Authors: Ryan King
The vast swamp scared him. Every trip either up or down this route the everglades appeared more wild and primeval. Sam could easily image a dragonfly the size of a kite or a T-Rex come charging out of the mud and ooze after them. He saw an abandoned car's license plate with a manatee on it. At least the manatees are probably doing okay he thought. Without motorboats to cut them up, there were likely whole giant manatee herds out there somewhere. Sam wondered how they got along with the enormous alligators and dinosaurs.
He already knew where he would stay that night. It was the same place he camped each time he traveled this route. There was a rest stop ahead on high ground. It was still close enough to the swamp to make Sam nervous, but far enough away that he didn't think alligators would come up there. The rest stop also had a giant concrete fire-pit. He had learned the hard way about the importance of fire safety. Last year he had nearly created a giant forest fire around himself in Pennsylvania and didn't want any repeat performances of that near disaster.
Gypsy Kings sang on and relaxed him. He had never learned Spanish, but he imagined they sang of days gone by and the hopes of seeing loved ones again, if not in this world, then in another.
He used the last of an old bag of charcoal he'd previously stashed at the rest stop to cook up the alligator steaks on one of the communal metal grills. He seasoned the delicious meat with lemon pepper and garlic salt, his favorite combination. Sam cooked all the meat so he would have leftovers for several days.
A mosquito buzzed around his head and he pulled out a packet of matches from his pocket and ate two match heads. He had read in a survival book that the sulfur in the matches would come out his pores and drive insects away. It seemed to work, he thought.
The fire raged in the pit as the sun set. He liked a large fire at night as long as it could be contained and there was enough wood available. Sam used to build large bonfires by day to signal anyone to his existence, but the constant disappointment had been too much to bear and he discontinued the practice.
He set alligator steaks out on paper plates for the dogs and threw another large piece of bleached wood onto the fire.
The Pack woofed up their food while he finished cooking the rest of the meat. He put a couple of the choice pieces on a plate for himself and then set the others aside to cool and store in Ziploc bags for later.
Sam ate silently while staring into the fire thinking of nothing in particular. After finishing the alligator steaks he opened a jar of pickle spears and ate several before putting the rest away for later. He then pulled out a pan and carefully popped popcorn over the fire pit. The Pack perked up, popcorn was one of their favorites. Sam could almost feel his body respond to the carbohydrates and felt a little bit sleepy even though it was early. He washed everything down with a bottle of fruit juice and then cleaned up the cooking utensils.
The dogs were beginning to settle down for the night in positions close to the fire. Sam realized he had better lay out his sleeping bag soon or all the best spots would be taken. He pulled his bag and pillow from the jeep and seeing the clear and beautiful night sky, also grabbed the telescope. It was the most compact and powerful one he could find and was perfect for gazing up into the heavens and nights like this.
Sam set up the tripod and aimed the telescope towards the inner part of the Milky Way. Should have been an astronomer, he told himself. He stared at the amazing cosmos going from
star cluster to star cluster wondering if there were others out there like him. He lit a stale cigar and felt a little less alone in the vastness of the universe around him.
His eyes finally grew tired and the cigar was finished. Sam put the telescope away and took off his boots. He was about to lay down when he saw two figures run from behind the jeep into the woods near the highway. Both had long black hair, and were holding hands. One was a child.
Sam stood suddenly knocking over the telescope. The dogs looked up at him quizzically and he realized the figures weren't real. "Damn, stop it!" Sam said as he put his fists to his head. He picked up the telescope and went about lying down for sleep intentionally not looking around the campsite. The dogs would warn him if there was anything that needed his attention.
As soon as he was in his sleeping bag, Molly and Tanner came over and lay against him sharing their warmth and comfort. Sam closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but it was a long time coming. He gazed up into the vastness of the cosmos until he faded into sleep's blessed oblivion serenaded by the song of the frog and cricket.
Sam liked the jeep because it had four-wheel drive and was light making it ideal for going off-road around most of the abandoned car bottlenecks. The few times the jeep had gotten stuck in soft
mud or dirt, it had been relatively easy to pull the jeep back up to the road using the winch on the front bumper.
They traveled steadily north over the next few weeks, staying as close to the Atlantic as possible. Sam frequently consulted road maps and chose scenic ro
utes near the sea over larger roads or more direct routes. Many of the paths he had traveled before, but some were new as were the sights.
One morning he awoke to a ball of smoke in the sky to the north. Sam almost didn't believe it at first, but after rubbing his eyes several times convinced himself the smoke was actually there. He raced north at a pace that wasn't entirely prudent. Around noon, and after many wrong turns and dead ends, Sam found the source of the fire. A large barn on a dairy farm was burning with great fury and Sam even felt the wall of heat from the road.
After a careful search he determined no one had been around for years. It probably started by a stray spark, or a compost pile heating up, or even a stray bolt of lightning. What it wasn't, was a sign from another human being. Sam choked down his disappointment and got back on his path.
Sam now had a little bit of a problem. The problem was he was no longer sure exactly where they were. In his excitement, he had simply followed the smoke in the sky and stopped consulting the maps. He could tell where north was by his compass, but that still left a lot of unknowns.
They continued to drive generally north on numerous back roads and forgotten highways until the sun sank low into the sky. Sam was close to pulling over in a field to make camp when he saw a sign ahead that read "Town Limits - Carthage, Population 1,492 - Best Little Town in East Florida!" They passed the sign and drove toward the town center. Sam considered stopping at a gas station on the edge of town, but he was near full anyway having steadily siphoned gas out of abandoned cars along the way. Besides, light was failing and night was coming on strong.
Carthage had an eerie feeling about it, thought Sam. None of these old towns were like freaking Disneyland or anything, but this one seemed somehow off. It was as if instead of being dead it had unfinished business to settle. Sam would prefer to explore and see what this was about, but the sun was almost down and he didn't like moving about in the dark. They were approaching some sort of park and Sam decided that would be as good a place as any to camp for the night.
He drove the jeep up into the park under several majestic trees and turned off the engine. The dogs jumped out and went running off to explore. Sam didn't worry, they rarely went too far and would be back when he started cooking. He began gathering firewood and picked a spot out from under the trees for their nightly blaze.
He got the fire going just as the final rays of the sun were fading from the western sky. One of the biggest shocks to Sam after the world ended was how hard it was to start a fire. No boy scout, he had always assumed a lit match in combination with dry wood produced a roaring and satisfactorily warm fire. He was soon disillusioned and learned that start
ing a fire was work...unless you used lighter fluid or gasoline and Sam felt guilty about wasting that limited resource. It wasn't as difficult as it had been in the early days, though Sam still felt slightly spent after successfully getting a fire going.
He piled up a few nearby rocks and logs to create a support
for the metal grating he used to cook on. He laid it over the fire and then poured an extra large can of baked beans into a saucepan and set it on the grating. They hadn't had fresh meat for several days and Sam knew they would need some soon. The sheer work of hunting, killing, and preparing meat had been as great a surprise to Sam as preparing a fire had been.
The Pack straggled back in, drawn by the smell of the beans. Sam opened cans of dog food and poured them out into a couple of large bowls and the five canines attacked their dinner with enthusiasm. He stirred his beans and then ate them right out of the saucepan.
Sam was just getting ready to clean the empty pan when in near unison the dogs started going berserk. Raven and Scotch were in the front facing the darkness of the town center, the others a little behind. All of them had their hackles standing straight up. Sam began to shine a light towards what they were agitated about, but heard strange grunting animal noises and instead went to the jeep and took the M1 carbine out of its case. He checked to make sure it was loaded and turned around to see the dogs backing away from some sort of monster entering the circle of firelight.
Sam was uncertain of exactly what he was seeing. There were three or four of the monsters that he could see and they were gigantic, easily the size of buffalo, but longer like a hippo. They stared at him with intelligent eyes over wicked tusks and long noses. Sam realized with a shuddering shock that the
y were pigs. Pigs larger than any pig should ever be...and unafraid. The lead animal strode forward and stuck its snout into the pan so recently filled with baked beans and began making slurping noises. The others gathered around and Sam could see another four or five materialize out of the darkness further back.
He jumped into the jeep and called for the dogs to follow him. For once Raven didn't hesitate, nearly knocking Sam over in his eagerness to get away from these nightmare monsters. The lead pig had finished licking out the pan and cast it aside. Another giant pig incredibly began chewing up and
eating the pan. The pigs sniffed the air and approached closer to the jeep containing the smelly man and loud annoying dogs.
"This is total bullshit!" screamed Sam at the swine. They approached and stuck their long snouts into the open sides of the jeep opening their mouths to try to get a hold of anything edible. Sam had had
enough, he leveled the rifle at the pig closest to him and shot the animal in the head at point blank range. Blood flew from the animal and it looked at him with concern and then evil intent. It leveraged all its weight against the jeep and pushed.
Sam felt the light jeep lift up on its side and he nearly panicked. If they ended up on the ground the pigs would have them for sure. He fired again and again at the lead pig until it finally stopped pushing the jeep and stumbled away before falling down, its head crashing into the fire. The other swine without hesitation moved forward to begin feeding on their d
Sam was repulsed and wanted to shoot at the monstrosities, but was afraid it would attract their attention. They were already staring at him with intelligent curiosity while they dined and Sam felt as if he were somehow the entertainment piece of dinner and a show. The dogs had also thankfully ceased their crazed barking and now simply whined and growled.
The smell of roasted pork was somehow nauseating. The pigs feasted and tore apart the giant animal, fighting with each other over the choicest portions of entrails. Sam and The Pack watched the spectacle fearful and horrified for long hours.
Finally the monsters had cleaned the carcass to the bone and were satiated enough to have little interest in
the smaller game in the jeep. The pigs wandered off into the darkness to pursue other piggish activities.
Sam and The Pack remained in the jeep and continued their vigil throughout the long night, awaiting the blessed light of the dawn.
The next morning they drove on into town. Sam wanted to be away from this place as fast as possible, but the quickest way was north through dead Carthage.
The body hanging by a rope around its neck from the railing of a water tower caught his attention first. It was hard to believe that after all of this time a body could resist decomposition so much that it actually could hang, but there it was. On the tower this corpse, or another, had painted in large black block letters, "Abandone hope all ye who enter here" and followed this up inexplicably enough with a giant smiley face.
At the town center, in front of the old courthouse, Sam slammed on the brakes and just stared. There was a pile of charred bones as high as the second story of the courthouse. It must contain hundreds of bodies, thought Sam. A bucket truck stood beside the pile, itself partially charred, several dead bodies in the bucket itself.
The piles had been disturbed and trampled upon, likely by the pigs.
Sam felt sick to his stomach, but before he could turn away he saw three tall wooden stakes in the ground with blackened earth around them out to about fifteen feet. Blackened bones littered the ground at the base of the stakes. He tried to look away quickly but before he could saw a charred human skull no bigger than his fist
seemingly cradled in the protective charred boney hands of an adult.