He always closed his eyes as the moment of death seized and stole away the person whom he was killing. It wasn’t because he was afraid to see the finality of his actions take shape in the form of gasping death rattles, screams, and, sometimes just sometimes, a strangely comfortable smile. He viewed death as a personal experience and what he so often had to do was just too damned… impersonal. Who in tarnation was he to watch these last moments of life from people he would never know? ‘Life may not be fair,’ he thought ‘killing them might be doubly unfair in their eyes, but the least I can do is offer one last act of decency at a moment of indignation.’ There were two certainties in the world: It was kill or be killed and the apocalypse had come and gone.
The apocalypse wasn’t one of those cockamamie events like an alien invasion, biblical natural disasters, nuclear fallout, or zombies begetting zombies…nor was there a trumpet to be heard when it tumbled across the world. He had heard some scientist types talking about the apocalypse and they kept referring to it with terms such as “the man behind the curtain syndrome” and “the Oz theory.” Hell if he knew what any of that sciency talk meant. What he did know is that the world had crumbled in on itself and if you weren’t a scavenger, ravager, or bandit, you were a drifter.
Folks called him Pad. Stood for Post Apocalyptic Drifter which was meant to be an insult, he reckoned, though he quite liked the brevity and anonymity that was attached to the trite title. Ramblers often asked him what his life was like before the “man behind the curtain syndrome” blanketed the world. Funny thing was, all he could say is, “I forgot.” Most of the folk would give their best gun and prettiest daughter to remember and revel in the way the world once was. And so it goes, folks thought Pad to be some kind of loony for forgetting. Ten years is a long time in a society that technically no longer existed. He didn’t mind their thoughts of him being loony all that much either. Just meant they usually thought twice before speaking to him if they worked up the nerve to speak at all.
Sleeping was a slippery slope for Pad. Being a drifter and all, he was indefinitely on the road which meant he was contending with the likes of other drifters, bandits, and all manner of bad people that wouldn’t think twice at making a corpse of him. Then, there was the fact that every time he closed his eyes, the sounds of the machines beckoned to him. Machines from another life.
It was the wild west all over again: dusty, cow Polk towns surrounded by the remnants of a civilization that went out with a whisper instead of a bang. Finding any such town that was not barricaded to drifters or decorated with old military warning signs at their entrances that read “USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED,” under which something along the lines of “THIS MEANS YOU DRIFTER SCUM” would be hastily scrawled on either the sign itself or a piece of rickety plywood that sat directly under.
Pad was used to that sort of reception. Society had openly regressed 200+ years…or what was left of society to be more succinct. Although, the word society entails having a highly structured system of human organization…which was as far from the truth as China in the present day of reckoning.
So when Pad moseyed up to a town that greeted him with open arms, warm smiles, and, hell, the smell of fresh baked apple pie riding the back of the humid August air of Northeast Ohio, his first instinct was to turn and run. It’d be a goddamn of a thing too…had he listened to that gut instinct. Maybe it would have kept him from the gallows.
The name of this town was as classic as it was overused: Purgatorium. Seemed like every town was named some variation of Hell, Purgatory, or the Divine Comedy. Paradise or any variation thereof was something people would joke about over a few rounds of rye. Purgatorium was unique in that it still had a veritable organizational system within its machinated walls: A single boulevard ran through the center of town and had ten off shooting lanes (five on each side of the main boulevard) that each had a makeshift sign standing at their corner. Each lane was, of course, a dead end. With Purgatorium being a fortified compound and all. All the same, they had maintained the illusion of society, complete with a sheriff, hangman, saloon, brothel, an inn, and a town drunk.
A soft bed…Pad had not be a privy to such comforts for well over eight years. Even so, he was leery of comfort. It only brought on the lullaby of the machines…then the darkness. Once the darkness took hold, it was all a shit storm from there on out.
When Pad awoke the next morning, he decided to explore Purgatorium in depth, starting with the saloon. As he swaggered into dilapidated pole barn, Pad tipped his beaver-skin fedora to the geezer sitting outside the saloon and kept moving. ‘Why’d this all seem so familiar?’ Pad thought then shook off the quasi-deja vu feeling. The saloon lacked in what made saloons classy: No card games going, no live stock wandering through, no upstairs brothel—that was down the road in a congregation of porta-pots that had been retro-fitted to be such which said a lot about the way the townsfolk felt about whores without saying a word—no piano man, hell, there really wasn’t even a bar…Just a piece of plywood laid across cinderblocks that had been raised to about four feet off the ground. Behind the makeshift bar, stood a man whose chin barely stretched over the edge of the piece of plywood which was weathered and stained with dark splotches and splintered segments.
“What’ll it be stranger?” the little man croaked over the plywood with a raised chin.
Odd, he hadn’t referred to Pad as a drifter. Pad dropped a few coins on the plywood, “Whatever that’ll buy me.”
The little man snorted and eyed the coins with disinterest then turned, grabbed a shot glass from a bookshelf behind him, and sat it in front of Pad. “This is what those’ll buy you,” the little man said nodding toward the glass. “P.A.M. is easy to come by just like these here midget glasses. You want drink? You’re gonna have to cough up something other than useless P.A.M.”
P.A.M. was what most folks called the money from before the apocalypse. Pre Apocalyptic Money was its true meaning. And the little man was right. It was easy to come by which made it useless.
“I see the server reflects this fine establishment’s service,” Pad shot back, trying to push a button.
“Oh yeah?” the little man returned calmly, “How’s that? Short?”
A quick, broad smile formed across Pad’s lips as he fought back a chuckle. Checkmate. The little man’s brow unfurled as he lazily snatched a bottle of brown liquid from the same bookshelf he grabbed the shot glass from.
“Since you got yourself a sense of humor, stranger,” the little man said as he filled the glass, “I’ll give you one on the house. Such as it is. Sense of humors are hard to come by these days.”
“Pad,” he said as he silently toasted a ‘thank you’ to the little man and knocked back the liquid.
“Brutus,” the little man replied. “And you’re welcome.”
Pad reached into the bag he had slung across his shoulder and withdrew a box of 12 gauge slugs. “Noticed the shotgun on your bookshelf back there. I’ve got no need for these and your stock looks a little light from here,” he said and slid the box across to Brutus. The little man stopped in mid-corking of the bottle of rye (which Pad had identified from the cinnamon, wood grain taste of the brown liquid) then turned and sat the bottle beside Pad’s shot glass.
“Light,” Brutus replied, “is putting the condition of my stock for that shotgun in kinder words than are necessary. I don’t think I’ve had ammunition for that monster for well over three years now.”
Pad removed a gun cleaning kit and sat it beside the ammunition. “You’re gonna need this then too.”
Brutus’ eyes lit up and he pulled two more label-less bottles from the bookshelf behind him and placed them next to Pad’s first bottle. “And you sir are going to need these. Why, you are a regular Sears and Robuck with that bag of yours. Give our general store a run for their wares, of that I can assure you.”
“I gather this town don’t see a lot of trouble then?” Pad casually probed.
Brutus raised an eyebrow on his nearly perfect round face then scrunched his face into disbelief, “What gave you that idea?”
“Seeing as how this is a saloon and you haven’t shot that cannon back there in over three years.”
“Not a lot of drinkers in this town,” Brutus replied with a shrug. “Most of the trouble happens over at the brothel which our lovely Sheriff Hicks deals with if it a’int taken care of before he gets there. Just goes to show you three things still sell after the end of humanity: booze, sex, and violence.”
Pad tucked away the bottles of booze and his shot glass, tipped his hat to Brutus and exited the saloon. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a slight movement and turned to see a familiar face.
“Gr—” He began to speak then shook his head and exited the saloon.
“Did you say something?” Brutus called out the quickly closing door but received only the final latch of the door as a response.
Pad wondered up and down the main drag of Purgatorium, keenly observing the names of the off shooting lanes that could loosely be called streets. There were ten streets, five on each side of the main drag with the following names painted on plywood or sheet metal and haphazardly posted on each corner: Bel Air Drive, Vuillafans Way, Bosnia Estates, Moravia Grove, Normandy Circle, Baramati Avenue, Saint Petersburg Lane, New Orleans Boulevard, Baku Road, and Rome Court.
The saloon was on the corner of Rome Court and the main drag. The brothel was positioned a little ways down on New Orleans Boulevard. The sheriff’s shack was on Normandy Circle. The inn was on the corner of Saint Petersburg Lane and the main drag. The gallows sat tucked away on Bosnia Estates. The general store sat on Bel Air Drive and the town drunk could be found wandering between any one of the ten lanes. All the lanes were rat-packed with shanties that looked to serve as domiciles for the townsfolk…at the very least they were shelter from the elements.
The townsfolk themselves were cordially introverted in their mannerisms. They’d tip their hats, smile, make a quick palm gesture to signal a hello, or some other non-verbal recognition of another being passing within their presence. Very few spoke and even fewer asked questions. In fact, the only person besides Brutus that Pad talked to was the Sheriff. Sheriff Woodrow Hicks in his full and formal title.
“Most of the people just call me Hicks or Sheriff depending on which side of the prison cell they’re on,” Sheriff Hicks said as he shook Pad’s hand.
“Some handshake you got there boy-o,” Sheriff Hicks commented. “Interesting name too. Most people would invoke a tussle at being called such a name.”
Sheriff Hicks was a tall wisp of a man and teetered over Pad a good four to five inches. His eyes were deeply set and the left one had a tell tale sign of recently being blackened with brush strokes of a fading yellow bruise. Though a bit gangly, Pad sensed the man could take care of himself in a brawl. There was an animalistic quality to the Sheriff. Hicks must have sensed the same in Pad.
“People ’round here are friendly for the most part. Just folk trying to get by and move on in life…much as can be done for either. Few of them like to cause trouble and its those few that call me Sheriff instead of Hicks. It is my hope that you’ll come to call me Hicks and not Sheriff.” Sheriff Hicks flicked a gnat from the rusty star pinned to his ruffled khaki shirt then gave Pad an expectant look.
“I stick to myself and don’t go lookin’ to make or have trouble made for me,” Pad replied. “Much like the townsfolk, Sheriff Hicks, I’m just trying to get by.”
Sheriff Hicks quaffed in a deep drink of dry air then blew lazily through his lips. “Well,” he said, “now that we understand each other, maybe you’ll look into taking up residence here. A community is only as strong as its numbers and if raiders, scavengers, or ravagers decide to burst on through unexpectedly, one more gun hand would not go amiss.”
“I’m just passing through,” Pad admitted in a practiced neutral tone. “Had hopes of stocking up on some supplies, maybe restin’ a few days, then heading back out.”
“What are you running from, boy?”
“Pad,” he corrected with a short smile.
“Hell, we both know that’s not your real name,” Sheriff Hicks retorted. “So what difference does it make at what I call ya?”
Pad had never thought of it in those terms. Sheriff Hicks had a point.
“Can’t say I am running from anything in particular,” Pad lied. “Just don’t like the idea of settling.”
“You’re young yet,” the lawman chuckled. “Can’t says I blame you.”
The night was crawling on the town and after several visits to a closed general store, Pad decided to go back to his room at the inn and fight the urges to sleep.
…The machines beckon from inside the building. Pad treads past, knowing he will have to go in and heed their call soon enough. In front of him, he sees a model 92 Winchester and a box of .44 caliber bullets beside it. The rifle was lever action, so after Pad loaded five rounds he had to work the lever to advance a round into the chamber. “This is the way I wanted it,” a tendril of a voice whispered through the air. Pad drew a bead on silhouetted figure in the distance and slowly squeezed the trigger…
A calamitous commotion caused Pad to stir from his seated slumber. He sprung to his feet as nimble as a cat and had his lever action rifle in hand and ready to fire at the first thing that moved…except nothing did. The ruckus was being made outside on the main drag and seemed to be moving away from the inn and toward the lane marked Bosnia Estates. Pad pulled on his boots and hat and cautiously moved outside, following the bouncing lights of both flashlights and torches. He caught up to the tail end of a mob of people and realized instantly exactly what kind of mob it was: a lynching mob. People in the front were chanting something that could faintly be understood as “GIVE US JUSTICE!”
Pad pushed his way to the front of the crowd and saw the sheriff standing on the platform of the gallows detaining a hooded man. On the other side of the trap door, by the kill switch, was death itself waiting for its next victim, wearing a red hood instead of the classic black. Sheriff Hicks revealed the hooded man and the crowd roared with disapproving delight.
Pad tapped a short, fat, elderly woman in front of him and asked, “Who’s the fella they’re about to lynch?”
The woman turned around and gave a toothless smile and wheeze then replied, “Oh, sonny, that’s Mr. Booth. He runs the general store…or, well, did run the general store…in about five minutes that is. Funny how a quick drop and a few hops strips ya of your life and ownings.”
“What is his crime?” Pad asked, damning himself directly after the question left his lips for his incessant curiosity about business not of his own.
The old woman licked her lips then smacked them together as if tasting a juicy morsel of meat in the form of gossip. “Oh, well now that is a devilish story indeed. Mr. Booth was caught trying to kill a baby!” The old woman turned and threw her voice toward the gallows as he hollered the last bit. “Before it were born even! Oh, the savagery of humanity. All in the name of some troubled hussy down from that yer brothel.”
“How do you mean?” Pad inquired, damning himself again.
“Oh, well, that yet another devilish story that goes deeper down the gopher’s hole.” The old woman said then spat on the ground next to Pad’s boot. “Sorry sonny, I’ve got all manner of snot just bubbling up from my failing lungs. Better out than in. I wanna live longer than the bastard about to be hung. Now where were we?”
“The whore?” Pad offered, giving in to the possible death his curiosity might bring some unfortunate cat.
“Oh, yes, Delilah.” The old woman gave her head a light wrap then continued. “Delilah was a pretty young thing. That is until the raiders hit us few months back and marked up her face real good and went and impregnated her. Must’ve had at least 30 men between her legs that night alone. Then the next night at least another 20. All of ‘em unwillingly of course. I mean, she worked at the brothel, sure, but even whores can say no…or can they?” The old woman cackled at the tasteless joke. “Any road, no telling who impregnated the whore, but impregnated she was.”
“Let me guess…” Pad begun under his breath but the old woman continued his thought without noticing what he had said.
“And the little whore didn’t want to keep the baby! What savagery. So she turns to Mr. Booth who used to be a hoighty toighty doctor in his old life…well, I can’t say too much bad about his apothecary skills. He did remove a few varicose veins from my leg for me…” the old woman wrapped her head lightly again. “Any road, he goes and kills the baby inside her so she could get back to whoring I ‘spose. Well, whores being whores, they can’t keep their mouths shut and the whole town found out Mr. Booth had done the deed. So, here we are.”
“And the whore?” Pad asked.
“Where is the girl…Delilah, was it?”
“Oh,” the old woman flapped her lips and swatted at an invisible fly. “out whoring I ‘spect. That’s what whores do you know?”
Pad tipped his hat at the old woman and turned his attention back to the gallows.
“Any last words?” Sheriff Hicks announced. More so that the mob could hear him than anyone.
“Yeah,” Mr. Booth growled in the same manner as the sheriff’s. A chorus of boos and “baby killer” echoed back. Mr. Booth looked directly at Pad and Pad recognized the face immediately in the slice of light from a nearby torch.
“Grandpa?” Pad said slowly then shook his head. The shadows were playing tricks again.
“Yeah!” Mr. Booth roared, now red faced with lividness. “I killed a baby. A baby that would have likely been born into a world not fit for babies. Hell, look at yourselves! You all know what happened and you think I am the bad guy?! Mr. Corday? I reset your nose on more than one occasion! Mrs. Gerard?” He was looking directly at the old woman whom Pad had just spoke with. “I removed those varicose veins and got rid of those pesky ‘fleas’ you had down in your nethers.” Mr. Booth made air quotes with his bound hands behind his back as he said ‘fleas’ and had to turn sideways to show the mob. “Felix? My best FUCKING friend? I could tell this entire mob all the things I’ve done for you and you’d probably end up standing here next to me with your last neck tie…but I have more discretion, dignity, and fucking respect than that…unlike your chubby ass. That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say, you freaks. See you all in hell.”
Sheriff Hicks fitted the noose around Mr. Booth’s neck then gave it a test yank. The sheriff stepped back and nodded to the hangman who hesitated only slightly, then pulled the kill switch. The trap door sprung open with an eager clang and Mr. Booth danced death’s jig.
The mob gasped, cheered, then dispersed like mulling cows; slowly and near aimlessly. Pad remained, eyes closed, not seeing the hangman and sheriff mixing in with the crowd like a pair of rock stars after a blazing performance.
“Fuck,” Pad muttered to himself at the realization that the general store would now be either permanently closed or soon raided. He turned on heel, opened his eyes, and headed back to the inn for another battle with the temptation of sleep’s sweet womb.
…The machines beckon him. His time was almost near. He could feel it in the air. Certain sounds at certain times reveal this to him. It is almost his time. Pad sees the lever action rifle. He picks it up, loads it and draws a bead on the silhouetted figure in the distant. As Pad pulled the trigger, the silhouetted figure’s face caught a glint of light and Pad saw Mr. Booth a split second before half of the man’s face exploded into a chunky pink mist…
Pad woke to a start and slivers of sunlight trying to part the mauve curtains that hung over the singular window of his room. His dreams never changed and only got more intense as time wore on. It wasn’t the content of the dream that drove Pad to go sleepless for nearly a week at a time…it was the repetitiveness of the dream. He knew there was a message to be had. A message he had tried to decode for seven years. He was quite literally chasing a dream. Seven years of the same night haunts would drive any man crazy…Pad thought he was managing fairly well.
Pad should have gathered his accoutrements and stole out of the town like a thief in the night. It was a broken record tune to him at that point. So he turned the record player in his head off and did what he knew he shouldn’t. Pad went to the porta-pot brothel on New Orleans Boulevard to seek an audience with the whore Delilah.
Pad counted a total of 20 porta-pots across that were three deep, cut apart in places, and retro-fitted with sundry objects to rejoin them back together in order to make ample quarters for doing what whores do best. Not exactly a marvel of modern architecture, but it did intrigue Pad as to where they found 61 porta-pots to build the brothel. A singular plastic shit-house stood in front of the other 60 with a tilted and weathered sign that was supposed to read “MADAME HOROWITZ’S PLEASURE CHAMBER” but someone had crudely graffitied a “W” in front of “HOROWITZ” and the word “POTS” after “CHAMBER.” Brutus had lied to Pad. Someone else in this town had a sense of humor. Pad opened the door to the rickety shit-house after a light knock was answered by the voice of a woman with a thick, Mexican accent that said, “Whatchu whant?”
Pad courteously removed his hat as he stood in front of an obese Mexican woman who was sitting on the shitter with her floppy tits hanging out like sock puppets flapping in the wind. The woman had a pock-marked face with prune sized moles growing off her neck and tits. One mole in particular made Pad do a double take with a quick eye dart because he could of swore it was a third nipple. From the waist down she was sheathed in a flowing black crepe material that strained to stay together around the woman’s rotund mid-section. More horrific was the sour smell that emanated from the shit-house and created a phalanx in Pad’s nostrils. He was no springtime flower himself, but he knew the smell of putrefaction when he came across it; plenty of rotting bodies alongside the roads he had travelled.
“Ah, my apologies, Madame Horowitz?” Pad asked.
“Yeah, that’s me. Whatchu whant?”
“I was hoping to get in to see Delilah.”
Madame Horowitz stared at Pad with a wrinkled look of disbelief, farted, then dabbed the sweat away from her brow with a piece of toilet paper. “Why you whant to see her?”
Pad reached into his bag and withdrew three Hershey’s chocolate bars and a Snicker’s bar and tossed them at the feet of Madame Horowitz. The things had probably long since gone bad, but the same could be said about the Madame.
“What the fuck?” Madame Horowitz bellowed. “You can’t even hand them to me?”
“I could,” Pad replied as he waited patiently.
“Room 13,” Madame Horowitz reluctantly revealed after Pad withdrew a Snicker’s bar of his own and began chewing on it.
“Much obliged,” he said, picking up the candy bars and flinging them on Madame Horowitz’s fat gut. He let the porta-pot door slam shut then spit out the half-chewed Snicker’s bar. Definitely bad.