PLEASE READ: This story was inspired by The Road by Cormac McCarthy, so I guess it's a crossover of sorts, but none of the history from the book applies other than the fact that America is now a burned and barren wasteland of ash. In honor of McCarthy's work, I will not use quotations when a character is speaking - once you get into the swing of it, it's really easy to tell the narrative from the dialogue, though. I think that's it for now. Please enjoy, and, of course, leave a review.
It was raining. Not the dramatic rain complete with thunder and lightning, but quiet, grey rain. Just enough to leave you damp and cold and miserable, and unable to start a fire. The man shivered and pulled his army jacket tighter around his body, pushing himself further into the meager shelter of the fallen tree trunk. He had decided to stay the night in the small hollow between the grey earth and the soft rotting wood when it had started to rain earlier on in the afternoon, so now he was huddled in a feeble attempt to conserve what little heat his starving body was generating. From where he lay, he couldn't see the road, winding through the grey landscape down a steep embankment on the other side of the tree trunk.
The man's face was half-covered by a scraggly brownish beard, one that hadn't been trimmed in a couple of years, at least, and his eyes were hazel, framed beneath by deep sunken shadows. His nails were short only because he'd developed a habit of biting them years ago, and they were caked with dirt. His skin was chapped and peeling from the cold; his lips cracked and bleeding a little. He would have grimaced at his own smell, but he'd grown so used to it that he only noticed how strong the odor was when he purposely thought about it.
Yellowed teeth clattering, he pulled his hood up over his head and tucked his arms closer to his torso, comforted by the feel of the small shotgun strapped behind his back. The gun wouldn't be seen by anybody who might approach him while he was sleeping, and gave him an upper hand that was beyond priceless these days. He'd forgotten where he'd acquired the gun, it was so long ago. How many days had he been on the move through this charred silent wasteland? How many summers? Winters? Years? He'd lost track.
He'd had someone with him, a long time ago, but he could barely remember his face. Partners, they'd been. Watching each other's backs. His name… the man couldn't remember. If he tried real hard, the man could scarcely recall a ghost of a memory, sitting by a tiny fire with his partner and staring up at the ashen dusk.
The man closed his eyes and slept fitfully.
When he awoke, there was sound. It wasn't much, just the soft noises produced by worn shoes on cracked pavement in the near distance, but it was enough to waken the man. He scrambled out from his sleeping place and peered over the tree trunk that had given him shelter; far below, on the grey outline of the road, were people. Three of them.
The man felt his heart race and he swallowed, ignoring the empty moan of his stomach as he crept through the trees, following the tiny group with his gun gripped in his hands in anticipation. He couldn't recall the last time he ate. Four days ago? Didn't matter. He pushed all thoughts of food out of his mind as he drew close enough for him to observe the strangers, but stayed far enough away for them not to hear his ragged, torn boots on the still-damp leaves. He squinted, shielding his eyes from the weak grey glow of the sun. (It wasn't really necessary, just a very old habit.)
He frowned, studying. These strangers were not one of the groups of bandits he'd encountered every so often while on the road. One of them was small, a child. The other two were adults, one male, one female. He couldn't tell the sex of the small one.
But bandits or not, he still had to be cautious.
He kept his gun at the ready as he followed them, his movements animalistic.
Night came and went, and the man still followed the strangers. He didn't think he'd seen another person in the last several months, at least, but he had no way of knowing for sure. It rained again, making it easier to disguise the sounds of his feet. Once, the man had snapped a twig underfoot, and the tallest member of the strange trio had looked up, watching, stock-still. The man had stayed frozen in place until the stranger finally turned and continued with his companions.
Now, it was evening, almost dark. The man was crouched beside a boulder a safe distance from the strangers' fire, watching the glow with eyes half-curious, half-envious. Eventually, he laid down in the dead, ash-covered leaves, closing his eyes.
What woke him up was not the sound of the strangers stirring before moving on, but a short series of sliding clicks as the hammer of a revolver was pulled back, ready to fire. His eyes flew open, pupils dilating. The tallest stranger stood over him, a towering shadow without a face. The nose of the revolver glinted in the morning light, aimed directly between the man's eyes.
What—what do you want? he asked, his hands held up, his voice gravelly.
Who are you?
Nobody. I'm nobody, I swear.
Why are you following us?
Following us! the stranger shouted, jabbing at the air with the gun.
I'm not followin' you, the man promised, his voice cracking from lack of use.
The stranger's eyes narrowed, and he knelt onto one skinny knee in the dirt, letting the man get a look at his face. The stranger wasn't any better off than he was – sunken cheeks and eyes, greyed skin, dirty hair and clothes, stained teeth. Skeletal. A suspicious glint in his eyes that showed he trusted no one but himself and his. The stranger leaned in close, the gun hovering dangerously in the air mere inches from the man's nose. He spoke in a low undertone.
You so much as look, he said slowly, at any of us the wrong way… and I will kill you.
The man nodded hastily. The stranger stood back up, turning to go back down the hill to his companions. Before the stranger could disappear, the man pulled himself to his feet and in one fluid movement whipped his shotgun up to aim at the stranger's retreating back.
Stop! Or I'll shoot!
The stranger halted, turning around to face the man again, his eyes flashing in the shadow of his hood.
Food, the man said, glancing down the hill to where woman and child huddle together in the early morning chill. You have food.
No, we don't.
The stranger then took a step forward, his expression melting into shock and amazement. What's your name? he asked.
None o' your damn business.
I'll give you food if you tell me your name.
The man didn't lower the shotgun. Food first, he said.
Okay. Come on.
The woman and the child pulled closer together when they saw the man, who kept his gun at the ready, though it was no longer aimed at the stranger. The child was a girl, with stringy blond hair tangled and filled with dirt. The woman had almond-shaped eyes, her hair hidden by a faded green wool knit cap pulled low over her brow.
Who is that? the woman snapped. Why is he here?
The stranger didn't answer. He dug around in a bag that the man had seen him carrying over the past two days, pulling out a small tin. It's not much, he said. It's all I can give you.
What are you doing? the woman shrieked.
Daddy? said the child.
It's okay, Summer, the stranger told her. Don't worry.
The man took the tin from the stranger and hungrily swallowed what was left in it, only three small bites' worth of an unidentifiable substance that was probably supposed to be refried beans.
What's your name?
It is to me.
Why? We know each other?
The man narrowed his eyes.
Your name is Noah, the stranger said.
The man's voice faded to a whisper. How the hell'd you know that?
Don't you remember me? Don't you remember us?
The man looked at the woman, who looked just as confused. What are you doing, Finn? What are you talking about? she demanded of her companion.
The man's eyes widened, his jaw fell. The strangers' hollowed faces suddenly fit into a distant memory so old it felt like nothing more than a dream.
Oh my God.