“I tell you I heard something!”
The kid kept turning around in the seat, looking back behind the wagon.
“Drop it,” I said. Her continuous whining was making the horse nervous, and grating on my nerves.
“I tell you—”
It was Monday, for those who still paid attention to such things, and the kid’s first day. Her father’s envelope of food tokens sat heavy in my jacket pocket.
"You want to make it out here?” I asked. She nodded. “Well, you better start learning, and the first thing you learn in this business is that here’s nothin’ to hear.”
We had been doing the rounds all morning, visiting the farms, and found trade dwindling. All that could die had died already, or was too busy dying to care.
“I thought the smell would be worse,” she said. I could tell the silence made her nervous.
“They don't smell straight away,” I explained. “Takes a few days. And it's not summer anymore.”
Smoke and dust hung heavy in the air, the dry tang of autumn and decaying leaves. The fields were wild, patches of brown and yellow, black gnarled trunks.
“Have faith,” I said. “If it's bad air you want, you'll get aplenty.”
The whole countryside was going wild. In less than one year, the neat division between fields and woods would disappear. It would probably not be the only thing to disappear. We passed an old walnut tree by the side of the road. The dead leaves crunching beneath our boots.
“But how can you be sure?” she asked suddenly.
“’bout what?” I asked, as if I didn’t know. They all ask on their first day.
“What if there’s someone still alive,” she cast a glance over her shoulder, “back there?”
I chuckled. “Nobody’s alive back there, kid.”
She turned sharply, surveying the pile of bodies in the wagon through squinting eyes.
“But I’m sure I heard—”
“You heard nothing,” I said. “There’s nothing to hear.”
“But one can’t tell, right? I heard stories—”
“You’re too old for stories.”
The horse kept going. It knew the road—really didn’t need me nor the girl there.
“But what if the stories are true? What if there’s somebody alive back there? After all—”
This is why I like to get them to start handling the bodies as soon as possible. To teach them there’s no humanity left in the husks, no matter what.
In the cities, things are different. Trucks still running, collection centers, people in orange airtight suits, scheduled cremations, sanitary cordoning. But here in the countryside, things are slower, more backwards, more old-fashioned. We feel the breath of the Reaper closer.
Assuming the Reaper breathed.