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Another Long Road

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Another long road.
The horizon hadn’t looked so far away years ago. You don’t really realize the expansiveness of the land around you, until there’s nothing but you and it, and not even tumbleweeds for the atmosphere. The animals had all grown quiet months ago, but not because they weren’t there any longer. No, they had just learned the same lessons as the last of the people; the only way to survive now was to be scarce.
Benjamin Clockhirth had learned to be more scarce than anybody, which was why he hadn’t seen another soul in months. Hadn’t spoken a word, hadn’t shared a meal, and hadn’t shook a hand.
That had been the first thing to go, really; the shaking of the hands. No one wanted to catch…. Well, whatever it was. Maybe it could be spread before the fact, and maybe it couldn’t, but once you saw somebody with the look in there eyes, and the god awful color to their nails… once you saw what they could do… well, you cut yourself off. That’s what everybody did. Of course, who knew if it did any good. Ben had seen nothing but ghost towns for miles, so maybe it didn’t make a difference. Maybe it carried upon the air, and one day you just got a big old wiff, and there you went, over the edge. Violent and rabid.
But either way, Ben just kept on walking. It was amazing what the world used to tell him he needed to live! Ninety nine percent of it he had done without for a long time now. Like deodorant, now there was something you didn’t need! After a while, you just stopped smelling. Or maybe your nose stopped working… either way, unnecessary, just like the rest of it.
All you really needed was a couple slices of bread a day, and water.
Ben’s shadow stretched out in front of him. Gaunt, thin, skeletal. Those pieces of bread were just the minimum, of course. He could eat more, if he wasn’t so afraid of the animals. He had seen them get the wild eye too, and didn’t have any doubts that whatever it was would be transmittable through eating something that had it. So, welcome to vegetarianism. God, it sucked.
Sometimes he dreamed of bacon. Bacon, and Penelope Cruz. Those were the good nights.
But, bread it was! And curse those dirty hippies . . . the food that survived, when the world turned into dead silence? Wonder bread. Everything that Ben had been told by his family was sooooo bad for him, well, it was the only thing left. God bless preservatives.
The organics didn’t make it a week.
Time to rest his feet. Ben sat down on the edge of the road, and pulled off one worn shoe. A couple rocks fell out, scattering upon broken, crumbling asphalt.
The little town ahead looked the same as all the others, which was to say, it looked dead. Some doors open, some closed, whichever it was, none of it had been touched in months.
This was life; raid any pantries he could find, then, onto the next one.
And what for? The human part of Ben said he was searching for more people, but the survivalist vehemently argued that there wasn’t any point in that. Where there was people, there was the disease. And death always followed the disease, wearing nothing but blood.
And it was in this way that the survivalist ended up sounding completely irrational. It was safer to keep a distance, to not feel, hear, or speak to another soul. It kept you alive.
But what really was the point?
Ben had walked enough long empty roads to know that there was a struggle over his body, controlled by two dominate forms of thought. One wanted to keep him alive, at any cost. The other was sure that living without anything but a road to travel, and a few pieces of bread a day, would kill him in the end anyway. Not from lack of nourishment, but from disconnection.
But, he hadn’t seen another soul in months. The survivalist was winning, and how could he not? The worms crawling out of the corpses, men murdering their families, that now familiar glint of insanity settling in their eyes…. Fear was on the survivalist side. And another day of breathing was still a promise that was better than the slow decay of the disease.
But god, Ben could do with a little more food.
He stared out at the town before him. People had been ransacking towns for months now, those that were left, and rarely was it that he would come on a place that had not already been taken for all that it had. They left the bread for last, so that was what Ben got. Just once he wished someone wouldn’t take the jerky! The idea of tearing into a nice, salty piece of jerky made his mouth fill with saliva in yearning.
He patted his bag, and felt the stock of the gun he carried. The bullets were always gone, too, from the bi marts, or the few wal marts that had carried them. Ben had three left, and one side of him was sure he was going to need one for himself. The other side was just waiting to find meat, unspoiled.
He stood, his shadow silhouetting behind him, and adjusted the bag with a grunt. Another day, another bad dream.
The town whispered around him, the wind whistling through screen doors. There was dried blood, just like in the horror movies. No movie Ben had ever seen could measure up to the terror that had taken over earth, though.
They said it was everywhere, and they were the whispers at night, held in between huddles of survivors. No one grasped at hope anymore, they had all heard of the fall of Tokyo, and the blood fest that had been London. There was nowhere that was safe, nowhere that was any sort of haven. It was everywhere, it came on the wind, it was in the water, and all anybody had was time, and most had less than others. Ben had been walking three months… or had it been four? He had had longer than others, though, that was for sure.
His family was still alive, but that was using the word loosely. Ben should have killed them when he began to see the red tinge to their nails, but he couldn’t. The most he had the guts to do . . . was leave.
Walking walking walking . . . . until his feet brought him here, which was the same as anywhere before, and probably the same as anywhere ahead.
He entered the first shop.
The place had been cleaned out like all the others. There was one pack of packaged peanuts on the rack. Ben popped it open, and chewed quietly, as he made his way between the shelves.
A loaf of bread . . . and a bag of chips. Oh, and a water bottle. This place had also already been taken for almost everything it had. There were a few skittles scattered across the floor, somebody must have lost half a pack of one of those 89 cent things. Ben picked them up, and ate them. He would have pocketed it if it had been anything else, but being chocolate, it would just melt.
He opened his bag. The zipper had broken months ago, so he had taken to closing it with some clothesline pins he had found a few towns back. Two on the top, and two on the side seemed to work okay, but he put two extra in the spaces in between, just for good measure.
In went the bread, the water, and the chips. It would have to do till the next town.
God, Ben felt unbearably thin . . . . like a twig, a toothpick, a f***ing anorexic. He finished the skittles, and took a little sip of the water. His stomach growled.
Just keep surviving, a voice in his head said. Just keep breathing….
He began to clip the top of the bag back together, and then felt his ear twitch, the way it did when he had heard something, but his mind hadn’t really registered it.
He sat straight, and listened.
“Hello?”
The voice came from outside, and sounded weak, afraid . . . . but sane. Ben slung the pack over his shoulder, and crept to the door, keeping low. He peered out the window.
A young woman was walking down the middle of the street, devoid of a pack, a shirt, or shoes. She was wearing only a black bra, and a pair of jeans, faded and dirty.
“Hello?” she called again, and Ben winced.
Whether there were any of the diseased in this town or not, he didn’t know, but it was day time, and usually, that meant resting time for the cursed. Ben had found if he kept quiet, and moved through quickly, he was usually safe until sunset. Then, it was time to find a place to hide.
But this woman wasn’t keeping quiet. She was calling out, like a open invitation for death… and maybe that’s what it was. But it wasn’t death that awaited her, if she got caught. It was worse. Much worse.
Ben peered around at the buildings, outside, and saw swift movement within a shed behind the girl. Just a brief shadow, passing a upstairs window, something that could have been the eye playing tricks on the brain… but Ben knew that it wasn’t. When there was nothing to be afraid of, he had seen things where they were not. But, with death at every corner, he had learned to tell what was real, and what was fake. And there was a very real danger approaching, blood thirsty, rabid, and mad.
He dropped his bag to the floor, and pulled out the gun.
It was a folding stock rifle, and Ben had gotten it off of a dead military man, only taking it because the adorned soldiers ripped out intestines had managed to avoid touching the gun. He unfolded it now, and quietly place the clip (only three bullets remaining) inside.
“Anyone?”
Ben leveled the gun on the ledge of the counter, and breathed in heavily, settling himself.
“Please?”
The door behind the girl rustled, but she didn’t seem to notice, coming to a standstill, and raising a hand to block away the sun.
More rustling . .. . and then, two emerged.
They were hunched, and Ben could barely see the humanity in them anymore. All the hair had fallen from their bodies, and their eyes shown a bright blue. There was a red tinge about their long, thick fingernails.
They were quiet, nimble . . . and drooling.
The girl shook her head, dropping her hands to her sides. Ben watched the diseased ones creep up behind her. He wasn’t the best shot…. And the gunfire wouldn’t scare these away. How close would they get, before he had to fire?
Suddenly, one snarled, and the girl jumped, turning. She screamed, and turned heel to run, but she lacked shoes, and appeared to hit a discarded piece of plywood, first step . . . it sent her tumbling, rolling through the dusty road.
Ben focused in on the cursed ones, tightening a finger on the trigger.
One roared.
He fired.
The bullet hit it square in the side of the head. Blood sprayed out in a graceful arc, over the ground, and it toppled with a snarl.
The other followed the sound of the gunshot, angry blue eyes, and twisted lips spotting the smoking barrel of Ben’s gun.
Ben reloaded, and it charged, sprinting, and waving its fingernail claws. He aimed, hoping he didn’t miss, with only two bullets left.
He finally pulled the trigger, waiting until the last second, breath held deep in his chest. The thing fell back, the bullet tearing straight in between the blue eyes. It fell to the ground, bleeding out copiously.
Ben shook, and dropped the gun to the counter, hands over his eyes.
He had avoided them for so long. He had forgot how horrible they were. The smell, the anger, the insanity. . . . they used to be men, like him. One had probably worked at the local k-mart.
And now they roamed, eating the animals, and the people that crossed there paths, with the insane glare, and reddened nails . . . . the sign that they had begun killing, and eating, with their hands.
“Help! Who’s over there? Anyone?”
Ben raised his eyes from between his palms. The girl was on the road, clenching her ankle. The first one lay just a few feet from her, still bleeding out.
He held the rifle in his shaking hand, and slung the bag back over his shoulder. Then, he exited the shop.
The sun slammed down upon his head, illuminating him with light, and the young woman spotted him.
“Oh, thank you!” she cried out. Ben winced again, and raised a finger to his lips. He felt fear coursing through every portion of his body, running up through his feet, and down his arms. He peered at the windows of the surrounding buildings, spinning slowly to take it all in.
Nothing. Nothing that he would see anyway. It might just be safe.
He walked quickly to the young woman, who had grown quiet, and knelt by her side. She was clenching her ankle, and looking at him with a look of slight fear. Ben couldn’t blame her, he must look quite raggedy, after the last few months on the road. Thin, from malnourishment, unshaven, greasy hair…. He hadn’t been presentable in a very long time.
“Who are you?” she asked, eyes tracing the outline of his face.
“Ben.” He said, “Can you walk?”
She nodded, and he began to pull her to her feet at once. She winced as weight was put on the twisted ankle, but it was apparently bearable.
“You saved my life.” She said.
“You wasted two of my three bullets.” Said Ben sourly. He wasn’t going to find more anytime soon.
He had one left. Maybe that was a message.
He threw one of her arms over his shoulder, as she winced again at putting weight on her foot, and they began to walk. Ben didn’t want to stay here any longer. There was maybe three hours till sunset, and this town had already been mostly cleaned out, he could tell… and he was sure if he tried to go further in it to look, there would be more the diseased. He had one bullet left, and a limping girl with him now. It was time to find some shelter.
“What’s your name?” he asked, leading her toward the dirt, heading off road, and towards the trees. He realized that maybe his comment about her wasting two of his bullets had been a bit mean. Not that it was a surprise his manners were rusty.
“Abby,” she said quietly with a grunt. He tried shifting a little more of her weight over his shoulders as they moved past the layer of pavement, and off towards the hilly area that surrounded this little city of—
He glanced behind them.

Welcome to fordville

Fordville. Away to the trees they went upon the edge of fordville.
“I’m Ben,” he supplied. He felt like he should offer her something, but she looked better fed than he did. And he didn’t have much. Less than usual.
And it was probably a good fifty miles till the next town.
“Nice to—Ugh—meet you.” She said. It was strange, almost the same as a introduction would have been before it had all happened. The only difference was the circumstances; Ben had never before exchanged pleasantries, with starvation in his stomach, and a rifle upon his back. “How long have you been on the road?”
Ben thought about it. Truth was, he could only guess, for the days had droned into weeks, which had droned into months, and he really wasn’t sure how long it had been. It was just an indecipherable mush of memory, of roads, towns, fear, and hunger… and not much else.
“Around three months.” He said. “You?”
“I don’t know . . . . I was with a group, but…”
A sentence like that didn’t need to be finished. Not now. Not for the last six months. Ben could only guess what had happened to her friends, but now days, his choice of guesses wasn’t all that much. And he would probably right that whatever it was, it had ended violently.
Like the two on the street behind them, blood pooling out like a splatter form art tapestry.
They moved into the trees, the shade enveloping them. Logic would say that it would be more dangerous in the woods, but something about the infected led them to the towns… like a little part of the mind that was still human inside was draw towards civilization.
Or maybe it was just that they had learned it was the best place to hunt for humans, with the raiders, rarely armed, walking through the labyrinth of store shelves, the opportunity for death at the turn of every snack aisle.
Ben didn’t lead Abby far; he needed to set up a little camp, and check the area to see what the weakest points were, if something was wandering the hills. And, his stomach was ravenously growling. He wasn’t going to let her see that he had food, it was already enough that she had cost him two bullets.
Everything was more dangerous now, and more fear filled Ben’s gut. With every twig that broke underfoot, that wasn’t his own, he tensed, before realizing it was Abby.
“Alright, stay here for a minute,” he said, glancing around at the little area that appeared to be as decent as any other could be; The ground was slightly ruffled, and the area might have been where a herd of deer had nestled down a few weeks back… but they were long gone by now. “I’m just going to take a look around.”
“I….. think I’ll just sit down for a moment.” Said Abby, dropping herself roughly to the grass, and gingerly rubbing her leg. Ben nodded, and headed off into the woods.
Out of sight, he opened his backpack, and removed a slice of stale bread, and a little bottle of glacier water. The cap made a ‘pop’ as he opened it, which was much louder than the gentle ‘glug’, as he thirstily poured a drink down his throat after a bit of the crunchy, maybe even moldy, bread.
What was he going to do, he wondered. He hardly had enough for himself, let alone another companion. There weren’t enough rations left in the little snack aisles of the sparsely located towns to provide . . . . in fact, give it a little while longer, and there wouldn’t be enough for him, alone.
He finished the bread, and restrained himself from taking another. Just enough to survive was the motto . . . . he could make that package of bread last a week, if he had to.
Feeling horribly sneaky, Ben decided he should at least throw a cursory glance around the area, and fulfill his proclaimed objective. There wasn’t much to see, but he looked, and listened. As far as he could tell, they may be safe… for the night.
Abby was seated on the ground, wincing, when he came back into sight. She had her leg stretched out awkwardly.
“How bad did you hurt it?” he asked, sitting down, and dropping the bag by his side. A slight wind brushed the side of his sweater. He should have grabbed a bit of wood for a fire. Oh well, he would just have to make another trip.
“Worse than I thought, I guess.” She said, shaking her head. She looked at him. “Are you hurt at all?”
Was he? Well, not physically. Mentally, Ben was sure he had been stabbed many times over the last months, and trampled roughly, as well. But he wasn’t bleeding, so no.
“No.” he said. “I’m fine.”
Abby shook her head and looked away with a frown.
“How the hell did this all happen?” she asked out loud, though Ben was sure it wasn’t really a question; more of a passing thought, whispered out loud.
How had this happened? That was something Ben didn’t like to think about. It was one of those things that no one knew for sure, but before things had completely crumbled, theories had gotten around. A experimental drug gone wrong, that the government had let go too far, was the main theory…. But there was nothing to back it up, because there was no one to ask. The Disease had started, and the government had disappeared. There had been rumors that they had went underground, to wait it out, while all the other people of the world were left outside, to weather the storm, of sorts.
There was also the Christian theory, that this was the end of days, but Ben had never been religious. A black president had been the end of days to the Christian community; there was always something.
He shrugged. “Who knows. At least we are alive.”
“Is that really so great?” asked Abby. She sounded sarcastic, but Ben knew that the sarcasm was a mask. Anyone who had survived this long had the same question on their mind, the same wonder of whether being alive was worth it, when all you had to live for was life.
“Well, you can check out at any time, honey.” Said Ben. It came across a little harsher than he intended . . . but he had just used two of his precious bullets to save her life, he was entitled to not enjoy references to being better off dead.
Not that he felt any different.
“I’m sorry,” she groaned, “I’m just . . . . tired.”
Ben nodded, and broke a stick in half loudly. He needed firewood.
“I heard that they think it might have been a experimental crop duster.” Abby said after a moment.
“What?”
“Crop dusting? Some new spray that they had for the farmers, there was something wrong with it. I heard that that might have been what started it.”
Ben scoffed. “I’ve heard some ridiculous theories, but—”
“I’m not saying its true, I’m just saying.”
“So, we have millions of people dying, men and women going insane—killing their families!!!—because they remembered to eat there vegetables?”
“You don’t have to be mean about it. I’m just saying I heard it.”
Ben sighed. “Sorry. I haven’t talked to anyone in a long time. Looks like the only thing I remember is how to be angry.”
He stood. “I’m going to grab some firewood. You can grab the blanket off of my bag if you would like.”
Abby shivered in appreciation.
Ben was fairly loud in his quest for firewood, but honestly, he didn’t care. There was nothing out here, he was sure of that. Danger would come in the morning, with the next town.
God, if he only had food . . . . more than bread, at least! Some meat, protein, would just be so amazing.
It was so easy for the insane, diseased, rotting, half dead population. They didn’t have to worry, they could eat whatever they wanted. If they had come across Abby, and taken her (as they almost had) their bellies would be full for days . . . so easy…
Ben shook his head. That was an awful line of thought. Envious of the dead! He went back to picking up sticks.
Abby was wrapped up in the blanket when he got back, and that was good, because it took him forever to get the fire started. He had never been that good at it, and he would have thought that after three months his abilities to make heat would have increased, but still, every time, it was a new struggle.
“Do you need any help?” asked Abby. Ben shook his head.
“I’ll get it.” He said. She nodded, though he wasn’t sure if it was really a nod, or a course of up and down shivers. She was a little pale; Ben didn’t know how bad her foot was hurt, and it was taking its toll. The fact that she had almost experienced the brutal death of being the main course for the blue eyed demons probably didn’t help. And her lack of a shirt….
Finally, the fire was started. Ben sat back, exhausted.
“Where are you from?” asked Abby.
Ben desperately wanted to tell her to just be quiet. He was tired, and wasn’t used to speaking, not unless it was to himself. But her shivers, and the cold, clammy color of her skin…. He just didn’t have the heart.
“Bakersfield.” He said. “You?”
“Florida.” She said.
“Long way from home.”
“Aren’t we all?”
He nodded. The fire crackled, filling the desperate, cold silence.
“Did you have any family.” She asked after a moment.
“Yes.”
“Me too.”
She didn’t press it; she didn’t need to.
“Didn’t think it would end up like this when I got out of college.” Abby chuckled.
“No one did. If they had, there would have been survival course’s with Phd’s, not economics.”
“I was going for dentistry.”
“Lucky you. You find some survivors, that could still be useful.”
There was a crackle, out in the darkness of the forest, and Ben and Abby turned in unison. Ben strained his ears, trying his best to capture the noise, but it was gone with a gentle sound of padded feet, as quickly as it had come. Ben relaxed; just some woodland creature, upon the prowl, searching for whatever was left out there.
“I’ll add more wood.” Volunteered Abby, leaning forward with a handful of sticks.

***

Abby fell asleep easier then Ben could only dream of doing nowadays. Her head was rested back on a bundled up towel, and she breathed gently, a slow in and out, a breath which seemed peaceful, and yet, at the same time, shallow, and weak.
Ben threw a pine branch on the fire. It crackled in surprise as it encountered the flames.
He was so cold, and so tired. In front of him was the first person he had seen in months, who hadn’t been taken over by the disease, and it did nothing to lift his spirits. It saddened him. No hope came with her, no news of something that was to save them.
It appeared that there really was nothing else out there.
So he had saved her. And what now? She was shivering in the cold, curled up as close to the fire as she could be, without catching aflame herself. With her injury, she would slow Ben down . . . they would both probably be dead within a week.
Of course . . . . Ben could be dead sooner than that.
He gripped the gun close to him. Only one bullet left, was that a sign? He had thought about it before, dreamed about it, but always, fighting the idea back, had been the word ‘survival’ echoing in his mind, chorusing around his brain.
But he could do it, and it would be easy. And quick.
And why fear death? If there was nothing after his final breath, it wasn’t as if he would be able to tell. An eternity of blackness, and nothing but that?
Ben looked around him, at Abby, at the dark. He felt the cold on his skin.
That blackness didn’t sound to bad.
He absentmindedly cocked the gun, and his mind cried out! ‘No! you have so much to live for!’
‘What?’ he asked, with all sincerity, speaking to himself.
‘Life!’
‘This isn’t life, this is death for the breathing.’ He raised the gun, breathing in deeply.
‘There are other ways to make it better!’ cried out his mind, but it was over. He was done….. he was ready.
“Ben, what are you doing!?”
He jolted forward, to find Abby staring at him, with his gun raised, and defeat in his eyes.
“Nothing.” He said quietly, as the fear spread across her pale face.

***

The deer jolted up as the gun went off. It couldn’t tell from what direction, but it was close, and loud. There was a scream, that made the creatures ears shrink in on themselves.
The deer stood still as a statue, listening . . . . waiting.
Nothing else could be heard. Forgetting all about the horrid noise, the deer went back to digging its flat teeth into the raccoon carcass before it.

***

Ben rose, rested, and well fed. He yawned as the sun shone down on him, and wiped at his face.
There was something tingling at the back of his mind, itching . . . a memory…..
Had something happened yesterday? Why wasn’t he starving, the way he was, usually, in the mornings?
He looked down upon the ground. There was blood everywhere. And his gun was scattered to the side of the campsite.
Ben frowned, beginning to feel a little lost. He was drowsy, and his head didn’t feel right . . . . like he had eaten an off meal, or something…
Slowly, it was coming back to him. There had been a girl… he had tried to save her, but the diseased ones had gotten her. And then he had set up camp . . . . and then . . . . and then?
He had used his last bullet to shoot a deer, and had stripped it down, and feasted!
He looked at his hands. They were covered in blood.
He looked down at his bag. It was stocked to the brim with meat. He dug his hand into it, and smelled . . . . there was something different about this flesh, but he couldn’t tell what . . . something in his mind told him that this wasn’t a regular deer…
He shrugged it off, and hoisted the bag to his back. He felt better than he had in a long time. It was annoying that he couldn’t quite remember the night before, but he didn’t really care! The sun was out, and he couldn’t be all that far from the next town.
Yes, this wasn’t so bad… on a full belly, things sure felt warmer, and more vibrant.
Turning his bright blue eyes to the sun, Ben smiled, and began to stride off onto another long road.



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