Everything near the outskirts was scrapped. Nothing much left close to the river. Anything else of value gone for about ten blocks in from each side.
We didn’t have to go that far. But we did anyway. We got greedy.
It was a risk. Weighed out justly, it was figured, but still massive. And gambles of such size have a cost. We were to take the trip though, just the same.
It was to be the last time we’d brave the ruins. Then our little group should be sustainable. We might never have to see the this place ever again. Just ride out the apocalypse in our little mountain town. Happy. At some sort of general peace.
Francis always thought this is the closest we’d ever get. To peace. Us being humans and all.
Dad figured this might be the quickest a city has turned to rubble in the history of mankind.
Though, it wasn’t just a city. As in singular. It was all of them. As in plural. As plural as you can get.
He supposed that had something to do with such a rapid rate of decay. Everything falling apart so quickly. Everyone was gone, at least statistically. Sure, some folks were still around. Like we were. Just surviving because that’s all there was left to do. But it took nine billion to live and work and maintain all these places. That old society. The antiquated way of life. There’s something like, point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, one percent of us left.
So as you probably guessed, I didn’t go to prom. From what I’ve heard, I’m much better off not having had one.
We rode horseback through these modern ruins. Human forged structures that not more than twenty years ago stood tall and shiny and seemingly indestructible. Walls appearing to be made impossibly out of glass. Arches and parapets and stone paved sidewalks in the fancy parts of town. Postcard perfection.
Now a postcard is one of the few homes left for the memory metropolis. What hasn’t collapsed is overgrown with vegetation. The glass and stone crack all the same. The trees grow tall up the support beams as they king themselves over this island yet again. Almost as if they had just been sitting and waiting for hundreds of years for that chance to reign supreme again.
The pavement is turning back to dirt. We all will too.
Dad told me people used to take care of their ruins. Far older than these. Some thousands of years old. Restoration, they called it. Fix and maintain and put up little fences around crumbled buildings and such. Try to make them last longer. It was about culture, or heritage, or some other shit.
Structures of the Ancient World. It wasn’t totally a picture book. That’s why I felt so proud of myself at the time. Side by side. One page was pictures of whatever structure. The other all words about it. The Colosseum I found interesting. No roof.
No one does that anymore. A luxury far out of our price range, as dad would say. Those pictures impressed me, as a much now as when my four-year-old eyes first got lost in that book.
The wildest part, he says, is that all this change has happened since I was born.
He thinks coincidences are nonsense, but I am the same age Dad was on the day I was born. A young adult. Very young adult, back in Dad’s day. He still doesn’t seem very old. Except when he shares all that he knows. Then you’d think he has been walking the earth for thousands of years.
He told me back when things were, I would just be shy of graduating college. Around my age. I’d be looking for some sort of job. A career, which is something that if done correctly, takes up a vast majority of your life’s time. Lots of dresses and nice slacks and flowy blouses. Outfits. And shoes. Evidently, I was supposed to crave really expensive and uncomfortable shoes, the way someone in the desert feels about water. And make-up, whatever that was. You weren’t supposed to go outside without that nonsense on. Always sounded rather absurd to me. Putting powders and goop all over your face. Seemed a lot like what clowns do. You know, in the circus.
I know about clowns. Read about, rather. Another picture book. Dad could never find a book without getting me to read it. From pop-up picture books to Dostoevsky.
He also told me that when his parents were my age, most girls were already married. Having or already had babies. Cooking. Cleaning. Sitting around at home. Waiting for their husbands.
I don’t believe that but he swears it’s true.
“Strange as it is,” he told me once. “Things might be more progressive now than ever before.”
He says that, but I’ll never know. This world is all I’ve known. Every person has a duty. And that duty depends on their ability. Some folks are good at many things, some are not. But everyone can do something. So everyone does something. You must earn your meals.
It was my first trek to the ruins. It was Dad’s fifteenth since we formed the camp.
“I haven’t been this far in since you were a little girl,” Dad told me from one horse over. “Do you have any memories of this place?”
I looked around. Concrete caked in vine. Pavement cracked and penetrated by roots and flowers. Skeletons of titans, strewn from steel until they reached far above. Those that were left standing. Dad said they were called skyscrapers. Aptly named, I thought.
“I’m not sure Dad,” I confessed. “I don’t really remember much from before.”
“We’re only going to go a bit further,” he warned. “We’ve got near everything. We don’t really want to be around the train station when the sun starts to go down.”
Our glimmering star seemed to rest so perfectly in the center of the sky.
“We’ve still got hours until dark,” muttered my juvenile logic.
“Come on now kid,” he laughed. He always did that. Laughed and never explained himself.
I was forced to survey again.
Begrudgingly, I saw.
A day that would have been void of shadow in an open field, was becoming no more than littering light in long columns. Coming from the west, the river side, that light would get clipped behind the ridge on the opposite shore casting dark before the rest of the area.
That laugh would drive me mad. It always meant he was right. I had said something foolish.
A year ago, I would have asked why it was such a big deal. I know now.
As horseshoes on horse feet brought us down the expanding jungle, I tried to dredge my mind for any memories of this place. I could still only remember the village. And the wandering before that. Miles away from here. Home. Safe. For the most part.
“She ended up being far more resilient than we had given her credit for,” Dad said, as if to only himself.
“Yup. The planet.”
It’s an incredible thing, to always be looking at the clouds and never miss a thing.
That was my father.
His eyes need not be open to see. He could nap and still be the first to hear the herd of wild cattle passing across the stream to the west of camp. He never sang at night with the others. He sang when chopping firewood or smoking his pipe on the porch. By himself. And his voice was a gritty kind of beautiful. Weathered and worn, yet pitched and toned like an old leather drum. Satisfying.
His seriousness never got in the way of his laughter. He loved to listen to stories. When forced, he’d share a few of his own. I’d seen the way some of the women in camp look at him. I’d be mad but he never looks back. Still always holds the door open for them.
The men would gossip worse than the women, or at least more often. But of death and fighting. Of legendary cruelties. Evidently, Dad killed a squad of fifteen men set to ambush our camp. By himself. He saved the whole village but refused to have anyone help bury the bodies. He called it penance.
Francis said Dad fought harder than anyone to make this life we had. He said Dad did it all for me. I’d be a liar if that didn’t make me proud. And more a liar still, if that pride didn’t make me feel a bit guilty.
It wasn’t until I was selected to go on this trek that my father ever told me much about what it was like before. The city. The world.
Millions upon millions of people, all in this one city. Trains that snaked in and out of the islands. Bridges packed with cars going nowhere, puffing out into the air. Boats bobbing in and out. Planes trailing steam and smoke as they tore across the sky, hundreds at a time.
Everyone running around.
The trash piled higher than buses.
“They really thought we could destroy this whole place. We were well on our way. And we would have, if nature hadn’t killed off most of us off. The air, the water, the soil- all getting poisoned. Toxic. All getting used up. There were too many of us. And our habits were horrible.”
Dad said that’s when the first people got sick.
But still, spring was upon us.
Spores bounced about the staggered ripples of light, as it crept through the rows of titans. It shot chaotically off each bit of broken glass either on the ground, or still clinging to the remainder of a window. As we rode, I watched my father close his eyes and breathe deeply. It was not quite a smile. Still, all the muscles in his face relaxed simultaneously.
I often wonder what my father thought about. What he remembered. What he held on to. I dare not ask though. I only have the rumors and legends of him I’ve heard around camp. Which is more of his past than he wants me to know.
There are things that could be wished forgotten. Easily, in his life. In this life. Best not to bring it up.
“These were all very high-end office buildings,” Francis spoke as we passed. Much older than dad by a good few years. Grey hair, that he claims used to be golden brown. Only one eye of blue, where he said there used to be two. A crude covering draped over the other socket.
“What’s an office?” my ignorance inquired.
They both just laughed.
“It’s a place people used to go to die,” Dad said through his subsiding chuckles. “Only they would do it little by little, each day for years and years and years.”
“They called it having a job,” Francis laughed. “Volunteered slavery.”
“Everyone had to have a job,” Dad said. “Though only a few of them were worth doing. But still, everyone had to have one, so most people ended up just wasting space and time.”
It bothered the hell out of me when Dad and Francis would be so vague. Like a riddle I couldn’t answer. Or a joke with a punchline shot over my head.
As we rode, the titans grew taller. Clustered close and rising higher than I could even imagine. And with that, the shadows grew longer. There were eight of us in all. Teams of two.
Hans and Theo stood guard over the trailer. And so it sat on the end of the city, close to the river. The other teams would scan the streets for what could be found. Dad and I headed east. Chase and Ty went south. Francis had gone off with Helen. North bound. Looking for canned food in something that was once called a bodega.
We had grabbed enough car batteries. A few scraps of precious metals. Any tools worth picking up. Clothing that was not totally consumed by moths. Fuels of all sorts. Mostly liquid. A few gaseous, if the containers were still sound enough. Dad would always find a few cultural items to toss in the pile. Books. Records. Instruments. Films on disks. That sort of thing.
And eventually, last remaining bits needed for our electrical grid at home were attained, so the superfluous supplies were timely collected. We began to head back from where we had entered. Back to Hans and Theo and the trailer. Back to the road. Back home.
We met up with Francis and Helen a few blocks from the city’s edge. They were all smiles. They were in love, I thought then. I asked Dad once. He said it wasn’t his business. He never talked about love himself. I think it bothered him.
The records. The music. They told me about love. From that, I safely assumed that was what Francis and Helen had going on. Sad but true, some of the best love songs end tragically.
I know now, they were most certainly in love.
It was a trap. Not love. It was an actually trap, designed with the hope of catching us all.
It consisted of a singular stranger, trudging along in search of help. His clothes freshly tattered. He looked to be bleeding, slightly. As he got closer, it was clear the blood was dried. Old and crusted. Probably from this morning, or last night.
He staggered as though he’d been walking a thousand miles, all to reach us. It was an anxious, yet seemingly able hobble.
“Please,” he muttered with all the wind he could muster.
You are hearing the bullet, not the gun. It’s the propellant, sparked by the primer. Not the gun itself. Or so Dad taught me.
I saw the dust in front of the battered stranger burst forth as a shot rang out to my left.
“Not another fucking step,” Dad ordered. His pistol pointed in the air, fingers relaxed and ready to fire again. He liked to give a warning shot. Some people called that stupid. He said it was fair. He also said being fair was a pretty stupid idea in these times. He gave a warning shot, just the same.
Next to him, Francis swiveled and surveyed from horseback. His rifle scanning high and low for even the slightest change in space. Helen was doing the same.
“They’re here,” Francis almost seemed to whisper. “All around us.”
“It’s not a big group,” Helen added. “But more than we can handle.”
It was then I noticed what little light we remained standing in. And then I saw the thick black collar around the stranger’s neck. On it, a blinking red light.
“Lucy,” Dad almost whispered.
“Yes?” I felt my lip tremble.
“You stay close to me. Take your pistol out and be ready. You won’t have to. But you will, if you need to.”
The bait began sobbing. Desperate, pathetic moans. A coward barely blubbering his last whimper. Sad. But true.
The blinking light on his collar no longer blinked. It stayed red as a nearly inaudible high pitched buzz rang out. When that happened, the bait dropped to the ground, ripping at his own throat trying to pry the collar off.
“Back up, slowly and stay in the light. They won’t go in direct sunlight.”
They were a campfire story. Told by some of the older men in the village. As kids, they only existed to scare us. To teach us to be good.
The boogie men.
Dad told me the truth, the night after we left camp.
“When the sickness first broke out, we thought they had come up with a treatment. About a year after it all started. You were four years old. Two billion were already dead and those who weren’t getting sick seemed to just be immune. You and I were among the lucky ones. There are not many of us. Out of nine billion people, the last reported worldwide survivor tally was three hundred million. It’s less now, but no one is keeping track.”
“Your mother did not have that immunity.”
He didn’t like to talk about Mom. He told me she was a good woman and that she loved me. He only had one picture, which he gave to me. So I suppose that meant he has no pictures of her anymore.
“But this treatment. It was used on a small group of people. To test it out before getting it to everyone else. Thirty thousand already infected subjects. Not that it matters, but it was done through an intravenous chemical daily for four weeks. I was able to read the notes from the study. They were still keeping records then.”
“And?” Impatient me.
“And it worked. They were cured of the virus, most before the four weeks was even over. Not a trace left, even after re-exposure. We had hope. I thought we might be able to save your mother.”
He said nothing. Just let the flickering light of the fire dance around his face. It was the first time he seemed old to me. It was his eyes. They’re older than his body.
“Damn fools,” he continued.
“Well,” as he sounded a heavy sigh. “Right around when they were starting the next group to be treated, the first incident occurred. Richard Feldman. They said his name a lot on the news. When the news still happened. Out of the blue, he snapped. Murdered his wife and kids.”
“And ate them.”
My eyes never left the fire. It’s dwindling furor bouncing about, occasionally pulled tight and angular by the passing wind. With the passing words. Words with a way that sounds as though they could not have possibly been said.
“He ate them?”
“While they were still alive,” to stay what he said before.
“That’s what the reporter had said. He was arrested and interrogated. The psychologists couldn’t believe it. They said everything should be fine. Brain scans, psychoanalysis and general observation of Richard Feldman showed that he had the makings of normal mental function. Still intelligent and comprehensive of his world and those in it. It was as though his opinion on humanity had warped. He no longer considered himself to be a human. He blamed us for the virus. For the world falling apart. Richard Feldman blamed mankind for all the woes in the universe. He saw his mission as a cleanse. Cure the world of humanity. And to consume the bad. To make it good.”
“They never found out what it was, and if they did, the rest of us never heard the reason. But Richard Feldman lost all empathetic ability. He saw humans as a threat that need be destroyed. When they asked why he ate his family, he told them that they had wasted so much in their lives, it would only be right to not waste what was left of them. A week later, the next two. Faith Uhrich and Tim Singh. Two days, three more. Chet Lane, Margaret Winstall and Rafael Moyo. All the same lack of mental symptoms. All cannibals.”
The air pressure dropped somewhere nearby. A vigorous gust pulls the flame near parallel to the ground. Pulled tight. Worn thin. Drained of near all the warmth it once possessed.
“This is true?”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve seen them.”
“They lived under the great ruins.”
“Then why are we going there?”
“Because we have to.”
I had been looking forward to the trip. I was thinking it would be an adventure. I was wrong.
“It will be fine. Francis and I know what we’re doing. We know how they behave and we know their limits. As long as you listen and stay close.”
As though pulled from the illustrations of paneled pages, whatever that treatment did to them, made it so their skin burns when touched by sunlight. Causes enough pain to keep them in the shadows.
“Like Kryptonite,” Dad said.
I looked towards, not him in confusion, but stoic, then back, fixated upon what remain of the great conflagration.
My father laughed.
“Apologies, I know you don’t really care for comic books.”
“Whatever is in or on their skin starts to burn when they are exposed. And I mean literally burn, smoke and sizzle and the lot. They can’t stand it. Never seen one last more than two seconds in the sunlight.”
I turned to look at him. The wrinkles in his face shadowed warpaint in the long, tired light.
His eyes watch nothing but the coals, still crimson with chemical reaction.
“If that weren’t the case, we’d all be dead already.”
It all seemed too strange to be true. Too horrible. Too much like the science fiction I’ve read.
Yet there I was. About to see the boogie men.
“Just stay in the light and do not leave my side.”
So, I did just that.
As we backed away, the first one stepped from the shadows. Skin pure white from living underground for almost two decades, it walked tall and upright. It wore clean and neatly hemmed clothing. The patterns on them were spirals and stars, hand stitched throughout. He had the same sort of patterns burnt into his skin. He didn’t look to have a gun. He did have a knife in one hand. Quite clearly. Showing it off. To make sure we knew he had it.
In the other was a small black box. On that box, was the button.
He pressed the button.
The slight buzzing ceased. The red light began blinking again. The bait went limp. Blood caked hands falling from his tattered neck.
The boogie man paid no mind to the bait. His yellowing eyes stood stone static upon Dad. Dad stared back.
Then the boogie man pressed the button again as he took a step towards us. The bait screamed and clawed at his neck. He pressed the button. The bait flopped.
He kept this up until he stood next to the bait, right upon the encroaching edge of darkness. The boogie man reached down and grabbed the bait by what bits of his hair that hadn’t been ripped out.
“Look away,” Dad said, eyes fixed upon the monster. “If you don’t want to see something bad.”
He wanted to scare us. He wanted Dad to fear him. That’s why he stared. That’s why he tortured that poor soulless shell of a man. All while keeping his eyes upon Dad.
I did not look away. It wasn’t about not being afraid. I was. Horribly so. But like Dad said, people without fear can never be brave.
So, the boogie man pulled the still sobbing bait up off the ground and slammed him onto his knees. He was strong. Seemed stronger than most people. He didn’t let go of his head. The bait could no longer stand on his own strength. We continued to back our horses up. Back towards the river. Deeper into the light.
So the boogie man did what he meant to do.
Slowly. He placed the knife to the bait’s throat and began to saw. The bait gurgled when he could no longer scream. Then went limp and the rich black blood dripped down the front of his tattered clothes. But the boogie man continued to saw. Through flesh and blood and bone. Almost seeming to take his time. He sawed until the weight of the body was enough to rip the remaining flesh apart. So the boogie man had his head. And he smiled. Dad did not flinch. The boogie man raised his knife to point at Dad. This put his hand and forearm into the light. As promised, his white skin began to sizzle, then smoke. I counted the seconds.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
I looked at Dad. He did not look away. But he courage seemed less solid.
“I don’t know why,” the boogie man elegantly spoke. “You humans cling to life. Your wasted and wasteful lives.”
Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
“You really do make me sick,” he went on.
The skin now seemed to bubble up. Smoke was pouring where it was only just wisps.
“Let’s go,” Francis said from behind us.
Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
Then the beast spoke in a language I’ve never heard. It was sharp and aggressive. He spat and he spoke. Almost yelling. Calling out.
He tossed the now severed head at my horse’s front feet. He stutter stepped. He didn’t spook. He trusted me. I, him.
His hand still reached out into the air, a small flame emerged from his wrist. The skin once so white was gray. Turning black.
The voice sounded like Helen. Before turning, Dad put a round between the boogie man’s eyes. He dropped dead, burning what parts of him fell into the light.
We turned to find Helen and her horse on the ground, half in the light and half in the dark. Two of them had half pulled her into the shade. The other was feasting on horse flesh.
She was fighting her best and a good fight it was. But Helen was half the size of one of them, and there were two on her.
Francis, though. He was a large man. Third tallest in the camp. Stronger than everyone else. And the second-best shot.
Dad was the first.
So, the best shot knocked off the monster having horse for dinner and Francis dismounted and charged towards Helen.
They were dragging her back towards the buildings, into the ruins. Her stomach was already showing blood from where they had clawed into her. She was still kicking, reaching for the knife she kept in her shoe. She was totally out of the sunlight now.
One of the monsters stood, looking to meet Francis before he got to them. They met just on the edge of the light. The monster leap. Francis caught him by his throat and held him high off the ground. But the bastard had a knife. He did not brandish his blade as did the one smoldering in the sunset. That hidden knife went into Francis as soon as he was grabbed. Over and over again. As many times as he could.
Francis let out a deep grunt before removing only one hand from his attacker’s throat. With it, he made a fist. And with that fist, he smashed the monster’s skull. One hit. One kill. He tossed the body into the light to burn.
But it was too late. As he looked up, he saw Helen being held in a doorway. Her breath was faint and her eyes growing dark. She opened her mouth, as though to say something to him. Nothing came out. The yellow teeth sank into her neck, ripping away the flesh. The blood ran thick. But it was still bright red. Much brighter than the bait’s blood.
Maybe your blood is a different color when you’re in love. Maybe you just think it is.
Francis stopped for a moment. It was a second to me. I think it was an eternity for him.
It was over.
She was gone.
His blood-soaked hand pulled tight into a fist. He wanted to grieve. He wanted revenge. So, he pulled the sawed-off from his side holster and blew the monster’s skull away.
“Francis,” Dad said with impossibly polite urgency.
He said nothing. Francis only holstered his gun and turned back to his horse. Before mounting, he pulled the knife still stuck in his side and tossed it away.
“Follow him,” Dad ordered. “Ten feet behind. I’m right behind you.”
Francis took off. Fast. I followed. I wanted to look back to make sure Dad was with me, but he would have yelled if I did.
We were only a few blocks from the trailer, where the rest of the company was waiting.
They knew. They could tell. They heard the gunfire. They saw the blood running between Francis’ fingers as he pressed against his side.
They saw Helen wasn’t with us.
But it was over. We had to go home now.
We packed everything up that wasn’t packed. We tied Francis’ horse to the trailer and laid Francis in the back. We had to get as far north as soon as we could. The boogie men never leave the city but up until today, no one had seen any of them go into the sun for more than a couple seconds. We needed to go. And never return.
We traveled along the river. It’s got the best light and the easiest guide back to our boats. No one spoke much. Except for Francis. He coughed a lot. They had me ride just behind the trailer. I was the only person he wanted to talk to.
He wanted to tell me about Helen.
“Because I know your father doesn’t make a peep about love.”
I said nothing.
“It’s okay Luc,” he laughed. “It’s the only thing that he’s still afraid of. Poor guy.”
I looked up towards my father. He led the way, always gazing off at the passing landscape across the river. The sky was beginning to burn orange as the sun inched towards the ridge.
“We met when we were teenagers,” he continued. “Which was a long time ago. For reasons neither of us could remember, it never worked out. So our lives went on and on, as we thought they would forever.”
“But after the sickness had killed everyone I knew, it was hard not to look back on life had been before. I didn’t know for sure that I would be spared. There was no test for immunity. Some folks just had it. Most didn’t. So one day she crawled back into my mind.”
“You had forgotten about her?”
“No, not that. I just taught myself to not think about her. That’s different than forgetting. I did that as a young man, after she got married. I had grown into an old man by the time I thought about her again.”
He coughed furiously. He was in pain. He was fading. He refused any help. Dressed the wounds himself but it was no use. The bleeding was internal.
We only brought him so he didn’t have to die alone.
A final courtesy. Something to keep us all human. For as long as we could keep it up.
“So I set off to find her. I only knew where she was living thirty years or so before, so it was the only shot I had. Turned out, she was still there. I didn’t ask about her husband, I could tell he was gone. It’s a strange phenomenon, feeling that way again so late in life. I saw her from a distance. She was on her porch.”
He paused. He coughed. He laughed.
“I thought I was being a fool doing this. And maybe I was. But everyone was gone. Everything was gone. I had nothing else to live for except to try what was always impossible. When I got close enough to her see her eyes, it all came back.”
“I think love doesn’t exist, not in our world. It’s something beyond. Exists through time, I think. I’ve got nothing to prove that aside from what I’ve felt. I’m no philosopher. I was a plumber in life.”
“But what I felt the day I met her. The same thing the day I found her again. But we didn’t run into each other’s arms or anything like that. She didn’t even recognize me. When I got close enough, all she could offer was the barrel of a shotgun in my direction and a stern ‘who the fuck are you?’”
“She, however, was just as I had forgotten and remembered. Only aged finely. Her voice. It always seemed outside of reality to me. So I told her my name. She lowered the gun. We went inside and told each other about what we had done in life. The next day we talked about what we should do. So the day after we packed up and traveled to find whatever there was. So we met your dad. Then the rest. Then we made the village.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute. I didn’t want to ask anything.
“This is the second time I didn’t get to say goodbye to her.”
And after a few minutes of silence, I called to Hans, who used to be a doctor.
He confirmed it. So our short parade ceased. The bottom of the sun had just dipped below the horizon. Everything was cast over with amber.
“What are we going to do with him?” I asked.
“Give him back to the earth,” Dad replied as Theo and Ty went to grab shovels.
Just deep enough to cover him.
“Hopefully some flowers can grow here now,” Chase said.
“Not flowers,” Theo laughed. “Not Francis. A tree will grow here, for sure. A massive one.”
“A stubborn one,” Hans laughed.
And with that, we went on.
I rode next to Dad the rest of the way. Just as we got to the boats, the sun dipped full behind the ridge.
“Is that how they used to say goodbye,” I asked. “Back when everyone was around?”
“Not quite, kiddo,” Dad replied, untying one of the boats from the small dock. “They used to waste a lot more time on the dead back then. They would build them big boxes too. Worth thousands of dollars and filled with softer fabric than most people slept on.”
“Yes it is.”
The stars were already shining as the boats began up the river.
Brighter these days than those of past, I am told.
I wondered if the girls who used to wear makeup thought their lives to be hard. If they did, they were fools. Clowns.