The child is dead.
I can see him, down hill about 200 yards away, just off the road.
And, yes, despite his longish blond hair gently waving in the wind like a prayer flag, he is a boy. I can tell even from this distance: his head is about a foot too far from his shoulders and his hands are bound behind his back.
The raiders wouldn't have done that to a girl, too valuable. Even if it means walking miles with her slung over a shoulder. But a boy? A small one? Probably couldn't get enough work out of him to justify the food he'd eat. Certainly not someone they would have slowing the group down.
The shade and breeze just inside the tree-line takes the edge off of the early spring heat. It's a good spot to catch my breath.
It's sad, really. Not the fact of the dead boy, but that it means so little to me. I've seen too much to readily give a shit anymore. It's energy wasted on what cannot be changed.
I look at the boy again. Thankfully, I cannot see his face. I gnaw some jerky.
The zombies don't worry me. Though raiders are truly an ill wind, they do have one side benefit: They leave no undead in their wake.
I break cover and stop, looking for movement in the bushes opposite signaling, perhaps, the rousting of a guard. Nothing.
I move along the tree line until I'm directly above the boy. Still, nothing.
I run down hill, more of a controlled fall. I lose my balance on the last stride, slamming into the road in a near face plant.
The only noise is the sound of the air I struggle to suck back into my lungs. If they're out there, I'm dead, or worse.
No, I hear the birds now. That's always good. They go quiet when Zed's around.
Most roads clearly show the fact that there hasn't been traffic for nearly a year. The build up of dirt and the weeds growing in the cracks. Not to say they're useless, just unused.
This road, however, clearly shows the passage of a large group. These guys have no fear of the undead or other humans. And why should they? They are reavers from what passes for any type of power and authority in the whole mid-Atlantic region.
I can see the soles of his feet, or what remains of them. They're mostly raw. Damn, that must have hurt to walk. I won't complain about the hitch in my side.
They didn't even waste a bullet on him, just a quick swing of an obviously sharp blade. I see foot prints in his pooled blood, most going in the same direction. Most, not all. Looks like a scuffle. A knee down? Is that a hand print? Whoever it was, she wasn't killed here. Was she his mother? Would that have been a good or a bad thing?
I have seen enough of those who have joined the so-called White Republic up around Front Royal to know that they were not all bad people, just hungry. They sold their souls for a regular meal. That makes them worse than evil.
How far gone do you have to be to just lop a head off like that?
I can't bury him. I don't have the tools and the soil here ain't easy to dig. The thought that coyotes will get him disturbs me. I can't burn him, that will signal my presence. I'll cover him with rocks.
I cut his binding, but the arms don't move, frozen in place. He hardly weighs anything and the rigidity of his body makes it obscenely easy to move him. I put his head back where it belongs. His purplish face distorts his expression, the torment exacerbated.
How old are you? I cannot tell. Is that Sponge Bob on your shirt? Were you a fan? At first glance, you could pass for an old man.
You survived the outbreak, that's gotta mean something. Though, by the looks of you, even before your capture, you weren't that far from death. Couldn't have been a local, those who have survived are well stocked with food and are fortified enough to deter the raiders, at least for now.
The smoke I saw yesterday evening, bet it was from the refugee camp just outside Culpeper. That's a long reach for the White Republic. Their power is growing.
And what do we do? Those of us who still consider ourselves to be members of that nearly forgotten entity, the United States? We cower in fear, worried about our next meal, about the undead infecting a new wave, about enslavement up north. Well, those of us who are white. The agony is shorter for minorities who fall into their hands, but several orders of magnitude worse. Did your blond hair prolong your suffering?
Who are you? What is your name?
There's nothing in your pockets but a worn piece of paper with writing too faded to read. Looks like it could have been an address. Yours? Did one of your parents write that last year, in case you were separated? Where was your home?
In the ditch I find plenty of silt washed down by the last storm. I know you'll be carried away in the next heavy rain, which, being March, won't be too long, but this is the best I can do.
Did my children meet the same fate? I don't know. I haven't considered that until now. But what right do I have to complain, to beg mercy for them when I did nothing for you or others?
I use a branch to brush away traces of my work and place it on top of the grave. As close to flowers as you'll get for your funeral.
I've heard it sung that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive. And I suppose it's true, the part about being glad. But shouldn't survival be a means, not an end?
I head back up hill, the way I came. I must get back before dark.
Back within the tree-line, what was cooling is now cold. Anger, guilt or relief? I feel all three. That is good.