The world is sprawled out before me, dusty and bleak with the remnants of life blowing in the freezing wind. The world is done, choked, has drawn its final breath. At least it seems that way.
I am starving to death, of that I'm absolutely certain. The feeling – the energy – within my arms retreating, not so much as my almost insubstantial legs, but it is there all the same, and growing worse with every mile I travel. Maybe I'd notice the sinking and shrivelling sensation within my stomach – the withdrawing of life within me – if it were not for the desperate cold that had long taken it's hold around everything. At first I wouldn't have noticed the drastic change in temperature, but food has not entered my mouth for some time, and I am weakening faster then the dead world I pass through.
I step over the remains of something, I'm not sure at first what it is; a half melted plastic object and blue and green, partially coated in ash. At a closer glance it looks like something constructed of Lego, but the child who built it is long gone – everyone is long gone. And I am left, unable to appreciate the memory of toys. But I'm long passed such things, from before the fall even.
It happened (at least I believe; I don't have a calendar to enlighten me) perhaps a decade ago. Back then the Earth was awash with people; living and breeding and wasting the land away, until the bombs dropped, until the entire planet was engulfed in the ending war that threatened to claim the human race once and for all. Pockets of people had survived of course; they always seemed to, whatever the condition. At first I saw scavenging settlements attempt to rise from the nuclear ashes, but they didn't last long. It seemed futile to me that they would even try. Food supplies withered slowly and human beings starved in the aftermath of the apocalypse, the cataclysm that had been foretold long before. I'm not sure if I ever believed in the end of the world, back when religious fanatics and Mayan quoting paranoia filled the ears of all. In truth it hasn't ended, not yet. I'm still alive – but for how long?
I not exactly sure where I am; stepping over the child's play thing, I am now moving closer and closer toward the ruined skyline of… some city, maybe Los Angeles, I don't know. I've almost completely forgotten about maps and landmarks; everything has become so much simpler over time, and now all there is for me is survival – one day at a time – and the need to find some form of sustenance, to warm my frozen body with the scraps the world has left behind. It's hard to come by nowadays, and I will likely join the leagues of the dead and damned if I don't find something soon. Although I'm already damned when I really think about it. I often wonder (who I am kidding, I still ask myself the same thing) if there was there any real point in moving on? When so much has been lost; the world will never truly recover from this madness; the sun will never beam through the dark again. The hellish mounds of cloud above my head; every day it may as well be night. No rays of brightness will return to grace here, or anyway else.
The road I'm walking on is cracked and paved in rubble; the burned out scorched and blackened remains of vehicles litter the long and demented stretch of asphalt, with the skeletons of the many victims packed within them. I know it's pointless but I find myself unable to help looking at them, to see what remains of these (once upon a time) carefree souls. Now they are nothing more than pitiful bones, entombed in dead automobiles. No meat clothes them now; no blood runs through the veins that aren't there. They are gone; the people they might have been, their dreams, their fears, their passions – blown away into nothingness. Despite this museum of extinction, the city beckons me, and I can't resist it; there has to be someone left within the decaying jungle of long dead humanity. Already in my sixties, and I'm still the dreamer in many ways, still hoping against everything that I will find what I am looking for. But if I do indeed discover human life still within the city, there may also be hostility ahead.
Even after the fires that reigned down on the many populated areas in many countries – after the nightmare of people killing people – it still went on. It was as if no one could ever learn from the mistakes of history. Groups slaughtered each other for supremacy of different places; territorial lunacy ensued as mobs collected resources. I had never seen such barbarism in my long life, and my old eyes have witnessed a great deal. Cruelties that had been enacted were mostly unnecessary; the strong were always terrible without course, simply because it was within their power to be such. I admit that I've been responsible for vile acts in the past, but I can promise anyone I've ever met – and ever will meet – that everything I have done has been for my own survival and for no other reason. I have had no choice in these matters, and that it just the way things are.
My own supplies are running low; I'm carrying one bag containing nothing much – nothing really important. My clothes are ragged; my shirt, my jacket, my trousers are all hanging in tatters. My shoes are busted and split: the soles peeling away and letting the cold further in than I would like. But obviously, all of this is secondary to my roaring hunger. It will not leave me, this bursting need to eat, to fill myself with something – anything. It is quite amazing to me that I haven't wasted away already. But I'm a survivor, I always have been; that is the reason that I notice a huddled shape, crouched behind a smashed in bus a few metres ahead of me; it's frame is rusted and skeletal, and the man (I know it's a man already, he's too big to be anything else) is hiding – hiding and waiting. It's at this point that I realise I'm approaching a scavenger. A highwayman. My alarm is brief, but my alertness to this realisation triples. As I move closer he knows; he knows that I know he's there, and I also know that at this point things can either go very well, or very badly. It is mostly a question of how much energy my body still contains, and how desperate this person really is. But as he emerges from his embarrassing concealment – with a scarred old handgun in one hand and an empty canvas bag hanging limply in the other – I don't feel fear. In all honesty I can't remember the last time anything truly scared me; it could be for any reason, but the most prominent is probably the situation of the times. How can someone be afraid when his or her lives have already reached the lowest point? They can't.
In any case there isn't much to think about now; he's already ten feet from me, with his gun raised in my direction. But he doesn't speak at first; it's clear that his initial plan had been to rob me of every measly thing I have, but I can see the disbelief on his weathered and grubby face as the gun shakes in his cold hand. He wasn't expecting my appearance. It surprises him; but I'm not surprised, if I had a dollar for all the times this has taken place, well, I would be rich, but I'd also be pointlessly rich.
Finally the man asks: 'What have you got in that bag, sonny?'
'Things,' I say; I don't really see the need to elaborate yet.
'Oh yeah?' the man says; filthy yellow teeth reveal themselves as he pulls an ugly smile. 'How long have you been out here like this? Your just a–– '
'A while,' I respond casually, and now I'm curious. 'Is there anyone else up ahead?'
'What, back there?' the man cocks his head behind him. 'A few I guess. Why?'
'I haven't seen anyone in ages.'
'Is that right?' the man says. 'Well yeah, I suppose there are, there must be.'
'Have you been there?' I ask.
'No, not yet,' he responds. 'But I'm going to in a few hours.'
'Can I come with you?'
He seems to consider this for a moment. 'Well I guess you'll need protection in there; scavengers would pick you off in a heartbeat, and not just for what's in your bag either,' he pauses long enough to shift his gun towards my rucksack. 'Speaking off which; hand it over and I'll think about taking you with me.'
'Do you have any food? I ask. 'I'll give you the bag if you've got something.'
The man frowns at me. 'Listen you little fucker; I could take the bag no matter what. I could just blow your fucking head off right here and take it all,' then the man's features soften a little, and the sickly smile returns. 'But maybe I'll share if you show me what you've got.'
Despite my initial reluctance to hand over my things I realise that he is speaking the truth about handing me something in return. I've been around long enough to pick up on certain things; I can tell he'll cave as I can already see a hint of sympathy in his eyes, even if he thinks he's hiding it well – he's not. One way or another I need to eat something, and this is definitely as good a time as any. And the possibility of other people living within the city gives me more hope than I've had in some time. Besides, the items I'm carrying are not really that useful to me anyway.
'Do you smoke?' I ask.
Now the filthy swine looks intrigued, and it's a shear mask of hideousness. 'You got cigs?'
'Two packs of twenty; but I don't smoke.'
'Well good for you,' he laughs for a moment as he moves closer. 'Hand me the bag then; lets see what else you got in there.'
There's no reason for me to protest; I unhook the bag from my shoulders and hold it out to him. At first he's a bit apprehensive; I don't bother to wonder why this is, as I know he's going to take the bag it doesn't really matter. Finally he drops the canvas bag and snatches mine away from me. He lowers the gun as he crouches down to empty the contents onto the ground as I stand there and watch. He doesn't see me as a threat, and his eyes are so filled with greed at this moment that I could probably do anything. But I don't; there's no point. He'll give me food, so starving to death in the wastelands wont be my fate, and that is something to be grateful for – even in this devil's paradise.
I watch as he examines the goods I've collected: the two cigarette boxes, which he literally – and quite pathetically – drools over. A pare of slightly cracked spectacles (I don't need them, but for some reason I couldn't help picking them up when I saw them) lay there also. Two books: Moby Dick, and Carmilla. And finally a tattered pair of socks, and that's all folks.
'Jesus,' the man says as he looks up at me. 'How did you live out there? There aren't even any crumbs in here.'
'Finished my last can of ravioli five days ago,' I explain. 'Do you have tinned food where you live?'
'Yeah, I've got tinned food: beans, beans, and more beans, if you don't mind the stink afterwards,' he laughs again.
I manage a brief smile in response; the scraggy thief stinks enough without adding flatulence into the mix, although I know I smell pretty rank myself these days. But its something I know I can bare, at least for a little while. 'So is there anything else you like there?'
'Well I don't really care for the books if I'm honest with ya,' he says, chucking them and the rucksack back to me. 'But the rest I'll keep,' he then does something that makes me want to burst out laughing; he puts on the spectacles, looking up at me with a grin that makes him look like the greatest simpleton ever to walk the earth. 'How do I look?'
'Do you really want to know?'
The man swipes the glasses from his angry face, pointing the gun back at me. 'Hey! Watch it, ya hear me. Or you wont get fed at all, so mind ya manners.'
'Sorry,' I say, and try to sound as though I mean it. He believes me.
The man then begins putting the other items into the bag he was carrying as I retrieve the books and place them back into my own. When he's finished he quickly gets to his feet. 'There's a gas station up ahead; we'll stay there until we've eaten and then try for the city.'
I begin following him in the direction of said building; I can already see the partially demolished and lifeless structure about fifty metres away, one the right side of the highway. I suppose I won him over after all; but it wouldn't be the first time this has happened; people always think I'm more fragile than I actually am. Must be an age thing. If it works then I guess there's really no point in complaining.
It doesn't take long for us to reach the station; it looks more or less the same as everything else, just grey and saturated with crumbling decay and neglect. As we pass through the front entrance I can see the gloomy light spilling through a large hole in the roof, and all I hear is the chilling wind – and the man's breathing, which seems to increase the further in we go, almost as if he's anticipating something. The floor is coated with plaster and broken shelving, and the items that they once held – when they stood upright – are no longer here. Probably looted way back when, I think. But it doesn't matter; I've seen this sort of thing a hundred times already, and I'll probably bare witness to such a hundred times in the future.
When we finally stop walking we are standing between two intact shelves. Those are empty too. The man turns his scabby face toward me, dropping his bag as he regards me with a curious grin. At first I wonder what's going on; where is the food he spoke about? I assumed he was using the gas station as a temporary shelter. But now I realise that something else is going on.
'Come on then,' he says. 'Lets see it.'
'See what?' I ask. 'I thought you had food here.'
'Oh that,' the man shrugs. And then he raises his gun at me once again. 'Yeah, I kind of lied about that; I just wanted to get you in doors is all. Empty streets aside; it's a habit of mine to do these things with a roof over my head.'
'Are you going to kill me?'
The man's smile broadens: 'Not really; I think you'll be more valuable alive, at least to us'
And now I know. 'Us?'
'Yeah, us,' he replies. 'I guess I lied about that too; my boys in the city are going to love you,' the man starts unzipping his trousers. 'They really like the defenceless ones.'
My inward calm never wavers – why would it. But on the outside I'm fairly certain that I seem quite scared. 'So there are people in the city then?'
'Are you kidding, hundreds little fella,' he says. 'We've been picking off travellers for years. But you're the first one we've seen in weeks, and boy are you sweet lookin' ' he ceases momentarily, time enough for him to pull his penis from his trousers. It's already erect. 'Now, get on your fucking knees.'
This shouldn't surprise me, but it does. After everything the human race – the world – has been subjected to, one would think that people would have far more important things on their minds. But no, this man wants his filthy cock sucked in an abandoned retail outlet. How disgusting. I almost jerk with a feverish need to do what I came to do. I find it highly amusing that we were both lying from the very start. And he said hundreds of humans. Hundreds!
'You said I could have food,' I say pleadingly, and now I'm laying it on thick. 'I'm starving.'
'Oh, you're going to get fed alright,' he snarls as he thumbs the hammer of his gun. 'You do a good job I'll bring you in so the boys can have a go too; and you might get something after that. Now, get on your knees before I make a new asshole in your head.'
'A new asshole in my head?' I say. And then everything overwhelms me, and I begin to laugh loudly, clutching at my stomach. 'And asshole in my head. That is just brilliant!'
The man looks confused; no doubt at my sudden change. The gun shudders in his hand as he stares back at me, and I can already smell a prickle of fear running through his skin. His blood is flowing in a different way now, and I can already see his erection beginning to recede as my senses take over every inch of me and my laugh – which is no doubt insane to the ears of others – increases in volume.
'I- I don't know w- what you're laughing at sunshine,' he says. His voice is shaky as he attempts to portray confidence – a confidence that falls incredibly short. 'I told you to get on your fucking k––'
My next motion is fluid (despite my exhaustion, my strength rises from the fumes I am running on) and so fast that he doesn't see it – cannot prepare for it. I dart forward like a bullet, and rip the gun from his hand so viciously that two of his fingers come with it. His eyes go wide with shock, and in them – in those duel pools of flowing terror – I see myself in their reflective and quivering surface: I see him. The boy. The ten-year-old sweetheart that I was before I became what I am. And then the reflection vanishes as I close in; the man has no time to scream as I crash into him, like a lion with a gazelle, knocking him to the floor with seemingly no effort to speak of. My thirst gives me the power I need. My left hand clasps over his mouth as I sit atop him, and I smile as my fangs erupt from their human concealment. His body is writhing painfully but he cannot break free from me; he's the fly in the web now, and I'm the hungry spider. I lean down, and am now almost breathless as I see the pulsing vein in his neck. It has been too long since crossing paths with someone more or less healthy – healthy by today's standards anyway. I stink my teeth into that throbbing tube beneath the skin, and what gushes rapidly into my mouth is an elixir that at first makes my throat hurt. But my god, it is so good! I drink deeply, knowing that my hunger will be satisfied on this day. My prey is weak; they are all weak, always have been. And as I feed hungrily upon the perverted human beneath me I feel his life slowly fade away; his struggles become less frantic, more relaxed. He's slipping into death now, but this is far from my concern.
Within the next few exhilarating moments the man is gone, and I am – for now – sated; my body tingling and buzzing beautifully from my core all the way to the tips of my grasping fingers as I rise from the corpse. My limbs feel like themselves again, and my head is swimming with thoughts that are fully alive and breathing with new energy. My strength has fully returned; it will no doubt evaporate over time, as it has on so many other occasions. But now I have information that gives me not only hope, but also a deep and clear certainty that I will not want for the crimson ambrosia that is my fuel, at least not for some time, if what the human told me is really true, and I think it is.
I then turn away and leave the building; I don't need the man's gun, and I don't need anything else. The books and other little things that I had, and anything the man possessed is all completely irrelevant to me now. Everything I need lies up ahead, in the city I see once again as I exit the gas station. The clouds still keep the light from meeting the topographic ruin of man. I know it's daytime, but no sunlight can burn me as long as the sky remains scorched, and it will be this way for – I imagine – a very long time. In this age, as perilous as it can be at times, I do not have to worry about the once aggravating chains of sleeping during the day; I can travel as I like and nature is powerless to hinder me. I'm a hunter who can choose his time and place without worry. My child-like appearance serves me well; people feel sympathy sometimes, and other times they see me as easy prey, and that makes my feeding so much easier. And now hundreds of people – repulsive scavengers like the man I just killed no doubt – are waiting for me up ahead, at the end of the decaying road. And I cannot wait.
I am eagerly anticipating what lies ahead, and as I walk briskly towards the high buildings in the distance I imagine the feast to come. And I smile all the way.