Outside the air is thick with fog. Earlier I had been hoping it would burn off, but seeing as it was already three o’clock in the afternoon there is little chance of that. There’s something almost suffocating about fog, like the world is trying to box you in. I don’t like my senses being dulled especially when they need to be sharper than ever.
People moved out of my way as I walk towards the Border. Some say a comforting word or two, some even wish me luck, but most simply skitter away. I can’t blame them. We all sense it- I am a dead man walking. The houses here are like most of the town’s I’ve visited, an old frame boarded up and repaired with various scrap wood and metal. The streets are packed dirt that no longer sticks to the bottom of bear feet. It’s late enough in the afternoon that most of the younger children should be out playing but their laughter has been missing for a week or so now. I try to think of lighter thoughts as I walk. I even try to hum, but it catches in my throat on the way out of my lips.
At the Border the guards barely glance at me as they opened the gates. I raise my left hand to show the marking etched into my wrist. They refuse to look as if by acknowledging my existence they’ll be condemned to my fate. There are three barbed wire fences in all, with three yards of packed earth in between. Each town had its own protocol but they breeze me right through. A young guard, just barely old enough not to be affected by the disease walks up to me. I submit my left hand as he reached out with a knife and draws blood across the mark, whispering the words that have been etched into our brains from birth ‘you’re still bleeding, you’re still living.’ It leaves a red streak across my wrist in its wake. I’d like to say it I’ve gotten used to the pain, but there’s no reason to lie about it. I ball my hand into a fist, trying to stop the flow of the red liquid oozing out. Thankfully he’s been kind and the wound is shallow.
I barely get two steps away from the gate before it slams close behind me with a metallic rattle.
Before I go any further I reach into my loose, patch work khaki pants. Pieces of material sew together over and over again to fill in the thread-bare holes. I’m not sure how much of the original material is left. Three Messangers have worn them before me, including my mother. Finding what I need it its many pockets, I quickly pull my shoulder length, raven hair back and wrap it up with some twine. The purpose is to expose my neck so that strangers can see almost immediately that I don’t have any marks there. It doesn’t mean much but it’s a Messanger tradition. Loosening my white, linen shirt around the neck I head out.
The road ahead is smooth and paved with packed dirt. Traveling will be quick and painless for the time being. My feet fall into a rhythm and before I knew it Letrice and its gated borders are far in the distance.
Most towns are surrounded by acres of close by fields. Occupants can go out to without fear in the broad daylight and return to the safety of the Border at night. Letrice is no different.
I slowly passed field after field. The sky is hazy and the earth looks wrecked and dead. The soil is ripped, prepared for the Growing Season but so far none of the seedlings have wandered to the surface. Every now and then hardy green weeds spring up along the path. They are the only color beside brown and blue to be seen.
At the edge of the last field I turn left and headed away from the path. My heart skips wildly as my mind raced over the Messanger’s Code. It’s so ingrained in us that it becomes instinctual, like telling your brain to breathe when you’re head’s fully emerged under water.
Messangers are always supposed to stay on the dirt paths, always. Leaving them isn’t just inviting death, it is challenging it. Still, there were a few that I’ve met who defied even that rule and I’d been smart enough at the time to memorize their advice- carry blood, use animal roads, travel at night, travel light.
I check my watch, automatic numbers glitter up at me proposing that I have taken too long getting to the edge of the fields. Something wells up inside me, something primal, and like a scared animal, I suddenly want to bolt. I glance around all the time knowing I’ll see nothing because for now, there is still daylight.
There is a forest that borders the fields. The trees are small and spindly. I met a Messanger once who talked about trees so tall that you couldn’t see the tops of them and so round that a family could practically fit inside. I’m glad I don’t have to travel in that area. Then again, perhaps those trees would offer more cover so it would be safer. Thankfully the underbrush isn’t very thick, this early in the season, but it still takes me a while to find a good animal trail running through. I don’t want to risk creating my own by any means.
Low shrubs, bare-branched reached out trying to grab on to me. They’ll take anything, if I’m not careful, even my scent, and then betray me to the Hunters. The forest opens into what had once been a rock paved street around two-hundred years ago, but now there is little more than broken asphalt giving way to the green earth below. I follow the open path for a while, pleased that it helps ease my way through the wilderness. As I walk I play with the words in my mind. “Asphalt” “Highway” “Country”. They are words that I haven’t heard said out loud since my mother died. They used to educate people about the past and my mother continued the tradition with me. Most people don’t even know what these things are anymore. They say there’s no point in worrying about the past because it’s never coming back. Other people find the remnants of the past haunting and seek to destroy all traces, but I find the ruble covered in growth and moss promising. Life will go on one way or another.
The road forks up ahead, one part, the part left, turns in the direction I want so I follow along in that direction. This part of the road isn’t very wide and I suspect that even in the past it was never in prime condition. Strands of rusty metal wire lie along the edges their sharp bits reaching out to the heaven. At some point I see a single remaining metal fence post and pause for a few seconds of reverence.
The day wears on as the padding of my feet against rock keeps time. At points the road I’m following is completely overgrown with grass and shrubs. I hadn’t even known that the road ran somewhere underneath until I ran into it again on the other side. Much like the moss, the Earth is reclaiming what once was hers.
The road stretches on and on. My feet begin to protest the uneven ground I’ve been forcing them to step on for hours. My lips ache even in the moist air, a tell-tale sign that I need to find water.
The ball of cloudy light begins to dip up ahead as darkness creeps over the earth behind me. They’ll be coming out soon and this will be my first night Outside without any reassurance of safety.
In the distance, I see the outline of faint shapes along the side of my road up ahead. At first I think I am imagining it- I wanted a shelter so I was seeing one. But as I continue ahead, I realized I am entering a small town, or at least what is left of it.
None of the buildings are left standing fully upright and most only have their foundations left. As I gaze over the closest pile of rubble, I am not surprised to find only rocks and memories. Anything and everything salvable is gone; every scrap of metal, every slip of paper, every shard of glass, only the rotting wood remains, marking out what had once been, a kind of skeleton. I shudder at the thought.
“Hopefully they’re long gone.” My scratchy words echo through the empty ‘town’, making it feel more empty than before.
Before it gets too dark to see, I search around for a source of water. I find a few empty pipes and even one with a rusted spigot at the end which I hastily turn. Nothing.
“Dead,” I whisper, “just like rest of this place.” Only the first part hangs in the air. Quickly I unpack a Nutro Bar from my backpack and scramble back to the road and away from the desolate place.
The bar feels dry and chalky as I try to force it down my throat. I can only get a few bites down before I have to give up. I am too thirsty. I cast a look back at the town. I need to find water. In the back my mind I consider the red liquid bags I am carrying, but I quickly banished the thought. I’d rather die than be like them.