This was originally written for Yuletide 2011. In a hilarious (but disappointing) turn of events, the person requesting the story actually asked for lots of dialogue.. Well lets just say they lucked out there... I'm not a dialogue heavy author. I don't know why, but whenever I write dialogue it comes out wrong and just ends up annoying me when I read over it again. I think it's because, as a primarily descriptive author, dialogue always leaves me trying to squeeze in all the information of what else is happening as well, and it then comes out as a big mash of complex text and grammar.
I think they still liked it (at least I hope they did!)
Regardless, I actually really do like this story - so much that I keep messing around with a sequel in what little writing time I have these days. I've always been a fan of post apocalyptic fiction (provided the main character doesn't die!) so to actually write one myself was really satisfying. My writing also tends towards the depressing / dark, so it fits in perfectly. Enjoy.
New Orleans is well on its way back into a bayou swamp by the time he arrives on the outskirts. The smell has been in his nostrils for the last hundred miles - cancerous concrete, charred and rotting timber, mould encrusted fabrics, and under it all the stench of decaying flesh. It's the last one that still surprises him the most.
He'd been on the hunt for two years now. Two years for bodies to turn to desiccated skeletons, two years for flesh to return to the earth, yet somehow he is still surrounded by the smell of billions of dead that manage to linger. Crouched atop the large steel pole of a rusting McDonalds sign, sheltered from the faint light of the moon by the curve of one fading golden arch, equally golden eyes scan the remains of the fallen city.
Absently, Tommy wonders how long ago he had his last burger. Served on a fresh bun, cooked on a grill, with fries boiling hot straight from the deep fryer and eaten in an air conditioned restaurant sitting on a dry, clean(ish) seat. There've been too many times he's thought something was "last" over the previous two years.
Some have been harder than others.
Securely wrapped in its plastic cover and strapped to his bicep with a synthetic belt, it had been a long time since his phone had last had power, and even longer since there'd been any signal. It never left his side, regardless, because sometimes, when he woke in the middle of the night paralysed with terror and drenched in another layer of sweat and grime, he could grasp it in clawed hands and pretend, just for a moment, that it would ring and tell him everything was alright. He could pretend that he hadn't had his last call.
"Things are pretty bad here, Tommy…"
Lori had been as tough and no-nonsense as always, even eight years after school. The tinny voice from the phone speaker hadn't been panicked, but the underlying stress had set every bone in his body on edge. If Lori was barely keeping it together, Merton had to be going crazy.
He had to be going crazy, yet even eight years later he was still mad enough or upset enough that he hadn't been willing to pick up the phone and call Tommy himself.
"I'm… I'm sorry Mert… I just… I don't feel that way, you know? You're the best friend I could ever ask for, but…"
"Yeah, Tommy, I understand, I get it ok… I'm just gonna go pack. Early flight and all."
There'd been a moment, as Merton walked away from him in the small diner, that Tommy had wanted to call him back, tell him that he didn't feel that way now, but that maybe, maybe someday, he could. He could, if Merton just didn't leave, if he stayed with Tommy now.
But he was still only eighteen - confused, worried, upset. Confused by strange emotions that he shouldn't have been feeling, worried about what it would mean for his future and upset that his best friend was leaving him behind. Leaving him behind to chase ghosts and goblins with a witch doctor from Luisiana. And so the door had swung shut and the dark haired goth had boarded the plane the next morning without even a call.
It was hard to believe, sitting on this rusting pole in what was now a dank swamp, that it had been the last time he'd seen Merton. Another last of something - a last phonecall, a last vision.
When he and Lori had eventually called it quits, it only seemed natural that she would leave town. Lori was fiery, too big for suburbia, and when he'd received a text a couple of months later that said simply "He looks good, Tommy. You should come and visit." He hadn't needed to ask who the subject was.
Of course Lori would go to Merton.
It had been three years then, since Merton had left, but he knew that they'd kept in touch. Had seen the way she would casually turn the screen of her phone away sometimes when a message came in, saw the occasional package that arrived when they were facing a particularly difficult foe, followed by Lori's miraculous discovery of the right artefact to beat it.
"You should come and visit." Except he couldn't. Because even three years on, the invitation had come from Lori, not Merton. Merton didn't want to see him. So he hadn't gone.
That'd been the last time he'd seen Lori too. If she ever came back to town to visit her family she never mentioned it.
A small scrape of leaves brought him out of his reverie, and he glanced down to where a small grey wolf stood, warily watching the reed strewn car park.
"Not much longer, girl, I promise." He watched her ears swivel to pick up his whispered words but her eyes never strayed from their careful surveillance.
She'd been with him for twelve months. Two wolves on a lonely trek. He was sure she'd have left by now, run off in search of a pack of her own. She'd clearly escaped from a zoo or wildlife preserve during the fall, and he'd known from the outset that it was an alliance of convenience. She'd been lost and alone, no wolves for hundreds if not thousands of miles, with a cub to raise. He'd been exhausting himself trying to stay awake twenty four hours a day, lest he be caught while he slept. In return for watching over him while he slept, he'd offered claws that could open cans of food and defend her cub.
The cub that hadn't made it.
They'd walked into an ambush outside Dallas; been hit from all sides by an enemy whose night vision was even better than theirs; an enemy who flowed out of empty storefronts and homes like a never ending tide.
His wolf had gone mad with the battle, he could hear himself snarling, feel his teeth ripping into fetid flesh as his claws gouged until they felt bone.
When it had all been over, his clothes had been drenched in so much blood that he couldn't ever hope to get it out. That'd been the last time he'd worn his high school jersey - the signatures and memories of his classmates obscured by dark, drying stains.
It had also been the last time they saw the cub.
He'd found her lying over the small body, barely audible snuffles coming from her muzzle as she licked the now sluggishly seeping crimson from the gash where its tiny throat had been. He hadn't tried to move her, hadn't tried to take the still warm body from her, until eventually she lifted herself from the mud and dirt and then his own howls joined hers in the eerily still night.
He'd expected her to leave then, the bonds of their tenuous little family shattered, but the next day then the next and the next after that she had continued following him.
He'd kept his senses tuned on the lookout for other wolves but they hadn't crossed a scent or heard so much as a whimper. Whether she thought her chances were better with him, or whether she thought they were now pack mates he didn't know. Either way he was glad for the company, knowing he could fall asleep at night under watchful eyes even better than his own.
"Things are pretty bad here, Tommy…"
It'd taken him two years to make the trek across now hostile territory. Two years without human allies or contact. Two years since he'd run out on his parents. Two years without cars, trains, planes or phones. Two years, watching as the world collapsed around him, until sometimes he thought he was the only one left. All because of a phone call from an ex girlfriend, telling him without words that Merton needed him.
The scrape of leaves came again and his eyes darted to the swampy scrub that surrounded the slightly clearer area of the once car park. He'd been here too long already, spent precious moments staring at a long dead city that was already returning to the earth. As the breeze picked up though, wafting towards him from the direction of the city's now decaying heart; it brought with it the barest hint of a scent that made the entire peril worthwhile. Carried on the winds, the faintest trace of a smell that his wolf knew from all others, and he couldn't help the fanged smile that broke out on his face.
Merton had been to the city.
From this distance it was impossible to tell how old the scent was, but Merton had been here. He'd been here, and it had been after the end had begun. He'd been here after all the other humans had gone.
Tommy didn't know if he was still there, crouched in a bunker like hideout, or if he just visited regularly, or even if he'd moved on to another location entirely, but the wolf could tell Merton had been here, and that meant his true search could finally start.
With barely a thud he dropped to the shadowed ground and he and his companion faded silently back into the swamp they had come through, watching as the shadows opposite slowly began to solidify into nightmarish shapes.
He'd seen a lot of "lasts" in two years, lots of things he couldn't change. But this, "Early flight and all.", this he could change. He could make sure they had new conversations, new words, new futures. He could fill their minds with so many new memories, eventually their conversation in the diner would fade and be forgotten.
Not the last of something at all, just one of many.