They-

They came from the East.  No warning.  No governmental response.  No nothing… leaving death and destruction- the tearing down of all that was built, in their wake.

They came alone!  Knocking on doors in the middle of the day, feeding like the plague, the chant, ‘Vrykolakas, vrykolakas’ echoing from bone-white Cypress walls.

Unstoppable.  Unbeatable- stealing bodies and souls!

Little by little our world fell, one country, one state, one child at a time, until in the end only desolation and ruin remains.

That’s where I enter the picture- riding like the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse… and I carry retribution with me.

As with all plagues, there must be a reckoning.  I bring the reckoning!

     But it was long ago, and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far, and if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…

(1993) Album notes for Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell by Meat Loaf [booklet]. Virgin (CDV2710 – 7243 8 39067 27)

It was obvious from the stench and miasma that the animal had been dead for at least a week, matted fur, distended abdomen, all four paws pointed to the sky, a riotous feeding frenzy of flies playing tickle and tease.

Death can be contagion; as such he chose to steer clear.

The sun continued to beat down, baking the highway and countryside.  If he didn’t find shelter soon, it would do the same to his limbs.

It had been a hundred plus for as long as he could remember, and it looked like today would be more of the same.  There was no breeze to speak of, only whispers, and a cloudless expanse above.

Looking over his left shoulder, twin strips of asphalt bled off into the distance.  Before him, much of the same, just as blistering, just as motionless, and just as barren, which is why he chose the off-ramp in the first place.  He needed to find someplace else to be- someplace different than before.

With the world upon his shoulders, and what remained on his back, he continued his determined shuffle West, one dusty footstep followed by another.

Everything exposed was already blistered and red, his lips peeling, eyes nearly blinded from glare.  And yet, he continued as he always did, determined.  Driven.

Haunted.

‘No one ever said it was going to be easy.  Then again, no one ever said it would be this hot.’ His thoughts, like his words, seemed as baked and hardened as the asphalt beneath him.  “I could always break into a rain dance…” he began.  Then again, one look at the heavens above said no, deadpan steel-blue skies with not a cloud in sight.

It would take a hell of a lot more than a rain dance to break the current drought; it would take God drowning the world.

Upon reaching the top of the off-ramp, he had a decision to make.  He could cross the road before him and return to the highway below, in essence continuing his previous journey into the sun, the direction his shadow seemed to be leaning, or he could hang a hard right and head towards more of the same low rolling hills he had just previously traversed, or he could veer left towards the town of Summersville, population six hundred.

 Water running low, judging from the slosh at his left hip, the idea of running into people, if any still lived, haunted him.

The last time he was around people there had been gunfire.  Lots of gunfire.  “And that’s the last thing I need.”  This being said, “Looks like I’ll be hanging a right after all.”

An hour later found the highway all but swallowed up by the hills he had just entered, his shadow escaping as the sun continued its sky-high climb.

During his trek, he had stopped once, long enough to take a sip of water, brush the hair from his eyes and shift the pack on his back.  His tee-shirt, both weathered and worn, lay thin on the shoulders and continued its pattern of sticking and un-sticking.

Whether blistering hot or chilly as all get out, this part of the country couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind- and the further west he went, the worse this condition became.

He had been born long ago, to a good family.  His father, though strict, had taught him everything he would need to know on how to survive and become a man.  His mother had taught him all the finer things in life, such as what herbs to pick to flavor a soup just right, or how to care for his wounds.  She also taught him how to enjoy some of the simpler things in life- the way shadows seemed to grow long in the fall, or how a particular beam of sunlight could break free from the clouds and hi-light a particular patch of ground in the distance.  There were other things as well, how clouds seemed to roll and roil just before a mid-Summer’s storm.

The silence in the fields momentarily drew his attention elsewhere, away from his memories, until he realized that these fields were the same as all the other fields he had passed thru, non-descript and knee-high in grasses and weeds, all rolling green.

A single speck trolling a sullen sky caused him to absentmindedly reach for his journal.  He had a habit of chronicling his journey, had been since the beginning.

He often found comfort in the art of sketching what he saw, nothing grand or all that inspiring, but like his mom, he found joy in the simplest of things.  Once he discovered a wildflower, white petal crowing green leaves, struggling against the elements, eking out an existence between the cracks of an asphalt highway.

Another time it was a weathered and oddly tilted fence post.  The fence itself had long ago vanished, having returned to rust and dust, but in mute testimony, the post remained, another bent and aged squatter wandering the greater plains, much as himself.

According to his latest figures, he had covered almost thirty miles since the morning.  Not bad considering that his feet, back, and shoulders ached it would be a whole lot easier if he were to list what didn’t ache, rather then what did.

     The sun was a good three fingers from the horizon when he came across the mile marker, a reflective green and white rectangle approximately twelve inches long and half as wide.  The sign itself was attached to a galvanized metal pole and held approximately five feet off the ground by two galvanized bolts.

The sign read; Mile 244’.

Allowing the pack to slide from his back, he gently lowered it to the ground before opening.  Reaching in he quickly and carefully retrieved three objects.

The first object he retrieved was the most important, his father’s sextant.  This instrument he kept in a worn and threadbare black bag.  The second object was equally as important as the first but for an entirely different reason, his journal, chronicler of events.

The third and last object to be retrieved was a well-worn and much-thumbed copy of The Farmer’s Almanac dated 1982.

Three-quarters of the way through the journal lay a thin red ribbon.  Opening the journal to this point; today’s entry, he hesitantly lifted the ribbon, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply- the faint scent of lilacs remained, and continued to amaze him even after all these years.

Lowering the ribbon, he set the opened journal across his knees and removed the sextant from its protective bag.  With nary a shadow behind him, he raised the sextant to his eye, sighted in on the Moon, a silvery smudge barely a fingers width above the horizon, and measured the angle between it and the sun.  Locking and rocking the instrument, he made note of the indicated angle in degrees and seconds in the left-hand margin of his journal.  He then opened the Farmer’s Almanac, cross-checked the angle he had just measured, to the correct table to find the time in Greenwich Mean, before comparing this figure to the intricate watch he wore on his left wrist.

‘Still off by more than a minute.’  Considering that his watch was constantly being updated by the atomic clocks located deep beneath the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington DC[1] this seemed an impossibility, one he chose to ignore.

His next two measurements, which he also jotted down, indicated his longitude and latitude- his current position in the world- 38°25’2.08″N by 96°33’25.35″W.

Finishing, he carefully repacked each item, tightened his straps, and then re-shouldered his backpack before continuing his journey north-

There was a place he needed to be, a sanctuary some would call it, others Nirvana.

He called it home.  And according to his measurements, he still had a long way to go to reach it.

Nightfall would catch him stretched out in a local grotto, eyes heavy, heels kicked up to a velvety black sky full of unknown stars spinning high overhead.

And in that darkness, he dreamt-

     Of a time when he was yet a child.  His father would take him out into the great night and point his face towards the heavens.

‘Do you see that’, his father would ask?  He would shake his head no.

‘See what Daddy?’

With his father’s lips only inches from his ear, ‘Those seven stars right there.’

Following his father’s lead, ‘That’s the Big Dipper, a very important group of stars, son.  So important that they could save your life one day.’

‘How Daddy…?’  How could pinpoints of light possibly save his life?

‘Do you see how those first three seem to form a handle, while the last four form the dipper portion?’  He shook his head.  ‘Let your eyes follow those last two stars, son…’

He did.

‘Now imagine a straight line being drawn across the sky with its beginning, its point of origin, being those two stars.’

Sudden realization, like a shade being withdrawn, ‘I see them, Daddy.’

‘Good. Following our imaginary line, notice that after only a few degrees, we run into what appears to be a much smaller dipper, one in which the handle seems inverted as if flipped inside out.’

‘Yes-

‘That bright star, the one the Big Dipper points too, that’s Polaris, son, what we call the Northern Star.’  His father faces him, ‘If you are ever lost, my son, if you ever lose your way, just seek out the Northern Star- it will always lead you home.’

This would become a lesson he would never forget.

Morning- and with it an alien landscape.

In many places, like old bones or relics from a time long past; shale, granite, and limestone thrust themselves up from the earth, while high overhead, the same desolate sky.

He would suffer three more days of this same heat, this same desolate terrain, before running across the first real signs of ‘them’ since his run-in at the gas station, all those many miles back.

The Gas Station:

Like a mausoleum, it seemed to raise itself from the rocky soil, with its sandblasted walls, dusty brown paint, and streaked glass.  An abandoned- long-abandoned- filling station, its four walls streaked in shadow and ochre blush.

One large garage door was all that remained of three.  It was closed.  The remaining bays, minus doors, were nothing more than blotches of darkness glaring out across the highway- like a dead man dreaming in the noonday sun, the entire structure seemed to be slumbering.

A large plate-glass window remained intact in front, with no signs hanging, its surface streaked in ripples of gold and blue… rainbows of refracted and reflected light.

The front door, currently situated at an odd angle, hung open, its darkness beckoning, while at the same time repulsing- a yawning threshold to a much darker interior.

The station’s pumps were long since gone, only the twisted remains of rusted pipe remained, poking up from an oval-shaped concrete island.  Overhead, what used to be a canopied awning, now skeletal and torn, its four large posterns pointing at odd angles towards the sky.

The parking lot around the filling station lay broken and shattered, with tufts of yellowed prairie grass waving in-between.

Pretty much, the place was a pop-up picture opened to the American countryside in a book about dirt.

His mind drifted to the same gas station; some forty years prior-

Entering the station proper, his senses had been immediately overwhelmed by a variety of smells: the deep damp stench of oil, gasoline and compressed air- the sharp tickle of fresh rubber mixed with Wrigley’s Double mint Gum?

There was something else as well, something he couldn’t place-

Across a grease-smeared and scratched glass counter stood a register, unattended, much like the station itself.  Beside the register, a three-tiered rack of Wrigley’s gum, rows of green, blue, and yellow.

On the other side of the register lay a stack of ratty edged maps, a cup of broken and chewed pens and pencils, and one of those four by four boards with a nail driven through it.  Impaled on the nail, a mishmash of old receipts stacked an inch thick.

The wall across from the counter held a dusty rack of Ever-Ready car batteries, besides it, a dented can overflowing with greasy shop rags.

A tattered calendar turned to December 2019, seemed to round things out, hanging limply above the battery rack.

Other than an overturned chair behind the counter, and a coat rack holding an umbrella beside the door, there was not much else to catch his eye, or hold his attention-

Move forward forty years-

One hand on the door frame, I cautiously entered the gas station.  Instead of oil, gas and compressed air, my senses were assaulted by the stench of dry rot, disuse, and dirt.  Yellowed wallpaper, peeling in strips, lay on the worn linoleum floor, along with mounds of dried grass and weeds.  An abandoned bird’s nest of daub and mud adorned three of the corners.

A stack of worn and fingered phone books lay haphazardly stacked against the far wall.

The glass countertop of yesteryear had been replaced with plywood.  There was also no register.  Gone were the days of Wrigley’s gum, paper widgets holding business receipts, and a year-old calendar opened to December.

I paused a moment to gather my thoughts-

Sudden thunder, thunder, thunder as the wall next to me hammer twice; sheetrock lifting outward before exploding in a cloud of white dust.  Instantly my hearing is gone, what was initially sharp, has become muffled silence.

I immediately drop to the floor, fragments of wall raining down around me.  From the darkness beyond the office, three brilliant strobes of light which seem to reach towards me in ever-expanding rolls.

My world has become one of cordite and gunpowder, smoke, dust, and debris.

Right hand reaching, I feel the steel before I pull it, Lex Talionis- the Law of Retaliation.  In one smooth motion, I bring its comforting weight and steel to bear-

The last time I was in this situation had been back at in Omaha- Three souls lost their lives that day, all by my hand, and all because of ‘them.’

Always, they seemed to be ahead of me, while I remain what feels like, three steps behind.  At least at the diner, there had been some warning, some notice given, I simply hadn’t wandered in oblivious… not like here and now.

Back then my entrance into the diner had been preceded by a star, its shape seemingly painted by a child’s hand, chalk white, on the top step below the front entrance.  Next to a crescent moon, I’d learned to keep my eyes open.  Not this time though, there had been no star painted outside, no crescent moon above the door, no upside-down ‘For Sale’ signs propped up or hanging in the front window, only ambush and gunfire.

They were getting smarter.

Strained silence with after-images of light floating and darting.  Outside, a golden-red coyote pauses in mid-stride, seemingly caught halfway between this side of the highway and the next, its head turns towards the station, ears cocked, tail tucked.

Between one breath and the next, she is gone, vanishing into the afternoon’s silence and glare.

The coyote had been in Omaha as well, only afterward, not before, like some harbinger of doom!

That, or death!

Rolling to my right, would bring me beyond the counter and into the space between it and the wall, directly in front of the backroom door.  I feel it may be my only chance at surprise, and probably what the other party feels to be my only recourse as well.

A moment before I act, my eyes are drawn to my right hand, to the word ‘Justice’ tattooed in blue across the knuckles, and crosshairs blazoned across the first joint of my trigger finger

I roll out and bring ‘Retribution’ to bear, while at the same time squeezing off two thunderous rounds, afterimages of light and smoke.  I continue to move, bringing myself to the other side of the door frame, out of breath but heartbeat steady.

My backpack remains where I dropped it, just outside the front door.

Silence reigns.

A glance assures me that the coyote is gone… only then do I notice the sign, a star, finger smeared in white and ochre on the linoleum floor just inside the threshold where baking sunlight meets the floor.

Beads of sweat break from my brow and run down my nose.

A fly is buzzing around, making itself a nuisance.

Errant strands of hair stick to my face.

It is the little things that are irritating in times like these.

In the stillness there is movement- I lean to the left- in time to catch her under the chin with my pistol as she steps from the room.  A single shot, and a thunderous roar, lifts the top of her skull, showers the ceiling and doorway with brain and splinters of bone.

I quickly roll to the right, sparing myself most of the mess.

A single tear of red slowly makes its way down my cheek.

I wait for what seems an eternity.  Most of the time they hunt in pairs, lie in groups.

Not this time though.

Afterward, and sometime later, I regain my backpack, holster Lex Talionis- and stand above her, hands on my hips.

For all she has become, she remains a child- they all do, dirt-smeared face, vacant eyes, and dark stringy hair.  She’s dressed in little more than rags.  She’s also lost a shoe in the struggle afterward- the struggle to hold onto life as it slipped through her fingers and bled from her skull.

Still clasped in her extended left hand, ancient iron, an old-time six-shooter, the kind you find in Westerns.  Her right hand is clawed and crowned with dirty, broken fingernails, smeared with white and ochre paint, the word ‘Croatoan’ carved in the center of her palm.  Her wrists are chaffed and torn, evidence of her countless bids for freedom.

Today she has gained that freedom- just not the freedom she desired.

It was close this time’ One day, maybe soon, it will be my time to lose a shoe-

But not today.

That night, with the stars, burning bright, and a small fire flickering between me and Mid-night, I weep.  Not for today, not even for the girl, though I have wept for such before- No, today I weep for the promise of tomorrow and all the tomorrows to follow.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only thing standing between my old world, and the world they wish it to become.

‘Ayin tahat ayin.’  Justice, blind or impartial, retribution will find a way… and I will not rest until I hunt them all down, all the ‘theys’, and put an end to this nightmare once and for all.

Until that time, I ride.



[1]  Margin of error: +/- .000000001 of a second every four hundred million years.

Author: S.M.Muse

Bestselling author S.M Muse writes, fun, action-packed adventures full of everyday magic, and darker than Mid-night foes. His characters are clever, fearless, and resilient, but in real life, S.M. is afraid of spiders, things that go bump in the night, and roughing it in the great outdoors. Let’s face it. S.M. wouldn’t last ten minutes in one of his books. S.M Muse is best known for his Heir of Nostalgia fantasy series, and soon to be Urban Contemporary thriller, The Summer People. Visit him at http://www.heirofnostalgia@gmail.com

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