Characters referenced: Paul, Jon, 'Jessica,' Locke, Helo, Rodney, Luna, Tanya, Rafael, and Monty. You could spot a Sycamore a mile away, given it’s started shedding its leaves for winter. He’d picked up a pair of Kamik Vallett from a pot-bellied man who damn near drank himself to death. Stewart Till. Yeah. Till. That was his name. Better than the cracked, faded North Face pair he’d had. Of all the damn things you’d find sitting in the underbrush, he’d found a kiln. A kiln. Like, an honest to god clay oven. So, he caked the North Face pair in mud, tossed them in, and left the door cracked. A worker’s pair of boots—they’re still boots. The Kamik Valletta’s, though. They were something else. It’s dark. Near midnight. No stars. Moon, nothing but a smeared spot of gray in the clouds. The fog mutes the pine forest, making it gray, too. There is light--yes--but it is artificial. Far beyond the bramble, a lighting-blue Nissan has flipped. Its headlights, cracked, bleach the branches--divorced by mellow-yellow hues molded by caked leaves. His name, when he used it, was Paul. These days, he goes by Bill. Or a nod. Or, maybe a pack of matches. No names, Ma'am. No names. These days, breath is death. The tick-tack of a twig, at night, carries on and on and on. For yards and yards and yards. Even still, he preferred darkness. Preferred it, because he remembered it. Even when it reminded him of Monty. The State of the World, as The Great Betty Lee put it--suckling on a damp Camel Crush not four years ago--wasn't much better n' the State of Hell. Betty Lee, she was one to wear yellow pinstripe toe socks--the kind you'd pay double for because of the logo. Betty Lee, before getting her guts spilled on a Texaco diesel pump by a split, rusted spade during the outbreak by an escaped convict, was the one-and-true owner of Third Street Mallards. The Irish pub, that is. It was Betty Lee who'd gotten Paul into the whole ‘stolen car parts fiasco,’ to begin with. Betty Lee, she reminded him of Jessica. ‘Jessica,’ or so she said. Truth be told, ‘Jessica’ gave him the fucking creeps. She wore one of those cheap wigs from Sally’s, too. He figured she’d been staying with good ole’ Locke Hawthorne, these days—which both made sense and no sense all at once. Then again, they weren’t the ones bushwhacking Loblolly Pine branches at midnight freezing their asses off. No, that was all Paul’s idea. Still, Paul can’t help but shake what happened. As he slides through the trees, readjusting clips and straps to secure the plate carrier, he can’t seem to dispel than damn, sinking-ship feeling. Something didn’t add up. Maybe Monty’s old, crooked split-glint of a face wasn’t so bad to think about on a night like this. Rolling with the Gulls taught you something about yourself. Taught yourself to lean back. Disconnect. Numb your trigger finger. No. Something didn’t add up. And it wasn’t until he’d tried tracking down Locke Hawthorne that this feeling had reached a peak. Hell, he didn’t even know where the guy lived. It was ‘Jessica’ who’d found him. He’d stopped in the old Pike’s Plaza memorial yard to carve a few names in stone—putting ideas to rest. Frankly, he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t distracted by the idea of Jon. I mean, how could you not? He’d vanished. Disappeared. Thin air. He’d had leads, yeah. And each was as obvious, and as fake, as the last. Hell, you could count them on half a hand. Thing with Jon always was that he could be as pragmatic as a baseball bat and as unpredictably smooth as a fucking lasso. So, once those factors were reduced, the ole’ Brotherly Instinct Radar went on the fritz. He visited all the old haunts, yeah. But there comes a time when one needs to be a bit pragmatic on their own. You could disconnect yourself from a trigger finger, and you could disconnect yourself the possibility of life’s crushing weight if it meant you could press on. Helping Helo was a similar thing. And Christ if he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Hell, he’d blown away Super Infected for Monty back in Dixie. It was a brief stint, but it stuck. The Super Infected weren’t people, back then, though. At least, they weren’t supposed to be. Until now, things were simple: You study the Super Infected. You figure out how to identify them. You talk to people. You hunt Super Infected. You kill them. You help People. Helo, though. She was different. Jessica had given him an air-locked zip-lock bag of Locke Hawthorne’s cranberries he'd apparently left at her house, which kept him full for most of his travel. ‘Jessica’ was known to say all kinds of heinous, colorful shit. though, just from their couple of encounters. Not that Paul had formal education on the Super Infected, but it’d be a lie to say ‘Jessica’ wasn’t your everyday mutant, either, which isn’t to say she still couldn’t be hiding something. Needless to say, it took him three hours to muster up the courage(and surrender to hunger pains) to finally eat the mystery fruit snack the bald lady could've very well scrounged up herself. So far so good, however. He wasn't dying of dysentery. If it weren't for Jon going missing, Paul might not have taken the dug and bailed canal route, either. Who knows what kind of shit, piss, puss, and trash floats the irrigation ways, these days. Nights like this, you can almost hear a 747's murmur between whispering thunder strokes. Nights like this, you'd swear you saw some shadow cross the flipped truck's high beams. He missed Luna. Christ, if he didn’t get attached to that kid. Still, there were too many variables. Too much at risk. He’d heard she’d been alright. No details, but alive, which is all one can hope to hear. Kid seemed like she had a troubled past, which was a damn shame considering how sharp and proactive she was. Still, he worried about her. Not on account of her being a little unhinged, however, but because she reminded him of Emily. It’s freezing. And it’s dark. Sitting in a ditch, eating a small handful of Locke Hawthorne’s finest hypothetical berries, Paul—now—can’t shake the creeping feeling of something else. Maybe it’s because of what ‘Jessica’ said, earlier, outside the memorial yard. Or maybe he was just being paranoid. But facts were facts. Between Jon, Helo, Luna, Tanya, Rodney, Rafael, and the others? Well, as they say: History has a tendency of repeating itself. Here, in the wood-soaked bramble patch just south 'o farmland, Paul Walsh is hunting. Not for an animal, or an infected, or a human. No, it was something else. An anomaly, but a perfectly fitting piece. Paul lights a cigarette, leaning against the nearest Sycamore. Lifting the netting around his face, he takes a drag. The tobacco’s tip glows in the darkness, and smoke rises. A twig snaps, crackling in trees over yonder. Paul holds his breath, putting the tobacco out against the bark. His field equipment, black and navy blue, is stone cold. He unholsters his sidearm, held by soft tactical clip. In Paul’s time, he’d learned to be quiet when it was time to be quiet. The silence swells, but nothing can be trusted. Paul remains pressed against the bark, eyes drifting in dark woods lit only by moon’s thin light. The woodland floor, compacted dirt and half-frozen grass, is dim but visible. Still, Paul does not see the rapidly approaching figure—moving from the right—in a deadly silent lurch. He does not feel the slick sliver of pain as a paper-thin line is drawn across his jugular. He coughs. He can feel his heartbeat in his head. It feels like he’s just run a mile. He tries to breath, but he cannot. His shoulder feels sickeningly warm, and then his armpit, and then his arm. Paul looks down, and blood drips from his fingers. A small, slick stream hides beneath his field gear. The frosty forest floor is rising towards him. Still, he can’t seem to put out his hands. Everything is dulled as his head strikes the ground, yet swelling shock makes him feel tired, rigid, and heavy all at once. Blood is a pond around the sharp, rising grass. As Paul’s vision fades, drifting into static and popping with spots of black, he sees it: Tiny. Drifting. Two small, white dots of light rest in the forest darkness. Side by side. So small. Like stars. Hanging. Fading into darkness as blood, finally, yields to death. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- It is sunset. Drifting clouds, free from the day’s thunder and rain, are a warm pink-yellow. The forest ahead is dark, and the ground will likely freeze over come sundown. Still, for the first time in many, many weeks, Paul Walsh feels hopeful for the future. “I do not want you to go,” Jessica says, sitting on an old park bench beside him. Her face is waxy, and her eyes are sunken. “I’ll check back,” Paul says. “You tell Locke to take care, now, alright?” The woman looks at the trees. “Take care, now,” she says, politely. Paul chuckles. “Not me, Jessica. Locke.” “I do not want you to go,” Jessica says, voice blank as a new chalkboard. Night was soon approaching, and the ground would soon be too cold to move quietly on—especially in the woods. “I’ve got business to attend to,” Paul goes. “Just a small errand. Picking up an item for a friend.” “Who is Tanya?” Jessica says, now staring at Paul’s rusted and broken car. Paul chuckles. “She's a nice kid. You two would get along.” She looks back at Paul. “Yes,” she says. “You git' along, now,” Paul says. “Don’t you wait ‘til full dark to wander down a road, deaf and dumb. You’ll freeze your ass off.” His boots are tied, and he approaches the tree line. “Paul,” Jessica says. “Hm?” he clips his survival pack. “What is a ‘red herring’?” “What’s that?” he says, striking a cigarette. “A ‘red herring’,” she says. “Ahm. . “ he says, putting his lighter away. “It’s, like, one of them book things.” “Book things,” Jessica says. “Yeah,” Paul says. “It’s, like, a distraction. What you think is happening? It’s just smoke and mirrors. Sort of like a magic trick.” Jessica turns, making her way to a small, unplanted cornfield. “Why do you ask?” Paul says, watching her go. She turns, vacantly staring at him. “I do not want to be a red herring,” she says like she is answering a math question. Paul laughs, “Hey,” he says, crossing his arms. “You can be whatever you want to be, Jessica. Did someone say that to you? Why the blue hell would someone call you a red herring?” She turns back to the cornfield, lazily walking; she is distracted by a small squirrel which scampers across the wooden fence. “Jessica?” Paul calls after her. “I do not want them to be a red herring either!” she calls back, voice brimming with frustration. "I do not wish for people to be hurt! Very whack! I do not wish for a cold spring, Paul!" She shuffles after the squirrel, which rapidly zooms away into a bush. Before long, she too is gone—disappearing into the neighborhood across the street. Paul flicks his cigarette, shaking his head. “Lady needs to stop reading those damn books she found from that shopping center,” he mumbles to himself, entering the trees. Still, he can’t help but smile at the mellow sunset which disappears behind him. She'll be alright. As he enters the frigid woods, Paul remembers a time, fifteen years ago, sitting on a crooked porch with Jon beneath a sunset of their own. Passing one of Dad’s Budweisers, they watched passing cars. The porch swing creaked behind them. Jon handed the Budweiser back to Paul, who took a deep sip. “What do you want to be, when you grow up?” Jon said, a little out of nowhere. Although the old house stood near the town’s main road, the Sunday was quieter than most. The autumn wind smelled like hay and firewood, in those days. “Everything,” Paul answered. Jon set down the Budweiser. “Yeah,” he said. "Me too." The late afternoon breeze held its depth for hours into the night. And they were happy.