Conner couldn’t feel anything but a deep throbbing in his heel — a thick purple pulsing that sang out with each step. He limped through the forest bent like a jack knife, plugging a bloody hole in his abdomen with one hand and holding his helmet with the other, pinning to his head as if a stray gust of wind could tip it from his head and send it flying up into the swishing canopy. His fevered mind pictured Mary Poppins floating, black boots disappearing into the ceiling of needles, the bulb of her bumbershoot replaced by an oversized, army-gray helmet, bullet-bruised and tattooed with mud. He shivered as the wind licked his the back of his overheated neck
He stumbled on another invisible pothole in the needle-strewn forest floor, sending fresh stabs of pain through his heel. He knew it was broken, but had no choice but to push on. No time to pause and listen for the sound behind him.
He pictured Fallon’s eyes, the way they had snuffed out mid sentence like a wire had been cut. He fell face-first in his oat rations, the back of his head gaping like a second mouth. It was panic after that, but Conner couldn’t stop staring at that toothless hole, almost believing it would start speaking to him. Bodies heaved into motion in his periphery, some slumping back before even gaining their feet. A warm spray of blood against his cheek brought Conner around and he dove without thought straight into the underbrush, digging into the loamy dirt with his elbows as he snaked his way into the ferns. Confusion of leaves, stinging dirt in his eyes, the voiceless movement of panic behind him almost worse than screams.
Conner stopped and stifled his heaving breath. He imagined his body melding with the earth, sinking into the soft soil. He shut his stinging eyes and pressed his limbs to the ground, twitching at every bird call. Every snapping twig.
But there was nothing. No footfalls or mechanical whirs. Just the rustle of leaves high above him, the echoing tap of a woodpecker.
For one hour, then two, he waited. His face prickled against the dirt and his limbs ached from the stillness, but still he didn’t move. His view from the underbrush was all he knew: the whitish stalk of a dead fern. The small drift of dirt against the flat of his nose. Crosshatching of leaves giving way to a single gray cedar trunk. The complex kaleidoscope of light from the canopy above, bathed everything in a warm, autumnal glow. When dying started to sound preferable to looking at the trunk of the cedar — at about three hours in - Conner creaked his limbs to life again and raised himself to his elbows, and then his knees, pausing every three seconds to listen.
He closed his eyes tight as he stood up fully, expecting flashes of light against his eyelids to be his last sight. He tried to grasp on to some meaningful thought to hold in his mind as the end came, but could only muster confused flashes of memory: His father’s hand on his adolescent neck, guiding him through a panicked crowd on their way out of the city for the last time. The crunch of an apple. Fallon’s empty eyes.
Conner opened his eyes to look around and saw only the pale orange of the forest floor, silent ferns and ghostly cedar trunks. The crisp blue sky above was the color of the first day of school, or weekend drives with his parents when the weather first started to get cold.
Conner stumbled on stiff legs the few yards back to the clearing where his contingent had been camped. The wide depression in the earth was devoid of all life, and all signs of it. Where, a few hours before, had been 15 men, a campfire, 15 knapsacks and 30 unlaced boots was now a pristine bed of leaves, unshuffled by human feet. It would have been eery if it wasn’t so completely expected — they never left a sign, after they came.
Conner had no doubts that he was being watched. He didn’t give much credit to his stealth, not with the sensors they had. A realization crept up his back like dread — they were keeping him alive.
But why? It was useless to ask. And yet he did, as he looked around the clearing one more time. Why was he alive when the rest of his militia had been wiped away like bugs from a windshield? He didn’t think he was special. No one can watch another human’s skull pop like a microwaved tootsie roll and still feel like a noble being. He was sentient goo just like his comrades had been. And yet here he was, still sentient.
He heard it then, in the bushes behind him. A quick tapping like mechanical spider legs against the stiff leaves on the forest floor. He turned sharply and the sound stopped for a moment, before reappearing behind him again, this time on the other side of the clearing. It was the nightmare tapping of withered, fungal fingernails on marble tabletop, the sepulcheral clack of bone on bone. It was the sound of sneaking death. Conner heard it again, closer behind him, and he ran.
His bare feet tore through ferns in front of him. The taps, now accelerated to a chatter, came from all directions, tickling his eardrums. He jumped over a rain-slicked log and landed hard, heel-first on a sharp rock on the other side. He felt a dull snap in his foot as electric bolts of pain stabbed up through his leg. He slowed, but the snickering rose to a cacophony, propelling him forward.
A concussion from the middle-distance behind him. He felt warmth spreading across his belly before he felt any pain.
Looking down he saw the dark cherry pit of the wound in his abdomen before blood soaked through his thermal. He pressed his fingers into the hole and hobbled forward, away from the tapping behind him.
Now, Conner stumbled through the night, pursued only by the threat of that sound. He hadn’t heard it for hours, but the memory swelled in his fevered brain and loomed at the corners of his vision.
Missing his footing in a low ditch, he pitched forward onto smooth gravel. Grit filled his mouth and stuck to his sweat-beaded face like flour to a lump of dough. Conner sputtered as he looked first one way, then the other: Gravel extending in either direction. A road.
He rolled over and tried to sit up. The torn muscles in his abdomen screamed him back down, and slowly, he let his head fall back to the gravel.
The night was clear and he could see the thick band of the Milky Way spilled across the sky above him. Uneven jaws of rock — cliffs on either side of his vision — confined the sky-view above him into a vertical letterbox. His head swam and he imagined the cliffs closing above him, pinch out the stars, one by one.
He was the uvula looking out from the back of the world’s throat, dangling above the star-spattered maw. Rustling leaves didn’t quite conceal the chattering from the woods behind him, and Conner felt his eyes grow heavy.
He swallowed, and waited
Photo by david terranova