In Death, Part IV

The young man carries himself like he’s not an addict. He is poised. He is alert. He would have made a fine soldier. Every now and then, he stops and scans the area. Usually, because he thinks he hears someone. But, it’s never anything. We stop in the next town. We go on a supply run. We walk into an antique store and look around. Just for fun. I don’t like this building. The way it continues to settle. Too many creaks and groans as we walk around. He calls me over. He asks if I happen to have found any loose tobacco. I had a few towns ago. He has an old pipe and asks if he can have some. He says he hasn’t smoked a pipe in ages. He packs it up. I watch him intently. I never was one for pipes. I like my nicotine quick and to the point. He turns to me to ask for a light. His eyes widen. I feel a sharp pain in the back of my head. Everything goes blurry and fades to black.


I awake to the sound of voices. An unusual sound. As my vision adjusts, I see the young man. He looks terrified. As I begin to comprehend the environment, I notice we are tied upside down. We have been stripped down to our underwear. He is panicking. I try to swing around and take everything in. But, the room is blank. The voices sound like they’re outside the door. I try to speak to the young man, but I spit up blood as I open my mouth. My headache is splitting. I need a fucking cigarette and some whiskey. I hear the door open and see some light leak in. I try to rotate and see who has entered, but I only hear his voice. He is rather upset. Suddenly, I feel myself spin around and there is a man right in front of my face. His breath wreaks of stale tobacco and sour milk. Pleasant. As my eyes adapt to the darkness, I make out the features of his face. He is missing an eye. He should probably have an eye patch because that void is fucking disgusting. It looks infected. His other eye — the one still in his skull — is bloodshot and pale grey. His lips are dry and cracked. The teeth he has are black with rot. He scans me intently. Or at least, half of me. He spits in my face. It smells like rotten eggs shat out by a dog then eaten by a bird who promptly puked it back up. Nice.


“Who the fuck are you?”


Well. I don’t know how to answer that, sir. I sit silently and try to take in the surroundings. He has a bat perched on his thighs as he crouches in front of me.


“Well? Who the fuck are you?”


“What do you mean?”


“What do you think I mean?”


“It seems inconsequential.”


“I like to know who I’m about to kill.”


Oh, a gentleman savage. “I don’t even know the answer to that anymore.”


“Well, you better find one quick. Cut them down.”


I feel a release and I drop on my head. That’ll help my headache. I am lifted up to stand and look in the eye of this man.


“You have a lot of supplies. What were you?”


“Just a teacher.”


“Bullshit.”


“Well, believe what you need to, but that’s all I was.” He doesn’t need to know anything more.


“Well, teach… I’m taking all your shit. I hope that’s fine.”


“You get an ‘A’ for survival technique.”


“Oh, you’re a funny guy, huh?”


I like to think so.


“How did you survive?”


“I guess it was just luck.”


“Luck. Sure. Because that’s what I call lucky. Let him go.”


The hands that held me up let me go and I stumble a little. I regain my composure and look him in the face. Which is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do in death.


“Leave.”


“Ok.”


“Not you dumbass… Take the boy.”


His two cronies grab the young man and exit the room.


“I don’t like you.”


“Obviously.”


“You’re disrespectful.” He’s quite astute.


“Well, sir. You did kinda kidnap me and my friend.”


“Fair.”


“And took all of my supplies.”


“Yes, that’s right.”


“That’s pretty disrespectful.” I eyeball the bat he has now slung over his shoulder. He looks strong. I think he’s probably not very agile, having only one eye.


“Well, you haven’t earned my respect.”


“That seems a little one-sided.” He’s obviously a fair leader. He laughs. He drops his bat to his side. I see my opportunity and jump for the bat. Right as I grab it, I feel a heavy handed punch on my side. I fall over. Luckily, I still have the bat. I’m certainly not as strong as this man. I jump up. I now notice how large his hands are. He swings a southpaw hook towards my face. He misses. I swing the bat and he stops it with his right hand. I’m actually impressed. He jerks the bat, taking me with it. I hear voices clamoring outside the door.


“Stay out there! I’ll handle this cocksucker.”


Well, I think the homophobic comment was unnecessary, so I grab the bat and swing it hard. I connect. With the wall. The sting in my hands made me drop the bat. He grabs me by my neck and throws me down. He stands over me and clasps his hands together to swing down on my head. I duck through his legs and scramble for the bat. I grab it and swing it around and hit him in the leg. He drops. He quickly recovers. Just in time for me to hit him in the head with the bat. He drops again. For a little longer this time. I watch him shortly to make sure he doesn’t move. I burst out the door, swinging the bat. I connect with one of his henchman and the other puts up his fists to guard himself. The young man grabs him in a chokehold and eases him into a nice sleep. We run away from the brick building. I see my bag and our clothes and we snatch them up as quickly as possible and keep running. After about 20 minutes, we stop and pull on our clothes. He laughs. I laugh. They stole everything but my whiskey and my cigarettes from my bag. That’s fine. We take a swig of whiskey and I offer him a cigarette. We continue walking and laughing. Maybe he and I are more alike than I thought.


We continue walking. A little faster pace than normal. Occasionally downing some branches and veering off path to cover our tracks. We find a well covered clearing that looked acceptable to sleep in. We sit down and crawl under the clearing. As the sun begins to set, I light my lucky cigarette up. One more day. Though, now I’m wondering if this is actually a lucky cigarette in this world…
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In Death, Part III

In life, I had a wife and children. Before the War, we were happy. I stayed at home most of the time. My wife worked. I would help my children with their schoolwork. We would play games. When my wife was home, we spent time together. Spiritum was not necessary in our house. We read to our children before bed. When we went to bed, we talked for hours. She would tell me about her day and I would tell her about mine. We would make love for hours. If ever there was a place where the lilies would grow, it would be in our relationship. We were the envy of our friends. Our relationship was simply unbeatable. When I was drafted, we wept and mourned together for weeks while I was in basic. The 12 hour days of programming would leave me drained. All we could do together was mourn. Eventually, the hours turned to minutes and then to nothing as training shut down my mind. I was slowly becoming a machine. A soldier. Spiritum became a mainstay in my medicine cabinet. I never let her on to the fact that I was using it. When I left, she cried. I did not. I knew it was better that I leave rather than destroy even the memory of what we had.
I went to the War. For 10 years, I fought for our nation. I fought for freedom. I fought for peace. At least, that’s what I was programmed to believe. I saw men die. Both by the enemy’s hand and my own. I was the best sniper in the Force. I could shoot a small vial from over 2000 meters away. I was recruited frequently for assassinations. I took down warlords and presidents. But, I was taught that they weren’t people. They weren’t like us. They wanted to destroy the peace we had slowly constructed over the past 500 years. So, I did it. I killed dozens of the enemy’s leaders. I was considered a War hero. Aside from my gun skills, I was in the top of the Force for stealth missions. I believe I ranked number 3 overall. On top of my assassinations, I was recruited for those. Primarily intel. I would infiltrate enemy compounds and disarm guards and hack their systems to discover where the leaders planned to be next. I rolled solo. A lone wolf. When I returned, I was considered a War hero. I was highly decorated. But inside, I had died.
When I returned, my children were grown. I had missed their entire childhoods. I was too distant to be involved with them. My son was much like his mother. He excelled in computations and eventually became an analyst for the System. My daughter was much like me. She excelled in logical analysis and became a strategist for the government. But, I didn’t care. My wife looked at me differently. I knew she didn’t like what she saw anymore. I didn’t either. My Spiritum addiction grew. I pushed further away from my family until our marriage was only a formality for both of us. We stayed together because we didn’t want to belong to everyone. We stayed together for our children. It was all her idea, though. I was too apathetic to care about any of that.
Once news of the Impact began to circulate, I hid in my bunker. I didn’t tell anyone. Not my wife. Not my children. I was too closed off. It’s not that I wanted them to die. I just didn’t think of them. All I thought about was myself. I had many missed calls from them. But, I never answered my phone. Finally, my wife came pounding on the hatch of the bunker. I didn’t let her in for fear that the Impact may hit as soon as I did. Just as I had convinced myself to let her in, the Impact came. I watched my wife disintegrate before my eyes. I think I needed to see it. It changed me. I didn’t cry, but I felt something for the first time in 10 years. I still don’t know what the feeling was.
After the Impact, those who knew the aftershock was shortly behind began to scramble as their bunkers had been destroyed by the Impact. Many people pounded on my hatch. I did not answer. When the aftershock finished, I emerged to the husks of men and women and children scattered around my bunker. I felt nothing. I headed out on my journey. Alone. I roll solo. In death, I am a lone wolf.

In Death, Part II

In life, everything was great. Everyone lived in happiness. We lived how we desired and no one said a cross word to anyone. Marriage, promiscuity, singleness, fluidity. Every lifestyle was accepted. We worked for money, but everyone lived comfortably, regardless of the job they worked. Whenever life seemed too difficult, we were allotted a weekly portion of Spiritum. It was a new drug sanctioned by the FDA in 2035. It was a revolutionary hybrid of opium and marijuana. It created a sense of security and stress relief that carried little side effects. The drug kept everyone satisfied and life was great. Any sort of disturbance in the community was policed heavily and involved parties were given Spiritum. I lived with my wife and children in peace. Single folks were expected to be promiscuous. Until you were claimed by another human, you belonged to everyone. All my life, I understood this as fact. In death, I realized that life was actually death. We were blinded by our government. Now I see that peace is chaos and chaos is peace. It’s nature. When nature is stifled by man, it lulls us into a false sense of security where atrophy was to be feared.

But as I stare at this young man holding my gun, I can’t help but wonder if atrophy is a necessary evil. I look at him calmly. He is scared. Of me or of this new life, I am unsure. I stand steady, hands in the air. He asks me if I have any Spiritum. I don’t. No one has had any since the aftershock. The look of craving in his eyes is unsettling. I approach him, pretending to have his heart’s desire. I tackle him to the ground. I’m strong, but he has the strength that only a desperate addict could have. We land blows. The gun flies across the clearing. I can hardly see, but notice his shape approaching where I think the gun has landed. I launch at him and grab him around the neck in a submission hold I used to use in the War on hostile soldiers. He bites my arm hard. He drew blood. I reel back but quickly grab his leg and he kicks me in the face and scrambles to the gun again. He screams at me for his drugs. I sit up and laugh. Confused, he fires a warning shot off right by my head. He’s a damn good shot. My ear is ringing. He screams more, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I laugh more. He comes at me and grabs the collar of my shirt, lifting me up to his face. I headbutt him. It was hard enough to knock both of us on our asses and we both fall. Groggy, I stand up and get in position for a fist fight. But, he stays down. He starts crying. I slowly move toward the gun. I don’t let my guard down as I crouch down to grab it. I point it at him. He’s young. Very young. Maybe early 20’s. He was probably just out of high school when the Impact hit. The young ones struggled more with substance than the older generations.
I feel pity for him. I grab the cables from my bag and tie him to a nearby tree. An hour passes before he talks again. We discuss this life and what the old life was like. He was an analyst for a budding new tech company. He had only worked there a few weeks before the Impact changed his life. He survived. But he wishes he hadn’t. The throes of addiction have taken over his body. I feel even more pity for him. I offer him a shot of whiskey. Of course, he accepts. Though I don’t having much whiskey left, I feel the need to share what I have with this young man. So, we sit and drink and talk for a long time. He somehow got ahold of weed in death. So, we smoke that. I untie him. Whiskey and weed is all a man needs in death.

In life, he was a foster child. He was bounced from family to family until he was 18. A problem child, tossed away when the disturbance of his presence was too great for even Spiritum to conceal. His education was pieced together through the system as he grew up. He made it a point to make sure he never depended on anyone again. Unfortunately, he depended on Spiritum. He needed the high. He had gotten high all the time. It became the only thing he was dependent on. But now, it’s gone. In death, he is an orphan.

He is intelligent. His last high school had set him up with the tech company, as his main focus had been on logistical analysis all through school. He’s too intelligent to be addicted to drugs. Or maybe that intelligence is what makes him an addict. Maybe the constant nag of feeling isolated by your own mind is enough to make you dip into the wax of substance use over and over until you’re finally coated enough to not feel naked. He lights up a cigarette and so do I. I ask him if he would like to join me on my trip. He’s skeptical, but eventually agrees. It’s hard to have no time for demons when you’re alone on the road and I had a feeling we both had a few demons we were trying to drown out. So we set out.
He tells me of his girlfriend. A beautiful young woman with the most enchanting eyes. He says her eyes were what drew him to her. Not only their physical beauty, but the depth they conveyed when he looked into them. He says that he lost her in the Impact. She was running toward the shelter he was in right as it hit. He made himself watch it happen so he wouldn’t be able to hold on to her. He has no hope. He has no idea why he continues to survive. He thinks it’s because he believes she would want him to. For them. He only does it for her, though. He has no will to continue on, but he has to carry her fire. He says her fire burned brighter than his ever could and that hers was enough to keep them both warm. He’s afraid to let a fire like hers fade from the world. Even in death, the world needs her fire.

In life, I was detached. I was destroyed mentally by the War. I wanted nothing to do with anyone. Even my wife and kids. I sheltered myself in my home until I decided to teach. But, even there, I was disassociated from my students. I had a reputation as the most difficult teacher to please. Students dreaded my class. I had no reason to attach to anyone, so I didn’t. Some things never change. In death, I am still detached.

We walk for a while. He seems to be getting over his craving. Hopefully that will last. Spiritum wasn’t addictive, in and of itself, but the high was enticing. And the high stress environment in death could make someone ache for that release. But we’re getting along rather well. We have whiskey and weed. We should be able to keep things level.
We push on towards the next town. He tells me more of his girlfriend. I think it keeps him motivated, so I’ll let him go on, even though it surfaces some of my demons. About how I miss my wife. How I wished I had been more attentive. Maybe she would have lived. Maybe she would be here with me. Maybe not. In either event, my actions didn’t give her a chance. He talks of beauty, but I only know my own ugliness.

In Death, Part I

It’s been 473 days since it happened. The day breaks. I wake up and shake the rust off my eyes. I don’t know how long I slept. It’s hard to tell most times. In fact, I’m not entirely sure exactly how long it’s been. But, my tallies say 473 days. I open my last pack of stale cigarettes and flip my lucky around. Hopefully, I get to smoke it today.
I think it’s summer. It’s warm, at least. I pull on the remains of my clothing and set out to town. The paintings on the sidewalk still tell stories of the ghosts of days gone by. I was happy once. With her. But, that’s over now. So I push on. I’m not sure why, but I do. Maybe it’s the romantic in me. Or maybe it’s the fear. Either way, I push on. I see the shadow of a child on the side of the house in which I was staying and I hold back the tears. I had a son. I don’t know what happened to him when it hit. No, I do. But, I can’t admit it to myself. So, I pretend I don’t. The husks of men haunt this road, as they do all of the others. Interspersed with the silhouettes are the remains of those who scavenged before the aftershock took them as well. I don’t know which is more haunting.

 

I pull out the flask I found in the remains of my parents’ house. It’s my father’s and it’s all I have left to remember our wayward relationship. It’s filled with whatever cheap whiskey I could find along the way. The end of the world and I’m still picky about my liquor. He raised me right. I take a long sip of the booze, hoping its spirit will somehow lift mine. But it never does. It just placates me temporarily. I see an overturned cart on the side of the road and approach it. It’s picked clean, so I move on. Towards the city. I believe it used to be called Decatur. I think I’m in Georgia. Either way, I’ve never visited this town, so I’m going.

 

There’s a drug store right at the entrance to the town, so I head in to stock up on some supplies I may need. I find some cigarettes hidden behind a flap and a few stray bandages left behind in the haste of other scavengers. I also find some lighter fluid. I load them into my backpack. The rest of the store looks picked clean, but I slowly walk the aisles anyway. Lifting up the bottoms of the shelving units, I’m hoping to find some sort of food. It looks like only perishables are lefts and they’ve, well, perished. Finally, I come across a can of green beans. I fucking hate green beans. I’m not as picky about my food as I am about my liquor, though, so it’ll work. I leave the store and wander down the street towards a thrift store. My legs are barely with me. Push on.

 

In the thrift store, I search for some jeans. There is one pair in my size, but they’re far too long, so I take out my pocket knife — the one dad always taught me to carry — and cut them down a little bit. They’ll work. The only shirts they have are two sizes too big, as usual in life and death. The one I’m wearing is full of holes and dreadfully caked with dirt, so I grab one and pull it on, anyway. I hit the shoes next, but find nothing that will work for this environment, so I move on. I find a few housewares to use in whatever fashion I may need them later and leave the store. I light up another cigarette when I hear a soft rustling. I look around and see a branch swaying. There is no wind. I slowly approach the tree and pull out my gun. In life, I was utterly abhorred by the use of guns after having been in the War. But, in death, the rules change. I approach quietly, gun trained just under the branch. I pull back the foliage. Nothing. I venture a little further into the shrubs, but decide to retreat in case it’s a trap. Evermore alert, I proceed.

In life, I was a vet who became a teacher after the War left me unable to cope with being home all the time. The reparations from the War had gotten me plenty of money to live a comfortable life. But, I couldn’t stand being home alone all day with my thoughts until my wife got back, so I went back to school and got my teaching degree. In death, I am an active soldier again. In death, I am the student.

The asphalt has a cushion of soot on top, so I remove my shoes in favor of discretion. I tie them to my bag and continue forward, gun in hand. Occasionally making a small rotation to scan my surroundings. There’s no time for my demons out here. Only survival.

 

After feeling I have put sufficient space between me and whatever follower I suspected, I rest in a clearing in some woods. I remove my bag. I place my thrift finds on the ground in front of me. I feel overwhelming relief as the weight of the bag and my paranoia have been lifted from my already exhausted body and mind. I found a blender there. I disassemble it. Somehow, many animals survived the Impact. I remove the blender’s blade. Using a small torch I had from my time in the War, I soften the center of it. I fold it in half. Into an arrowhead. I remove a small dowel from my bag and place it into the hole in the center of the blade. I tie it into place. Quite the sturdy arrow. I had wasted a lot of bullets on hunting. But, I’m too low for the time being. I set out into the woods to retrieve supplies to create a bow.

In life, I was a pacifist. But, I was drafted as a sniper in the War. I was trained to be an impersonal killing machine. Those weren’t people. They were just blips of oppression on the radar of our freedom. Small casualties so that my family and friends could feel safe. I was always removed from the act. Never up close. Never personal. I never saw the last moments of life in another human’s eyes as I sat posted a hundred meters from their humanity. It was easy. It was the only way I could cope with being drafted. I wasn’t a killer before. I denied that I became one. In death, I am a killer.

I find a flexible branch and  and strip some meat off a bare trunk with my knife. I fashion them into a rather hefty bow. I draw back the arrow and release it from the bow. Without the fletching, it’s aimless. I reach for my bag to see if I had anything to make it, but I left it at my camp site. I don’t even have a quiver to carry this. I think I’m living life without a quiver right now. Not a quiver of fear or regret or anger. I no longer feel. I’m no longer a person. I just am. If even that. I’m in my head too much. No time for demons. I head back to camp.

In life, I was lost. After the War, I had no fletching. I was a teacher, but I never stayed at a school for more than a year. I had found myself in South Carolina during the Impact. I had intel that allowed me to survive. I hunkered down underground. My training had taught me that there was always an aftershock. That’s how I survived that. I lost my family after that. It was then that I fell back into my training. A stone cold killer. I have purpose. In death, I am found.

I light up another cigarette. I listen intently for any signs of animal life. My bare feet give me discretion in the woods. They are calloused from all of my silent excursions into towns. I can’t believe I left my bag at camp. I have never done that. I hasten my walk a little. I lose some of my discretion. I step in some animal shit. Great. I keep going until I see the clearing and return to my camp. Everything’s still there. I start to make some shelter for the night. I camouflage it so it looks like little more than a pile of branches downed by a storm. I hear a rustling in the woods. I whip around. I grab my bag and open the pocket I keep my gun in. It’s gone. I turn around again and there’s a man. He has my gun. Trained right at my head.