The wind on Lake Michigan was surprisingly calm and the hand-crafted sail Ray had attached to his old fishing trawler had the boat moving at a much slower pace than he had hoped. It was already getting late in the afternoon but he was running low on gas and, since he didn’t know the city he was approaching too well, he didn’t want to waste precious time looking for more.
It was late November and Ray had to be cautious and steer around the chunks of ice that were already floating in the water. The city in front of him looked smaller than he expected and he hoped he could find the supplies he needed. Lake Michigan gave him plenty of fish and fresh water. But, he was running low on the canned fruit he would eat to avoid scurvy.
Six years earlier, Ray was sitting down with his wife and daughter to celebrate Thanksgiving. He had been married for two years and his daughter had just turned 1 and tasted her first holiday turkey. It was his last happy memory. Three weeks later, the invaders came. Television, internet and radio were the first things to go and, as a result, he knew nothing about why they came, what they wanted or why they left. But, less than a month after their arrival, his wife and daughter were among the hundreds of millions vaporized to dust.
Ray was not the only survivor. But, he chose to remain alone, living on his boat. He had no interest in talking to others or, even though he was still young enough, helping to repopulate and rebuild the planet. Without his family, he was as good as dead. But, despite that, he remained alive because, without him, his wife and daughter would be completely forgotten.
Even though he missed them daily, Ray was thankful they died painlessly and didn’t end up like the millions he referred to as “the cursed.” Ray didn’t know the science behind the weapon the invaders used or the sadistic reason they would choose to leave so many in a state that was half life/half death, wandering aimlessly, agelessly and with an unquenchable hunger. Ray didn’t know if they were still alive or were nothing more than soul-less shells. But, it was an eternal punishment that, in his opinion, was not any better than Hell itself and, in many ways, even worse.
As Ray got closer to the shore, he could see some of the cursed wandering around, searching for food in a state similar to a man sleepwalking. They were dangerous; the hideous scars on his left arm were proof of that. But, they were an obstacle he always had to contend with on these rare trips to shore.
Ray dropped the anchor a few feet off short. He didn’t want an unwanted visitor while he was gone and he knew the cursed would not venture into the cold water.
He grabbed a canvas bag and thermometer and headed to the side of the boat before stopping and glancing around to make sure he wasn’t missing anything he needed. For a moment, he thought about going back into the cabin area and grabbing his rifle. The weapon would be useless against the cursed. The only way to “kill” them was by decapitation or incineration (both methods were both impractical and unpleasant). But, even though it was unlikely, there was always the chance he would have to defend himself against some sort of wild animal or a survivor defending their territory.
After some consideration, Ray decided to leave the weapon safely locked up. It would be difficult to carry it and any food he collected and the chances of him running into someone or something he could use it against were next to nothing.
Ray dove into the lake feet first and immediately found it hard to breathe once the cold water hit his body and drenched him up to his stomach. Despite gasping for air, he stayed in one place rather than wading to shore. He knew the cursed could not see him, hear him or smell him. Instead, other than the need to eat, the un-human creatures had only three basic senses, the sense of touch, the sense of light and sense of heat.
Their sense of light was a no-win situation. They could sense the sun and were much more active in the daytime. But, if Ray ventured out at night, he would have to stumble around blindly in the dark since a flashlight would attract the cursed like a beacon.
Their sense of heat, however, was something that Ray could work around. In the summer months, he could hide himself on hot, sunny days just by staying on the black top. During the colder months, like this one, he could render himself temporarily invisible by lowering his body temperature to less than 96 degrees and being careful not to be touched by any of them. This, however, was dangerous both because he risked suffering from hypothermia if he wasn’t careful and, if he didn’t finish his task before his body temperature went back up, there was no way to sneak past the creatures.
Ray’s fingers were already going numb and he nearly dropped the thermometer. It was an infant thermometer he had bought for his daughter that miraculously still worked despite not being able to find new batteries for it. Ray didn’t have room on his boat for remembrances of his family but, because the thermometer also served a practical use, he could make an exception.
He placed the tip of the thermometer in his ear and pushed the button. The temperature read 94 degrees. Ray knew it wouldn’t take much to gain the two degrees but he didn’t want to risk dying in the lake either and finally started to the shore. When he got on land, he checked his temperature again and found it was now 93.8.
Ray was shivering and he found it difficult to move but he forced himself forward, slipping past a couple of the cursed as they stared at him with blank eyes, unable to see him and not knowing he was even there. He could see a Wal-mart sign a few blocks away and quickly debated whether to head to the store or scavenge through some of the houses instead. Both options carried risks. The Wal-mart was further from his boat, making escaping much more difficult. And, there was no guarantee it hadn’t been wiped clean by looting. However, houses were often much harder to break into and didn’t always have enough left in their cupboards to be worth the effort. There was also no guarantee the houses weren’t occupied by a family of the cursed who couldn’t figure out how to open the door or an armed survivor with an itchy trigger finger.
He took his temperature. It was 94.1. Knowing he needed some more fishing gear too, Ray decided to head toward the Wal-Mart, moving quickly so he had enough light to get back but not too fast because he didn’t want his body temperature to rise too quickly.
The cursed filled the streets and Ray came close to bumping into a couple of them. Despite this, he found his sense of hope increasing. The other businesses were obviously deserted. But, despite the circumstances, the buildings were in great shape. The windows weren’t broken and he could see computers and other items inside them. This meant, whatever happened to the people in this small, Wisconsin town happened quickly. There was no time for looting and, because of that; he had a good chance of finding what he needed.
The walk to Wal-mart took much longer than he expected and he was quickly running out of daylight. Finding an out-of-the-way spot in the parking lot, Ray once again took his temperature. It was 94.9. He was definitely running out of time.
Ray’s heart sank a bit as he got to the store. The front glass windows had been broken and he could see shopping carts and various other items scattered throughout the store. Looters might have ignored the other businesses, but this store was hit hard. But, it was too late to turn back so Ray entered the dark store.
He could see a couple of the cursed moving around toward the back of the store but, compared to outside, Wal-mart was, for the most part, empty of the creatures. The broken windows gave them a way to escape and most likely exited in the direction of the sunlight. He still had to be careful though because the lack of light also made it difficult to see and it just took one accidental bump.
Ray took his temperature again, it was now 95.3. Even though he still needed fishing supplies, his need for fruit was higher and he wasn’t going to have time for both so he headed to the grocery section as quickly as he could. Even then he was taking a big risk both because he didn’t know if he would make it back to his boat and because the 96 degree mark was an inexact science. He had no way of knowing if some of the cursed could sense a body temperature that was lower than that.
As he had feared, the food section was almost completely wiped out. However, as he approached the canned fruits and vegetables, luck was on his side and there were still some cans left on the shelf. It wasn’t as much as he would have preferred. But, he was able to find four cans of peaches, three cans of pears and 10 cans of mixed fruit. As he had grown used to, they were all expired and the cans were a bit rusted. But, he would be able to make the fruit last him until spring.
As he placed the last can in his bag, one of the cursed passed the aisle and stopped as though it had sensed him. Ray took his temperature again. It was now 95.7. He would only be invisible for a few more minutes at most and he knew he would not be able to make it back to his boat.
Ray hurried to the broken window and glanced around outside. It was already getting dark but Ray could see an apartment complex less than a block to the west. It would take him another block away from his boat but, at the time, it was the safer choice.
He checked his temperature before exiting the store. It was 95.8 and the cursed that had stopped before was now slowly approaching him. It didn’t see him yet but he knew it could tell he was in the store somewhere and it was only a matter of time before he had a crowd of him.
Gripping tightly to the sack of canned fruit, Ray sprinted across the parking lot. He managed to avoid running into any of the creatures walking in the parking lot but, as he ran past them, it was obvious they were aware of his presence.
The apartment had security door that Ray knew would be locked. So, knowing he no longer had any other options, he ran to the glass patio door of one of the apartments and, not slowing down, flung himself through the glass, screen and curtain, landing on the green carpet inside.
Fortunately for him, the apartment was empty. But, as he picked himself up, he realized he had a large piece of glass imbedded in his hip. He could see the cursed moving toward the building and, knowing he didn’t have time to remove the glass, grabbed the bag and limped to the door and out into the hallway.
Ray looked around and listened quietly for several seconds. He could hear movement in some of the apartments but the hallway was empty. His leg was sore but he forced himself up the stairs to the second floor, knowing a group of the cursed was likely at the apartment he broke into.
He could see an open door down the hall from the stairway and moved as quickly as he could toward it. By the time he got there, he could no longer walk and had to fling himself inside, closing the door with his foot as he hit the living room floor before dragging himself up just long enough to lock the deadbolt.
Pulling himself with what strength he had left, Ray dragged his body to the far end of the room away from the door. He could hear the group of the cursed that had chased him walking in the hallway below him but, after a minute, realized they could no longer sense him and weren’t pursuing him. And, even though he could hear movement from the apartment next door, he knew, for the time being at least, he was safe.
Ray passed out on the carpet and slept for about an hour before waking up shivering. It was now dark and there was no longer any movement in the building so he fought to get to his feet. There was just enough moonlight outside for him to see around the room.
He spotted a couple candles and a book of matches on a shelf near the little kitchen and headed to the bathroom with them. There were no windows and he felt he could safely light the candles without the light attracting the cursed. He rummaged through the medicine cabinet for disinfectant and bandages then, sitting on the toilet, painfully removed the shard of glass from his leg. It was hard to tell in the dim light. But, the wound didn’t appear to as bad as he feared and, after stopping the bleeding with a hand towel that was hanging above the toilet; he cleaned it and bandaged it.
Out of curiosity, Ray turned the faucet on the sink. It made a loud banging noise but, after a few seconds, he was pleasantly surprised to see water coming out of it. He tried the shower and found it also worked. He just hoped the water would be cold enough to bring his body temperature down long enough to make it back to his boat the next morning.
Feeling a little better about his situation, Ray began exploring the apartment. He didn’t even bother opening the refrigerator since anything in there was obviously spoiled. But, near the bathroom was a large pantry and he was pleased to discover enough cans of food to fill his sack the rest of the way.
As he turned around from the pantry he noticed a picture hanging on the wall. It was a crayon drawing of a dog that was obviously made by a young hand. In the living room, he could see a photograph hanging on the wall and, removing it from its hook; he took it back into the bathroom with him so he could examine it in the light.
The photo was of a young woman, about the same age as his deceased wife, holding a little girl who wasn’t much older than his own daughter had been. Ray stared at it quietly, wondering what had happened to them. Were they still alive? Did they die like his family did? Or, were they among the hundreds of cursed that now wandered the streets?
Ray realized where his thoughts were going and quickly put the picture face down on the floor of the bathroom. He needed sleep and knew he should just find a bed and lie down. But, instead, he walked back into the kitchen and through the door that was next to where the picture was.
A crib stood in the far corner and the room was decorated with Disney Princesses, unicorns and a variety of other childish things. Ray stood in the room for several minutes letting his eyes adjust and then examined every detail. In many ways, it was very similar to the room his daughter had. She even had the same rocking chair. As he looked around, his mind filled with memories of his own daughter that seemed so distant he had to question whether they were really memories or just his imagination.
Ray opened the closet and saw several dresses hanging up inside. He took a pink one from the hanger, walked across the room and laid it down in the crib. He then pulled up the crib blanket so it covered the dress and sat down in the rocking chair next to it, quietly singing lullabies until he finally fell asleep.