Here is an unedited excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Seventy-Six:
Sacramento Valley, California, 2051
The child was wearing a collar, like a dog. The attached leash was fashioned from some sort of braided rope. It dragged on the broken and potholed asphalt between her and one of the nine men who walked several feet ahead. Her hands were tied in front of her. She moved with her head down, keeping perfect pace with the men. The distance between them never changed, the slack in the rope never tightened. Her no-color hair hung to her waist in filthy wet clumps. She was dressed in what appeared to be a tattered bathrobe. It might have been pink, once. Her feet were bare.
She wasn’t his daughter, of course. He knew that.
He lowered the binoculars and watched as the group faded into the distance. The landscape around the road was flat and featureless; long abandoned fields littered with the decomposing detritus of a corrupted city. The quickly westering sun was nothing more than a lighter spot in a sky the color of river mud.
They would camp soon. He’d move closer then.
Ian had been following the group for six days. Seeing the girl had awakened some long buried memory; something hideous and bloated, secretly festering within the deepest reaches of his mind. He was compelled to follow her. He watched their progress through his binoculars, never getting closer than half a mile. He knew if they spotted him, they’d kill him. A part of him wished for it.
At first there had been another child, a boy. He was younger than the girl, maybe eight-years-old. He rarely saw children anymore, and it had been at least ten years since he’d seen two of them together.
The boy followed along beside the girl without a leash to restrain him. Sometimes he reached out and held her bound hands. Often he fell behind and the girl would stop and look after him until her leash was pulled tight and she was forced to continue forward. Once, she resisted. The man on the other end of the leash turned and gave the leash an abrupt pull. The girl’s head snapped back and she was yanked forward, where she fell and landed face first on the road. The man strode back and unceremoniously lifted her to her feet. The boy he ignored.
On Ian’s third day following, the group awoke early and struck out without the boy. He watched as they emerged from the overturned tractor trailer they’d slept in, some pausing to take a piss or squat for a shit while others readied their firearms and what gear they carried. Ian waited until they were out of sight before walking up the road to the trailer. There was no sign of the boy.
After some searching, he found the body in a ditch off the road’s shoulder. The boy was lying half-submerged in the shallow water, naked, his glazed eyes staring sightlessly skyward. Up close, Ian could see how emaciated he was; his thin and nearly translucent skin stretched so tightly over his jaw and cheekbones that he appeared mummy-like. He’s well out of it, Ian thought, as he turned and walked back to the road. He wondered vaguely why the men hadn’t eaten him.
There were the remains of a city in the distance: Sacramento. Most likely where the group was heading. Ian hated the larger cities. There was nothing in them but suffering and death. He looked down at a watery yellow pile of shit left behind by the men. There were thin runnels of blood in it. He hoped it was terminal.
New York, New York, 2025
The man stared at the paper plate in his lap. Some sort of meat, partially consumed, lay in a glistening pool of congealing gravy. He looked at it curiously, as he couldn’t remember eating it. He lifted his head and looked around, feeling disconnected as if he’d just awakened from a particularly deep sleep. The sounds of clanking pots and pans and animated conversation drifted from a chocked-open doorway across from where he was sitting. The smells of fried food, decomposing garbage, and automobile exhaust were nearly overwhelming. His eyes returned to his lap. The plate was tilted slightly and some of the gravy was dripping onto his already filthy khakis. There was a plastic fork in his right hand. He noticed one of the tines was broken off. He dropped it onto the plate before picking up the whole works and setting it down on the crumbly and greasy-looking concrete beside him.
“You aren’t going to eat that?”
He turned with a start. An elderly man in a threadbare tweed suit was sitting next to him. The man’s rheumy eyes stared back at him, wanting. “I just didn’t want to see it go to waste, is all.”
He turned and picked up the plate. The soggy paper sagged to one side, almost spilling its contents. Supporting it with his free hand, he gave it over.
“Do you know my name?” he asked the older man.
“No, sir,” the old man answered, eagerly setting the plate in his lap on top of an identical empty one. He produced a metal knife and fork from his jacket pocket and began to work at the meat. “My wife used to make chicken fried steak, God rest her soul.” He pointed his knife at the broken plastic fork. “Only, hers wasn’t as tough as this here.”
He nodded noncommittally to the old man and then stood. The action made his head throb dully. He looked down at the elderly man in his tattered suit, then at himself. He was wearing a long-sleeved button-down shirt of heavy material. It looked to have been blue, once. Now it was a grayish no-color which bore more than a passing resemblance to the aged concrete of the alleyway. There was a large hole torn in the crotch of his pants, and the toe of his left sneaker had duct-tape wrapped around it. The word that came to mind was bum. He and the elderly man, were bums, he supposed.
He looked down the alley to where it terminated at what appeared to be a busy thoroughfare. Heavy pedestrian traffic moved past the alley’s mouth, with thick vehicle traffic whizzing by on the street just beyond. The purposefulness of the scene before him made him feel uneasy; he felt as if there was something of dire importance he needed to remember. He began walking toward the street. He vaguely heard the elderly man call after him: “Thanks for the grub, mister.”
He stopped mid-stride.
They were coming.