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Nathan L. Yocum

THE ZONA

For Amy

Prologue: An uncommon predicament

Lead woke with the sun peeling his eyelids back like the tips of God’s fingers. His vision shifted to focus on the haze of brown earth and the beige nothing of sand and grit. His wrists were bound together on the other side of a sandstone boulder, pulled to an excruciating limit, shoulders popped and throbbing. His beaten face felt like a mask worn off-center, swollen and repugnant.

Lead looked at the grains of sand and crystal pressed into the boulder. The morning’s sun shone fierce through a yellow sky, making every piece of quartz and desert’s glass a tiny pinprick of illumination. He turned his head and shut his eyes. His arms felt dead on the other side of the stone, hugging the boulder like a fat friend. Lead shifted weight to his chest and face. He focused on his body, reaching out in mind’s eye for the lingering heat of infection. His body felt raw and skinless from grinding against the sandstone all night.

He squinted through the glare until outlines and images formed. On the other side of the boulder a car sat in the desert sand. Its husk was scraped clean of paint and rust by the eternal scour of sand and wind. It shown brilliant, a carriage from mankind’s other time. Through the windshield Lead saw two skeletons holding each other, locked in an embrace, arms around each other like Lead’s across the boulder. Beneath the car, beneath the dirt, hidden from the curious eyes of man and beast lay a road. A road of black asphalt buried in sand that would never be shoveled away, buried in sand that would keep coming with the hot winds until the car was no more, until Lead was no more.

Lead shook the cotton feeling in his skull. He pushed away useless wondering thoughts. Behind him rose the sound of pacing, impatient horses and men waking with the rising sun. Time was pressing. Lead pulled his knees up to the boulder and twisted his weight to the left, listening for sounds of cracks and breaks in the rock. When no noise came, he twisted to the right and strained against the boulder. A small scorpion crawled over the boulder’s top and stood still. Lead jerked his body back, exacerbating the conflict between the rope, his shoulders, and the bastard rock. His face hovered inches from the poisonous insect.

Lead whispered a prayer for protection to the Lord God. He pulled his head back until his neck shook and veins mapped its surface. The scorpion was young, its skin transparent. Lead knew bad fortune; small scorpions were more dangerous than the larger, older ones. The babies didn’t know how to keep their poison. When they stung, they stung with everything, every time. The scorpion scuttled down the boulder at a casual pace. It raised its claws and stinger into a boxer’s stance, contemplating Lead’s visage with blank alien eyes.

The shivers in Lead’s neck reached his jaw and chattered his teeth. He blew a stream of hot breath at the creature as an attempt to dissuade it from approach. The scorpion stood against the breath and moved closer to his body. In fearful imagination, Lead saw the scorpion crawling onto the bare skin of his chest and stinging him over and over again. The tip of the stinger would pierce his skin and a flood of poison would make his body hot and sick.

Lead closed his eyes and dragged his body further down the stone. He opened his eyes. The scorpion was now sitting at nose level, claws and stinger still in a boxer’s stance, still ready to inflict pain, misery, and death. Lead whipped his head forward with every muscle and tendon. His forehead caught the scorpion with a mighty crack that echoed off the nearby dunes. White light burst erratic in Lead’s eyes. The scorpion’s tail swung a lazy arc, its legs and body were crushed and made one with the rock. Lead hit it again.

In the darkness, a high-pitched whine of an engine sundered the emptiness. Though in a dream, Lead knew where he was. His fingers clutched the back seat of his mother’s motorbike. They fled the Great City. His eyes shut tight against unending wind, tears streamed and cold fingers ached for release.

Lead opened his eyes. His mother’s bike shot past cars and refugees. Men, women, and children wandered, dirty in nice clothes with eyes that had stopped questioning and just looked in the oblivion. Many rolled suitcases, some had the bad sense to still look for cell signals or carry heirlooms and beautiful technology, all of no modern value. Mother’s bike wove through the refugees, Lead’s hands shook, he wanted to wipe rain and hair from his face, but he knew that if he let go he might die. He held.

They left the Great City, and the lights, and smells, and so many people. In the Great City water ran into the streets where God called upon the ocean to smite man and the shining inventions of man. Storms, rain and waves had taken the City, consumed it in a rising tide that ate grand monuments. God saw their ways and reached out and was mocked, or ignored, or praised with false heresies. His rage brought the ocean and the plagues. So says the Church.

Lead shifted his weight and grasped his mother’s sweatshirt. His hand had turned bluish. They would be delivered unto the Camps; his mother would die burning of the plague, mumbling nonsense and leaving sadness in Lead whose meaning was enveloped in the sadness of a thousand other tragedies. She was of the times before preachers and marks and crusaders and the Church, before the world got hotter and everyone died screaming of Hell and damnation. She lived now only in Lead’s dreams and memories.

Lead woke. His forehead throbbed. A shallow stream of blood trickled down the side of his nose and littered droplets onto the sand. A shadow reached across the sand and shaded Lead’s face. Feet shifted and knees popped, a man knelt down behind him. Lead smelled decay on the man’s breath. He remained at the edge of Lead’s peripheral vision, a phantom.

“You’re ours, Preacher.” The man said. “You belong to us.”

I. The Preacher and the Mark

Some months prior, Lead halted his mule at a road sign proclaiming ASH FORK. The sign was twisted with rust and shown a shade of green no longer produced by man. A boar’s head was skewered on top of the sign; all but the snout concealed by a cloud of flies and coagulated blood. Lead escorted his mule past the sign. Pieces of tar and rock popped under the beast’s hooves, startling birds who were otherwise accustomed to the desert silence.

After a time, Lead heard music emanating. It was an ancient, forbidden song, something from the Broken Times. Lead stopped. Like many of his time, he was fearful of old things; music, books, reminders of times when men were soulless. He contemplated what hearing such throbbing lustful music would do to his soul. What forms of tarnish and stain would he have to endure?

Lead walked his mule to a sign adorned with pictures of a dining plate, a gasoline pump, and a bed. The sign pointed to a tar lot with two leaning structures. One structure was broken down and crumbling into scrub brush, the other vibrated with music. It was a building with a pulse neither man nor animal, but visceral and wrong.

The Radioman’s directions had been precise.

Lead’s mule brayed and twitched its ears. Anxiety built in Lead’s chest. The music was not gospel. A cleansing would be required upon his return.

The vibrating structure was a single story rectangle coated with mud and dust. One side was made of glass entirely, a craft lost to man. Inside the glass wall was lined with plastic shopping bags whose presence in the desert was constant and plentiful, like bones and scrub. Portals shaped as stars and moons were cut into the bag layer.

Lead tied his mule to a water trough and pulled a rope and blanket from his saddle bag. He adjusted the heavy pistol resting against his chest. His finger traced the outline of the barrel, cold against his skin.

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