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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.