Harry holds his id badge in front of him like a shield as he approaches the gate. Two guards—men young enough not to remember day zero—rise to greet him. The wider one, the one with a pudgy face and ring of baby fat, lifts his rifle. He doesn’t point it at Harry, but close enough. Ready.
“At ease,” Harry says. “I’m on the council.” He waves the badge slightly as if to prove it to the men. Boys, really. The fat one can’t be a day over sixteen.
Two pairs of eyes exchange a glance.
Harry takes a deep breath while the boys sweat it out. Being a council member has privileges, special perks like the right to leave the gate when he wanted. Whenever he wanted.
The taller guard nods. “Yes, sir. Just checking. Nobody really goes outside much. Not at night. It’s our—”
“Job.” Harry nods. His hand slides into the pocket of his jacket and finds the grip of his pistol. “I understand soldier. I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.” He pulls out the gun and shows them.
The fat guard hasn’t lowered his weapon, but the other unlatches the gate and pulls it forward. The gate squeaks as it swings, the song of rusty metal. The fat guard coughs. Harry holds his breath.
“Good evening, sir. Just signal when you want back in.”
Harry’s boots tap a few paces on the broken asphalt. He stops, turns, and nods. “Of course.”
The pistol isn’t loaded, but neither guard knows. A gun is a gun. Harry walks down the snaking ruin of a road, just far enough to turn the corner and leave the glow of the compound behind. A chill breeze, the coming winter, rattles leaves like the breath of the dying. He steps into the thick grass and wades toward the tree line. His boy’s bat waits in the hollow of an ancient oak. It’s an aluminum bat, the logo on the shaft scarred and stained beyond recognition as a logo. The manufacturer wouldn’t exist anymore, anyway. Moonlight burns on the shiny surface. Memories smolder when Harry touches the handle.
He sees his son, Grant, standing at the little league plate. An eighteen-year-old memory.
Harry walks at night because he likes the feeling of night air on his skin. He likes the way the trees look, how the shadows live in the breeze. He knows they are out there, waiting in the cold, dark forest, afraid of the sun. Those still moving after so many years are weak, and the sun burns them, dries out their dead flesh. Harry almost thinks the word “alive” rather than “moving”, but that would be wrong.
They aren’t alive.
He walks to get away from the compound, the village, and his wife. She’s a good woman, but he knows she never forgave him for what happened to Grant—for how Grant died, eyes bulging like the swollen throats of bullfrogs, the near-human terror clamping its teeth on his neck. Harry’s grip tightens on the bat until the knuckles whiten and numb in the chilly air. He spits on the ground and yells—not a word, but a raw, barbaric yawp.
The echo fades.
There are no other sounds.
Harry starts walking again. Each night, he walks further down the stretch of forgotten road. The uneven earth and weeds have reclaimed much of the highway, but he can walk in the open, under the night sky when the moon hangs full and fat like a bloated belly ready to burst. Eventually, a groan—an almost human sound—rises above the thud of his boots.
The thing is pitiful, if Harry still owned pity. Broken, jangling, and staggering like a ruined marionette. It looks black, like a piece of the shadows broken off and blown toward Harry by the wind. Its mouth hole flaps open. It tries to make words.
Harry raises the bat. His heart bumps his ribs. There is fear, but Harry carries something more than fear in his bat.
“Come on, you sorry bastard…”
© Aaron Polson
Aaron Polson currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. His stories have seen print in Shock Totem, Blood Lite II, and Monstrous with several new stories forthcoming in Shimmer, Space and Time, and other publications. You can visit Aaron on the web at www.aaronpolson.net.
If you enjoyed this story, consider making a donation to the Red Cross or another charity to help storm recovery in the Midwest and South!