You know that expression “you can’t take it with you”? That shit does not apply to resentment.
Violent death aside, the thing that really chaps my ass is that I saw it coming. I knew better than to turn my back on the creepy, yoked-up, tatted kid. He was trouble, right from the start.
This kid they called Pope, he was never quite all there. The other guys, they all carried tension in their shoulders every day. They knew that none of this was going to end well. They understood that waking up day after day didn’t make them lucky. It made them outliers.
Sooner or later the math was going to catch up to them. One day, probably real soon, the statistics they’d been dodging were going to sneak up and pop a cap in their collective asses. And nobody wants to die alone.
Boy was the joke on them.
Pope didn’t act like everyone else though. He just went about his day, like civilization hadn’t gone to shit and there weren’t clean-up crews out there just waiting to find him and fuck up his day. I don’t know if that’s just who he was, kind of a cold, aloof asshole, or if there was something seriously damaged in his brain.
Either way, that detached coolness is what eventually led Scout to thinking that maybe Pope was the bad apple in the bunch. Anybody who could keep calm and carry on while everyone else around him was dying might deserve a little extra watching.
Scout, man . . . he meant well, but he was an idiot. By the time he got around to thinking maybe all this was an inside job, there were only three of us left. And paranoia made four.
Those were not good times. But at least they were brief.
When I first met up with Scout’s wild bunch, there’d been five of them: Scout, Pope, a tall good-looking kid named Valentine, a total creeper who went by Roofie (He’d incidentally been awaiting trial for date rape when the world had gone to hell. Some guys have all the luck.), and an old man they called Paco.
In fairness, I never learned Paco’s real name. He didn’t speak a lick of English, and apparently no one in Scout’s group had bothered to do the whole me-Tarzan-you-Jane routine with him.
If it bothered him to be called Paco, he never let on. He just seemed like a lonely, old dude who liked hearing other people’s voices while he walked. Even if the words meant nothing to him.
You remember that thing people have against dying alone? It supersedes language barriers.
When Scout’s group took me in, they made it clear I’d have to walk all day, every day. That’s all that was left for any of us anymore, just a mass migration to God knew where. The only direction we had was the one in front of us, and every day when the sun came up, we packed up what little we had and beat feet until it was too dark to go any farther.
We walked to stay ahead of the clean-up crews, though truth be told, none of Scout’s group had ever laid eyes on one since escaping from their own little towns and villages. But the threat of those crews, real or imagined, was enough to keep us going every day.
Momentum meant life. Staying put was akin to moving up your scheduled meeting for death. It might seem like a good idea to the weary, but no one ever ends up being ready for it when it arrives.
I’d been traveling with the group for about a week and a half when Paco died. When Roofie first walked over to the old man’s sleeping bag, I think most of the guys in camp thought maybe Paco had passed on in his sleep.
They got over that idea in a hurry.
Paco’s bruised neck and bulging eyes indicated the man’s transition from life had not been an easy one. Adding insult to injury, his tongue protruded obscenely from his mouth and the stench of feces hung heavy in the air.
Roofie gagged and tried to cover his mouth. “God damn! I can already smell him. How is that even possible?”
“It’s because he shit himself,” Valentine said. The kid’s face was gray and grim, but he made a good show of ignoring the odor that was making everyone else a little queasy.
“Seriously?” Roofie asked.
“It happens,” Pope said. His voice was flat and direct, without a hint of emotion. “All the time.”
Roofie gave Pope a nervous look. “How do you know?”
“Because I’ve seen it before,” Pope replied.
Everyone kind of stopped for a moment to take that in, but no one pressed him for more information. Apparently satisfied that he’d said all that needed saying on the subject, Pope walked away and began collecting his stuff.
I glanced over at Scout. He chewed on the edge of his finger while he stared down at Paco. Aside from muttering “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” when we’d first found the body, Scout hadn’t had anything helpful to add to the conversation.
“You okay, chief?” I asked him.
“We might want to think about getting out of here as soon as possible,” I said.
“Sounds like a good idea,” Scout said.
If he’d been the de facto leader of the group before, it was obvious he had no taste for it now. But as far as I could tell, no one else was going to step up and take his place.
The death had shaken Scout’s crew, but not because one of their own had been killed. What had really spooked them was that no one had heard anything. It had happened right under their noses, while they’d been sleeping, and the fact that it had been Paco instead of one of them was just the luck of the draw.
There was a brief discussion about whether or not we should try to bury the old man, but the desire for immediate flight overrode any responsibilities we felt for the social mores of our previous lives. In the end, we chose to zip Paco into his sleeping bag and cover the open end with a large rock. At most it would keep the animals at bay for maybe a day, but it seemed better than doing nothing at all.
That night we began rotating watch duty, but it didn’t make a difference.
Valentine had his ticket punched two days later. He was doused with accelerant and set on fire while he slept. The camp woke up to the kid’s screams as he tore off into the woods, a human torch in search of relief. He never found it, and after about sixty yards, his body finally stopped running.
There was no talk about burying Valentine, and no one even looked in the direction of his charred remains the next morning.
The following night, Roofie waited until it was his turn at watch, and then he lit out on his own. I guess he figured he had a better chance of staying alive if he was only looking out for his own ass. It was a bad calculation.
We found him on the path the next day. He was seated with his back against a tree. His neck was broken, and he had a stunned look frozen on his face.
“At least he didn’t shit himself,” Pope said. They were the only words he offered on the subject before he continued on his way.
Scout, on the other hand, had become a twitchy son-of-a-bitch. He barely slept anymore, and the mental fatigue was really starting to take its toll. His eyes flicked from Roofie’s body to Pope’s back and then back again.
Scout gnawed at the raw ends of his fingers as he shuffled over to me. “Please . . .” he begged. “Don’t let him get me.”
I put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeezed. “He won’t. I promise.”
I took first watch that night. Pope nodded off immediately, but Scout tossed and turned on his bedroll, sometimes muttering to himself in his fitful, restless sleep. Deep into the night, when Scout’s muscles finally relaxed and I heard the slow, rhythmic pattern of his breathing, I laid the bulk of my weight across his frail frame and choked the life out of his body.
It was an easy kill, the easiest of the group so far, and that left only one loose end to tie up. Then I could rendezvous with the rest of the clean-up crew and get my new assignment.
I’d planned on sticking a knife in that tattooed freak’s belly and letting him bleed out, but I hadn’t known he’d been watching me finish off Scout.
I saw a brief flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye, and when I turned to see what it was, Pope clocked me in the face with a rock. The force of the blow knocked me from Scout’s body, and before I could react, that muscle-bound asshole was on me.
I lay on my back as Pope straddled me. He pressed one massive hand against the side of my face, grinding the opposite cheek into the dirt and rocks beneath me. He leaned in close, until I could feel his breath, and then he rested his forearm against my throat.
“You killed my friends,” he hissed.
I was wrong about the kid being an emotionless, fucking robot. He knew how to hate. It was obvious in the words he spoke and in the way he said them.
I should have killed him first. It was a bitter realization that came far too late.
Pope shifted his weight forward and pressed down on my windpipe. I bucked my body and clawed at the kid’s arm as I fought for breath. Hateful little stars twinkled before me as the edges of my vision began to darken and then to close in on me.
I was angry. I was scared. I hurt!
. . . And then I was.
For a long time there was nothing else. Just darkness.
And then there was you.