They were called “The Good People”. They turned up at the settlement every six months, near as Arch could tell. They’d travel through the fiercest rainstorms, fight their way through the wildfires that swept the ravaged countryside, even risk being caught outside when winter came, just to come back to Desolation. And he couldn’t understand it. Why come here? The settlement was nothing, just a pile of ashes, hollowed husks of houses surrounded by a perimeter of scrap and dirt. They drank dirt water and ate dirt food, and everything that he saw, smelled and tasted was tainted by decay. The Good People scared him. It wasn’t anything in their demeanour, any terror lurking in their tales of the surrounding countryside. They were always well-kept, as neat and tidy as people could be in these times. They were kind and quiet, gentle souls that always brought with them the same simple message: the world outside is dead, and it’s staying dead. No – he was scared because they kept coming back. That they travelled so much, saw reaches of the country so distant, so far afield that they had to be different, had to be better – but still, they kept coming back here. To Desolation. It scared him that the settlement was somewhere worth visiting.
The Good People never stayed long, had no discernible skills to ply and didn’t offer any goods to trade, but the settlers welcomed them all the same. They were never a burden, always bringing with them food and drink, clean clothing and tools. They still wore the same modest rags as the settlers, weather-worn and faded, but somehow their boots always had thicker soles, their coats kept out more of the rain. And the food – oh, the food they brought with them. The people of Desolation counted themselves lucky for the meagre rations they were afforded, Arch included, the mealy bread and the deformed vegetables. But every time The Good People visited, they always brought with them tins of food, adorned in bright, unfaded stickers, promising lost smells and forgotten tastes, stews and casseroles and soups and chicken and beef and pork. Last year, his family had been gifted a tin of beef chilli, the label promising beans and sweet peppers and rich, thick tomato sauce, foods they barely remembered, foods his little sister had never even tasted before. As his family had sat down together to share the small tin, he couldn’t imagine how The Good People could part with it. The more Arch thought about it, the better he understood why the people of Desolation welcomed them so readily: they were a vision of a better life, a little glimmer of hope in the muddy pile of ashes that had become their home.
The rains had come early this year. A mudslide in the upper valley had buried two of the fields, and already there was talk throughout the settlement of tighter rationing. Arch’s parents were kept busy at the town council, fretting with the other Elders, working out to when to dig out and re-plough the fields, which crops to plant, how they could stop the crumbling hillside from intruding further into the farmland. Desolation was always beset by problems. Just last month, the wolves had ventured further into the valley than ever before, found their way into the barn where the ducks were kept, leaving nothing but blood and feathers in their wake. A month earlier, one of the old houses had collapsed, pinning the Abraham’s young boy beneath a heavy wooden beam. Arch had watched the blood bubble out of his blue lips as his father and the other Elders tried in vain to pull away the debris. It was no wonder the people of Desolation were so keen to take The Good People up on their offer.
“Every time we visit,” the first stranger had said, “we can take back one of your people. We can feed them, shelter them, and they can become one of us.”
“The road we travel is hard” his companion said, “so we can’t take the young, the old, or the infirm. I wish we could take you all back with us. But we can’t.”
The first year, there had been no competition, just a lone volunteer, hungry and desperate, willing to take a chance with the strangers. The second year, two people had stepped forward, and it fell to a vote to choose between them. Now the choosing had become a cause of celebration, one of the few rituals the people of Desolation possessed: a bonfire, held in honour of The Good People, food and singing, all of the townspeople come together in the Old Barn to put forward their nominations for the honour of accompanying the strangers out into the world. Back to wherever it was that treated them so kindly, blessed them with the graces of plenty, clothed them and fed them. Back to the place they called home.
Wet days turned into cold nights, and all too quickly it was the stranger’s last night in the settlement: the night before the Choosing ceremony. Arch couldn’t sleep. This was the first year he was old enough to stand in the choosing, able to ask the people of Desolation to let him travel with The Good People and see the world beyond the junk walls of the town. He lay awake on his straw mattress, staring at the ceiling, until eventually his frustration drew him over to the window. He dressed in his tee-shirt and his battered old jeans, and pulled back the plastic sheeting that hung over the empty frame. He sat, staring into the dark town. He could see shapeless silhouettes shifting about by the gate, probably Ajax and Sam standing watch over the sleeping town. He heard the patter of raindrops on the thin tin roof, and his sister, snoring gently from her bunk. And then he saw a flicker of candlelight. His eyes straining in the darkness, he could just make out the door of the Old Barn, swinging open, and out of it, stepped the stranger. He was flanked by a small procession, three, four people, their faces drawing into focus as a man with a lantern followed them outside. There was the stranger, one of The Good People; Desolation’s mayor, Abbot; Abbot’s eldest son, Rufus; and holding the lantern, Arch’s father. They talked amongst themselves until Abbot handed the stranger a bindle, probably full of food and bottles of water. But as always, the man refused. As the stranger began to walk towards the gate, Rufus striding alongside, Arch realised what was happening: the Mayor had cheated them. Abbot had chosen his son to return with the Good People, had cheated the people of Desolation, taken away their right to vote, and worse yet, had taken away any chance Arch had of travelling to the home of The Good People. Worst of all, he was watching his father, complicit in their betrayal.
Arch sat and stared, paralysed by anger and grief. He saw the front gates part, just far enough to let the two men through, and he saw them close behind them. He saw Abbot and his father walk back to the Old Barn, shutting themselves inside. He heard the steady cadence of rain, and saw water pooling in the ashes of Desolation. Arch waited for something to break his inertia, for his sister to turn over and see him, for his father to come home and comfort him. Nothing. Silence. An hour passed, perhaps, two, three. And then the sound of creaking wood – his father at the door. In that instant Arch decided: he wouldn’t let his chance be snatched away like this, he wouldn’t let them cheat him. He grabbed his jacket and tied it around his waist. With a last look back into his room, to his sleeping sister, he pulled himself out of the window and padded along the edge of the roof. Dropping down to the muddy street he skirted past the other shanties and lean-to’s, running through the wet night until he came to the winch that opened the main gates. When he was sure Ajax and Sam couldn’t see him, he pulled the rope slowly, surely, until the gates were open enough to slip through. And then he was out in the night.
Arch ran breathless through the woods, panting and wheezing as he tried to make out the muddy footprints of Rufus and the stranger. They had a huge head-start, but there was only one way out of the valley, and so far, he’d kept track of their prints. The wind howled around him and the rain spat through the bare trees, inky twilight darkening with each minute. He ran until he was exhausted and walked till he regained his energy, running and walking, running and walking, until eventually he passed under a huge fallen oak, and caught himself: there, perhaps a hundred metres away, he saw the glow of a campfire. He’d caught up to them. But standing there, alone, in the dark woods, he’d lost all of the righteous fury that had driven him through the bleak night. It had grown darker since he’d left the barricade, and he knew he couldn’t make it back to Desolation without the help of daylight. He crept closer to the campfire, hoping to catch a glimpse of the kindly man and steel himself to ask for help. Through the skeletal forest he moved, drawing closer and closer, metre by metre – until there he was.
As Arch leaned out from behind the tree, he could see him, sitting there, cross-legged by the fire. Now the wind carried a smell back to him, and it was incredible: rich meats and melted fats that made his mouth water. He watched the old man eat, but he couldn’t see Rufus. Arch tensed for a second, hearing a noise behind him and fearing it was the Mayor’s son – but nothing. Worried that Rufus was somewhere out here, looking for him, he knelt down by the tree and scanned the surrounding woods. His vision caught on vague shapes, coalescing into boulders and tree stumps as he looked – until there, behind the campfire’s flickering flames, he saw it. There was a tarpaulin, stretched out on the ground, and on top of it lay a man. Arch saw his torso, taut and bloodied, saw his legs stretched out along the cold ground, and his right arm crossed over his chest. But he saw nothing where the man’s left arm should have been. He shifted his gaze to the stranger and saw that he was wearing something unfamiliar. It was Rufus’ red sports jacket, layered underneath the stranger’s familiar fisherman’s coat, and laying on the ground before him was the arm. The image swam in front of Arch, a dream, a nightmare: the bloodied stump cauterised by the fire, biceps gnawed and frayed, muscles torn apart. The stranger’s teeth pulling at tough fibres. Arch pressed himself deep into the hollow of the tree, wishing his body would dissolve, keep him hidden and safe. He screwed up his eyes as tight as he could, clenched his teeth together, balled his hands into fists, and let out a single, desperate sob. It echoed through the woods, rising above the rain and wind, and the man heard. The Good People were coming.
About the Author
Ryan Law is the founder of Ash Tales. Startup co-founder and marketing dude by day, post apocalyptic author by night, Ryan created Ash Tales to offer the world's best post apocalyptic fiction a final resting place.