“Where do I even start to explain my feelings about Charles and how we met? It had been a year ago at the beginning of the fall, the start of the frost. The initial horror of the turning event, the outbreak that had swept the globe, had faded and we were all focused on survival. There were days running ahead of shuffling crowds of zees, a time when they still moved with near-human running speeds – the rot barely setting in many of the less mutilated. Unlike now, where their rotting frames slow them down and it’s sheer overwhelming numbers that besiege us. Nights were spent huddled together with the living, watching each other with suspicion of outbreak signs. Some still held out hope of a cure and would hide any infections to the devastating effects upon those of us who sheltered them. My vocal sarcasm had earned me the right to lead a group to my chagrin. The burden weighed heavily on my shoulders and I felt completely unprepared to be responsible for so many lives when my own was in total flux. Recent memories of what I had done to survive pulled at me and caused nightmares during the few hours I was able to sleep those days. No don’t ask – I won’t discuss what I did in the starting days.

“Joseph’s wife was nice. You know, one of those people that you describe as sappy nice. She always was seeing the bright side of people. She used to make me laugh at times that weren’t appropriate because of the irony in her sunny disposition despite some of our most desperate moments. Like when I would despair that I had scavenged for an entire day but found no food for the group, she would talk about how before the outbreak she could never find a diet that worked for her. Stupid humor, you know? Things that weren’t funny but that left you either laughing or crying. Maybe it was her delivery but she always brought a smile to my face.

“His son was very angry all the time. I think somewhere in their dust he had left behind a girl friend and carried the youthful guilt of lost love. Only our lost loves now haunted us among the dead. We looked for their faces in every zee we put down. I remember that he had a very vindictive expression anytime he was able to end a zee. I always thought he’d be something of a crusader, or one of those cold eyed mercenary types we see from time to time now, hired guns with loyalty to none but themselves.

“Joseph just seemed like a man desperate to keep his family together and alive. He was grasping at straws following me and not questioning my judgments. Perhaps if I had seemed surer of myself he would have kept with us instead of being seduced away by the words of Charles.

“We had taken shelter at a gas station off a highway exit. There were relatively few people in the area and even fewer zees. Back then, you have to remember, the zees still largely grouped together and chased the masses of living that were fleeing ahead of them. Like game animals driven ahead of people beating the bushes, that slow, ever-steady march taking survivors away from populated sections and towards the sea. I don’t know what they expected to find when they reached the water. Maybe some thought they would swim or that there would be boats left. A few probably thought they would even build boats, which goes to show just how far removed from ‘men of the sea’ they had become. You know, some say life began in the sea, and I don’t know if I buy that line. I do know many lives ended in the sea when the main horde caught up with the living trapped at the beaches.

“That did make things better for those of us who had stayed away from the bulk. We managed to hide from the dead as they passed through like waves flooding the streets. And one day we woke up to find only stragglers and crawlers. Nothing we couldn’t manage. It was only a matter of time before the remaining horde would turn back, wandering and looking for the living to feed upon. That dispersed group was something we all feared, and with winter approaching others were afraid of how we’d hide at night. I had managed to keep my group from using electric heat or lights at night so that we weren’t beacons in the darkness, but that wasn’t going to work for the winter.

“Then that idiot, what was his name? Oh right, Stanley something or other. We all heard the story of how good old Stan trapped his dead wife in his restaurant’s walk-in freezer. We heard how she froze solid and he was able to decapitate her and end her unlife existence. The story spread like the virus itself through the survivor camps. Zees freeze and solid frozen zees are easy to kill. Safe to kill as well because there would be no blood splatter to risk infections. That’s when I heard of Charles, the man with the plan to save us all. He was going to lead us all up north to the snow so that when the winter freeze came we could live without fear. His caravan was considered a Mecca of paradise, supplies, and the living. Every story that was spread about him became wilder and more detailed.

“Charles was working on a cure and was close, but he needed the frozen zees to safely experiment upon. Charles says that the frozen weather will slow down any infection found in the blood. Charles has gathered together scientists, doctors, and all sorts of educated people who clearly believe in him. By the end of it you’d swear some thought Charles could turn water to wine, as if he was some second coming of Christ.

“It was mere chance that his caravan passed us that day, and on finding living he stopped to try and convince us to join him. I think the first thing I noticed was how adoring people were in the way they addressed him or even looked at him. His camper was in the middle of the pack, surrounded by others, and they used CB radios to direct each other. Each camper had snipers on the roof to protect the people, and they were over crowded with the living. The caravan moved at a walking pace as many trailed behind on foot.

“When we approached, Charles greeted us warmly and I felt his eyes scan the group before settling upon me. I don’t know exactly what he saw, but he knew I was leading our ragged group. He sized up the entire dynamic and focused his attention on me with words that sounded promising. I received praise for the work I had done in keeping the group together and alive so far, though there were always hints of doubts in his words and tone. It was if he was truly amazed at my luck rather than ability, and back then my own self-assurance was fragile enough that it began to be broken down. I cannot express how tempting it was to be told that the burden on my shoulders didn’t need to be there. That they had plenty who could take that upon themselves, and I could just become one of the crowds loyally following along behind him. I would be safe, and look at how much good I could do for so many more if I was willing to do so?

“I might have bought it if I hadn’t seen her face. She was young; probably fourteen, and briefly I saw her in the glass of the window behind him, hidden within the camper. I asked about her and for a moment his expression changed. I saw anger that I was questioning Charles, but the flicker was so fast I thought it might have been my imagination. Charles explained how the orphans, children who were lost, often travelled with him because he found their reflections refreshing and full of hope. That expression, ‘children who were lost,’ somehow didn’t seem to require their parents being dead. It was a whole brand new definition of an orphan which Charles had a great deal of philosophical ideology on.

“Disquiet came to me not just from his words but also from how accepting his followers were in them. What I had seen in that girl’s expression wasn’t hope. Charles further went on to explain how he helped council those who had been traumatized by what they had seen. There was a force in his voice as he spoke about his actions and I listened to him praise himself for the first time.

“Previously, he had stood back and let others do the talking for him. There had been a benevolent smile on his face, and an encouraging nod when others told us how wonderful Charles truly was. And his followers treated his smiles and nods as if they were blessings for saying the right words. Yet to hear him talk about himself was something entirely different. Charles had crossed the line from leader to savior before his time. He was already certain of his own sainthood and that he single-handedly would save the world.

“I don’t know what my expression was, but Charles saw something he didn’t like. Maybe the conman had seen he’d lost his mark with me, because that’s when the speech changed. Openly, he belittled what I had done and the losses we had taken. He exposed – or seemed to expose – my weaknesses, including pride and inexperience. He promised the people with me that they would be safe. Joseph saw a new straw to cling to, this one seeming to be stronger, sturdy, and unbendable.

“Within ten minutes, his family had packed up the few things they had with them and joined the caravan. We sat on the roof of the gas station and watched the caravan move on. It took most of the afternoon, all the while heading north to some promised safe place that Charles had told his followers he knew of. I never saw any proof that they survived until now. This is Charles. This is his picture. He is the one leading the Cult. I don’t know what happened when he went north, but there’s something about straw that doesn’t bend. It breaks. Something up North happened to change him to this and I need to find him.”

I finished my speech and drew in a slow breath, watching Ezekiel’s expression. He had been fairly quiet through my entire speech. “He definitely sounds like a dangerous man. We will publish this image on the station but we will do it my way.” I started to protest but Ezekiel’s tone left no room for argument, “My way, Chyram. His picture will be shown as a person of interest upon whom we are seeking information. I won’t say exactly who or what at this time. Not until we have either a better image of him, or more concrete information. I won’t cause a panic to people who are starting to heal. All calls and information will be directed to the station and then sent to you. Your connection to this image will not be broadcast at this time, but we are holding onto the right to break the news on that story later.”

He paused to pick up the image of Charles again and study it before saying, “One final thing: There’s something we need you to do for us. Don’t worry, it’s right up your alley anyway, with your hero complex.”

I made a face at that statement. This world worked on barters. You want something, you give something, and if you don’t have goods it’ll be based on your skills. Why were my identified skills in public viewing that of being a hero? I sure as hell didn’t want to become a legend, since there was only one way for a hero to do that – die.

“Name it.”

Or maybe my skills weren’t that of a hero, just someone who was stupid enough to not be able to say no to any request for help?

Comments
  1. bong @co says:

    Been busy but finally caught up with your blog. Excellent writing as always! You make my playing psc so much more enjoyable! Looking forward to your next entry!

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