Copyright © 2021 by Bryan Cassiday
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America
First Edition: January 2021
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
—Edgar Allan Poe
The man sitting on a knoll at the edge of the desert watched the sun set with washed-out grey eyes. His hair long and unkempt, his beard tangled, his clothes tattered, his face sunburnt, he looked like a wino that should be sleeping it off in a city gutter. From his filthy, slovenly appearance he could have been a sixty-year-old who would never see seventy. In reality, he was in his forties. Nothing but skin and bone, he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Nevertheless, he didn’t feel hungry.
He saw a man charging toward him. The man was on fire, flames shooting out of his scalp, smoke pluming from his head. Having charred his clothes, flames were now busy eating his flesh. On account of the flames the man’s age was indeterminate.
The burning man had reached within fifteen feet of the begrimed wino when he slowed down, the flames eating him alive, his lungs filling with smoke on the inside and engulfed in flames on the outside. Suffocating, reeking of alcohol and smoke, he came to a halt, a statue of fire.
“I did this to myself,” he cried in agony, coughing out a cloud of smoke, the flesh on his face melting like wax, beseeching the wino with his blackened hands clutching the air. “I’d rather be nothing but ashes than one of the . . . the . . .”
Unable to complete his sentence, continuing to burn, the man collapsed on his knees, took his last, dying breath, and pitched forward on what was left of his fire-ravaged face.
The desert rat stared at the corpse, unmoved, watching out of curiosity more than anything else the corpse burn, making no move to put out the flames.
Out of the corner of his eye, with little interest, he saw a car driving on a winding road toward him, kicking up dust behind it with its rear wheels.
He didn’t know if the driver had seen him. He didn’t care. He sat motionless, watching and waiting with indifference. He licked his chapped lips with what little saliva he had in his mouth with a tongue like a dry leather strap.
The rusted, beat-up Ford Taurus drew to a halt near the man’s perch. On the dented front fenders the grey primer was exposed in splotches where the original black paint had worn off through years of neglect.
For a while nobody got out of the car.
The man didn’t mind. He considered the car part of the scenery, as interesting and as dull as the knoll he sat on and the barren desert that stretched into the distance beyond the smoldering, charred corpse. He showed no curiosity.
Five minutes later, two jeans-clad men wearing black cotton bandanas with white paisley prints wrapped around their faces clambered out of the front seat of the car. The paunchy thirtyish guy with a boyish face who had been riding shotgun was gripping a baseball bat in his hand. Squinting, he wore his hair over his ears. The middle-aged bald driver with deep-set brown eyes and a furrowed brow wore a pistol in a holster on his hip.
They approached the foot of the knoll in no particular hurry, but they had a wariness about them and came to a halt seven feet away from the man. They took in the remains of the scorched corpse with horror.
“Jesus,” said the paunchy guy, pulling a face at the stench of the corpse.
“I didn’t even know that was a body till we got here,” said the bald guy.
“What happened here, codger?”
The man said nothing, his face and eyes blank.
“What do you think, Danny?” said the bald guy.
“He looks like shit, Porter. I think he’s got it.”
“Old man,” said Porter. “You heard Danny. Are you infected?”
The man gave him a blank look.
“You speak English, geezer?” said Danny.
The man gave Danny the same blank look.
“Want me to take this Louisville Slugger to your head?” said Danny, brandishing his bat. “I asked you a question. Where’s your manners? Are you infected, scumbag?”
The man scratched his sunburnt, peeling forehead.
“What the hell’s wrong with him?” Danny asked Porter.
“Maybe he’s slamming skag. He’s out of it.”
“You think he’s infected?”
“Can’t tell. He could be just strung out.”
“Where’s he scoring skag around these parts? Nobody lives around here for miles and miles. I think he’s infected. I need to bash his brains in,” said Danny, thumping the sweet spot of the bat’s barrel against his open left hand in anticipation.
“He could be drunk, I suppose. I dunno. He’s got that dead, empty look in his eyes, like there’s nothing alive inside his head.”
“Exactly like one of the infected. I’m telling you he’s got it.”
“Are you infected?” Porter asked the man. “We don’t have all day. Answer me.”
The man stared at him with glassy eyes.
“I’m gonna bash your brains in,” said Danny, “if you don’t tell us right now if you’re infected. Are you infected?”
The man continued staring, showing no fear—showing no emotion, for that matter.
“He doesn’t care,” said Porter. “Maybe he’s retarded. He could’ve escaped from a loony bin.”
“Yeah,” said Danny. “They usually build bughouses in unpopulated areas like this.” He surveyed the desolate surroundings. “Maybe there are more like him around here.”
“He must be starving. Look at him.”
“That’s how the infected look. Like they’re always hungry. Because no matter how much they eat, they’re still hungry.”
“He’s skinny, but he doesn’t look hungry. He looks like one of those skin-and-bone survivors from a concentration camp. He needs food in his belly. Maybe that’ll wake him up.”
“I say he’s infected. We waste him here and now before he infects us.”
“If he was infected, he’d be coming after the two of us right now trying to chow down our flesh.”
“I don’t like the way he’s looking at me. I’m gonna brain him,” said Danny, raising his bat and preparing to advance on the man.
“Leave him be. He looks harmless. Look at his face. It’s all sunburnt. Maybe he came here through the desert. His brains could be fried from the sun.”
“There’s something wrong with him. I don’t trust him. One bite from him, we’re dead. And what about that burnt corpse? Did the codger take a match to that poor guy?” Sniffing the air, Danny made a face. “I smell booze mixed in with the smoke. Maybe that stiff was a wino.”
“Keep your shirt on,” said Porter. He turned to the man sitting calmly on the knoll. “Where’s your mask?”
“What mask?” muttered the man.
“Did he say something?” said Danny.
“Knock it off,” said Porter. “The guy’s messed up in the head. Can’t you see?”
“I don’t want him near me if he’s not wearing a mask.”
“Put on a mask,” Porter told the man.
“No mask,” husked the man, barely audible.
“Did he say something?” said Danny.
Porter withdrew an unused white handkerchief from his rear trouser pocket and handed it to the man. “Use this.”
The man folded the handkerchief into a triangle, wrapped it around his face, and tied a knot in it in back of his neck.
“Are you hungry?” said Porter. “We got food back at our camp.”
The man’s gaze was as dead as ever.
“He’s dead inside because he’s infected,” said Danny, tightening his grip on his bat. “We gotta put down that whack job now.”
“Take it easy.”
“I don’t like him. Why doesn’t he tell us what he’s doing here?”
“The sun did it. It scrambled his brains. Maybe that’s why he’s having trouble talking. And he’s dehydrated. He’s had a rough trip. That’s all. He’s not acting like the infected.”
“He’s not acting at all. That’s the problem. He’s like some cigar store dummy.”
“Come back with us and we’ll round you up some grub to eat,” Porter told the man.
“Don’t blame me if he starts eating you instead,” said Danny.
“You’re seeing infected under every rock.”
“I didn’t make the world the way it is. I’m just trying to stay alive another day in it.”
Porter picked up on movement at the edge of the piney woods where they petered out into the desert.
Grimacing, three figures lurched out of the woods and headed toward him. They growled at the sight of Porter and Danny.
End of chapter 1. Buy Horde at Amazon.