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My Brother's Keeper
He waded through the immense flurries of ash. The gas mask he wore tightly gripped his face. The scavenged clothes hung off his frail frame. He was like a walking corpse, crumbling beneath the weight of his heavy knapsack. He gripped a rifle tightly in his hand.
As the ash subsided, he could see that the sun was already beginning to set, dimming and lowering itself through the gray sky. He needed shelter.
His breaths became more and more labored. His head felt light. Thoughts escaped, vision faded. Hunger was setting in.
The scorched ruins of a gas station appeared ahead. The roof was mostly intact. A good place to sleep, he thought to himself.
Inside various sundries were scattered about the floor. He pushed some aside and put down his backpack. He then began rummaging through the assortment of things strewn about the floor. There were a couple mostly- empty can of kerosene on the floor and a tin of Vienna sausages. He poured the kerosene into one container, and placed it in his knapsack. After he finished clearing another spot on the floor and setting up a place to sleep, he cracked the can of Vienna sausages and began to eat them.
After his modest meal, he lay on his blanket, watching the last embers burn in the white ash of the fire. They swelled and faltered, but it always surprised him how long they burned, even without sustenance. He got an odd sense of comfort from this. He turned to his side, and fell asleep.
His dreams were always vivid; they served as a looking glass to long lost reality. Family members were resurrected, scenery amended, color restored. The world was as it had been before zero hour. Then the mood changed. The lucidity intensified. Sirens blared. Fear rises within him. A flash of light on the horizon. Panic, chaos. The electricity goes off, never to reappear. The horizon gives birth to a colossal cloud of smoke atop a tower of fire. A mushroom cloud he thinks to himself. The whole world goes dark.
He woke up alone, on the floor of a decrepit gas station. For a second, he forgot where he was. This was always the best second of his day. He sat up and looked outside. This place was void of color, the faces and names of loved ones receded from conscious thought. What had it said above the gates of hell in Inferno, he thought to himself. Oh yes; ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’
After he gathered his things, he stepped out onto the highway, now illuminated by the obfuscated sun. The stretch was marshaled on either side by road signs twisted and blank. Fitting for the places they advertised, fitting for the world to which they now belonged. Before, he set off, he removed the picture of his brother from his pocket. As he stared at the picture, he thought of an old adage his grandfather had told him: Life is meaningless without motivation. He could see that it was truer now than it had ever been before zero hour, before he was forced to abandon all of the immature arrogance that came with being a narcissistic sixteen-year-old boy.
As he began walking, he launched himself deep into his own thought. This distracted him from the distorted, dried corpses that dotted the road in between the ash emblazoned automobiles.
After a while walking, he decided to rest. He set the rifle at his feet, and plopped down on the fender of a derelict car. He removed a carefully folded map and carefully examined it. One day, he thought. One day until I reach the safe zone. He turned the map over just to double-check the coordinates he had etched down the second they were transmitted over the radio shortly following zero hour. Of course, that had been when the radio stations were still broadcasting. Within a day of the cataclysm, all of the radio stations were silent.
As he got up, he looked around at the devastation. Ahead the road was littered with more carcasses and car skeletons. To the south, the hills were scorched black and the trees were bare, as if the were the victim of an eternal winter. To the north, way off in the distance, the skyline of a city lay in ruins. Grand destruction had been wrought on this land. He couldn’t help but think his very existence in this place was punishment for his transgressions.
* * *
He walked for hours down the highway, head down, using the yellow centerline as his guide. When he finally looked ahead, he saw a relieving sight. The road climbed and twisted up a small mountain, the only thing standing between him and the refugee camp, the first of many in the safe zone.
The walk up the mountain was a long one, but finally the road twisted around to the other side. He saw the edge of a bluff a few feet past the guardrail, and he couldn’t resist the temptation to sprint up and look down at the camp below. When he got to the guardrail, he stopped dead. He was looking down on a massacre.
Even from the distance, he could see that nothing was moving in the camp. Though he couldn’t exactly see them, he knew what those heaps were, lying amidst the array of gray stained tents. They numbered in the thousands. Rifle in hand, backpack straining every muscle in his back, he ran as fast as he could down the mountain. When he finally reached the bottom, his panting had turned into dry heaves. He kept sprinting, until he came to the barbed wire fence at the edge of the camp.
There he began to cry, as he could see the sheer amount bodies strewn about. Some were riddled with bullet holes; some bore the gashes of some kind of long blade. All were drenched in blood. All were dead.
He walked along the fence, tears streaming down his face. He thought of his brother, the promise he made to find him again when he discovered there was no room for him on the truck. He came to the entrance. The gate was completely gone. He could see that the tents had been looted; the only thing that remained was the cots, many of which were still inhabited by the dead. On the far side of the camp, there was a sizable but crude building marked ‘Mess Hall’. He thought of scavenging, but somehow he already knew everything of use was long gone.
He turned back to the entrance of the camp, and walked back to the highway. He angrily threw down his bag and rifle, and started looking through the bag. There were no emergency rations of food or water left. He began to curse God. I am going to die, he thought. Then a dark idea donned on him.
He pulled out his rifle and flicked off the safety. He raised the barrel to his head and positioned it so that his thumb was on the trigger. He tried to squeeze, but he couldn’t conjure the courage. Either that, or he couldn’t abandon the hope. He reached into his pocket, and came out with the picture of his brother. “Now is no time to break my promise,” he said to himself. He still didn’t even know if his brother’s body was among those in the camp, but some innate instinct told him it was not.
He put on his backpack and looked down the highway. He knew that whoever ransacked the camp and slaughtered the residents was somewhere down that highway. For a split second he wondered if he was making the right decision, but one glance at his brother’s picture made him feel shameful for even considering that. He put his head down, and focused on the centerline. He started walking, and never looked back.