Vera let out a sigh while she reached over the edge of the bed and gathered up her clothing. She’d pull the sheet up around her, but Will’s other girl, whom she always had to remind herself was named Jenna, was back to sleeping after Will had left the room. No matter how often it happened, she still felt awful about her role in Branch’s “new world.” Her whole life was wading out into the deep waters, fighting against the current, and working her way up from relative poverty in Sao Paulo before making her way to the United States to study aerospace engineering. That move made her family both proud and conflicted; their baby girl, Vera, would leave home to make them all proud, but would she ever look back?
Granted, at the time the distance felt nothing short of rapturous and liberating, but in retrospect, she wished she had appreciated it more. Brazil was her home, but it was a restrictive existence that she led there. There was always a nagging feeling that she didn’t quite belong, no matter where she went or what her family told her. Yet all that she could wish for while cooped up in Branch Tower was to be back in Brazil again, even during Carnival, when the streets were overrun with tourists and festival goers. None of that existed anymore and would most likely never return, but she missed it just the same. Vera was living in Southern California, working through her first real internship, when everything fell apart. Since then, even the concept of being able to reach someone back home felt like a pipedream, knowing in her heart that there couldn’t be much left.
In Jordan Branch’s new world, there was no room for an aerospace engineer, especially one that happened to be female. Oh no, while Jordan Branch was rebuilding humanity in his image, there was no room for women to move ahead. Vera had never considered herself conventionally beautiful while growing up, nor was she pursued much by anyone outside of her nerdy friend, Roger. As an adult, she was curvy by most measures of a society that seemed obsessed with being thin, although she would never call herself fat. In this new world she looked more like a Greek goddess, only, you know, Brazilian. Survival was the only thing on her mind and her time in Branch Tower felt tenuous at best, so she didn’t cause any trouble, especially after seeing what happened to anyone who caused a stir in Branch’s new world. Those that caused trouble were outfitted in leather, given clubs, and told to fight for their lives in the arena. The problem wasn’t that she couldn’t fight; it was that if Branch wanted you dead in the arena, you’d be dead in the arena. Will wasn’t one to be wanted dead because he was their champion and he was special. That was why she latched onto him, even if she found him to be a disgusting louse most of the time.
Everyone knew that Jenna and Vera were earmarked for Will, which meant that they were mostly left alone, what with Will being the chosen one and all. That thought sent a chill down her spine. Vera was just thankful at this point that she had never gotten pregnant. To be fair, Will wasn’t a monster by any stretch of the imagination. There was never a time where she found him forcing her to do anything, nor did he get out of control when he was drunk or high. When he was drunk, he’d just get tired and pass out. If high, he’d just get silly, and they’d sit around and talk about the world before it all fell down. Things were also compounded because he was a solid lay, too. She thought back to her friends in college and how most would have been disgusted by the thought of her somehow being seen as a live-in servant to some guy, but the world had changed and her time living with William was far from the worst of the horrors that she had seen. She wasn’t subservient, either, seeing as though she had a workshop of her own that she maintained, and if she wasn’t in the mood for his bullshit, she’d escape down to it to clear her mind. If people wanted to think that their arrangement was sexual, that was fine with her, as long as she got to do what she wanted to and wasn’t pestered by anyone else.
She shuddered at the memory of the shelter that she was holed up in when the raid happened. Death surrounded them at every turn, the masked raiders killing every man and child in sight, but sparing the women. Sparing was perhaps not the correct word for it, but they were still technically alive, herded into an old box truck and transported around the wasteland. The raiders never touched them, which struck her as odd until she heard the sales pitch they made, “pristine beauties” they called them, letting whoever purchased them do as they please with these undisturbed mirages of the wasteland.
The truck traversed the wasteland and the ranks of the women in the truck shrunk with each stop, the younger ones moving first, along with the skinnier ones. Vera could only imagine what was happening to them, but she had kept to herself in the shelter and on the bumpy trip through the wasteland. This was about her survival and as much as she would have liked to have saved everyone, she knew it was not possible, not in this new world. There were only three of them left when the truck had stopped, one of the masked men opening up the back for them and tossing them a few bottles of water. The heat was overwhelming in there, and the water was a welcomed reprieve. She had studied these stops and thought about running, but they were all armed and she wasn’t sure how she’d get away without being killed.
That last stop, though, was the first time that she saw William. There was a commotion from the outside, raised voices and the sound of a scuffle. Two of those voices were new, distinctly British and, well, different. A few gunshots rang out. The other two girls cowering back towards the back of the box behind some crates of food while Vera felt her heart throbbing in her chest. This could be her chance, this could be the only chance that she ever got to break free from that forsaken truck and make a run for it. She peered around the side of the truck only to see the guy that had just thrown them some water laying in a pool of his own blood in the dust, a handgun laying at his side.
Vera slipped out and scrambled for the gun, only to look up and see the massive man that she now knows as William standing over her, blood dripping from his fists with one man gripped in his left hand, hanging limp while his right hand hovered over him. “Oh, hello there,” he said, sounding surprised.
“Um,” she looked down at the gun, but hesitated. “Hi?”
“Were these fuckers keepin’ you back there?”
“Yeah,” she said. “They’ve been selling us off.”
“Pig fuckers,” he spat at the man in his hands, letting the body drop to the ground. Vera remained frozen in place, waiting for his next move. “Oh, uh, were you going to pick that up?” He pointed down at the gun.
“‘ere,” he kicked it over towards her. “Take it, never much cared for ’em myself.”
“Uh,” she paused before snatching it up. “Okay, thanks, I guess?”
“No problem,” he turned around. “‘ey Stuart.”
“What?” Another British voice rang out.
“You done with ’em yet?”
“I guess, why?”
“There’s some food back there, we should check it out.”
“Thanks,” she said to him. “I’m just gonna grab some food and water, is that okay?”
“Of course, lass,” he said in a jovial voice, a tone shift from before. “We’re headed to Branch Tower.”
“We are in Las Vegas?” She hadn’t known how far they had traveled, but apparently pretty far.
“Pretty much,” he said. “Stuart and me are heading there, if you wanted to, you know, tag along or something.”
There wasn’t much conversation to be had on their way to Branch Tower, just the occasional stop for food, while William and Stuart reminisced about home. From what she had gathered, they were brothers and were on vacation to the United States when the first attack hit, finding themselves trapped in an underground vault before they were kicked out. Now they were heading to the only other place they knew of where there were people and food, which was the home of Jordan Branch. Vera didn’t have a preference where she ended up. She just wanted to survive. Someone with her background, though, might be of some use at Branch’s lab. The talk of him working to rebuild society through science and creating a haven was murmured about throughout the wasteland. She had to imagine that there weren’t many actual rocket scientists holed up in his facility and that she’d be of use to them.
When they happened upon Branch Tower after a few days of walking, it was unlike anything that she had ever witnessed before. The tower stood there like a beacon in the night amidst nothing but sand, dust, and rubble. What struck her the most was that it was pristine. Somehow, Branch Tower survived the nuclear holocaust without a single scratch on it. The building and whole compound was a marvel of modern engineering, standing tall as a monument to mankind’s ingenuity and ability to survive. The feeling that wafted over her at that moment was complicated, but she equated it with hope. It felt like hope for once.
That feeling dissipated when Stuart was screaming and already in a fight. They had sicced the proverbial dogs on them. A herd of Branch’s walking dead that was about twenty strong were shambling towards them. William motioned for Vera to stay back. But somehow it felt wrong to not jump into the fray with them, especially at the thought of being left alone in the wasteland if anything were to happen to them. She stayed near the edges first, watching both of their backs while they waded into the sea of monsters and began swinging. One thing that she would give the both of them, they enjoyed a good fight. Stuart was deranged in how he fought, fashioning weapons by tearing off limbs from the monsters before beating them back to death with them.
There he was, swinging a leg around his head, even pulling the head off of one and using it as a projectile all while William was fighting in close quarters, fists flying, picking one up from behind and slamming it headfirst onto the ground, the neck breaking and head almost dislodging while it moaned its last pained hisses. She became entranced by watching them fight and didn’t notice the one that took a swipe at her. Her assailant looked like an older woman who had aged poorly as the walking dead with her jaw hanging on by a few tendons. She tumbled down onto her back while the old hag approached her, hands reaching out towards Vera, only for her instincts to kick in. The trigger pulled in a blur. The first time hit her in the shoulder, the second in the chest, third time in the head, which sent the body toppling over onto her. She screamed in horror, the body heavy and oppressive, making it difficult for her to breathe, only to realize that it wasn’t moving anymore. Vera heaved the body off of her before picking herself back up on shaky legs.
This was the fight of her life, for her life, and all the while the two brothers were joking and laughing while they tore through the walking dead, the entire scene awash in the surreal. The battle lasted a little longer until a group of guards rushed out in heavy armor with assault rifles poised and aimed at the three survivors. At that moment, Vera imagined it all being over, that they were just going to mow them down, but instead they were invited in. From that day forth, she stuck by William, even when Branch had presented him with a new girl, Jenna.
Jenna’s existence was more of a relief than it was an insult. While Vera enjoyed sacking up with William from time to time, they didn’t have what you would call a romantic relationship. They just fucked out of animalistic instinct now and then and had conversations about what their lives were like before the world fell apart. Jenna served as more of his girlfriend. Vera just his fuckbuddy that he kept around for the intellectual stimulation and to help tether each other to reality. Jenna came to them pretty shaken up when she had first moved in, but Will was always a gentleman to both of them and the relationship between Jenna and Will happened organically enough, while Vera and Will were just what they were. She assumed that William had the same fear she did, that if he was “done” with her that Branch would be done with her as well and there would be no room for her in their new, burgeoning society.
William was off getting prepared for the arena, which left Vera with Jenna. Both of them were linked to William, but she didn’t consider Jenna to be a good friend. She was a roommate that she had to deal with. Vera pulled her clothes on while Jenna was still asleep and slipped out of the apartment into the dimmed, quiet hallway. There was a buzz throughout the hallway that there always was on arena nights, everyone getting ready for the arena later that evening and wearing their best. At Branch Tower, the arena was the social event that couldn’t be missed; everyone who was anyone in Branch’s new society came out for every fight dressed in their most elegant of wear suitable for their social stature. The arena served as a culling of the weak and helped to deliver on the bloodlust that became a part of their collective consciousness. A disease to some, affliction to others, and curiosity to those with some strands of their humanity left intact.
“I can’t believe it,” she overheard a woman saying to another.
“He’s really here,” the other one confirmed.
“Have you seen him?”
“No, not yet, but he’ll be at the arena tonight, I heard.”
“Hi,” Vera butted in, curious about who they were talking about. “Who will be there?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard?” The one woman who appeared to be in her early 40s, hair teased and makeup caked onto her face. “TK Gabriel is here.”
“TK Gabriel?” She asked, puzzled.
“The movie star,” the woman scoffed.
“Yeah, he was in like, god, a ton of great movies and he’s here. I heard Branch wants to put him in some sort of position of power.”
“Oh, thanks,” she smiled and walked away towards the fountain in the common area where she liked to stay while William was away doing whatever he did. The name did sound familiar to her, like something from a past life. The very idea of watching movies seemed so distant and perverse. Yes, there was electricity within Branch Towers and even televisions, but their in-house library was rather limited, which made it not worth watching, plus, within the context of their existence, watching films about people murdering each other for entertainment seemed illogical. She preferred the more introspective kinds of movies, which Branch’s library seemed to lack.
There was a sinking feeling in her gut about the buzz surrounding this new arrival and William’s demeanor over the past day. There hadn’t been a new arrival that was treated with as much of a buzz that she could remember ever, at least in the amount of time that she had been there. Her sneaking intuition told her that William’s retirement would be delayed yet again and those morbid thoughts of him meeting his fate inside of the arena sooner, rather than later, were hard to push out of her mind. No, she didn’t particularly love him in any sort of romantic way, but he had become an important part of her life and the thought of him dying on the sands of the arena went from persisting to prevalent.