The green interstate sign for exit 179B loomed overhead almost exactly as I came to. Ben had insisted on driving during the night, claiming that the day gave me a greater handle on things which was true enough I guess. See in the day time, you never accidentally drive into a festering swarm of them around a corner. You can keep your bearings and it's pretty smooth sailing. How exactly it is that Ben could drive for miles at night with no headlights is one of life's greatest mysteries. I sat my seat upright and stretched.
"Champaign, Illinois. Population: 75,000." He said in his usual, disturbingly cheerful tone. He slowly weaved in and out of the abandoned cars and made his way to the exit ramp. As we past a Mercedes sitting immediately on the ramp, I noticed the windows were shattered and something was thrashing around. As we crawled past, I saw the thing flailing relentlessly against the seat belt that now acted as a protective barrier. I quickly thanked God for German engineering as the car faded out of sight in the rear view mirror.
"Anyone you know live here in Champaign?" I asked almost idly. It was habit we'd both adopted since we met up outside of Joliet. A way of keeping our wits. Not just letting silence seep into our minds and drive us over the edge. We'd ask questions that almost always had no answers.
"I've had many a friend who lived his life in champaign, if you catch my drift," He said as we pulled up to a stop sign. "But as far as champaign, Illinois, I digress. I don't." The car turned left and the city opened up in front of us. Try and picture a miniature Chicago just a lot cleaner. Well, picture what chicago used to be anyways. The city was set some seventeen miles across. That's not much room to house that many people which invariably means one thing. More of those things. The road was especially choked towards the outskirts but after passing a couple dozen street signs it thinned out a bit. Not enough to drive comfortably but enough to breath. A familiar sign shone like a beacon over the sea of abandoned cars and we couldn't help but be obliged to follow.
Ben cautiously eased the explorer up through the brambles of cars and into the parking lot. The parking lot itself was suspiciously empty as the explorer made its way to the entrance doors up by the front of the building. The huge "WAL*MART" print seemed familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. After all, there where no one stop shops in this new world. No convenience stores. no ATMs. No banks of any kind. But to see it now, defunct and abandoned made you question whether we ever truly needed it in the first place. The explorer rolled to a stop and Ben killed the engine.
"It's been quite awhile. A month? would you say it's been a month?" I nodded. "The looters and boogie men are bound to be gone by now," He said with a toothy grin and a prod with his elbow. "Once they poke their heads around in there and find no bodies, I'm sure they moved on. To the survivors go the spoils." He chuckled to himself as he turned to open the door and it was in that moment we each said to each other something that neither of us would ever forget.
"Don't you mean to the victor goes the spoils?" He stopped in his tracks and thought for several seconds. A concept seemed to wash over him. A sort of sickening realization. He shivered and for the first time since we'd met, I saw his radiant shield of optimism flicker.
"We'll it's not like we're fighting a war is it?" It was a defining moment in our story, though I couldn't have told you that at the time. It did seem subtly profound but in a way that neither of us could truly grasp. Was it a war? Was the task now thrust upon man to regain his place as dominant predator on earth? Were we... at war with these things? The flicker vanished and he elbowed me again. "Lets get some spoils before they spoil." and with that he bounded out of the car and towards the door.
Do you remember seeing the ash that blanketed New York after September 11th? Do you remember how the ash seemed to flash fossilize everything, perfectly persevering to the most minute detail and yet at the same time giving it the appearance of great age and abandonment? It was that unsettling calm that filled the silence inside the once versatility alive shopping center. Some of the shelves, though most of them were in disarray, stood in seemingly pristine condition by comparison. An unholy testament to the old way of life. Nothing of use though. Ceiling fans and toilet bowls where the ones left alone. Anything perishable had been made off with a long time ago.
There was a loud crash behind me and I realized I was alone. Ben was gone. Matter of fact, I hadn't seen him since he vanished into the shadowy door way. I started to shake a little. I was afraid. I was anxious. The air around me got really heavy and thick and I could feel my throat starting to close. I swallowed hard and felt my dry tongue sponge off the roof of my mouth. There was another crash, much closer this time. I wanted to call out. To just yell for him. I mean, it had to be him. Who else could it be? No looter would be half crocked enough to be here and, as Ben fondly put it, all the boogie men would've moved on once the stock of people was spent. My hand slid down by side and rested on the pistol. Without a moment of hesitation, the gun was out and at the ready. It was aimed to kill.
My eyes were fighting desperately not to tunnel out and close in on themselves and the air grew even thicker. Something was stirring. Moving lighting, bobbing back and forth just on the other side of the isle. I heard it clearly. I wasn't the usual shuffling. The stiff, rigamortis cracking and breaking. It was a faint, steady breath. Whatever was on the other side of the wall, it was very much alive.
I heard the gun cock before I even realized what was happening. My body slammed itself into the floor as the cork board that divided us blew apart and scattered like tiny pieces of paper shrapnel. I made no sound. I didn't even dare to breath. I could see a barrel poking through the newly made hole and saw what look very much like man's face. I heard another gun. Only this time it was a pistol. It was Ben
"Alright you french fried fagot. Drop it harder than a priest hits his knees after Sunday school with the alter boys!" It was Ben's voice alright but it sure as shit wasn't Ben. I heard the shotgun hit the floor and I popped up like a jack in the box, gun at the ready. The man on the other side of the isle looked frail. Worn and frayed. His eyes were blood shot and where hugged by deep dark bags. His hands where raised in a universal surrender. I finally managed to take my eyes off of the stranger long enough to see the look on Ben's face. He looked... wild. Like some kind of untamed beast zeroing in on it's kill. There was a fire burning in his eyes and the pistol was jammed hard into the back of the stranger's head. "You alright?"
"I'm a bit hungry but other than that, I'll survive." The rage seemed to fight the old Ben for a second and then the look passed away entirely. "Would you mind if I spoke to the prisoner before his execution, your honor?" The pistol retracted from the shaking man's head and Ben bowed deeply.
"By all means councilor. Approach the bench," His playful cockiness had returned and I was more than relieved. The man collapsed down and started to weep silently. I looked from him to Ben and then back again. "We aren't gonna have a go at you, my boy. WE aren't those god damn boogie men." He said in what was supposed to be a supportive tone, but what came off as a cat playing with it's mouse.
"He's right," I said. "I think enough people have died already. No since adding to the mischief." The man continued his weeping shrugged a sigh.
"Maybe... he want's to be Marcel Marceau when he grows up?" Ben shot me a look and gave me a 'what do you think' kind of look. I told him probably so. I picked the man under his and and brought him to his feet. "What's your name?" After a few violent shivers, he answered.
"Ma name's Warren," He said in between hiccups. "Warren Dexter. Nice to meet you sirs." He extended his trembling hand to Ben and Ben warmly grabbed it up and shook the entire left side of the man's body.
"I'm Benjamin. Benjamin Love." He continued to borderline violently shake Warren.
"And I'm Sam," I said extending my hand if only to be a recess from Benjamin's tremor. Warren nodded and acknowledged us and after a bit he stopped cry and started talking to his. He told us he'd been in a detainee camp a couple miles down the road at some make shift compound. He said they'd been over run no sooner than he'd gotten unpacked so he and his niece Lucy and hit the bricks. After a few days of meandering they found this place and holed up in a back stock room. He said that the things had come and moaned at them for days. Weeks even. But just recently they'd all but vanished. Migrated elsewhere. I guess he'd heard us pull up and painted us looters. A simple misunderstanding.
"Where's Lucy?" Ben asked earnestly. "Is she here somewhere?" That was the other thing about Ben. Even though something dark lurked deep inside his heart, his mind was like a child's. Open and caring and warm.
"She was asleep when I left but I'm sure that gun shot woke her." Warren grabbed a sweatshirt off the floor and pulled it over his head. "Probably startled her half to death." I looked from Warren to his discarded shotgun.
"How many guns do the two of you have?"
Three. Why-" the tail end of his question was cut off by another roaring blast of shotgun fire. I dove forwards and tackled Warren to the ground. Ben spun around to the edge of the isle in cover. Regrouping, I looked around.
"You mind telling Lucy we aren't bad guys?"
"Oh. Oh yeah. sure thing."