By: Paul William Fassett
Two days had passed and he hadn’t seen day light since he had been bitten. With no reason to leave he was inclined to become a shut in, and since his arm throbbed whenever he stood up; he let it hang at his side. Laying down and elevating his hand on a box was the most comfort he could get. It was going sour after the first week, his veins turning to an unhealthy color. When the fever set in, and his skin turned to a squash color, he knew his life was in danger.
In his bag was an old composition book. He turned the pages until he found the section with clippings from medical manuals, and set out to search the store.
Down the bread isle he walked until he found a shelf with a stack of old bread. All of it dried, all of it hardened to the consistency of brick. He turned the backs over, and over looking for something, but that something he never found. Later he went to the fruit isle. Everything had been turned to mush long ago, but one shelf had some apples that had recently turned over. He never thought to eat them. Anything organic that lasted this long couldn’t have been good for him, but on the skin of those apples was the thing he had been looking for.
In the meat isle he found more on the decayed remains of processed meats, hot dogs, salami.
He gathered up a basket full of them, and sat by the fire scraping the mold from the skin of the food onto a white cloth until he had a large pile of it. In a pot he had been steeping corn husks in water. After urinating in a cup, he mixed it with the corn husk broth, and the mold, and stirred it. He then filtered the liquid through another cloth into a jar. He soaked a clean cloth in the liquid, and wrapped it around the wound. The pain of searing flesh caused him to stomp his feet, and cry out like a child.
That night he dabbed water on the cloth, and sweated out the fever. In his sleeping delusions he felt an intense heat all around him. When he woke all he could see was orange, and yellow. The place was on fire! Groggy he stood, his head spinning from the fever, and before he could find his way to the gate at the loading docks, he fell flat to his stomach, knocking the air from his lungs, eyes going black. Choking, gasping, he crawled his way back to his feet, and made for the gate. When the sunlight poured in on him, his eyes focused, and his mind cleared.
There was no fire, only the memory of one. A memory of a thing that happened long ago, something he thought he’d forgotten, but knew he never could. The fever had taken down his barriers.
In a couple weeks, however, he was well enough to go about his life. The sick blackness went away from his arm, and all that remained was skin, and a healthy looking scab which ran the entirety of his forearm. Soon it would scar over. At least he would have something interesting to talk about if he ever saw another living being again.
That dog. That goddamn dog. It belonged to somebody. Had a bandage on it. Someone let it loose on him, probably hoping that would be the end of him, but instead that was the end of the dog and for all its effort it got to sit in the sun rotting with the maggot beaks picking it apart. Their long black talons ripping at it, and big pelican sized beaks scooping up the rotting meat. Out there far enough where he couldn’t see them was a predator, not a lion, or another wild dog, but a man. He had just taken its pet away, and now it was out there, alone, even more desperate than before. A confrontation would not be far away. He watched the dunes of dirt and sand stretch out into the hazy heat of the distant wastes, and out there, so far that it may have been nothing, was a small dot. Most wouldn’t have noticed, but Randon could see it all. The years had hardened him in ways he didn’t even notice. He’d heard it referred to as dune sight or the thousand yard stare. Just some innocent little spec, a dot really, swaying in the vapors of heat rising off the ground. It was a person, and even though it was just a blurry formless thing, he could tell. Something was watching him.
Yes. A confrontation was coming, which meant he had work to do.
He threw on his trench coat, and walked about the store room gathering up the pieces of broken shelving, and started about his work. Pieces of shelving were broken up into smaller, more manageable pieces, and Randon used a hunting knife to split the dry wood, and whittled each long shaft into spikes, and spears. The rest was kept to the side of his little camp on the concrete floor as fire wood. He hadn’t yet begun his work on defense. He had been seasoned at defending little hold-fasts like this. Traps were best for warding off invaders. Nothing like seeing your raiding companion screaming as he is impaled by a falling wall of wooden spikes to make a person question their motivations.
In the back room there were some shelves that were made of a thick aluminum, and some pieces that were made of some kind of plastic, which was thin and pliable enough to bend, but wouldn’t retain its shape. Wood was his weapon of choice, but the metal was strong, strong enough to withstand a slash from a machete, or a blow from a bat, so he took his knife and bored some holes into it, and took a length of rope from the storerooms and fashioned himself a shield. By afternoon, when the sun was highest in the sky, he was tired from the work, so he set aside his things, and watched the Maggot Beaks eat from the window of the delivery bay shutters. His garden would have to wait until they had their full, and flew off in search of more unfortunate dead. Encounters with the giant birds in the past had been fierce, and a few times he thought he would be overwhelmed. They only attacked when they believed their food was being threatened, but sometimes even they got desperate.
When the sun went down, one by one they flew off, until only one skinny straggler remained. The one that was forced off to the side to watch the rest have their meals, and grow fat off the flesh of a long since dead thing. It got the scraps that the rest left behind, dying everyday a little bit more, subsisting off that which was not fit to eat: Marrow, fur, and the padding off the dog’s feet.
Dog would have been good. Randon hated himself for leaving it out there, but thought better of it when it occurred to him that birds were flying off, far off into the distance. One less fight to fight, and a much better chance of survival. When the last bird flew off lazily and awkwardly into the setting sun, he drew up the shutters, and stalked out into the desert scanning the visible lands for any incoming dangers, either galloping or hiding.
Only a black stained spot remained where a dog once laid, its bones resting white and yellow, stripped clean, and snapped in pieces, but in the middle was green. A tiny green sprout in the middle of black sludge, and bone. Four little leaves on a tiny green stem, the sight was enough to make him fall to his knees, his hands trembling with excitement, and the familiar yet distant feeling of water welling up in his eyes. He pushed the carcass out of the way so that the sun could hit the seedling. The blood. It was the blood, and flesh. It fed the ground, and the seed, and the sun. All the water and the care he had given to ensure its safety. It all paid off, and suddenly the throbbing of his arm didn’t seem to matter so much.
When the sun was going down, the ebbing daylight brought a wind that while subtle, Randon knew to be the beginning of a sand storm. So he decided to go inside, and grab a tarp. He made a shelter for the little sprout, and watched from the dock window for the night. He laid with his back to the cold damp ground, and watched a piece of peeling paint flap back and forth revealing a bit of brown rusty decay beneath, and listened to the sound of a dust storm outside whip against the walls of the grocery store. The dock shutters banged violently, and it rattled him from his thought. He walked to the shutters, and looked outside, but could only see the sand whipping around like ribbons in the wind, so he lay back down and started thinking about his plant. Thinking about how vulnerable it was, how alone it was out there with nothing to protect it from the Maggot Beaks, or the rats.
He’d come across a pack of the things before in the desert. Desert Rats… Huge, the size of kittens. They were hunting. Came after him like wolves. Ten or twelve of the damn things. Had to drop a piece of salted meat to get them to give up chase long enough to get away. They’ve been known to be ravenous eaters. Eat down whole crops of corn in the matter of weeks. His seedling was but a morsel, but it wouldn’t matter to a hungry animal. Food is food, and every little bit helps to survive.
Another loud bang at the shutters shook him enough to stand up and look out the window. Only sand. Only sand…
He was happy to be there, alone, with just his thoughts, and the comfort of knowing he would not have to brave the dangers of the outside world unless he invited them into his life. The outside was one dangerous encounter, after another. Sleepless days, sleepless nights, hallucinations, desert dogs bounding in the haze of heat and exhaustion. How he loved his cardboard bed, and his newspaper, and curtain cloth sheets. Cozy as home.
A loud bang jarred him from his trance, and at first he didn’t bother to look over, but there was an oppressive feeling hovering over him, the feeling that eyes were upon him. He didn’t dare look, but then came the scraping. A loud metal on metal screech that forced him to look to the window where he met with another pair of eyes. Dark deep set eyes behind a sackcloth mask, little round eye holes cut out. A machete slammed against the window, and it spider webbed. Another slam sent a piece of broken glass to the floor to shatter into pieces. Kicks punches screams, and shoulder slams shook the aluminum shutter, and a knife pierced its thin skin, and another, and another, and all Randon could do was watch in horror for the moment.
Pull your shit together. He thought, sitting up and grabbing his weapon. Without thinking he ran to the shutter and plunged the pointed end of the spear through a cut in the aluminum, and it splintered through stopping only when it met with skin, and for a moment those dark eyes got wide, and brighter, and the yellowing whites of its blood shot orbs trembled in terror from the hit. It let out a worried scream, and then another as the thing tried to wriggle free. Randon pulled the spear out, and saw blood dripping from its end, and by the time he had readied the spear for another thrust, the man was shambling off around the corner, and disappearing into the darkness.
His spear was jagged now, pieces shaved off, and little shards of wood poking out in all directions. If his attacker didn’t die from the hole in his stomach, surely he would die from an infection. Though the questions still remained. What if he didn’t? What if he recovers from his wounds, and comes back better prepared? What if he was just a scout, and right now he’s going back to tell his friends?
There was only one sensible choice here, and it wasn’t one that Randon was all too pleased to proceed with, but knew it was the only way. So he pulled up the shutter, and strode out into the night wind, a bath towel wrapped around his head, snorkel mask covering his eyes, following the blood trail to a man, elderly, demented, speaking in tongues, spitting when he spoke, unintelligible, and bleeding in a pit with half eaten sand rats, and what must have been a dung fire pit. The place reeked of shit, and decay, and as Randon stood over the man in his little hole, the old man began to weep. “Nodae me. No daeme!” He screamed. His hands out, a tear running down his face, coughing up bits of blood, choking as he spoke. The spear thrust pierced his wrinkled hand and straight through his nasal cavity, destroying him utterly, and silencing his whimpering. It was a clean death, a quick and painless one, and Randon was grateful for it.
The old man’s meat and fat would feed him well for days.