The Stranger

by Sam Long

The Stranger
May 11, 2020 Sam Long

I feel the water fork between my fingers. It bites into my fresh wounds. Red water overflows into the basin beneath me as I clean myself. It is a cycle. You bleed, then you wash, then you bleed again. That’s how this world works now. Nobody’s clean.

I size up the man in front of me. I call him the Stranger. He provides me with entertaining conversations now and then. He’ll crack a few jokes, though they always fail to make me laugh. He talks about himself. Talks about his family. How he misses them. Sometimes I want to kill him. Sometimes it’s to put him out of his misery. Other times it’s because I can’t stand being around him. But then something always stops me. 

The Stranger laughs. He knows I can’t kill him. He picks up the scissors and hacks at the copse of coppery, tangled hair on his chin. Says he hasn’t looked this rough since his time backpacking across Europe in his gap year. It’s where he met his wife.

I tell him he’s an idiot for digging up the past. The past is for the dead. Focus on the now.

The shimmering silver jaws snap shut again and again, and I watch pieces of the stranger fall into the bloody sink. Next comes the razor. I’ve never liked shaving. The razor rubs against my tanning skin; rough, like aged leather.

Somebody knocks on my hotel door. I ignore it and continue to shave.

Again, the rhythmic thumping.

“Martha. Get the door,” I command.

No response.

“Martha?”

The scissors are in my hand. I am cautious and quietly open the washroom door. The room is silent. Empty suitcases rest at the foot of a king-sized bed, sheets crumpled. Clothes dirtied and discarded on the floor, creating a Frankenstein rug draped across the sun-bleached carpet. On the chest of draws rests a double-barrelled shotgun I acquired on one of my runs, back when there were still people to do runs with. Next to it is an organised stack of ammunition; some for the shotgun, and some for the Colt 1911 hanging from my belt.

Another thud at the door. I move with light footsteps.

“Hey Martha, do you think it’s room service?”

I rest my hand on the lever and flick it open, feeling the warm Orlando air sweep through my hair. The sun beats upon my face. I see nothing but blinding golden light and a figure swaying in its brilliant silhouette. If I was religious, I might believe I was meeting God; but this is not God, I’m not a religious man. The shadow of a cloud brings clarity. I smell infection and rot. The thing lurks in front me, an embodiment of putrefaction.

It wears stained white trousers hanging loosely on gaunt legs. Its faded floral shirt is ripped and bloodied, revealing icy skin beneath. I see wet, shredded flesh covered in teeth marks on its shoulder.  A bloated stomach, with black veins climbing past tendons hanging from the neck.

Its mouth drips with crimson. Its jaw widens and the flaps of skin pull back, revealing desiccated meat. It lunges at me with broken fingers and crooked teeth, snarling like a beast wearing the face of a man.

I’m quicker.

My scissors find a home in its brittle skull. I mince the blade in its brain and grey matter leaks from the wound, staining the walls and the door. Then it falls, yellowed blood pooling on the carpet.

It lies at my feet, dead — or as dead as dead things get.

My foot is under its chest and I kick it onto its back. Something glistens in the sunlight, black writing etched on a gold tag; it reads Charles. He worked at the resort.  

“Sorry about that, Charles. You seem like a nice guy.” I grab him by the collar of his putrid shirt. It’s like grabbing a water balloon. I heave him over the balcony railing, with effort, reminding me of how I used to lift my children over my shoulders as we ran down to the beaches with glee. The body hits the ground with a splash as the liquefied organs spill onto the courtyard below.

I tell Martha I’ll be heading out. I don’t know what time I’ll be back, or if I’ll be back at all. I make sure to read the kids a bedtime story before they doze off. I never want them to leave their room and risk… The Stranger tries to not think about that part. I see him wipe the tears from his eyes. He can’t afford to show weakness. Not now.  

He closes the door behind me. The room is quiet now.

The America the Stranger had visited a year ago was a maze of gridlocked cars and loud, unbearable lights; a roadblock of cars and crowds relaxing on the beaches. Now the cars are empty coffins filled with abandoned memories, photo albums and children’s toys. They’d already been scavenged. I should know, because I picked them clean.

I feel the sun pound my back, wearing the heat like a coat. The plaza of the hotel is laid with wide decorative tiles and tall, spiralling marble pillars; some now chipped, cracked, and corroded with age. I’ve had to use thick wooden boards to reinforce the glass doors that shattered in the early days. My car is parked out front, a Corvette whose colour, tyres and parts are all wearing thin. The engine groans with a repeated splutter; an innocent cough that masks something fouler. 

Finally the car pulled out of the car park and I am on the road. I see a few of the monsters lumber out of nearby buildings, eager for fresh meat, waking to the roar of the engine. I am a blur in the wind; it has been too long since I put my foot down. They follow behind with lethargic steps, each one sizzling on the tarmac. There’s a type of freedom in the end of the world. The idea of driving into the horizon and never looking back.

Something awakens me from my daydream.

It catches my eye and I hit the brakes hard. The car whines and the smell of burnt rubber fills the air. I’m staring at it, wide eyed, mouth agape. His alabaster skin seems so out of place for Florida, let alone the monsters that limp close behind. What’s more, he doesn’t limp. He runs at full sprint. The Stranger, sitting in the back, leans forward with the same look on his face. We lock eyes in the rear-view mirror.

“That’s a-” The Stranger begins, his mouth dry.

“-a human,” I finish, swallowing hard.

He is a shorter, stocky young man. He wears a white polo shirt, stained yellow at the collar and under the arms, and shorts revealing legs with fine hairs matted by sweat. His trainers are worn from running. Greased, black hair. His nose is stumpy and bends upwards and he seems to wheeze with every breath. With each step he takes, his feet drag a little further.  

“They’re going to catch him,” the Stranger comments. We are like spectators at a blood sport.

“I bet he’d make quite a meal for them,” I chuckle. He isn’t as amused.

“We have to help him.”

“No, we don’t. We’d be putting ourselves in danger. If you die, who’s going to be there to look after your family?”

That shuts him up for a moment. We sit in silence, watching the violence unfurl beyond the windscreen. It reminds me of kicking my feet up on my armchair back home, watching television while the children play at my feet. Home. It’s probably a pile of ruins by now.

“I wonder what happened to everyone,” he finally mutters, “back home?”

“You know what happened.”

“Gets kind of lonely though.” The Stranger leans forward and presses against the horn before sinking back into his seat. It rings out shrilly through the streets.

My eyes meet the running man, and, with renewed vigour, he sprints towards the car. I turn to the Stranger, but all I see is an empty seat.

More monsters shamble out of the alleyway like the dam has finally burst. They pour out, composed of bloody mouths and rotting skin. The man makes it to the passenger door.

I unlock the passenger door and he dives in. Seatbelt on, we drive back the other way. The second the horde falls out of my rear mirror; my Colt 1911 is out; he’s on the wrong end. He reaches for something in his belt. I rip the hammer back.

“Don’t think about it.” I warn.

“Please don’t shoot me.”

“That depends. Slowly reach for your weapon. Throw it out the window.”

He hesitates at first, then realises he doesn’t have a fighting chance. He lowers the window and tosses the hunk of metal. It bounces across the road. The man seems to value his life.

“Who are you with?” I ask, stowing my weapon.

“W-what?”

“Your group? Don’t lie to me and say you’ve made it out here on your own.”

“I-” he chokes. “I was with my boyfriend. He went out to gather supplies a couple of days ago. We were supposed to meet back there but… he never showed up.”

“He’s probably dead.”

I probably shouldn’t have said that.

The silence grew uncomfortable.

“I’d hope someone shot him. I’d be worse if he turned.”

What he says pulls at my heart.

I finally get a good look at him. Speckled hair protruding from his chin, his voice cracks and whimpers. He’s just a kid.

“What’s your name?”

“Miles, sir.”

“Sir? That’s a good start, Miles.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir, your accent… You aren’t from around here?”

“You’d be right,” I begin, then bite my tongue. I shouldn’t talk to him. I should play friendly. How long has it been since I’ve had stimulating conversation with someone other than myself? I stare out into the road, more things crawling out from their holes.

“I came here with my family.”

“I’m sorry,” his eyes downcast.

“Sorry? What for? I live with them.”

“Oh right, I just assumed…What are their names?”

“Well, there’s Martha, my wife; Cassie, my oldest, and little Johnny junior.”

“You have a baby?” There was a glint in his eye.

“I used to,” I look at him, “I mean, not like that, he’s just older now.”

“That must be horrible, growing up in all this.” He turns to the passenger window, lost in the children’s park across the street. The AstroTurf is the only thing in the area that’s kept its colour. The monkey bars are rusted and bent, the slide pooling with foul liquid. The links are broken on the swings. We drive past them before we get a proper look. It’s for the best.

When we are far enough away, the car slows to a halt.

“Why are we stopping?” His voice trembles with worry.

“I’m going back to my family. I’ll drop you off here. Go and find your boyfriend.”

“What? No, wait a second, you can’t make me go out there.”

“We both know that I can.” I pat my holster.

“You wouldn’t,” he stammers. “You’ve got to help me find him.”

“Not happening. Now get out.”

“Please.”

“Miles, I like you. But if you follow me, I will kill you.” My hand coils around the grip.

I glance in the rear-view mirror again. The Stranger stares at me with sympathetic eyes. “No, you won’t,” he whispers.

“I’ll give you half our supplies. Whatever he’s found, I’ll give you my half.”

“Hey, there’s something,” the Stranger chimes in. “Since we’ve come up with jack.”

I weigh up my options. The thought of something other than the hotel’s short supply of canned food makes me salivate. Things were much simpler when a waiter would take your order for whatever you liked.

“Do the right thing and help the kid out,” the Stranger pleads.

I relent.

“Where was he going?”

He points past the windscreen to the small collection of whitewashed towers that stand against the coast. “He used to work there, in the hotel.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“That’s where he said he’d be going. Why?”

“Well, that just so happens to be where I’m held up.”

“Really?” His voice explodes with hope. “You must have seen him!”

“I can’t say that I have,” I lie. “The hotel is pretty big. Lots of floors and rooms I haven’t explored, and I don’t want to. The place is swarming with those fuckers.”

“We’ve got to go get him, make sure he’s okay.”

“Last thing I’m doing is having you drag behind me. If he’s anything like you, he’s already a goner. Best move on.”

The Stranger, eyes heavy with care, looks at the husk of the boy, lip quivering and eyes wet. I tell him: emotions make you vulnerable and you can’t be vulnerable now. Not anymore. It doesn’t sink in. All I see is a lost boy, sick with love and hurt. 

“Look, Miles, if we’re doing this, you stick to me and you stick close. I’m not giving you a weapon because, frankly, I just don’t trust you. We’ll head back up to my room and grab some supplies. I want to nip this in the bud before it gets dark.”

We drive in silence the rest of the way, the horizon consuming the sun, bathing the land in orange.

We walk briskly across the courtyard, hurrying into the shadow of the hotel. Bodies litter the floor, disformed by protruding bones, the liquid remains of organs staining the stone. I look back to see Miles waver with each shaky step.

“If I knew I was having guests, I might have tidied up a bit,” I mention dryly, and am disappointed when it elicits no reaction from him. He stands still now, pale faced.

It’s as though he’s seen a ghost.

“Did you-” he coughs, trying to dislodge the words from his throat, “did you do this?”

“I have a lot of free time. Anytime I can kill them, I don’t hesitate.”

I guide him through the hotel. He doesn’t say much, mostly commenting on the makeshift caltrops that line the floor, fashioned from broken furniture and nails.

We ascend the concrete stairs and out onto the landing five floors up, finally reaching my room. I unlock the door and we step inside. Miles gags and heaves on the carpet.

“Miles, what the hell?” I jump back.

“What is that smell?” He struggles to catch his breath. “It’s disgusting.”

“I don’t smell anything. Look, go sit yourself in the corner over there while I grab my things.”

The room was exactly how I left it. The same mess scattered across the floor, the shotgun resting against the drawers. Except now home feels foreign to me.

“Where are your family?” he asks.

“Martha’s probably playing with the kids in the other room. I’m going to grab my things.”

“Do you mind if I clean myself up?”

Not paying much attention, I point vaguely behind me. “Sure, just beyond that door.”

I set to work on preparing a pack, collecting ammunition and a flashlight.

“You know, Miles,” the Stranger begins, “once we find your buddy, how about you stick on with me?”

I don’t hate the idea either. Perhaps the Stranger longs for a new friend. I can’t say I blame him. His family isn’t much for conversation.

“Jesus!” Miles swears as he leaps out of the room. The room my family is in.

The smell erupts from the dimly-lit chamber; fleeting rays of light dance through the drawn curtains, revealing the remains of a woman chained to a bedpost.

“Miles, wait!”

“What the hell is that?”

Its growls filled the air; sniffing the fresh meat before it. It writhes against its chains, the bed pounding the wall as it struggles to break free.

“Quiet down, Martha!” I roar.

“Christ, that’s your wife? You’ve kept that thing alive?!”

“Listen to me, Miles.” I try to compose myself. “Just close the door, I’ll forget all of this. We’ll go find your friend.”

“I can’t believe you’re keeping that thing here!”

“Miles, please close the door. I promise you we will find your boyfriend; we’ll find him together. Just close the door,” I plead.

He draws something from his back before I have time to react and I find myself staring down the mouth of a gun barrel.

My hands instinctively retreat from my belt. Tears are streaming down the young man’s face.

“He’s dead,” he exhales lifelessly. “I saw his body, out on the courtyard. You killed him, didn’t you?”

“Miles, I-” I stammer, “I’m sorry, but he was like that long before I found him. I told you this place isn’t safe. He must have come in a different way. He just got unlucky.”

“Unlucky? You’re keeping your wife — that thing — alive. It’s sick. Don’t you realise what they’ve done? They’ve ruined our lives. We’re all fucked now because of them, and you’re keeping it like a pet, chained up and rotting in this room. You should put a bullet in it just like the rest. That’s what you said wasn’t it? You don’t hesitate to put them down.”

“Miles, please don’t do this. I’m begging you. I lost everything.”

“Not everything.” He turns his weapon to the doorway.

I move like a blur; two muzzle flashes echo each other. I’m rooted to the spot, not knowing if my shot in the dark found its target.

A moment passes. Then another. A thud against the floor. Then silence.

I rush for the doorway. I flick the switch and light fills the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a hand, but I dare not turn to confirm what I already know to be true.

“I’m sorry,” is all I can manage. 

I hear knocking against the wall. The rhythmic siren call that draws me to her. Sitting on the bed, her arms chained to its wooden posts, sits my wife. Her golden hair is faded and moulting. Those blue eyes I fell in love with are sludge in hollow sockets. Her dress — first worn when we all went to the beach — is the only thing about her that seems to have remained clean. Her lips had been torn away from her mouth, revealing broken shards of teeth. She lunges at me, pulling at her chains. The skin around her wrist has flayed, revealing bone that grinds against the metal cuffs. But there’s no sign of fresh injury; no gunshot wound.

“Thank goodness you’re alright.”

She growls.

“You’re not looking so good.” I try to stroke her hair; she snaps at me and I pull away.

“How are the kids?” I ask her. I look across the room to the two other beds. White shrouds cover two small mounds.

“I’m sorry Martha, I shouldn’t have left you alone. If only I hadn’t left the door unlocked, maybe then…”

I tail off, not knowing what to say.

“I met someone today, can you believe it? Another person. His name’s Miles. He’s a quiet kid, but he’s got a good heart. I can tell. I-”

She growls louder, her mouth close to my face, eager to bite. I rise and leave the room, plunging it back into darkness. 

I go to wash up. I look at the Stranger in the mirror. He is quiet.