Author : cchatfield

It took only a moment of eye contact for the stranger to change his evaluation from “boy” to “young man.” It was a useless habit leftover from before the outbreak: assuming a young body meant innocence or an unblemished mind.

Even the smallest child, a girl of four or five, glared at him with wary eyes until her father gruffly assured the children that the stranger posed no threat of infection. It took the better part of the first day he spent in the cramped (but, more importantly, warm and well-stocked) farmhouse with the rugged family of survivors before childish curiosity won over.

But even after the younger ones were sitting on his lap, enthralled by his leather gloves and the maze of hidden pockets sewn into his jacket, the young man would only scowl at him in passing, not letting the stranger’s presence interrupt the work of survival.

Nonetheless, the stranger knew that more often than not the young man was listening intently through the wall to the stories being told of journeys through deserted cities populated by nothing more than drafty winds and punctured buildings.

Of course, the children more interested in any survivors he’d stumbled upon. Stories with happy endings that to them, with humanity on the verge of extinction, had become just that. Stories. He obliged with tales of families and friends, communities and hermits living idyllic lives in empty mansions or on tropical islands. Always last, and always in a quiet voice, he told them of a mad scientist he’d met just before finding the farm. A forgotten genius who’d done the impossible. Found a cure. The children would gape at him, unable to imagine a life without infection.

Three children, one young man, and two adults, including the stranger. Pooling resources, they would have more than enough lethal dosages.

The mother had succumbed to the disease, lacking whatever immune fortification the children seemed to have inherited from their father. But even that, the stranger knew, would not be enough to protect them from the new wave of infection he’d seen crashing towards them on the wings of birds and insects.

The children’s father agreed to the plan with bitter resignation. He’d known the day would come. It was his decision to tell his eldest son and he asked the stranger to be present.

After, the young man’s eyes softened for just a moment as he searched their faces. “But…but what about the…” he gestured helplessly, unable to ask.

Gently, the stranger placed a heavy hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Stories are for children.”

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