West followed the trail of stones through the ruins of the desolate city.
Half-rusted buildings reflected the orange light of the setting sun, the glare filtering through miles of dense branches and twisting vines. Red grass burst through cracks in the pavement and tires grew from the mounds of trunks and moss lining the side of the road. If the place had ever had a name, it had long ago been lost to the forest. Though the trees echoed with the sounds of rustling animals and shifting branches, West was alone.
Eight months of walking, and he hadn’t met another human.
Some days that bothered him. Others, not so much. Right now he was somewhere in the middle. It would be nice to have someone to talk to.
His bones ached, old knees warning of the coming storm and tired muscles complaining at the trudging pace. His hand went to his pocket, resting on the stone inside. The first he'd found.
It had appeared at his feet in the yard of an old farmhouse he barely remembered, black and smooth and perfectly polished. Then another, a dozen feet ahead. And beyond that, another. As far as he could see, a straight line towards the setting sun. He didn’t remember making the decision to follow them. His feet just started walking, worn boots shuffling through the dust and debris of the world. He hadn’t looked back.
Though some days he cursed his own foolish pigheadedness that wouldn’t let him rest.
“The stones have led me this far,” he said to himself as he passed the latest in the long line, one stretching years behind him and who knew how far ahead, “you’d be a right fool to give up now.”
Birds chirped and leaves rustled and thunder rumbled in the distance.
“A right fool,” he said again, quieter.
This time, only silence answered.
Too much silence. The forest went still. West stilled with it. Something big moved beneath the shadow of the leaves to his right. Tensing to run, West held his breath. A wolf leapt onto the path in front of him, and he relaxed. Still, to be safe, West ducked behind a tree as it disappeared into the brush. Anything that ran was surely being chased.
Sure enough, West heard hoofbeats. He risked a glance around the trunk to see a herd of elk burst through the vines and branches, antlers ripping the foliage as they hunted their prey. Their spotted green coats blended into the dappled sunlight, hooves tearing through the grass, great lungs bugling their hunger. West didn’t dare move, even to crouch lower. He stood frozen, until the sounds of the chase faded, consumed by the trees.
West shuddered. Too close. This was what he got for traveling during the day. His impatience was making him sloppy. Clutching the stone in his pocket, he vowed to be more careful. There were worse things than elk in this forest.
Pushing himself away from the tree, he adjusted his goggles and face mask and pulled the flaps of his beanie tight against his face. It’d always felt lopsided ever since the left pom-pom had fallen off.
Though his gear was damp with sweat and stifling in the evening’s heat, he daren’t take it off. The sun hung low in the sky, peeking through the clouds of the coming storm. In the old days the cloud cover would be plenty to block the sunlight. Then again, in the old days the light hadn’t been strong enough to sear through skin. Fools traveled during the day, but only an absolute looney would walk about unprotected. Folk got sick from risks like that. Then how would he follow the stones?
Thunder rumble again. It still sounded distant, but West knew that could change might quickly. He looked at the trail of stones, hesitating. He hated to leave them, even for shelter, but the promise of a dry rest out of the storm, safe from the likes of them elk was too tempting.
“Bugger it all,” he grumbled, looking at the stone nestled in the grass between his boots, “you’d better be here in the morning.” With a last glance down his guided path, he turned away and began picking a new path through the foliage. Through the branches he could just make out the open door of a ruined building.
He broke through the vines. The shop leaned heavily to the side, crumbling brick keeling over with the weight of the years. A rusted bike half-covered with moss grew out of the front stoop. That bike made him sad, for some reason. Shaking the strange melancholy away, he studied the ground, searching for signs of wildlife.
No tracks. No droppings. West couldn’t look inside as the windows had been plastered over with decayed newspapers. Some long-dead resident's last attempt to keep out the sun. Walking closer, he peered at the yellow and black print, trying to see through the pieces of the past. Radiation. Exposure. Government Collapses. Mutation. Memories from a civilization long gone and half-forgotten. Things best not thought about too much.
The door seemed sturdy and none of the glass was broken. Should be safe enough, so long as nothing came looking. Rain started to fall onto cracked pavement, and with a last glance to the now-covered sky, West pushed open the creaking door, trying not to break the hinges. Once through, he couldn’t quite get it to shut properly, and rain dripped through the cracks.
Most of the room lay shrouded in darkness, rotting scraps of paper and piles of ancient tools laying forgotten in tangles of wire. West walked as deep as he dared before he took off his make-shift pack and started to make camp. The rain fell harder outside, drumming on the covered window and drowning out the sounds of the forest.
He pulled out his fire-starter, rattled the match-box, then frowned. Opening the pack, he stared at the last match. “Damnation,” he muttered. Still, there was no help for it. “A problem for tomorrow,” he said, before striking it against the box.
About to set the match against a pile of kindling and newspaper, West froze. A sound beneath the storm. He looked to the front of the building. Lightning lit the night outside and he saw great ears silhouetted behind the plastered newspaper window.
West flinched back and smothered the match with shaking hands, sucking in a quiet breath. Those things never traveled alone, and West had seen firsthand what a pack could do to a man.
Outside, the shadow stilled. He eyed the door, crooked on its hinges and dripping rain. Reaching into his pocket, he clutched at the black stone, hoping that the rabbit wouldn’t hear his pounding heart beneath the storm.