On such a beautiful, cool fall day there was no reason for the streets to be abandoned. Children should fill the little courtyard with their games and laughter as cars passed slowly by and the neighborhood went about its daily business. Instead the sole signs of human activity were the flowerbeds full of bright yellow tulips, domesticated plants left over from a time when there were people around to appreciate them. The eyes that fell on them were few and far between now.
The latest set belonged to a dark-skinned girl, her slight frame hidden beneath tattered clothing. She entered the courtyard cautiously, ears constantly pricked for any sound of unwanted company. Zombies may be comically slow, but get a hoard together and they could very well ruin your day.
The girl stopped at a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. It had been left dry and unattended, but surrounded by the yellow flowers it resembled a stone shrine. She withdrew a tiny figurine from her pocket and placed it on the edge of the fountain. It looked stupid and out of place, but she did not care.
Mother had always told her that the little figures of the gods were good luck. Freakish, multi-armed creatures like Kali were supposed to represent order in the world, cleansing chaos and violent rebirth. Before the apocalypse she had scoffed at such views, but now she couldn't help but wonder if there could be some truth to it. What better way for a goddess of death to prepare the world to be built anew than by sending a plague of flesh-eating beasts to clean everything up?
She did not want to think about it anymore. This was a letting go, a way to say goodbye to her parents and the beliefs they held. Her only companion now was her survival instinct, and this at least was something she felt she could place full trust in.
She turned her back on the fountain, accessed the inner strength that had allowed her to get this far on her own, and prowled out of the courtyard in search of a safer location to spend the night.
"How strange. I don't think any of the hybrids have feet quite like that. Something that escaped from the zoo maybe?"
Adam Laroque stood from his crouched position, keeping a tight grip on the shotgun in his hands. Grolsch sniffed the tracks at his feet, curious but not alarmed. The little hybrid's nose was an excellent tool for detecting any lurking zombies nearby, and it looked like it would have other uses as well. Whatever the thing was, with paws that big Adam wasn't interested in confronting it.
Grolsch seemed to have a different idea in mind. He ran a little way ahead, eagerly sniffing at the air in a way that Adam recognized meant he had scented a source of food. He looked over his shoulder to check if he was following. Adam sighed.
"I hope you know what you're doing."
He trusted his friend, but the idea still left him feeling uneasy. Nonetheless he found himself following the hybrid along the trail of tracks in the snow leading past the little courtyard and in the direction of some long abandoned buildings.
Grolsch ran into an open doorway and soon the sounds of excited clicking could be heard. Adam was not far behind, but he nearly gagged when he stepped inside and saw what Grolsch had found. The hybrid stood over the body of an old man, lying on the floor hollowed out as if something had eaten away at his insides. Grolsch reached into the chest cavity and withdrew a chunk of meat, munching on it happily.
Grolsch's contented chatters suddenly grew silent, and Adam followed his line of vision as he stared at a passageway leading from deeper within the old building. He held the shotgun up, steadying it and cursing the poor lighting he had to work with. A low growl rumbled out of the passageway.
"It would be nice if you could tell your little pet to leave my meal alone."
He almost dropped the gun in surprise. The voice was human. More than that, it was distinctly feminine. He strained his eyes to locate the speaker, and was further startled when a large spotted cat slunk out of the passageway into the room. Grolsch snarled, baring his sharp little fangs. The cat looked unimpressed.
"That is mine. Go find your own."
"You... what... s-stop, or I'll shoot!"
"Why? I'm not going to hurt either of you. I just don't appreciate people barging into my home like this."
Grolsch was at his side now, prepared to protect him but overall looking less alarmed than he would have expected. Could he have already been aware of the existence of these talking cat things? Adam realized what a sad world it was that such a thought no longer seemed outright absurd.
"I'm sorry. Did the mutation do this to you?"
"No. I was born this way. I am a shapeshifter. My family moved here from India a few years before the plague hit."
The cat sat back on its haunches, tail twitching slightly but otherwise making no threatening movements. Now that Adam had a chance to get a better look at it he recognized that it was a leopard. Or was it a jaguar? He had never been able to tell the difference between the two.
"How do I know you won't hurt us? He isn't looking too good, you know."
He motioned with his head at the dead man, keeping the gun in position in case he needed to use it. The cat rolled her eyes and flicked her ears.
"I am not a murderer. He was freshly dead when I found him. Took ill and crawled in here to die. I do not let passable meat go to waste."
Adam wasn't sure if he believed her, but he decided he was in no position to argue. He reached out and touched Grolsch on the shoulder, signaling for him to follow him back out of the building. As they backed out he watched the cat closely. It drew up the corners of its mouth in what appeared to be a smile.
"You know, you are the first human to have ever seen me like this. Mother always used to tell me that your people wouldn't be able to handle the knowledge of our existence, as if finding out about us would break your brains or something. I guess there can be no better desensitization to the weird than a zombie apocalypse, huh?"
Out of the corner of his eye Adam saw Grolsch smile back at the cat. He was taking the loss of his... meal... very well. As he left the building and returned to the street he was relieved to see the hybrid follow without further distraction.
The thought continued the nag at him as he went about the business of an otherwise normal day as a survivor in the Quarantined Sector. If zombies, mutants, hybrids, and talking cat people existed, what else could he possibly run into next?