Kent sat by Caroline’s bedside, stroking her blonde hair, coarse as the straw mattress upon which she slept. The creases in his face were exaggerated by the morning sun, its orange light splitting through the windows which had long before been boarded up. He gathered another handful of her hair and ran his fingers through it as she slept, as she shivered without end. His mouth was curled into a frown, as it had been all morning since he had awoken. His aching muscles felt like they’d been pulled into a grimace ever since she first started showing symptoms. She hadn’t been getting any better the past few days, not even with the medicine. He stopped stroking her hair and grabbed the damp cloth from the wash-basin at the foot of his chair, wiping away the sweat on her fevered forehead. Replacing the cloth to the cool water of the basin, he removed the bloody bandages from her forearm and looked at her wound. Over a week and the infection still hadn’t died down. Pus festered around the lesion and it smelt of rot. Maybe Charles’ medicine couldn’t help her. No, it had to. Kent tossed the blood-stained rags across the room and re-wrapped her arm with some rags next to the water basin, making sure to tie them tight.
He stood up, returning the chair to the rough-hewn table in the corner of her room, exiting and walking to his room at the other end of the house. The hallway floorboards creaked with every step. He had to remember to repair them when he got back. Anything that was even slightly broken or out of place had to be fixed. Opening the door to his room, he strode over to the chest at the foot of his bed and removed the holster and revolver from its depths. Buckling the holster to his waist and placing the gun by his hip, he removed a belt of ammunition from the chest and slung it over his left shoulder before walking over to his wardrobe and procuring a gray wool vest. The wool itched like ticks crawling over his skin, but it was the best thing he owned to cover up the belt. He didn’t want to become more of a target than he was already. He scratched at the vest, and then at his graying beard. Kent put on his leather boots, aged and cracked and damaged by the sun, and left the room.
He returned to Caroline’s room. The thought of leaving her alone again, of a shambler breaking down the door and attacking her again, clawed at him, but he had no choice. There was so much to do, and only so much daylight. It wasn’t safe to be out at night anymore. He bent over her and kissed her forehead, which had already begun to pool with sweat again.
“I’ll be back soon, baby girl,” he said, his voice cracked like his boots. He turned to exit her room, making sure to lock her door, and walked down the hallway to exit his abode. Before he opened the front door, he grabbed the brown stetson off of the rack by the door and placed it on his head, covering his combed-back, gray-black hair.
The dawn clementine of the sun had already risen above the ridge when Kent turned the key and locked the door to his house. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was still home to him. The unpainted brown of the mesquite was a stark contrast to the tan sand of the Arizona desert. The house’s windows and single door were covered by planks of wood and scraps of metal. He grabbed the iron lock from his pack and clasped it to the door. He’d traded a week’s worth of food for the lock, but the heavy clunk it made when it closed reminded him of the good deal he had made. Satisfied with the current state of the locks, he walked over to the small barn next door, kicking up dust with every step. He removed the lock from the barn and threw the doors open. Inside the barn was a single brown stallion, somewhat thin but with a hint of muscle hidden under its leathery hide, who huffed a greeting as light entered his home. Kent walked past him, making sure to pat him muzzle, and grabbed a saddle off the barn wall. The horse whinnied and backed up, shaking its head in one violent movement.
Kent sighed. “C’mon, Strider, don’t make this difficult.” He always hated that name, but ever since Caroline named him, it stuck. He walked over to Strider, who had backed him into the corner, and threw the saddle over him back. “That’s better.”
Strider whinnied a single, resigned neigh and walked out of the barn.
After locking the barn door, Kent pushed himself up onto Strider, grabbed the reins, and kicked its sides, galloping out of the valley that surrounded his highly-defensible home.
There was one dirt road that connected Kent’s home to town, and he traveled down this road the same as he had done near every day now. The sun, which turned from a deep orange to a blinding silver-yellow, blazed above. Kent wiped his brow and grabbed the canteen on his saddle, taking a deep swig. The lukewarm water didn’t bring him any relief. He cracked the reins, and Strider picked up speed, trotting toward town. At least at home, he always had repairs or some other activity to keep him occupied. Out here, with only Strider and the dirt as company, he had nowhere to turn but himself, and that frightened him. He remembered that day, just over a week ago, when Caroline was attacked.
She had been outside, hanging up the clothes to dry. Kent warned her to take his gun, but she insisted it would be fine. No sign of a shambler for days. She hadn’t been outside for five minutes when Kent heard her scream tear through the silence. He grabbed his gun and kicked down the front door to see it biting at her arm. Its skin was black with desiccation, its clothes torn by some unknown desert beast. Without hesitation, he aimed down the sights and fired, striking the shambler. It turned to face him, empty eyes staring and blood-stained teeth barred. As it dropped Caroline into a puddle of her own blood, Kent fired again, this time striking the ghoul in the head. The carcass collapsed. Kent rushed over to it and unloaded the remaining bullets into its rotting skull, his own shouts almost as loud as the gunfire. Satisfied that it was now nothing more than a pile of decaying limbs, he ran over to Caroline. She was unconscious, blood pooling out of her forearm. Kent tore his shirt sleeve and wrapped it around her wound, as tears began to stream down his face.
He shook his head, as the memory could be flung from his mind. He looked toward the horizon and saw, for the first time in a long while, a silhouette, approaching from the direction of town. It was large and bulky, shifting from side-to-side along the dirt road. A wagon, maybe? Kent let go of the reins with one of his hands and moved his now-free hand toward his revolver.
The figure got closer. It was a wagon, drawn by a single horse. Its contents were covered by a large sheet of rough, linen cloth. Kent got a good look at the two people sitting in the wagon’s front. A man, wearing a dirt-stained black suit, patchy stubble covering his face. By his side, a woman. Brown hair in a tight bun, blue gingham dress torn near the ankle. Kent made eye contact with the two of them. They stared back, their mouths closed with tight lips. He gave the couple a single, curt nod. The man gave a slow nod back as the cart passed him. Kent’s thoughts turned from Caroline to the couple. Were they trying to get out of town? Avoid the danger? Made sense, sure, but going out into the desert alone was a death sentence. If the heat didn’t get you… Kent shuddered at the thought, the memory of that first chewed-up corpse on the roadside burned into his brain.
A blaze of heat scorched Kent’s side. Unusual, since the heat primarily came from above. He looked to the right and saw the same-old lone church by the road, white stone standing tall and proud, a monument of arrogance against the desert sun. But by the church’s side, a great fire roared from a large pit, the flames licking the sky. A priest, cloaked in black, crossed himself and read from a worn book as he stood by the flames. Though his face was stone, staring at the pages, Kent saw a deep sadness in his faltering expression. By his side, a woman, wearing a dress black as night. She stood at the priest’s side, crying into a handkerchief, the volume of her tears rising like the flames next to her. As Strider ambled past the pyre, Kent stared into the flame and wondered for whom she was crying. Whoever it was, he thought, it wasn’t them that she should be crying for.
The tall, hastily-erected wooden gates of Prescott opened wide as Kent came near. Looking up to the watchtower, the guard up top, taking one hand off of his rifle, tipped his hat to Kent. Kent huffed in indifference. Courtesy wasn’t necessary in times like this, he thought. The people should just get in, get what they need, and get out.
Even though Sheriff Wallace had the gates erected to “keep those monsters and us in,” the initial tension had died down a week after its construction. It seemed as though the reanimated menace was finally coming to an end, but Kent wasn’t so sure of that. Kent stepped off Strider and hitched it by the gate, tying the reins tight before making his way towards the town’s center.
The inn, the blacksmith, and the stores were all still there, all still that sickening shade of off-white. Charles’ office towered above all the rest, though, its red paint a fresher color than everything else. Dust nipped at his face and the faint odor of burning wood filled his lungs.
As he walked, he remembered a time, a few years ago, when he and Caroline came to town. The plague hadn’t come through yet, and Prescott was a sleepy, dust-covered transit town. She was pulling at his pants, asking incessantly for sweets from the general store until Kent relented. Her smile as she gorged on the candy made bile churn in his own stomach. She’ll be like that again, he told himself.
A crowd amassed outside of the doctor’s shop. Men and women and children, all clumped together into an amorphous shape, surrounding the building, held back by two men on the front steps, clad in blue uniforms and holding rifles.
A man in a top hat and a thick mustache yelled, “We need our medicine! What if we get infected?”
A woman, scrawny, her cheeks as rosy as the paint on Charles’ office cradling two small children beside, her called out, “I need to think about my family!”
A boy no older than sixteen, the stubble barely breaking through the smooth skin on his face, shouted, “If you can’t protect yourself, how can we be protected from those monsters?”
The voices of the crowd all melded together into a cacophonous roar. The riflemen stood still, ignoring the clamor. Kent pushed his way through the crowd, shoving against the back of the fat bartender. As he got closer to the door, one of the riflemen caught his gaze.
“Miller.” His voice, cold and clear as ice water, cut through the clamor of the mob, who had started to become silent upon hearing Kent’s name. “Wallace and Goodman want t’ see you.” He stepped down from his spot and into the crowd, moving aside the now-quiet throngs of people to let Kent pass. Kent stepped through and made his way up the small staircase to the front door. The man’s watery eyes and thick goatee were unfamiliar to Kent. He pushed his way cautiously past the guard. Mayor’s bringing in too many conscripts, Kent thought. How could he trust them all?
“Hey!” a scratchy voice broke out. It was the sixteen-year old boy, who had stepped forward to the edge of the staircase. “Why does he get to see the doctor? We want our medicine!”
The fat bartender roared, “Boy, don’t you know who that is? That’s Kent Miller, and you’ll give him some respect!” The bartender nodded at Kent as the crowd began to shout in agreement, and the young man, blushing furiously as he stared at his feet, stepped back into the crowd.
His boots clicked crisply against the wooden floor as he entered Doctor Charles Goodman’s pharmacy. The good doctor took care of not only the townspeople, but of his own workplace. Everything was immaculate in his store. At least, it usually was. The shelves were now empty of the bottles and jars of cure-alls and remedies that once lined them in perfect rows. The floor, often clean and clear of debris and dirt, were now scuffed and covered in a thin layer of dust. The door had been bashed in and shattered glass fragments still littered the atrium. Goodman himself, who was usually sharply was now unkempt, his shirt stained, white hair strewn about the top of his head like he had just jogged through a tornado, a lens of his glasses shattered. A lump on his forehead was crusted in dried blood. He stood by the counter of his store, his shirt stained, His arms were crossed as he spoke to the man across from him, who wore a brown vest and pants, a blue shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.
Sheriff Robert Wallace, noticing a new presence in the room, turned to face him. “Morning, Kent,” his voice rolled out of his mouth like thunder.
Kent nodded towards Wallace. “Sheriff,” he responded in a brusque tone. He turned to the doctor. “Charles, what’s going on?”
“Take a look for yourself, Kent,” Goodman responded, opening his arms out to the barren store, tears in his eyes.
“Early this morning, a couple broke into the office as Charles here was getting ready for the day,” Wallace said, stepping towards Kent. “They attacked him and emptied the shelves and backroom.”
“They took everything,” Goodman said, his voice trembling, “Money, painkillers…”
“What about the vaccine?” Kent eyes widened. He was across the room before he realized it, digging his fingers into Charles’ shoulders. “Charles, what about the treatment?” Goodman didn’t meet Kent’s eyes, his hollow eyes drifting toward the corner of the room.
“That, too. Everything’s gone, Kent.”
Kent opened his mouth to speak, but no noise came out. His ajar lips and large, twitching eyes made him look insane. His brow furled and he gritted his teeth.
“Who were they?” he growled.
“I…I can’t remember,” Goodman said, “I didn’t get a good look at them. I saw a man approach me, a gun in his hand, and a woman by the door. Next thing I know, they club me over the head, and when I woke up, everything was gone.” Goodman touched the lump on his head and looked at the fingertips, as if there might be fresh blood. Kent let go of Goodman and his hands curled into fists.
“Doc, Caroline needs that medicine. Are you sure they took everything?”
Goodman buried his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry, Kent.” He collapsed into the corner.
Kent turned to Wallace, taking deep breaths through his nose. “Any leads?”
“Was waiting for you to show up first,” Wallace said, taken aback by Kent’s rancor. Even though he was the sheriff, Wallace didn’t do anything without first consulting Kent, leaving himself to talk and bring as much information to Kent’s capable hands as possible. The people of Prescott wanted Kent Miller, the survivalist Civil War veteran, to be the town sheriff, but Kent, preferring a quieter life outside of town, declined. So Prescott was stuck with Robert Wallace, the once-bumbling drunk who could barely see the pile of horse-shit that he just had stepped in. “All Charles remembers is that he was attacked by a man and a woman. Didn’t get a good look at either of their faces. I’ll stick with Charles. Maybe you could take a look around?”
Kent turned dismissively away from Wallace and made a beeline for the shelves. The doctor and sheriff were right. They were cleaned out. No arsenic, no creams, no nostrums, no vaccines. Everything was gone. Kent slammed his fist on the counter. The fury in his chest knotted as he thought of Caroline alone in the house, her eyes becoming hollow like the demon that attacked her. I have to fix this, he thought. He spun around and looked at the shattered door. The muffled yells from the crowd grew louder as he approached the wooden frame, pouring through the gaps like dust on a windy day. The shards of glass were spread out on the floor, having been broken from the outside. Something blue caught his eye. Kent reached to the door and grabbed a piece of blue, gingham cloth which was snagged on the splintered glass. He froze. A man and a woman. A covered wagon. A blue gingham dress. He gripped the cloth as he stood up and turned to Wallace.
“I’ll come get you later,” he said, holding back the feral band of horses in his chest.
“And where are you going?”
“I’m going to find Caroline’s medicine.”
Kent pulled back hard on the reins of Strider as he reached the ridge by the roadside. He calmed down his mount, brushing his mane, before stepping off of it, tying him to a nearby fence, and, crouching, began walking down the road. He must’ve followed those wheel tracks for hours. The sun was already starting to set by the time he saw a small pillar of smoke rising thick and greasily into the orange sky. Kent slid down the rough rock and sand of the ridge, and crawled towards the campfire in the distance. He saw the wagon, still covered up with that large cloth, the horse standing off to the side. Around the humble fire sat the man and the woman. He was reclined on the ground, shoving finger-fulls of some indiscernible slop from an iron plate into his mouth, while she just sat up across from him, staring silent, the fire making deep shadows on her gaunt face. Kent slowly moved forward, taking care that his boots didn’t kick up too much dirt or press too loudly on the ground. He made his way behind a large boulder a small distance from the couple. It wasn’t a preferable position, but as he pressed himself up against the rock’s surface, he felt confident that it would protect him. He leaned to the very edge of the stone, listening in on the couple.
“…and when we get to California, it’ll be okay,” the man said, snorting through servings of his dinner and wiping his greasy hair from his brow. “Lots of people made it out there. There’s water, land, protection. Everything’ll be okay.”
The woman gazed towards the man and said nothing, shifting her eyes to the fire and clicking the heels of her boots together.
“I promise, Maggie,” he said, “Once we get to California.”
Kent removed his gun from his holster, leaned over the edge of the boulder, and pointed his gun with a steady arm towards the couple. They wouldn’t be able to see him until it was too late, he thought, and he only needed a single moment to strike. He looked towards the wagon again, and saw a rifle barrel sticking out from under the cloth. He had to be quick.
“We have enough medicine to last the entire way now,” the man continued. The woman nodded and brought a small bottle to her lips. Even from the distance, the distinctive paper label and yellow liquid allowed Kent to recognize the medicine as the same treatment he gave his daughter. Their minds were set, Kent thought. Stolen medicine, fixed plans, weapons…they wouldn’t be willing to negotiate.
A crack filled the air as Kent fired, the bullet striking the man in his shoulder. He shouted as the white-hot bullet tore through his flesh, dropping the plate and reaching for the gun at his side. The horse reared and ran off into the desert, frightened by the sudden noise. The woman scrambled to the wagon, crawling on her hands and knees. Kent made eye contact with the man for a second, seeing an inferno burning in his eyes brighter than the campfire around which they sat, before retreating behind the rock. Another crack and a resounding thud, as a bullet from the man’s gun pounded into Kent’s rock, resonating the entire fortification.
“Maggie, get the rifle!” the man screamed.
Kent leaned over the other side and saw the woman throwing off the tarp on the wagon and thrusting her arm over the side, reaching for something in its depths. Kent aimed and fired. The bullet struck her in the side, just below the ribs. She cried out like a wolf as blood flowed from the wound. He fired again, hitting her in the back. She collapsed, crimson staining her blue dress. The man screamed as he saw the woman fall, a rattling howl which reminded Kent of the way he shrieked when Caroline was attacked. The man turned his gun on Kent once more, firing three times but striking the rock like thunder cracks with every shot. Fragments of rock exploded from the great stone. Kent crouched behind the rock, lifting his hand above the top and blind-fired towards the man. He heard another crack and a bullet whizzed above him, then silence, then the telltale click of the chamber being removed from the gun. He had only a few seconds. Kent stepped out from behind the rock and pointed his gun towards the exposed man. The man was reloading his gun when he looked up, fear in his eyes. Kent fired. The bullet crashed into the man’s stomach. He groaned as he dropped the gun and clutched at his body, red spilling out between his fingers. Kent strode over to the man, picked up the revolver, and placed it in his empty holster, still pointing his own gun at the man.
The man moaned in pain, tears falling from his eyes. “Maggie,” he wept.
Kent turned and looked towards the woman, lying face down on the dirt, motionless, surrounded by a pool of blood. He pointed his gun at her head and fired. The bullet collided with her skull and she remained motionless, still like the morning sky. The man screamed as Kent fired, a scream of pain that made Kent shut his eyes tight and bare his teeth in a grimace.
Kent turned back to the man, looking at him with a face as harsh as uncut stone. “You should’ve expected retribution for what you did.” The man looked up at Kent, pain welling in the folds of his face.
“We was looking out for ourselves,” he wheezed, “She was infected!”
“Well, now she won’t come back,” Kent spat, his gun still pointed directly at the man’s chest. The man cried silent tears, clutching at his side. Kent spun around. “The sheriff will be here soon,” he said, his voice seemed cold enough to extinguish the fire.
“Wait,” the man gasped Kent looked over his shoulder at the pitiful figure reaching out to him. The man choked out the weak words, “Please don’t leave me out here. Don’t let me turn.”
Kent paused. He stood there, looking at the man, his black suit was stained with blood, his face covered in dirt and tears. Kent turned around and aimed the gun at the man’s head. The man looked up at Kent, his eyes pooling, a slight smile on his face as if he were thanking him. The man turned his head away and closed his eyes as Kent cocked the hammer of the gun.
Kent sprinted through the doorway of his house. The evening sky was filled with starlight by the time he had retrieved Sheriff Wallace and made it back home. He stood in the entry hallway, listening carefully, in his hand a small glass bottle with golden liquid.
“Caroline!” he yelled out. There was no response, just a slight shuddering throughout the house. He ran down the hall and threw open his daughter’s door. “Caroline,” he gasped.
Her arms flailed as her body convulsed on the straw mattress he had left her on. Kent ran over to her, unfastening the lid of the bottle. He took quick, shallow breaths as he forced open her mouth and poured the liquid down her throat. The convulsions continued for a moment, then settled somewhat. As he kept feeding her the liquid, her shaking grew more and more calm, until it had ceased altogether. She lay still on the bed, her chest rising and falling in a slow, regular manner.
Kent sighed a deep sigh, smiling somewhat for the first time that day. “It’s okay, baby girl. I’m here now,” he whispered, pulling up one of the chairs and the wash-basin. He dabbed a cloth in the water and pressed it against her forehead, looking down with sorrow at her delicate figure. “I’ll never let you become one of them.