"I have a month to get out of here before this place is permanently destroyed," Courtland whispers as he looks out the stained and cracked window of the decaying building he's been occupying. His mind searches, thinking of the last time he saw anyone on the battered streets below his perch. The construct of time has almost entirely faded away, except for the rusty wristwatch that keeps him in tune with a past now long gone. "Hmmm", he belies out loudly and slowly allowing his voice to be heard. "It's been four months - yeah, at least." He adds a chuckle to the end of every sentence as he hears himself bounce off the walls of the ransacked warehouse he's called home for nine months. Recoiling from his laugh, he remembers what his mom used to say, people who talk and laugh to themselves are crazy. "Am I crazy," he asks himself out loud, primarily to just hear his voice jounce through the empty warehouse.
Stepping away from the right-side window, Courtland walks over a dirty mattress that serves as his bed and tries to find the source of a noise he's hearing outside his building. Silently, he peers his head through downed concrete slabs and cranks his neck out a jagged window. "Careful," he whispers softly to himself as a feels broken glass scratch at his neck. After a few minutes and washed away hopes of seeing another living person, he pulls his head back into the building and steps back into the room. He sees a small rock on the floor of his room and kicks across, only to see it fly out the window. Annoyed, he can hear the rock bouncing and tumbling until it comes to a stop. He runs and sticks his head out the window and sees the rock laying on the ground next to his make-shift vegetable garden and chicken coop. He stares at it, just lying there, dormant and idle as he feels about himself at that very moment. "Fuck that," he yells, "I'm not going to be like that damn rock."
Allowing his emotions to run away from him, he hurries over to his dilapidated bed and pulls the covers off to find his backpack he's been using as a pillow. Rummaging through the ransacked room, he finds his knife, map and a box of made ready to eat meals he found at an abandoned military site and jams them all into his backpack. "I'm not going to die here! I'm not going to end up like that fuckin rock." Courtland raises his stare up to where a roof once protected him against the elements. The expanse of stars seems to be waiting for him to make a move. "I've waited for these assholes long enough. I've waited here, not moved an inch, and nothing. I doubt they're ever coming back for me."
Walking through the vegetable garden at the entrance of to his building, Courtland picks a few of his favorites veggies to hold him off for a few days and stuffs them into a side pocket. Walking away from the building he hears his chickens clucking through their coop and walks back. Unsure how long he'll be gone or if he'll ever return, he props the coop's door open. Courtland watches as a feathery gang walks out gingerly, with their claws scratching at the wooden plank towards the ground in unison. The sound reminds him of hundreds of tiny rocks dancing on the floor like one of the many explosions that have shaken his life.
Courtland smiles at the experience he knows he'll miss: the hens mulling around him, clucking and pecking at the garden, and walking over his ragged boots. He lets out one last smile and taps the king rooster puffing his chest out on the head and walks towards the expanse.
Feeling his feet pulsate in pain with every step, he stops for his first long break after walking twenty miles. Courtland drops to his knees and stares over the edge of a cliff he's never been on before. He can feel the wind blowing through his hair and inflating his loose, red, cotton shirt like a balloon. He takes in the warm deep air rushing into his lungs and lets his minder wander off for a bit.
Walking carefully on to a long plank that peers precariously over the cliff, he catches his first birds-eye view of the city. He sits and stares in awe at the abandoned city that looks bigger and more menacing than he's ever imagined. Across the bay and throughout the city, Courtland focuses on the large structures that brought death to almost everyone in the city. He remembers seeing the first structures landing and just sitting there idle for weeks. When it first happened, there was no warning. Every government was caught with their pants around their ankles; astrologists thought those things were passing meteor showers, and amateur stargazers who did notice and reported something were called lunatics. It wasn't long after the structures landed and opened up that almost everyone was dead. A few survived the devastation the structures brought. Most that survived found deep holes to hide in and never again emerged. A few took to the stars and promised those like Courtland they'd return, but they never did.
After sleeping on the edge of the cliff and spending hours looking for any refuge of life, Courtland wasn't surprised he came up short. Looking one last time down at the city, while and packs his gear and laces up his pack, an annoyance drives a saddening feeling throughout him. The fact he'll never enjoy the baked, sweet delicacies the town was revered for, similar to sushi in Japan, tacos in Mexico, or better yet cannolis in Italy.
Stepping back on to the road and walking away from the cliff, he feels himself at fringes of his own sanity. He tries to shake it off and focus on his adventure and pulls out his map. Quickly finding his place on the twelve by twelve sheet, he draws his path to the closest guardian.
"The guardian," mutters Courtland, "what a fuckin joke." He walks a few miles before uttering another word of thinking about anything but the sound of his shoes cracking the scattered twigs and leaves below him. "I still can't believe those heaps of metal all fell," he emphasizes all, especially after the hope the world's remaining governments' hailed. "The moment they were activated, boom, they fell," he kicks a branch off a dried and dying tree mimicking how the guardians all failed before they accomplished anything. He smirks at the measures the world took. Developed in secret by a coalition of governments around the world, similar to the Manhatten Project, the guardians were designed to ward-off something other than what came to the planet. The world expected and prepared for something, the type of invasion they recognized: an attempted annexation by sea, land, but most specifically space. What actually seized the world, they never expected.
On TV the massive structures stood like tall buildings. They were hailed as menacing forces that would heed anything in their path. Courtland remembers them launching from all corners of the globe into space. The few remaining stations on TV and radio that normally reported on ways to survive and hide now lauded these behemoths as our last and only hope - the hope the world needed. It wasn't a day after they launched that they all came back tumbling, killing the few remanents of civilization below.
Reaching the first guardian after a calm, but long, seventeen-mile walk, Courtland remembers the blast that brought them all down. He remembers being outside feeding his chickens and grazing his garden when the world beneath his feet dropped at least ten feet. Whatever that thing was, it destroyed all the guardians at once. Staring at remanent of one, Courtland stares and awe and says out loud "Geez, look at that thing." The mesmerizing behemoth intended to save humanity sits their instead like that leaning tower in Italy, whatever it's called.
Peering through his binoculars to get a closer look, he's surprised by what he sees and whispers under his breath, "oh, it's still on." He pauses as he zooms in closer. With tingles running up and down his frame, he runs toward the structure for a closer look over a beaten, wooden path that shakes with every fall of his heavy, steel-tipped boots. "Its lights are still shining, I can't believe it!" But as he gets closer and throws his binoculars back on to his face, his excitement is drowned-out by reality. The glowing, red outlines are not lights, but instead massive, uninterrupted fires that rage throughout the structure. Courtland stops and takes a minute to calm his breath, and reminds himself he never expected to see a working guardian, but instead a massive pile of useless metal.
Sitting on a large metal box that probably fell from the guardian's frame, Courtland eats his first made ready to eat meal from the military rations he brought. He looks at the first package he removed from the plastic casing and it reads, dehydrated orange juice. He smiles and mixes himself a cup with some of the water in his large, two-gallon canteen. He opens the remaining food packs and stuffs spaghetti with marinara sauce on to dried toast and engulfs them in seconds. Licking his fingers as he picks every bit of the sweet and stale marinara sauce from the wrapper, he pauses with his finger still stuck in his mouth as he sees something he missed with his earlier: footsteps. Not his footsteps, but someone else's. He drops the empty packages on to the floor and wipes his fingers on his pants and stares over the prints. "They're fresh footsteps," he says out loud and looks towards the south where the woods begin and the footsteps trail too. Without hesitation, he runs back for his belongings and throws on a sweater following the prints into the woods.
Tracing every footstep carefully for over a mile, he reaches a suspension bridge that looks more like a rickety deathtrap than a path. Trying to stare past the vines that engulf the path just yards in front of him, he knows he has no better choice but to keep going. With every precarious step, he sees more of the bridge disappear behind strange vines that blanket and obscure everything but the sun above. The path and the hanging vines are unlike anything he's ever seen. He grabs at the delicate vines with his hands and feels the tiny, velvety petals blooming like a kaleidoscope of flowers that overwhelms his senses.
Courtland can't help but wonder who built the path, but more importantly, where it goes. He knows he's thrown caution to the wind following these footprints pulling him towards a strange feeling of hope. What's concerning him though is the dust-covered trail. To him, the trail appears to have gone unused for decades as the layer of sediment on the path is thicker than most other places he walked through that have gone untouched for years. Still ignoring every logical thought crossing his mind, and the churn of his stomach, he keeps moving.
Trying to make sense of the prints on the ground, he's measures and compares the fresh steps to his own, just to make sure they're not his. "Okay, good, they're not mine," he clarifies for himself, happy he hasn't it lost it. "They can't be of any adult man," he affirms to himself as well. "At least not an adult man," he keeps saying. "They gotta belong to a woman or a younger kid." He doesn't care who or what the footprints belong too, he keeps repeating to himself. "Let it be another living soul. I'm tired of my own reflection being the only thing I speak with and emote at."
Rushing across the seemingly endless canyon bridge he's been on for almost an hour, he reaches an open landscape littered with debris in every direction. He looks towards the horizon for landmarks to compare against on his map, but he can't find any of it, not the mountains, not the buildings. He flips the map to the right and to the left like he was driving a bus, but he can't find his bearing. He knows exactly where the site of the guardian was, and what direction he took on the map thereafter, but the canyon, the bridge, or even the valley he just traversed are non-existent. It's like someone mistakenly omitted miles and miles of land from the map. That, or he's tragically lost, he thinks to himself as he stashes the map back into his pack as he feels his heart rate peak.
Still, he follows the footsteps like a bloodhound with blinders on to the rest of the world around him. He does this for almost thirty minutes after passing the bridge before he's shocked back to attention by something hitting him on the head. The pain rings his senses and stuns him straight stiff. Realizing what's happened after a second or two, he runs for cover behind a half-burnt SUV and pulls his backpack off to remove a two-foot, collapsable machete. Strapping his backpack on tightly in front of him to protect his chest like armor, he readies himself behind the wheel-well and hood of the vehicle that probably belonged to an old lady. A pair of flowered spectacles, covered with dust and ashes now hang on the rear-view mirror. Touching his head where he got hit, he fetches for blood but comes up with nothing but a tiny welt.
He looks around his surroundings to see what might have hit him, but before he can find anything another small rock flies by his head and bounces on the ground. He watches it until it comes to a stop and sees it's just a small, round pebble. Reaching for it carefully, he grabs it and hides behind the wheel well again. Opening his palm, he sees the small pebble that couldn't hurt a bird even if someone threw it with force. Another pebble flies by, but this time it's followed by a stunning sound.
"Hey," a delicate and unexpected voice rings Courtland's eardrums. "Who are you? Why are you following me?" Unsure how to respond Courtland stays quiet searching for a reasonable answer. "Where are you coming from," it asks more intrigued than confrontational this time.
"I'm Courtland. I come from Sioux City," he pauses waiting to see if the voice will respond, but it doesn't. "I've been waiting for someone," he hesitates trying to remember who would come for him and continues, "to come and save me. They were supposed to come back for us."
"No one is coming for you," the voice responds. "Everything that tried to escape was destroyed the moment they reached outer space." The voice pauses to see if Courtland will respond but he doesn't and it continues. "We're the chosen ones, the ones left behind to create something new."
"You've lost it, haven't you," yells Courtland over the hood of the vehicle. "If you're trying to kill me for my pack? I don't have much, just some crappy food and some personal belongings." The voice laughs at Courtland's response and emerges from behind a vehicle. For a few seconds, she stands there trying to get Courtland's attention, but she knows he's scared. She drops to a knee and eventually takes a seat waiting for Courtland to emerge.
"Don't be silly," the female voice yells out. "Come out, and meet me."
Peering out from behind the burnt up vehicle, Courtland scans a cemetery of vehicles that at one point was a parking area. A few yards adjacent to the SUV is a pile of cars topped by a stunningly beautiful woman hiding behind a mask. He catches himself staring, feeling dust enter his mouth that's drawn open by the view in front of him he never expected. Her long dark her and fair skin draw him in like a moth to a lit porch light. He stares at the woman's shoes dangling off the car and they match the design he's been following for miles.
Interrupting his wandering mind the voice says, "I'm Jessie," she pauses to see if Courtland would respond, but he's just frozen there - standing like a statue. "I know, I felt the same way you did when I came across the first time I saw or heard anyone."
"I'm Courtland," he responds befuddled.
Walking up towards Courtland and extending her hand, Courtland stares at her hand like a strange object jetting out a strange object. He catches himself staring again, this time at the hands and snaps himself out of it and shakes her hand. Greeting each other, Jessie continues. "We all felt it at the same time. Something drew us out of our holes. It was like some strange, magnetic force calling out for us to move."
"You mean there's more people?"
"There are thousands of us from all around the world. Something is drawing us to a structure in the desert."
"Is it the aliens or whatever the heck it was that attacked us?
"Does it matter at this point? We've been surviving in our holes, hidden from everything including ourselves. Something is drawing us together. Calling for us to emerge from our slaved-selves," she replies with a certainty Courtland can't ignore.
"I've had enough myself. I'd rather walk together into the unknown, than continue hiding in my box, waiting for salvation."
"Let's go then," she says as he reaches out to him and pulls him away.
Days into their walk into the desert, thousands of people coalesce as they walk bravely into an unwritten chapter in their lives. They've all been drawn out by something none of them can explain. Fear still permeates every inch of air drawn-out by stressed and broken bodies, but the courage to press-on towers over everything else. "Entering anew like voyagers on an uncrossed sea, only one truth holds constant, death. We can either seek our own path towards death or wait for it to come at its discretion. I'd rather find it," says Jessie as she steps across the brightly lit threshold that sucks everyone who passes into a new...