“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.
I wanted her to get those sick ideas out of her head so I commanded her to help when we came to Martin’s farm. She looked scared but didn’t hesitate to climb down the cart. There were three bodies to pick up, rolled up in dirty sheets—two white, one incongruously flowered with small pink daisies. Three bundles laid out by the farm gate.
Usually nobody’s there when we pass by, but now a woman stood by the rusted mailbox. She greeted us with a nod. Thirty going on seventy by the look of her, her clothes fastidiously neat, a child in her arms.
I tipped my hat at her and gestured to my apprentice. “You get the feet,” I said.
She choked back whatever was stopping her throat, nodded, and bent to grip the body by the ankles. I could tell she was afraid, but she did the job anyway.
Back when it started, we used the forklifts and tractors to move the bodies. Now, the husks were light and crackled like ancient paper. An old man and a girl were more than enough to lift them.
We heaved them on the cart, then I touched the brim of my hat again. The woman handed me four crumpled tokens. I picked them delicately from her fingers. She stood and waited as we climbed back onto the wagon bench. Not a word, no nothing. She didn’t start walking back towards the house until we were a half-mile along the dirt road.
“Maybe she wanted to say goodbye,” the girl said with a faraway stare.
I suspected she felt abandoned. It figured. Her father dropped by my place, paid for the week, and left her standing there, staring at me as I put together an outfit she could use for the job.
I chuckled. “She wanted to make sure we wouldn’t disturb the bodies.”
“Disturb the bodies?” she said, making a face.
“Searching for valuables. Rings, watches, gold teeth, that sort of stuff.”
The kid stared at me for a long moment. “And she stood there for that reason?”
Her cheeks reddened. “That’s silly!” she said. “That’s downright stupid, if you ask me!”
“You say?” It was the first show of real emotion since I had taken her from her father. A good sign.
“What if we do it now? What then?” she asked, almost aggressively.
I sighed. “We won’t.”
She seemed relieved. “But we could.”
I shook my head. “What do you expect of her? That she ride the cart to the pits? That she watch as her family is fed to the fire? Maybe say a few words?”
“She could’ve, right?”
I sighed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, girl.”
But I reckoned she’d learn soon enough.
The heat of the fires came to us in the artificial breeze caused by the burning pyres, laced with black soot and smoke. I pulled my goggles up, then covered my mouth and nose with my scarf. The girl did the same after a minute. Her eyes were already red and watery.
I took the shotgun from beneath the seat, then jumped down and slipped the horse’s hood around its long head. I patted its neck and started leading it on by its harness. In front of us, the fields were an endless stretch of dried-up shrubbery, punctuated by black pillars of smoke rising to join the slate-colored clouds.
They do things differently in the big cities. When it became clear that the bodies would continue to pile up, they turned stadiums into collection centers, using government-issued flamethrowers to start the fires. Here in the sticks, we managed with lower technologies—a pit surrounded by a ring of barren earth, a tank of gas, an alcohol-soaked rag, a lit match.
The fires burned across the plain, but not many deliveries were being made. The stench—an obscene mixture of engine exhaust, baked clay and burnt flesh—permeated the air for miles. There was no scarf or mask thick enough to stop it.
I looked over my shoulder. The girl sat slumped forward, looking around through her goggles, insect-like. We followed one of the paths to the nearest pit. As we reached the cleared area, stubble giving way to cracked dirt, three of the dustmen walked towards us. Two others hung back by the lip of the pit, feeding the flame with scrap wood, old chairs, table legs, wardrobe doors.
The dustmen dressed in the same collection of black and gray rags, looking like they had rolled in the cinders. They seemed to float—to hover—suspended over a cloud of dull ash that hid their legs. They advanced warily, their heads wrapped in bandages, eyes covered by dirty lenses, their hands fat and clumsy for the thick gloves. When they were close enough, one raised a hand in a sign of friendship, or at least not of hostility. I saluted in turn, holding the shotgun so it remained visible to all, and stopped the cart.
This close to the pits, the heat was scorching. A faint orange-yellow glow filtered from underneath the smoke rising from them, casting a hellish light on the whole scene.
The three dustmen shuffled quickly around the cart and contemplated the pile of wrapped up cadavers, nodding and talking among themselves, their voices smothered by the layers of cloth around their heads. One slapped the other two on the back and made some higher-pitched noises that sounded like laughter.
The girl jumped off the cart and stepped close to me. “At least we made these sods’ day,” I said.
She turned her eyes to me, glass goggles unblinking.
“Looks like there’ve been fewer deliveries,” I said, pointing at the other pits, where the dustmen idly sifted through the ashes in search of valuables.
“We might as well be going outta business.” I grinned, but she couldn’t see it with my face covered. I saw myself reflected in her lenses, my humor wasted.
The three dustmen fumbled with the bodies, gripping the one rolled up in pink flowers by its feet and dropping on the ground. One of them bent down, unwrapped the head, and pushed long ginger hair away from the face. I caught a glimpse of sunken cheeks, parchment-like spotted skin, eyes gazing blindly at the sky. One of the dustmen knelt and used a thick, gloved thumb to push back the upper lip. He nodded at the others, pulled out a pair of pliers, and got to work.
The girl gasped and turned her face away. “Let’s go,” she said. “I want to leave.”
“We can’t.” Two dustmen passed us by, carrying the bodies on their shoulders. The girl just stared at me. “It’s our job,” I said, “And the cart’s still half-loaded.”
The dustman with the pliers went to work on the third corpse when the thing decided it was still very much attached to its gold teeth.
The dried-up carcass sprung up like a jack-in-the-box, and it grappled the dustman’s bulky frame, knocking him off-balance. The two bodies, living and dead, rolled in the dust, stirring up a thick cloud of ashes.
The other dustmen came running, but they were slow on the pickup and far away. I pulled the girl back and cocked the shotgun’s hammers.
From the gray mist, the husk—once a man—came at us, still partially-covered in the remains of its makeshift shroud. A single golden ring pierced a wizened nipple, and it was impossible to say where the tattoos ended and the markings left by the death began. The husk, dry as a bone and fiery-eyed, staggered towards us with its claw-like hands extended, laughing like mad.
“Told you one was still alive!” the girl shouted.
I stepped in front of her, pointing the shotgun. “It wasn’t!”
I filled the dead man’s face with buckshot.
They wanted us to pay a forfeit of five food tokens for the loss sustained by the dustmen. According to the one we haggled with, the husk possessed a mouthful of gold teeth, and I had blasted them to hell—and who knows, maybe it was true. One of the dustmen knelt on the ground, searching through the mess, his gloved hands stained an unpleasant dark crimson, dripping. His companions unwrapped the body of pliers-man, then cast him into the fire.
I pulled three tokens from my pocket. “Take it or leave it,” I said. He took it.
When we finished our business, the dustmen went their way, and I pulled the old nag around to take us back home. The girl sat in the driver’s post, arms crossed on her chest.
About half a mile out, the smell of the pits no longer so aggressive, I uncovered the horse’s head and climbed back aboard. The girl slid by the side, giving me some space. I sighed and handed her the shotgun. She stared up at me.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “You ride shotgun, so you carry the fucking shotgun.”
The girl looked down at the weathered weapon in her lap, taking it into her ash-smeared hands.
“The second thing you learn in this business is, sooner or later, that thing you did not hear may come for you.”
The girl glanced up at me and nodded, her expression a bit harder than when her father dropped her off that morning. First time out’s always the hardest.