His wound itched. With his dirt-ridden left hand, he scratched it, scraping the surface of the length of wool he had instinctively wrapped around his mauled leg, a makeshift bandage. He looked down and, after examining the wound once more, saw that his fingers had been stained by blood that had seeped through the cloth. Dry, stale blood. From time to time, a searing shock of pain would shoot up his leg, bolt through his body and to his head. The muzzle of his gas mask hovered before his head. He realized that wearing it was of no use anymore. In one smooth motion, he yanked it off and hurled it away, punishing it for restricting his vision for so long.
His body spat out his blood, as though it was relishing discharging the now contaminated liquid. In short, mighty bursts it would bleed, stop bleeding, and bleed again. As if all the blood in his body had leaked out through the gaping hole and his wound was now fetching the last of his blood from his trembling body to spew. Banishing it. His foot was doused with it, and he left a trail of bloody footsteps in his path. He lay flat on the floor and faced the sky. It was grey and cloudless, bare. Like it had died.
In his right hand, he held a piece of aged wood. Its surface was scratched, engraved by the force of terrified fingernails. A part of a floorboard that it had been pried from. A streak of blood, now a deteriorated, rusty black, smeared across it, running from one far end to the other. The sound of his every move and aching groan echoed through his surroundings, or possibly just through his own head. He couldn’t tell.
He lay shivering, recounting the day’s events. As though if he thought hard enough, he could reverse what had happened. He lamented as his body withered and bled. He painted the empty canvas of the sky before him with his memories. He thought of the girl, her image engrained in his memory. How he’d looked at her, with fear and awe, past the dust and specks of filth that had accumulated on his gas mask.
He remembered how she’d stood there, frozen. Eyeing her next meal. So still that he thought she’d died where she stood. Her hair was wildly growing and unkempt in places, forcibly pulled out in others. Like a map, he thought. It looked like a map detailing, in startling and horrendous clarity, all that had gone wrong with the world, all that had stripped children of their smiles, the fall breeze of its gentle sweetness, the sun of its light. Her teeth, visibly sharpened by manic gritting or vicious grinding against the bones of someone’s living ribcage, were always on display. The children were the fiercest, the most dangerous.
She scowled at him, a contemptuous look upon her scarred face. He looked in her eyes and saw a cloud of bloodthirsty desire. The embodiment of what it is to be inhuman, ruthless. He remembered his gas mask being uncomfortable, as if always had been. Her clothes were bloody, not so much stained as drenched in blood.
Another shock of pain blazed though his body. He howled in pain. His voice shrill, faint now. His wound caught his attention for a second, then the girl occupied his thoughts again. He remembered the pain most of all; the pain of her jabbing her teeth into his thigh, clenching her jaw with all her might. Her nails digging into his back. He pulled out a knife and thrashed blindly at her, turning his head away and covering his eyes with his free arm as he did.
Her dying screams rang in his ear. Like a knife wedged in his head. Guttural cries, soaked in agony and torment. For before they died, pain would engulf them, viciously extinguishing the savage creatures, erasing every trace of their being. Viciously omitting them from existence. The disease was just as ferocious they were.
His mind emptied of everything, all the grief and misery of his world. All his memories melted into a mass that faded away. The unmistakable feeling of death, he thought. He imagined the girl had felt the same. All the memories, thoughts, pain vanished into a corner of his mind until there was nothing. Nothing except the block of wood he’d spent years studying, sought hope, motivation and encouragement from. He thought of how it embodied his will, his power, his purpose in life. He thought of how it had fed his soul hope with unyielding intensity. He thought of how it was his only reason to live. He thought of his unforgivable failure.
With the care of a mother carrying her child, he placed the block on his chest. On his heart. He shut his eyes one last time, and, just as he had for years before, thought of the words etched on the block of wood.