Burden found an ounce of relief from his ceaseless and senseless wanderings: shade and water.
He walked through the spindly creek at the bottom of the canyon, his father’s old boots slung over his shoulder so that his feet could enjoy the muddy clay of the creek bed. He took a swig from his water skin, full as could be, like a balloon close to bursting. The water tasted faintly of brimstone. Despite that, it was Burden’s salvation.
His movements made faint echoes in the confines of the canyon as his thoughts echoed in his head. As they often did, his thoughts wandered to his father.
Burden’s father had been a blunt man. He’d called Burden as he saw him. Burden had been born right after the Atomic War. Burden had killed his mother. Burden had slowed his father.
But his father was as dutiful as he was blunt. Burden had been carried and tended even as his father’s skin peeled, his hair and teeth fell out, and his limbs shook.
His father had finally fell in the dust as he walked. Burden stripped him of his boots and his knobby, stained willow walking stick, leaving him to the buzzards, the wasteland’s undertakers. Burden just kept walking in the direction his father’s sun-blistered scalp pointed in. If he didn’t, his funeral would be next.
Burden was exiting the canyon. He redonned the old boots that he’d never quite grown into and trekked on.
The sun fell in the sky. He saw a cluster of buildings on the horizon and made his way, cautiously, towards them.
He walked through the empty streets, the old buildings rising like rows of tombstones about him. Some had marks, sigils that Burden couldn’t understand. The wind howled here between the buildings, the moon already letting out its sigh into the dark as the sun passed by it again.
There was a sound besides the wind, though, like nothing he’d ever heard, an incessant wailing that tugged at some primitive part of him.
Following the sound to its source, he came upon a building. He stood, listening to the sound as it went on and on. He remembered something his father once told him: Caution is key, and certainly not the kind you use to open unknown doors.
Despite his reservations, he decided to enter.
The inside was dimly lit by some sparingly placed candles and the wailing was louder. There was a large kettle pot over a fire and the smell of food permeated the air. His father’s voice rang out in his head again: Be like the vulture… he never passes up a potential meal.
Though Burden’s stomach growled, he ignored the pot for the time being. Instead, he proceeded to the door from behind which the wailing came. He tried to turn the knob and the wailing cut off abruptly as he did.
Before he could ponder this, he heard a creak from behind him. He spun about, his staff at the ready.
He was captivated by the angel across the room from him. Her face flashed alarm at the sight of him, her soft brown eyes wide and her legs stalled on the steps she was ascending. The darkness of the room beneath her gave off a strange smell, but it was cut off as she recovered her composure, stepped fully into the room, and closed the door behind her.
“I wasn’t expectin company,” she said. “Won’t you sit down and take your ease? You must be exhausted.”
Hospitality? Goodwill? Charity? Only masks that cover an ugly face.
Burden nodded and followed her over to the fire and took a stool.
“Would you like some stew? It’s nearly ready.”
He ignored the question. “You by yourself?”
“I ‘spose I am. I had a man, but sickness carried him off. This meat’s some of the last I got from his huntin”
“What about that wailing I heard from behind that locked door?”
She hesitated only for a moment. “Oh that? Just a coyote that wandered in here. I managed to trap it inside before it knew I was there. Plannin on killin it soon.” A smile crept across her face. “You know, I’ve been so lonely since my man passed. You could stay here tonight, keep me warm.” She shifted, letting her dress slip off her shoulder, exposing a perfectly rounded breast. She ran her thumb slowly around her nipple. Burden was seemingly mesmerized by the display.
As she did this, her gaze shifted over Burden’s shoulder for just a moment.
Deceit is a game you’d best always play, boy. The dead stopped playing or weren’t no good at it.
Burden rose in one swift motion, an axe coming down on the stool he’d just been sitting on. His assailant was a disfigured hulk of a man, his face split down the middle by a puckered old scar.
Shoot first and don’t worry about questions. Ain’t no one got nothing to say these days.
Burden cracked the man’s skull with a practiced swing of his willow staff, blood spraying the knobbed end.
The woman behind him screamed in outrage. He turned and clubbed her as well. Her skull produced a crunch as she crumpled to the floor.
He knocked off the lock to the door. Inside was a young girl, no older than three. He suspected what the basement and kettle both held: the stench was a giveaway.
He held out his hand to the scared girl.
His father’s gaunt face was lit by the dancing flames, queer shadows playing across the sallow valleys of his skin. The boy didn’t have to imagine too hard to see a bleached skull.
“You know why I named you Burden?”
The boy shook his head.
“To remind you of the burden you carry. The world’s gone to hell. Your job’s to protect what little purity and innocence is left. That’s your salvation”
Writing exercise from terribleminds.com to write a flash fiction of 1,000 words using these words: funeral, captivate, deceit, brimstone, canyon, balloon, clay, disfigured, willow, atomic
As always with these things, the story feels rushed, but such is the nature of a 1,000 word story.