Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
“Hell is other people.” –Jean Paul Sartre, No Exit
Things had gone terribly wrong. I wasn’t one to ever really be concerned with history—I had failed it three times in college—but even I knew things had gone terribly wrong. If anyone survived any of this, it would be up to them to decide what the cause was, record it in the annals of history, and try to avoid the mistakes of the past, but that wasn’t my job. My job was to survive, and it didn’t matter whether I blamed the sun for entering some strange new cycle and turning most of the world into barely livable desert, blamed the government for embroiling all of us in so many conflicts that there weren’t allies and enemies as much as it was a coliseum free-for-all, or blamed science for creating so many biological weapons that were used with no regard for the outcomes. It just didn’t matter, because most of the humans that could be blamed were dead, and there was no use blaming the dead. I considered blaming God, but I wasn’t sure if he existed any more. If he did, then this must be the apocalypse and I was fairly certain there was no way I was ever going to meet him. If he didn’t, then I would just be blaming the dead yet again, and it’s no use blaming someone who can’t ever atone for their crimes.
Things had gone terribly wrong, but I was alive, and for today, that was enough. When it wasn’t any more, ammo was easy to find, and I already had all the guns I needed to fix that scenario. Until then, we got by. You see, I had been camping with a few others, mostly just to see another human face when I woke up in the morning. There was me, Wolf, the Rev, and Chickadee. I know those weren’t their real names, but it didn’t really matter anymore what names were, since there usually weren’t enough people to share it with anyways. Besides, keeping nicknames made it a lot easier to pull a corpse from a tent and chuck it into a deep hole without burying yourself down there with it each time. There had been more of us at one time, but for a lot of those folks, being alive just wasn’t enough anymore. They all found an out some way, be it through guns or just disappearing one night into the wasteland, they got out when they needed. The four of us got along pretty well, but we didn’t get along much. The camp was pretty quiet most of the time, unless one of them things wandered close, but they didn’t really bother us often.
They were nasty looking creatures though. I had always wondered if those zombie theories were true, and in the end, they weren’t. Something else did take over once we humans moved on, but our corpses hadn’t passed Darwin’s survival test, so they didn’t come back as shambling and stupider versions of ourselves. I’m not sure where the things came from, but they were there and they were dangerous. They could rip a person apart in just a matter of minutes, and those bodies definitely never got back up. Maybe they were the next step of evolution. All I knew is that they were ugly to look at, and overall pretty bright creatures despite their appearance. They walked and looked like humans, but their limbs were a little longer, with sharper claws and teeth like our animal counterparts. Their skin was solid black, which probably helped out with them living in a newly desert world. It looked cracked, charred almost, but I never really got close enough to tell you much. For the most part, they were solitary, but you could hear them talking at night, hissing and spitting in some language I didn’t try to understand. It gave me chills to hear it, and so I hated the days I got stuck with night watch, knowing they were talking about us just beyond the firelight. Made it so my nightmares became the only kind of dreams I knew.
But, like I said, they mostly left us alone for a long time. Left us to try and build some sort of community with the four of us, but none of us were very good at that. Our trained isolation is probably what saved us in the beginning, and maybe it is what will doom all of us in the end. I told you I don’t know history, and I certainly don’t know the future.
Chickadee was a smart woman, nice to look at. Before the end of the world, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed her, but in this desert sand, her blond hair and blue eyes turned her into a goddess of limitless beauty. We slept together a few times, but it was mostly going through the motions and neither of us really seemed driven to make it a normal occurrence. It was nice to have some comfort when the booze wasn’t enough, but something about the new emptiness and the constant sense of doom made even sex bland and undesirable. She was smart, and we talked a bit. Mostly she talked and I nodded. The sound of her voice was a pleasant break from the silence otherwise. I had always lived in the country, but this quiet was a different kind. It was absolute. For me, it was an adjustment, but for her, a born and bred city-dweller, it was almost unbearable. She talked about that a lot. Not too sure about who she was before everything, but she was with us after it all went to hell, and we looked out for her. Her sister had been one of the first to take their out, and I was sure for a while Chickadee would follow along, but she stuck it out, seemingly growing more resolved to fight through day by day. I never saw her breakdown, though I heard her some nights crying softly in her tent. I think she was probably the strongest one of all of us.
Wolf was a different story altogether. I assumed I wouldn’t like him when we first met, and I was right. Alcohol was all of our friend, but Wolf was involved in a tempestuous affair with it. I’m not sure I ever knew him fully sober, especially not after we had to leave the city and start our lives out in this wasteland. He was impulsive and loud, two traits which should have gotten him killed, but at this point I was certain nature just wanted to keep the least desirable parts of our species alive to ensure it died out quickly. At the same time, he was very protective of all of us. I think he took it personally when someone escorted themselves out of this world; he definitely took it harder than the rest of us. You could measure his grief by the empty bottles by his tent each night. He talked a lot, said very little, but if anyone really wanted a community from our ragtag band, it was him. He wasn’t made for this world, but he was alive, and that was enough each day.
The Rev was a thin, quiet man who assured all of us that this was God’s judgment on us all. When you asked, he would discuss his past sins and how this was his chance for penance, to bring souls back to the Lord. We didn’t do too much listening to him, but that didn’t stop him from proselytizing. The Rev always wanted my soul. He was a killjoy, arguing against our alcohol and celebrations. There wasn’t much to celebrate, but every time we tried, he reminded us that we were punished sinners. He didn’t like when I told him his God was probably dead, too busy decaying to worry about the pitiful lives of us forgotten sinners. He pointed to the wasteland around us as evidence something divine was present and cleaning up the mess of the world. That certainly wasn’t a God I wanted anything to do with, but the Rev clung to him, even going so far as to leave camp every week or so for solitary prayer, proclaiming his Lord’s protection over him. I guess it worked for him, but I didn’t trust the Rev. Not a bit. He was always a secretive sort, and he was adamant that his precious holy water, kept in a flask at his side, could not be used by anyone. We all nearly died of dehydration before we got camp set up, and the Rev refused to part with a drop. For a while I thought we all might kill him just to get that little bit of water, but fortunately we found a well before it came to that. It all makes a little more sense now.
So that was what was left of our group of survivors. There had never been many of us, maybe ten at the most at any time, but now being down to just four, it sure felt lonely. Loneliness is the new human condition, I suppose, and maybe that’s for the best seeing as how we messed everything up in the end. The days and nights of our lives were pretty much monotonous motion from one posture to the next, nothing significant to mark the change in day besides a new division of watches. It seemed foolish having the watches in some sense, cause those things out in the desert really seemed to leave us alone for some reason, but fears of what could happen kept us alert. No one wanted to be responsible for a shredded pile of what used to be a friend.
There was one time they got really close, and I was sure it was over. It had been a week or two since we set up camp—I can’t remember how long exactly since there was no real way to identify one day from another. We always heard them sniffing and prowling around the camp at night, but this time it was broad daylight and they were circling. There were three of them, looking dry and hungry. All those whispers and hisses started up again, though I couldn’t tell if their mouths were moving to be honest. For some reason, I had the distinct feeling they were not. They looked like humans, but now they were almost crawling, loping around on their hands and feet as they circled the camp. They were pockets of midnight on the brilliant plains, pitch black from head to foot, eyes included. We were all alert, watching, waiting. The Rev was praying. We waited, feeling our hearts begin to sink as they began to tighten their circle, moving in on us, the cornered prey. Wolf and I pulled out the supply of guns we were hoarding and began loading up, resolved to at least go down fighting. We never got our chance, though, because the Rev had abruptly stopped his mumbling recitation to walk towards those nasty things. They stopped, looking at him, expectant in a way. I knew they were going to lunge, rip his throat out before a bullet could reach them, but instead they waited.
“Be gone!” cried the Rev, his words flying back to us on a stiff breeze, bringing with it a rotten smell from those things. “This camp is under the protection of my Lord, and none shall oppose him any longer!”
I thought for sure the Rev had found another out, walking straight out to those damned things. But instead those creatures stood and walked away with just a few lingering hisses in the wind. They didn’t go far, but they went far enough away that we couldn’t smell them any longer and they had turned into tiny black specks on the perimeter of our camp. I have to admit, I began to think I should start listening to the Rev a little bit more.
Chickadee felt the same way, only she was a lot more trusting of the Rev than I was. That night, she spent the whole evening talking to him about his faith, his God, his Lord. The more I heard it, the less I thought his miracle was in fact miraculous and more it seemed just lucky. It was the most ridiculous information I had heard, about how his God decided to start anew on this world, replace those who had defied him with creatures of his own design. How he, the Rev, was a prophet to bring humanity into the fold once again, allow it to thrive in this new existence under the comfort of the Lord. How his past improprieties and disloyalties had been burned away in redemptive fire, just as the world had been scrubbed clean by the desiccating rays of our new sun. How he would save us all.
Chickadee fell for it instantly. She had never mistrusted him, and I felt betrayed to see this woman cast aside my arguments. I had always thought she was the strongest, and what if she was right? I didn’t feel too sure in my own mind to hear the way she talked. I thought I was missing out big on what could be the only redemption from this hell. But at the same time, I couldn’t buy it, not from him. There was some sneaky, glassy look in the Rev’s eyes that held me back, kept me from buying in. Some form of snake oil was being sold, and I didn’t want to be swindled out of the only thing I had left, a soul all my own, with no claim from God or man.
Chickadee wanted to be one of the redeemed, and so Wolf and I figured the rev would be forced to part with some of his precious holy water to consecrate her, but apparently that wasn’t the case. This holy rite was some secretive ordeal, meaning the Rev and Chickadee would have to step out just beyond the visual perimeter of our camp, some place where they would not be seen by our unbelieving eyes, in order to perform this rite. Wolf and I argued with them, but there was something about Chickadee which made her hard to refuse. She was dead set on it.
We let them go on the condition Chickadee took a weapon in case any of those things got to close. Wolf and I watched them walk away, Chickadee with all the decorum of a new convert, her eyes watery with tears and smiling for the first time in a while. Maybe this religion stuff wasn’t all bad, I thought.
All that came back was the Rev, one of those things shot dead by Chickadee’s gun, and some bloodied hair and clothes that were the only salvageable remains. The Rev told us they had snuck up on them, tightened the noose until one grabbed her. He got the gun, he said, and was able to take a shot. The others fled after one of them fell. We never heard the gunshot, so they must have been out a lot farther than the Rev initially said.
Religion must be all bad. Things had gone terribly wrong, again, and this time it was the Rev’s fault.
I could have been angry with the Rev, but he looked about as broken hearted and terrified as any person could. I was numb. Wolf added another collection of bottles outside his tent. I missed the soft sobs from her tent at night. It made it too quiet again. Our Chickadee was gone, and now the country silence turned unbearable for me.
Our little community tore apart a little more. Now we were nothing but a group of three who happened to share the same space. It seemed like watch shifts began to be the entirety of my existence. If I wasn’t being haunted on the perimeter by my own mind, I was sleeping and living through some new daily nightmare. Talk by the fire grew quiet, and more and more I began to feel like a ghost pacing the same forgotten route day after day, searching for that light to enter.
I wasn’t surprised when a shot shattered my watch one night. It came from the tents, which was no shock. The silence and isolation had become suffocating, and I had begun to wonder if it was enough to just be alive anymore. It seems someone must have agreed with me. I was shocked to return to camp and find Wolf’s tent spattered with blood and viscera. The mostly empty bottles on the floor were not surprising, and probably helped explain what had happened. Alcohol can provide some healing, but it eventually burns you out from the inside, leaving nothing there to stand against its will. I guess either Wolf or the booze needed his out.
Now it was the Rev and I. I was ready to pack up and leave, take my chances in the field, but the Rev was adamant that we should not split. He kept saying he couldn’t let me leave without protecting my soul from the horrors out there. Horrors was a pretty good word for those things, but I still wasn’t ready to trade in my soul for his peace of mind. And so he followed me as I packed up and set out to find something better than a ghost town in this desolate world.
After a week or so of travel, the Rev started to look bad. His skin looked dry and red, burned deeply by the sun. His eyes were sunken, his hair beginning to dry and fall out. He looked sickly and frail, and I was certain it would only be a matter of days before I was alone in this world again. Just being alive wasn’t enough for me anymore, but I couldn’t leave him alone.
His proselytizing grew more and more passionate as his body grew weaker and weaker. Even when his throat was dry and his voice cracking in the desert heat until blood tinged his lips he continued to preach his gospel, promising freedom through purifying fire, just as our world had been so purified by the blazing sun. I began to feel guilty holding out on him. While I didn’t believe, there was also the thought that it was unnecessarily cruel of me to refuse a dying man’s wish. Besides, if I didn’t believe in God, no rite the Rev could perform would convince me otherwise. Maybe it would hurry him along into death, finally being at peace with his life’s work, and leave me to my own way out.
When I agreed, I saw light flicker back into his eyes, and it left me unsettled. The smile and gleam in his eyes seemed hungry and crazy, almost animalistic in its wild fury. I wanted to back out, but I reminded myself that he was dying fast, and it wouldn’t hurt me to give in to one silly fantasy. He had me kneel out in the sand and put his feeble hands on my shoulders. He said a lot of words, words that I thought would have been Latin, but sounded more like those hisses and whispers the Horrors used to call across the desert. Suddenly stronger than I thought, he pulled me to my feet until we were eye to eye, facing one another just a step apart.
His eyes were mesmerizing to me, because as he spoke, they seemed to open up. He had always had dark eyes, and now they seemed to be pits spiraling into his skull and beyond. At the bottom of his impossibly deep eyes, I began to notice flames simmering down there, steadily roaring to life. As they grew closer, I began to feel the heat on my shoulders were his hands dug into my body. I began to feel flames licking along my body, ripping away whatever human was left of me, “purifying me” as the Rev had promised, into one of those things, those Horrors. As I watched his face, unable to change my gaze, only able to scream into the nothingness of wilderness, I saw his skin begin to rejuvenate, flesh turning young and soft again. He began to look as I remembered him from the first few weeks of our journey.
I didn’t know what was happening at first, I only knew that the burning in my body pushed me to the brink of consciousness with its pain before it began to fade away. I felt detached from my body, just a floating soul left without a home. I could see myself, a charred husk shaped into one of the Horrors by some dark design I did not begin to understand, and I could see the Rev as a smiling creature who was nothing more than a demon in human clothing. I had been taken in and the wolf had raided the hen house.
I got it now. I knew who his Lord was, and I knew that he certainly was god of this God-forsaken world.
Now free of my body, I began to wonder what came next. Where would that bright light be? Would I find heaven waiting after trudging along this hell? Just as my freedom began to sink in as an uplifting reality, I heard the whisper-hiss of the Rev speaking something terrible. I could feel it as terrible even if I couldn’t understand the words. I saw him open that flask of what we had assumed was holy water, watched him lift it to the lips of my hollowed body and let that thing drink. And then I felt something dragging me back down, ripping me from my escape and caging me. As some new spirit flowed from the flask into the creature, my own being filled the flask. I got to keep the one thing I had left, but only because that was the only thing left of me. Just a collection of thoughts and feelings without anything to tether me, I was a caged soul, still my own, but unable to do a thing about it. Unknowingly, I had traded my soul—and along with it everything I am—to the Devil.
It’s a daily living hell. I don’t get my out anymore. I’m alive for today, and tomorrow I will be as well, cause I don’t have my bullet savior. I’m not what I was, I have nothing left but my own thoughts, and most days that isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to be alive and thinking when I see the terrible things done with what was my body. It’s eternal reflection on the Horrors and all that I have done. It’s a private hell made up by my own self-loathing. Now it’s just a matter of waiting until this prison rips away whatever humanity I have left and the Rev pours me out to fill up one of those Horrors.
Guess those things get us all in the end. Sure not how I pictured going out, but things have gone terribly wrong, so why should this be any different?
Credit: Katherine C.
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