It started like any other rain at first: a smattering of wetness falling from the sky. Pedestrians strolling on the sidewalk looked up when they felt small drops hit their faces and outstretched palms.
“Looks like rain,” people said then. And it was.
The spitting turned to a downpour, and people ran for cover, unfurled umbrellas, and shielded themselves with newspapers and briefcases. The rain had began in earnest. I remember where I was when that happened: I’d been sitting out on the patio of Cafe Fontaine having an espresso. That was four months ago.
Like a disease, a black plague, a rolling tide of judgement, the dark clouds slowly made their way everywhere, and with them, the rain came. The reports of rapidly rising floodwaters were first only from the interior, then all across the country.
The rain falls. My wife sits beneath a soaked blanket with my young daughter as I slowly paddle our tiny boat, my arms stiff and sore and cold, between the rows of streetlights. The highway they lined is beneath us, submerged along with so many abandoned cars filling it; futile attempts to escape the rising floods, already then too late.
Up ahead is an overpass. We are nearly level with its bottom, the water has risen so high. As it draws nearer I see on it graffiti sprayed in violent red:
REPENT SINNERS BEFORE AN ANGRY GOD
THE TIME OF OUR JUDGEMENT HAS COME
My daughter shivers beneath the blanket.
“Daddy,” she says in little her voice. “When will the rain stop?”
I hold her and my wife close and we huddle together in each other’s warmth.
“I don’t know, baby,” I say. “I don’t know.”
You’ve gotta have a reason to get up in the morning, otherwise there’s no point in living.
Me, I’m a collector. A collector of rarities. I figure it’s the sort of hobby most people would get into gradually, but hey, not me. My interest came in a flash of inspiration, right as I was about to pull the trigger of the shotgun in my mouth. It was the only thing I was living for. It’d been two years since I’d seen another uninfected. As far as I knew, I was the only goddamn person left in the world that hadn’t turned into a walker. They were eating each other for sustenance, or simply fading away. It took a surprisingly long time.
I kept their parts in jars.
The thrill I got from the danger made it worth it. Some times I’d lure a single one away and then take what I wanted after dispatching it, others I’d pick one in a group off from afar, usually with the rifle, then barrel in guns blazing on the others, slice off a piece and run. Smash-and-grab.
But those thrills were nothing compared to the ones from finding rarities. I got a rush of excitement, a surge of pure joy when I discovered my first on the inexplicably undecayed back of a man: a beautiful giant Oriental tattoo of tigers hunting in the jungle. I think he must have been a biker before, or some kind of criminal. Others followed: a nearly perfect, almost normal-looking human ear from a young girl; a glass eye from a fat salesman-looking type; a hand with six fingers; a double belly-button; and the list went on. Soon my cellar was lined with jars filled of pickled oddities. I was becoming a regular sideshow purveyor and had never felt happier, despite having no one to share it with.
It happened when I was out in the badlands, far outside the city. The engine made strange noises as I drove there in the Jeep; I worried that I might have to find a new one soon.
The Eagle remained unfired at my side. I felled the lone walker I found with the hatchet instead, and the adrenaline coursing through my veins afterward felt amazing. He’d almost bit me. One of these days I was going to get infected, I just knew it. But my adrenaline rush soon fell flat in disappointment when the body turned up nothing of interest. I kicked the rotting corpse aside, then kicked it again in frustration.
When I got back to the Jeep, there was a man in sunglasses and a slouch hat leaning against it. He was grinning widely and his teeth shone in the bright light of the afternoon.
“Hello,” he said, and raised a strange-looking gun.
That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up. It’s very dark down here but my eyes have adjusted. I can see there are others too, chained up like I am.
It seems I’m not the only uninfected after all. Nor the only collector.
No one knows how it started; no one know why. A virus? Biological agent? Collective global psychosis? Or maybe one day half the world just woke up and said fuck it, I’m taking what’s mine.
Very soon two classes emerged. The Brawlers, the ones on top, and The Runners, most everyone else. Me, I’m a Runner. I’m no murderer.
I’ve had my fair share of scrapes. I’ve seen them roaming the streets during the day, weapons in hand. Watched them empty assault rifles and shotguns into men’s chests, sometimes for food or resources, sometimes just for the sick pleasure of it. I watched them beat the life out of a group of innocent women and children with aluminum baseball bats and crowbars; so brutal and merciless, so wanton, so bloodthirsty for no purpose or reason at all.
Sometimes they hunt in packs (never more than 3, as far as I’ve seen), but most often they hunt and kill alone. But always their identities are hidden. Balaclavas. Welding hoods. Animal masks. Motorcycle helmets. They never show their faces. And most frighteningly of all, they never speak. They are not an organized body, there is no ruler or order among them, but still somehow these rules, these common characteristics, emerged without ever being spoken and agreed upon.
All we can do is run. Run, and hide. But sooner a later a man has enough. Has enough of hiding in abandoned, decaying buildings between blood-soaked walls. Enough of eating scraps and what vermin he can catch. Enough of running. Sooner or later a man fights back.
I killed one of them the other day. I buried a fire ax deep into his chest and watched until his twitching limbs ceased their jerking. After the adrenaline faded, after my panting breath returned to normal, a strange feeling washed over me, one of elation.
Yesterday I found an old goalie mask in what used to be a sporting goods store. As I pulled it down over my face, suddenly I didn’t feel like talking anymore. Silence seemed a welcome natural state, one of which I’d been unaware of my whole life. No more talk. Just action. Just doing.
Hell of a long day it’d been. Jesus, those bastards. Those greedy, greedy bastards. I tries to be a God-fearin’ man, I tells ya, I do, but this world is just going to shit. Money makes the world go round, no matter how much righteousness a fella has in his heart. And this world’s gonna end because of it.
I tried to raise my son in the way he should go. “The End Times are a-comin’, son,” I told him. “That’s why we’s always gotta be ready.”
I’d take him down to the the cellar over the years, to show him all I’d prepared, right from the time he was little. Canned food to last a century. Reverse osmosis water filtration for the water collected from rain barrels. A generator and stockpile of diesel. Knives. Explosives. And the crown jewel, my old ought-six. “You’ve gotta be ready for anything,” I said, “and we’s ready.”
I had to work late in the city that day, real late for them greedy, greedy bastards. I met with the lawyer and they made me wear my black suit, the one I hate and only wear when someone’s died or getting hitched.
As I was coming back to the farm, the old Ford run clean outta of gas right at the end of the driveway, wouldn’t you know it. Figured it was a nice evening, might as well take a walk and enjoy the air. The lights was on in the house so I figured Clayton was already getting dinner ready. I lit a cigarette and walked along the edge of the fence, admirin’ all the barbed wire.
I stopped as there was a shadow by the fence. It was Clay.
“I buried you, Pop,” he said, raising the ought-six. “I buried you already. You told me to be ready and now I is.”
I walked down the darkened street and all around the coldness of night crept into my bones. As I rounded the corner from 35th to 2nd Avenue, a homeless man got up from his pile of bric-a-brac and stood to face me.
“Money for the poor? I’m so hungry,” he said pitifully. His hands were shaking in the cold and I could see the tips of his fingers, showing through his cutoff gloves, were old and wrinkled.
“Sorry man,” I replied without courtesy.
“Do you know it’s coming?” he said. His begging for alms had left him now and his eyes took on a wild light. The black orbs stared deep into mine with a fire that both surprised and frightened me. “It’s coming. Today is the day, the sky will burn.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, old timer?” I replied with indignation.
“Look to the skies, my boy,” he damn near hollered with enthusiasm. “Look to the skies! The end of days! The end of days is upon us! The Antichrist shall walk among the Sons of Man and the Horseman shall not be far behind. Look to the skies!”
I gathered my coat around me and glared at him with disgust. “Crazy bastard.”
I thought nothing of the vagrant’s warnings all during my walk home, and through my supper and my ritual of evening television. But when I went upstairs that evening it birthed itself fresh in my mind.
The sun was setting on the horizon and I was exhausted from the weary days before. I tore off my shirt, and went over to the rolling blind to lower it for the evening’s sleep. I stared out onto the burning horizon to see the giant saucer, a monstrous disc of illuminated, glowing metal from another world lower itself down from the sky above, hovering above Manhattan. I saw the burning trails of fire burst forth from its metal chassis and rain destruction down upon mankind. I watched the buildings explode and crumble in the distance as the hellfire reigned down upon them, and I thought of the man’s warning, to look to the skies.
Slowly, the sun peeked over the horizon, scarlet and bulbous, and the warm amber glow of twilight gave way to morning. It was going to be another beautiful day.
All around me lay the dead. It had been so long I no longer thought of them as things that had been people; they were a part of the scenery now: ancient husks lying in twisted piles, nothing but intermingled bones and charred flesh long ago turned to ashes. They were the scattered pages torn from the books of an ancient library. They were the cast aside envelopes from a million urgent missives sent too late. Detritus. Chaff. Dust.
The battle to keep going is not about survival. The world is vast, and all that wiped out humanity left our material things behind. There are factories. There are farms. There are warehouses full of that I can use or consume. I can fend for myself.
In my life, I lived in the city, surrounded by people but alone. A world full of strangers is a cold one. I thought then I knew what loneliness was, but I know now I had not the slightest inkling. I drank with an eyedropper from the ocean that is isolation.
I smile weakly at the rising sun, but inside I remain hollow. What’s the point of going on, if I’m the only one left?
The smell is heavy in the air, that of death and of burning asphalt. My eyes are drawn to the bodies strewn about in the carnage: lying exposed on piles of rubble, crushed beneath fallen concrete pillars, and shredded in tangles of twisted rebar, like the web of some giant mechanical spider.
We made the first strike but they hit back hard. They bombed our cities, evaporated the seas, poisoned the earth. All of what had once been civilization now lay smoldering beneath a sky with air that smelled of ozone, the horizon now ever-dotted with plumes of rising smoke from fires burning on distant continents.
It had been the ultimate irony: finally discovering there is other intelligent life in the universe, and their first words to us are not we come in peace or take me to your leader but surrender your planet and be eradicated. Not or. AND.
But we got ’em. You’d be proud mom, ’cause we got the bastards. Delivered a fist of all of earth’s nuclear power to the breast of their colossal mothership and watched it fall, a burning hunk of scrap metal, into the Atlantic.
As I gnaw the bloody bone – a femur, once a woman’s – and breathe in the acrid air, I look off into the horizon and think, clearly for once, the first clear thought I’ve had in the 5 long years of chaos since the war began:
Victory is ours. But at what cost?
Take my hand little girl
Let’s watch the sun set
And the fires burn
Come bask in the warm glow
of the unfolding Apocalypse
All your friends are dead
And your possessions gone
No more fun and no more funds
Everything burning now
Beneath an exploding sun
Take my hand little girl
Smile and flick your crimson locks
Relent as I pull you into the fire
Revel in our immolation
And the meaninglessness
Of it all