His black containment suit stood out stark against the all-encompassing white and gray of the forest about him. Specks of white swirled through the chilly air, both whipping and wafting against the thick outer padding of the Level A gear; still, he could feel the cold seeping through the protective layers and across his skin. He shivered as he huffed his way through shin-thick drifts of white, his thick boots awkward to trek in, his breather working overtime in the closed hood about his head, and his gloved hands grasping his rifle with determination.
This wintery wonderland was made of ash, not snow. The ash of the world. And the only real “wonder” to it was wondering how long one could survive out in its barren and silent miles.
Now, out in the frigid desolation of it all, he didn’t wonder anything of the sort. Survival had gone from being an essential, to a commodity, to a non-issue. Revenge—or whatever he could muster of the notion—had taken its place. He stopped and scanned the land, peering through the ghostly trees. They swayed like mournful pallbearers carrying off a dead, gray sky on their charred and withered shoulders. They were skeletons of themselves, their leaves and color long gone, replaced with thin black trunks and branches that rose weakly towards the bleak heavens. He gazed at the ground about their bases, looking for any sort of tracks leading through the mounds of ash that caked the spoiled earth. He saw none. He kept on, anyways.
His wife was dead. Had been for a week now. He buried her within the walls of their underground bunker, laying her to so-called rest next to their son. He had died the week before that. Both had fallen ill—too direly ill for his paltry stash of medical supplies and knowledge to do anything for. He had known—those twenty years ago, when he started putting his wealth and time into constructing the bunker—that illness would be the wild-card he could never properly account for and anticipate, should the worst occur. And by the time the worst did occur, he had managed to sufficiently guard and prepare the bunker—along with its generators, storage areas, and air filtration system—and he had stock-piled tons and tons of food and supplies to last them for a long, long time beneath the earth. But still, the potential for illness—and the few capabilities at hand to treat more serious instances—had loomed over his head. And a long time of living under a ruined world could bring many chances for something to go wrong.
Two years had passed since the sirens sounded and every nation’s sky filled with arches of fire and smoke, and the family of three had managed to get by well enough, waiting for the day when they could have the ground beneath their feet again instead of all around them. To feel a welcoming breeze against their bare skin. To feel the nurturing warmth of the sun. To feel like a free person, rather than a cowering rodent within lead-laced walls. But once their boy had starting coughing up the blood, he knew their so-called luck had run out; no number of medications or manuals could help him save his son. He needed a physician and a hospital and those didn’t exist anymore. And when his wife started to spit up scarlet, as well, he knew he had failed his family.
His boy died of his affliction, and his wife gave in to the same—though she was aided along by a broken heart. He had been left alone and hopeless, numbed by his failure to save his family from the inequities of a world gone wrong. He stewed in the silence of the bunker for a while, wondering if a bullet or a length of rope would work better to end his sorrows. But then the rage set in, and the idea of revenge took root. Not long after that, he had hefted his containment suit on (not because he was afraid of dying in the still-bad air above ground, but because he was afraid of dying too soon in it and grabbed his Springfield M1A Loaded .308 Winchester rifle off its rack. With an extra magazine of ammo and nothing else, he’d stepped into the shelter’s elevator and taken it up, climbing the half-mile between the bunker and the surface. When he stepped out of it and into the wilderness, he had no real thought of ever returning to it.
Now, with the bunker a near mile to his back, he entered into another dense copse of dead trees, keeping his eyes peeled. He stopped again and looked about, trying to decide if he should maintain a straight shot into the forest or take a turn this way or that. He elected to make a slight adjustment eastwards, hoping that the elusive figure of his vengeance could be found that way. As he turned, he stumbled over a rock that lay hidden beneath the ash, his steel-toed boot thumping against the protrusion and jarring him. He pitched forward, losing his balance and falling to his hands and knees. The stock of his rifle smacked against the ground and the hood around his head crinkled and rustled against his ears, adding to the pressures bearing down upon his aching head. He sighed ragged breaths into his breather as he knelt there a moment. Then, grabbing hold of his rifle again, he stood up and charged on into the forest with an enraged yell. He ran through nothing, towards nothing, away from nothing. Nothing remained save for a single, small chance to gain some twisted and insane sense of vindication.
His son had been too young to understand what had happened to the world, back when the words and yelling of politicians ceased and the sounds of explosions took their place. When he and his wife had rushed him off to their secret shelter, the boy had been terrified, but he hadn’t questioned matters—he’d simply been too scared to. And when the boy did finally ask why they couldn’t go back up above ground and return home, he didn’t have the heart to explain the true situation to his son. So, in bumbling for some sort of answer, he’d said that the groundhog had seen its shadow and there’d be six more weeks of winter, like the old tradition said—and what a bad winter it would be. A nuclear winter, as a matter of fact. His wife had not appreciated the poor excuse of an explanation, but she hadn’t ever found the words to tell their son the truth of things, either.
How could you help a youth understand what you—with all your years and knowledge—couldn’t rightly understand, either? When the first six weeks were up, their son asked if they could go up again; they’d said no. Their son asked why. And he had told him, “It’s still winter—that groundhog must have had one big shadow.” And so it went, on and on, and their young boy grew to loathe and wail over the mean groundhog that kept his family in the dingy bunker for so long.
“I hate that groundhog, daddy,” he heard his son crying from the past. “I hate it!”
“I do, too, bud,” he said now, as he had said to his boy back then. He gripped his rifle tighter, his finger millimeters away from the trigger and itching to close the distance.
His limbs screamed from exertion and he started growing dizzy, maybe from lack of oxygen, maybe from sheer delirium—he didn’t really know or care which it was. As his head spun and his throat grew raw from hollering, he lost his balance again and careened straight into a blackened hemlock. He fell to his side, barely keeping a grip on the rifle. The tree creaked and rocked precariously, then came tumbling down with a harsh crack in its trunk, landing inches from where he lay. He was pelted with its branches, the thin limbs snapping off and breaking across him with just enough force to wrench a pained growl out of him. He rolled over and away from the felled tree, cursing all that was left to be cursed.
He got to his knees and crawled along a short ways, head held low as he started to cry, the tears slipping off his haggard cheeks and dripping down onto the plastic covering of his hood. Drip, drip. When he looked up and ahead, he saw the snarling face of a wolf lunging straight for his own, teeth bared and hot breath fogging up the front of his hood.
With a yell he fell onto his back, the wolf missing his face and grabbing hold of his arm instead. He felt its teeth dig into his suit, their tips brushing against his skin beneath. The beast started shaking its head ferociously, trying to either tear his limb off or drag all of him away; that was when its teeth managed to scrape his skin, drawing blood and pain. Reacting in dread, he brought the forearm of his rifle down, once, twice—three quick times across the back of its skull, roaring like a berserker in the midst of ancient battle. The wolf yelped and drew back, stains of red now soaking the top of its crud-covered head, and he brought the tip of the barrel up and towards its side as he rolled back onto his knees.
He pulled off a hurried shot right as another wolf came rushing up and launched itself at his side with a ferocious growl. Its face smacked against his and its surprisingly strong forelegs closed around his chest and back, and man and animal fell in a pile. The wolf arched its deformed head this way and that as they rolled about, biting at his hood and tearing it away piece by piece. He felt the chill of the day strike him in the face like an icy punch. He smelled the animal’s decaying, dirty scent through his breather. And he saw its tumor-spotted snout pull the last of the plastic face-cover off before he found his strength again, driving an elbow up into the animal’s gut.
He hauled it up and off of him, tossing it up as it did a somersault into a drift of ash. He rose up to his feet as it started to do the same, and clutching his rifle in both hands, he put three rapid shots into its side. It howled as red spurted out from its balding coat of fur, falling down dead by the time the third bullet tore out through its flank. No sooner had it fallen still than its compatriot—the first wolf, limping along from its wound, but still alive—latched its jaws down onto his left leg. Groaning through gritted teeth as the wolf’s fangs tore at his pants, flesh, and tendons, he shoved the barrel of the gun square against the animal’s brow. He squeezed off another shot, the sound of the canine’s skull cracking mixing with the roar of the gunfire. Its bite loosened as it died, but still, he emptied the clip into its back, shouting out his own howls until the blaring shots turned to weak clicks of the trigger.
He pulled the gun away and wobbled a few small steps from the canine’s corpse. He pulled off the remains of his breather, now useless and torn from the surprise assault. Then he threw up the paltry contents of his stomach, his nausea rising from a combination of the still-flowing adrenaline in his veins, the fetid smell of the dead wolves, and the thick, tainted air that clawed its way down his airway. Shaking and struggling to breathe, he stumbled further away from his kills. He ejected the spent clip from his rifle as he strode along, pulling the spare from his belt and smacking it with unsteady hands into the rifle. He gagged, then coughed, feeling his wounds bleeding and burning beneath his compromised suit. Too late to do anything about it now; too careless to do anything, either—so he kept on with his search, limping along as the falling flecks of ash started to coat his face and hair.
A few dozen steps brought him up to a small hole dug into the side of a gently-rising, soot-smothered hill. He looked down into it to see three wolf pups peeking out at him. They were small, perhaps a few months old, rail-thin and frail, completely hairless, and whimpering softly as they stared out to the trees. They looked to him, heads hung low, and then back out to the trees. One of them gave a feeble bark with its snub snout, its call going unanswered. He swallowed down the nasty taste of bile and sick in his mouth before firing multiple shots into the den. The whimpering stopped and he went on his way.
Time passed—how much, he couldn’t say. Seconds, minutes, hours—it didn’t matter. What use was time when, for all you knew, you were the only one alive to count it? The sky above remained the same dull gray all the while, neither darkness nor sunlight taking it for their own. The freezing winds continued to stir, numbing his cheeks as they turned pink—from the cold, red burn on his skin and the white frost and ash that gradually came to rest over it. Soon his bitten leg went numb, and he was forced to drag it along behind him. He used the rifle as a crutch when a fair slope rose up along his path; he ascended it with sluggish, taxing effort—so much so that he collapsed the moment he cleared it, the land smoothing out again to stretching, endless woods ahead.
He crawled on his belly over to another charred hemlock, breathing in the ash that surrounded him. He hacked and spat it out when flurries of the stuff found their way onto his tongue, fighting off the urge to vomit once more from the horrid taste of it. When he reached the tree, he sat up and leaned against it; it creaked some, but stayed up strong against his weight. He straddled the rifle across his knees and set his chin down to his heaving chest, shutting his eyes, his body longing for rest more than his still-wild and angry soul. But now, after the wolves and the ruining of his suit, his desperate search seemed all the more foolhardy and impossible, and it was only a matter of that pointless time until he died out here.
He leaned his head back against the hemlock, staring up into the gray sky as his thoughts swirled. He wondered if even God had been burned off his throne way up there, the fires that scorched the earth those two years ago taking any semblance of paradise with them. Down here, amidst the ruin, the idea seemed terribly plausible. Or maybe He had gone long, long before that—and that was why this had all been allowed to happen to the world. The idea only pushed him further into the arms of madness, and he let it hold him.
The sound of something moving through the ash came from a few feet away. He turned his head and eyes to the direction of the subtle disturbance, gripping the rifle and drawing it closer to him. A short ways off to his left, a patch of ash was rising up from the rest of the undisturbed layers about it. It cracked and crumbled like an anthill as something crawled up out of the ground below. A small, brown head poked through the stuff, shaking it off of its dirty fur. It looked this way and that as its stubby body rose up on its hind legs, standing proud and with its little forelegs close to its chest. The creature turned and looked his way, looking at him with one eye (the other was hidden beneath a nasty growth on its head) and with its little front teeth jutting out of its whiskered mouth.
He gazed at it, and it gazed at him. Then, breaking from his amazement and his stunning sense of triumph, he hauled up his rifle and fired right at the creature, the very thing he had gone out hunting for and which set his blood to boiling once more. The animal—a good-sized groundhog—exploded into furry bits and strings of bloody flesh as he screamed out his teary cheers of revenge. A bloody hole in the ash was all that remained of the thing, and it made him laugh and wail all the more. He kicked his legs and pumped his arms, calling out to all of the dead world, to his wife, but more so, to his son, hoping they all could hear.
“I got the fucker!” he shouted, laughed, and cried out all at once. “I got him! I got him! I got him …”
His back slipped off of the tree and he shoved the rifle aside. He lay down on his side, sticking his head into a pile of ash and not caring in the least about it. He pulled his legs up to his chest and set his arms over his head as he continued to mumble, “I got him . . . I got him . . . I got him . . .”
More chilling winds picked up, gaining greater force and sending flurries of soot scattering over him. It covered him in a matter of moments, and if anyone had been around to see it, they would have heard the faint murmur of his voice saying “I got him” coming up from the ash, and for long after he had disappeared beneath it.
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