DAMASCUS • by Edward Ashton

Just past noon on the fifth of July, under a clear blue sky and a merciless southern sun, Marcus comes out of the woods. His shirt is sodden, his face streaked with sweat. His right eye is swollen shut, a gift from a hornet that got into his tent two days before. His pack is less than twenty pounds now, empty of both food and water. He smells like an open sewer.

The town he’s reached is called Damascus. It sits astride the Appalachian Trail, at the crossroads of two mountain highways, just north of the Tennessee border. Damascus has an outfitter, several hiker’s hostels, and a Dairy King. Marcus needs new socks, and he needs a place to sleep, but it’s the last one that interests him at the moment. He’s been living on murky spring water, ramen noodles and beans for the better part of a month. The thought of a double cheeseburger haunts him.

Marcus follows white trail marks down the center of a deserted street. The lack of people doesn’t strike him as strange until he reaches the bridge over Laurel Creek. From there he can see the Dairy King, just two blocks away. Even from this distance, he can tell that it’s empty. He looks back the way he’s come. There are cars parked along the sides of the street, but no movement as far as he can see.

He’s about to turn back, maybe see if there’s someone in one of the hostels, when a clatter of falling rocks pulls his eyes to the far bank. A woman’s mud-spattered face pops out from under the bridge. The tip of a fishing pole pokes up behind her.

“Oh,” she says. “Hey.” She scrambles up onto the bridge, lean and nimble as a spider. “Where’d you come from?”

She wears loose nylon shorts and a tank top. Her hair is pulled back into a lank brown ponytail. She’s at least as dirty as he is, and thin, with hard, ropy muscles clearly visible in her arms and legs.

Marcus blinks twice, slowly.

“Um,” she says. “Are you a mute?”

Marcus shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “I’m not a mute.”

“Great,” she says. “I’m Kerry. Wanna get a milkshake?”

***

“So,” Kerry says. “How long have you been out of touch?”

Marcus shrugs. They’re sitting in a booth in the back of the Dairy King, which was empty but unlocked. The lights are off, and the building smells faintly of rotten milk.

“A month,” he says. “Give or take.”

“Ah,” she says. “You weren’t hiding, then. You missed the whole show.”

Marcus takes a sip of his milkshake, which isn’t really a milkshake at all—just a Dairy King to-go cup full of warm, vanilla-flavored goo.

“Yeah,” Marcus says. “I’m definitely starting to feel like I’m missing something.”

Kerry laughs.

“Nothing gets past you, huh? Hate to break it to you, friend—but while you were on your little vision quest, you missed out on the end of the world.”

***

“You know,” Kerry says. “You’re taking this all pretty well. Don’t you have people somewhere?”

Marcus looks at her. They’re sitting on a couch in the common room of a hiker’s hostel, watching an old VHS tape of The Princess Bride with the volume turned up to cover the steady rumble of a gas generator in the background.

“I had a sister,” he says.

“Had?”

“Melanoma,” he says. “Six weeks ago.”

They watch in silence as Westley and Inigo fight their cliff-top duel.

“Best scene ever,” Kerry says.

“Truth,” says Marcus. He rubs absently at his still-swollen eye. A bowl of chips sits on the coffee table in front of them. Kerry leans forward, takes one, bites it in half and chews slowly. When she leans back, she’s a little closer than before.

“So, this plague thing,” Marcus says. “It really killed everybody in a month? I mean, what does that?”

Kerry shrugs.

“More like a couple of weeks, actually. They called it black pox. Something the Russians cooked up in the nineties. Apparently, it spreads really well.”

Marcus takes a long, sour pull at a piss-warm beer.

“So where are the bodies? I don’t mean to sound like I’m doubting you, but…”

Kerry glances over at him, then looks away.

“Buried, at first. Burned, later. The last ones are probably still in their houses with bandanas over their mouths.”

“And you’re still here because?”

She smiles, and shifts her body just far enough that the sides of their hands touch. Marcus finds his attention funneling down to that single point of contact.

“Maybe I was waiting for you?”

***

Later, Marcus says, “I can feel your heart beating.”

“Yeah,” Kerry murmurs. “I can feel yours too.”

He brushes her hair back from her face.

“So, are we gonna re-populate the planet?”

She nuzzles his neck, puts a finger to his lips.

“Shhh,” she says. “Don’t overthink this.”

***

Marcus wakes shivering in the coal-black dark. Kerry’s arm falls across his chest. Her skin is like ice. His guts twist and heave inside him, and he barely has time to turn his head to the side before chips and milkshake and beer come pouring out of him.

“Sweet Jesus,” he whispers when the spasm eases. His teeth are chattering. Kerry stirs, moves a hand to his forehead.

“Oh,” she says. “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” Marcus rasps. “What…”

“You’ve got it,” she sighs. “Just like the others.”

“The others?” Marcus asks, then turns aside again and heaves until a thin stream of blood and bitter fluid trails from his mouth. He falls back, panting.

“Well, yeah,” she says. “You’re not the only guy who was out hiking the AT this month. I keep hoping one of you’ll be like me.”

“Like you?”

“Right,” she says. “You know. Immune.”

She leans across him then, and kisses his forehead.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers sadly. “You probably should have stayed in the woods.”


Edward Ashton’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, ranging from Louisiana Literature to Escape Pod. His first novel, Three Days in April, was released by HarperCollins in September, 2015. You can find him online at edward-ashton.squarespace.com.


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Rate this story:
 average 3.9 stars • 39 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • I’m not sure if I should say, Poor guy, or Poor girl.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I felt the characterisation was excellent in this piece. The understatement in the narrative gave it a strangely surreal feel, too. Very haunting.

  • S Conroy

    This was bleak and very well told I thought. I wondered about the title. Were we supposed to think of Damascus, Syria?

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    For me–as reader and as writer–the essential quality is voice. It enables the reader to transcend the written word and enter into the reality created on the page, no matter how fantastic or improbable. It is something separate from “good writing.”
    I sometimes suspect that writers don’t always particularly believe in their characters; they are involved in the literary mechanics and moving pieces on a chessboard.
    I don’t know if that’s true here. But we know through historical documents of the dazed horror of survivors of the Black Death, and more recently of the worldwide flu epidemic of the last century.
    Perky Kerry and not-overly-bowled-over Marcus do not give me that contrast between an apparently bucolic setting and the unbearable stench of death and loss that the plot presents to us here. A story must be more than finely-crafted words. Three stars.

    • JAZZ

      Perhaps Kerry was not as much perky as she was mad.

    • Oh, Sarah – ever since “Tell Me,” getting you to like another of my stories has been my personal white whale. Ah well. Maybe next time?

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Well–you honor me in saying that. And this to me is the high magic of EDF–enabling a gathering of people who care so much about words. For me it’s worth getting raked over the coals as long as the people doing it to me are genuine in their feelings…

        • Agreed. I actually enjoy the comments I get here much more than the cash I get from other places. Not sure why other publications don’t have these sorts of active discussions, but they don’t. I don’t know how they’ve managed it, but the folks running the show here are doing something right.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Ditto–lots of blood in the water, though…

          • /agree. I send most of my flash here first, despite other markets that pay $10 or $25. I’d rather have people read and comment, than a few extra bucks.
            Otherwise it’s just: the editor liked this… Anyone? Anyone?

      • Carl Steiger

        Even though I see Sarah’s point, I’m still feeling a reaction more like Paul Freeman’s. And I just went and reread “Tell Me” for good measure.

  • Great story here! Loved the voice of both characters, but I could have used just a little more development of each. A lot was left to the imagination in this story, but it’s not hard to fill in your own gaps with a solid base such as this.

    Excellent work. Thanks for sharing.

  • Love it! Great job!

  • Edward – I couldn’t get behind this story for several reasons.

    Believing the concept of one man emerging from the AT to find civilization destroyed by an unknown virus (?) possibly a concoction of the Russians but deployed by an unknown entity asks a lot of a reader.

    Such as some of your descriptions such as smelling like an open sewer, drinking a warm milkshake without concern for salmonella while the building smells like rotten milk, the woman smelling nearly as bad as the man but then they apparently have sex to repopulate the world in spite of their gamy condition, beer like warm piss, and the overall cavalier attitude about the end of civilization and the man’s death, the woman’s indecision at the end – “you probably should have stayed in the woods.” no explanation why the woman was immune, and her simpleton attitude of someone else stumbling out of the woods, sharing her immunity.

    The lack of emotion – either fear or humor or desperation – left the story flat. Even end-of-the-world stories need believeability – regardless how far-fetched.

    • JAZZ

      Seeing a dead body for the first time is traumatic, very traumatic and nothing really prepares you for the experience. In this case being alone after seeing a multitude of blackened, diseased dead bodies everywhere, over and over would rob you of normal emotion, perhaps permanently. Ask anyone who lived in a war zone. Ask any psychologist.
      Why is she immune? We don’t know. But surely we don’t need to have everything spelled out for us.
      Good work, Edward…!

  • Michael Stang

    When I read the word “haunt”, my roller blades turned to rubber, and I landed on my knees. In my opinion, a double cheeseburger with onion rings on the side is something I would have killed for, died for, know what I mean? Jeff’s observation concerning the lack of emotion goes a long way in describing what the two characters lack. Perhaps 1000 round words will not fit into a square end of the world story.
    I look forward reading your stories, Mr. Ashton.

    • It was actually incredibly difficult to squeeze this one under the thousand word limit–the first draft was over 1500–but the flat affect of the characters was deliberate. Clearly it worked for some folks, but not for others. I always enjoy the challenge, though, and it’s fun to watch my work get batted around here.

      • Paul A. Freeman

        ‘batted’ or ‘battered’?

  • Marie

    Very clearly written, but can’t score anything high when I can guess the ending. Feels unearned to me.

    • End of the world stories are about the journey, not the destination. IMO

      • Marie

        True. But the destination still matters. The end of the world setting was established early, yet it did not have to end with him ill. But since I could tell early on that this one would, I am less satisfied by it. We all have different takes and rubrics….

  • Chris Antenen

    I read this story and was so into it that I forgot I was supposed to write a critique.

    You put an endless situation into 1000 words and one day. I was captivated by the setting and the characters. I found them to be what I’d call flat, and yet believable characters that I cared about.

    I was surprised at first by the present tense, then eased into it and found it was perfect for the story.

    The concept of time “in a month” and “More like a couple of weeks, actually.” could be deleted to make the situation vague and yet plausible. Also ‘end of world’ should be reworded, because it means there is something to fear in a broad unknown and away from the story. I like to think Kerry may have been there years waiting for the right man to come out of the woods.

    The last line made me laugh, but I’m sure others had a different reaction.

    Really good story! Easy 5.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      In the timeline of the story, this happened only within the past month…

  • Deborah Zlatarev

    Light-hearted and easy flowing. That’s your writing style in this piece, and I enjoyed it.

    The fact you had to explain the reason for the Black Plague in a throw away, nonchalant fashion irked me (why is it always secret organizations and foreign countries, or dubious experiments that for some reason are always let loose? I had enough of that from book!Maze Runner). As for the romance, it was cute, substantial — kind of reminded me of Melanie and Jared from The Host.

    Well, aside from the criticism, I do admire how much you tried to fit in 1000 words. Excellent job. :3