by Stephanie LaRue
Copyright @ Shakespir
Some of my colleagues complain of stomach pains due to an over indulgence in rations. We’ve eaten more in the last month than we’ve eaten all year. Erwin has us all give a share of our rations for big dinner he’s planned. He says it’s to celebrate a holiday he cannot remember, though I’m sure he’s mistaken the time of year. I salivate over the steaming bowls of canned chicken, corn, green beans, and whole potatoes. The others have already been served and are sitting in little groups, eating and conversing loudly. Michael and I are the last people to make our plates. We take the last scoops of food and sit beside Erwin, who has hardly touched his plate.
I nudge him with my elbow. “Eat up.”
He looks up at me and smiles, a trickle of drool seeps through his teeth. I set my plate down and hand Erwin’s plate off to Michael.
I whisper, “Erwin.” I don’t bother looking for any watchful eyes. The boom of voices is enough to tell me that no one is paying any attention to us. I press on Erwin’s neck and rub his ears.
“What’s he doing?” Michael asks.
“Go get the first aid kit. There are some pills in there.”
Michael runs to the truck. Erwin sways slightly and I bring him back to center, digging my fingers into the back of his skull. His eyes open wide and he convulses. Then he’s still. His glossy eyes blink rapidly. The fit has passed quickly.
Erwin wipes his eyes and places a hand on my shoulder. “My maps, grab them,” he says.
I hurry to the other side of the room where his map book is lying open on the floor, among hay and empty food containers. Erwin takes the book from me and violently flips through the pages. He stops, fingers a spot on a map and laughs.
“It’s there, the place I came from,” he says.
I look over a map I’ve never laid eyes upon. There’s nothing to mark the location he suggests, no marks or lines, just coordinates. It’s deep in dangerous territory too, up near the cities. I look again. The spot still looks blank; at least I think it does. Erwin snatches the book and runs his finger along several lines and points to the spot. He moans a laugh through closed lips.
“My little brain has been playing tricks for some time, I’ve been convinced to go this way and that, but now I know for sure. This is the way. Look at the lines again,” he says, shoving the book into my arms with excited furor.
I take the book, twisting it to get a better look at each intersecting line. If looked at from one direction, an arrow points to the spot, if in another, it is hidden.
“I’m telling you kid, it’s the place I’ve forgotten for too long. It’s from where I began this journey,” he says.
“It does look to be something,” I say.
“It is, my girl, it truly is.”
If Erwin is correct, our journey takes us straight through the worst hit areas in the entire country. Whole cities looted, raided, and bombed during the last month, all to exterminate growing hordes of animals and rebellions. The bombings did the trick, but now there is hardly anything left, at least that’s what a few of my colleagues tell me. Most can’t remember much about that last month. Greg says it’s a wasteland, though he doesn’t elaborate on his last days in that horrible place. That last month was the darkest time of our entire existence on this planet. For the first time, people became the most precious item on the menu, hunted, preyed upon and eaten like cattle. You could either starve or join the herd. Most people did the latter, but many, like our caravan, chose to retain what little dignity and courage they had left. We turned away from that carnivorous, bloodthirsty world and went out into the dead planet to survive on what we could.
“It could be a mistake,” I say.
Erwin’s shaking his head, smiling stupidly. His mistakes almost cost us this place, so it’s difficult for me to believe he has finally figured out the location of his origin, of the last bunker.
“I think you should think on it for a little longer,” I say.
“Don’t doubt, my girl. Soon, our travels will be over.”
But I do doubt him. It’s impossible to see what he sees, to understand what that last bunker might hold.
A weak cry interrupts us, bringing our attention to the truck. I look over to the untouched plates of food beside me and realize Michael is still gone. Erwin squeezes my thigh. We’re both tense, paralyzed with fear for the first time in days.
I pull my gun off the wall near the barn’s entrance and rush out to the truck. I move around the side of the vehicle and find Michael looking toward the hills. The fire gun shakes on his arm. I sling my gun up, steadying it against my shoulder. Erwin’s right at my back, a firm hand on my shoulder, breathing in my ear.
“Easy,” he says.
Across the wet grass, among glistening brown hills, a man looms in the distance, sauntering from side to side. There seems to be just one today. Inspecting him through my scope, I see a disheveled beast that was once a man. It isn’t broad shouldered or meaty like many of the other animals we’ve encountered, it’s scrawny and weary, on the brink of starvation.
“Look for a scar, just above his collar bone,” Erwin says. I glance over, my concentration compromised by confusion.
“It’s one of ours,” he says.
“One of ours? What are you saying?” I ask. Erwin moves forward and places his hand in front of my scope.
“We don’t have time for this,” I say.
He pulls his hand back, sighing. “It’s him. The one who left,” he says.
“What should we do?” I ask.
Erwin thinks for just a second and turns to Max, who has come up behind us. “You two go after him,” Erwin says.
“Hell, you trust her after the other night?” Max asks.
“At least I’m pulling my weight,” I say. Max glares at me.
“Don’t start you two. Try to do it quietly,” Erwin says. I throw my gun around on my shoulder, letting it hang across my back, and take a rusty knife out of my boot. The handle is cracked and the blade is dull, but this knife saved me many times before we had guns. Every time I take the knife out I’m reminded of my first kill.
Down to no ammo and fighting exhaustion, I waited an animal out, wedged between a garbage can and a brick wall in the ruins of Colorado, separated from the group. It was a long eight hours, he hunted me up and down that alley determined to scare me out. The moment he crawled over the top of that can, I dug that blade with all the force I could muster, into his throat. It was the first time I ever killed anyone.
Max opts for a crossbow we fetched off a drifter a few months ago. We head for the hills, quietly inching along until we can no longer see the barn. We hide in a patch of bushes and watch patiently as the animal goes up and down the hills, following the same trail it cut out for itself on many walks before this. It’s been out here a long time, living off what rodents and shrubbery it could find. Now, it’s ended up much the same as that family sprawled out across the barn, lucid and incompetent.
“I’ll try to take it out so you don’t get your hands dirty,” Max says.
“Just shoot straight.”
Max holds the bow up, showing off his steady aim.
I keep a look out while Max fixes an arrow on the bow. “Damn,” he says. I turn to see him jerking his head around in every direction. The animal is no longer in sight. The arrow hangs loosely from the bow as Max struggles to get it straight.
As I turn to look back at the hill, the animal rises up above the bushes, frothing at the mouth, crazed eyes staring back at me. I bring the knife up, backing away. Max fiddles with the bow, shaking so bad he doesn’t know which way the arrow is supposed to point. The animal doesn’t jump on us right away, so I’m able to get to my feet. I’m ready with my knife, but I really don’t want to use it. It means getting close to that thing and that scares me more than anything. Trying to kill these bastards never gets easier.
The animal is backing me down the hill. Drool drips from its teeth and its eyes shoot from me to the speck of a barn behind us. It’s not quite as insane as some of the other beasts we’ve encountered, there’s hesitation and patience that most others lack. Its last shred of sanity is the only thing keeping it from ripping my throat out.
I grip my knife, stop moving backward, and jab the blade at the air. This gets the animal frothing furiously. Max is of no use to me, I can see him in the corner of my eye, practically abandoning me as he’s given up on the bow. I don’t let that stop me, but I will make him pay for it later.
The animal rushes forward. I tumble back as it throws its weight atop me. The dullest edge of the knife digs into his flesh, leaving only surface wounds. It’s a good thing this thing is as weak as me otherwise I’d be dead already. I knee the beast in the rib cage which forces it to loosen its grip. But I lose my grip on the knife and it drops onto my chest with a hard thump. I refuse to die here, though. I thrash and spit and curse. The rest of the group can hear it for all I care; this thing will not eat me. The final blow, an accidental punch to that animal’s bony jaw, sends it reeling. It falls off of me. For a second, I think I’ve killed it with some unknown strength, but I soon find the cause.
Thick, frothy foam oozes from its mouth, the body convulses and its eyes roll back in its head. I managed to dislodge its cyanide pill and activate it. It really was one of Erwin’s former friends. I stand up, shaking, and wipe at my body, trying to rid myself of the animal’s filth.
After I’ve come back to my senses, I turn my attention to Max, who is still huddled up on the hill, hugging his bow. I run up on him, wiping blood from my knife. My heart is pounding harder now than when that animal was straddling me.
“Get up you coward!”
Max scoots away as I kick his boots. “The bow jammed,” he says.
“You tried to go off without me.”
He’s shaking his head, holding the bow out to me. The strings are busted. It’s still no excuse for him trying to leave.
“I could have been killed,” I say, kicking his boots.
“I wasn’t leaving you. The bow is busted. Everything was happening so fast,” he says. I actually want to believe him, to have some peace of mind, but I know Max. He’s a coward. I take the bow and stomp back across the hills. Max trudges along behind me, pestering me with more apologies.
Erwin greets us with a stern look as we approach the barn. “What the hell happened?” he asks.
“It got complicated,” I say. Erwin can tell by my agitation and Max’s sullen demeanor that it got hairy out there. He softens his tone. “Max, go on and help Michael with the clean-up,” Erwin says.
Max snatches the bow from me as he passes. “It’s busted,” he says, reiterating his plea.
Erwin takes me aside. “Are you all right,” he asks.
I nod. He pats my cheek.
“What happened out there?”
“The animal surprised us,” I say. To tell him anymore wouldn’t do any good. I’m not sure Max was actually attempting to leave, it did happen fast. That’s the closest I’ve come to being eaten in a while, it scared the hell out of me.
“Go on and eat,” Erwin says. “I want to go see the body.”
“Who is he?” I ask.
“You just eat. We’ll talk later.”
I don’t argue. Food is what I need; it’ll calm my shot nerves. I go into the barn and proceed to inhale my dinner.
Erwin comes up on the hill with me to see the body. His old eyes struggle under the sun’s gaze. I grab his hand and help him up to the carcass. He kneels beside the dead face and brushes back a few wisps of the animal’s hair, the only strands left on the dead things head. Erwin doesn’t speak for a long time. When he does speak, it’s so low that I have to kneel beside him, too close to the body for my liking.
“The faces were familiar,” he says.
“How do you know them?” Erwin points to the face. I look down at its wide eyes, sunburned cheeks, and mouth, the torn lips and broken teeth.
“I know that face. It’s the same face shared with those dead children. Those same children also resemble the woman. And there’s a man, also in likeness to the woman, a brother,” he says.
“Who are they?” I ask. There’s a part of me that feels bad for asking. It’s a terrible sight to see someone you look up to in such pain.
“This is my son,” he says.
I stare at the dead face then look up at Erwin, there’s only a faint resemblance, but it’s enough. More so, Erwin’s fading memory, his illness, has loosened its hold on him long enough for him to grieve.
“Those children were his, and the woman his wife. I don’t remember them being out here. I can’t remember what would have brought them to this place. I know for sure, in my heart that this is not where we originated,” he says. “It has been so long, so many days searching for something, of what I had no clue. Now, I see the face of my son, of my grandchildren, of a daughter-in-law all gone. They’re time must have been long. Something went astray, but we might never know,” he says, crying into his hands.
I want to console him, but I’m not sure how to do it. I just sit there, staring at the corpse.
Erwin rises to his feet, mumbling under his breath, tapping a finger against the side of his head.
“Erwin,” I say.
“It’s not a fit, I’m thinking, my girl. There was a plan,” he says, throwing his hands up as if he’s suddenly had a brilliant idea. He’s gone from grief, to excitement in a matter of minutes. “We figured up a way to help. But not much more will come to me.” He kneels beside the body and touches the man’s dried up face.
“We should set him to rest,” I say.
Erwin looks up at me, grief returns to his face. He nods. “I wish I could tell you more about him, but I cannot remember much more of my past.”
“The rest will come to you,” I say.
“Yes, it will,” he says, starting to rise. He falls back onto his knees, grabbing at his head. “I’ve excited myself too much.”
“Stay still for a bit.”
Erwin slouches forward, catching his hand on my arm. He wipes his eyes as he tries to remain awake. His head flops backward and his words slur. Something big has got hold of him this time. I grab him and lay him on the grass. I press the usual points in his neck and spine. His eyes roll back in his head and a stream of vomit trickles out of his mouth.
I keep pressing on his neck, head, and back, hoping this will end soon. But Erwin’s not coming out of it, not this time.
“This will pass, this will pass,” I say, to no one but myself. Erwin is alive, but no longer conscious. The second fit is always worse than the first and this one looks to be worse than any fit he’s had so far.
I throw my gun over my shoulder. I slide my hands underneath Erwin’s shoulders and heave him down the hill, fighting the pull of gravity as we descend. I’ll have to lug him back, unprotected and blind to what’s in front of me.
Every few yanks, I stop and check for danger.
By the time I cross the last hill, my arms are on fire and I can hardly think about dragging him down the hill. I glance at the barn, looking for my group, but not one person is manning the truck gun or standing watch. They’re gorging themselves on the supplies, a habit that has gone unchallenged due to Erwin’s forgetfulness. I take a breath, rub out the soreness in my arms and start down the hill again. I curse myself the entire way, for not stepping in to manage the group during Erwin’s illness.
I reach the truck, lay Erwin’s body down and sling the back door open, letting it slam against the side of the truck. I rummage through what medical supplies we have, find some stuff to start a drip, of what, I have no clue, and grab some pain pills out of my rations.
As I’m exiting the truck, Michael comes out of the barn. I drop the supplies beside Erwin and start pouring water across his face.
“What’s wrong with him?” Michael asks.
“Get Rita,” I say. Michael runs back to the barn.
Erwin’s eyes pop open and he smiles at me, but I can tell he’s still stuck in his fit.
“Come on, this will pass,” I say. I continue pouring water across his forehead, which does enough to keep him alert, but not completely sane. He’s succumbing to his illness and there’s nothing I can do to stop the process.
“He’s not going to be here much longer,” Rita, our pretend doctor, says. She wipes blood from her hands and sweat from her brow. I lean against the barn, pretending it doesn’t hurt to hear those words.
“How long does he have?” I ask. Rita looks off. She has no clue, how could she? We’ve only kept Erwin alive by force feeding him. There’s nothing left we can do. No amount of comforting words, rest, food, or water will release him from his illness, it’s taken him completely, ready to remove him from this world. It has been a long time coming, a day I hoped would never arrive. I knew Erwin could only take so many more lapses.
“What do we do?” Rita asks. I shake my head and laugh. As if I know the answers. I’m the last person looking to make this call. But I have to. Erwin would probably want us to just end it. He’d say, ‘it’s just a waste of resources’. I’m sure ending his misery has already been discussed among my peers. I might not want to make the call, but I sure as hell am not giving anyone like Max or Janice or anyone else the chance to decide. They’d have shot Erwin a long time ago.
“Let’s ride it out. You said it; he’s not going to be with us much longer. I doubt he’ll make it to morning,” I say, so matter of fact it brings tears to my eyes.
Rita sighs. She looks back to the barn. “We’ve gotten out of control,” she says. I turn to look at the mass of bodies crowded around a feast.
“This stash has made us all stupid,” I say.
Rita nods. “I’ll let you know when he’s awake.”
“All right, I’ll be on watch.” Rita returns to the bunker where we’ve made Erwin a nice place to rest. I haven’t been down there since we first put him inside.
I make my way along a row of trees. We haven’t had any other animals out here, but me, Greg, and a couple others continue to take turns on watch duty. The silence is sometimes frightening, but I’ve come to find peace with it. I’m still a bit paranoid, we all are, but our time here has been a nice change to life before. My only fear is that my comrades have squandered our resources. Where will we go if Erwin dies? Not if, when he dies. I’d better get used to that notion. When he dies, what will come of us? My head aches from the constant questions, the uncertainty and the grief. Though, I’ve refused to fully accept the grief part. I can’t quite allow myself to feel it, to realize what is coming.
I stare out at the changing skyline, its shift from the sun’s rays, to gray clouds. Cool winds become a brisk chill and the stink leaves the air. It must be going on autumn now, I hadn’t noticed when spring had turned to summer, but I recognize the fall air when it hits my face. I’m lost for a few seconds, taking myself away from this moment, refusing to grieve.
Greg walks toward me. I turn away from him, staring out at the shifting clouds.
“Things are going to get rougher from here on out,” he says. I glance over. His hands are black from working in the dirt, digging graves. Sweat dribbles down his cheeks.
“He was the only thing holding this together,” I say.
“Can’t let it get to you. Lots of folks die.”
“Not like this. Usually not like this. It’s almost easier.”
He nods, wiping dirt onto his shirt. “That nagging pain will go away. It always does.”
“He’s up,” Rita says, from the barn. I take a breath, look out at the empty land to ensure it’s truly empty, and make my way to the barn.
I hand my gun off to Rita as I enter the barn. I step up to the hatch and can feel the watchful eyes of my group. They’re celebration has been cut short. Rita has a grave look upon her face as I place a foot on the first rung.
“He’s awake, but it’s…” I move down the ladder in a hurry and she fails to complete her sentence.
I look upon the face of a stranger. Erwin reaches out to me, a pale, balmy hand that makes me cringe. “My girl,” he says. A trickle of blood falls from his nose, down his cheek. I wipe it away with his shirt. “It’s been a long sleep,” he says, coughing. I push a pillow up behind his head to help him breath better, but he continues to cough phlegm into his hand. “I remember some more details now,” he says.
“What do you remember?” I ask. “Is it about the last bunker?”
“I remember where I found you,” he says. I have wondered about where I came from, but my past is useless if there is nowhere to go after Erwin dies. He places a finger to his head and thinks. Then he smiles a smile that I have not seen in months. “It was the swamp in the deep South, Louisiana it seems. Oh, its old coasts are submerged now, but I found you living way down there, on a little island, just you among dead Cajuns. I watched you for a couple days, trying to figure out if you were one of those beasts. You had survived on instinct, thriving among dogs, although, I did find you in the nick of time. You were on the last dog and there were drifters moving in on you, creeps looking for something other than survival.” He stops, takes a deep, congested breath and coughs blood into his hand. He doesn’t seem to notice the spill of blood on his fingers. His head dips back for a second, and then comes flying up, his eyes wide. “Oh, I’ve remembered more,” he says.
“Tell me,” I say. If I can keep him talking perhaps he’ll stay with us. He grabs at his face, smearing blood across his cheek.
“There have been so many mistakes,” he says. “It was not meant to end this way. I was not supposed to fall ill.”
I shake my head. “You’ve done more for us than we’d like to think.”
Erwin laughs. “You’d follow me into a group of animals if asked.” His remark is painful to digest. My doubt has been a constant battle, but I find myself falling back on Erwin’s word every step of the way. “I’m sorry for leaving,” he says.
Tears burn my eyes, but I don’t cry.
“Once I’m healthy, I’ll take us there, no more wandering, I’ve remembered, you said I would,” he says.
“Erwin, what did you remember about the bunker?” I ask.
“I’ve told you haven’t I,” he asks, coughing. “It’s on the map.”
His eyes close and chest rises just once more. His body goes limp in the blink of an eye. And just like that, he’s gone. At first, I don’t call to anyone, I just wait. I let his body rest. I give it time to settle into my brain.
I don’t cry or hope for another day with him, I accept what has been coming.
As they bring the body up, I turn away.
Michael and Rita take the sheet from the cot Erwin was on and wrap his body up in a tight cocoon. Erwin’s face is still visible through a thin layer of fabric.
A hole is dug swiftly, beside the mass grave where Erwin’s family was laid to rest just a couple weeks before. Michael and Rita drag the body over and place it in the hole. The rest of the group gathers around the grave. I get a few strained looks, expectant faces waiting for me to spout a few words about what awaits Erwin’s soul, but I’ve got nothing. He’s gone, that’s all there is. I stopped worrying about life after death a long time ago. Erwin was the closest person to me, but I can’t find the will to cry or say words on his behalf. I know, in a few days, I’ll probably break down and wish I had said or done more, but right now, I’m just as lost as the rest of my group.
“Throw the dirt in,” I say, the only thing I can bring myself to do. No one questions the immediacy of the burial or my ambivalence. They simply go about their day, not fully realizing that we are without guidance. Our leader is dead, the only one most of us have ever known. He’s decaying in the same way as this earth, slowly and quietly with no regard for those left behind. I watch the last scoop of dirt fall from the end of Michael’s shovel, tiny particles of soil settle onto a mound of wet dirt. Erwin is now a couple feet down, in his final resting place.
“Are you all right?” Michael asks.
“I’m fine.” I try to shake away the dread that’s overtaken me.
“He’ll be missed by me too,” Michael says. He wipes sweat from his brow and shoves the shovel into the soil. “What’ll we do now?” he asks.
That question, more than anything, make me uneasy. I can’t stand to see that childlike face of Michael’s filled with worry.
“It’ll be all right,” I say.
“I hope so. Max is already jostling for leadership,” he says. We both turn to the group; they’ve all congregated around the truck to smoke the last of the cigarettes.
“He’ll have us all at each other’s throats by sundown,” I say.
“Maybe we should get rid of him.”
My head snaps around so fast it makes Michael step back. “We only kill those who’ve taken flesh from the bodies of our own.” Michael nods, but there’s still fear in his eyes. My anger fades into understanding. “All I’m saying is we’ve got worse problems to worry over.”
“But if we don’t find food it’ll be the end of us,” Michael says.
“Do you think you could ever do it?” he asks, choosing his words carefully. He’s asking the question we’ve all thought about.
“No,” I say. But it’s not entirely true. I have considered it. I’ve looked upon those still faces in the night. Too many times I have gone to bed with no food in my stomach and no promise of food on the next day. There were times I reached for my knife without thinking, as my mind was overwhelmed with the pain of hunger.
“Things have gotten bad, but I can’t see myself eating another person, not to see another day. If it gets that bad, you and I will leave,” I say. Michael gives a faint smile.
“Do you mean that?”
The group has managed to slow its siege on the supplies, but it’s come too late. We sat about too long, eating more than we needed. I watch children fight over rations, kicking and clawing at one another over little bits of food.
I’m on watch duty, my self-imposed job. The constant need for alert and focus keeps my mind off the shaky standings of my group. We’re about due for an implosion, it actually seems necessary at this point. Michael and I have steered clear of the others for the most part, only keeping tabs with Rita, Greg and a couple others. I keep a revolver strapped to my hip at all times and a rifle against my chest. The fear of using a gun has subsided and my aim has steadily improved. My knife is sharp and I’ve put on a bit of weight, not enough to fill out, but I don’t see all my ribs sticking through my skin. I’m ready to take Michael and just leave. It could work with just the two of us, but part of me refuses to give up on these people. We’ve all had a hand in letting things come this far. It was a long few weeks where we had nothing, and then we came upon the biggest stash of supplies we’d seen. Everyone got lazy and now we must pay the consequences. Erwin wouldn’t want us to split up, though. This is the only family we’ve got.
Rita marches away from the chaos, toward me. “It’s falling apart in there,” she says.
“They’ve given up,” I say.
“We need Erwin,” she says. I nod, pushing away thoughts of our former leader, fighting off images of his lifeless body.
“We need to get this in order or break off,” I say.
“Separating never goes well. You know what happened a few years back. People start taking and shoving, and some die.”
I do remember. I remember the screams of the woman dragged to her death. I can see the charred bodies. That’s what happens when bad apples get in the group and don’t want to leave. They make you pay.
“So what do we do?” I ask.
Rita takes a breath, preparing for the question she meant to ask all along. “You can read the maps,” she says.
“But I can’t lead. I can barely hold me and the boy together.”
Rita shakes her head. “You’re as close to Erwin as we’ll get. They need something to look forward to. It’s the only thing we’ve got right now.”
“I don’t know if there’s anything left,” I say.
“He told you about a place, didn’t he?” Rita asks.
I nod. “There’s supposed to be a bunker. He said it would be the end of all our travels.”
“That’s it. That’s what we’ll tell them,” Rita says.
“And what if it isn’t?” I ask. I want to believe that Erwin knew what he was saying. But doubt. There’s always the doubt, the fear of things not being quite right.
“I can’t do this. You look over the maps. See what you can. I don’t know anymore,” I say. I leave her there to ponder. I can’t help not wanting to step in. There are other people who could do it just as well, but they don’t want to. They’re all just as scared.
Rita waits for the crowd to quiet; they’re anxious and irritable due to the low food supply. And if there is blame to place, they’re willing to put it all on Rita. She’s been holding her own, but her control wavers toward collapse with each passing day without more supplies.
“We rationed like you said,” yells a voice from the back.
“We need a leader,” says another.
“How are we supposed to live out here?”
“There’s nothing left here. Get the maps. There’s got to be something on the maps.”
I reach into my jacket and wrap my fingers around the map Erwin was so concerned about just before his death. His lucid state had him speaking about a place that would end our wandering. It’s the place he originated from. I’ve poured over the maps, gone over coordinates, marked off places we’ve been, followed lines to other places, and have attempted to coordinate a route around the cities, but every path leads us straight through the bombed places.
Rita is calm. She always smiles before giving a response. “Erwin did right by us. He promised riches and he supplied them, but he is gone now, and in his passing we have grown stupid. Just weeks ago we were starving, on the brink of death, then we had ample resources, now we’re back to near nothing. It is our own fault.”
The crowd is silent.
“All of your complaints are valid, but remember, you are to blame for this mess. I am too and even Erwin,” Rita says, smacking her thigh.
“What about the maps?” Janice asks.
Rita nods. She turns to me, clawing a finger at the air, calling me over. “She can read the maps,” Rita says. Wide eyes and incredulous faces look me up and down, as if they’ve never laid eyes on me before.
“What does the map say?” Ela asks.
I reach into my jacket and pull the map out. “It’s a bunch of lines and numbers; it’s hard to make out some stuff.” I hand the map to Greg. He glances at it, unsure of what he sees, and passes it to someone else.
“She saved us that night,” says Janice. She’s not one I’d expect to fine support in. She must be out of cleaning wipes to suck on.
“And she’s handy with a knife. Most of us have never had to kill an animal thanks to her,” Rita says.
Slowly, I’m becoming candidate number one for leadership and it’s making my chest burn. More of the group calls out supposed acts of kindness, or in their eyes, “bravery”.
“Those are things I’ve seen others do. We’ve all got potential to lead,” I say. My attempt at humility goes unheard.
“But you can read the map?” says Franklin, an older gent. I nod.
“This is our best option,” Rita says. I scowl at her.
“What does the map say?” Ela asks, again.
“There’s this place. Erwin said it was where he came from. It’s supposed to be like the bunkers we’ve been to, but it holds enough to last lifetimes. It would end our wandering,” I say.
The group explodes with surprise.
“But it’s through the bombed cities,” I say, raising my voice above the murmurs of the crowd. They’re eyes come back to me, suddenly fearful.
“Others have gone that way. It’s the worst place,” Janice says.
“We don’t know what we’ll find. We’ll travel as quickly as possible and find this place Erwin spoke of,” Rita says, trying to reassure the group. “It would end the constant travel.”
“And we’d have another Erwin to lead us on a perilous journey,” Max says, angrily bighting at his nails. He’s hardly payed attention until now. The crowd turns to him. “We’re lucky he fell out of a stupor long enough to get us here. He’d been taking us around in circles for at least a year.” Max stands. The chalky white residue of alcohol wipes stains his lips. “I could read the map if given a chance,” he says, snatching the map from Janice’s grasp. He looks it over, bringing it extremely close to his face. He squints and whispers to himself.
“Well, what does it tell you?” asks Rita.
Max groans. “It’s nothing but some child’s drawings. It’s bullshit,” he says.
I put my hand out for the map. “Give it to me,” I say.
“Oh, so you’re giving me orders already?” Max asks.
I can feel the blood rising in my cheeks. “Look, I say it wouldn’t hurt if we follow the map. We’ve been all over this country and we’ve encountered some rough times, but we have found some places like this one. Erwin was sure about this last place. I trust…” I stop and have to remind myself of his passing. “I trusted him. For the most part, he did right by us. No one would be here if he hadn’t come along.”
If being leader keeps Max from sending us to our deaths, then so be it. I can’t sit by and watch this group sink further into the self-loathing mess it’s become.
“Look at you speaking a bunch of mess he taught you. We don’t need a speech, Max says. Some of the easily convinced members nod along and give Max pats on the back.
“Shut it, Max,” Rita says. She jumps off the truck and pushes him aside. She addresses the group. “Let’s quit with the lollygagging. I see it as we have just a few ways to go about this. Either you all can go off on your own and see what comes of you, we can do whatever it is Max is spouting out of that drunken mouth, or we can follow this map, which means following her.” I try to swallow, but my mouth has gone dry so it just hurts.
All eyes are on me. They realize the mistakes we’ve made since arriving.
“No one wants to lose what we have here,” Ela says.
“Idiots, all of you,” Max says. He shoves the map into my chest and stalks off, cursing at everyone.
“What’s the plan?” Rita asks, staring me straight in the face.
I look down at the map. I’ve been chosen leader with very little effort. But there’s a part of me that wants it. All these desperate people are depending on me now. I can’t say no. Erwin would have wanted it this way, I’m sure of it.
I clear my throat. “From here on out, you’ll pull your weight,” I say, giving my first command as leader. “We need to prepare for the cities. You’ll all be trained to use the guns. There won’t be any more excuses for getting out of watch duty. You’ll also divide your rations. We’ll need to keep enough food and water to get us to the cities.”
About a dozen heads bob, including the children. The group disperses and my commands are followed.
Greg pats me on the back.
“You can handle this,” he says. But I can see the fear in his eyes. He, of all people, does not want to return to the cities.
He grabs the map and gives it a once over. I know he wishes he knew what they meant.
“We’ll go through fast,” I say.
He gives a weak smile and hands me the map. “Let’s hope so.”
I fold the map and put it away. I return to watch duty. I think long and hard about my decision, about the fate of the group in my hands. There’s a cool breeze coming in and the sky is foreboding, each hour it seems to get a little darker. I shiver, feeling the cold wind against my ears. I pull my collar up.
Michael comes to me, frowning.
“It’s been coming down to it,” I say, before Michael can speak. “Someone had to lead; I guess it was bound to happen.”
“You don’t have to,” he says. “Maybe Rita and Greg can do it.”
“They want it even less than I do. Rita’s the doctor and Greg is a loyal friend, but unwilling to lead,” I say. “I have a good team with me, with you and them. I think it’ll be all right.”
“What if the map’s wrong?” he asks.
He’s always got to bring up the think the scares me most. I just look off, ignoring the question and nagging doubts.
Max sits on the truck bumper, wiping grime from his stomach.
“It was a good effort,” I say, joining him on the bumper.
“Don’t gloat,” he says, revealing half of his gangly body.
“The rain looks to be done.”
“Are we heading out?” he asks.
“We will when you’re finished bathing.”
He removes his pants. His lower body is blinding white. I keep my eyes on his upper half.
“I want you on my team,” I say.
Max scoffs. “You’re just like him,” he says. “No one is on a team. The moment we run out of food they’ll be at your throat.”
“So we need to keep everyone together.”
“I’m not in it for them,” he says, sliding on his pants.
“All I ask is that you support me while I am in charge.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. Right now they support you, maybe that changes tomorrow.”
“Is that a threat?” I ask, reaching for the pistol at my back.
Max laughs as he slips on his shirt. “All I’m saying is, if it happens I’ll be there to seize an opportunity.”
“And until then, you don’t go speaking lies into their ears,” I say, wrapping my hand around my gun. “I see through you. You might have sobered up but you’re just as drunk and stupid as ever.”
“Look, I’ll keep my mouth shut, just don’t go asking me for help,
Max stalks away. I let the gun go and take a breath. I know it won’t be the last time I’m staring Max down and reaching for a weapon.
Rations are divided up a final time and the truck is cleaned and loaded with supplies before we head out. Greg takes the truck gun and I take my position in front of the truck, between Rita and Max, who is sobering up just in time. Michael and Franklin take up the rear. Ela has volunteered to drive and even Janice is making herself useful by watching over the rations.
I turn to face the truck, and stare in at several eager faces. I can only hope that they are just as eager when we’re stranded in the middle of the cities.
“Let’s go,” I say.
The truck powers up and we start down the dirt road. There is no sunlight to lead us, it’s hidden behind gray clouds that have promised rain for weeks, but given nothing. We ride toward the storm clouds, to find the bombed cities that litter the East. The truck hums behind me, trudging through the dirt, following the same trail that led us here. The map is pressing against my chest, it scratches at my thin skin. I’ve gone over its contents for days, and it still feels a stranger to me, but I have no choice but to see what it could bring us.
“It should rain,” Rita says. I look up at the troubled sky, at its angry colors of gray and black. Lightning strikes the earth in a flash and an explosion lights the land on fire. It’s a storm we’ll be forced to face, a storm that we have waited to see for so long.
“Does that map of yours really lead somewhere?” Max asks. I swallow hard, gulping for saliva to wet my dry mouth. “I wouldn’t blame you for lying is all I’m saying.”
“It’s not a lie,” I say. There’s a look in his eyes that has rarely been seen, joy. The promise of rain can even unfreeze the heart of Max. He turns back to watching the road. I wonder about his sudden change in mood, knowing it to be sobriety coming on. He’s all right when he’s sober, but it’s a sight rarely seen.
No one speaks once we leave the confines of the farm. The land is unfamiliar to us outside the states of the mid-west. The land is rough and unforgiving. We’ve avoided these paths for years, refusing to travel to the darkened cities.
Wind flows through my jacket and I shiver, I tighten my collar. Above us, the clouds rage. The storm races across the sky as if it prefers to face us sooner rather than later. We’ve only just begun our leave of the farm and are already faced with brutality. Pebble sized hail grazes my cheek and all around us, the road is covered in tiny specks of white ice. Max, Rita, the other watchers, and I fall back to the truck and climb inside. There’s no point in keeping watch from outside, even the animals won’t be out in this storm.
I stare through the foggy windshield. “Bring us to a stop, we can’t risk the tires.” The truck grinds to a halt, the engine dies quietly, and the beating of hail on the roof rings in our ears. My teeth chatter as the hail beats away at us like a fist on a drum, pounding us into silence. The children whimper and hide their faces in the crooks of their parent’s arms. The gentle patting of hands on the backs of the children soothes both adult and child.
A chunk of hail smacks the windshield. The sound sends an alarming shot of pain down my back. Jagged lines stretch across the glass like fault lines, limiting our view further.
“We need cover,” Greg says. I try to get a look outside but it’s no use, we’re stuck, blind in the middle of a hail storm that wishes to destroy us. Thunder booms overhead and a blast of lightning strikes the ground not even twenty feet from our truck, sending a tremor under the tires and through the vehicle. Metal rattles against metal and the cries of the children rise.
“There’s nowhere to go,” I say, looking to the forlorn faces staring back at me. “The storm will pass eventually.”
The day is long, fraught with hail storms that come and go with unfathomable speed, though the intensity of the latter storms isn’t as extreme. At each interval between storms we attempt to clear the road with shovels, hands, anything that will scrape away the ice. It’s slow going, though. We’re only able to clear about a quarter mile at a time before the next round of storms come and we’re sent running for the truck, knocking away hail before it knocks us out. When the rain finally comes, we’ve mounted a high point in the road and are on firm ground, peering down at a rush of water that’s driving a ditch through the road. The thump of rain sends the children to the windows where they’ll sit for the rest of the day, watching the first rain most have seen since birth. I can’t remember the last time it rained, but I’m sure it didn’t bring this much moisture.
Our trip has yielded about a dozen animals just in the last day. The closer we get to the cities, the more they seem to pop up. The group is on high alert, so we’ve avoided attack, but the number of animals this way is not a good sign for things to come.
The truck bumps along, rolling over hills and streams. My head aches from the constant vibrations and endless chatter from the other passengers. We passed the first sign of the big cities about a mile back, a crooked state welcome sign for New York. We’ve still got a little while before we enter the cities, but they’re already nervously cracking knuckles and chattering, constant whispers about what might come of us. Seeing that sign sent shivers down all our spines, it woke us up. Most of us have never been this far East before, and those who have don’t speak highly of it.
I lean into the window, which only makes the aching worse. The windshield wipers struggle under the pressure of heavy rains, making minute dents in the downpour. The road is clear, though. It’s the clearest path we’ve had. The asphalt is intact and stretches before us like a black arrow. The roads become thinner and burned houses and businesses spring up all around us, desecrated places, hollow and bare except for the walls. Everyone’s on guard now, huddling together with their eyes on the road.
I sit up. my gun bounces against my trembling thigh. Looming in the distance, the first of several major cities reveals itself to us as a shining metal wall. I take the map out and run a finger along the path. We’re meant to bypass this city and forge a path further along the lower part of the state then up toward the worst hit areas.
“There’s a road up there. Turn left on it,” I say, to Ela.
“Is this not it?” she asks.
“No, not yet,” I say, relieved. “We’ll know when we see it.”
“Couldn’t we just cut around it all?”
“There are walls, hundreds of walls around the city that were supposed to keep it locked off from the rest of the state. The only path through is along the coast,” Greg says. He leans over my seat, staring at the city. It’s familiar to him. He’s been right by my side since we came across that state sign.
“I sure wish they hadn’t done all that, it didn’t stop the world from ending,” I say.
“They felt protected,” Greg says.
Our night is spent on the outskirts of the cities, wedged between abandoned vehicles off the main road. All I know is that it’s humid and several days in this truck with no washing makes for a gross place to sleep. The night is fraught with stale, hot air and no sleep. Our bodies ferment in layers of sweat and oil. Cracking a window does little good. It’ll take a hose and some hard labor to clean out the stink. I only hope morning comes fast and we can get a good look at the city we’re meant to travel through. I hope the path Erwin had laid out for us isn’t impossible.
Darkness looms before us. The ruins of several cities blanket the landscape. This place was once a mega metropolis of shining steel and crystal clear glass. Now the poor and rich cities are one desecrated image.
There are a few places that aren’t as heavily damaged. A row of warehouses dot one of the areas still standing. We sit, crammed up against one another, peering through the cracked windshield, at a warehouse. I tap my knife against my knee, eyes peeled, searching for movement.
As we funnel out of the metal sauna that’s been our home for three weeks, we hug the sides of the truck. Not a sound is made. Boots tread carefully against broken glass, metal, and wood. Children hug the legs of their parents, eyes wide and spilling with tears. But they don’t make a peep, not even a whimper.
No one speaks, but through slow neck turns and looks, we select the first warehouse. It’s a piece of shit, somewhere no one would ever leave once venturing inside. But we don’t have a choice. It’s got metal walls, a plus. There are some barbed wire areas, and plenty of windows to see through. It’s the least beat down. I’m the first one in. As leader, I don’t have a choice. The pounding, beating drum of my heart makes my whole body tremble. I can feel my pulse in my ears, pressure building in my head.
I creep inside. Michael is positioned at my back, Greg isn’t far behind him. Sunlight penetrates deep layers of dust, illuminating the dank space, casting shadows across the ground. There are car parts scattered across desks, soiled furniture is still circled around a TV set, a spot where workers once slumbered, and piles of tools lay on the ground and under desks. The building squeals as wind funnels through the space. But there are no hunched beasts or human remains. The warehouse is just as its workers left it over ten years ago. This location could be worse.
We go up a rickety staircase and step onto a platform that hangs out over the main part of the building. All we find is a desk covered in maps and a table setting. A plate, two glasses, and silverware are still positioned neatly. There are even the faintest particles of food still clinging to the plate. These people left in a hurry, it’s the same story all over the country.
Another flight of steps leads to the roof. I jam my foot through the last rung on a melted and contorted ladder and climb to the very top of a water tower. From here, I can now see that this city does not feature a very clear path through its center. I had hoped for better, that we could perhaps bypass this mangled mess. I bring my rifle around and wipe mud from the scope. Bent steel juts out of the tops of the buildings that still stand. Everything in our line of sight, everything in our path, is a black and gray smear melding with the gray sky. And that’s just what we can see from a few miles away, tucked away in our abandoned building, just outside of the main city.
“What do you see?” Michael asks.
“There’s no way around.”
I peer across the sky, adjusting my scope as I bring it from one end of the metropolis to the next. My eye skips over it at first, a thin line threading its way up the sky. I adjust the focus, and follow a trail of smoke that winds its way up from a spot at the center of the city. If anyone is still alive, they won’t be for long. Those animals would notice the smoke the moment a flame was ignited. I bring my gun down and climb off the tower. This place will do for now.
Michael joins me on the roof. “How does it look from up there?”
“It doesn’t look good.”
“The others are already arguing about food,” he says.
“We’ll have to find food soon.”
We stay on the roof, looking out at the city and the smoke rising from its center. The sun sinks further away and the light fades faster as it begins to set. There’s a glow around the city, casting a myriad of shadows through contorted steel beams, the remnants of windows, and crumbling walls. There’s a bleakness that falls across the city that is unlike anything in all the places I’ve seen, it’s gloomy in a way that makes everything else seem peaceful. It awaits our journey through its interior where it can wrap us up in its dark web, rendering an escape attempt to the other side futile. I shudder at the thought of dying here. I wish Erwin was leading us through this mess.
As night takes over, the city comes alive. What was once quiet and eerie is now awake with loud and terrifying sounds. From the depths of its interior, the screams and moans of the city cut through the dark. It’s as if they’re on top of us, ready to seize us in the night. I perch up against the water tower, a gun at my shoulder and one at my feet. From my vantage point, I can see all around the building, to Greg down on the roof, to Max and Janice down on one side of the enclosure and Michael and Rita on the other. They’re little specks in the dark, hardly moving even as the sounds grow louder. But I know they’re just as frightened as I am. They stay close together, back to back, never venturing more than a few feet apart. I see Greg turn his head and stare up at me; his eyes reflect in what little light the moon is providing through the clouds. I wave him over. He makes the climb up the ladder, painstakingly slow to avoid scraping against the metal. I lean forward and stick a hand out, and pull him up on the tower.
“What is that?” I ask, speaking close to his face.
He leans over, whispering just as soft.
“The city is awake,” he says. “Listen.”
From what I gather, the city is simply creaking and squealing on its own accord, a reaction to harsh winds. I get a clear look at the black mass as a flash of lightning cracks across the sky. My heart flutters, but I find relief in the storm.
Greg scoots closer to me, pressing his gun into his stomach, barely aiming at a target. “It’s just moving. The wind and the rain are reacting with steel and glass.”
“Are we unsafe?” I ask, bringing my gun up suddenly.
He shakes his head and places a hand on mine. “We’re safe here,” he says.
I steady my shaking hands and grasp the gun with renewed vigor. Greg’s eyes shine in the light.
I motion to the roof. “I’ve got your back from here.”
White light flashes in the sky. We watch as the clouds erupt with lightning and listen to rolling thunder move race across the sky. Rain comes in faster than we expected. Greg and I shuffle into the warehouse. It isn’t long before the worst of the storm is bearing down on us. At least we’ll be afforded some sleep.
Members of my group groan every time I pass. We need to make a supply run, and soon. Weather has kept us cramped up in this place for too long. It’s been safe so far, but with no food, things are turning sour faster than I’d expected.
I sit on the truck, opening up Erwin’s map binder. He’s got all sorts of hand drawn maps, some I’ve never seen. There are even diagrams of the cities. It took me most of the day to figure out what I was seeing. These maps weren’t meant to be deciphered by just anyone. But I managed to put it together and map out each little section of the city.
Greg keeps me company, trying his best to understand what I’m seeing.
“What’s that?” Greg asks, pointing to a triangle in the center.
“Just marks the center, easier to map out miles.”
“And that,” he asks, dragging his fingernail along a line near the top.
“It’s another route, but not one we’d want,” I say. I point my marker at a spot along the line. “That says it’s heavily blocked.”
Greg shakes his head. He laughs. “Any idea if he marked food on that thing?”
“Each bunker was supposed to hold us over until the next. But that went to shit,” I say, marking a new line.
I finish marking and stare at the map. I’ve got a few possible locations to see, but most are places I never want to visit—hospitals, grocery stores, and schools. Nothing good ever comes out of going into those areas.
“We’d better go out sooner rather than later,” Greg says, glancing at our starving guests.
“I’m thinking, me, you, Mike, and Max.”
“Max?” Greg asks, scratching his chin.
“Having him with us is better. We can’t have him stirring up trouble.”
“I can handle them on my own,” Rita says, coming over with water.
“We’ll go in the morning,” I say.
'In part two of the Extinction story, Erin and the other survivors must make some tough decisions or risk starvation.' A band of travelers are constantly on the move, desperately seeking stockpiles of supplies. One member, Erin, is beginning to have her doubts about the location of these bunkers. But it's the threat of vicious animals that keep her on edge.