By: Steven Knauer
Arthur looked back at his companions, wearily hefting his bag over his shoulder. Putting his hand over his tanned brow, he spots a giant, dead tree good enough for a rest stop. He toyed with his crucifix, thanking God for a safe haven.
“We’ll make camp here.” He calls out to his caravan.
Crossing the Brazilian wastes was usually called a fool’s errand, but when well-armed men march into town claiming to actually have a way out of this hell, exceptions can be made. It was day three of this not-so-great and wondrous adventure, but Arthur tried not to falter. The truth was however, that he had never encountered such a daunting task since the Fall itself ten years ago, but that’s what kept him going. Ten years, he thought. Ten years of reflection on mankind’s mistakes.
After an hour’s time and the sun setting quickly, the company had fully set up their camp. Arthur and the rest of the expedition leaders huddled around their fire.
“It’s Crazy how dis weatha flip-flops on us so much,” Chimed Avi, followed by a pause in the group. He didn’t know the boy very well as he had been found wandering the desert a few months ago outside of Arthur’s village, but he assumed by his accent that he was Cajun. To be fair, Louisiana didn’t really exist anymore so his nationality couldn’t properly be addressed, but Arthur tried to put that thought out of his head. The poor kid, just a mere 16 years old had nobody wishing to respond to him, so Arthur cleared his throat.
“It’s one of the many punishments for our sins,” He told him. “Man was never meant to play God.”
“God,” scoffed a familiar voice, “What kind of God let’s his creation turn into a shithole like this?” Looking across the fire, Arthur found it belonged to Marissa. Now she was someone he never wanted to argue with. Arthur’s faith is what kept him going, while Marissa lost hers long ago after seeing her father being brutally killed by raiders over a land grab while just trying to protect his family. Rather, she saw the moment leading up to his death before her brother covered her eyes. While they disagreed on philosophies, Arthur couldn’t find it within himself to argue with her. Feeling a wave of disappointment, he decided he was turning in for the night. As he walked away from the group, he could hear her response, a big hawk of spit in the fire. He lay in his tent, removing his necklace to weave it in between his fingers as he stared at it.
In the middle of the night, Arthur was woken by screams and gunshots. He rushed out of his tent, wood axe in hand, trying to assess the situation. His eyes were still full of sleep, but his senses were quickly adjusting as he saw what seemed to be a vague outline of a four-legged creature with sharp tendrils squirming around on its underbelly attacking people in the large camp. Shamus, a cocky 30-something-year-old and one of the men that came to save Arthur’s town, shot half clip of ammo from his rifle into the creature who only responded with anger. What seemed like black smoke and tar spewed from the beast, catching the ground alight where it fell. It ran toward Shamus as he continued to assault the figure.
It seemed unphased.
Arthur couldn’t believe his eyes. He was a man of faith to be sure, but could it be? Was this creature real? Or was it an aberrant, a manifestation of sin. His heart sank as he saw the creature jump on Shamus and just as he expected it to rip him apart; Shamus was enveloped by the same black smoke that fell from the creature. Perhaps it was the night playing tricks on the eye, but to those who watched, Shamus was gone.
A scream is heard, followed by a string of curse words. The creature turns its glowing red eyes towards the insults. This made Arthur’s heart sink as he knew exactly where they came from; Marissa. The creature barreled towards her and this is when Arthur found his courage and leapt into action.
What felt like an eternity passed as he ran toward the demon, people he was unable to protect flying through his head. He remembered his best friend Jackson, taken by a bomb on the day of the Fall. His brother, conscripted into the military during the resource wars soon after supplies became scarce, never to be heard from again. His father being killed right in front of him and his little sister. He still remembered trying to shield her eyes from the gore, from the world. Finally he remembered mother being taken by cancer after refusing to take anti-radiation so that there was enough for her children.
If man could do this to each other, to themselves, then why did they deserve to live? Why didn’t God take them all during the Fall? He asked these questions as he rushed to save the one person that truly mattered to him from what he could only describe as man’s punishment embodied.
With his axe held high, he fell onto the sinful abomination with it, sinking into it deeply. A bright light shone from the wound as the creature screamed. He did it, Arthur thought, he killed the creature. In a swirl of black ether, the creature disappeared and Arthur fell to the ground, the world blurring, his stomach knotting up. He was confused.
The next thing he saw was Marissa standing above him, crying, and looking at his chest. He wondered what was wrong as he reached down to feel a warm, thick liquid on his lapel. He didn’t need to look to know what it was; he had seen it so many times before. Raising his other hand, he touched her face lovingly, wiping away her tears.
“Looks like your brother couldn’t keep you safe forever… not that you ever let me.” He said weakly. Marissa coughed out a sad chuckle, touching his fingers. Arthur Cross’s eyes welled up as the last thing he saw was his crucifix still wrapped around his fingers and his sister stroking it as it lay between their cupped hands.