by Michael Kingswood
The sun rose slowly, gradually sending the night’s shadows scampering away like hoodlums fleeing the sound of the constable’s approach.
As the hours passed, the few lingering shadows shrank, pushed back against the burned-out or simply decayed frames that cast them as though to make way for the the clouds of dust that the wind, grown from the increasing heat of the day, picked up as it moved across the land. Occasionally the wind would get funneled between clusters of dilapidation, and would compress and speed up as it forced its way through with a howl that was more maniacal and malicious than gleeful.
In one of those funnels, tramping down the gap between the blasted remains of things gone by, a figure trudged, head bowed against the wind’s onslaught and black cloak wrapped tightly about its body.
It was not just the wind that caused the figure to hunch over, but also the weight of a great pack on it shoulders, faded from a color than once might have been blue but was now bleached gray. The pack bulged, and in a few places some of its contents protruded from tears in its skin. But for the moment at least it held together, and kept those items in place for whatever use the figure would put them to.
The figure’s steps were short but steady, a steady pace despite its obvious load; a pace that said, “Screw you, I’m not stopping,” to the wind’s wrath far more than any shout or waved fist could have.
Most of the buildings—or what once were buildings—on either side of the figure were shattered, placards over missing doors faded so that whatever writing had been on them was almost impossible to read. They were two stories and three, but never more than that, though there were a few that were a single story.
Though several of those looked to be in that state more from collapse than from design.
The gap between the buildings may once have been paved, but now it was just a path of brown dirt and dust, the latter kicking up mercilessly into the figure’s face as it continued doggedly down the path. There used to be trees; a few gnarled trunks here and there reached toward the sky on either side of the path, their few remaining limbs that previous winds hand not snapped off stretching up toward the sky like fingers imploring the heavens for relief from their misery.
If heaven heard, though, there was no sign that it had ever done a thing to help.
The path between the buildings stretched maybe a half mile before the last of the buildings ended. More like fell over on themselves. And then there was just more wasteland, rolling hills of dirt and dust that stretched on and on until the next obstacle that evoked the wind’s wrath.
The figure had just reached those last pair of blasted shells when something brought it up short. It straightened, and turned to the left. As it did that, the wind caught its cloak and blew the cowl back from the figure’s face, revealing a craggy face framed by a bushy, but not unruly, growth of black beard and like-colored curly hair. Full brows that very nearly converged above a hooked nose furrowed and grey-blue eyes squinted at the thing that had caused the figure to turn.
And there it was again. A glint of light, from the rear of the building there, back on its left side in the gap between it and the building’s neighbor. Was that – ?
Almost unbelieving, and not wanting to get his hopes up, Gavin licked at his lips, feeling the sand that had accumulated in his mustache and tasting its salt, then blinked.
When he opened his eyes again, the flash of reflection was still there.
That was either metal…or glass. Both far too rare in these days gone on to pass up.
So he turned from the course he had been taking and hurried toward the gap between the two buildings.
His cloak threatened to pull away from his body, and he felt little pellets of sand and grit biting into his face and torso where the wind’s assault threw them against the thinner cotton of his shirt, long-sleeved or no, and he fought to gather the heavier fabric close about him.
But soon enough he was in the lee of the buildings, in the gap between them, and the worst of the pelting subsided. But the glimmering of sunlight against whatever it was remained, there at the back corner…
Gavin drew up short, drawing an awed breath when he realized what he was looking at.
An intact window.
How in heaven’s name had it survived all this time? Not just the elements, but scavengers and raiders and every other human left alive in this wasteland that used to be so lush should have conspired to leave it at the least removed for use elsewhere if not shattered from a fit of fury or as the side effect of a desperate struggle for food or water…or just bloody mindedness.
The window was at the extreme back of the building, just before the once-red—now mostly brown-gray—siding ended at the corner leading into the building’s back wall.
Past there, in what would have been a house’s back yard but here would have been…a parking lot maybe?…was just dirt and the scraggly remains of what used to be a few bushes. And the pile of rubble that marked the grave of another, larger, building that had stood behind these two.
As Gavin emerged from between the buildings and looked left and right, he was hit by the wind again. Less strong than it had been in the wind tunnel that had been the street behind him. But still shrill and biting with grit, and without even the decency of helping to remove the midday heat at all.
His scan of the area was quick, enough to show no immediate threats or dangers. Then he zeroed in on another unexpected thing. An intact door, in the building’s rear wall.
This had to be a trick. A trap of some sort. Or maybe the pressure of two weeks’ walking through the wasteland on his way back to Hopefell had snuck up on him unawares and he was seeing things.
He blinked his eyes again. But the door was still there. Faded, like everything else these days, the paint mostly peeled off leaving the wood beneath to gray in the elements. But intact, just like the window.
“What in the blazes?” he said to himself.
Then he was at the door, left hand on the chipped and pitted chrome of its knob. Before he could think what he was doing, he twisted. And was amazed when the knob turned freely, and the door swung open inward.
Gavin slipped his right hand beneath his cloak and grasped the grip of the club he kept hanging from his left hip, concealed by the cloak’s weight. Squinting his eyes, he peered inside.
There was no interior light, of course. But the sunlight streamed in through the window’s glass, dimmer than it would have in years gone by from dust and grime but still enough to illuminate. The room was small, and sparsely furnished. An old desk and swivel chair sat beneath the window, so the person could look out while doing paperwork…or whatever. Both were carved from what looked like good hardwood, and had the look of quality workmanship. There was another door leading further into the building, closed. This door’s paint was in better shape than the exterior door’s; mostly still there, and also mostly still red. The paint on the walls was yellow-white, and peeling up by the ceiling where water stains spoke of leaks back when there still had been rain in these parts.
And that was it. The exterior door obscured the other part of the room, but it appeared empty, and there was no sound except for the wind’s insane cackle as it sped down the little ruin of a town’s single street.
Gavin stepped inside, and immediately looked to the left, to the area of the room that the door had concealed.
It was empty, except for a bedroll and a pile of blankets in the corner opposite the window.
He froze, and glanced back at the desk, only now noticing the lack of dust on it and the chair.
Someone had been here, and recently.
Slipping the club off his hip, Gavin slowly closed the door behind himself and listened. Still nothing except the wind’s guffaws, muted now that he was indoors but never silent.
Clearly this was someone’s abode, but they weren’t here. Good luck for Gavin; he really didn’t need to deal with a fight. It was still three days to Hopefell, and if he got injured that would only make the journey longer. He barely had the supplies to make it the rest of the way as it was. Best to turn around and git while the gitting was good.
But something about the place tugged at him. This one building, out of the thousands he’d walked past in his journeys, still had a livable room, with an actual honest-to-God window and door. And someone lived here. Or had.
How had the person managed to keep the place, after all this time? And how was he living here, so far from any outpost and supplies?
Curiosity got the better of Gavin’s instinct to flee, and he crossed to the door leading deeper into the building. He pressed his ear to it, but heard nothing on the other side except the wind. So he tried the knob, not nearly so pitted as the exterior knob had been.
Again, the knob turned. This time the door opened toward him, and Gavin inched it open slightly and peaked through. Seeing no movement, he opened it fully and slipped through, club at the ready.
This was a hallway, running crossways across the width of the building. No windows, so the only light came from the room he’d just left, and that faded quickly into dark shadows as the hallway reached the other side of the building. But he could just dimly make out another door, opening to the left, so again toward the back of the building, at the end.
He had an old lighter that he’d squirreled away from back before the bombs fell and the earth quaked and the blight spread, and ever so often he’d managed to barter for a bit of butane here and there to keep it topped off. Reaching into his pocket with his left hand, he found the rectangular hunk of metal and pulled it out.
The top flipped open easily, but the striking wheel was getting worn, and it took five or six flicks to get it going. But then he had at least a little flame of a light, which he held up above his head as he proceeded down the hall. It wasn’t much, but it beat nothing at all.
In the dim light, he was struck by the lack of clutter and trash in the hallway, just as in the room he’d just passed through. Obvious signs that someone had been keeping it up.
But who? And why?
And more importantly, how?
He had to sling his club back onto his hip to try the new door, and once again it opened freely.
Even with the little flame from his lighter, it was dark. He could barely make out the area beyond the door, but he could tell it was a square room. It must have been a duplicate of the first room, except without the window and the door. But had he seen another window in the building’s back wall?
Gavin searched his memory, but couldn’t tell for sure. He had zeroed in on the door so quickly…
Go back, his mind screamed at him, even as he stepped inside.
It was then that he noticed the smell. It wafted out of the darkness of the room like an unclean miasma of filth, seeming to seep into his pores even as it assaulted his nostrils and forced its way into his tongue. Rot, and human waste. And something else, almost coppery…
Gagging, Gavin backed out into the hallway and pulled the door closed, then pressed his right hand to his mouth and nose, as if he could wipe the stench away.
He sagged back against the wall opposite the door, and realized he was breathing heavily. His pulse pounded in his ears, and he felt the rush of adrenalin in his veins.
Blood. That was what he’d smelled there, atop the filth and the rot.
Someone had died there. Maybe several someones. Died, and rotted.
The building’s inhabitant?
Regardless, it was time for him to be out of here. There were plenty of hours of daylight left, and he knew a good place to bunk down for the night that he could make. If he left now and made good time.
But maybe he should see to the poor wretch’s body, said that little voice in his mind, but he shushed it. He didn’t have the tools for a proper burial. Nor did he have the time, and he wouldn’t want to bunk down here. Not after finding that.
Besides, it smelled like the fellow was well on toward rotting…
Gavin stopped at the doorway leading to the first room, the thought careening to a halt before his feet could.
No, the smell of rot hadn’t been that strong. Not nearly as strong as the blood and the crap.
So either the guy had died recently, or…
Gavin swallowed hard. He’d heard of people going completely feral if they’d spent too much time alone out in the wasteland. Rumors said there were tribes of them out there, in the deep wastes far from the few settlements that had managed to sprout up.
He’d never encountered their type before, but he’d talked to one or two people who had. Usually the stories only came out after a bunch of drinks at the town watering hole, so he’d always given those accounts a bit of skepticism. Drunks always exaggerate their tales.
Now he was thinking maybe he was wrong to do that.
Dousing his lighter, he slipped it back into his pocket and brandished his club again, then stepped into the first room. It was time to get out of here. And once he got to Hopefell, he needed to tell the Constable about this place. Bert couldn’t afford to let this sort of thing exist so close to town.
He was halfway across the room to the exterior door when he saw the knob begin to turn.
Gavin froze, and glanced left. He saw a head topped with a scraggle of blond hair looking in, and large eyes that were going wide with surprise as they met his.
Cursing, he bounded forward.
But he knew he was too late, when the door began to swing inward, admitting more of the sunlight from outside.
“There’s someone – ” came a female voice at the same time as the opening door showed the hulking man who was preparing to come into his home.
He was big. Very big. A full head taller than Gavin, and Gavin wasn’t short. His shoulders were almost wide enough to fill the doorway, and he was dressed in a brown trench coat instead of a cloak, and worse a broad-brimmed hat of the same color on his head. His face was chiseled, angular, and his eyes were so brown as to be almost black.
And he had a body draped over his left shoulder, in what Gavin remembered they used to call a fireman’s carry.
The big man stopped when he saw Gavin, and for a second they just stared at each other.
Gavin thought to do a quick bit of apologizing for trespassing and then try to talk his way out of there. But he saw the other man’s face lose the last remnants of good humor that shock had not yet had the chance to chase away. His expression went slack and his jaw tightened, and he shifted his shoulders, loosing his grip on the body to let it slide off his shoulder to the ground.
He was getting ready to attack. Gavin beat him to it.
Lowering his shoulder, he charged forward, careening into the big guy’s belly shoulder-first.
The momentum of his charge, short as it was, sent the man stumbling backward, and Gavin rode him down into the dirt behind the building.
The brightness hurt his eyes after the dim interior, but he ignored it, blinking quickly as he rolled off the big guy to spring to his feet. If he could get a good head start, maybe he could –
Powerful hands grabbed at his thighs before he could make a full step, and he found himself half-hurled back toward the building. He stumbled forward and to his right, losing his footing—and his club—as he went, and landed on one knee, left hand pressed into the dirt to stop himself from falling completely.
He had gotten so used to wearing his pack that he hardly noticed its weight most times. It wore at him, made him tired, but it was like part of him most of the time, until he took it off for the night.
But right then, its extra weight just added to his difficulty as he struggled to push himself back up onto his feet, and he wished for a second he had taken it off before he went inside.
But that would have spoiled even the slight surprise he’d gained on the man. And speaking of which –
Gavin forced himself upright and turned, just in time to catch a fist in the cheek.
He reeled back, and found himself falling when he didn’t strike the wall. The ceiling of the room with the desk wheeled into view as he fell back inside, and then the big man was above him.
“Came to the wrong house, bub,” he said, and those beefy hands were grabbing onto the straps of Gavin’s pack, hauling him up from the floor.
His head was spinning from the punch, and he could feel his cheek swelling up already. He tasted blood; had he chipped a tooth or just bit into the flesh?
Gavin shook his head to clear it, and found himself looking straight into the big guy’s eyes, as his lips turned upward in a feral grin. “But I will thank you for helping fill our larder.”
Gavin was up on his tiptoes, held there by the strength of the big man’s arms, and truth to tell he really wasn’t in any mood to fight anymore. For a second, he just hoped the big guy would get it over quick.
Then the rest of his mind caught up with the coward within and smacked him down. Screw that.
Big guy’s hands were still on the straps of Gavin’s pack, so he clenched his fists and swung them up and over big guy’s shoulders, to strike at his temples with the inner ridges of his fists.
The counterattack took big guy by surprise, apparently, because he cried out and released Gavin’s straps, his hands instead going to the sides of his head, which Gavin knew from experience were now throbbing like mad.
His feet hit the floor, and Gavin considered just running for it. But that wouldn’t work and he knew it. So instead he drew back and slugged the guy in the gut, hard as he could.
It was like hitting a wall. But Gavin had hit a wall or two in his time, so he knew how to deal with it. And he was plenty strong from lots of time hauling gear across the wastes.
Still, the guy was big enough that he could take the hit. All the same, he doubled over a bit, which gave Gavin a warm feeling of satisfaction for a second.
Before the big guy’s counter, a backfist, lashed out toward him.
Gavin knew it—or something like it— was coming, though, and he blocked it, raising both forearms so that the big guy’s forearm struck the bones of both of his.
It hurt. A lot.
But it stopped the punch, and Gavin looped his left wrist over the top of the big guy’s. Then he pressed his right palm into the back of the guy’s shoulder, crouched down, and twisted.
The big guy was heavy, but Gavin had the leverage, and big guy went with it, unable to resist being spun and then thrown as Gavin let go the wrist.
The big guy stumbled forward, and struck the desk with his thighs….
The crinkle of shattering glass announced that his head had struck the window a second before a stream of red running down the glass from his neck showed what had happened as a result.
The guy squirmed, shuddering, and Gavin thought he heard a gurgle come from his lips. He tried to push himsefl off the cutting glass, and just ended up cutting his hands and wrists as well. But he pushed all the more, and extricated himself.
And the blood flow just got worse.
He turned to face Gavin, as though still wanting to fight, but his expression was a mixture of confusion, pain, and gradually increasing horror as he realized what had happened to him.
Blood ran down his chest, and he took a half-step toward Gavin.
Then he just collapsed there on the floor.
“Hector!” came the female voice again, this time raised in a shriek of disbelief and grief.
The blond came rushing in and collapsed atop the big guy, shaking at him as tears began running down her cheeks and she began to wail.
Gavin watched her for a second, as shocked by the outcome of the engagement as she, though not as upset. He considered saying something. Sorry, maybe?
But he wasn’t sorry. The guy had meant to do him in. And apparently eat him, for his trouble.
And she would have joined in the eating, no doubt.
Yeah, not sorry at all.
It crossed his mind that he should probably not let her go on with her cannibal ways. But right then, he wasn’t up to beating down a woman. And he probably never would be. He’d go on to Hopefell and tell the Constable. Let Bert deal with her, if she was still here when he came with his men.
That all went through Gavin’s head in a second, and then he moved to step around the woman as she knelt over her now dead…lover, he assumed.
But he felt he should say something, so he paused in the doorway and looked back. “Sorry about the window,” he said, and her face jerked upward to look at him. There was murder in her eyes, but also the knowledge that she didn’t dare try it. Gavin put on a grin that he knew wasn’t cheerful at all. “But hey,” he said. “You’ve got plenty of meat to last you now.”
Her scream, “F*** you,” didn’t carry any punch at all as he stepped outside.
He squatted to pick up his club and looked at the body the big guy had dropped. It was a woman, mid 30s and dark, with long black hair, dressed for the wasteland and staring with wide, unseeing brown eyes.
Yep. He didn’t feel bad about the big guy or his woman at all.
With that, he turned and resumed his trek toward Hopefell. As he wrapped his cloak back around himself and closed the cowl around his face to ward off the worst of the biting sand and dust, he looked up toward the sun, only slightly lower than when he’d first veered off to investigate this charnel house.
Plenty of time to reach his camp site.
Things were looking up.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: