Ghosts

By D. Krauss

 

A lot of people died. The rest disappeared… Well, they haven’t so much disappeared as I can’t find them. I guess that amounts to the same thing, except there’s a lot of evidence that a lot of people are still running around causing trouble.

About once or twice a week, I’ll be in the back yard and hear, quite close, a sudden volley of gunfire, sharp and tough and rising in volume, and there’s shouts and screams so I grab my carbine and see to it. But, by the time I arrive, everyone’s gone. Everyone alive, I mean, because there’s bodies all over the place, shell casings, too, and usually a couple of things on fire. But, the people who did it? Nowhere around.

I have no idea where they went, or where they are. And I’ve looked.

Admittedly. I haven’t looked all that far ― only within the perimeter of what I consider my safety zone ― but, I’ve made a real effort, even broken into a few houses to see if anyone’s there and, no. No one. Even went out at night to look because most people are stupid and don’t use light discipline and there should be plenty of torches and candles and cook fires here and there giving them away. But zip. Zilch. Nada.

Where is everybody? And why haven’t they come after me again?

They’re obviously going after each other. The bodies attest to that. Four or five here, six or seven there ― the bad shots or the slow ones, I’m guessing. Or the unlucky; sometimes a bullet just finds you. I leave them where they lie unless they’re close enough to pick up on the breeze, especially during these hot months. A rotting body is the worst smell, just permeates everything. Also, they attract rats, which just permeate everything, and there I am chasing rats around the house with a baseball bat. The cats like it, of course, but, no thanks.

Cats are good to have around. Dogs, not so much, because most of them have packed and are now dangerous. It’d be nice to have one or two to sound the alarm should mobs approach but I haven’t come across a couple of dogs reliable enough for that yet. The cats, though, different story. There’s about fifteen on the block now, and I haven’t seen a rabbit or mouse in months (Same with people. I wonder if the cats are eating them, yuk yuk). It helps that I feed the cats every night, but they repay me by keeping the rodents under control. If they would take on the groundhogs, that would be great. Damn things are destructive, ripping up my gardens. Going to have to take care of them myself.

When there’s bodies close enough to my house to require clean up, I pile them right where I find them, drench them with gasoline (about the only thing it’s good for these days), and set it. Black oily smoke in the sky, and I stand back near a building and watch but no one shows up. You’d think the smoke and that cloying, horrible smell of burning bodies (which is actually worse than rotting ones) would cause some interest, but I guess the mobs have experienced enough of both that it’s become mere background, like trucks on the nearby interstate. Back when there were trucks.

By the way, bodies don’t reduce to ash, at least, not the ones I’ve burned. I suppose I need a much hotter fire, but I can’t be bothered. As long as the flesh fries enough to eliminate corruption, that’s fine. Besides, the bone piles are like heads-on-pikes: a deterrent, and apparently a damn good one because I haven’t seen anybody in my neighborhood since I started making them. Yes, yes, I know, correlation is not causation, and I didn’t kill the people that I put in the piles, someone else did, so the deterrence factor is a bit dubious because I keep having to do the work. I should get a community service award or something.

The only bone pile that is solely mine ― from the killing of the people to their collection, stacking, and igniting ― is the one over there by the railroad berm, and that was so long ago it’s starting to grow over with ivy. Stuff is relentless. I usually cut it back from the house because it’s a nest for bees and a transport system for carpenter ants, but I haven’t done that in a while. Not that I’m trying to hide my presence here, it’s just that it seems pointless. Decay is inevitable.

My personal bone pile came from that first night. It wasn’t for hygiene purposes like now; the fire was a cleansing, a proof against the mobs and what was happening to us. I was making a statement: You will not beat me. That’s why I kept throwing other things on the fire, like railroad ties, and made the fire tall and bright and hot and visible for miles, even danced around it screaming nonsense because the mobs are pagans and superstitious, and they need to see me as some kind of vengeful spirit. Maybe that’s why they stay away, maybe that’s why I can’t find them.

Am I Legend?

Don’t think so. I think I’m just…superfluous. There’s nothing down here at the end of the street that can’t be acquired elsewhere more easily, at least not with some cantankerous old guy (that would be me) shooting at you. The urge to acquire things easily is, no doubt, the impetus behind the various shoot-em-ups going on all over the place: One group of looters stumbles upon another group and objections ensue. That the shoot-em-ups usually happen only once in a particular area is evidence bolstering my theory: Once you’ve wiped out your rivals and taken everything that isn’t nailed down, no need to go back. And if one group is contending an area, best to move on. There’s still plenty of virgin territory.

Besides, vengeance is no longer a motive, not when the mobs have already taken it. What’s one more old guy when they’ve destroyed the old guy’s life and family and country and reason for living? Given the many killings during and since, there’s probably no one left from that night who even recalls my particular role during it. History is gone, and no one remembers.

Except me.

It started so small: a corner argument that ended up with shots fired, one guy goes down, the cops scoop up the other. Tragic, we all said, what are we coming to but, you know, fairly standard fare, even back in my day. There were always dustups that got out of hand. I mean, we all had guns. I had to shove them out of the way to get the silverware. But we didn’t shoot every single person who irritated us. We didn’t. Not that we were all high-minded or something; it just wasn’t done. You punched bullies in the nose or endured them. You didn’t bring a gun to school and shoot them. That was considered bad form.

But people began shooting each other over anything: a sideways look, a bad pair of shoes, a contrary political opinion. It got really touchy, like a B Western where the smelly, unshaven, craphead at one end of the bar draws down because some dude at the other end is wearing a clean shirt. And it got out of hand. Two or three guys on a corner shoot two or three guys on the opposite corner over the color of their skin, the perceived advantages their parents may or may not have enjoyed, the idea that one or two persons on one corner spent their lives working hard and saving money so they could buy a modest home in a modest town and live modestly for the remainders of my decades. Uh uh. You stole it. Somehow. From one or two of the guys on this corner.

How can you reason with that?

You can’t.

Then the mobs showed up.

It was impossible to know which mob was which. They were of assorted colors and political persuasions. Their only unifying factor was envy. They wanted what other people had. They did not want to go about obtaining what other people had through the time-honored process of education and working and incremental improvement. Given what politicians had done to us over the past thirty years, I’m not sure that process was actually available anymore, so I am not without sympathy. The world had changed. My model did not work anymore. But that was no reason to come after my wife and me.

“I have to go out,” my wife said.

“No, you don’t,” I said from the front porch, watching a smoke column in the distance.

“I’m going,” she said. And left. Could never tell her anything.

I have an idea what happened to her because I found our burned-out truck among the other burned-out trucks in a back parking lot of the burned-out mall. If she is still in the mall, well. If not, she’d have made it home by now ― she was that tough. So, she’s in the mall. Perhaps she is being held against her will somewhere, which is why I have to find where everyone’s hiding, but I doubt it. The mobs have no use for an old lady.

A mob showed up the night she left for the mall. I live at the end of a cul de sac, and I heard them coming quite a ways off, so I grabbed my carbine and a few clips and walked out the door and into the front yard and there they were, a roiling mass of screaming people cresting the rise in the middle of the street and heading my way. There were a couple of houses on fire behind the mob and lots of my neighbors streaming past with armfuls of suitcases and clothes and other hastily grabbed stuff. “Where you goin’?” I yelled, and all I got was sheep looks and bleats from people I thought had more sense as they pointed fearfully over their shoulders and rolled the whites of their eyes, and I spat on the lawn and strode into the middle of the street and lowered the carbine at the front of the screaming mob and cut loose.

Three clips worth.

When it was done, the mob was running for its life back down the street, and I turned and all my sheep neighbors were scampering over the railroad berm, and I haven’t seen them since. I dragged the dead and the almost-dead over to the berm and made my bone pile. Haven’t seen a mob since. Haven’t seen anyone.

What’s going on?

No idea, and I don’t think it’s cleverness; I think it’s mere circumstance, but it leaves me vulnerable. If I don’t know where the mobs are, they can get me. Fake one of those pop-up battles, say, and ambush me when I come charging in, or wait until I’m busy disposing of a stack of their bodies and pop me in the back of the head. Not that I think either is likely; mobs aren’t smart. They’re visceral. A lone man can outthink a mob.

So where the eff are they?

I’m beginning to think they’re ghosts.

I hear gunfire, and then I find bodies. I don’t find the shooters, which is strong evidence of a haint of some kind or other. Armed haints, at that, which is not typical haint behavior. Jumping out of closets, rattling chains, moaning, okay, but firefights? Maybe they’re a special kind of haint, one that possesses and animates, and the bodies I find are nothing more than hosts so… Yeah, c’mon, not likely. But, I’m quickly running out of other explanations.

Maybe I’m a ghost.

That makes more sense. If I cannot interact with living, breathing people, if I rush to their probable locations and the street is empty, then maybe I am on a different plane and cannot see them, even if the street teems with crapheads. As a ghost, the only things I can see are things expended like cartridges and dead bodies, so that would mean the bodies I burn aren’t even real bodies, just templates of former lives, markers of some kind, like the shadows of people burned into the walls at Hiroshima.

I am losing my mind. Or I am in hell, and this is eternal punishment.

Or this is just the way things are now.

I don’t know. I don’t know if I will ever know because the days spin, the sun marches across the sky, and time unwinds. When I die, then I’ll know. Maybe. Because the world has changed and my model does not work anymore, and the God and Heaven I always counted on aren’t there, and my lifelong smug assurance of eventual answers aren’t either.

Hell isn’t fire; it’s not knowing.

 


D. Krauss currently resides in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s been a cottonpicker, a sod buster, a surgical orderly, the guy who paints the little white line down the middle of the road, a weatherman, a gun-totin’ door-kickin’ lawman, a layabout, and a bus driver, in that order. Find him at at his website Dusty Skull, on Facebook or on Twitter and his sci-fi and fantasy novels are available from Amazon.



Featured image via Pixabay, Public Domain C0.

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