(© M.A. Kastle)
Jack walked, head down, his only outward
acknowledgement to the dozen others waiting was a slight nod. The weather made
him miserable, struggling to get blood flow back to his freezing feet, made him
mad. It was September and felt like December. Autumn’s biting cold patiently
waited for the hazy golden hue of the evening sun to sink behind the shield of
dense trees and the snow capped mountains. Once it was gone, the chill would
devour whatever warmth had existed throughout the day.
The preserve, being some sixty miles from
the nearest town wasn’t without heat. Situated throughout the staging area were
six fifty-gallon drums, each one turned fire pit, and each one glowing from the
fire within. The snow around each barrel was nothing more than thick sloppy slush
and as he approached his chosen barrel, each of his steps pushed bitter liquid
up and over the toes of his combat boots. Its icy fingers crept up his calves
sending goose bumps racing across his skin. The barrel sat on the fringe of the
staging area, lacked people and their monotonous mumbling, and when he reached
it, he pulled his gloved hands from the flannel-lined pockets of his coat,
stretching them over its warm gold tipped flames. It was time for silence,
reverence, and he needed to think about what he was doing and what he was going
to do. In seconds, what relief he found in the heat escaping through the holes
of the barrel faded under his indecision.
It ran rampant.
He second-guessed every detail, even his
choice of clothing; shirts, coat, jeans, his thick wool socks, and his boots.
With another step closer to the flames, he exhaled more unspoken complaints
about the melted snow that would soon turn to ice making his clothing useless,
and watched the foggy grey ribbons of his breath drift in the moving air.
Silence sat as thick as the snow, and in its
depth, between the men and women who journeyed to the preserve there was an
understanding, ‘judge not’. They all came for a reason, the thrill of the hunt,
curiosity, and then there was the other reason, the one that just thinking
about it turned Jack’s already queasy stomach into a churning mess of nerves.
There were those who went into the preserve to say good-bye.
What, he thought starring into the
red/yellow flames, was the purpose of that?
Self-punishment, he answered himself. Maybe,
sad as it was, it’s really an attempt to understand something, someone, who
didn’t make sense anymore.
Jack coughed into his right hand and looked
up at the buzzing yellow floodlights. What did the song say- the darkest hour
never comes in the middle of the night? Whoever sang it was right, at least in
his part of the world. If he remembered correctly, it happened in the middle of
the damn day, noon, straight up, and even then, it started slowly, innocently,
if you could say that about death. Almost like it was lolling you into
acceptance, and once you were sure it was all going to be all right, it busted
Simple things, headaches, nausea, the
chills, and a fever, sent groups of scared people rushing to hospitals. One by
one, two by two, old, young, and everyone in between, fell sick. The hospitals
didn't only admit them; they quarantined them with the fear they were dealing
with a new strain of whopping cough. Jack shivered, they were smart to quarantine
them, probably the only smart move made on their part, he thought bitterly. The
first hours of chaos created panic, and the idea Mother Nature unleashed
Armageddon to cleanse herself, crossed everyone’s minds. It wasn’t as if the
idea people were born with an expiration date was possible.
Wave after wave people were changing and
when no one could find a cure the unimaginable happened. The victim’s minds
gave up, and not in death, they turned into frenzied monsters whose human form
was the only thing human about them. Immediately the news went wild touting the
sick as the real modern day zombie. The end of whatever they were was horrible.
Later, after the initial chaos turned to a
gentle roar, the day became known as the Cessation, meaning the end. In the
end, the name didn’t matter. The simple act of naming it, made it commonplace
and easy to remember in one simple term rather than the nightmare it truly was.
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