What has the world come to?” I asked myself for at least the hundredth time as I trod east along the once busy interstate, constantly scanning the pink-stained horizon for threats.
“It all went down so fast,” I mumbled to the mangy dog of indistinguishable breed that padded along beside me. I had picked him up as I traveled through the harrowing streets of Lansing. It was there that I told myself I would try to avoid cities. People were just getting too unpredictable.
It had only been eighteen months since the world went to shit. No one knows what really happened. We all woke up one morning to scattered reports that nuclear bombs had blown up overseas. One country after another just quit sending news. Even the internet went quiet.
Remarkably, the U.S. wasn’t bombed. I don’t know if it was due to the diligence of Homeland Security, or what? Unfortunately, America’s infrastructure fell apart once panic set in and fuel and food became sparse. People had no income as the jobs went away. Then we didn’t know how to act once we were stuck in one place with limited food, supplies, and information. It was if a reset button had taken us back a hundred years.
I used to have a family. I used to be an average Joe with a blue-collar job. I used to have a life. But the fall-out and dust from all the bombs started a mini ice age. Fodder and daily materials began to disappear. People started acting funny. The local governments were ineffective at preventing looting and in-home violence became rampant. Your neighbors were no longer friends.
I walked in a daze as I remembered how I lost my family. It happened on a Sunday – God’s day. I had awakened early in our house that had transformed from a modern home to a hoarder’s den. The power and gas had been cut off and we had resorted to candles and a makeshift stove for heat and light. I had risen before the sun to forage through abandoned houses and to check some traps I had set in the woods. My efforts were futile, but by mid-morning, I had found a few cans of vegetables and had snared a stunted rabbit.
Upon my return through the quiet streets of our small town, I panicked when I saw the front door of my modest two story house ajar . I drew my belt knife and ran up the stairs.
I had never lost anyone close to me. The only time I had ever seen a dead body was when a friend’s father had died.. People used to say that violence on television and video games had desensitized America, but I was not prepared for what I saw.
My two year old son, who had snuck into our bed in the middle of the night, had been casually tossed against the wall. His sweet face was oblivious to the odd angle of his neck against his tiny twisted body. A moan of pure agony was ripped from my throat as I fell to my knees. My life’s light felt as if it had been extinguished. I could not think. I could not breathe.
A sound, like the last bit of water circling a drain, caught my attention. I ran to the bed and found my wife clutching her throat. Fresh, hot blood seeped from her between her fingers as she desperately tried hold together the ragged slash and move her head to see if her precious child was safe.
“Oh Baby…” I said as I pushed aside the crumpled, tangled mass that had been the bed covers. My eyes widened in surprise when there was also blood flowing from the place only I had been in many years.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” was all I could say as my shaking hand soothed her sweaty brown hair.
The coppery smell of blood saturated the dim room as the color drained from her face. She struggled to see behind me, trying to see her son. Her lips formed our child’s name and a terrible gurgle issued from her bluing lips.
“He’s fine,” I stated.
My world was ending.
“He’s still sleeping,” I soothed her as tears fell from my reddened eyes. “He’ll be just fine, you kept him safe,” I lied.
But it worked and she stopped struggling and became more restive.
“I…I…I louph uge,” she managed as her eyelids became increasingly heavy.
“I love you too,” I managed to moan, before numbly adding, “I get him, and we’ll take a nap together.”
I don’t know how many days I lay there. I remember being weak and dehydrated when I collected my camping gear. My hands felt like lead as I packed a down sleeping bag, portable stove, warm clothing, hunting knives, my shotgun, ammo, and a family portrait. There wasn’t much food, but I gathered that as well.
Numbness settled into my core as I walked away from the conflagration that had been my home. I simply walked south, clutching the lighter in a white knuckle grip as the ugly glare of orange tainted the pewter skies of predawn.
It took me all day to walk the ten miles to St. Louis. I had to tell my in-laws that I had failed to protect their daughter and grand-baby. I don’t have a clear recollection of how that went. There was a lot of crying, some foul language, and I left feeling worse than before.
I had no purpose anymore. Guilt and anger were consuming me so much that I felt I was living in Hell. And so it was Hell that I decided to go – Hell, Michigan. Hell was a tiny little town just northwest of Detroit where I figured would be a suitable place for me to evolve into the demon that seemed to possess me.
I made my way south following the highway that bisected the state. Under early wintry clouds, it took me almost a week of one foot in front of the other in an eerily gray and silent world, before I made the thirty mile journey to St. Johns. I decided to pop over to my friend Anthony’s house for a visit. At least that was the story I had told myself. I really just needed a friendly face and familiar atmosphere to keep me from going mad.
“Chunks?” he asked, using the nickname he had dubbed me in college, “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, just doing a little back-packing,” I replied jovially.
“Where’s June and Libby?” He asked haltingly as a growing look of concern spread across his kind face as he took in my ragged appearance.
“Home,” I flatly stated.
“Are they okay?”
“They are now.”
“What do you mean… now?”
“Do you have some water? I could really use some water,” I changed the subject.
“Yeah, come on in. But leave your shotgun in the laundry room. I don’t want to scare the wife and kids.”
I slowly walked to the laundry room to stow my gear, remembering how I had helped install the tile floors. I hoped I had made a wise decision in coming to see my old college buddy. People were getting weird…
I could hear Tony’s wife giving him the third degree as I took off my dusty boots. I almost broke down as I waited for them to sort it out.
Tony walked up to me holding a bottle of beer, “You look like you need this more than water.”
He was right.
“Thanks… listen if this is not a good idea I can take off,” I said as I nodded my head in Carla’s direction.
“Oh that’s nothing. She’s just concerned that’s all.”
“Concerned for me, or concerned that there’s not much to go around?”
He looked at me for several moments. He could tell that something had happened. I was no longer the slightly immature, always looking to cross the line kind of guy he had known. There was hollowness to my countenance that concerned and alarmed him.
“Alright man, I don’t want to intrude. I’ll leave. Just tell her I stopped by for a visit.”
“No, I don’t know what happened, but you are not leaving until you’ve at least eaten something,” Tony eyed my filth covered sagging pants, billowed coat, and gaunt visage. “You’re half the man you used to be.”
He was right. In college and beyond he had always known me at around three hundred pounds. In my current state I probably only weighed two hundred. Months of rationing supplies and a hell of a lot of walking had changed me.
I cleaned up, ate a small dinner with them, shared small talk, and played with the boys under the watchful eyes of a scared and possessive mother. It was very hard not to cry as I played with their toddler.
As dusk settled upon the land, like the fabled Technicolor Cloak, Tony let Carla put the kids to bed and ushered me out the sliding glass door to the deck I had promised to help him refinish. He produced two fat cigars from his canvas jacket and gave me a look that meant I had better fess up.
“I failed, Tony. I…”
“Are they dead?” He interrupted.
I couldn’t admit it, but the look on my face must have told the horrifying details. He looked as if he wanted to hug me, but instead produced a bottle of scotch and silently poured two generous glasses that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. We sipped old scotch and smoked pungent cigars in silence, marveling at the painted horizon. Our relationship had always thrived on minimal speech, almost as if we had always possessed an intuitive understanding of each other.
They were kind enough to let me stay the night on the sofa. Tony was also kind enough to leave a box of 12-gauge slugs on the table for me as I quietly left at 4:30 in the morning. I left him a note saying, “I’ve always valued your friendship. Thank you.”
My visit was felicitous, mostly from the shower and from contact with other people. I progressed south toward Lansing, in slightly higher spirits. I figured it was on the way toward my goal, and that if there any form of government left in the state, it would be there.
I passed countless cars abandoned on the roadside as they ran out of fuel. There were remarkably few people traveling the highways. Perhaps it was because of the unnaturally cold weather, or the fact that people strayed away from a tall, manic looking man sporting an unruly beard and pump-action shotgun. The twenty five miles progressed quickly as I camped out under vivid stars and cooked what was left of small game over an open flame. At times I was almost able to forget my recent past, lost in the tranquility of silence and solitude. But it always came crashing back to me in my dreams of crimson pools of blood, broken bodies of children, and shadowy figures sharing haunting laughter as I raged against chains that held me just out of reach.
The funny thing about having a family was that you never thought only of yourself. You always interjected the family’s goals over your own. Everything from shopping to entertainment was determined by what was appropriate and affordable for the family. It was a mentality that was hard to shake as each night I would pick a campsite thinking of the needs of my family, only to realize, again, that they were gone. I believe that those first few weeks after that horrible day were the loneliest I’ve ever felt.
The capital city of Lansing was a shadow of its former self. It was akin to a bad B-movie about post-apocalyptic America. Except in the version I was living there were no vampires or mutants, just loneliness, dramatic sunsets and human monsters. I developed a theory about people and was amazed that human civilization had lasted as long as it had. People were not inherently good. Mankind was a feral beast by nature, and only maintained civility as long as there were goals and comforts available. If comforts were taken away and hopelessness gained a foothold into the soul, then Darwin’s worst nightmare happened. People were funny creatures.
Lansing never was known as a gang town. But just as most large cities in North America there is a gang presence. I didn’t recall Lansing as being out of control. However, given an opportunity to thrive, a monster would always become stronger. Before the power was cut and television still worked, there had been reports of small bands of armed gangs that had begun taking over portions of the city. What had happened to the world just over a year ago was happening to cities across the country. Prejudices and territorial disputes engulfed the urban landscapes. In some cases entire cities were razed and left in charred ruins because the inhabitants had reached a point of no return. Lansing wasn’t there yet, but it was close.
I saw my first evidence of violence when I stumbled upon a corpse on the westbound on-ramp that lead to the heart of the city. His head was half blown off and carrion eaters were feasting upon him. I didn’t bother to bury him because I figured he wouldn’t be the last body I’d see.
There were fires burning all over the city, casting a dirty glow and acerbic ambiance as I approached. Random reports of gunfire and occasional wails could be heard from miles away.
I almost headed east then, and in some respects I wish I had. Call it loyalty or a death wish, but I had another social call to make. My friend Dustin and his family lived almost in the center of town. My curiosity for their safety overrode my sense of self preservation. Every step was cautious as I traveled into the powerless city.
Evening was engulfing the metropolis in inky darkness as I snuck up to the small cottage-style house. It relieved me to see that both of the familiar vehicles were gone. I told myself that they went to Grand Ledge to stay with Dustin’s parents. Whatever the case, they were not home and the door was locked.
I proceeded to the rear of the house, my intent to make a stealthy entrance, stay the night and take my leave of the dying city as soon as possible. That was when a poodle sized canine with muddied, matted, blondish course hair nearly scared me out of my skin. The animal was in a terrible state. Thin, thirsty and just as scared as I was, he stood quivering by the large window of the sunroom making slight whimpering sounds.
“Hey there little buddy,” I said in as soothing a voice as I could, yet to me it sounded like the rattling of a tool box.
He cowered even more as I knelt down to pat his head and my knees gave loud cracking noises.
“Sorry,” I apologized, “I’m getting older. How ’bout we go inside and try to get warm?”
I used one of my knives to cut the screen and pry open the sliding window. I had to grab the dog quickly before he could run away and tossed him through the shadowy square. I then hoisted by shrunken body through the window.
The interior of the home was as I remembered it, with the exception of refinished hardwood floors instead of worn carpet. Everything looked in order, which relieved me greatly. I felt pangs of regret knowing that it had been too long since I had seen my friend. I stood, swaying in the shadows, momentarily consumed by grief, knowing that I would never see him again.
I rummaged through the cupboards looking for food in the pale light offered by a gibbous moon. There wasn’t much, but I was able to collect a can of condensed milk, a can of corn, and some canned meat. I still had a package of dehydrated noodles in my pack. Deciding that the dog was worse off than I was, so I cut off a generous portion of the gray meat and laid it on a plate for him, assuming he would come out of hiding for food. I then bent to the task of preparing a stew with my ingredients.
The dog, which I aptly named Mutt didn’t let me down and soon joined me in my feast. We familiarized ourselves and bonded shortly thereafter.
Dustin’s wife was an avid reader and had several bookcases full of paperbacks. They had been telling me for years that I should read several series. Therefore, I stuffed some books in my backpack after having removed my array of soiled clothes.
There was enough water in a rain catch to fill the bathtub so I could wash myself, my clothes and finally the dog. I also raided Dustin’s dresser for any remaining shirts, sweaters, and small-clothes I could find. He was a smaller man than I and his pants wouldn’t fit even in my slimmer state.
I slept next to a content dog in my friend’s bed, hoping that they wouldn’t mind. I had to assume they were alive and well. It kept me from having bad dreams.
In the morning as I prepared to leave, I checked, on a hunch, the top of the bookcase in the living room. I remembered that Dustin had told me he kept a loaded forty-five up there in the event of a break-in. The long shot paid off, and I now had another weapon at my disposal along with a half empty box of ammunition. I also had a sense of dread because not knowing why he’d left the weapon.
I became a killer as I made my way out of Lansing, even though I tried to keep mostly to the shadows, away from people and hopefully away from harm. I had made it to the southeast side of town before I was approached by a man with greasy hair and smelling of battery acid. The stranger sauntered toward me confidently showing a broken smile and yellow teeth.
“Looking for any entertainment?” He asked in a voice that reminded me of oil laden gravel pressed under car tires and frightened Mutt enough that he dashed away with his tail between his legs.
“No thanks,” I replied cautiously. He made the hairs on the back of my neck stand. I didn’t like the way he looked, or smelled.
“Looks to me like your pretty lonely,” he oozed. “I bet I have just the thing you need,” he added and winked a jaundiced eye.
“No really, I’m fine,” I insisted.
“Come on man,” he said. “I got it all. Young ladies, boys, mature, even got a cripple if that does it for you.”
“No,” I replied flatly. “I just want to be on my way.”
“Where you headed?” he asked, eying me suspiciously.
“Out of town. Back out to the country,” I said as I started to walk away.
“North,” I lied. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Cold up north, sure you don’t want a little company first?” He persisted.
“No that that’s my final answer,” I practically shouted.
“What’s the matter, don’t like people? Got it for your little dog there?” He spat.
“Go to Hell!” I barked. “I told you I’m not interested. Leave me alone!” I turned to walk away quaking in anger and frustration. Weeks of pent up emotions were suddenly boiling up with the force of a mega-caldera.
“Go to Hell?” He chuckled before his ugly face reddened and he ranted, “Screw you, you bastard. I’m just a businessman trying to make a living. What’s your problem? Don’t know how to do it? Got a little dick do ya? ‘Fraid my toys will laugh at you, huh? Well, they’ll do whatever I tell them too. They’d even screw their own mothers if I told them to. What do you know, you limp dick? I gave you a chance to get your rocks off before I did you in, now I’m just gonna kill you fer fun.”
I turned back to him as I felt my shotgun being jerk off of my shoulder. In one fluid motion I instinctively reached between my backpack and my lower back where I had secured Dustin’s pistol. He was leveling my own shotgun at me, screaming, “BASTARD!” when I shot him in the thigh.
The bullet tore into his flesh, exiting out his groin in a horrific fist sized hole. He fell to the ground in agony screaming, “My dick, you blew off my dick.”
I was willing to walk away then, but he pressed me further by adding, “I’ll just have to take yours, since you don’t want to use it.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said evenly, even though my heart was in my throat and my hands were shaking violently. All I could think about was that this depraved soul was the one who had raped and murdered my wife. My vision turned red in a heartbeat as I unloaded five more slugs into the bleeding ingrate.
I don’t know how long I stood there absently pulling the trigger of the emptied pistol, but the sound of my growling dog shook me back to reality.
Several pre-teen boys and girls, along with an old woman and a one legged man who hobbled on crutches, were approaching with terrified looks on their faces.
“Daddy Pickels?” A chocolate face girl of around eleven cried. She was clearly not the dead man’s progeny.
“You killed him,” one of the boys said in an agitated and squeaky voice.
“Now what are we supposed to do?” asked another.
“Get ‘im,” raged the old woman.
The group descended on corpse with a rage only told in the Bible. This was a vengeance, only believable in myth and legend, being visited upon the holed body of a twisted individual. I swept up my shotgun and ran as fast and as far as my emaciated body would let me.
I moved quickly through Okemos and soon found myself in Webberville within a few days. I was reluctant to go to my Grandparent’s house, but I was in a state of shock and in need of a good night of rest. The weather was continually getting colder and my supplies were running low again.
My Grandparents were not home, and I was worried. The tiny house had been ransacked and there was evidence of a struggle. Guiltily, I was just too tired to search for them. I figured they were long gone in the bramble of terrible events unfolding around me.
I huddled in the basement for three days. My grandfather kept a small bedroom full of yard-sale musical instruments, old clocks and cameras; decade’s worth of salvaged treasures of a kind old man. It was there among the treasures that I finally broke to the pressure that had been building inside. I cried almost constantly at all the world had lost, all that I had lost.
It was there that I found my peace with God, among the old cassette tapes of hymns and stacks of old cookbooks. I read the Holy Bible for the first time and argued with a deity I had never embraced. I called him a son-of-a-bitch and wanted to hear, “I forgive you”. I screamed, “I hate you!” But I wanted to hear, “I love you.” I rallied and raved and finally relented before telling Him, “I choose to ignore you.” I desperately wanted to hear, “Ignore me if you want, but I’m still here.” The truth was that I heard no voice, no music, nor Herald, only the emptiness of the human condition.
I emerged a changed man. I think that releasing the grief that I had been repressing allowed me to assume a new role: the role of a survivor. I was in control of my life because I was willing to accept what fate blew at me. I would adapt, change, and anneal myself to reality. I would become the aggressor and not the victim. I had killed, I had somewhat enjoyed it because it was justice on some degree. I would be willing to do it again to preserve myself. I didn’t have to like it, but I would do it.
As I approach my chosen destination, I reflected on the life that made me happy. I would relive those memories of my former life, not because they haunted me, but because they strengthened me. They will keep me grounded to the person I was, while I developed into the person I had to be. After all, people were funny. I would remember looking into the blue seas of love that were the eyes of my wife as I said, “I do”. I would remember the first time I held my son and the tears that mingled with his first cries of life. I would remember the simple things, like eating dinner as a family or watching silly cartoons because they were all we could do to stop an angry toddler from crying. I would remember life, even though the path I followed may take me to death.
I could see it, the road sign with four white letters. My mangy dog was lifting his leg on the green sign, five foot long and covered with icicles in September. Hell had frozen over…