Authors: Nick S. Thomas
Blood dripped from Zed's hands as he stood in horror looking at them. His own wounds were numbed. He was too horrified by what he had done to really notice. He looked past his hands to the three bodies that lay before him. A single tear dripped from his right eye, and his stomach was still turning. It was like a dream, a horrific nightmare. And yet he knew it was real because no nightmare could be this bad. He expected the cops to turn up any minute. The only thought going through his mind now was the lifetime he would spend behind bars.
But he snapped out of his dream like state as he heard the roar of an engine in the distance. It reverberated with a coarse and visceral tone, like an old carburetted V8 running straight through pipes. Zed's adrenaline surged once again. His survival instincts told him he needed to be careful, as though a predator was circling him. It was an uneasy feeling, and yet somehow it felt all too familiar.
He turned towards the sound and rushed to the edge of the rock, ducking down so as to not create a silhouette. He could hear the vehicle’s engine roaring. It was being thrashed like a rowdy teenager would do in their first car. The first thing he saw was the dust cloud the vehicle was creating over the edge of the rocky outcrop. A wrecked and heavily modified old pickup raced into view a few seconds later. It looked like a 70's Chevy but was barely recognisable, the paint long overtaken by thick rust and a black patina. The roof was missing, and a crude cage stood in its place.
Thick steel ram bars had been welded to the front, and the only paint visible was a roughly painted white skull on the hood. Every panel was bent and damaged, and a thick layer of dust and dirt covered each surface, only thinner on the hood where it had been swept aside to keep the skull visible. Zed's eyes widened, and his gaze panned to the rear of the vehicle when he heard a scream ring out. A half naked woman was tied to a wrecker frame in the back. Her face was bloody, and she screamed out for help. Even worse, a chain ran out from the back of the vehicle dragging a man across the ground.
Zed couldn't imagine how his situation could have gotten any worse, but it just took that turn. He put his head down to look away and kept low, praying they would pass him by. He didn't want to live this day anymore. But to his horror, he heard the squeal of old brakes as the vehicle slid to a halt.
No, please no!
He looked up and around for any reason why they might have stopped, and then he spotted it. Parked on the ground below was a sand rail buggy. There was no driver or occupants to be seen, and he knew why, because they lay dead beside him. The buggy carried the same white skull as the truck. He heard the engine of the vehicle roar and draw nearer to investigate. He didn't have long now, so he crawled carefully from the edge and back to the bodies.
The engine slowed and drew to an idle, finally stopping as he began to rifle through the pockets of his attackers. He was looking for something, anything, any indication as to their identity, where they were, and why he was attacked. But there was nothing. All of their pockets were empty. No identification, no money, nothing. He could hear the sounds of two people scrambling up the rocks behind him. He didn't want another fight, and he wasn't even sure he could survive one. He got up, rushed quickly over the edge furthest from the vehicles, and clambered down the rocks as carefully as he could.
As his left palm rested on one rock, he felt excruciating pain soar up his arm. He went to cry out but stopped himself at the last moment. He carried on a little way until he found a small alcove and ducked in for cover. He knelt down there silently and waited. The muffled tones of two men's voices became louder as they reached the top. At first he couldn't make out what they were saying until one stepped up to the edge where moments before he’d clambered down. The steps stopped. He must have been looking out and around for any sign of movement.
"They musta just gone at each other!" he yelled to the other.
He spoke with a southern accent and not an educated one. Zed wanted to peek out to get a look at him, but he couldn't risk it.
"Hey, Jinny's still alive!"
He remembered leaving her unconscious. He couldn't bring himself to kill her at the time, but now it could cost him his life.
"Is this what life has come to? Kill or be killed? Is there nothing else?" he asked himself quietly.
He heard the footsteps grow quieter as they made their way back to the truck. The sound of its rumbling engine firing up was a relief to him, and as it pulled away along with the sand rail, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Slowly but surely he made his way back to the top of the rock. He had to try and make some sense of everything he had seen and experienced. But as he reached the top, he followed he tyre tracks of the vehicle. It was heading for some kind of shantytown in the distance. It looked like an industrial complex mixed with all sorts of vehicles and other structures, but nothing more than three storeys tall. Even from this distance, he was able to make out the giant white skull on the largest tower at the centre of the complex. He didn't recognise it from anything other than what he had seen on the two vehicles, but he already knew to fear it.
He turned to pan around the entire scenery and look for any other landmarks, but as he got a full one eighty degrees, he stopped dead and couldn’t breathe. It was like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. Not too far in the distance were the desolate ruins of a once large and modern city. With the dry craggy mountains in the background, it looked like Phoenix, but was so badly damaged and long abandoned it was hard to tell if it was. Zed felt his head begin to spin as the reality of his surroundings were really starting to kick in.
A wide highway leading towards the city was barely visible through the sands that were encroaching on its borders. There were no signs of where he might be, no central reservation on the road or streetlights. Not a single piece of metal in sight; as if it had all been long destroyed or removed. His fear of incarceration by the law of the land had vanished in seconds, replaced by a deep down dread and terror of what was to come. He collapsed down onto his knees. He felt lost. There were no answers for what he was experiencing, no one to ask why or how.
He looked at the two vehicles vanishing off into the distance and then down to his hand that was still bleeding badly. All he knew was that he had to keep on going. He had to keep on living. That was all that mattered, because that's all he knew. He forced himself back onto his feet and carried on down the rocks towards the city. He reached the ground and found a little shelter from the sun and cover from the savages, who may yet come back looking for him.
As he sat down, he found a small bag hanging by his side from his shoulder. He had not noticed it before through the wave of emotion and pain that had overcome him. It was a canvas bag that looked as if it used to house a gas mask. He opened it to find a small metal bottle of water, a tinderbox, and a few bandages that looked as though they had been used many times before, but carefully boiled and re-rolled. He reached down into the bag in the hope of finding something else, but that was it.
He opened the water and sniffed it. He poured a little over the wound on his hand, before unravelling a bandage and wrapping it as best he could. Within a few minutes, he had started a fire with pieces of wood he had scavenged from around the area. It immediately calmed his nerves as he sat back and let the flames grow. For a moment he was frozen solid as he desperately thought of what to do. He tried to think back over his last memories, of that party as if it were yesterday. He remembered being in his early twenties, and yet he looked down to see the hands of a man at least ten years older than that. They were the hands of a man who had not just worked with his hands, but also lived a hard life.
There was a scar over the back of his left wrist and hand. It vanished in under the bandage he had applied. He reached into the pockets of his coat, but they were empty. Then he thought to check the inside pocket. He delved into it and found some thick paper card. It was something, and he quickly pulled them out. There were three photos. They were crinkled and worn, and more than a little faded. One of them had a burn mark in one corner. The first picture was of his parents. He recognised it instantly as though he had seen it a thousand times. They were arm-in-arm resting on the bonnet of his father’s 2009 Dodge Charger.
The next photo was of him, as he remembered himself in the memories of that party. Stood beside him was a woman around his age. She was beautiful, but her name eluded him. He couldn't remember who she was, but he knew she was important to him. He could only imagine it was his wife or girlfriend. She had her hands on the shoulders of a girl who was maybe three or four years old. It brought a smile to his face as he remembered a few flashes from that day, but nothing that helped him.
He moved to the last photo. Yet again he was in it, with a beer in hand and his arm around a man who looked close enough in age and appearance to be his brother. He was straining his mind trying to remember more of the people in the photos, but nothing was coming. It looked as though they were all taken around a similar time. Perhaps even all at the same party. It was the only memory he had to go on right now.
He slipped them carefully back into his inner pocket, but as he looked down, he saw something shining beneath his shirt, just above the wound on his chest. He raised his hand to see what it was and found a gold ring around a chain on his neck. It looked like a wedding band, but was plain and gave no further clues as to why he had it there. He could only assume it must have been important to him. He turned his attention back to his hand. He unwrapped the bandage, but there was little sign of the bleeding stopping. He rifled through his pockets once again, when he noticed a leather pouch on his belt. He looked inside and pulled out a small multi-tool. It would have to do. He opened the blade and pushed it into the hot embers of the fire. He reached up to scratch his head. His hair was short, not even an inch long, but it felt rough and unkempt, as if cut with a pair of scissors and not washed in weeks. As his hand brushed through his hair, he felt a sharp pain as his fingers touched a patch of dried blood. He winced in pain and felt his head pounding as a result.
"What the hell is that?"
He felt around for the wound. It was a severe cut in his head and had sealed naturally by the feel of it, and recently.
Is this the reason I can remember so little?
It seemed to make sense. He wondered now how long he had lain on that rock where he first woke up. His skin was well tanned and a little burnt. As though he was well accustomed to living under the sun, but not for days on end, as it seemed he had done. It reminded him just how dry his mouth was, so he took another sip. As he lifted the flask, he saw a small engraving in the centre.
'To your first legal drink, from Johnnie."
Reading that name instantly sparked a memory of the photo of the man who he thought was his brother, and now he knew. He didn't know how or why, but it was him; and as his lips touched the mouth of the flask, he remembered the first sip of Wild Turkey he had taken the day he had been given that flask. But now water tasted just as good to his chapped lips and bone dry mouth.
The comforting smell of burning wood reminded him of what he needed to do. He reached down and wrapped the burning hot multi-tool with the sleeve of his jacket and picked it up, placing it down on the palm of his hand. The smell of searing flesh was not a nice one, but he gritted his teeth and got by. Somehow he knew he had done this before. He turned his hand over and cauterised the exit wound, too, rewrapping the bandage in the hope of keeping it clean.
He turned his attention to the cut on his chest. It was only a surface wound, and he couldn't spare any water to clean it down. He pulled out one of the other bandages and used it to wipe the wound clean, and then left it be. He lost himself in thought as he stared into the fire for a few moments. It was good for the soul if nothing else. But then he finally looked towards the ruins of the city. He stood up and just gazed upon it as he tried to wrap his head around how and why things were the way were.
How many years since that city fell?
Based on the accents he had heard and the vehicles he’d seen, it was a pretty safe bet to assume he was still in America, but that made it all the more terrifying.
What could have gone so badly wrong as to reduce a major American city to ruins, and then leave the area home to little more than low life gang scum?
He had so many questions, and so little idea of how to find the answers.
It was the sun that woke Zed, just as it had the day before. The first day in what was this new life that he never could have wished for, nor imagined in the worst nightmare. Yet again his mouth was dry, and he knocked back the flask, but there were only few drops left. His fire had long gone out. He was still dressed from the day before, only having removed his jacket to use as a pillow for his weary head. He got up and pulled it on. It was a bizarre feeling to know that he was leaving nothing behind. As far as he knew, he was wearing and carrying everything he owned.
As Zed stepped out from the shelter of the rocks, and onto the dusty open plain leading towards the city, he was struck by a cooling light breeze. The air smelt fresh and clean, a welcome change from the filthy vagrants he had to deal with the day before, and his own unclean self. He stopped for a moment and considered which way he should go. All he knew was that the white skull adorned savage town lay at his back, and a dilapidated city ahead. All he would find was violence if he turned back, so the city seemed his only bet. Perhaps he might at least find some clue as to his location and how it got that way.
He lifted his wounded hand and clenched his fist. He could manage it, but the more his fingers closed in the more it hurt. He just hoped he wouldn't need to use it for a few days. He looked back up at the ravaged silhouette of the city, and knew there was nothing else for it. He took a pace forward and started the march onwards. It wasn't long before he found himself joining up with the dust-covered road he had seen the day before. The ground between him and the city was almost completely flat, and he could see for miles all around.
That made him vulnerable, but there was no choice. He couldn't afford to wait out there in the wilderness for much longer. The lack of water alone would kill him, even if the white skull gang didn't. It was a slow drudge down the road. The tarmac and the sand all around it was soaking up the heat, and he was starting to really cook once more as it drew closer to noon.
He started to stray from the centre of the road slightly as heat exhaustion was setting in, when his foot hit something hard. He tumbled over into a roll and landed on his back. He stayed there for a moment, trying to find the motivation to get back up. To his amazement his foot didn't hurt at all, and he leaned forward to feel the cap of his shoes. They had steal caps inside. It was lucky, but he doubted it was a coincidence. Whatever this life was, there was no doubt it was a tough and violent one.
Finally, he got back to his feet and staggered over to investigate what he had tripped on. There was a stem of a steel pole protruding from he ground. It was about eight inches in diameter and perfectly machined, but had been cut off as close to the ground as whatever power tool used could manage. He walked to the opposite side of the road until he found exactly the same sawn off pole embedded in the ground. He could see they were the supports of an overhead sign for the road, but all the metal that could be pillaged was long gone. The corrosion on the surfaces looked like they had been cut away years ago.
His hopes of finding out where he was seemed dashed for now. The hope of finding road signs seemed all but gone, but he had to go on. It took him another hour of walking in the baking heat before he got close to the first structure on the outskirts of the city. It looked like a diner with a gas station beside it. Every window was missing, and yet again any metal signs were missing.
A thin rope was tied from the cover of the gas station over to the shop beside it. Dozens of empty food cans were hung from it, and they echoed as they struck one another in the wind. It was an eerie and uncomfortable sound, and he couldn't help but feel that he was being watched by whoever had set it up. As he stood still and studied it all, his ears suddenly became aware of what he had feared most, the violent reverberations of throbbing V8’s at his back. A sound he used to love, and in one single day it had come to symbolise a predator that seemed to want to stalk him until the very end.
The same truck from the day before was tearing up the road towards him. Another was running beside it that looked like it used to be a Caprice cop car, its front bars and spot lamps fitted in place where the blue lights used to sit. He hoped they hadn't seen him, but it seemed impossible. He quickly rushed towards the gas station and dived through one of the open windows. A few remaining shards of glass were caught by his coat and showered him as he rolled inside.
The gas station was dark inside, the only light coming through the broken windows, and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. As soon as they did, he found himself looking at the sharp end of a makeshift spear. It looked little more than a survival knife taped firmly to a pole. He looked past the blade, and it was held by a skinny wretch of a teenager. He was dressed more in rags than clothes. Despite the boy’s small stature, he looked hardened by the cruel world around them. In his eyes was a cool confidence and psychotic survival instinct that told Zed he meant business. He held his hands up as if to offer the internationally recognised sign of not wanting trouble.
"Go!" yelled the boy in a gruff voice that sounded like it came from a man twice his age.
He thrust the spear forwards in a threatening manner as if wanting him to leave, even though Zed had no desire to cause him any harm. He couldn't believe it.
Is there anyone in this place who doesn't want to see me dead?
"Come on, just let me stay. I don't want anything from you," he pleaded.
But he noticed a few more glimmers of movement in the background, as another five similarly dressed young men appeared from behind the cover of the old dusty aisles. The nearest looked more intent on doing him harm as he came forward with a brutal looking two-handed machete. He quickly got up and backed off before leaping through the window he had come in from.
The white skull adorned truck slid sideways to a halt about twenty yards from the edge of the gas station. The two men on top of it just watched and waited, as if they didn't want to draw any nearer. Zed looked back inside to see the shadows of the feral young men inside glaring at the vehicles in front of him. There was some kind of feud or understanding here that he wasn't privy to. Nobody said a word, but all eyes were on him now.
Just beside the truck the old cop cruiser had drawn up. The roof had been cut back into a pickup, and the rear doors were missing. A man stood in the back with a dust infused Mohawk. He wore an old police issue Kevlar vest over his bare skin and carried a powerful looking compound crossbow. Across the way to the truck, one of the men in the back carried three javelins, the other a ball and chain. He couldn't believe what he was seeing, and yet it didn't make it any less real.
It was a standoff. Nobody would approach him, and he couldn't go to either group, as both appeared to want him dead or worse. He looked back to the city. The nearest buildings were less than a mile away now.
Could I make it?
It didn't seem likely, but he didn't have any choice. He leapt into action and got to almost a sprint. His will to survive kept him going even when his body wanted to stop.
At his back he heard the engines of the two vehicles roar and the wheels spin as they tore off in hot pursuit. He could hear the excited screams of the men on the back of the vehicles chasing down their prey.
What have I done to deserve this?
He ran with all the strength he had left. Every ounce of his reserve of energy went into his sprint. For a moment he believed he could make it, but he felt the impact of the ball and chain on his left shoulder blade as the truck raced past.
The iron ball threw him forward so that he went face first into a tumble. Had he been going any slower, it would likely have shattered his bones, but that was of little relief as the pain spread through his shoulder. He tried to land on his feet, but he had been thrown too violently and landed face down in the sand. He tried to get back up and managed to get to his feet. The vehicles slid to a halt around him, and the two from the truck approached. He turned and kept trying to run, but he could only manage a jog now.
"Come on, please, just a little longer," he whispered to himself.
He could hear the war cries of those at his back and their heavy breathing as they closed the distance. They barely seemed human. They certainly weren't treating him like one.
I imagine this is how the fox must feel just before the hungry pack of bloodhounds tear it apart while their masters cheer triumphantly.
Is this a sport to them, too? Does
my life have any value in this nightmare I have awoken in?
Somehow he had summoned enough strength to make some distance from the two barbaric lunatics at his back. But once again he heard the roar of an engine. He was close now, almost within spitting distance of a building. He felt that would maybe grant him some safety. He had made that his target, and he was going to make it. But he could hear the roar of the engine once more. It reeked of oil where it clearly wasn't running well. That clung to his lungs.
He had made it. There was a floor to ceiling window ahead for what used to be a furniture shop. The window was badly broken and weakened, and he could see the dust covered products still left inside.
Just a little longer
But at the last moment the crossbow wielding man on the back of the old cruiser pulled the trigger. Zed expected to feel the pierce of a bolt in his back any moment, but it didn't come. He jumped to break through the glass, but as he struck it, a heavy net encompassed his body and completely entangled him.
He shut his eyes to protect them, as he knew now he had no control left at all. He barrelled through the window and landed on the edge of one of the sofas as glass showered all around him. As it began to settle, he was relieved to see he wasn't hurt. He tried to find a way out of the net but was completely entangled by it. He could do nothing. He had little energy left, and no way to fight back, but he had made it to safety. Made it to the city. In his head that made him think he had won. He had succeeded in the mission he set for himself, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
His dream was soon shattered when he heard the roar of the car engine. A rope attached to the net drew taut as he was wrenched out of the shop and landed hard on the ground outside. He was dragged a few yards and then stopped. He fought once again to get out of the net, but it was impossible. He reached down for the multi-tool on his belt in some hope of getting to the blade, but it was too late. The ball and chain-wielding maniac stood over him now, and he was powerless to act. He saw the man's fist coming for his face and felt the impact before blacking out.