Naturally there was always the possibility that someone bored enough might decide to give him his trophy of dirt but it was a risk he was willing to take. Ammunition was precious too so that helped. And for someone who looked like they had nothing worth having it was safer to walk directly under the gaze of Almighty Death than to wander into the wilderness. Besides, a nice clean bullet was a good way to go. In the wilderness you were lucky if they killed you.
The man in bare feet steered his clattering shopping cart around one of the many burned out wrecks that littered the highway. Even by the standards of a world gone crazy he looked insane. The grimy yellow bathrobe he wore was only loosely tied around his waist, leaving his gaunt hairy chest partially visible and his genitals often too, depending on the breeze. His tumultuous greasy beard, the color of car rust, further managed to accent his mania, and in this it was assisted by the dark ski goggles he wore at all times. Anyone who just dismissed him as a harmless lunatic however could be making a fatal mistake. In a gun holster hidden beneath his robe, a Korean pistol waited for its moment with six eager rounds. He had taken it off of a highwayman in the outskirts of Baltimore and the man had been wearing decades old robotic armor. A relic from one of the original invaders.
His shopping cart meanwhile had its own secrets. Two to be precise. On the outside though someone would have only seen what he wanted them to see. Bones. Femurs, ribcages, pelvises, skulls – the shopping cart was literally overflowing. Because corpses were so easy to come by in a land that’d been baptized by nuclear fire, there wasn’t anyone who would be interested in these. Many people however would have slit his throat to get their hands on the unopened six pack of glass bottled Coca Cola he had hidden – in fact he’d done the exact same thing to get it in the first place. As for his other treasure, well, he was sure there wasn’t a crime that wouldn’t be committed by someone to possess that. If the value of something was how much violence it was worth, what evil wouldn’t people be willing to pay for violence incarnate? Of course many people out of fear would just want to see his prize destroyed. He was answering a call though. It had spoken to him when he found it, when he’d carefully removed it from the missile’s shell to swaddle it like a newborn baby.
His package and him had come a long way from when he’d first found it in some hills outside Lititz; it’d spent a night beside him in a restaurant fridge in Ephrata, it’d been born heavily on his aching back along route 222, past Shillington and the horrors of Berks County park and Kutztown; it’d been retrieved from a ditch beside Quarry Road as he crossed to the I-78, it’d passed through Fogelsville and Hellertown where he had told off the wormlike recruiter for the New Bethlehem Militia; it was carried through Pohatcong and Union Township and Clinton and Bedminster Township, outside the latter of which he had to bury it for six nights to keep it from the clutches of two greedy feuding warlords; it’d rejoined him to continue along the I-287 through the mass graves of Basking Ridge, through the slag of Morristown and Parsippany and Montville; it’d been with him when he’d almost confessed its existence to the convent of nuns that lived in a warehouse on the fringes of Pequannock; it’d ridden with him on a flatbed truck he’d hitched a ride on through Wyckoff and Woodbury, where he jumped off to cross the Hudson river, where he ditched the ferry he stole on the other side and made a sled to drag his treasure along the I-84, past the minefields of Fishkill and Carmel and Brewster, through the rat hives of Danbury and Southbury and Middlebury and Waterbury; he’d pulled it to Southington where he scrounged supplies and to Plainville where he made a meal out of a dog he found half alive in a leg hold trap; he crossed Route 6 with it to Unionville, to Aton, then north on Route 202 to Weatogue to ford the river, stumbling eventually on Windsor and then the Connecticut River and John Fitch Boulevard; in a supermarket near Vernon he’d found the remains of a century old genocide, corpses stacked higher than the aisle shelves, and there he’d found his bones and his shopping cart and his case of Coca Cola; back on the I-84 he shoved it on past Rockville and Tolland and Willington, even talking his way out of trouble with some mercs in the Nipmuck Zone; he’d pushed it out of Southbridge and onto the I-90 where he was greeted by a man in Pre-Holocaust attire playing a scorched piano in the middle of the street, the man only tipping a hat at him before continuing playing; and now it was still with him, just outside of Grafton.
He paused a moment to wipe some sweat off of his forehead. The sun had been scourging him all day and a prayer for mercy was hovering over his dry cracked lips. He had the Coca Cola of course but it was too precious to think about. Besides, it’d be warmer than piss right now. No. He should try to scavenge something else. Plenty of places to go searching in anyways. Looking to his left he scanned the various buildings situated there and soon found a suitable candidate off in the distance. The telltale numbers on the tall sign were still visible through the layers of dust. Gas stations – the oases of the wasteland.
His destination was about a quarter mile up the ridge though; roughly a thirty degree climb all the way there. Not too bad – if he’d been travelling without luggage. For a second he thought about stashing his shopping cart somewhere but his paranoia got the better of him. Clenching his jaw, he turned his cart towards the on-ramp that led up the ridge and began pushing. Far above, one of the vultures circling overhead cried out with what seemed like approval. Yes, it appeared to be saying; exert yourself, squander the last of your strength. For some reason this imagined slight caused the man to snap. Fuck you vulture, he responded in his own mind. Then, not satisfied with his silent retort, he began to speak out loud. “How long you been following me you nasty son of a bitch? How many god damned death traps you see me come out of alive? Don’t you get it! This buffet’s closed for business motherfucker!” The man seemed to draw strength from his delirium and as he pushed his cart he continued to harangue the vulture. “Out of all the dying assholes out here you’ve gone and set your sights on the least edible man walking this entire cursed earth? So how fucking stupid are you?” That the vulture was not amenable to reason did nothing to restrain the man’s anger – he’d found an outlet for his frustration and he was not going to waste it. Perhaps it was also this which caused him to overlook the possibility that the vulture had no interest in him personally and was only after a morsel from his shopping cart.
In any case the man continued to swear at the bird until he arrived at the top of the ridge. The gas station was now only a few yards away and, growing cautious again, he patted his gun for reassurance. Feeling the familiar bulge of the weapon pressed against his ribcage managed to settle his nerves somewhat. Thinking more clearly now he realized he needed a place to leave his shopping cart and found it in the narrow space between two dilapidated pickup trucks. It was discrete enough that someone might overlook it while he was inside rummaging around. The trucks furthermore were located just at the edge of the fill up area so after he was done parking his things they would only be a short distance away. He looked around suspiciously a few more times. Nope, still didn’t see anyone – time to go inside. Crossing the intervening space quickly, he paused outside the gas station as he tried to peer inside through the front windows. With its darkened interiors and all the grime covering the plexiglass, he could make out very little inside. Guess he was going in blind. As he reached for the handle of the front door however he noticed a faded poster on the wall beside the entrance. A buxom blond girl smiling while striking a pinup pose. It was an advertisement for Wham-O BB Guns – the company’s logo appearing prominently on the woman’s chest. The text sprawled above her read “Ladies Love a Fella Who’s Packing” Subtle, he thought. And then, with pure melancholy, I look at you and I see only broken hearts.
The door creaked shut on its own as he advanced inside. Some light was bleeding in through the front windows and from a door behind the counter but overall a dusky gloom prevailed. Nevertheless he could make out more than enough to see that a significant amount of foodstuffs hadn’t yet been plundered. It was fortunate for scavengers like him that the Pre-Holocaust civilization had pumped so many preservatives into their chow. Admittedly it didn’t quite make up for the catastrophe they’d wrought but even in hell one should be grateful for small blessings. And he’d definitely found his way to the good stuff. Ramen. Kraft Mac and Cheese. Pop Tarts. It was all here. It wouldn’t be too hard now to tinker together some kind of cooking apparatus… and then he’d feast. Hopefully the water wouldn’t be too radioactive. As long as it didn’t glow.
His gaze was drifting over the countertop of the cashier stall when he noticed something interesting in the glass display. DARPA robot figurines. He recognized a few of the models from encountering their full sized versions in the wasteland. Encountering however usually meant fleeing in stark terror from. Before he could shudder though a loud clatter from an adjacent room surprised him. Forgetting the figurines, his eyes shot towards the empty doorway just beyond the counter. He held his breath then until eventually a dog came into view. At least that’s what it resembled most. To be more specific, try and picture a Doberman peeled of all fur and skin – the wine-red musculature underneath calloused but cracked and oozing from exposure to the elements. Furthermore, imagine this dog-like creature at about twice the mass of a normal adult male and with a lean pulsating physique that inspires thoughts of a steady regiment of steroid injections. Then for good measure singe off its ears and lips while also giving it compound eyes like those that would belong only to the most voracious predatory insect. That is basically what the man found himself alone in a gas station with. And then it looked at him and it did not wag its tail.
The man was a survivor though. As the beast crouched to lunge at him he was already reaching for the cash register that was resting upside down on the counter. Picking it up with both hands and raising it over his head, he managed to hurl it directly at the beast’s face with a well-aimed throw. An ugly crunch resounded as the cash register halted the dog’s advance. Incredibly though the beast shook its head a few times and dispelled the attack in an instant. Then it set its sights on the man again, snarled, and leapt towards him, gnashing its saliva flinging teeth and landing on the counter top. Mouth agape, the man fell backwards – his bathrobe not caring at all for his modesty as he did so. As such he found himself disheveled and lying on the floor awkwardly while the monster about to rip his throat out steadied itself on the counter above him. The beast was in perfect striking position yet it instinctively hesitated as its prey pointed something at it. Though not unfamiliar with the powers of men, in this case it was simply too slow to recognize the danger before the man’s fingers started squeezing the trigger.
Four shots in total rang out. The creature took two to the face and one directly to the chest. For a second the beast seemed to be contemplating its retaliation but then it sagged and died – a pool of blood quickly spreading out underneath its crumpled body and flowing in rivulets from this as they trickled down over the transparent side of the display counter. Breathing heavily, his arms trembling, the man continued to aim the pistol at the dead dog with both hands while the adrenaline surged through his body. Eventually though a thought congealed in his mind despite the blood furiously pulsing in his ears. He needed to disappear fast. Sounding off gunshots in the wasteland was like banging the inside of a slop bucket among hogs. Interested parties would come – heavily armed parties for whom the solitary bark of a lonely peashooter like his was hardly menacing. No time to lose then. Grimacing, he managed to rise.
As he tumbled through the gas station doors, flinging them wide open in the process, the light of the outside world was immediately blinding. He reached for his ski goggles but realized that he’d lost them somewhere – probably when he fell down. Raising a hand to fend off the hostile radiance, the man briskly scrambled his way forward in the direction of his cart. He was afraid and his voice quivered as he muttered and swore to himself. Not only had he gotten nothing for his troubles but now he was out four bullets. Shit, he said. Shit, shit, shit; a mantra, the words rolled like waves over the sound of the gravel that was crackling beneath his feet. His mantra had switched to “Hurry” repeated in strained whispers though by the time he’d reached his cart. Jerking it out of the spot he’d left it, the man forcefully turned it around and started pushing it in the direction of the road he’d arrived from. The violence with which he did this, and with which he plunged across the uneven terrain, caused the contents of his shopping cart to jostle around considerably, the upper contents precariously close to falling by the wayside. Only a few yards into his escape though the jostling stopped. Because the cart had stopped. Because he had stopped. Because three men in solid red face paint had swaggered out from behind a scorched, overturned semi-tanker and into his path. Hate symbols and death insignia covered the tattered armor they were wearing. Each of them was carrying an assault rifle bulging with a large drum magazine.
Out of as much stupidity as courage the bath robed, bare foot man went for his gun. He was fast enough to pull it from its holster but as he did one of his ambushers unloaded about a dozen rounds near his feet and in his panic the pistol slipped from his hand and flew into the dirt a few yards or so away. He stood trembling, hands with curled fingers shaking in the air, his face downcast. He knew who he was dealing with. A gang called the Midwest Marauders wore red face paint. He had no idea why they were this far out east but it probably had to do with the same business they did elsewhere; plunder, murder, torture. That wasn’t just what they were known for, it was literally their motto. Plunder, Murder, Torture.
One of the Marauders whooped as another broke into a fit of hysterical laughter. The third one then commented jovially to his comrades, “Looks like we got ourselves a chicken dinner!” Fresh chuckling ensued. Now another Marauder taunted their prey, “Folks aroun’ here don’t take too kindly to tresspassin’. You best es’plain yo’self so we don’t feel like we’re in some kind’a danger.” Their prey responded by closing his eyes and swallowing. The Marauder who originally spoke now turned towards the other one who had spoken, “Well, it would appear that we have come across one of them so-called strong and silent types. I do believe that this man is shut tighter than a can of beans.” That statement yielded a moment of thoughtful silence before the one Marauder, who hadn’t yet said anything, interjected. “Oh Hell! I know how to open a can of beans!” And with that he slung his rifle on his back and pulled out a wicked looking knife as he started marching towards his timid target.
About four feet from reaching his goal though a bullet went through one side of the Marauder’s head and out the other. As their prey just stood there dazed, the two remaining Marauders instinctively crouched. A moment later one of them bolted for the cover of some nearby buildings but was gushing up a fountain of blood from his neck before he got halfway there. In anger the last Marauder threw down his gun and stomped his feet. “This ain’t fair!” he yelled before his left eye socket welcomed an incoming 50 caliber round. Radiation had affected humans as it had all other life – in the former’s case it’d made them much hardier and capable of faster regeneration, even without becoming mutants. Humans were so hardy they could often survive direct headshots from various calibers of arms. Anti-materiel rifles though were “usually” still lethal.
Barely able to even comprehend what’d just happened, the Marauder’s untouched prey slowly began to walk towards his cart – it having been carried along by its own momentum a few feet after he froze. Looting the dead didn’t even come to mind. Such thoughts would’ve been ungrateful after such a miracle. An angel had saved him. It was a sign. His mission was divinely sanctioned. Whether or not he’d been spared out of pity, that pity would have to have been placed there by a higher power. When he reached his cart then he naturally felt an overwhelming urge to give thanks. An idea seizing him, he plunged one arm into his trove of corpse relics and pulled out the six pack of Coca Cola. Holding it aloft so that his unseen guardian would notice it, he proceeded to place it down on the ground where the sniper could retrieve it later.
Continuing on his way, he reached the road that he’d earlier ascended Sisyphean like, and began a slow careful descent. Wouldn’t want his shopping cart to get away from him now. In a crash his nuclear warhead probably wouldn’t detonate but it was also probably best if he didn’t put that belief to the test. Pride goeth before a fall, and audacity and carelessness certainly didn’t arise out of humility. The important thing was for him to remain true to his mission – reaching Boston. The godless science that had laid America to ruin still had an outpost there. And they’d not yet reaped fully what they had sown… but soon they would. Very soon. A vision of a pure white light emanating out of their citadel, and in the process obliterating it forever, filled him with a sense of bliss. Just a few more miles to go. His spirits uplifted, he began to whistle a little tune.
About the Author
John Xavier is a writer whose work covers everything from hard science fiction to symbolist poetry. He’s currently halfway through his first novel, a black comedy that follows an ordinary demon’s life as a professional torturer in Hell.