by Zachary Woodard
My wife, were she still with us, would have called the two-story farmhouse “quaint.” It sits in the middle of a field of grey, the grass dead and covered in ash. An old barn, its paint dull, stands in the distance.
The eight of us crouch in the dead trees, watching the farmhouse from afar. A window rattles in the wind. We’ve sat here for an hour, watching. There hasn’t been any movement to speak of, any signs of life.
“Are you sure you saw?”
Yorrick spits through a missing tooth and glares at me with yellow eyes. “You calling me a liar? Or dumb?”
“I’m just making sure.”
Only a few hours of the day remain. Though the sun has been hidden behind blankets of white and grey for longer than I can remember anyway, by night you can’t see the beard on your face. If we want to have any hope of getting back to camp we’ll have to make our move now.
Jeremiah and I exchange a nod, and he stands. The rest of us follow him, emerging from the bare black forest like a pack of starving wolves. We march calmly towards the farmhouse.
Other raiders don’t know how to do it. They come at you yelling, running and whooping, swinging weapons and firing off shots. We’ve faced men like that. And we’ve killed them all, every time. So instead we walk, and keep our eyes on the dusty windows. Yorrick swore there were people here, and though I’ve seen nothing move that wasn’t from the wind it’s best to be cautious. I’ve one hand on my pistol and the other on my knife.
Jethro, the crossbow hanging from his hands, is the first to get to the door. He puts his ear to it, looks back to us and shrugs. He moves out of the way for Jackson, who takes his sledgehammer and swings it out from the side with a wide grin. The swing knocks in the handle with a crack that reverberates in my ears. Jackson kicks in the door.
There’s a man in a chair with a rifle aimed at the doorway. He cocks it. The fucking idiot didn’t even have it cocked. Thinks maybe he could intimidate us. He can’t.
The veneer of calm ignites, burns away like paper in a furnace. Jethro fires the crossbow and it hits the sitting man in the shoulder. He screams and falls back in his chair onto the floor. The rifle fires into the ceiling and I’m pushing passed Jethro and Jackson, the black blade of my ka-bar exposed. I press the man’s forehead against the floor and draw the knife across his throat. Blood sprays from the clean line across his apple, speckles and pools across the dusty wooden floorboards.
“Hang him up!” But the greenhorns are already at his feet with the rope.
“There’s a woman and a girl here,” Yorrick says, “find ‘em!”
Doors are smashed and cabinets ripped off the walls as we strip everything bare. We look for food, water, supplies. I find myself in a bathroom upstairs looking for medicine. There is nothing behind the mirror of the medicine cabinet—an empty bottle of ibuprofen, a tube of antiseptic paste squeezed flat. I close the door and look at myself in the mirror—the precious glass pane is surprisingly well-kept, only one crack breaks it through.
The whites of my eyes have been stained a dull yellow, and the skin around them sags. My hair is tangled in gray ropes, my beard big and uneven, scraggly. There are spots I missed with the garden sheers, tufts of beard that stick out past the rest, or holes where I cut too deep. I sneer. Like the others, I’ve lost a tooth or two.
There’s a scream from below, in the basement, but it rips through the whole house. I guess they found the woman. The women always scream like that, scream and scream and don’t stop screaming until one of us puts an end to it. I spit at the face looking back at me, an old wolf past its heyday. The mirror shatters on the butt of my knife in a brief moment of anger. When it passes I bite my lip. A stupid waste, old man.
In the basement, the little girl is already dead, a bolt through her neck. The woman is on her way. Jethro’s got his thick hands wrapped around her throat, his teeth grinding as she digs her nails into his face. I watch with the rest of them as her eyes bulge. When the life leaves her it doesn’t slide, but pops. Suddenly she’s nothing but cold eyes and flesh.
“Why isn’t anyone dressing the girl?” I ask, smacking Earl on the back of the head. He curses and sets to work.
Jeremiah spits. “Bill Ray found a storage cellar full of cans and jars. Some of ‘em are bad, though, goin’ to have to be careful with them. Some pork salted all to hell and back, but maybe still good.”
Twenty minutes later we’re back out in the field, a pyre roaring behind us. I hold a torch in my free hand.
Jethro damn near killed Bill Ray, until Jeremiah called him off. Bill, the damn fool, found some gasoline in the cellar and wasted it starting the fire. Didn’t even tell any of the old raiders he’d found it, just set about splashing it everywhere. Can’t say I blame Jethro, men have been killed for wasting less. Bill Ray’s sporting a new black eye and a bloody bald spot in the back of his head, but he should be grateful he’s not in the fire behind us.
We all carry something back. Bags of tin cans and glass jars, tools, glass we managed to salvage. It takes two men each to carry the big burlap bags between them. The smaller one is wrapped in old plastic bags, slung over Bill Ray’s shoulder as he sulks back to camp.
The torch burns bright, and I hold back a moment as the others pass me to watch the fire burn. How many fires have I left in my wake, I wonder. I cough into my elbow.
Hours later I’m before a fire much smaller, burning in a pit we’ve dug in the hard, dry earth. A pot hangs above the middle, the flames licking it black. The women were able to make a stew out of some old tubers they’d found, shriveled potatoes and wild onions. They’d cut out around the holes, picked out the dead, shriveled bugs even though most of the men tell them not to waste their time. They spiced it with some old herbs we took from the farm, cubed up the salted pork and boiled it all together with some water from a sad little creek that trickles nearby. When all’s said and done it’s not half bad. The water diluted the salt in the pork, and I’d rather have that than the alternative anyway.
Torches flicker about the camp, light up the starless night. The women are quiet and keep to themselves. The young ones and the ones without bulging bellies walk about the camp doing small chores. Those who are bloated with child sit and let themselves be tended to by the ones with time to spare. Every single one of them who’s at an age where she bleeds is at some stage of pregnancy. I don’t even know which ones I’ve been with, which of those swollen bellies are my work, but I don’t rightly care anymore. There are a few marriages, but for the most part we fuck when we can. The children who survive, will. The children who don’t, won’t.
I stir my stew, bringing the chunks of salty white pork to the surface. How old am I now? How long as it been? What season is it? They all feel the same these days. Dry, cold and grey. Always grey.
The average life expectancy used to be what, seventy-five? Eighty? It can’t be more than thirty-five anymore. I’m older than fifty and I look seventy. Can’t be long now.
And what will I leave behind? Fires and dead bastards. A wolf pack.
Curt is pushing around Mike Bell, shouting about why we didn’t bring back any liquor. The ass didn’t even go on the raid. Did nothing, stayed here and probably fucked one of the girls while we faced down a rifle. And on top of that he’s drunk on moonshine, slurring and cursing. Drunk and still complaining that there’s not enough to drink.
“There was no liquor, Curt,” Jeremiah shouts from the fire.
Curt calls him some names, but when Jeremiah stands Curt doesn’t try to fight him, his eyes just drop and he walks away, sulking and drunk.
Jeremiah picks up a bowl of stew and sits beside me.
“Next time we’ll put Curt on point,” he mutters, smiling with cracked and crooked teeth. Tinges of black still stain his hair, but it’s fading. I look at him and remember my face in the mirror of the farmhouse. How similar we look.
I turn back to my stew. “He’ll shout and stagger all the way to the front door, they’ll be out like rabbits.”
As the men and women go about their business, Jeremiah watches them in silence. The fire crackles as I eat and try to keep my focus off the pain in a bad tooth.
“Looks like we may need to start moving again,” Jeremiah says, his eyes turning to the fire.
I know what he means. I’d thought it too, when Yorrick brought back the news of the farmhouse. There’s no food here anymore. That house was the first raid we’ve seen in weeks, and it was probably damn near five miles away. No one had been seen on the road in over a month, either. There’s no one left for us to prey on.
“It’ll be hard getting them to pack up and move again.”
“They’ll do it just fine,” I say, and take another spoonful of my stew. The greasy water runs down the sides of my mouth, gets caught in my beard.
There is a gunshot in the woods.
Some of the women scream, men shout and stand. I take another spoonful of stew. If I’m going to die, I won’t be hungry.
The shot is followed by shouting. A short scream, then silence.
Jethro comes out of the woods. He’s a thin man, Jethro, his muscles sinewy and rough, his skin hard from wind and beatings. He wears his still-brown hair past his shoulders and it swings about his gaunt face. He’s dragging something behind him as he approaches the fireplace. I squint to try to see, but it’s so dark it’s hard to make it out. Jeremiah stares beside me.
“Look-ee what I found here!” Jethro shouts as he approaches. I see, as he reaches the other side of the fire, that he’s dragging a little boy by the wrist. “Tried to sneak up on me while I was takin’ a piss. Pulled this little prick out.” He draws a revolver from his waist and throws it to the ground by the fire. “Can’t be more than three cartridges in the cylinder. Thought he’d kill me, he did.”
The little boy screams as Jethro twists his arm around. I hear a pop and the boy’s voice cracks. His free arm hangs limp—the skin is bubbling and red, the sleeve’s been burned off. Was he hiding in the house? Could we have missed him somehow? Was he trapped inside when we set it aflame? He’s crying, babbling, trying to get words out.
Jethro grabs him by the hair and turns to face him.
“What? What? You come here to kill us for your momma, boy? You wanna taste ‘er? We put ‘er in the stew, you want some stew? It’s real good.” He’s lying, of course. The boy’s mother is in strips, curing in the smoke-house. The kid can’t know that, though, and he’s babbling and screaming on.
Finally Jethro shuts him up—he grabs the boy’s burned hand and yanks it, hard, and all of the air goes out of the little body. Jethro swings a fist into the boy’s face and the child drops to the ashen ground.
“You come here to fuck with me, try to kill me you little brat, I’ll show you.” Jethro reaches for his belt, begins to undo the buckle on the worn leather strap.
“Stop it, Jethro.”
The words are out of my mouth before I realize I’m the one that spoke them. They’re rough as gravel and fall into the flames, so I say it again, louder. And this time Jethro hears me.
“The fuck you say, old man?” He stares at me, his dull yellow eyes unblinking. He keeps his hands at his belt. I know he carries a pistol, though I can’t see it in the flickering firelight.
“I told you to stop it.” I stand up and put my bowl aside. I brush my too-long hair out of my eyes, feel the sweat from the fire run courses through the ash on my wrinkled forehead. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m gonna teach this little shit a lesson.”
“No you’re not.”
He laughs, a snort like a pig’s cough. “Fuck you.”
“Jethro, you touch that boy and I’ll kill you right there, and right now.”
“Fuck you! You gonna act all high ‘n mighty now, you piss-breathed old shit? You slit his daddy’s throat. You stood around and watched me strangle his momma. Fuck you.”
There’s nothing I can say to that. I look at the boy, lying in the ground, leaning on his one good elbow. His face is soaked with tears, his cheeks glistening in the firelight. Jethro kicks him in the chest. The boy tries to scream, but with empty lungs it’s silent, a pantomime of a child in torture.
The way I walk around the fire to Jethro is methodical. This is how we’ve stayed alive—calm, threatening, quiet. He watches me do it, he knew I would when he kicked the kid. My boots sink into the ash with every step, a sensation I’ve long ago stopped noticing, filed it away with all the other background noise. But tonight it’s there, screaming in my skull, the way my feet sink just ever so slightly into the grey blanket.
Jethro’s got an advantage, and he knows it. I’m an old man. He was young when it started and he’s young now. Muscles thin but taught like pistons. I couldn’t take many hits from him. I don’t think I can intimidate him.
“You walk away right now while Jeremiah and I decide what to do with him.”
Jethro smiles wide, shows me every gap in the yellow teeth. He leans in close to me. He wants me to do it. “Fuck. Off.”
He wants me to do it.
And I oblige him.
I know I’m the first one to throw a fist, because I feel each ounce of pressure of it on his jaw—feel the bones in my hand crunch as they hit the skin-draped skull. After that it all becomes a blur. Jeremiah’s screaming at me, calling me a damned fool, screaming at both of us. Jethro’s on me, driving fists into my head, knocking me down until I’m lying in the ash and the dust.
Even as I’m on the ground he leaps on me, drives fists like hammers into my head. I can’t get my arms up to protect my face so I try to hit him back, try to deter him, but I feel older than ever as my blows do nothing to the man. I can feel the skin break, feel warm blood pour down my head onto my face. Jethro will kill me.
I drive a finger into his eye and he shrieks like a woman, falls off of me, clutching the bloody orb. I manage to stand, huddled over. When he gets up there’s fury in his one good eye.
He’ll kill me.
I don’t even realize I’ve pulled out the knife until I’ve sheathed it in his skull. His face is inches from mine, his mouth gaping open like a fish as he stares at me. His last breath is a cough of blood that spatters my face. Then he falls to the dust, his blood turning it to paste. The handle of my knife is still lodged into the flesh underneath his jaw.
I’m panting, out of breath, beaten bloody. The fire casts a flickering light, and it takes me a moment to make out Jeremiah’s face beyond it.
There’s little trace of the kindness with which he spoke to me over stew.
The boy is still lying in the dust, clutching his burnt arm. He whimpers as he stares at me. What does he think of me, I wonder, the man who slew his momma and his poppa, who would have eaten them tonight, who killed a man who would have killed him? I don’t even want to save the little bastard—I look at him now and see nothing but a means to prolong my own death, to push away the starvation one more day. I didn’t want to let him live. I just didn’t want Jethro to do wrong to him.
A boy shouldn’t die like that.
Jeremiah walks around the fire to the child and draws his pistol from his waist.
The bang makes some of the women shriek again. Makes me flinch like a coward. Bits of the boy’s brains cover my ragged, torn shoes. His blood mixes with Jethro’s in the ash.
“You fuckin’ asshole!”
“You just killed Jethro!”
“Jethro was a fuckin’ asshole, too!”
“Jethro was…” He shakes his head, a loss for words. “Jethro was a good man. A good fighter. A good raider.” He stares at me, shakes his head.
I have nothing to say to him. I try to form some defense, some way to justify myself, but there’s nothing. And then Jeremiah isn’t looking at me anymore. He’s looking past me. And he nods.
A punch flies from the darkness and I stagger. I’m disoriented, seeing double. I can’t tell how many men are standing around me, barely visible in the firelight. Five, ten. They’re surrounding me. It takes me a moment to fully realize what’s going on.
This was not a good trade I made for them. Jethro, young and strong, killed by an old worthless man at the end of his life. And over what?
In a breath they’re all upon me, hitting me, kicking me, scratching and pulling at my hair and beard. They pound me into the earth, pound my head into the ash and the dirt and I can feel my brain jostling like jelly. I reach out for Jethro, reach for the handle of the knife, but it’s too far away.
“Stupid,” I think, and I reach for my pistol.
I don’t bother to aim, just point it up at the cloud of hate and pull the trigger. I was never able to load it full, ammo’s too rare for that, but there are a few shots, and I’ll be damned if I let them all kill me for nothing. Four cracks and it’s done, but the barrage of hands and feet is gone as the men run. And now two more bodies lie beside me.
I cough into the dirt as I push myself up on my elbows. I toss the pistol aside—maybe one of them will make more use of it than I did. They’ve cracked a few ribs, for sure, and broken my leg. I think a lung is pierced, and there’s blood bubbling up my throat and out of my mouth.
There’s swearing, shouting. The men are cursing me, calling me a crazy, stupid old man. Say that the dust has gotten to my head, and I can’t say it’s not true. There’s been no sun for years now. What man isn’t changed by that?
The respite is over as soon as it began, and the hail of stone fists begins again.
They are wolves pouncing on the weak, taking advantage of the old and the sickly. They tear at me with tooth and claw, growl through thick fur and bark hate into my ear. There’s too many of them, they’re too strong, strong and young and bred for hate in this new world. Wolves that kill and eat and roam, always looking for something to take advantage of, something to take.
And this is what I leave behind. A bowl of stew. Five lifeless bodies. Some bastards that will never know my name. A pack of wolves. Fires. And ash.