BY GLEN VASEY
Provisional Center for Disease Control
Puerto Nuevo, Florida
Interoffice Memorandum #57-608
From: Kenneth J. Howell, Acting Director
To: Malcolm Foley, Director of Research
This just came into my hands today. Rather than take the time to edit it, and risk omitting something you might find useful, I had Marcie type it just as I received it. I added only one note, near the end where the writing changes hands. I still have the original. It is in a travel-worn spiral notebook, the kind you used to be able to pick up new at any five-and-dime. If you think it could help in any way, send word and I'll see it gets to you. It is, by all appearances, authentic.
The primary point of interest is the final dozen pages or so.
I have included a map of the general location where it was picked up. You may want to have your people investigate, if that is possible. Maybe even bring some of these people in for examinations or something. If I can be of any assistance, just holler.
I don't know if this will be a help to you, or simply another distraction. I know how understaffed and overworked you are, but I figured that a shot in the dark is better than holding your fire at times like these. My shot in the dark is sending this your way, relatively risk free. Yours will be deciding what, if anything, to do with it now. Not so easy a choice, either way.
I don't suppose it helps much for me to say that I don't envy your position, but I'll say it anyway. This is probably the second time in history that it has been less harrowing to be a bureaucrat than a scientist. The first was during the Spanish Inquisition.
Oh, for the good old days!
Keep the faith,
For a moment Ken Howell almost smiles at the brief witticism with which he has concluded the memo. Then he nearly weeps.
Earlier in the day he had found his secretary weeping. He had tried to comfort her. Had offered her a few lame words of solace. In so doing he had discovered one of life's weary truths: there are no words of solace that do not point out and accentuate the very cause of our need for solace.
She had continued crying, so he'd left her office for his own. He did not want her tears to weaken him. There was no percentage in that.
I AM NOT CRYING
He is in a position of responsibility. One that requires him to display strength and unclouded judgment. He cannot let the others come to doubt him. He cannot allow himself the luxury of doubt.
I AM NOT CRYING
No. He will not weep. Not now. Not even here, alone.
I AM NOT CRYING ALONE
A disembodied voice echoing through the corridors of his brain. Nostalgic. Memorial. Elegiac. Foreign and forever unknowable.
I AM NOT ALONE!!
He hears Marcie moving restlessly in the adjoining office. He knows that she is ready to leave.
Soon he will go to her.
Soon they will leave the building together and walk across the compound to their living quarters, as they always do.
Just as soon as he can find the strength to cease his weeping.
The silence of the June dusk was underscored, rather than interrupted, by the fluttering thrash of the spiral notebook as it flew through the air toward the highway. Branches rustled softly as they parted for it. Pages fanned and rippled in the breeze of its passage. There was a muffled thump as it landed at the base of some thorny-looking scrub brush, not twenty feet from the deserted road.
That was all. Brief. Temporal. Quickly past. Then silence reigned again, all the more tyrannically for having been thus emphasized.
Dawson drew his legs up so that his chin was resting upon his knees. He wrapped his arms around his shins and pulled inward. Pulled harder still.
I AM NOT CRYING
Pulled until his thighs pressed into his chest so vigorously that every muscle in his body bloomed with pain.
I AM NOT CRYING
Pulled harder still. Back, ribs, neck, jaw, arms, legs, buttocks. Every muscle clenched willfully.
I AM NOT CRYING ALONE
His will: to become a well of pain. Physical pain. Ephemeral pain. Consciousness-distorting pain. Pain he could control. He had only to relax and it would abate.
I AM NOT ALONE!!
Unlike the pain of his ineptitude. The pain of loss, despair, loneliness and fear. Unlike the pain of words.
Earlier his head had been filled with words. Somehow he had thought that they were dying to get out. Somehow he had believed that he might be able to use them to escape his other pains, to make some sense out of his utterly senseless situation. But when he had tried to use them, the words had fled. Only the primal scream had remained, and that had been but little help. Having vented that scream in a scrawl that had covered one single page, he had thrown the book away into the dusk.
He had risked his life for that book.
Had risked his life, and feared he yet might lose it, on the chance that words might help him stay alive.
To escape such thoughts he pulled harder on his legs, then relaxed himself completely and luxuriated in the brief pleasure that washed through his body. Then he sighed and gently pulled his shirt away from his left shoulder to examine the deep red scratch there.
He thought about infections. About the virus, germ, bacteria, fungus - whatever the hell it was - that had changed the world so drastically.
Shivering and sweating simultaneously, he found himself hoping that they were both symptoms of fear rather than fever. Even psychosis would be preferred.
Had that been a sound, or the thought of a sound? He sat frozen with immediate alertness, words and chills and sweats forgotten. Listening.
I WILL SURVIVE!
Not wanting them to find him. Not wanting to die.
I WILL TO SURVIVE!
Not wanting to die like that.
It wasn't precisely a will to live, but it was something.
Though I don't know why.
And it was all that he had left.
The night's darkness had become complete before Dawson was able to convince himself to move again. Whether the sound had been real, or made of mind, he knew then that it presented no immediate threat. It had not been repeated. It was not advancing on him.
He knew, too, that though he was far too weary to continue traveling, he could not permit himself the luxury of sleep. To sleep would be to invite them to approach as closely and incautiously as they wished.
He rose and scrambled down the wooded slope toward the highway. On his knees he thrust his hands into the thorny brambles and groped until he found his prize. When he withdrew the notebook, his hands were bleeding from a dozen minor cuts. He didn't notice them. His eyes were blurred with fresh tears.
Again he heard a sound. This time he was certain of it. Worst of all he could even place the direction from which it had come. It had come from up the slope. From somewhere near the spot that he had left his backpack leaning up against a tree.
He cursed himself for seven kinds of fool and peered through the darkness, searching for movement. He saw nothing.
He waited, listening again. Again he heard nothing further. He wondered if this new silence were a ploy, an attempt to catch him off his guard. An attempt to lure him back to the tree. Back to the backpack that he could not leave without.
He told himself that the dead were not so canny, then immediately reminded himself that there were others.
He waited what seemed a very long time, clutching the notebook to his chest, before he finally made his way, slowly and cautiously, back up the slope. He was standing beside his backpack, just beginning to breathe again, when his heart was stopped by the sound of an owl in a nearby tree.
Then there was silence.
Darkness had made his previous words invisible to him. He was grateful for that kindness. He knew them by heart and had neither the need nor the desire to be reminded of them.
I AM NOT CRYING
He didn't need light. He knew that he could write by feel. If only words would come to him. Something other than the primal scream. Something to retain his interest and attention. Something to keep him awake.
He set the notebook and pen aside and got his first-aid kit out of his backpack. He wet a piece of cotton with some alcohol, then pulled his shirt away to clean the scratch on his shoulder. He rubbed hard, causing a warm, raw, stinging sensation to spring up. The scratch did not seem to be infected.
"Does not seemto be," he murmured.
He rubbed harder, moving his lips in silent prayer, uncertain to whom the prayer was addressed. His mind drifted back then. Re-envisioned the scene. The origin of this particular concern.
* * *
The early afternoon had been hot and humid. Brilliant. Satanically sunny. His head had throbbed, pounded, screeched, and screamed with a headache whose magnitude he would have deemed neither possible nor survivable even a day earlier. He was staggering along the shoulder of a highway weakened by hunger, thirst, weariness and pain. He was wishing that his backpack really was as heavy as it felt, that it held more than it did of both food and water.
On the back of his pack hung a cardboard sign, with letters ten inches high. The sign proclaimed no destination, but rather a state of being.
ALIVE, was all it said. He hoped that it would give passing motorists pause. Particularly those with guns. It had seemed a good idea when he had first conceived it two weeks before, but on this golden afternoon he was no longer certain of the sign's veracity. His headache was distorting everything: sight, sound, thought and feeling.
"Do they know that they are dead?" he had wondered.
"How do they know?"
He stumbled and shambled gracelessly along the shoulder of the road thinking, "I have seen enough to know that this is how they move. Is this how they feel? How they perceive things?"
His eyes were rigid, his face contorted in an agonized squint. He was blinded by sunlight and by pain. Dizzy and weak, all of his senses were drowned by the excruciating immediacy violating his temples, his scalp, his retinas and the base of his skull.
A sign loomed before him. He stopped walking and tried to focus on it. Tried to attempt to divine its meaning.
It bore a name. The name of a town, he was certain, though he could not place it.
He felt, vaguely, that this should mean something to him and sat down abruptly upon the gravel of the shoulder, determined to wait out enlightenment. He knew immediately that he should have left the road. Should have accepted the modest concealment that the weeds and wildflowers would have offered him. But he could not bring himself to rise.
"A town," he thought, "probably small, but a town nonetheless.
"There will be a concentration of them. That's it! That's the meaning. A concentration of them. I have to skirt the town. Don't draw too close. Don't let them sense me."
But he had continued to feel that some part of the sign's message was still lost to him, that there was something yet he should be thinking about. So he remained seated, continued swimming in place through his pain.
Suddenly a car sped by, racing toward the town. At first it had merely startled him, but a moment later the incident disturbed him far more profoundly. The car had approached from behind him. Despite its considerable noise he had been wholly unaware of it until it had been virtually on top of him. His headache had completely obliterated his senses.
"That's the message," he staggered to his feet.
"Need something to stop it, bring me back. Can't skirt the town, gotta go in."
He knew that the townies would sense him. Would converge on him as soon as they did. Would devour him and turn him into one of them, if they got the chance. But walking the highway half-blind, half-deaf and three-quarters senseless was not a viable option.
Once in town a sense of exultation began to filter through the mass of pain he had become. Finally engaged in a definite activity with an immediately foreseeable conclusion, adrenalin had kicked into his blood, juicing him high. When he had marked the first of his slow and clumsy pursuers, it was a thrill of confidence in competition that raced through him, rather than a sense of deadly fear.
"I knowI am not one of them," he had shouted, "They do not feel like this!"
Though his pain had not diminished, his mind and senses had grown more acute, his limbs incredibly agile. He found it easy to outsmart and outdistance the townies.
When he spotted the drug store's smashed plate-glass door, he darted through it without breaking stride. Inside, he moved rapidly up one aisle and down the next, his head pivoting, his eyes searching. His hand was reaching for the box of analgesics within the same second that his eyes had found them. In the space of another second he had turned to retrace his steps and make his exit.
Then he heard the sound of something shuffling through the broken glass at the front of the store.
"Don't panic," he told himself quickly.
"Get that thing away from the door first."
He moved to the center aisle to gain an unobstructed view of the entrance.
The thing he saw shambling toward him had once been a slender, elderly man. Now its face was a bloated blue-green mask, as soft and swollen as the face of a drowning victim. Even at a distance its stench was stultifying to Dawson's adrenalin-enhanced sense of smell. It wore a fishing vest, dark green trousers, and hiking boots, all of which were caked with dried gore. As was its mouth, its cheeks, chin and neck.
Dawson thought that he could beat the ghoul to the door by simply moving swiftly to one of the vacant aisles and making a run for it. But he wanted to be certain, and he knew that his chances would improve if he held his own ground just a little longer, letting the thing draw nearer to him.
He looked around quickly for something to use as a weapon. Instead his eye was caught by a stack of brightly colored spiral notebooks. On an impulse wholly un-governed by thought he stooped and picked one up.
When he stood again, he saw that the broken door framed yet another of the ghouls, this one a portly woman in a once-white waitress uniform.
Now his panic rose. How many would there be? Enough to trap him in the store? Enough to track him in the aisles?
He permitted the first to draw closer than he had originally intended, to insure that the second, too, would pursue him down the center aisle.
When he thought that she was far enough from the door, he made his move. He spun to his right, took two strides, hooked a quick left, and went racing down the far aisle.
In spite of his haste his eyes managed to register, and his brain to comprehend, the existence of a display of writing instruments hanging on the wall to his right. It shouldn't have made any difference to him, but before he could stop it, his right hand was reaching out, making a quick stab at a package of pens.
The package caught on its metal hanger and would not come free. So he committed the most foolish act of his life. He skidded to a halt and made a second lunge for the pens. They remained just out of reach.
"Idiot!" he screamed. But he took one more step back and freed them from the rack.
His mind was a chaos of imprecations and death visions, but when he made it to the end of the aisle, he saw nothing in the doorway and bolted through it.
The hand that clamped down on his shoulder and arrested his movement was the vise of death itself.
The face that the hand belonged to had, not long since, been that of a teenager. Now it was blistered by acne turned to rot. It was the face of leprosy, far advanced. The neck of the thing was half eaten away. Maggots writhed in that hellish wound.
Dawson screamed and drove his feet against the ground with bruising force. His shirt tore, and he felt a burning streak of pain trace a line across his shoulder.
He had freed himself, in spite of his idiocy.
I am well concealed. The night is quiet. I am safe for the moment.
For the moment. They are incapable of stealth. I think.
The others, the random violent gangs of those yet living, seem to refuse stealth. They are always making noise. Perhaps it is obsessional. An attempt to scare off death. To scare off their awareness of what has happened to this world. A way of converting everything into one big perpetual Saturday-night bar brawl.
Am I any different? Trying to write as if the world knew, or cared, that I was still going on? As if it might ever be read by anyone? Am I really trying to confront this, sort it out? Or am I merely trying to avoid the issue in my own way? Making my own kind of noise? My own banging of pots and pans against the eclipse?
Does it really matter?
He sighed then and leaned his head back against the rough bark of the tree. He closed his eyes and heaved a deep, shuddering breath.
He had forced his hand to write, his mind to concentrate upon the act, to avoid remembering the afternoon and, in some way, to justify the awful risks he had taken. But the writing was a failure. Instead of stifling thought it had brought the questions back to haunt him again. The same questions that had run through his mind repeatedly and incessantly over the course of the past two weeks.
Where am I now?
How far have I to go?
How long have I to live?
What are my chances?
What are my options?
Will the living ever have the world again?
Does it really matter?
Any of it?
Questions that were so familiar that their presence had very little power to irritate him any further. He had long since lost faith in the existence of answers, and that had rendered the questions impotent. They were not enough, even, to keep him awake.
He came awake abruptly, feeling hands upon his arms and legs. Hands upon his shoulders and his chest. Hands pulling him in all directions at once.
He screamed and hands came up to cover his mouth, stifling the sound. He bit these hands and was shocked as the pain raced up his arm and spine to electrify his brain.
The hands on his mouth were his own. They were real. The others had been phantoms. Creatures invented by his own stress and incaution.
He shuddered as he sat up. His eyes darted rapidly about, trying to pierce the surrounding darkness.
There were no further sounds.
He was alone.
I AM NOT ALONE!!
I have a goal.
In the past keeping a journal had helped Dawson to sort things out. Had helped him to get through trying times with some portion of his sanity intact. Had provided him with a constructive escape from the immediacy of his various dilemmas. Had helped him to cope. Now those times were long ago and a world away. Coping had become a new thing. He was no longer balancing an awkward relationship, a career decision, financial concerns or the unexpected death of a close friend. Now writing was a way to avoid sleep. Avoiding sleep was a way to avoid death. A way to avoid the hands that would, the next time certainly, find him vulnerable.
The line that he had just scrawled at the top of the new page had seemed a good beginning, but he had no idea what should follow it.
Finally he decided to trace it back. To try to go back to the moments at which he had made his decision, had chosen his goal. Back to the time when the idea of the goal seemed one of hope, rather than desperation.
Time was, when I - and I was not alone in this - took for granted that the cataclysm, the great world crash course in catastrophe and death, would be nuclear annihilation. That it would be unannounced and just sudden enough to eliminate any possible thought of escape. That there would, really, be no time in which to make choices. Or, perhaps, that two choices would remain for those lucky souls who had survived the initial blast:
1) Grab your ass and run, until you can run no further.
2) Hunker down on that selfsame ass and pretend at bravery, pretend at some last vestige of defiance by making it clear that they no longer had the power to make you run.
Of course neither choice would make much difference. At best it is the choice of the Christian facing the lion: flee, only to be chased, caught, and eaten; or refuse to flee, robbing the spectators only of the chase. A question more of stance and personality than of principle or wisdom. The bloody outcome the same, in either case.
Not a good situation, surely, but at least that much would have been clear from the start. There would be no room for self-delusion. There is something reassuring about a situation in which all choices are equal, even if they are all equally bad. One is absolved of any personal responsibility.
Then God, in his infinite mercy and wisdom, pulls the big switch on us. Throws us a curveball - no, a knuckler - when we were all geared up for the heat, and no doubt busts a gut laughing as we tie ourselves in knots trying to hit it.
Oh, yes! He left us lucky survivors with a veritable plethora of choices. And, lo! they do not all lead unto death! No, not by a long road. In fact, the great majority of them lead to something considerably worse - though only after a long and painful march, of course. I assume that it's all very purgative.
So his sacred prerogative of free will remains intact, as ever, propelled by fear and buoyed by false hope.
Dawson paused to wipe sweat from his forehead, but his mind never left the stream of his composition. He was wholly unaware that he had achieved the level of escape and absorption that he had once dared to hope for. He was writing with the intense concentration that he had known in his midteens, when he had wanted to be the new Thoreau. With the lack of self-consciousness he had achieved somewhat later, when he was keen on being the second coming of Kerouac. With the lack of constraint he knew only in his late twenties and early thirties, when he had long since given up any thoughts of literary fame and kept a journal simply for the therapy and joy that it provided.
Escape, immersion, involvement achieved, he became very much awake.
For the hope that he has offered us is not "the thing with feathers" that Emily Dickinson once knew.
His hope is the thing with teeth. It is the hope of survival. The hope that one might prolong one's personal experience of horror and deprivation. The foolish but stubborn hope that somehow, after day upon day of terror and pain, he might smile down upon whoever remains and lift his awful curse.
We are all drowning. A drowning man cannot easily discern the difference between a timber and a straw. A desperate man cannot distinguish between a hope that is never likely to pan out, and one thatcannotunder any circumstances.
Yet these are the choices we must make.
These are the hopes he has left us.
I have a goal.
Straw or timber?
A desperate man grasps at what he can.
Dawson paused, breathing deeply. He cast his head back to look up through the tangle of branches and noticed that the sky was beginning to dismiss its darkness.
He listened. There were no disturbing sounds. Only birds, making virtually the same noises that birds have made through all the ages of mankind.
Godsend or self-activated trap, it hardly matters. I cannot survive forever without sleep. Real sleep. I will stay the night. I have chosen the likely death of staying in one place and submitting to unconsciousness, over the certain death of attempting to continue on through my exhaustion.
I am hoping that I am not too grossly underestimating their abilities to sense and to seek. Never before have I felt so claustrophobic. Never before have I had so excellent a reason to.
The small, boxlike house was neither wide nor long, though it stood two stories. It had given Dawson the impression of a retreat, a hunting or fishing camp where an urbanite might escape his lot for a couple of weeks and a half-dozen weekends each year. It was almost out of sight from the road, and Dawson felt that if he hadn't been moving slowly, and on foot, he would have missed it altogether. He found that thought to be a friendly one.
It hadn't been the thought of sanctuary that had given him the necessary courage to investigate, it had been the hope of finding food. Any food to supplement his godweary and diminishing rations of dried fruit and nuts.
Once he had assured himself that the place was truly deserted, he lost no time in reaching his decision. He quickly set about constructing makeshift barricades for the door and windows on the first floor. He knew that the simple restraints that he was building would not keep them out for long, if indeed they should discover him, but he hoped that they would prove substantial enough to give the ghouls some difficulty. If they were enough to delay the beasts, and to increase the amount of noise that any entry would create, they would have served the purpose they were built for.
Only later did he search for food.
The pantry turned out to be a pleasanter surprise than he'd have dared to hope: canned ham, tuna, stew and a variety of canned vegetables, all in great quantity. There were two full five-gallon plastic water bottles and, prize of prizes, an unopened bottle of whiskey and one of rum. These final items presented him with a dilemma that he knew he'd have to work out later, but he could not deny the pleasure that their presence had inspired in him.
He filled his arms and made his way upstairs, to the larger of the two small bedrooms.
I know that drinking in this situation is foolish. I must remain alert. But to take advantage of the positive aspects of my circumstance, it is imperative that I sleep. To sleep I must curb my anxieties, my sense of being trapped. No other method seems to be forthcoming, so I will drink. Only in moderation, of course. Just enough to help me sleep.
Later, in a sloppier hand, he wrote:
I cannot stop wondering how long I have. How keen, how far-reaching are their senses? How near are they now? Will I waken in the middle of the night to find them hammering on the door? Worse? Will I waken with their godawful hands and teeth
I know I may be drinking my death in this godforsaken trap
Does it matter? Does any of it matter? Why pretend? Ultimately there is no escape, just stays of execution. I die tonight, tomorrow, some other day or night.
That is what it all boils down to. Why pretend otherwise? The world is theirs now. We are all doomed. No escapes remain, only choices.
I have chosen to die drunk in this bed, trapped inside this house. If I wake tomorrow, I may choose another way to die.
These are the only choices that remain to me. This is how I am permitted to utilize God's sacred prerogative.
Long rays of late-morning sunshine suffused everything in the room into a single golden haze. Dawson closed his eyes against the gentle glow and stretched.
"Bear of a hangover," he muttered.
He glanced over toward the nightstand to check the time.
It all came back very suddenly.
They have not found me.
But I do not feel capable of traveling now. The drink was a stupid mistake. Letting it get so out of hand. Like on a fucking holiday.
Perhaps that's what I needed, though. Release. Oblivion. If the delay it has caused doesn't kill me, I think I will consider the episode less harshly.
I will try to spend another night here. I prefer to travel by daylight and have already missed much of today's. I will not drink tonight.
I am hoping that their absence now indicates that they are all too far away to sense me. Straw or timber?
I will spend the time I have here writing. It is the only safe peace upon which I can draw.
Three weeks earlier Dawson had been fooling around in the kitchen of his suburban bachelor flat, drinking beer and putting the finishing touches on a mammoth pizza, preparatory to sliding it in the oven. Mike, who had been his closest friend for better than fifteen years, was in the kitchen with him, keeping him company and offering expert advice on pepperoni placement. Scott, a new acquaintance more Mike's friend than Dawson's, was in the living room watching the Dodgers and Mets play the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week.
That evening the three of them intended to catch the local heroes in person. "A real game," both Mike and Dawson had chided Scott, "an American League game."
It had been a beautiful day. Their moods were excellent.
"Mike, Daws - get in here! Quick!!"
Scott's voice accosted them with such ridiculous urgency that Dawson had rolled his eyes while Mike scrinched up his face and answered, in a lilting falsetto, "Coming, dear."
Dawson picked up the pizza.
"Go ahead Mike, no need for both of us to miss the earth-shattering replay. I'll be right in, you can tell me all about it."
As Mike left the room, Dawson carried the pizza over to the oven and wondered how Scott could get so worked up over nothing. Not only were the two teams in the wrong league, but they were the easiest two teams in that wrong league to root against.
"Well, what can you expect of a Los Angelino?" he muttered, and left the kitchen to join his friends.
The strange looks on their faces told him that something was drastically wrong. The voice from the tv set was not the bubbly effulgence of an inane sportscaster filling dead air. Instead it was the deadly serious, but somehow comically urgent, drone of a tv newsman. A bulletin of some sort.
"Either the missiles are in the air, or the president has another migraine," he thought.
Then he began to listen in earnest.
"You changed the channel, this is part of a movie, right?"
"A spoof then, like the War of the Worlds broadcast... 'We interrupt this meaningless mundane broadcast to bring you...'"
"No, man. This is serious."
"What sort of judge are you? You thought the Mets and Dodgers were serious."
"Shut the fuck up!"
The talking head in the box apprised them of the most incredible things. Then it was gone, and they watched some grown men playing with a ball on a green field.
Then the head came back, speaking even more urgently. This time he had film clips to show them too. Eventually the network stopped trying to go back to the game.
That's when Dawson knew that things were really out of hand.
The three of them sat in Dawson's living room for an unknowable period of time, mesmerized by phosphor dots, incomprehension and fear. They were subjected to a veritable parade of talking heads: reporters, so-called experts, and the seemingly inescapable man on the street.
The advice of the experts was, at best, difficult to fathom:
- Stay where you are. Secure it. It is unsafe to venture out.
- Seek a federally sanctioned shelter. Emergency personnel will be on hand to aid you. Stay tuned for a complete listing of government-run emergency shelters in your area.
- Stay clear of all federal and state-run shelters. Communications to many are down. Many have been overrun.
- Call this HOTLINE for expert advice and up-to-the-minute details of the situation in your area.
So they watched the horror unfold, increase in complexity, and develop new facets and twists of terror, in the proverbial comfort of Dawson's own home. It was being vigorously covered on television, thereby abridging any need for them to be anything other than spectators. The tv gave the experience a distinct air of unreality.
Dawson had the strange feeling that he had seen it all before in bits and pieces. The language of the television was the same as it had always been. Even the experts with their dry faces, excitable voices, and competing "facts" seemed only like so many salesmen delivering their eternal pitches:
"Act now..." '
"Operators are standing by..."
"Over fifty locations to serve you..."
So the three of them continued staring, as each had done for uncountable hours in the course of their lives, at the strange blue phosphorescent glow of the tube.
It didn't occur to them to do anything else.
It didn't occur to them that there was anything else to do.
Eventually Mike roused himself sufficiently to go to the phone and dial the HOTLINE.
He listened to the phone ring.
Then he returned to the sofa, to sit and listen to the experts a little longer.
The next decisive action that any of them took was when the screen went blank. It was Scott who rose then and fiddled with the set until he found a station that was still broadcasting.
Phosphor dots and fear.
Maybe it was simply the fact that someone was knocking on the door. Surely that was a startling enough development itself. Not that the knocking frightened us, we were too far gone for that. Our fear had become abstract, incapable of approaching us in such a fashion. That, in fact, was our real problem at the time.
Besides, in the world we were used to - and had refused, to that point, to divorce ourselves of - knocks on the door were, at worst, annoyances, never threats. So even though we had all been informed that the world outside my apartment had changed drastically, I think we shared an instinctive rationale that death would never be polite enough to knock.
Perhaps it was the effect of seeing real people, made of actual flesh and actual blood, after so many hours of serious, soulless electronic faces.
But I think it was something more than either, or both, of these things.
As soon as he opened the door, Dawson recognized the people on his doorstep, not as individuals, but as a class. He recognized their paraphernalia - their books and magazines and tracts - but most of all their hand was tipped by the patented, vacuous, God's-gracious-grins they wore.
For a moment Dawson was seized by a wave of vertigo. Everything seemed suddenly normal again.
It was a natural. One moment he had been sitting with friends watching God-knew-what on the tube, and in the next he was opening the front door to the local chapter of God's militia. Both were basically reliable components of his mundane Suburban-American existence.
He opened the door wide and smiled broadly at the four of them. Their spokesperson, an attractive black woman in her early thirties, launched her well-rehearsed spiel. Her voice was dripping with rapt sincerity and eagerly earnest goodwill.
Dawson began to laugh. It was a reed-thin laugh, pitched far too shrilly.
The woman stopped speaking.
Two of her companions moved back a step.
Dawson's laughter diminished, and the woman launched her spiel a second time.
"You have come to ask me," he interrupted, "if I have made my peace with God. Is that it?"
He glared at them maniacally.
One of them gave an uncertain nod.
"Then let me assure you," he went on in a voice made half of whisper and half of shout, "that He and I have never quarreled."
He beamed into their uncomprehending faces.
"In fact," he added, "I never even met the man!"
He slammed the door on them and turned to face his companions. He started laughing again, that same hysterical, high-pitched squeal.
"Can you believe it?" he shouted, "Jehovah's Witlesses, out on a day like this!"
He continued laughing until he collapsed, weeping, to the floor. A shuddering mass of confusion and nothing more.
It was several minutes before Mike moved to help him to his feet. Then Mike guided him back to his chair in front of the television.
What I think it was, was the realization that there were still people in the world. People making choices. People choosing to continue to live, not merely to survive, as we were doing almost in absentia. It seems to me now that that is the difference between living and surviving: the making of choices.
Scott and Mike and I hadn't made a conscious decision since the news had first interrupted our routine. Though, by mere luck, we had survived, we had ceased to be alive. We were merely zombies waiting for the ghouls to find us. How many were there like us? How long did any of them last?
The only thing that had saved us to that point was the fact that ghoulism - or whatever one might wish to call it - was not yet so widespread as it is now.
The only thing that saved us from that point on, I am now convinced, is the fact that the Witnesses found us first and woke us up.
They showed us that there were choices to be made simply by pursuing their own choice, which - pie in the sky or no - they must have known to be tremendously dangerous.
So perhaps they were out doing God's good work, if it is neither vain nor ridiculous for me to think that our personal fate could possibly matter to a God who had permitted these horrors.
Scott was a Vietnam veteran, the kind who maintained a belief that the war had been right and just, and that the United States had wimped out in the end. His choice was to steal a car, his own being unavailable at the time, and make his way to the nearest army installation so that he might re-enlist.
Neither Mike nor Dawson tried to talk him out of this decision, though Scott was forty-four years old and had not kept himself in the best of shape.
Mike, who had grown up within a mile of Dawson's residence, chose to seek the sanctuary of his old grade school. Though Mike had often complained that he had been scarred and victimized by the twin voices of God and discipline during his parochial school career, and though he had often claimed that the most terrifying presence he had ever encountered had been the enormous mass of his third-grade teacher, it was there, and to her in particular, that he felt compelled to turn in his greatest need of guidance and protection.
Dawson didn't try to explain to Mike that, according to his own descriptions of the woman, she had been an ancient and obese heart-attack candidate those many years ago and was now, quite certainly, many years dead.
Sometimes the choices we make, especially under unbearable stress, don't make any coherent sense. We will not allow another man to tell us that. It is the case of the drowning man attempting to mount the straw. Certainly it is imbecilic, but in such situations reason holds little sway. Even if you overcome the drowning man's initial anger and make him understand, you will have succeeded only in robbing him of hope and making him more miserable yet. Unless you have a timber to offer him.
How could I have dissuaded either of them? What had I to offer them in place of their thin straws?
I let them both go.
Even Mike whose choice was, by far, the most foolish.
Even Mike whom I have loved like a brother for better than fifteen years.
Only when he was alone in the house was Dawson able to make his own choice. Once he had, he made his preparations rapidly and left. He did not bother to turn off the TV.
The only choices we are ever really left with are these three: be a leader, be a follower, or be an individual.
Many find security only where the self is given up, subsumed. Where Authority makes the decisions. Where rules are clear and strict. Where orders create Order and are not to be questioned.
Others find it only where they are themselves the Authority and Order that fashions the rules and makes the decisions.
Scott may be safe now, following some well-armed, battle-wise sergeant or lieutenant amidst a throng of like-minded companions. But I doubt it.
Mike may be safe in the darkness of his old school, with his phantom Order protecting him from very real chaos. But that is even easier to doubt.
The Witnesses may still be knocking on peoples' doors, waking people up, protected by some heavenly umbrella. But that, I find, is hardest to believe.
More likely by now they have knocked on one too many doors. Have made the big change. Are still out there making converts, but of a different sort. Their teeth revealed no longer by their God's-gracious-grins, but by the godawful grimace of a hellacious hunger.
Yes. That I find easier to believe, but not to think about.
And I...? I have a goal. Straw or timber? How much farther? Can I make it? What will I find? Does it really matter?
"You know, a man can make it as far as he's gotta go, if he knows how to handle time.
"A man can hold on the rungs of a tank-car ladder for better'n five hundred miles if he ain't got no choice; if there ain't no way for him to crawl to a better position, and the train don't make no stops to allow him to relocate himself.
"But to do it he's gotta get it straight in his head that no time is gonna pass while he's hangin' there."
An eighteen-year-old Dawson looked on, listening closely. Incredulous, but wanting to believe.
"Now I'm not sayin' that it's gonna be easy, not by a long road, but it's when things ain't easy that a man's gotta learn to assert his control. It's when the world isn't offerin' any respite that a man's gotta manufacture some of his own.
"Sure, when he's hangin' there, his hands and arms and legs and back aren't about to start believin' him. They'll be keepin' their own kinda time. But that ain't where the battle's gotta be fought.
"I figure if a man can't keep his head from gettin' bossed about by his muscles, well... we'd have been better off just stayin' in the trees.
"But he can, and there's the rub. If a man has a mind to, he can learn to keep his head still in time. And if he keeps time from passin' up here," dark, leathery fingers tapped a sunburned forehead, "then he can keep himself from givin' his arms and legs the message that they are right: that he hasbeen hangin' on too long, that he doeshave too far left to go, that he might as wellgive up the ghost and let himself just slide on down beneath them merciless wheels.
"You see, the thing to remember about muscles is that they gotta get some message from the brain before they can do just about anything. So if a man can keep himself from believin' his muscles' complaints, he can keep himself from givin' in to them. If he can keep his brain from believin' that time is passing, he robs time of its meaning, and it stops altogether.
"Time ain't nothin' but a man-thought thing anyway, so if a man refuses to think it, it don't happen for him."
The weathered face flashed a mischievous smile.
"Course when the train finally does stop and that man finally does get off, it's not just his muscles as'll be arguin' the case against him. Every man-clock at the place he lights will chime in at callin' him a liar. But that man's still got his ace card up his sleeve. He gives it any thought he'll know there weren't no human possible way that he coulda hung onto that ladder for upwards of six or seven hours, whatever it took to get him where he is. And that alone oughta put the proof to it. It's gotta be the clocks and muscles that are wrong, cause there he is and still alive. He'd found a hole in time and slipped through that, 'stead of slidin' down beneath them wheels a good bit back.
"And knowin' that it works that way just makes it that much easier the next time he finds himself in that kinda spot."
And Dawson found he could believe, needed to believe. He shook back his long hair and nodded in vigorous affirmation.
Leader, follower, or individual?
I like to think I made my choice when I was eighteen, and have simply deferred its actualization all these years.
Only once in my life did I experience a setting in which a person could be an individual while maintaining the advantages of living in a group. It was a marriage of independence and interaction, of freedom and support.
It was a brief stay. Afterwards I somehow allowed myself to fall back into the ways for which I had been trained and educated all my life. I permitted myself to accept a position in the lower echelon of the rat race I claimed to despise. I let myself be distracted from the truths I had claimed I had learned throughout that summer turning into fall.
I tell myself now that those truths, my belief in them, merely slept and did not die. I tell myself that I am now the prodigal son, hoping that some family remains for me to return to.
One week after his graduation from high school Daw-son was farther from home than he had ever been before. His backpack and sleeping bag were slung on his back, his right thumb was pointing to the horizon behind him, and his left hand held a sign that simply read: FURTHER.
By early August he had found himself staying at a hobo camp, "among members of America's forgotten tribe," as he was to record passionately in one of his many journals of the period. Like most Americans he had assumed that hoboism had long since dwindled and died. This was not the only illusion that these people would shatter, or drastically reshape, during his brief stay.
He discovered that not all hobos were hopelessly flawed individuals, failures incapable of living within the society that their lifestyles defied. Some of them were outcasts, surely, but many of them were escapees; people too proud and willful to consign themselves to the strictures and constraints of a more "acceptable" American existence.
Flawed? Certainly. Each in his own way. But no more so than many whom Dawson had met in other walks of life.
Failures? Not at the lives that they had finally chosen for themselves, whatever failures and incompatibilities might have led them to this choice. Therefore, perforce, their choice had been a wise one.
On the whole they were flexible, tolerant and compatible beyond any other class-group in his experience. They combined the habits of self-reliance and selfless cooperation in a way that Dawson had always suspected was too idealistic to be practiced in any real-world setting. And he felt that there was no setting based more in the real world than theirs.
It was there that he met Hoagie.
Hoagie was the most remarkable individual that Dawson had ever met. In his presence Dawson sometimes wondered if he had ever reallymet an individual before.
Hoagie was, by every evidence, only a handful of years older than Dawson, though the ruggedness of his appearance made it difficult to ascribe to him any particular age. He was an educated man, though he had adopted a manner of speech that required one to pay careful attention to the thoughts he was conveying in order to divine that fact. He was a man who had found contemporary American society wanting - "wanting far too much," he would say - and so had discarded it as best he could. He was a man, so Dawson felt, of unparalleled wisdom, integrity and compassion.
All of this had quite an impact on Dawson at the time. He was, after all, a young man of semisheltered upbringing who had yet to have any of his personal wisdoms put to the acid test of living-it-out.
So Hoagie became a sort of hero to him.
He also became a steadfast friend.
Hoagie taught Dawson how to pick a freight; how to read the coded lettering on the flanks of the individual cars, so that he'd know where they had originated and where they were heading. He taught him how, and when, to mount a train; how to ride one; how to disembark; and what to do and where to go once he had done so. He taught him how to recognize and avoid the peculiar hazards of particular trains, railyards, and towns. And he taught him, without ever putting it into words, how to read the signs of another man's intentions during an initial confrontation.
By Hoagie's side Dawson learned how to live without money, how to live without food when he had to, and how to get both when he could without compromising his integrity. He also learned that integrity was an extremely personal thing, separate from any rules or strictures that had ever been imposed from without, and that each man had to discover its composition for himself.
Dawson learned about the Network. Something Hoagie referred to as "the only functional anarchy existing in the United States."
"All it is," Hoagie had told him, "is folk lookin' out for folk, knowin' that the favor'll be returned somewhere down the line. Some folks call it karma, some call it castin' your bread upon the waters, some just say 'what goes 'round, comes 'round.' Just simple cooperation is all, but so few really live that way, that when they see it work, they think it's some remarkable achievement.
"Think about it: You don't need no Bill of Rights if there ain't nobody tryin' to interfere with you."
* * *
Hoagie taught Dawson about hardship and freedom. And Hoagie taught Dawson about time.
I can almost believe that it is all over. That the horror has finally ceased. That I have traveled forward or backward in time, to a period when the threat does not exist.
Such thinking is dangerous. I cannot permit myself to believe such things. But it is difficult.
For twenty-four hours I have not been threatened. Looking out this window I am confronted only by grass and trees, shimmering in the complacent afternoon sun. There is a stream too. Not large enough for trout, but certainly supporting a thriving population of minnows, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, dragonflies and water-skaters.
Everything within my range of vision is so tranquilly unaffected.
And then there is me.
Wondering if I am insane.
Wondering if the horror is really ended.
I cannot entertain such thoughts. I might begin to consider staying yet another day. And, if that day was uneventful, yet another.
Eventually they would find me.
My time here is limited. If I do not impose that limit, they most certainly shall.
Two men alone on a hillside, lying motionless among tall grasses that obscured them from the vision of the world, just as surely as it obscured the world from their own sight. A warm September sun was running gentle fingers over their weary muscles, inducing them to laziness and introspection. Occasionally from the base of the hill rose the sound of a passing train. To them the sound was unintrusive, even welcome. It was an affirmation of their freedom, and of the infinite multiplicity of choice. In all other ways the afternoon was silent.
Softly, dove-voiced, one of the men spoke.
"You know, all this was underwater once. Prehistoric fishes and sharks swimmin', right up over our heads. Maybe even that first fish that got so adventurous. The one that crawled up onto the shore to check things out or to get away from the sharks. The very one that started that long and weary march. That march that started turnin' fish into reptiles, and reptiles into birds and mammals, and some of them mammals into something like men. That march that we're continuin' whether we will or no.
"And maybe the reason that he got so damn adventurous is that he looked down here below him, and saw us lyin' in the tall grass in the sun, and it looked good to him.
"Better'n dodgin' sharks, anyway.
"Or maybe he just saw us, and recognized the fact that if somethin' like us was ever gonna happen, then someone somewhere along the line was gonna have to do a heap of adventurin'. Maybe he decided that it might as well be him as got the ball started rollin'.
"Or maybe he saw the next thing. The thing we're frayin' our fins into hands to become, without our ever knowin' it.
"Do you see 'em up there, swimmin' about?"
There was a significant pause before the second man replied. When he did, his voice was shaded faintly with a tone of loss, regret.
"No... no, I don't. Not really."
"Well I can. Know why?"
"'Cause they're there, right now, swimmin' 'round just like they was a million years ago. Just like they always was, and always will be.
" 'All at once, is what eternity is.'
"That's what The Poet told us. And he was right. He was right about alot of things. But most people just don't see it."
" ThePoet. The only Poet. And I don't mean Shakespeare, or Milton, or Too Sad Eliot. Naw, none of them they teach at schools. Schools won't touch him, cause he got too much of it right. They don't want to deal with that. That's why I walked away a half-dozen credits shy of my B.A."
Another brief silence.
"Want an example?"
"Hear that train comin'?"
The second man listened, but heard nothing. He waited a moment before making his reply. As he opened his mouth to speak, his ears did pick up the sound, so faint and far as to be nearly indiscernible.
"Yes! I hear it."
"Okay, that's a start. Think with me now. Together we'll go back. Not nearly so far back as them fish, just a short hop. About a hundred years or so should suit.
"Think of it: the nineteenth century, the age of steel, the birthing and bursting Age of Industrialization, the heyday of the Iron Horse. Yeah, that very train is one of the things them fishies worked their fins to fingers for, or so the vanity of man would have you believe.
"The West's still wild, the slaves but lately freed, and a handful of Indians ain't laid down and given up the Ghost Dance yet.
"You got all that in your head now?"
"Good. Now you just think on that a space, and when that train gets 'round to comin' up beneath this hill, you just raise up and have yourself a peek. See if what The Poet said ain't true."
The first man closed his eyes and lay still.
The second man waited alertly, almost without breathing. He thought about what his companion had said. He listened intently, until he could almost feel himself becoming one with the slowly increasing sound of the train. He was soon convinced that something was different, that something had changed, but was uncertain whether the change he felt was within himself or without.
The train was a long time coming. When he was certain that it had reached the base of the hill, he rose up on his knees and peered downward over the tall grasses.
Then he drew in his breath and held it, as a wave of vertigo washed over him.
He was watching a huge, black, nineteenth-century steam engine pull a sooty tender, and an equally dated line of passenger cars, along the shining double line of the rails. His eyes lingered on the mixture of smoke and steam pouring out of its stack, trailing down the entire length of the train and dispersing gently in the still summer air.
When the train had passed from sight, he sat back down and stared at his companion, who seemed to have fallen asleep. Puzzled, he laid himself back in the grass, his eyes searching the sky above him.
A voice floated gently over him, as if his friend were chanting softly in his sleep.
"Swim, little fishy, swim.
"Crawl, little fishy, crawl.
"Build, little fishy, build.
"Fly, little fishy, fly.
"Then blow it all to hell, and die."
Later Dawson would come up with any number of logical, and unsatisfying, explanations for what had occurred that afternoon. But the magic of those moments would never diminish, or recede from his memory.
So I will leave at dawn, grateful for my brief reprieve.
I have gathered everything that I intend to carry with me, into this one room. I have left the window open for two reasons: to allow in the breeze, which is gentle and kind; and to allow in any sounds from below, which might not be.
A small bureau is pushed up against the bedroom door. I know that it might slow down my escape, if things should take a certain turn; but it might also buy me some valuable time, if things should twist a slightly different way.
My pack is stuffed, as full as I can get it, with the food and water that I have found. I am also taking the bottle of rum. Perhaps this is foolish, but I tell myself that I have no other form of anesthetic. Foolish or not, it is the choice that I have made.
At dawn I will set out, once again, for the Hub. Hoagie told me once that I could find him, if I ever really needed him.
I need him now.
If anyone knows how to survive this horror, and still remain alive, it is him.
"If you ever need to find me, this is the place to start. It's like the Network is a nervous system, and the Hub is the brain. A word dropped here at nightfall will be trav-elin' six different directions by noon the next day. By noon the day after that, you couldn't tabulate all the places it's gone. And the word'll reach its man, sure as rain, if he's still on the Network, no matter where on the continent he may be. You can count on it.
"So if you ever need me, start here. If I ain't around, just put out the word and wait. You'll get me, or my message, before too long."
That November had started out cold. Dawson pulled his tattered overcoat more tightly around his body, shuffled his feet and nodded.
"I'll be back," he said softly, making a pretense of adjusting the straps on his backpack. Then he looked into his companion's eyes, nodded more firmly, and spoke with greater resolution.
"Yeah. Probably in the spring."
He was startled by his friend's laughter.
"Oh yeah. I got you pegged, brother. Fair-weather sort, eh?"
Though the assertion was made good-naturedly enough, Dawson felt his face color. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Hoagie just shook his head, slowly letting his smile give way to a more sober expression.
"Yeah, you're a fair-weather sort, for now at least, but that's okay. You're young yet. Life hasn't burned you. The cradle hasn't cramped you up too bad. But you'll grow."
He raised a hand to Dawson's shoulder, gripped him hard.
"Maybe I'll see you next spring, and maybe not. You'll make that decision when the time comes. Either way, remember this: someday, when you wake up and realize what a mess you're in - what a goddamn mess the whole of the civilized world has got itself in, draggin' you along to boot - and you decide you just don't wanna stay caught up inside that mess anymore... just remember you ain't gotta be. You got choices, and nobody's got a right to make them choices for you, or to tell you which is right and which is wrong.
"There's alot worse ways to live than this, even if a bunch of them ways are easier and a bit more comfy. There ain't no reason you gotta live and die in any of them worse ways.
"It's up to you."
A muffled thumping sound, followed by a faint scraping.
The same sounds repeated. Clumsy. Erratic. Intermittent. Persistent.
A similar series of noises rising from a slightly different location.
The noises doubled.
Dawson's heart was racing even before he opened his eyes. This time there was no luxurious forgetfulness, no vagrant searching for the nightstand and the clock. He was immediately aware of his desperate situation.
Dazed, he listened.
There was the sharp crack of wood splintering. Then a grating sound, as if a heavy object were being pushed across the wooden floor downstairs.
Somehow, he could not bring himself to move.
The first emotions he became conscious of were anger and indignation. They were invading his sanctum sanctorum. They were proving his sense of security to be false. They were proving him for a fool.
Then came the fear, and all other emotions became meaningless.
He was trapped.
Judging by the sounds, there were already too many at the entrance downstairs. Too many inthe entrance. There would be no escape through the narrow confines of the house. Clumsiness notwithstanding, their sheer numbers would overwhelm him.
Where had they all come from so suddenly?
Finally he bolted from the bed and thrust himself toward the window to look out.
Within the darkness, five darker shapes - no, seven - shambling about, moving vaguely toward the broken entrance of the house.
Eight - no, nine.
A sound behind him indicated that the first one had stumbled onto the base of the stairs. It was on his scent.
He wrestled his arms through the straps of his backpack, cursing his own clumsiness, then lurched back to the window. More were coming through the trees. Several had disappeared around the front of the house.
He thrust his legs out the window and bent awkwardly at the waist to get his head through. When he tried to sit up straight on the windowsill, his backpack struck the underside of the window, nearly causing him to fall. He ducked again, this time low enough to clear the backpack, and perched there, peering into the darkness below.
One of the ghouls in the yard looked up at him and made a wretched sound. Another turned toward it, then followed its gaze to the window.
Behind him Dawson heard the bureau being pushed slowly across the floor.
A moment of freedom.
Movement through the night's damp air.
A sensation of speed.
Ankles legs spine stomach ribs PAIN. White/black PAIN. Red/white PAIN. Everything PAIN. Nothing but PAIN.
Then a thought crept in:
"Can't walk can't run can't escape."
Then, in answer:
"If I can't walk, they cannot make me be like them. Not like that. A predator."
A small victory. A minor success. He told himself to savor that at least. Then he opened his eyes.
Dark shapes swayed before him, looming ever nearer. Shadowed, contorted, vacant faces, shattered slavering mouths tight and shrill with horrific exhilaration.
He pressed hard against the pain and gained his feet, spun away from the approaching figures and lunged into something heavy, putrescently soft and yielding.
A grunt of air, not his. Hot, fetid breath pushing against his cheek. He screamed and swung his elbow in a high arc, felt it strike deeply into the soft thing's substance as it knocked the beast down. He kicked once, futilely, at the wretched face and nearly fell on top of it.
He screamed and ran.
As dawn began to filter through the trackless woods through which he moved, he believed that he was still running.
He was not. His staggering, lurching gait carried him no faster than an old man's ambling morning walk. It was the best that he could muster. Simply continuing onward demanded the utmost of his effort and his will, but he would not stop to rest.
Eventually he noticed the light growing bright around him. He decided then to leave the cover of the trees for the easier going of the roadside.
Later he heard a sound.
Some portion of his mind believed that he should be able to place that sound. That he should recognize it easily. But he was incapable of that.
Most of his mind was still trapped in the darkness of time, witnessing and reliving the moments when his hands were shoving putrid flesh away from his own face while, behind him, other hands were reaching out to draw him close. He could feel them there, behind him, getting closer, reaching out, about to grab him.
Then he whimpered, "no."
He stared a moment at the sun, now well above the horizon, and wondered if it held any meaning for him. Whether there was anything he could learn or deduce from its existence or position. Then the sound came back to him, and he remembered what it meant. It was the distant hum of a car. It was approaching from behind him.
He turned to look down the road just as the vehicle became visible around a distant curve. It was a blue Ford pickup, and it was moving fast.
He stared at it a moment. Then with great effort, and a sense of trepidation he did not fully comprehend, he extended his right arm and opened his palm to it. Beseeching it to stop. Beseeching it to save him.
Within moments it was close enough for him to see clearly the muzzle of a shotgun protruding from the passenger window. It was aimed directly at him. He threw himself upon the ground just as the thunderous sound enveloped him.
Pain jarred him. He wondered if he had it in him to rise again, or if he would simply lie there and slowly bleed to death. Then he realized that the pain was not so localized as it ought to be. It was everywhere at once. He had not been shot, he had simply re-wrenched every injury that he had received when he leapt from the window.
He cursed his assailants, wept for himself and lay there in a heap.
When he finally rose to continue on his way, he was surprised to find - not ten feet beyond the spot where he had flung himself to the ground - a body sprawled across the shoulder of the road. It's shattered skull oozed fluids that bore only a cursory resemblance to human blood. Its blue-green skin marked it even more clearly for what it was. It had not been there when he had turned to hail the truck, of that Dawson was certain.
He understood then, that he had not been the target. Not of the people in the pickup at least. They had actually saved his life.
He hurried on.
"Just try to relax. We don't live far from here. Just out on Pitney Road.
"Oh, but that's so stupid of me. I mean, you're not from around here, are you? You wouldn't know... I mean, Pitney Road doesn't mean a thing to you, does it?"
Dawson didn't respond. He could hear the woman beside him, but it stopped there. He was incapable of listening to, or comprehending, her words. Beyond even caring. His mind was shattered, scattered in a million fragments.
The woman was in her early thirties. She looked as if she had once been stunningly attractive, in a pristine sort of way. Perhaps even very recently. But hers was not the sort of face to wear much trial and turmoil gracefully, and recent experiences had left their mark upon her.
Dawson hadn't even noticed this much. He was absorbed in the kaleidoscopic spectacle of the fragments that had once been his soul. For each fragment he saw a dark hand reaching out, threatening to crush it into even smaller pieces.
He was shivering. Staring out the open window of the car. A car that he had not even beckoned to, but had merely withdrawn from along the roadside to watch warily as it passed. It had stopped anyway. But the moving fragments, and the moving hands, they did not stop. They were all that he could see. They required his full attention.
"It's a nice area... I mean, it was. It's set off a bit, and we've got it secured real good. I did it myself, and though I've never exactly been a wizard with tools and all, I can guarantee that it is safe. George would be real proud of me... I mean, he will be real proud of me when he sees it."
There was a brief silence.
"We have guns, too. George was always big on hunting, so we had some guns around the house. I've gotten pretty good with them, I practiced alot right away and... well, since then I've had a couple of occasions when I needed to use them, so I know that I can handle them if the need arises."
Another pause as she spares a glance at Dawson's vacant face.
"What I'm trying to say is that it's safe there. I mean, you'd be safe, you know, if you decided that you wanted to stay with us awhile. I mean, until you're recovered or whatever. I mean, it's safer than being out on the road like I found you, and you look like you could use some time to recuperate. It really wouldn't be any trouble. Would it, Kirsten?"
The six-year-old girl, blond like her mother, sat silently in the backseat sucking her thumb and staring intently at the back of the stranger's head.
Her mother hadn't expected a response and didn't wait for one.
"It gets kind of lonely, just the two of us up there waiting for her Daddy to come home. It'd be kind of nice to have a visitor for awhile. It'd be nice to have another grown-up to talk to for a change. You know what I mean?"
Again the woman looked at Dawson, then turned back to her driving, biting her lip.
"It's just... you know... I mean I don't pick up hitchhikers, that is, I never did until now, because... well, things are different now. I could tell you were alive and I just thought: what if George was walking down some road trying to get home, would I want somebody to pass him by just because they didn't know him? No. I'd want them to stop and help him out if they could.
"I mean, with all of the people that have died, and the way everyone else seems to have gotten themselves all scattered out, if you have to wait for someone you know to come along and help you, you'll be waiting an awful long time. Just being alive has come to mean so much. It means that we're in the same situation and all, so we should be able to help each other out. Should at least be willing to try, don't you think?"
Tears welled in her eyes as she turned toward him, her ace bunched tightly.
"Dammit!" she spat. "Why don't you say something?"
Dawson turned to look at her and blinked.
She looked back at the road, her own eyes blinking rapidly, the fingers of her right hand coming up to swipe roughly at her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," he said, and though his voice sounded hollow, it somehow managed to convey sincere and deep regret.
"No, no it's me," she countered, "it's just that... oh... I don't know."
She set the emergency brake, then leaned across the car toward Dawson. He pressed back into his seat nervously, perplexed by her movement. When she popped open the glove compartment and withdrew a pistol, he understood and relaxed.
She peered around the car.
"I don't see any signs of them now, but you never know. We'll have to be careful when we go in. I always leave the front door unlocked when we go out for supplies like this."
She turned toward Dawson.
"Does that seem dreadfully foolish of me?"
Dawson shook his head once, uncertain if it was the correct response but wanting to give her something.
"I just figure that if Kirsten and I aren't there, then there's nothing to draw them in. Don't you think that's true? That somehow they sense us and pursue us, and if we're not there to sense, they'll leave the place alone?
"And I keep thinking: What if George does come back and he doesn't have his key - I mean, a man can hardly be expected to hang onto his house key at a time like this - and what if he finds the house all locked up and he thinks we're gone or dead, and he gives up and goes away forever?
"Or, what if they're after him and he needs to get into the house right away, but it's locked and..."
She let her voice trail off as she gazed once more at the world surrounding the car.
"And I don't want to leave a note on the door. That seems too dangerous. I don't think they can read, but... others can. The others that are still alive, and I know that some of them..."
She looked at Dawson.
"Well, I don't trust everyone is what I mean. I can't."
She looked back toward the house.
"So I left a note on the refrigerator, so he'll be sure to wait for us if he comes back while we're gone."
She cast her eyes down to the gun lying in her lap and began, again, to blink back tears.
Dawson's eyes had not left her face for a long time. But it was at this moment that suddenly, as if with the throwing of a switch in some long disused chamber of his being, he first saw her. Despite the ravaged weariness of her features, she was instantly very beautiful to him. He wanted to reach out to her, or speak, but found that he could do neither.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I must sound like an idiot babbling on like this. It's just that..." She cut herself off.
"We'd better go in."
She got out of the car, watching all around her for any sign of movement. Dawson and Kirsten did the same.
They moved to the back of the car and gathered up several packages that had been stowed in the trunk.
"We'll have to make a room-to-room check, once we get in and put these down," she told him, "that's always the worst part. Though I haven't found any surprises yet."
Dawson followed the woman mutely into the kitchen and set his parcels down on the counter. Kirsten lagged behind, taking a seat on the living-room couch where she could still be seen by the two adults. Her movement and posture gave Dawson the impression that it was all part of a familiar and unvarying procedure. Once seated the child remained very still, sucking her thumb and watching her mother and the stranger.
"It seems like no one's been here," the woman's eyes scanned the kitchen methodically, coming to rest on a note held to the refrigerator by a magnetic banana.
"Neither friend, nor foe." She sighed at this, but smiled wanly at Dawson. He noticed that her shoulders did not slump, as he had expected. If anything, her stance seemed more confident, more self-assured and determined than before. She was home now. She was safe. Ready to recharge and to do whatever needed to be done.
Dawson was amazed, both by the change in her and its apparent source. He wondered when it had last occurred to him that the concept of home could have any real meaning to anyone. He watched her closely as her tensions unwound, as her face took on a less drawn and haggard appearance, and she became beautiful to him again. More so than before.
As she heaved a deeper sigh, he felt himself breathe with her. He felt his own tensions relaxing under her sterling example. Felt the dark hands recede a bit, and the strange inner workings of an arcane reconstruction going on within his deepest and most private places.
She looked upon him, her eyes both solemn and bright.
"I still have to check the other rooms. Will you come with me?"
Staring into her eyes, he nodded.
She smiled. "Thank you."
He dropped his gaze and saw the pistol in her hand. He shuddered, thinking of the frightening state the world had come to. It was several moments before he could raise his eyes to meet hers again.
A heavy sound from the top of the staircase, like someone dropping a five-pound bag of sugar, was followed immediately by Kirsten's inane scream of incomprehensible glee.
Dawson turned in time to see the child bolt off the sofa and streak out of sight in the direction of the stairs. Then the woman shot past him in pursuit of her child. Dawson followed her, but after three quick strides was forced to halt just inside the living room, to avoid colliding with her. The woman's body had gone rigid. He followed her gaze to the staircase.
The ensuing moments passed like hours, giving Dawson the unwanted opportunity to absorb every detail.
On the staircase stood a thing that had once been a man. Its hands were closed upon the shoulders of the child. Kirsten, overwhelmed by the fear of realization, kicked and screamed, struggling vainly to be free as the ghoul hoisted her toward its grotesquely twisted mouth.
The woman raised the pistol with both hands, trembling violently.
"Stop!" her voice hysterical. "For God's sake, stop!"
Teeth ripped into the soft whiteness of the girl's neck. A spray of crimson pulsed across the ghoul's face and splashed onto the wall beside it. The child's scream gurgled to a halt just as the first shot sounded.
A deep burgundy rose opened on the ghoul's forehead, jerking its face away from its prey, forcing the thing to stand erect. A look of dumb puzzled shock leapt from its eyes in the moment before they rolled back to show only whites.
The pistol sounded again. Chunks of cheekflesh and bone splattered against the wall.
Again. The thing collapsed backwards on the stairs, the child landing heavily upon its chest. Kirsten's body rode the ghoul's in a gruesome parody of father-daughter play, as it slid slowly and erratically down the stairs, arms and legs akimbo.
Again the pistol sounded. Again and yet again. The body shuddered from the impact of the bullets. Then there was only the recurring click of the pistol's hammer falling upon empty chambers. Two times. Five times. Seven.
The pistol fell to the floor, rapidly followed by the woman.
Dawson felt a scream beginning in his bowels, fighting, fluttering, ricocheting upwards in panicked flight, seeking an escape but unable to find one. He whimpered and tore his eyes away from the blood-mottled grotesquerie of flesh upon the stairs. He looked upon the woman lying at his feet.
The side of her face rested heavily upon the carpet. Her eyes were closed. Her limbs were sprawled haphazardly. He watched her back rise and fall erratically with the discordant rhythm of her breathing.
Then he uttered some pitiable, bizarre ululation and, with great heaving strides, rushed for the exit.
Outside he knelt in her garden vomiting, for what seemed a very long time. When he was empty, he spared one final glance toward the house before hurrying away.
Dawson panicked at the sound of the approaching car, but there was nowhere to hide. On his right was a rocky slope, too steep to climb swiftly. On his left a metal guardrail and a precipitous drop.
Whimpering, he pressed himself against the rocky slope and covered his eyes to avoid being seen.
The sound grew until it covered everything and enveloped him in fear. The fear blossomed, brightened into fireballs, at the sound of brakes. Then it vibrated, leapt, and danced, as he heard the car door open and shut.
"Nononononononono..." he believed that he was shouting, but the voice that emerged was weak and strained and sickly.
Then another voice spoke. Smooth and strong. Commanding, deep and gentle.
"No." Dawson's shout was, again, barely audible. It did nothing to stop that other voice. He felt rage against that voice, so cool, so firm, so unyieldingly soft.
It drew closer. Very near indeed.
Dawson's hands scrambled frantically against the wall before him, came up with a fist-sized rock. He spun quickly, opening his eyes just as the rock left his hand, hurtling toward the source of the voice. His aim was very wide. The voice's face smiled kindly.
"You'll die. I'll kill you."
They were the first words Dawson had spoken, though he had been in the car for more than an hour. He had spent that time not looking at the man, staring instead out the window to his right, fighting off a sickening sense of deja vu. He knew only that he didn't want to remember. Not anything.
The man beside him recognized Dawson's words as a potential crack in his effortful armor, but he prodded very gently. He knew very well what he was up against. What the two of them were up against. Calmly and unhurriedly, he posed his question.
"Now, why would you do that?"
Then he waited patiently through Dawson's silence.
"I won't doit. It will be done. Not by my hand but by my presence. I will bring it on, cause it. I will be responsible."
"Try to tell me why you feel this way."
For the first time since getting into the car Dawson turned to look at his companion. He was a broad-faced man with dark hair and several days' worth of beard. Glasses would have looked at home on his face, but he wore none. They would have made him look more like a preacher, too. Hadn't the man said he was a preacher, earlier in the ride, perhaps years ago? Well he looked the part, even without the glasses, despite the bright blue short-sleeved shirt and the casual work pants.
Dawson looked back out the window before responding.
"Everyone I know is dead. Everyone that I ever met, before or after. It doesn't matter. I meet them, they die. I want to die instead, but I'm just a carrier. I'm immune. I can only watch the others."
The man waited a moment, to be sure that Dawson was finished, then spoke again.
"You probably don't want to hear me say that I've heard people say that before, or that it's a common delusion these days and was never terribly uncommon. People felt that way even before... the change, or whatever you might want to call it. But whether you want to hear it or not, it's true, and it's exactly what you need to hear. It's what you need to be thinking about right now. You are not alone."
Dawson turned quickly to look at the man who also turned to meet his gaze. The crack in the armor was visibly wider.
"Tell me about it," the preacher said, "tell me everything you can remember. Even the things that you're trying so hard to forget."
And after awhile, after a bit more gentle probing and respondent opening up, Dawson did just that.
* * *
"These are terribly trying times, friend."
The car was parked behind an old mill, near a wide and glistening creek. The two men were sharing a cup of lukewarm coffee from a thermos that the preacher, whose name was Richard, had produced from beneath his seat. Richard handed the cup back to Dawson and went on.
"Oh, I know that just sounds like so much pious-preacher-happy-horseshit, the kind of platitudes I mouthed so often for people who only thoughttheir world was falling apart, but you can't deny that no one alive was ever prepared for what has happened to this world. We were unprepared physically, tactically and spiritually - for which I'll accept my share of the blame, being in the profession as it were."
Richard smiled and Dawson passed the cup back to him, pleased by the smile but unable to return it.
"But worst of all," the smile went away, "we weren't prepared psychologically. All of our carefully learned tactics and procedures for dealing with life in this world became useless to us. That was the most devastating thing. We lost our rules, our codes, our coping mechanisms. Since nothing was predictable anymore, there was nothing that we could believe in, so we lost our faith. In losing faith we lost both self-esteem and will."
Dawson stared at his palms, lying open and upturned in his lap.
"I cannot share your faith, Richard. I cannot believe in your God. Love and mercy, they told me. He'd never have let this happen, no matter how fucking mysterious his ways."
"I don't blame you."
Dawson looked up at his new friend, listening intently.
"I don't buy the list of hocum anymore either. But that's not the kind of faith I'm speaking about. And as for sharing, you don't need the kind of faith that could ever possibly be shared. You need the kind that is yours alone. Something from within you, compounded of what you've been and seen through all your days."
Richard took another drink from the cup, handed it to Dawson, then started the engine. They drove.
When night took full possession of the surrounding landscape, they were still driving, the car's headlights pushing away the darkness in front of them. They had spent the bulk of the evening talking about the different kinds of faith that existed in the world. Even in a world such as theirs had become. They had discussed exhaustively the connection between faith and will, and between will and the ability to survive.
Richard claimed that while events had destroyed his faith in an omnipotent and merciful deity, they had reawakened and renewed his faith in his original purpose and his sense of mission.
"I came to the calling, or so I told myself at the time, to serve the people. To save them. A worthy mission. The only mission any servant of a kind, compassionate godhead should ever aspire to. But I think sometimes that God... no, not God, but the image of God and all the attached dogma, get in the way of such folk. It did in my case, anyway.
"Well, since the change, the deluge, whatever, I feel that my original purpose has been rekindled. Perhaps I've really focused on it for the first time ever. And now that purpose is my faith. My will. It is how I have learned to survive."
Then he told Dawson about his new work. About how he had spent the past few weeks traveling as extensively as possible, trying to find survivors. Trying to help them in any way that he could. Mostly by talking to them about purpose and will. Trying to inspire them.
"So you see, I haven't really changed jobs," he had smiled, "just employers. I really don't talk religion much anymore, not unless someone else has a need. I feel I'm doing more for folks now that I ever did before. And now's just when they need it most. It's a good feeling. Even makes this living hell worth living in."
So, as darkness shrouded the low hills through which they passed, Richard tried to direct Dawson's mind toward an acceptance of life, rather than death. Tried to find the carrot that Dawson might be persuaded to pursue.
Dawson found that he liked the man. He believed in Richard's wisdom and wanted to please him. He wanted to hope. Wanted to hope out loud. But he was hesitant. Each time that he reached for that double-edged emotion, he drew back, remembering past hurts. He wasn't sure if he was ready yet, or ever would be.
It was well into the night when he screwed up sufficient courage to make the plunge. He would hope, whether it was safe or not. He would live, no matter how desperately.
"I dohave a goal," he declared in a very firm voice.
Richard took his eyes from the road to smile encouragingly at his companion at the very same moment that the bullet smashed the windshield.
Dawson was thrown violently against the door as the car suddenly swerved. Then he was thrust backwards into his seat as Richard regained control and tromped on the gas.
Turning quickly to look behind, Dawson saw two figures emerge from the shadowy trees that lined the road. He saw two bright orange flashes as he heard two more shots ring out, but neither shot found its mark. Then the car swung around a curve, obscuring his view of their assailants, while preventing any further shots from threatening his and Richard's escape.
"They wanted the car, didn't they?" Dawson blurted out, inexplicably more excited than frightened by the narrowness of their escape.
He turned to congratulate his friend for his heady driving, but froze before he could speak again.
A dark stain, already large, was rapidly spreading across Richard's chest.
"Oh God!" was the best that Dawson could manage.
Knuckles white, face pallid and rigid with pain, Richard maneuvered the car along the winding road at dangerous speeds for five more minutes. Dawson neglected the road entirely, felt no threat from speed or obstacle, and stared hard at the preacher's face.
Richard brought the car to a complete stop before allowing himself to slump backwards in his seat. Even then he held his neck and head rigidly upright. His lips moved slowly, with precise determination.
"I am going to die, Dawson. But it is notyour fault.
"In fact, you can save me, after a fashion. Do me one final favor."
Dawson was never certain whether Richard smiled or winced then, before he continued in a more strained voice.
"First: live. Determine now to live. Make my going worth that much. Take the car. Reach your goal. Don't let them get it."
Dawson nodded, though the preacher's eyes were closed.
Then Richard's eyes flew open as he searched for the door handle, opened the door, and let himself fall out onto the road.
Dawson lurched across the seat in a vain attempt to grab his friend and haul him back into the car.
Blood trickled from the corners of Richard's mouth as he looked into Dawson's eyes and shook his head. His breath came in gasps. When he spoke again, it was with a voice made half of gravel, and half of bubbling blood.
"Second favor... glove box... pistol..."
Dawson just stared.
Richard began to cough, spraying blood on the open car door, his hands and clothes. Recovering somewhat he spoke again, his voice sounding worse by the moment.
"Shoot me... the head... don't want to walk... like that."
Dawson continued to stare.
"Put me out."
Their eyes locked, and for a moment Dawson believed that he could do just as his friend had requested.
Then Richard's eyes shut, with his last gurgling exhalation.
I am grateful that the last stages of my journey are lost to me, obscured by a fog of combined remorse and fear. Remorse at and fear of precisely what, I cannot say. I will not subject myself to so thorough an examination. At least not yet.
In more general terms I know that the remorse is caused by who and what I have proved myself to be. The fear by what I might discover if the fog dispersed and I was forced to confront the actions and scenes that I have so willfully forgotten. I am glad that I proved incapable of recording the events of that period here. If I had written, I would refuse to read it.
Hoagie tells me that none of it matters anyway. We drank the rum last night, and he said that nothing from the past, whether personal or collective, really matters anymore. Things are different. I am alive. I am here.
"You are a new being," he told me, "just begun today. Just this instant. How can you judge yourself harshly, when you have done nothing in this new life? There is nothing to judge. How can you know your limitations, when you have yet to test them? You've got a clean slate. The learning process must begin again. You are who you areright now. You are, and can be, no one else. Make it be who you want it to be."
I want to believe him.
This place is considerably different than it was. More permanent. Less nomadic. They have constructed shelters, which are crude and primitive, but far more substantial than anything that stood here in the past. They are no longer a transient tribe. Their primary means of transportation is lost to them. It is not that the trains no longer run, because they do, but now they are so rare and so well guarded that it is death to approach one. Only government trains. The soldiers' orders are pretty clear.
Most of the people here (I think there are more than twenty of us) carry guns. I wondered briefly how the others had come by theirs, but that thought threatened to make me remember how I came by my own. I was able to curtail such thoughts just before the fog would have lifted to let me see.
Maybe, one day, I will let myself remember. Some day when I feel stronger than I do now. Some day when I feel stronger than I can ever imagine myself feeling.
Hoagie and several others set out this morning on a hunting expedition. I asked him what they hunted around here, but for reasons I cannot begin to fathom he became uncharacteristically brusque.
"Meat. Food. Anything that'll give us the strength to survive another day. Anything whose death will help preserve us so that, maybe someday, some of us will have survived long enough to see the end of this."
His manner disturbed me. I had never seen him so agitated. But, true to form, when he saw that I was taken aback by the tone of his response, he smiled and softened. It was a sad smile, world-weary and resigned, but I couldn't remember the last time I had seen a smile of any kind, so I did my best to smile back.
"Thought for the day," he said: "All the rules have changed. Everything you ever knew is wrong. All mores have been abolished. Never confuse mores with morals."
He smiled at me again, but this time there was a grimness about the smile that made it impossible for me even to try to return it.
I am confused again. But I suppose that, with all that Hoagie has been through in the past few weeks, I shouldn't expect to understand his every action and gesture.
As the hunting party returned that evening, most of the members of the camp stopped what they were doing in order to greet them. Dawson was lashing some branches together to improve the lean-to he had constructed. He finished the knot he was working on, then rose to join the others.
His stomach constricted in grief when he saw the two dead men the hunters were bearing back to camp. Somehow it had not occurred to him that the hunting expedition would prove so hazardous.
"Of course, you idiot," he reprimanded himself silently, "like Hoagie says, it's a different world out there. More dangerous. That's probably why he acted so strangely. He was afraid he might not be coming back."
When the full implication of that thought struck him, Dawson felt the onset of panic. He pressed roughly into the crowd to get a closer look at the two dead men. It struck him as odd that there were no exclamations of grief surrounding him. Only quiet, iron-voiced conversations, in the grim tone of men discussing disturbing but necessary work. Were the Hub's inhabitants so inured, he wondered, that they couldn't whip up any feeling for their own?
Then the words began to register:
"...not long dead, by the look of 'em..."
"...two, four days each, should be half-palatable..."
"...best we can hope for, considering..."
"...what I wouldn't give for a side of fucking beef..."
When he gained a vantage point, he lost all ability to be confused by these half-caught phrases. There was something familiar about one of the corpses. Not the familiarity that he had feared, but something irreconcilably worse. The fog that had obscured his recent past vanished in an instant. He could not take his eyes off the bright blue, short-sleeved shirt with its huge, dark stain of dried blood, except to look up at half of the man's familiar face. The half that had not been destroyed by one or more of the hunters' bullets.
There was no doubt left in him. Though he sorely wished there was.
Hoagie's voice cut sharply through the others.
"Rory, Mojo, Harrison - you clean and dress 'em. Greg, build up that fire and get the rig set up."
Dawson doubled over and vomited where he stood.
I leave this place at dawn, though there is nowhere in this world that I can go.
"Listen to me, dammit! You can't stop the fucking world from bein' the way it is. The world's got a helluva lot more momentum than you or me or every goddamn soul in it could ever fucking muster. You gotta accept that first.
"After that, you got two choices: you quit the world by dyin', since that's the only way out that works; or you give in to the momentum and live as long as you can, hoping against hope that the world is gonna get better. 'Cause if you don't give in to that momentum, you're quittin' whether you say so or not, 'cause the world's gonna roll right over your sad old bones. It's gonna crush you, baby."
Hoagie's face was red and tight. His voice a controlled fury. Dawson refused to look at him.
"You walk outta this camp tomorrow and you're quittin'. Quittin' help and hope and any chance you might have of even thinkin' you might live long enough to see the end of this thing.
"And all over what?
"You say it's a matter of principle, but it's not. Principles are based on morals, and what you freaked out on ain't morals, it's a breaching of your basic cultural training. That's all. Training you received in order to get along in a culture that is now dead. It died weeks ago, man. Might as well be years. Might as well be centuries, for all the good your stickin' by its learnin' is gonna do you. Dead is dead. Let it go, man."
Hoagie took a deep breath, trying to calm himself a little.
"Try to think of it this way:
"The world you grew up in had mechanisms to teach you how to deal with all of the compromises it demanded. You learned so well that most of the time you never even knew that you were compromisin' your silly ass off. When that world died, everything became new, different, more demanding. The compromises became obvious because they weren't the same ones you had lived with every fucking day of your life. There weren't no mechanisms anymore to teach you how to accept them, either.
"Okay, the world sucks. Everything you knew is wrong. But you can deal with it so long as you adapt. Adapt or die. That's what it comes to."
There was a lengthy silence.
"You getting any of this?"
A longer silence.
"Fine. Make your own choice, man. I've made mine."
Hoagie turned to walk away, but Dawson's meek voice arrested his movement.
"It scares me Hoag."
Hoagie turned to look back at his friend. Dawson's eyes were pained.
"You're inviting whatever it is that did this to them, made them walk again and all, into your own systems. What if it's a virus, a bacteria, an infection of some sort. It could kill you. It could make you like them."
Hoagie shook his head.
"If we don't eat, we die. Then we'll be like them soon enough. Some of us have been eatin' like this for two weeks or better, and we ain't lost no one yet. At least not like you mean."
Dawson let his gaze fall back to the ground.
"I don't know. I just can't..."
He left the phrase unfinished.
I am weak. A coward. I have proven this in everything I've done. I don't know where to go. I am not even strong enough to maintain my own resolve.
If I stay. If I choose, even, to eat with them. Am I choosing, out of some reserve of strength, to adapt; or more simply, out of weakness, choosing not to die?
Are such distinctions real, or am I merely tormenting myself as Hoagie insists?
Morals? Mores? Are any distinctions ever real? Do we ever, really, encounter any choices we are capable of making?
It has been days since I could bring myself to write. I see, now, that it serves no purpose. Probably never did.
Alot like my life, that way.
I see this now as the journal of a dying man, as dictated to his murderer. Cause of death: betrayals. First his betrayals of others, finally his betrayal of himself. The fogs have lifted completely. I can now see all of it. It is only by the grace of that fog that I have lasted this long.
Excuse me: thathehas lasted this long. This is an obituary, I must remember to keep it impersonal.
His betrayal of the woman - leaving as he did, when he could have stayed and saved at least her - wounded him severely. His betrayal of the preacher - again in leaving when there was something yet that needed to be done, one final favor begged but never granted - wounded him further.
But he was finished off by his betrayal of himself, ironically, in not leaving when he should have.
As further irony his cause of death will be assumed, by others, to be starvation. And all because of the betrayal that he refuses to commit.
Let his epitaph read:
brought him to death's door
gained him entry.
I thought I would not write again, but there is no more solid solace to be had this night.
Hoagie is dead.
A hunting trip. One got up behind him somehow. Tore most of the back of his neck away before the others shot it.
He died before they got him back to camp.
I asked them, angrily I must admit, why they had brought him back. I implied, all indiscreetly, that they intended to make a meal of him, as well as of the beast that killed him.
Harrison slapped me hard for that. Several others hit me even harder with their eyes.
Can't say as I blame them. I was not the only one who loved the man, nor the only one who relied upon his love.
"We are not cannibals," I was told. And, though I wouldn't admit it at the time, I understand the distinction.
They have not put him down yet. Have not immobilized him. They have a ritual, it seems, in which they must wait for him to rise before they shoot him. I suppose that this is done in the hope that he will not rise, making the shooting unnecessary.
I understand this on a gut level, though pragmatically it seems a needless extension of the anxiety.
They have been courteous enough to grant my request for the vigil. All of it. Though I gather that this sort of thing is usually done in shifts.
I can't really explain why I want to be the one that finally puts him down, except to say that I feel I owe him this much, at least. Owe it to the preacher and the woman and myself.
I guess that I still have something to prove. That I am not all weakness and betrayal. That I can, at least once, do right by those who have done right by me.
The camp sleeps. Only the perimeter guards and I remain awake.
I am waiting.
It should not be long now.
Twenty-four hours since his death, and the vigil continues.
It is amazing.
I allowed Harrison to relieve me at dawn, but made him promise me the watch again tonight, if it is necessary.
I pray that it is. If anyone that I have ever known deserves to rest in peace, then it is Hoagie. Tomorrow at dawn we will bury him, regardless.
Harrison tells me that Hoagie might not rise. That this happened once before, in the days just preceding my arrival. The man had died in a similar manner, but he never rose or walked again. They buried him not far from here, and his grave lies undisturbed.
Mojo, who claims he is a reincarnation of some famous Aztec shaman, says that ingesting the spirits of one's enemies frees you from their power after death. That the habit of eating the ghouls has protected Hoagie from the "demons of the other world" that otherwise would have possessed him and made him walk with them.
He also claims that such protection can be had simply by eating their hearts.
I don't buy that, any more than any of Mojo's other stories, but it makes me think.
I am thinking of something I once said to Hoagie about viruses, infections and contagion. I am thinking about acquired immunities and built-up tolerances. About vaccines and anti-bodies. Life-saving poisons.
I am not a biologist, but it makes more sense to me than voodoo.
I am also thinking about coincidences. About rare, but natural, immunities. Wondering how likely it might be to have two such cases in so small a community. I have heard of and witnessed no cases like this anywhere else, but my experience - statistically speaking - has been too small to base reliable conclusions upon.
I am also learning how to pray.
We buried Hoagie this morning.
At his wake I broke my fast.
I understand, now, what he was trying to tell me about choices, but for me it is not continuing life that seems so important. It is the chance to refuse to rise again, after my inevitable death.
That is my determination.
I am willing to make the necessary compromise.
The stew gagged me, though the meat was made as inconspicuous as possible. Harrison tells me that that is a common first reaction. He also says that the stew is less strong when fresh.
I am getting better at prayer.
It occurs to me that word of this possible cure must get out. Perhaps, with this information as a starting point, some vaccine might be distilled or manufactured.
But how to get the word out? To whom? Who is left to utilize or broadcast this information?
Government trains still run, so some portion of the government must remain, at least, semifunctional. Clearly the military still exists, but what else?
The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta should have been a priority, but were they quick enough to save it? If not, some other facility? If so, where?
I will not leave here on a wild-goose chase, not knowing where to go, or what my chances of getting there might be.
If there is any chance at all, it is the trains themselves. The men on the trains, or certainly their superiors, would know what options were available. They can best get this information to a place where it might do some good.
I will give them the entire journal. As much of my story as I have down, to convince them of my earnestness. To show them some portion of what I have been through.
I have need of it no more.
I am becoming whole again.
My mind is clear.
This final portion is written in a hand sufficiently distinct from the rest of the text, as to allow no doubt of separate authorship. -K.H.]
They shot him dead.
He made the mistake of callin out to them guys bout what he got and how important it was for them to take it. Tried to run right up long side that train and hand it right up to them.
They shot him dead at twenty yards.
I was watchin.
Its to bad to cause I liked him. Never even got to tell him I was sorry bout hittin him that time. So I picked the watch I thought hed come up on.
I was right.
So ether hes wrong bout that immuzation stuff he was talkin bout, or he didnt eat with us long enuff.
Im glad if he had to come up he come up on my shift tho. Someway its easier when you liked a guy. You dont want no body else puttin him back down. You want to do it yourself.
Got to talk to him that way to. Got to say my sorrys. Told him Id rite his obit here and get his goddam book on the next train thru some goddam way.
You get a funny feelin like that. That somthin in the guy can still here you. Like maybe itll help some-ways.
Ill be more earful than him tho. Ill toss it on the train from cover somewhere.
Aint gonna let them shoot me dead.
Not whiles I got a choice.
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