I could hear the creak and squeal of gears in long need of oiling. Then came the inevitable clank and clomp of the massive locks catching and engaging. In that moment a single thought came to mind, This time I’m probably going to die.
A glance upward reveals pretty much what I’ve seen since I was thirteen years old when the world flipped on its’ ear and changed forever. Overcast skies, roiling clouds thousands of feet thick, black, angry, pregnant with so much more than just life-giving water. The wind is down, which is nice. One could say fortuitous, but to me it is like a deliberate lull in activity marking the beginning of the end. Yeah, it is like that moment of silence we used to observe back when there were such things as professional sports. There is a bit of a breeze, but nothing more tugging at my threadbare clothing and long, unkempt hair.
They hadn’t given me all that much in way of supplies before they fired me from my cockroach-scavenging job and kicked me out of the community for good. Just one change of clothes and two days’ worth of gruel was all. They don’t give a turn-out such as me much because most of us die quick. No sense in giving any other outsider hard-fought provisions that could be consumed within the community itself. Well, at least my belly will be full for a couple of days, right?
If you last that long…
I hadn’t done anything wrong per se. I hadn’t disturbed the peace or stolen food or fucked the wrong girl, nothing like that. Nope, nothing at all. Rather, I wasn’t “connected”. I have no family. In fact, I have no relations whatsoever, so when the cockroach population started to fail, I became an unnecessary mouth to feed and body to clothe and wash, etc., etc. I was told without ceremony by a gang of the Prefect’s men and given two hours to gather my belongings under their watchful eyes. I was walked to the main gates of the community, given warm thoughts by any well-wishers who cared to show up (there weren’t many) and then they booted me out.
So, here I am, out in the open, without protection.
I guess – and I say this, because I really don’t know for sure – I’m about twenty-seven years old now. I am of Italian and Mexican descent. Mom was the sexy, boisterous lady from that boot-shaped strip of land. None of the old nationalities have much meaning now though. Culture as I once knew it is no more. Anyhow, because of my father, I am more brown-skinned than olive-colored. I wouldn’t say I am dark, but then hardly anyone is these days with sunlight being as scarce as it is. I keep a trimmed mustache and beard about the lower half of my face, mostly to help shield it from the ravaging air sometimes brought in by the dreaded northern wind. As I mentioned, I wear my hair a bit long as well, to cover my neck. It is somewhere between a light russet and dirty blonde. Like all the rest of us survivors, the color of my hair fluctuates with atmospheric conditions. Things have been mild of late, so my natural, burnished hues are returning. I’m a tad over five-foot-ten and underweight. But, everyone is underweight nowadays. There just isn’t a vast quantity of food anywhere in the world now, so we get by with much less. I know I should be stronger. I should have a decent physique. I know because I can still recall some of the other males in my family (before they died). They were a bunch of muscled dudes, not this thin, lanky ghost of a man that I now resemble. But what can I say or do? It is the life I live, we all live.
I take a few steps from the twenty-five foot, steel reinforced wall surrounding what had once been the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s just north of the dead city of Pasadena. Through the only striking feature I possess, I gaze with green eyes down at the vista before me, following the curvature of the valley as it leads south. There’s a mild gust of wind coming off the ocean some twenty-six miles away. It carries a hint of salt, brine and things of the deepest waters. I am pleased, because this is new. Well, new this particular autumn. Before winter had set in, the westerly wind smelt of oil and the taint of ash, of things long burnt. Not anymore. Maybe the planet is finally healing. Maybe we’ll have four seasons again and not the eight months of winter and the four months of what can only be termed as fall.
The thought scatters from my mind because the wind has reminded me of something else. I need to find a coat or a jacket, something, anything. I’m only wearing a worn out flannel with the colors so faded they seem like long lost memories. I have a t-shirt underneath with more holes than a hunk of Swiss cheese and a pair of jeans fraying at the knees and ass. The pockets are more like tubes because they have no bottoms, so they’re useless to me. I have a rucksack filled with all that I own inside. This isn’t much more than a thick candle, some lighting sticks, and a change of clothes, two pairs of stretch-out, butt-huggers and two days of gruel.
I told you, they don’t give outcasts much. Anything more would be a waste.
I’m about to step away from the only home I’ve known for the past four years when I hear a call from above.
I come about, eyes rising up the height of the wall and I see him. He’s next one of the two guard-towers to either side of the main gate. He’s standing upon the boarded scaffolding built along the inner side of the structure so the guards could look over from any point. From there they could investigate any threat, run back and forth, protecting the treasures within the community – the children.
His head is far above me, his skin brown despite the lack of sun, his face shadowed with concern. Though descended from lands beyond seas and oceans, he like me was once an Angelino. He was born in the megalopolis that was once Los Angeles. He is a friend. It’s Tariq, the guy I’ve been working with, side-by-side for almost the whole time I was at Prefecture. We were two dirty peas in a pod full of cockroaches until our success proved too much for the insects. They couldn’t repopulate at the same rate we were munching them up for mulch. We needed their decaying forms to help grow food in the vast gardens near the back of the walled community.
Tariq has something in his hand, something he’s dangling over the edge of the wall, so only I can see it.
I tilt my head to the side, trying to make out what it is, stepping closer. Its mace, blunt on one end and filed to a point of the other. Well, in actuality it’s a hammer, medium-sized and machined to resemble a mace, so that’s what we call them.
But, this act of kindness fills my heart with fear. I know my colleague feels guilty because I was the one turned out and not him. Yet, I know he shouldn’t feel that way. He was smarter than me. He understood that in these times race or creed or religions are non-issues. There are other, more important, aspects of living that carry a ton more weight. He ingratiated himself into the middle echelons of Prefecture society. He married the right girl and is “connected”.
I did none of those things; things I thought were unimportant, unnecessary in times like this. Work hard; prove your value – that was my mantra. So, I didn’t marry. I did not produce a much needed child. I worked. I caught and cultivated cockroaches, and now they’re dying.
Oh well, can’t win ‘em all, as the age-old saying used to go.
But still, he shouldn’t feel guilty. He did right by the Prefecture. He shouldn’t risk expulsion because of my screw-ups. He had a family to think about.
I didn’t. After a few days, most citizens of the Prefecture would forget I’d even been there in the first place.
I stride up to the base of the wall, about to tell Tariq to put the mace back where he found it.
Instead, there’s a shout off in the distance and Tariq drops the sharpened hammer. He’s already motioning at me to put it away before it even hits the ground.
I leap back, watch it thud into the muddy earth and snatch it up as fast as I can. Without hesitating, I tuck it under my flannel at my side and turn away from the wall hiding the bulge.
“What’re ya doin’ up here, Tariq?”
It’s Wyndoo, one of the Prefect’s chief guards. Where he is from, I have no clue. He is an enigma, a contradiction, a hard man to pin down and equally hard to get along with. He appears Caucasian but his name belies something else, unless it is a forgery like so many other things in this newish world. He speaks English, but with a funny accent, with enunciation that doesn’t quite fit as if he grew up isolated. It was like his people invented their own way of communicating. He has dark brown hair but eyes the color of smoky blue quartz, quite beautiful if you could get past the pasty complexion and the typical screw of his face. He is big, but not clumsy. He moves with the same sort of agility seen with guys in Special Forces, an economy of motion, efficient, fluid. And yet, I know for a fact he has no military background not a single days’ worth.
“Just saying good-bye,” fumbled Tariq, nodding in my direction. “Matthew and I were – are, friends.”
Wyndoo’s face bunched as he eye-balled my one-time co-worker’s Middle Eastern visage.
“We worked together for many years,” he added with a nervous shrug of his shoulders.
“Uh-huh,” grunted the burly man.
The fact he could be called “burly” grated on me a bit, because anyone who walked about at their full weight was eating way better than me. But that was the way of things too. Guards, warriors and scouts ate better than civilian Prefecturians. They protected the community; the rest of us just worked and lived there.
“Well, you said yer good-byes; now move on before we throw you out too.”
I give Tariq a final wave and move to leave.
“That’s right, Matteo! Yer ass end is all we want to see from you from now on. Git de fucks outta here!”
I just kept walking, brow furled, my chest tight. Everyone at the Prefecture knows I hate my birth name. Everyone knows I prefer Matthew or Matt.
Wyndoo was being a dick. But then again, he could. He was a guard of the Prefect.
I was an outcast.
Within thirty steps I forgot all about him, my mind set on the only task at hand. I need to find a jacket.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve been this far afield, the lay of the land isn’t foreign. It’s recognizable, but then it’s been only a decade since all hell broke loose and the Human Race went ass-over-end crazy. Not enough time to erode topography. Sure there’s been a lot of damage done to human-made buildings and such, but things of a geological nature remain for the most part, intact.
I recall there had been a large mall to the east of what was once called Old Town Pasadena, but after a quick appraisal of the thought, I cast it aside. Edifices of that magnitude can stand for a long time; offer a lot of protection to a great many individuals. Thus, there’s little doubt it is home to some sort of village, some sort of bastion of mankind that I might find unsavory, maybe even dangerous.
Danger. There’s a word for you. There’s a short, concise explanation of the world we all live in now. True, back at the Prefecture I felt a modicum of relief from danger, but only a bit less than I feel right now. Maybe severe apprehension or borderline dread might be better descriptions of what I felt within the high walls surrounding that aged campus. Even then, I knew danger wasn’t all that far away. It skulked around every corner, lurked within every shadow, behind every door, down every hole. It could be nowhere one second and right up your ass the next.
Even the members of the Small Council felt something similar to what us regular folk experienced every now and again. With every rumor of encroaching bands of Citizens or oncoming hordes of the Zapped or the Spiked, or even the dreaded Mafa, they set us into a frenzy of activity. Prepare! Prepare, for the worst is coming just over the hills of what was once Glendale or upon the broad San Gabriel Valley floor. They’ve landed from across the ocean and mean to kill is all!
It was always the same, a state of heightened fear, of impending doom. Sometimes it was warranted. Sometimes it was no more than myth – the fantastical musings of a world gone insane.
Don’t misinterpret me though. The danger is and always will be real. Until the reforging of the idea of the nation-state, it will always linger in dark places, hunker beneath rocks and hang from above. This is why I resist the idea of seeking out the mall, the one place affording me the best chance of finding outer garments. Danger. I could not risk stumbling across a nest of the Manic or an unearthing a bolt of the Cleansed or the Phagists. Armed with only a sharpened hammer, I wouldn’t last long against such deranged peoples. No, the mall would prove the death of me. I knew this for gospel truth.
Instead, I decide to head for Father Mike’s, who is not an ordained priest but does offer succor to those wayward travelers willing to listen to a sermon or two. He is the closest and strongest ally of the Prefect, though their ideas and ideology differ on a great many levels. But, there is mutual need, a deep want to belong to a greater coalition and so the Prefect and the Father have made a lasting pact. Should one come under attack the other will come to assist. It is simple agreement, but it is well known. And maybe it accounts for the fact that neither community has been under threat of a true enemy since they brokered the deal years’ agone.
So, yes I will trudge my way down from the slopes of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. I will seek aid within the crumbling tiers of the once vaulted Rose Bowl, the home of Father Mike and his seven hundred devoted followers.
The way is not hard, for I travel along the embankments of what is left of the 210 freeway. The chaparral has only just begun to take ahold. There is little else growing other than hardy low plants and such among the pitched scree. There should be weeds and other like wild flora sprouting from the ground, from the cracks in the cement, from every drift of soil brought forth by the wind. But, there is not. The soils this close to the eruption are still contaminated from all the ash that has fallen from the upper edges of the atmosphere. The ensuing influx of aberrant biological elements and radiation and stinging fallout hadn’t helped either. Nature and man together poisoned the earth, and now very little grew from it.
The crunch of my trusty but dusty boots upon the gravel is the only immediate sound for me to hear. The wind tugs, but only like a tired child with tiny fingers, random and half-hearted. The clouds roll and tumble, but they ride from an elevated position. These aren’t stormy. There will be no high-level electrostatic or deep-density radioactive rain today. No sand or ash storms either. These will only blot out the sun, deprive my body of much needed vitamin D.
Same old shit, different day, I think as I come to the interchange of the 210 and the 2 freeways.
Where it hasn’t been blasted apart, it seems to have crashed onto the lanes below out of a lack of maintenance. Much of the debris though is not in sight. Likely someone gathered and carted it off to build shelters.
I don’t see any evidence of such construction anywhere nearby, knowing these ragged folk would scurry back up into the hills and mountains that surround me. They would never erect their homes in plain sight, to be seen by all who should happen by. No way, they’re hidden, somewhere in the folds of land above. Maybe they’re watching. Maybe their making plans to come and see what I’m about, sizing me up to see if they can take me down. The thought makes me glance about, though I don’t cut my stride. I walk straight and tall, telling them – if they are watching – that I am healthy, that I can defend myself. Stay back. I am a force of reckoning. Stay back I say!
I have to decide whether to angle to the right or the left in order to circumvent the still formidable pile of concrete and rebar. I choose to go left where there had been more freeway, for the area there is raised. Though it will prove revealing – there is little cover on that side – I will be able to see for some distance as well. Anyone coming, I will see long before they can lay a hand on me.
I am tensing now, feeling the danger beginning to loom. I pull at the straps of my rucksack, making certain it is secure upon my back. I pull the mace from between my belt and the waistband of my jeans. I grip it firm in my right hand, more than grateful of Tariq and the hazard he put himself and his family to get it to me. I am hopeful the polished metal will glint in whatever light there is, letting any would-be assailants know I have a weapon. It is all I can do. I am committed.
My stomach twists, a startling clench as I am not hungry, my body can go for many more miles before in requires food. But, this is not was this is about. This about something entirely different, something I have not had to worry about for quite some time. I had a warm bed and hearth, and solid corrugated steel about them. I had walls about me and guards atop the walls and the guards were well armed against attack. I have none of this now. I am out in the open, the one place we told every child of the Prefecture to never be. Exposure equals danger and danger equals death - simple, effective.
I have no such providence.
I edge away from the central pile of fallen roadway and pilings, a giant twisted morass of cement, epoxy and corroded metal. I am headed toward the uneven, pot-marked expanse of the 2 freeway. I will have to walk its’ width to reach the continuance of Interstate 210 beyond if I am to reach Father Mike and possible sanctuary. The ground is cracked and angled this way and that, though not enough that I must slow down. I am glad for this, because I want to get to the other side and the far embankment of the highway where grow an emaciated stand of palm trees.
Ahead is a tangle of rusted heaps, dry, fractured rubber and bits of glass lay strewn in a wide area about them. Cars, says my mind on its’ own. My eyes and ears are too strained and make conscious thought a pipedream for the moment.
I will walk between the vehicular corpses and the heap that is the interchange. The surface of the freeway is more jumbled here, riddled with unrooted chucks of rock-like clumps, awash with ankle-breaking gaps in between. I pick and choose where I will place my feet, opting for caution than speed. An injury – any sort – could prove fatal. So, I bend a bit at the waist where uplifts in the concrete afford handholds. I use hands and feet, and become a stooping crab for the time being.
The clouds part for a moment and a ray of sunlight darts through like a bullet through a barrel of a gun. It is bright, intense, much moreso than I recall as a child. This is the new luminance of our star minus a majority of the Ozone that had once protected our planet like a jealous lover.
I only have to blink a few times. This ray of light is not cast upon my person. It shines brilliant toward the middle of the accumulated debris. I am fine with this, because I can see better and with confidence ramble past the cars, onto smoother grounds. I breathe deep, forgetting I hadn’t sucked in air the entire time.
It’s at the end of my filling and un-filling of my chest that I hear it and freeze.
It is a strangled, wheezing call, coming from a throat made swollen from the lack of water. It is weak, barely audible, emanating from the pile itself.
I turn, but the clouds gather once more and the sun is gone. I see tons and tons of broken highway and shadow where crevasses and fissures form. I crane my neck, standing from toe-tip to toe-tip, trying to be as tall as I can from every point possible. I squint, wipe dust from my eyes and squint harder.
“…hhhear yooou… Caahgn yoouuu hglseeelp meee?”
The plea is enough to make me step a feet in the direction of the voice before I stop. Wait! I scold myself. I am alone now. I am without community, without protection. I cannot charge headlong into any situation without careful consideration.
“H-h-heeelfff! Ay’m stuugchk! Hee-eelp!”
I see movement, no more than a shifting of pulverized cement, followed by a tiny fall of it. It is crushed so fine, it blows like a thousand foot waterfall in the wind. Yet, the wind is almost non-existent now. I climb from one shattered support to another, this one higher and I see an arm, a human arm – cut and scraped, caked with blood.
It is posed as a question, desolate, desperate, so hopeless I stride farther up the piling, risking rebar cutting through my boots. They might’ve been thick and tough at one time, but that time is long past. I’m about to tuck the mace back into my belt when I see him. Once more, I am frozen where I stand, shoes skidding on the dust that covers everything left unswept for more than four hours. I can’t tell if he is pinned between two massive blocks of the interchange or if he’s crawled into them for shelter.
But, that’s not what stops me.
His eyes bleed. Blood oozes from underneath his fingernails, from both nostrils, from the one ear I can see. He is wriggling, either pulling against the incredible weight squeezing against him or he merely too weak to do more than that. He is shirtless and filthy, crusted with dirt and grime and what has to be a copious amount of some congealed mass. It has agglomerated from chin to chest to belly, sticky in places, runny in others. He opens his mouth, hand outstretched.
“Heeeeelp meeee!” he yowls as clear as I’ve heard him yet.
Comprehension comes to me as his lips stretch taut, applying pressure onto his jaw. When one of his front teeth seems to writhe like a maggot and falls to the ground, I know what I’ve found. The thought of it scares me even more than being exposed. I scramble down to the highway proper, my heart pounding in my throat, leaving yet another sliver of my soul upon those man-made rocks.
I could care less. I have a new mission.
Get the fuck away. The Stigma had returned.
And, if I don’t run, it will catch me too.
~ 3 ~
Likely, it came after me because of the racket I was making, running down the decrepit freeway like a man who’d been goosed by a cattle prod. How long the chase lasts? I can’t tell you, because I’m not paying attention. It starts with a feeling, then a sense, then a wild impression that the Stigma has mutated yet again and is coming upon me on foot. It is no longer in the air, an unseen, unfelt menace that can strike down even the heartiest of men in the matter of a few weeks. No, this is a mutation, another corruption of what is already corrupted. It hounds and snaps. It makes funny, little whisking sounds as it gallops through the thick layer of powdery smut covering the surface of Interstate 210.
I don’t look back. I don’t dare turn toward it. I don’t want to lose my balance and fall. Then it will have me, saturate my subcutaneous tissues and consume me from the inside.
Then it nips the heel of one of my boots, not an impressive bite at all. Yet, it is enough to make my pace falter.
I stumble, arms pin-wheeling as I try to regain my balance.
I feel it try again for my boot.
I am determined, but each step becomes ever more awkward. I begin to bend at the waist, deliberately over-balancing as I try to get my feet back underneath me. I use my arms like a free-stroking swimmer – right, then left, repeat, repeat, repeat. My knees are coming up too high or maybe I am bent to far forward. They thud against my chest. I come from the pads of my feet, flat-footed, still trying to run. But, I am slowing, far too slow, way too slow.
But, the Stigma-beast is upon me, relentless, hungry without fail.
I know it will lunge one more time and that will be it. I will have died within an hour of becoming outcast. That’s got to be sometime of epic fail, right? I have to be the greatest loser to have ever been banished from the Prefecture.
The disease-ridden creature growls, bearing what I know are ferocious, razor-sharp teeth. It is inches away, no, its fractions of an inch away.
My hands come forward to break my inevitable fall. I see the mace still gripped firm in my right hand.
A weapon! That’s right I have a fucking weapon!
Maybe I have a chance after all. Maybe I -.
I fall then, but I remember a basic tactic we’d been taught by the Prefect’s men. I do not let myself hit the ground arms splayed akimbo. I tuck. I bring my hands and arms in. I drop my chin to my chest. I let my shoulder take the brunt of the impact. I let my legs sail over me. I make certain I don’t lose ahold of the hammer.
My boot heels slam into the pavement. I make ready to sit up, already bringing my weapon to bear.
The Stigma-beast leaps, grabs me by the ankle, jaws clamping.
I feel a scream of pure terror begin to boil from my lungs.
The creatures thrashed its’ head back and forth with wild abandon, intent on ripping the lower half of my limb from my body at the knee. I can almost see it, dart away, my calf pierced-through by its tremendous fangs. It will no doubt leave me, scuttle to the side of the road to feast on what was once mine. It will leave me, bleeding and infected, upon the freeway to wolf down the first morsel for the feast to come. Then, it will return. Then, it will tear me apart.
I steel myself my leg rent in twain. I feel the blood rise to my face. I am a split-second from shrieking. I brace for the excruciating pain….
…That never comes.
Through tears of horror, great huffs of revulsion, I peer down my body and see it for what it is – a dog, and a small one at that.
Relief floods me, engulfs me for a moment, then it is replaced by annoyance in the extreme. Not only am I irritated at the wily canine, but I am truly irked with myself. The noise I have made will bring a brigade of bandits down on me. Shit, Matthew, get it the hell together! You’re gonna get yourself killed!
The to and fro tug of my pant leg brings me from my thoughts. The dog has it in him to shred my jeans like a strip of flank steak.
A fucking, puny dog, really?!?
I reach down and slap the bothersome canine hard on the head.
It yelps and bounds off.
I don’t get the chance to determine its’ breed and I don’t care. I have other more important issues at hand.
I leap to my feet, check for any injuries. There are none. So, I dust off, angle back toward the right embankment of the one-time road and continue my trek to Father Mike’s.
About a half mile further down the road, I can’t help but see a teensy doggish cranium peek up here and there, behind this gnarled bush or that scorched stone. The bitch is following me.
I know it’s female because only a woman would be so bold. I chuckle to myself, thinking about my long lost wife, recalling her hard-headedness, her stubborn stances. Once she dug her feet in the ground no amount of rationalizing could get her to change her mind. Oh… and why could she never let anything go? Why did every argument have to be about every argument we’d ever had?
I swivel toward where I’d last seen the dog. “Well, at least I know what I’ll be eating when the gruel runs out,” I say. “And if you are Donna reborn, sent here to haunt me, I will sure love picking my teeth with your bones.”
Off some distance, I hear a defiant bark.
I can only shake my head in resignation. Yeah that woman had to have the last word too.Start writing here ...