

I rubbed my eyes.

I was right. The woman was gone.

I was looking for a new pair of shoes in the long-abandoned Footlocker when I saw her again. It was the following day. Most of the shoes were useless—the leather and cloth having rotted years ago. But sometimes I got lucky, and my current Reeboks were more duct tape than shoe.

A flash of white, shocking against the green vines that draped across Yogurtland’s rusting security gate.

“H-hey!” my voice cracked, rendering the word all but inaudible.

I dropped the black sneaker I’d been inspecting. “Hey!” I called more clearly. “Stop!”

The woman stood next to a long-dry water fountain. She was tall and blond. And clean. Cleaner than I’d thought possible in this post-plumbing age. She carried a large canvas bag.

“Hi.” Her single word hit me like a punch to the gut. Tears stung the corners of my eyes.

My mouth worked up and down briefly, but no sounds emerged.

The woman let out a small, uncomfortable laugh. “Been alone long?”

I nodded. “Hi.”

“He speaks!” She glanced down at her tattered satchel.

“Care for some coffee?”

I could hardly believe my eyes as the woman handed me a pure, black, perfect cup of coffee.

“Where did you find coffee beans?” I sat in a wooden chair in the woman’s cramped twelfth-story apartment, twelve blocks from the mall. The wait for the water to heat had felt like the longest of my life. I glanced at the woman, the first human I’d seen in ages. Maybe second longest.

“Grew them in my greenhouse.”

The scent of the coffee was enough to bring tears to my eyes again. Not here! How embarrassing. I rubbed roughly at them and took a drink from the chipped pink mug.

I felt almost dizzy at the taste. It reminded me of hundreds of mornings spent reading the paper, making breakfast, getting ready for work. The time before the rockets fell, before my family was killed along with the rest of the world.

The woman tucked her slender legs beneath her body as she sat on the faded cushion of another chair. The gesture reminded me of my wife, and I felt tears well up again. More tears. As if I hadn’t made a fool of myself enough already. But I was no longer alone. After decades in the darkness, I had stumbled into sunlight.

“We’re not alone.” She said the words with complete confidence.

“How can you be sure?”

“Didn’t you think you were alone before? I know I did. And here you were, twelve blocks away. I should have found you on a dozen previous raids. We were wrong once. We could be wrong again.”

I took a sip of coffee, partly to give myself time to think, and partly because it was the most wonderful thing Id had to drink in years.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

She grinned. “I know we just met, but how would you like to go on a road trip?”

The cold water woke me even more than the three cups of coffee I’d had with the woman. I flicked the worn razor, shaking off the last remnants of my beard.

I looked at my reflection, letting my eyes travel from the raw, red skin of my freshly shaved neck up to my pale chin and cheeks. And into my own eyes. Green— just like my daughter’s. For once, I didn’t mind looking into her eyes. Didn’t break the mirror. I smiled and turned to go, ready to set out on a new adventure.

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J.L. Ender‘s first published novel, Portal World, is available now. He has also released several short stories, including The Rocket Game and The Meek Shall Inherit. His new superhero series, Steel Fox Investigations, will begin January 2020. Ender has worked as a dishwasher, a beef jerky labeler, a warehouse worker, a shelf stocker, a greeter, a traveling technician, a laser engraver, a package handler, a copywriter, a graphic designer, a librarian, an editor, a dispatcher, and a phone operator. He lives in Ohio with his dog Bear.

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