Man of Constant Sorrow

And Am I Born to Die?

It's fare thee well my own true lover
I never expect to see you again
For I'm bound to ride that Northern railroad
Perhaps I'll die upon this train

- From A Man of Constant Sorrow, traditional American folk song

Joel walked steadily through the day, occasionally stopping to check the compass that Ellie had given him to make sure he was still heading mostly southeast. After considering the map, he’d decided to cut over to highway 17; he wasn’t crazy about how exposed he’d be on the flat, open road, but it seemed like the best way to avoid getting lost again. His feet were hitting the cracked pavement by midmorning on the second day.

Joel was a strong hiker, but as the flat, featureless desert plains rolled slowly by him he found himself retreating more and more into his mind, and letting his body continue on automatic pilot. It was the walker’s equivalent of highway hypnosis. He would pass an abandoned car on the road and wonder who had been driving it, where they had ended up after they’d run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where they had been headed, and then the next thing he knew, the sun would have moved in the sky and when he looked behind him the car would be nowhere to be seen. It alarmed him, because he knew he needed to stay alert for signs of infected or human ambushes, but it kept happening.

Mostly, he thought of Ellie.

What had she wanted to tell him? And what had he said to make her so upset? Joel went over every word that he remembered, but nothing jumped out as being overly confessional, nothing that should have prompted her extreme reaction. He’d been trying to tell her he liked her, damn it, that he understood her. He smiled wryly at that. Obviously he’d been wrong on that last count. He didn’t understand a thing about Ellie. Why couldn’t she have just talked to him? Why had she run away like that? Joel was deeply distressed by the thought that his last words to her had made her cry.

He felt her absence like a sore tooth; an ache that wouldn’t go away. They’d been so good together. It was different than with Tommy. Tommy was his brother, and Joel always loved him, but the two of them had fought like cats and dogs, constantly. They’d stayed together because in the end they were family, but sometimes they hadn’t liked each other very much, and they’d definitely had different ideas about how to survive in this world. But the months Joel and Ellie lived together, they’d fallen so easily into a smooth companionship, like the physical equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences, that Joel hadn’t even realized how much he’d been craving it until now, now that it was gone. Hell, he’d even forgotten she was infected most of the time.

And yet, in all that time, they hadn’t spoken much. Oh, they’d talked about whatever task was to hand, cooking supper, or hunting, or improving the paddock wall, but not about themselves, and not about their pasts. Joel realized that Ellie was almost as much of an enigma to him now as the day she found him, dying of thirst near her stream.

And maybe that’s where he’d gone wrong. She’d been about to reveal something to him about her past, something important, and he’d stupidly upset the fragile balance between them. He’d wanted to show her how much he knew about her, but instead he’d just revealed how much he was beginning to care about her. And that, he knew deep down, was what had sent her running away.

Because she didn’t feel the same way about him.

They’d had a good thing going, until he’d opened his big fucking mouth and ruined it.

And now...she’d rather be alone up there in the middle of nowhere than have him anywhere near her.

Joel stopped and ran his hand over his tired face. He’d lost another couple of hours, walking while he was lost in thought, and now the sun was setting. His stomach growled at him.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s get off the road, and I’ll feed you something.”

A gray fox watched him curiously while he unfolded his bedroll behind a convenient clump of bushes and when he settled down onto it, the fox melted away into the twilight.

Joel spread the contents of his backpack onto the blanket in front of him. He was only eating one meal a day, at night, trying to conserve his supplies as much as possible. Ellie had stocked him up with cans of beans and tunafish and sardines, as well as a handful of protein bars. He could eat one can a day and one protein bar, and still make it to Alpine with some to spare, if he managed to cover at least twenty-five miles every day. He should be able to resupply there. If he wanted to take the time, he had his bow, and there were plenty of jackrabbits and prairie dogs around. Water was more problematic because it was heavy to carry, but there weren’t many water sources between Ellie’s place and Alpine. He had started with three two-liter bottles, and assuming he could make it to Alpine in four days, he could drink a little more than half of each bottle every day. A liter wasn’t much, especially since he was exerting himself and losing moisture sweating all day, but it was something, it was enough to keep him alive. And if he ran into any water sources on the way, he could always refill.

Joel peeled back the top on a tin of sardines and ate them with his fingers, chewing mechanically and without enjoyment. Food was simply fuel to keep his muscles moving one more day. He ate the last fish and then tipped the oil left in the tin into his mouth and swallowed, and then licked the residue out of the tin, knowing that he couldn’t afford to waste a single calorie. When he was done, he threw the tin out into the desert as far away from his campsite as he could, where any curious animals drawn by the smell wouldn't disturb him.

And then he settled back on his blanket, hands behind his head, and watched the sky fade from blue to gray to black, studded with bright diamonds. He didn’t want to think about Ellie any more, so he listened to the night around him, full of the sound of insects and small scurrying animals, but nothing more. Joel felt like he might have been the last man on Earth. He felt the empty space around him pressing in on him from all sides, heavy as a ton of rocks on his chest. A fire would have helped, it would have kept the darkness and emptiness at bay, at least until he could fall asleep, but he knew he couldn’t light a fire, it was too open here, and he was too exposed. In the flat, unrelenting darkness, a fire could be seen from miles away.

Before he even realized what he was doing, he was humming, deep in his throat, and then singing softly to himself, one of the old hymns his granny Miller had taught him.

And am I born to die, to lay this body down,
And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade unpierced by human thought,
The dreary regions of the dead where all things are forgot.

It kept the emptiness at bay, somewhat, to imagine his granny’s voice as he sang to himself. He could almost feel the papery skin of her strong hands on his chest, thumping the rhythm against his heart the way she always did when she taught him a song. Granny Miller had grown up in east Texas singing the Sacred Harp, and it was she who had encouraged Joel’s love for music, teaching him how to read the shape notes in the book and dragging him along to Sacred Harp singings with her. When he was ten, she’d bought him his first guitar and taught him his first chords. She’d died a few years later, and Joel hadn’t thought about her for years, but he missed her now so much it felt like a punch in the gut.

Soon as from earth I go, what will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe must then my portion be.

Waked by the trumpet sound I from my grave shall rise,
And see the Judge with glory crowned, and see the flaming skies.

A meteor streaked across the sky as the last line was still dying in his throat, and Joel shivered.

He had long ago given up on the idea that there was a heaven, or that Sarah was waiting for him somewhere, but sometimes he admitted to himself that this whole fucking shitstorm of what had become of the world sure felt a lot like judgement, and that he had been found wanting somehow. That the the only reason he was still alive wasn’t luck, but punishment.

Joel’s hand went to the scratched glass face of the watch on his left wrist, the one thing he had left that Sarah had touched. He shook off the morbid thoughts. No. He was alive because Sarah would have wanted him to keep fighting, and that’s what he’d continue to do, until the breath left his body.

He pulled his blanket around him, and as he finally drifted off, still touching the watch face, his last thoughts weren’t of Sarah, but of Ellie’s small white hands, folding the blanket before she set it in the pile for him by the cave entrance. He rubbed the blanket against his bearded cheek and fell into the light, half-wakeful doze he had adopted while traveling alone, his body resting but still ready to come to the alert at the first sign of danger.

Joel made Alpine in three days. Thanks to the cooler September weather and the flat terrain, he’d been able to walk pretty much nonstop from dawn until dusk, eating up the miles with ease. Aside from the ominous plumes of smoke from the direction of Fort Davis, which he would have avoided even without Ellie’s advice, he saw no other sign of human life. Alpine itself was a ghost town, no people, no infected, just street after deserted street and empty buildings with windows blank as dead eyes. Joel had seen plenty of ghost towns, but usually there were a few infected still hanging around. This place looked like it had been cleaned out a long time ago, and not by FEDRA, either. He saw no evacuation signs, no sign that the government or the military had ever even come through here.

“Alpine, population 5,972,” he murmured to himself, quoting the sign he’d seen on highway 118 on his way into town. Six thousand people, just gone, like they’d evaporated into the dry desert air. “Well, let’s see if they left anything behind.”

It turned out that the former residents of Alpine had left almost everything behind. What the hell happened here? he wondered, as he rifled through a kitchen cabinet in the third house he’d come to. None of the houses or businesses he’d seen were boarded up against looting, the cabinets in this house were still full of canned goods and looked like everyone in the town had just gone on vacation and never come back. He filled his backpack with granola bars and two unopened jars of peanut butter, a rare find these days. And then, in the back of the cupboard, he saw...was that...? His heart almost stopped when his fingers closed on the small jar of Nutella.

“Oh, man,” he whispered. “Let it still be good…”

The jar was about half-full, and it was slightly rancid, but to Joel it tasted like heaven. He dug a spoon out of a drawer and attacked the jar, intending to eat the whole thing, right there. Chocolate. He’d never been able to say no to chocolate, and the fact that he hadn’t tasted any in probably over two years made him savor every bite. While he ate, his thoughts inevitably turned to Sarah, who had inherited his insatiable appetite for sweets, and the day at the supermarket she’d tried to convince him that Nutella would be a nutritious addition to their breakfast choices.

“Look, Dad, it’s got nuts in it. Nuts are good for you! It’s right there in the name, Nut-ella.”

He’d grabbed the jar from her and turned it around to read the ingredients. “Yep. It’s got nuts all right, but it’s basically all fat and sugar. You know this stuff is just expensive cake frosting, right?”

She’d looked utterly forlorn. “But, Dad, nuts…”

And he’d caved, just like she’d known he would. He’d wanted to buy it just as much as she did, but at least he’d given a stab at being the responsible adult, even if it had been more halfhearted than usual. “All right, fine. But not for breakfast. And not every day. This is a once-in-a-while treat, you understand?”

The smile on her face had been worth a million bucks, and saying yes to the Nutella had made it much easier to say no to the Cocoa Crispies when they got to the cereal aisle.

Joel stopped with the spoon halfway to his mouth, his stomach rolling queasily. Suddenly, he didn’t want another bite; he didn’t want to ever see the stuff again. He threw the spoon across the room with a muffled curse and took a swig of water to wash the cloying sweetness out of his mouth. He gripped the counter hard with both hands. He wanted to break something, or shout until he lost his voice, or put his fist through a wall.

He wasn’t good at traveling alone, he realized. When he was around other people, he just naturally kept his emotional walls in place so nobody could get too close to him, but the irony was, he needed people around him to keep those walls up. Out here, alone, it was like he was lost in his own head, and his walls were slipping, letting his memories sneak up and ambush him out of nowhere.

It was starting to make him feel like he was going crazy. And he needed to get a handle on it, or he was going to end up dead.

Joel held on to his anger; it was the only thing that helped him push the memories of Sarah back down deep, where they couldn’t hurt him. And then he gathered his supplies and left, leaving the door hanging open and the container of Nutella on the counter, still open and unfinished.

His food supplies replenished, Joel concentrated his search efforts on finding more water. He’d had luck before with offices—a lot of the time they had stocks of those big water jugs for water coolers—so he left the residential streets and headed for the heart of town, looking for likely businesses to search.

As he got closer to the center of town, he started seeing doors marked with Xs, drawn in red paint. There was no explanation for the markings, but Joel figured a red X was a pretty clear warning, so he avoided those doors, which seemed to be concentrated in the very center of town. A back alley between two main streets had four unmarked doors that looked like they opened up into downtown businesses, and no red Xs.

The first door was a candy shop, but the second had a sign that read Texas Farm Bureau Insurance, Tammy Fielding. Shops that once sold edibles had all mostly been picked over in the first few months, so he’d had better luck over the years with offices. Some had kitchens stocked with packaged snacks or vending machines, refrigerators full of sodas, and those ubiquitous water coolers. Joel tried the door to the insurance office, but it was locked.

Okay. Let’s see if I can remember how to do this. Joel unslung his backpack and rummaged through it for one of his homemade shivs, looking for one with the thinnest blade, one that he could fit between the door and the jamb. Back in Philly, with their hunter crew, he and Tommy had both gotten lessons on breaking and entering from Fat Mike, a little round guy who’d done a stint in Sing Sing and claimed he’d never met a locked door he couldn’t open.

Tommy had taken to it immediately, but it was a skill that required too much finesse and patience to come easy to Joel, so he’d just let Tommy do the breaking part while he took point on the entering. Between them, they’d made a pretty good team.

“Miller brothers, kings of the criminal underworld,” he said under his breath, his fingers closing around the handle of a knife that had once been used to fillet and descale fish. The blade was thin, flexible, and slightly curved, and would probably suit his purposes just fine. He stood up again, pushing down the pang he felt at Tommy’s loss. No more Miller brothers. He’d have to think about that later, when he had time to unpack it.

He slipped the blade between the door and the jamb, just above the lock, and angled it down. Then, keeping pressure on the bolt of the lock with the knife, he slowly turned the door handle until he felt the knife slide into place, between the bolt and the frame. He pulled the knife back toward himself, using it to push the bolt out of the frame. As the door finally slipped open, Joel cursed as the thin blade snapped off, but it had done its job.

The door swung open to reveal a carpeted hallway leading to a couple of offices and beyond that, a reception area. Joel could see an open doorway off the reception area that looked like it might be a kitchen. He cautiously padded into the interior, his steps stirring puffs of fine dust from the carpet. Jesus, it smelled weird in here, but he couldn’t see any spores, so he attributed it to the place being locked up for the past six years.

That was, until he found the body stretched out behind the reception desk.

It was desiccated by the dry desert air, but Joel could tell from her clothes that it had been a woman, one with long blonde hair. Her hands were clutched to her throat, and her mummified lips, which were pulled back in a grimace from her teeth, were a deep cobalt blue. Over the past six years, he’d seen a fair number of corpses, but never anything like this. He was leaning over her to get a better look, hands planted on the metal reception desk for support, and that’s when he noticed that the dust that coated everything in the office was also blue. He straightened up and looked at his hands, now smeared with cobalt powder, then wiped them uneasily on his jeans. The similarity between the color of the dust and the color of the corpse’s lips couldn’t be a coincidence. Joel backed slowly out of the room, toward the front door, but every step disturbed a puff of blue dust, sending it swirling into the air. Fuck. He held his breath, thinking to himself that he really needed to find a new gas mask.

His heel caught on a piece of ripped carpet, and before he could stop himself he was on his back on the floor, a cloud of blue dust swirling around him and settling on his skin. Worse, his fall made him gasp involuntarily, and the tickling, burning sensation in his lungs when he inhaled the dust made him start to cough uncontrollably. His eyes streaming, he scrambled to his feet. He needed to get the fuck out of here, and he needed to get this stuff off his skin as soon as possible.

The little kitchen area near the front door held two five-gallon jugs of water, and Joel grabbed them both. When he finally made it outside, wrenching the front door’s deadbolt open and staggering through the doorway, he saw that the exterior of the door was marked with a red X, as were most of the other doors on the street.

“Swell,” he growled. He stripped the top off one of the bottles and upended it over his head, rinsing himself off as thoroughly as he could, watching until the water pooling around his feet lost its blue tint. He rinsed out his mouth and blew his nose as hard as he could into the street, and then rinsed out his eyes for good measure. He wished there was some good way to get rid of what he’d inhaled; he was still coughing through his burning throat. He didn’t know what the strange blue dust was, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

“Waste of good water.”

He heard Ellie’s voice as clear as day, and he spun around in the street to find her, but it was empty and he was totally alone.

“That’s only gonna make it act faster. The moisture helps it soak into your skin.”

“What?” he said. His lips were tingling, and when he looked down at his fingers, the tips were stained blue. He spun around in the street again, but he was still alone.

“Oh, this is not good. This is not fucking good,” he mumbled to himself. He was hearing voices, and he was starting to feel dizzy. He looked down and saw that the second water bottle, still full, was shining like a miniature sun, and a small corner of his mind realized he was starting to hallucinate.

“Come this way, sugar,” a new voice said. It was his granny Miller’s voice, firm and robust, like it was before the emphysema had made her fight for every breath. “Bring that water with you.”

Joel obeyed, picking up the shining bottle and staggering toward the voice. The street was lurching under his feet, rolling like there was an earthquake. “You’ll be fine, little Jo. You’re gonna make it,” she said.

Joel’s eyes watered to hear his granny’s nickname for him. “What’s happening?” His voice grated in his throat.

“You’ll be okay, Dad. But you need to rest now.”

Sarah’s voice. Joel tried to turn his head, but when he tried to move his neck the world lurched so alarmingly that he was afraid he’d fall down, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get up again if he did. “Sarah…”

He realized that he was heading back to the house where he’d found the Nutella, and the realization gave him a burst of energy. No blue dust in that house.

“Stay with me, Joel.” Ellie’s voice again. “It’s not far now.” Shadows started flickering at the edges of his vision, until they coalesced into the figure of a woman walking in front of him. “Stay with me.”

“I wanted to,” he said. His voice came out slurred and fuzzy, and his lips and tongue were completely numb. “You sent me away.” He reached out to touch her shoulder, but she slid away. “You’re not really here.”

“Stay with me,” she said again.

“I tried,” he insisted.

“Try harder.”

He was inside, and there was a bed in front of him. He stripped off his wet clothes and collapsed onto the bed, and let himself spiral away into darkness.

When Joel woke up his tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth and he felt like had the grandmother of all hangovers. His head was splitting and his lungs hurt. When he sat up, a simple breath set off a hacking coughing fit, filling his mouth with mucus, and when he spit it out onto the wood floor next to the bed, it was bright blue.

“Fucking great,” he muttered. Whatever he’d been exposed to, he could only hope it wouldn’t have any lasting side effects. “You maybe coulda mentioned fucking hallucinogenic blue powder in your fucking note, Ellie,” he said to the empty room.

He was relieved when there was no answer.

He got dressed and dug in his pocket for the folded note. He’d gotten into the habit of taking it out and reading it every morning, just to remind himself that this journey had some point. Just like every morning, he tried to make out the paragraph she’d scratched out, but she’d been too thorough for him to pick out even one word. None of them looked like “watch out for toxic blue dust,” though. He coughed again, his lungs tearing and burning. Christ, his stomach muscles were sore. It felt like he’d been coughing for days, not--

Come to think of it, he had no idea how long he’d been out. It had been mid-afternoon when he’d gone into that office building, and by the light it was either getting on toward nightfall or early morning. Joel pushed himself to his feet, and then immediately sat down again. Jesus, he was dizzy with hunger.

His backpack was next to the bed, so he wolfed down a granola bar, which did absolutely nothing for his stomach. He ate another one, and then followed that with the last of Ellie’s PowerBars. As he ate and sipped flat water, the room grew dimmer and dimmer. Nighttime, then, but if he’d only been out for a couple of hours that wouldn’t explain why he was so fucking hungry. Joel staggered into the kitchen to find a spoon for one of the jars of peanut butter. The open jar of Nutella was still there, but the contents were crusted and dry.

“Shit.” Judging from the state of the Nutella, he’d been out of it for at least a day, maybe two. “I’m goddamn lucky there ain’t any infected in this town. Or people.”

He reluctantly decided to stay and rest in the house another day until he felt strong enough to move on, taking the time to clean out the pantry completely and refill his water bottles from the big five-gallon jug he’d taken from the office.

It was just on the outskirts of Alpine, on the south side of town, that he finally found the town’s residents. There was a small city of FEDRA tents here, set up in a ring. It looked like a triage center, except there were no line barriers or signs, no fences to separate the infected from the non-infected. In the center of the ring of tents were the people of Alpine, or what remained of them. There had been a massive fire, leaving behind a charnel house of blackened bones, thousands of them. Around the edges of the ring were a few unburned bodies that had been mummified by the desert air, infected and non-infected alike, and all of them had blue lips, just like the corpse Joel had found in the office.

Whatever had happened here, it had been bad.

His stomach heaving, he went through the tents as quickly as he could, turning up a gas mask that was still good. “Coulda used this a couple days ago,” he murmured to himself. His voice echoed weirdly in the eerie silence. He didn’t speak again.

Joel hit the road and put Alpine behind him, and he didn’t think he’d ever been so happy to leave a place.

It took him another seven days to reach the entrance to Big Bend National Park. His lungs still hurt from the blue dust, and he learned during the first day that if he pushed himself too hard he risked bringing on a coughing spasm that left him gasping for breath and spitting out bloody blue mucus. So he took it slow, and hunted to stretch his food stores. Fortunately, highway 118 ran through what used to be part of the west Texas cattle country, and there were still stock tanks collecting water not far from the road, even if the herds that used to water there were nowhere to be seen. He used up two precious water purification tablets to refill his bottles from one of the larger stock tanks on the afternoon of the third day, and two more when he stopped on the sixth day, near the exit to Terlingua.

He could see a gas station a mile down the road to Terlingua, so he headed that way, thinking he could maybe pick up a few more cans of food or bottled water. As he walked, his thoughts strayed to Ellie again. He wondered how cold it was getting up in the mountains at night, and he hoped she hadn’t given him her warmest blanket, because she’d need it more up there.

Joel approached the gas station cautiously, but there was no sign of life, or of any recent activity. His revolver ready in his right hand, he reached for the door handle.

I wonder if Ellie ever learned to drive, he thought. She woulda been about the right age to get her license before the outbreak. I can just imagine her behind the wheel of a little Rabbit convertible. Or maybe one of those vintage Karmann Ghias. She don’t strike me as a pickup truck kinda girl... His hand was already on the door handle of the gas station before he heard the distinctive clicking snore.

He froze.

The windows were intact, but so dirty he couldn’t see through them, so he carefully wiped a hole in the grime on the door with a corner of his shirt.

Clickers had started showing up a few years back; infected who’d lived long enough for the fungus to grow out of their eye sockets and split their skulls. They couldn’t see, but they could hear you move, and once they heard you, you were pretty much done for. They were fast, and strong, and they were hard as fuck to kill. Joel had seen one take a shotgun blast to the chest and just keep on coming, overwhelming and ripping into the shooter like he was made of paper before he could get another round chambered in the gun. He’d had a few close calls with the things himself, and now the sound of one inside the gas station made his blood run cold.

He put his eye to the clean spot in the glass. It wasn’t just one clicker, it was a whole nest. Six of them, all sleeping, and he’d almost walked right into the middle of them. Adrenaline surged through his body, and his heart pounded in his ears. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to run, but even though his lungs had been getting steadily better he couldn’t risk another coughing fit, not with six clickers in near proximity. So he backed slowly away from the door and walked away with calm, unhurried steps, trying not to imagine the sharp teeth coming down on his neck. When he made it back to highway 118, he felt his legs go out from under him, and he sat down abruptly on the pavement, shaking as the adrenaline drained out of his system.

That was too fucking close. What the hell is wrong with me? I need to get my head back together, and get back in the habit of paying attention to every fucking noise around me, if I want to survive long enough to see Ellie again. He shook his head. No. What the hell. Where did that come from? I survive because that’s just what you do. He clenched his jaw angrily. Thinking about Ellie had distracted him, and that had almost gotten him killed. Joel held on to his anger. Fuck Ellie, he thought. She didn’t want me up there with her, and she doesn’t give a shit if I get killed. I’ll probably never see her again, anyway.

He told himself that the crushing pain in his chest was just another side effect of inhaling the blue dust as he picked himself up and followed the sign that read Big Basin National Park, Chisos Basin Campground.

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