He walked with his head down, his eyes turned away from the rays of the setting sun as he dragged himself forward one labored step after another. The old, tattered bag slung over his shoulder carried his meager belongings. A now nearly empty plastic bottle, a kettle for boiling water, a dirty rag full of berries he’d found that morning after leaving the ramshackle building he’d taken shelter in the night before, and an assortment of other items he refused to get rid of for sentimental—or masochistic—reasons. He never could decide which.
The items were mostly useless now, remnants of a life that felt like a dream, and carrying them across this desolate land had weighed his shoulders down until he began to worry he’d wake one day to find himself permanently hunched. Still, no matter how many times he’d unzipped the bag with the intention of throwing the items out, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. They were all he had left of that long-ago life, of an existence where he’d been part of something, where he hadn’t been alone. Well, that and the memories, but those had faded until they were nothing more than shadows of what they’d once been. He couldn’t remember the last time he could clearly picture the faces of his friends, and he had no clue how much time had passed since they’d died. Hell, he didn’t even know how long it had been since he’d seen another living, breathing person, since he’d spoken to someone else, since he’d spoken aloud just so he could wrap himself in something other than the endless silence of this world.
Too long, he realized. Much, much too long.
It had been decades since time had any real meaning for him. In the beginning, when he’d first found himself alone, he’d clung to his humanity. He’d talked to his lost loved ones for hours, carrying on conversations that had no beginning and no end, hoping to distract himself from the never-ending emptiness of this new world. It had been useless, though, and eventually he’d lapsed into a silence that felt endless. Just like his life.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been alone, but the twenty torturous years he’d spent as a prisoner and science experiment paled in comparison. This went on and on, an infinite circle of mindless existence that was enough to drive a person mad, and he very well could have been mad. It was difficult to say for sure.
Crazy or not, he kept moving, clinging to the way things used to be because it was all he could do. In those early years, after he’d watched his family die one by one, he’d thought his turn had to be near. Thought death was lurking around some not yet turned corner, just waiting for him. He’d outlived them, though. All of them. Then he was alone, and he’d thought, Soon. Soon it will be my turn. But years went by, and still he lived. On and on and on. Nothing changed but the world around him as he moved from one group of survivors to the next, working with them while he waited for fate to finally catch up. It never had. Then they were gone, too, and he was alone. Really, truly alone for the first time in his entire miserable existence.
Now, he had thought, now my turn will come.
But still, it hadn’t.
That was when he’d accepted the truth. They’d done something to him in that hellhole. Something that had changed him. What, he couldn’t say. He’d barely graduated high school and had no real medical knowledge. Plus, he was fairly certain the things they’d done had less to do with medicine and more to do with science. That was what he’d been, after all. A science experiment. A Frankenstein’s monster. A thing to be used and used and used, then discarded when it no longer amused the people in charge. Thank God he’d gotten out of there before that happened.
The soles of his shoes scraped against the ground as he trudged on, echoing through the air. He was used to the sound, but it still seemed loud amidst the silence. Tree branches clicked overhead, dead leaves rustled as they blew across the fissured pavement that had once been a highway, birds occasionally dared to belt out a note, and his feet scraped. Those were the only sounds left. At least for now.
Gotta find me a place to hole up, he thought as he lifted his head.
In front of him, what was left of the road rose in an incline, climbing a hill that blotted out nearly all that was left of the sun. Only a sliver of the bright, orange ball was still visible, and beyond it the sky was a canvas of beauty. Red and orange and yellow mingled together with blues and purples to create a breathtaking end to the day, but he hardly noticed. He’d seen more sunsets than he cared to admit, and these days, they only meant one thing. Time to hide.
The day had gotten away from him. He hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and he now found himself in the middle of nowhere, which was the last place he wanted to be at dusk. He was surrounded by forest. Trees that towered over him, plants that had broken through cracks in the pavement and thrived in the absence of men to trample them. The rusted skeletons of cars overgrown with foliage, their doors gaping to reveal interiors that had long ago been destroyed by animals or nature or both. No place to take cover. Nowhere that would conceal him for the night.
He moved faster, ignoring the ache that screamed in protest each time he lifted his leg. The hill was bigger than he’d anticipated, and he was gasping by the time he was halfway to the top. It had been decades since he’d smoked, but like always, he cursed himself for so carelessly abusing his body when he was young. It was one of the many, many things he would have changed if he could go back. Of course, he’d had no way of knowing what the future held for him. How could he?
He finally made it to the top of the hill and paused to both catch his breath and get a look around. A city loomed in the distance, empty and quiet and dark just like every other part of this world. Most of the buildings were crumbling, their windows broken or missing completely, their exteriors beaten beneath the vines snaking up the walls. The buildings were shells of what they had once been. Shadows of a life forgotten by everyone but him.
It would have to do, though, because he was running out of daylight. In the time it had taken him to climb the hill, the sun had sunk even lower and was now on the verge of being completely swallowed by the horizon. Above him, the sky had darkened to indigo, and blackness would follow quickly on its heels. He needed to move.
His eyes darted around as he rushed forward, one hand clinging to the strap of his backpack and the other resting on the hilt of his knife. He would be okay as long as there was light, but that would change the second it was gone. Night brought horrors even the bigshots who used to live in Hollywood hadn’t dared dream up, and while he’d survived more than his fair share of abuse at the hands of those damned creatures—and he had the scars to prove it—he wasn’t anxious to face off with them again. He was too damn old for that shit.
The closer he got to the city, the more ruins became visible. From far away he hadn’t been able to distinguish the remnants of the smaller buildings. They were too covered by weeds, too overgrown with ivy. Now, though, he could see the remains of houses that had long ago crumbled to nothing. What was left of a chimney jutting from a bed of green, half a wall poking from between bushes, a door that seemed to stand on its own and was covered in leafy vines and dotted with white flowers. The farther into the city he got, the more buildings remained, but the first few he came to didn’t look stable enough to take shelter in.
Hidden debris crunched under his feet as he moved, occasionally making him stumble. He didn’t take his eyes off the world in front of him, though. Only a little daylight remained, and he needed to stay alert. Needed to find a place he could hole up, a room he could barricade himself in for the night.
Only a purple glow still lingered on the horizon when he finally found a building that would do. It had been a doctor’s office at one time, although the name of the physician had faded or chipped off years ago. The front window was gone, but at some point, someone must have taken shelter here, because it had been replaced by a piece of plywood. The wood was rotten and crumbling in places now, but when he stepped into the building, he found that nearly all the rooms still had doors. A good sign.
He moved slowly, carefully, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness and ignoring the thudding of his heart as he inspected the interior. There were none of the telltale signs that anything nefarious lived in the building. No scat on the ground, and while the air was thick with dust and mold, tickling his nostrils when he inhaled, the sickly-sweet smell that followed the things was absent. Good.
Certain he was alone, he moved deeper into the building. It was full-dark outside now, making visibility impossible, but he was well enough acquainted with this world to be able to find a good place. It was small—had probably once been an office—and it only took him a few seconds of feeling around to locate a large piece of furniture. A desk. In seconds, he had the door shut and was pushing the desk across the room. The floor was littered with items he couldn’t see, making the task difficult, and the metal was rusty and rough against his palms, but he managed. The thud of it hitting the door made his heart jump, and he paused, counting silently as he listened. As long as none of them were close he would be okay, but if one of them happened to be nearby and heard the sound, he might be in trouble. It had happened before, although not for a long time. He was so careful now. So used to concealing himself.
When thirty seconds passed and nothing came running, he allowed himself to let out a long breath. He was safe. He would make it through another night.
He lowered himself to the floor and stretched out his arms, feeling around so he could acclimate himself with his surroundings. His fingertips brushed items he could easily identify—empty plastic and glass jars, books, a shoe—as well as other things he couldn’t put a name to before he finally found what he’d been hoping for. A mattress. Damp and musty from age, it gave when he knelt on it, but despite the puff of dust that floated into the air when he allowed himself to sink down, it was still soft.
He closed his eyes.
One more day down. One more day closer to the end. He prayed it came soon, because he wasn’t sure how much longer he could do this. Wasn’t sure how much longer he could cling to the promise he’d made.
One more day, he silently prayed. Just one more day, Lord. Then you hafta bring me home.
He wasn’t even sure if he believed in God or heaven, but he knew one thing for certain. Hell did exist. He knew because he was living it.
He was just dozing off when the distant howl cut through the silence. Another followed only seconds later, and then another, and then there was a chorus of them. It was a sound that used to make the hair on his arms stand on end. Used to cause goosebumps of dread to rise on his skin. Now, though, he was used to it. It was a war cry. A sound to announce that the hunt was on—not that there was much left to hunt these days. As long as he was quiet, he would be safe. At least from them. Not from the dreams, though. Never from the dreams.
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