The Anonymous Man
Sometimes he didn't know what was worse: the state of the world, or the SMELL.
He was stalking through the deserted streets of downtown America (he'd wandered so much that he rarely remembered which city he'd wandered into) amid debris strewn ankle-deep; a cool breeze brushed past his face, carrying with it the sour odor of putrefied flesh, rotting garbage, and smoke. All around him droned the unending calls of seagulls and crows, though he was certain he wasn't near any of the three coasts. After the incident, he figured they all just came inland, feasting on the untold acres of unclaimed, unprocessed garbage. Birds of all kinds were everywhere, having completely taken over every city and town he'd been through. Every exposed surface was caked with their droppings. But it wasn't the garbage or even the bird shit that smelled the worst. It was THEM.
Most cities he came across resembled one another in all the ways that matter. They were dirty, unkempt, silent as the grave, and deserted; the previous inhabitants had mostly all fled for the countryside. Those who had remained hadn't lasted long. He occasionally encountered folks holed up in banks and police stations, places that could be easily fortified and had built-in protection. He'd once come across a group of fourteen people locked in a vault; terrible gouges scored the otherwise shiny surface of the heavy steel door. Unfortunately for those fourteen souls, one of them had become infected. He hadn't any idea how long those people had been in the vault, but the creatures he found when he opened the door were gaunt and haggard, barely able to move. He'd emptied a full clip into them, putting the poor devils out of their misery.
This was life now, a common sight in towns across the country. Across the world, really. And while he did on occasion encounter signs of life, he much more commonly ran into the dead. And sometimes, just sometimes, the dead ran into him.
The skies over Downtown Wherever, USA were slate gray, a uniform cloud layer settled stubbornly over the city that threatened to rain but never followed through. Somewhere in the distance, a fire burned. He could see the black/brown smoke wafting up, contrasting with the monochrome steel-colored sky, could smell the acrid scent of burnt plastics and rubber. He honestly thought he'd have gotten used to it by now, but like most people who say the same thing, he hadn't. He wiped away the tears welling up in his eyes, not from sorrow or depression but from the wind-blown irritants that now freely filled the air. With no regular street cleaning, sidewalk sweeping, or routine maintenance of any kind, metropolitan areas all began to accumulate dirt, their artificial canyons generating winds which whipped it all up into the air, where it mixed with soot and ash from countless fires and diffused over the entire area. The air quality in a major city these days was akin to that found in a coal mine. But, he told himself, big cities mean more supplies. Can't survive without supplies. Can't survive without lungs, either, a little voice in his head piped up.
He was here in this city, this Everytown, for one purpose and one purpose alone, and that was to restock his supplies, to spend a few nights resting before he continued on his trek to nowhere and everywhere. He never carried more than a few days' worth of food and water with him at a time. Some people might think that unwise, but some people haven't ever discovered how much 70 cans of SPAM weighed, either. In the beginning, he had been able to drive himself just about anywhere he needed to go and so carry several weeks' supplies at any time. Most people had driven to rural areas then fled on foot, so highways and city roads were clear for the most part, and whenever his car ran out of gas, he'd just locate a new one. He didn't even have to learn how to hot-wire anything. You don't need car keys to eke out a living in the wilderness and so people had generally left them behind, still in the ignition. Though some had left them in the "on" position and even though the cars were fueled, their batteries had long since drained away. That system had suited him just fine for a long time. But eventually, cars started getting harder and harder to start until one day, they stopped altogether. He wasn't really a mechanic, so he wasn't sure, but he figured it probably had something to do with the gasoline sitting stagnant in the tanks for so long. Regardless, ever since, he'd found himself walking. A lot.
He wasn't sure exactly how long it had been. Time had very little real meaning anymore. There was no weekly episode of SNL to put days into perspective, though one might count that as a blessing in disguise. As a result (and because isolation had admittedly made him just slightly insane) he had declared that not only was every day now Friday, but that it was also simultaneously Christmas and his birthday (the two dates were in fact nearly seven months apart, but in a world with no time, it's not as big an issue as one might imagine). Most people, he figured, would attempt to maintain as normal a schedule as possible, perhaps creating calendars on walls or scraps of paper. Anything to help them stay rooted to what they once knew, the life they took comfort in remembering. But since he knew every day was both Christmas and his birthday (by this point he was entering gracefully into his early 800s) he saw little need for such a pointless luxury. Instead he measured time in shoes. He was on his twelfth pair of shoes since he started counting. They had all been birthday gifts (though one, he remembered fondly, had been an early Christmas gift to himself).
Adjusting strap of his duffel bag on his shoulder, he made his way first to a sporting goods store to replenish his ammunition supply, then to a grocery store for food and water. Although all the produce and perishable products had long since disintegrated into nothing, the canned goods and a good deal of plastic-packaged products were still perfectly edible.
Entering the darkened market, he removed the Glock 22 from its holster on his thigh and flipped off the safety with his thumb. The store was quiet, but that didn't mean it was empty. And he hadn't survived this long by being stupid. He checked that there was a round in the chamber and made his way cautiously through the blackened aisles.
The store had been reclaimed by all manner of animals, from owls in the ceiling to rats and raccoons nesting on the shelves. He removed a headlamp from his belt, pulling it on and centering it on his forehead with one hand, the other keeping the gun trained ahead of him. The LEDs cast an intensely bright beam directly ahead, illuminating everything for twenty feet. So far the coast was clear. A family of masked raccoons bolted as he brought his light to bear on them. He was looking up, reading the signs hanging over each aisle, when he first heard the sound. It was a very soft shuffling, like someone scuffing across a carpeted floor wearing slippers. Most people would have dismissed it, factoring in all the various fauna that had taken up residence in the market. But then, most people were dead and it was just that sort of thinking that got them that way. He'd heard that sound a thousand times in a thousand different markets. He knew exactly what it was. And he knew that where there was one, there would be more. Lots more.
All thoughts of restocking his stores evaporated; he now had one goal: escape.
He heard the same scraping again, closer this time. Whether it was another one or the same one, he wasn't sure. And he wasn't in a hurry to find out. With gun pointed defensively in front of him, he slowly, quietly made his way back to the entrance, pausing to train his gun and light down the end of each aisle. This was the part he hated, navigating in an unfamiliar setting in the dark. You just never knew when death was right around the corner.
Aiming the headlamp up, he scanned for signs that might lead him out of the store. He caught sight of the front door just fifty feet away; pale beams of sunlight filtered in through the grimy dirt-caked glass doors and illuminated the entrance. Abruptly, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, a shadow in the dark. He instinctively snapped his head around to get a better look at the movement but despite his quick reflexes, there was nothing there. He still heard the sound, which may have been as close as the next aisle over, and now he started to smell that all too familiar smell. He always allowed himself a margin for error. It was possible that the sound he was hearing was a rat or some other small animal. But when coupled with that smell, that unique scent that he had programmed into his brain to mean "danger," it could only mean one thing.
Quickening his pace, he was just feet away from the automatic double doors of the supermarket entrance, frozen open, when he saw one of them outside, shuffling about the sidewalk. The thing had once been human, but now its skin was blackened with decay and its clothing, dingy and caked with dirt and gore, hung off its skeletal frame in rags. All the cartilage in its ears and nose had been rotted away, leaving gaping holes in its head and face. Its eyes were milky and crusted over and its teeth were all broken or missing. But he didn't let any of that ease his mind any. He knew first-hand how much damage those teeth could do, had seen the carnage they left behind. Just one of those things was trouble enough and he knew that it was rare to find one alone.
The man cursed himself for not bothering to properly survey the area. He now found himself in a worst-case scenario. He was trapped inside unfamiliar surroundings in an unfamiliar city with at least one of those things outside and very likely one or more inside.
Moving slowly so as not to attract the attention of the one meandering around outside, he scanned up and down the street as far as he could. What he saw froze his blood in his veins. There were at least four more within a hundred feet of the door, all of them closing in on the store, albeit slowly. And experience told him there would be even more nearby. He'd always known that it was just a matter of time before he made a fatal mistake and this looked to be it. He had his handgun and two full magazines, but he'd stashed his heavier weapons with the rest of his gear. This was just supposed to be a quick outing. He wasn't anticipating a confrontation. He had the capability to take out the ones he knew of, but if he attracted the attention of others in the area, he had no idea how he was going to get out of it. He had seen hordes of them well over a hundred strong. He had nowhere near the firepower to deal with that.
In all of his ruminations, he had been standing in the same spot for at least three minutes, so lost in thought that he hadn't noticed the staggering figure creeping up behind him as silent as the grave. Perhaps if he hadn't been so concerned with the things outside that hadn't noticed him, he would have remembered the one inside that had been stalking him since he stepped into the store.
But he didn't.
Being dead, they had no breath and so didn't give themselves away with wheezes or moans.
He was brought back into reality by the overwhelming stench enveloping him just moments before the attack came. He heard it kick over a display of postcards and managed to turn partway around before it launched itself at him. Unable to bring the gun up in time, he instinctively put a hand out to shield himself, which he immediately recognized as a mistake. The thing latched onto his forearm, the few remaining teeth in its putrid mouth tearing into his flesh and excising a great hunk of bleeding muscle, nearly down to the bone. He screamed in agony as blood poured freely from the ragged wound. The thing was momentarily distracted by its mouthful and the man was able to bring up his gun and fire. Its head erupted in a gout of black blood and rotting brain matter. Skull fragments sprayed the wall beside it and a great flood of gore spilled out over the black and white checkered tile as it collapsed in a heap to the floor. The smell was overpowering as decomposed material poured out of what remained of its head.
The commotion had attracted the attention of the one immediately outside, bringing it shambling through the doors. He saw the others beyond it quicken their pace, zeroing in on the market. Nearly crippled with pain, he brought the gun to bear on the advancing thing, emptying the clip before dropping it, black blood oozing thickly from where the bullets struck home.
Feeling light-headed from blood loss, he fumbled with the magazine, which slipped awkwardly through fingers slick with blood. He slammed the clip home and loaded the chamber as the four shambled inside and made a bee-line for him. He dropped to one knee and took aim, dropping the first three with one shot each. Gore painted the glass storefront, dripping down in thick streams like maple syrup. He retched at the sudden intensity of the smell, which momentarily choked him. His next shot went wide, his aim knocked askew by a sudden coughing fit. He recovered in time to sink two slugs into the thing's chest and one right between the eyes, a fountain of brain matter exploding out a massive hole in the back of its head. It dropped just feet away.
The man's heart was beating loudly in his ears; he could feel the wound on his arm throbbing with each pump. Listening closely, all he heard was his own ragged breath. He could already feel it spreading from the bite on his arm like a hot venom. He was sweating profusely and his skin was becoming cold and clammy; he knew it was only a matter of time, minutes, perhaps, before he lost consciousness. And then, he knew, he would awaken. As one of them. He'd seen the process take as little as an hour and as much as a full day, but the outcome was always the same. There was only one cure that he knew of. Putting the gun in his mouth, he pulled the trigger without hesitation, exploding the back of his head and showering the darkness with bright scarlet blood, a stark contrast to the black pools of gore splattered around him. The gun fell from his limp fingers as his body collapsed to the floor amid the others, an anonymous death for an anonymous man.