The Last of Us

by: Lewis Montague

Hope comes in many forms, but what we choose to do with it often determines our fate….

The dull, crunching thunk of breaking bone echoed throughout Syc’s very being, causing him to contort his face in tremendous pain. Paralyzed with fear, he attempted to free his hand from beneath his assailants grinding boot heel. It was a futile attempt. Just a moment earlier, Syc had been reaching for his gun – a gun that had been thrown from his grip by a well-placed kick – when from behind him was levied a crushing blow, driving him hard into the pavement underfoot. Turning to catch a glimpse of his aggressor, Syc realized how dire the situation they now found themselves in was. In the distance he could make out his companion, his ally, Crick, being swallowed whole, his form obscured by a flurry of clubs and wrenches and swinging arms.

Immediately above, blocking out the hazy ruin of the midday sky, loomed the monstrous figure who had just crippled Syc, rendering him defenseless. Syc could discern through the dusty grey ozone engulfing them the blade of an axe, its sharp point hovering menacingly above his head. As the blade began its sickening plunge downward, Syc closed his eyes tightly, exhaling slowly as he prepared for the inevitable. Why fight it, he thought. It will be over real so….

“Now that Manhattan’s gone, it’s clear that we need to get the hell out of here.” Crick, the unofficial leader of a small group of survivors from his still­ smoldering neighborhood, confidently spoke.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” he continued, passing his hand across the huddled forms in a dismissive wave, “but I’ve got a lifetime of sins to atone for, multiple lifetimes really, and this little corner of Brooklyn has nothing left to offer. I’d rather wash away my sins in the presence of my kin then in the ruins of this here place.”

“But where would you go?” Russ Jenkins, a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs, interrupted nervously. He was a cowardly man, not good with crowds, and fearful of dissenting with the group by speaking up. The last thing he wanted was to be left behind, alone to fend for himself amongst the crumbling ruins of the surrounding Brownstones.

“I’ve got some family out West. Sedona actually. They could still be alive. And anyone who wants to come along, I’d welcome the company.”

“Sa­-dow­-na?” Yapei Yan repeated questioningly, her thick Taiwanese accent emphasizing each syllable of the word. A fashion intern before The Fall, Yapei was dressed head to toe in designer camouflage, leftovers from her design house’s summer fashion campaign. She looked ridiculous, but oddly, the camouflage seemed to help her blend in amongst all the devastation.

“But that’s thousands of miles away to the West! How do you plan to get there, by foot?” Jenkins interrupted again, anxiously running his hand through his thinning black hair. His nerves were shot. It wasn’t long ago that he had been enmeshed in the high­-stakes, cutthroat game of investment banking, where you could die a thousand financial deaths before 10 a.m. But now, having swapped out his expensive suits and power lunches for soiled clothes and perpetual misfortune, he was having a difficult time making his way. In Crick’s mind, Jenkins seemed as lost as a little boy looking for his mother in a crowded shopping mall, and he reasoned the man was not long for this new world.

“By foot, by bike, by rail if that’s still an option….by whatever it takes,” Crick continued, staring intently into Jenkins’s eyes. “Look, the promises we made to ourselves, to our partners, to our lives…they’ve all been lost. None of that matters anymore. All that matters is the present. The now. The world as we knew it is over. Look around you. Look at this atrocity in which we are living. Nothing’s guaranteed anymore. The sooner you accept that fact, the sooner you’ll begin to survive. And if you don’t, well, then you’re just walking around watching the world through a dead man’s eyes. Better to just off yourself now, and save the rest of us the trouble of having to watch you die.”

“Jesus Christ Crick,” a voice Crick knew all too well exclaimed loudly to his left. It was Gary Bussard, his neighbor, an aging bachelor with a penchant for overreaction and a perpetual thorn in Crick’s weary side. Rising from the car tire he was perched upon, Gary stood to face Jenkins, and by proxy, the rest of the group.

“Jenkins, take it easy man. Crick here’s just having a go at you. He doesn’t really mean that you should take your life. Am I right Crick?” And as he spoke, Gary put his hand on Jenkin’s shoulder, his firm, reassuring grasp briefly lessening the former bankers fear. Crick looked to his left, to his main support in handling his neighbors, his main support in all things in life really, his old friend Syc.

“C’mon Syc, back me up here,” Crick pleaded. Syc was one of his buddies from before The Fall. The two had met at a weekly pick-up basketball game at the 9th St. YMCA and had grown to become close friends, bonding over a love of music and stiff drink.

“Crick’s got a point Gary,” Syc explained, backing up his friends attempt at describing reality’s current truth. “The world is fucked. Our world anyways. And as much as we don’t want to hear it, each one of us is going to have to face this fact. Crick here is just saying what we all are thinking.”

“That’s rubbish Syc and you know it!” Gary exclaimed, turning to face him and balling up his fists, as if preparing for a fight. “You’re just an echo to every one of Crick’s crazy ideas. I bet that if you’d open up that brain of yours, you’d find there’s nothing inside but white noise.”

Gary was a wildcard,Syc thought. He and Crick had already discussed how to get him to leave the group on several occasions. Maybe this would be that moment? Syc entertained the notion of knocking the guy out, bashing his head in right then and there, but he was trying to rally the crowd to Crick’s new idea, not scare them senseless.

“It’s not rubbish Gary,” Syc began, his tone aggressively mocking Gary’s choice of words, “It’s a simple fact. We’re all doomed the minute we start thinking that anything we knew of the past has any relevance to us now. Jenkins is scared and rightfully so. I’m scared too. We should all be. If we’re smart that is. But we can’t let our fear cloud our judgement. And staying here is just flat out not an option anymore.”

“But Sedona?” Gary questioned, swallowing his pride and lessing the balling of his fists. “”Why not Jersey or Connecticut? Some place a helluva’ lot closer. Christ, Vermont’s even closer then Sedona. I’ve got family there myself, right outside of Montpellier. I bet The Fall didn’t affect them as strongly as it did here.”

“So then go to Montpellier Gary,” Crick blurted out, his annoyance with the man’s presence evident in the tenor of his worlds. “I was just suggesting someplace to go. It’s not like anyone else has got spine enough to realize that we need to get out of this fucking place.”

As Crick’s words faded away, from the shadows of a smouldering townhouse emerged a man, clad head-to-toe in leathers of brown. He was an older gentleman, grizzlied, with a dark pointed beard and a row of silver earrings in his left ear. Had he been born centuries before, he could have passed easily for a pirate or a buccaneer; a towering terror of the high seas, robbing traders and merchants of their spices and precious jewels. The hulking interlopers self-confident aura parted the assembled crowd, and as he stepped into the hazy light, all attention immediately focussed upon him.

“I apologize for interrupting gentlemen,” The Man in Brown spoke with the raspy cadence of a pack a day habit, “but I am intrigued by your proposition. My concern, however, is simple. How do you know what is out there? How do you know that what you’ll be heading towards isn’t just as bad as it is here? We all know the hand we’ve been dealt. Why concern yourselves with what is still left out there in the greater world? This is our home. Brooklyn is where we live, no matter what its form. Shouldn’t we try to rebuild? Shouldn’t we dig in, on our own turf, and make the best of it? Isn’t leaving, armed simply with the hope of something better, just giving up?”

“We have to try, don’t we?” Crick fired back with an ignited passion, welcoming the opportunity to expand on his point of view. Crick was a dreamer to the core. A writer before the The Fall, his works often spoke of hope and optimism, of better ways, and the interaction of science and spirituality in the shaping of a new world. A sanguinity rarely seen in people after The Fall still swelled within Crick, its essence stronger than the collapse of Man. To Crick, settling just wasn’t an option.

“We have to believe that there is something more out there than just suffering and ruin. At least here we know what we are up against, and it sure as hell isn’t pretty. But what we don’t know is what’s happening outside of New York. I say let’s go find out. Let’s wrestle this god-awful situation back from whatever demon created it and go find ourselves a better life. I would far rather die out there trying, than to stay here and live in this kingdom of ruin.”

“You may well get your wish,” The Man in Brown responded after a brief pause, a momentary smile passing across his weathered lips. “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” Emboldened by the stunned silence of the assembled faces, The Man in Brown walked further out into the light, allowing his audience to more fully take him in. Hopping easily onto a pile of still-smoking tires, he raised his arms as he addressed the enamored crowd. As he passed him by, Crick thought he detected the faintest odor of sulfur emanating from the giant man’s clothes.

“I cannot help thinking that you’re running away my friend,” The Man in Brown continued, turning to address Crick from his vaporous perch above. “You’re turning your back on that which bore you, and what’s left of a community that still needs you. Needs all of you!”

The Man in Brown shouted this last part contentiously, passing an accusing finger across the faces of the huddled crowd below, shaming them for considering an exodus. “Only a selfish fool would ignore their responsibilities to home. I imagine your self-centered journey will be fraught with death and unforeseen consequences, and for that reason alone I strongly urge you people to stay.”

The Man in Brown went silent, his eyes scanning the unsettled faces below. His words had a presence, hanging heavily in the noxious air, mixing with the perpetual haze that blanketed the land. The survivors were at a loss for words, unsure if The Man in Brown’s spontaneous sermon had been a threat or a promise of an unknown hope still left alive in this new world.

A brief moment passed in which a shrill raven’s cry could be heard high up on the winds. And then, The Man in Brown leapt down from the smoldering pile of tires, slipping back into the shadows from where he came, like a turtle pulling back into its shell. He was followed in-step by several curious onlookers, taken-in by the his potent words, and unconvinced of Crick’s auspicious promises.

Syc, frustrated by the interruption, took a quick look at Crick, noticing a look of confusion on his good friends face. Stepping forward into the heart of those still gathered, he desired to put an end to the debate once and for all. “Neighbors,” he began in a stern yet earnest voice. “We could argue for hours about this. About where to go, what’s left, who’s coming, even why. But one thing is clear as day to both Crick and I – we have to go somewhere and we have to do it now. Crick and I, and our families, we’re leaving this afternoon. And we are heading out West. Exactly where, we’ll figure out as we go. We want as many of you to join us as possible – not only because we believe there is power in numbers, but because we honestly care about you all, and about starting a new life. Someplace. Somehow. But we understand if you have your reservations. All I can tell you is that we are leaving, and we are doing so today. Anyone who wants to escape this hell-hole should meet us back here in three hours. And those who stay behind, we wish you nothing but luck. You will be in our thoughts.”

Dusk was beginning to cast its shadows upon the ruins of Flatbush Avenue. Behind Crick, as he shuffled around provisions within the rear of a two-wheeled cart, Syc could make out the letter “J” in the crumbling facade of the old Junior’s Cheesecake building, a painful memento of happier days. And beyond that, further off in the distance, was the disturbingly vacant skyline of Manhattan. Where buildings once proudly stood, tall and erect and flirting with the sky, a black cloud of smoke lingered notably, a ghostly reminder that the city still burned at its very core.

“I’m pretty much ready here,” Crick said to no one in particular, cheerful at the prospect of getting some miles underfoot. The group amassed wasn’t the quantity he had hoped for, about twenty-five survivors in total, but he counted Russ Jenkins and Yapei Yan amongst the crowd and it was a number that would have to suffice. He was eager to get moving, as the twilight hours had lately become precarious and wild. Nobody had disappeared during the daytime as of yet, but the evenings since The Fall had brought its fair share of disturbing incidents, and Crick wanted to be well underway before darkness again touched the land.

Syc, taking a moment from his own family’s preparations, approached Crick with a burdened mind and a heavy heart. “Crick, do you think we are doing the right thing here in leaving? I mean, do you think that freak dude with the earrings was right, that we’re just quitting on our home? I agree, there has to be something better than this mess out there….but are we risking too much for hope alone? Was he right about us turning our backs on these people?”

“Yeah, I can’t stop thinking about that as well,” Crick conceded, running his calloused fingers across his stubbled face. “But we did plead with them to join us. It wasn’t like we didn’t try. And with what little information we have about what awaits us out there, I still can’t imagine making a home of amongst all this mess. We can do this man, you and me, I know we can.”

“I’m with you, you know that,” Syc added assuredly. “But what do you think he meant when he said we may get our wish? Was it just me, or did that sound like a threat? And the way in which he said urge….what the fuck was that?”

“I’m not sure of his intentions, but I will tell you this, that guy is definitely a threat. And I figure he sees me and you as one as well. The sooner we get some miles between us and him, the better off we’ll all be. Now, we gotta move. Grab your things. Notify the troops. It’s go time.”

As Crick stepped off the crumbling curb, pulling the cart onto the cracked asphalt of the once bustling thoroughfare, a strong breeze picked up, carrying an essence of sulphur upon its winds. Crick lingered a moment, struggling to place his familiarity with the scent. And as he pondered, The Man in Brown ominously appeared from behind a toppled-over bus, a loggerman’s axe gripped tight like a baseball bat within his massive hands.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked, the sinister tone to his voice sending a spasm of fear through Crick’s suddenly rigid frame. Oh no… Crick thought.

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