The man on the road looked to be about fifty, healthy, no obvious sores or bruises. He waved at the bugs clouding his head, at what must have been a mighty whine buzzing in his ears, but the swarm bulged around his hand and spilled back behind it, uncreating that empty space, like he was pushing water. He wore dark glasses and was acting blind. I held my foot over the accelerator, letting the car roll forward. A blind man who hadn’t been mugged, beaten, murdered, or eaten. Looked like a trap.
“Hello?” he called out.
I opened the window a crack. “Whaddya doin’ there?”
A month ago, I would not have stopped. Then I was traveling with four other people. Five is a good traveling number. Five is independent. You have short shifts on night watch. You don’t do all the cooking. You can move quickly if you have to. But something snaps in other people. Something about the number five – they have to test you. They walk into your camp, they steal your food, your clothes. You spend all your energy defending the few things you have. All the fighting was slowing me down. So now I am alone.
It’s when someone travels alone that gets people to worry. In the New Wilds, people clump together to survive. It’s how the Southern Alliance started, a few people clinging together until they felt safe enough to start killing anyone else who comes too close. They worry about the loners because they are sick or crazy or both. Not worth the risk to rob. Leave them alone, so long as they don’t get too close. Like this blind guy. He’s standing alone in the woods. That’s insane.
“Barter for food?” he said. The glint of my Impala reflected in his lenses.
“What’s the offer?”
“Online time. You?”
“Grid’s down. No way to connect.”
“We have a laptop with a wireless key. Some of the satellites still work. You could have five minutes for some food.”
“So there are more of you. You don’t look Southern Alliance.”
“We are a group of independent thinkers. We love company, so long as you don’t overstay your welcome.”
“No problem. You’re not my type.”
The blind man smiled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I stopped my Impala and disabled the engine. The blind man said, “You should avoid any sudden moves to your weapons.”
“Am I carrying a weapon?” That was the crazy kind of thing a loner would say.
“I don’t plan to find out.” He turned and walked through a narrow gap in the trees, one he’d entered and exited hundreds of times. I didn’t see many other footprints or broken branches, so who knows if I was supposed to make it back.
It was humid that day, and I felt the thick air pressing against my chest. The blind man made the walk more intolerable by stopping every ten feet so he could cock his ear to the forest canopy, like he was listening for birds. Of course we were miles from any birds, but each stop was an opening for bugs to assault our skin, bite our ears and neck.
“Waiting for something?” I tried to sound impatient, edgy, grinding my teeth since I didn’t want to swat at the insects. Like I said, someone traveling alone gets a reputation, one you have to maintain. But the blind man wasn’t impressed. “Why? You in a hurry?” He walked slower after that so I knew who was in control.
Eventually we arrived at an old building with corrugated metal walls. It used to be something like a farmer’s market, filled with bounties of fruits and vegetables, back when the highways were still passable. As we approached the building, the blind man’s bodyguards emerged from brush, two thick men with big necks and long beards. They had been following us, one with a pistol, the other with a machete.
“No weapon?” the blind man said. He was being snide. “I am glad you didn’t attack my compatriots. I’m sure you understand our precautions.”
The front of the building was a gaping doorframe, and his group had hammered in long wood panels to block the top half. Inside, you could smell traces of rotten tomatoes, pungent squash, lingering under the sweet smell of lemon. They must have had cleaning products. Or some sweet-smelling bug repellent. The air inside was empty, clear, with no hint of the stench that no doubt festered in the cracks and pits of its unwashed inhabitants.
About a dozen people were sitting on the floor doing different little jobs – whittling, cooking, sorting cans, sewing together bits of green fabric. There was a hard edge in their eyes born from a white-knuckled grip on survival. They made a snap judgment on me – my calluses were not thick enough, my hair was even, my corduroy slacks were not torn or dirty. I was someone they would have overlooked back in the old world, and now, as a lone traveler, I was the floating beneficiary of blind fortune.
The blind man escorted me to a far corner where a square gray laptop waited on top of an empty barrel. The barrel was turning black, and its planks were shedding sinewy strings like strings of rotten chicken meat. The blind man popped open the screen, and the hard drive clicked to life.
“Keep it short, or we will have to eat you.”
“Don’t we have terms first?”
“You must have some food, otherwise you wouldn’t be alive. And I don’t want to explain what these people will do if you renege.”
My mailbox was empty, so the session was shorter than I had hoped. The blind man heard me snap shut the screen. “Already done?”
“You’re disciplined at least. Most people can’t stop looking for news.”
“Just looking for mail. No point reading the news.”
“True. But no point looking for mail either. You want my opinion, the sender is dead.”
Yeah, the blind man was a prick, and he waited for my reaction. Maybe I was supposed to hit him, and then his goon family would kill me and take my stuff. Does that kind of baiting work? Can you push someone to a point that he’ll take a futile swing at a blind man, knowing he’ll die in the next ten seconds?
Why did they need the pretense anyway? It is probably some code of conduct they made up during the dark nights in the woods. Out in the New Wilds, family means nothing. Life means nothing. So you make up a code and pretend that it gives you structure. And this group, no matter how big, wanted me to lash out first.
I don’t want to say that it almost worked, but I admit, I was upset. I was looking for a message from Theodore, my brother. He was in Canada. I put him there. He wanted to go, sure. He was following Dawn Treedle. But I marched him to the airport, put him on a plane. I had to believe he was still alive. Theodore and I had attended the same state college. He could have done better than that fourth-rate university, but he was always too small, too sensitive, too weak. People who were bigger and stronger ignored him, abused him, and everyone was bigger and stronger than Theodore. Even me. Not that I could protect him. He followed me to college because he wasn’t able to make a decision that hadn’t already been made. It did me some good, I admit. The goons, the bullies, the thugs of the world, they could smell his weakness. It reeked on him, more powerful than anything else in the room. If he had been with me now, these people, they would have forgotten about me and torn him apart.
He was a General Studies major until he met Dawn. She was a little cute, and she talked about clean water, how disease came and went based on the availability of potable water, how they would find the cause of the Highway Virus in water. Theodore couldn’t resist her. He started studying water. He did good too, made good grades, until Dawn left to fight the seal slaughter. She went to Canada to film men killing harp seal on melting ice floes. And Theodore fell apart. He forgot his class assignments, his phone number, his address. He spent his days at the computer, waiting for the next e-mail, and nights he would walk on the interstate. Sometimes the cops would pick him up, and I would have to get him out of jail. He was counting dead animals. One night he counted sixteen dogs, eight cats, two opossums, and an armadillo. I was never one to notice road kill, but those numbers seemed high. And most had not been hit. Their bodies were intact, but their skin was blistered and sloughing off, as if they were molting. They had made the highway their graveyard.
Theodore was the only one in the world who noticed the little animals. There were animals in the news, alright, but the new ones, the trogg dogs. There had been reports before, from hermits and separatists, of mangy, canine-like “wild things,” with fleshless jaws, yellow teeth, and long narrow skulls, living deep in the forests. Now reputable people were seeing them along the highway, eating road kill. At first the television and online channels played the stories for laughs. The news anchors had found a new Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster, and gave it a catchy name as the last perfect gift from God.
We all needed the distraction. We had to talk about something, something other than the daily virus reports, the deaths, the new quarantine zones. Were the trogg dogs a virus fantasy from diseased minds? A brief biological joke, bottom-feeders that spilled out as the world tipped over? Did they come out of the holes we drilled in the ground, too close to the bad place? Maybe they were a government experiment, to create a new species that would keep the highways clean?
Whatever the answer, all the roadkill was gone, even the people. Doctors said there would be bodies all over the roads, the old, the weak, the homeless, who would be dropping in the street, creating greater health hazards. But we never saw the bodies. There was that brief, fleeting moment of harmony with the trogg dogs.
Most people don’t remember that – there was a time that we thought we could live with them. The government didn’t start its “Curb the Wild” program until babies, healthy babies, started disappearing from backyards and open patios. It paid a slew of experts to create its new wild-animal eradication program. No animal could live unchecked in the wild. Wasn’t that what caused our problems to begin with? All the birds and animals living unfettered in nature, where disease could spread freely?
So all animals living in the wild would be monitored, and those that could not be monitored would be relocated to confinement camps, and those that could not be relocated would be destroyed. They were able to implement this plan for many of the smaller animals – but they did not capture a single trogg dog. Dealing with those creatures was expensive – and the government had no money.
So I knew, it was a matter of time before a trogg dog snatched Theodore from the road. Our neighbor saw one, red eyes glowing in her backyard. Theodore could be gone on his next roadkill excursion. I had to store him somewhere. I contacted Dawn, told her Theodore was on his way up. She had been e-mailing him for weeks about the seal slaughter – graphic details about what the killers were doing to the seals and what she wanted to do to the killers. They were big men, all of them, and would taunt her and the other protestors with seal intestines. She had her own gruesome fantasies – she would scalp them, burn off their skin, sink their ships, freeze their genitals and then pound them off with a hammer. But she was there as a camera operator. Her job was to record, not to intervene. Watch from a distance. In all that open space. She stayed behind the camera. And Theodore could stand behind her. Where could he be safer?
I got Theodore a flight to Toronto. It wasn’t easy. At the time there were a few planes left in the air but no commercial flights. I had to buy two charter tickets from the university, two “backseat” tickets on research flights, first to Houston’s Bush Airport and then to Toronto Pearson, where Dawn would meet him. Theodore was willing – it wasn’t in his character to refuse – so he got on a small plane, empty except for crates of lab samples, and went to Houston.
Dawn e-mailed me later. That’s how I know he survived the flights.
She didn’t talk about the seals. She talked about Theodore, with lots of detail. I had to read her note three times before I could remember everything. He had had a five-hour layover in Houston’s barren airport. The terminals were empty. The shops were closed. The water fountains and bathrooms were all dry.
Fortunately Houston was the third airport in the nation to go full automation, and they had done a good job, thanks to the mistakes of the first two. Theodore passed the automated ticket and biometric scans and got a neat printout of his gate assignment. Inside, all the televisions were on, tuned to the same channel that replayed past Super Bowls. The smell of a vanilla-lemon antiseptic rinse lingered in the air. The PA system was reciting messages at regular intervals, “Welcome to Houston, the hub of southern hospitality,” “Please ensure your mag strips are attached to your luggage before you enter the scanning station,” “Be sure to enter the scan log before using the restrooms,” “Please remove all face masks when you are in a breathing station.”
The airport was functioning fine without the people.
The problem for Theodore was in passing the time. He decided to ride the terminal rail system, like it was a rollercoaster. Turned out to be a popular idea. There were two other people on the train, the first people he had seen at the airport. Except he never saw their faces. And he never saw them move. They sat side by side at the front of the car. Theodore sat in the back and didn’t speak, standard moves for him. The two people were staring forward – at least he guessed they were staring – and sitting so still as if they had held that same position for hours, days, weeks, and they would continue to sit that way long after he was gone. The only movement was in the hair. They both had shoulder-length brown hair, kinky from the humidity and falling out in giant clumps. The train track was smooth, but the slightest jostle dislodged sweat-soaked hair tangles, which slid down the seats like freed slugs hoping to find soil. The exposed scalps were pale, with clamshell ridges and festering sores.
Theodore ran off the train at the next stop, not sure who he was leaving behind. He was two terminals away from his departing gate, but he walked the whole way, trying to shake the ghost sensations of the train vibrations. The only way to cross terminals on foot was through connecting corridors, wide halls with curved blue walls and droning people movers. These rolling walkways bordered the walls, going in opposite directions, with waist-high silvery rails and the persistent message, “Stand to the right to let others pass by.” The corridors were barren – Theodore could have ridden the floor like a body surfer. I might have done that. But Theodore, with his legs still shaky from the train, avoided these rolling walkways, walking down the middle instead.
Dawn got a little heavy with the description here, and I wondered at first why she went through every painful detail of the walk back, especially since Theodore passed the first corridor without incident. It was in the second corridor, the last long stretch before his terminal and departure gate, where the person in the story stopped being Theodore. He reached the midpoint of the hallway, automated walkways humming on both sides, when he heard scratching. It was coming from one of the people movers, hidden behind the rail. Thick claws scraping, squealing against the metal walls. A growl echoed in the darkened hall.
When I first read this account, I imagined Theodore standing on that flat airport carpet, frozen on the question of whether to run or remain, like a deer right before a car rolls over it. I figured he’d be food. I was reading a story about the death of my brother. But he ran. The growl escalated into a howl, and the clicks and scraps of claws sounded like pursuit, but the thing was on the wrong people mover, rolling in the opposite direction, and it never caught up to Theodore. He made it to his gate and escaped Houston. I tried to picture him sitting safe and secure on the plane, but I can’t imagine what he looks like anymore.
Dawn was convinced, whatever creature was after Theodore, it was the same thing that was jumping along the melting ice floes in Canada, eating dead seals and polar bears, attacking hunters and protestors alike. She didn’t watch the news, so she didn’t have a name for the trogg dogs. Instead, she described the sounds of men and women screaming as these dog animals dragged them into the darkness, their red eyes burning bright in anticipation of a hearty meal.
But Theodore had survived. Not just survived. He had stood a few feet from something that wanted to open up his belly and eat his insides. And he had survived. And he and Dawn were traveling south.
The blind man guided me out of the barn. A boy was sitting on a collapsed log, scanning the treetops. We passed near him, but the boy kept his blue eyes in the sky, a rifle across his thighs.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Looking for birds,” he said, eyes unflinching.
“So I can kill ‘em. And kill the virus.”
“There aren’t birds here for miles.”
“I know. Who do you think got rid of them.” He patted his gun.
“Good luck.” I walked back to my Impala with the blind man close behind. I could hear the two escorts. They were less cautious now.
“I’m sure we can come to an amicable trade,” the blind man was saying as I opened my trunk. He moved to stand next to me, and I was scared, a brief flitting fear, that he had fooled me. He could see, and he would spy the contents of my trunk and shout out for the guards to shoot. But he held his patronizing grin. He really was blind. And he was standing between me and the guards, blocking their view of the trunk interior. I grabbed one of the steak knives sheathed on the side and stabbed him in the throat. The knife stifled any verbal warning. I had plenty of time to grab a handgun and shoot both escorts. The shots echoed in the forest, but it would be several minutes before the rest of the group could run to this spot.
There was a slight incline on the other side of the road, and I rolled the bodies down the forest floor, where the little creatures could feast on the bodies, at least for a while. The group would find them. They would know what happened and who did what, and they would be talking about it for months, years to come, if they were able to survive that long. I felt a swell of pride – twice in one day. I wiped the knife with some leaves and scattered the bloody evidence on the road. Then I started up my Impala and continued north on the highway.