Rifle reports crackled through the forest. Lyle jumped a rotten log, landed, fell, twisted his ankle. Shot spattered the log above him. He ducked instinctively, panting foggy breath, and peered through the space between the log and earth, back behind the way he came. He saw her dirty feet and her tattered nightgown. She had stopped running. She couldn't see him, but could smell him. Their sense of smell was heightened with the sickness. She crept closer to the log. Lyle held his breath.
Footsteps. Another rifle crack. She grunted, staggered, collapsed. Her face was on the other side of the cavity under the log. Her eyes fixed on his. He watched the pupils contract. Her eyelids fluttered. She sighed. A thick brown ooze gurgled up into her mouth. The smell of bile and metal filled the air. The rifle sounded again. Her face was gone, replaced with a blossom of red and pink.
Lyle looked up, shaking. A tall fat man stood over him, his knee on the log. His eyes were sunken and his face was sallow despite his obvious prior predilection for pantophagy. His cheek was bruised with a purple semi-circle. He was a carrier. The man moved his jaw and spat a wad of brown towards the woman's body.
"Know her?" asked the man in a deep, assured voice.
"No," said Lyle.
"Mmmm," murmured the man. "God help her soul. Any others chasing you?"
"No sir," said Lyle.
"You sure boy?"
The man took his foot off the log. He leaned down and offered a hand to Lyle, and helped him up. Lyle winced when he put weight on the ankle.
"You're not gonna get far on that tonight," said the man. "I got a cabin in these parts. Me and the boys live there now. You're welcome for the night."
"Thanks, that's kind of you, uh..."
"Jed," said the man, spitting out another hunk of glistening tobacco.
"Lyle," said Lyle.
"Nice to meet you. Haven't had anyone uninfected 'bout these parts in a month or so."
"I guess I've just been lucky," said Lyle.
"Yeah, sure," said Jed. He looked up at the stars between the treetops. "God has a plan for you son."
They set off down a forest path Lyle could barely see. They were joined by other men who separated themselves from the camouflage of the dark trees. The boys, apparently.
The cabin was small but cozy. It was outfitted with an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove that was busy heating the tiny two rooms and pumping soot and wood smoke into the air outside. There was a table with two chairs in the main room, and four bunk beds in the other. Besides Jed, there were five other men, all carriers, all staring at him. Jed sat in one of the chairs by the table, sipping hot tea from a chipped porcelain cup.
"Why're you in the woods on a moonless night?" asked Jed.
"I was traveling. I'm trying to get back to--"
"To the city?" asked Jed. "Forget it." He sat down heavily in the other chair.
"Hell hath burst forth from the streets. You ain't got no chance," said Jed.
"Don't bother," said a tall man. He had long hair, but it was starting to emigrate en masse, and he was left with unkempt tufts.
"That's Luke," said Jed.
"Nice to meet you, Luke," said Lyle. Luke nodded slightly. Lyle felt unsteady and small beneath Luke's unblinking gaze. They did that, not blink, the carriers that were farther along. Lyle wondered where Luke's bite was hidden. Lyle turned to Jed. "You been there?"
"Nope," said Jed.
"Then how do you know? I heard that--"
"Word gets around," said Jed. He rocked back on latter legs of his chair.
"Met some people fleeing from that direction," said Luke.
"Yeah? You know this for sure?" asked Lyle.
"Sure as shit," said Luke.
Lyle took a quick gulp of tea then sighed heavily.
"What's wrong son?" asked Jed.
"I don't know where else to go," said Lyle. "I had this plan in mind, I've been walking for days, running." He looked around the room. They were listening raptly. "I was on the interstate, in my car. I was headed back home towards Denver. It had already started, it was spreading. I wanted to make sure my mom was okay. Not that I didn't cut the apron strings! It's just she stopped answering the phone. It just rang and rang. She never did set up her voicemail." Lyle looked down into the amber liquid, briefly smiling. "I ran out of gas, and there wasn't any more anywhere. I don't know, I just thought I should get back to the nearest city."
"You're not infected, are you?" asked Jed.
"No," said Lyle. "I thought maybe tonight was my night."
"Mmmmm," said Jed.
"We don't have no womenfolk no more," said Luke.
"No?" asked Lyle.
"That one that was chasing you," said Jed, "where'd she find you?"
"I don't know exactly," said Lyle. "I just stumbled over her, then noticed what she was."
"She was sleepin'?" asked Jed.
"Yeah, I guess so. Whatever it is they do at night. Woke her up though. I mean I think I stepped on her hand or something."
"Newton's probably gone," said Luke to Jed.
"Mmmmm," said Jed.
"Who's Newton?" asked Lyle.
"Not a who. A where. It's the nearest town," said Jed.
"They had a brothel," said Luke, smiling. "Tied up the turned women. Only cost a buck a trick."
"What?!" exclaimed Lyle.
"Well, we didn't know at the time we could get infected," said Jed. "All they talked about on the TV was X chromosomes."
"So that's how you--"
"Yup," said Jed. He spat brown into a Pepsi can. Lyle looked down at the table.
"All of you? You let yourself get bitten?!"
The men nodded, some of them looking down.
"Dinnit know then," said Luke. "Had to put 'em all down like dogs." He held up an imaginary gun and fired an imaginary shot at Lyle. "Ooosh," he said, recoiling.
"Heaven help their souls," murmured Jed.
"Yeah," said Lyle, his voice cracking.
They went to bed shortly after that. Lyle laid on the floor next to the stove, wrapped in a borrowed sleeping bag, listening to the periodic, rasping wet coughs of the men. He shivered despite the heat and slept poorly.
The next morning he was fed burnt pancakes with a dusting of granulated sugar. They watched him eat, their own appetites erased by their disease. He shoved down the crusty cakes in swift bites, and chased them with gulps of warm water. When he was done, Lyle thanked his grim hosts and set out again in the direction of Newton.
"Shouldn't go there," said Jed. He took up the entire doorframe.
"I wanna see it with my own eyes," said Lyle.
"There ain't nothin' left. Not really," said Jed. "It's done boy. Done. Even for you. You're just unlucky enough that you might live a long life." He turned and shut the door to the cabin. Lyle looked down the path towards the road that led to Newton. It was already disappearing under the new spring foliage.