This article is part of the That Insidious Beast series.

November, 2009 - The Way Home

I shuffle out of the shadow of the popcorn factory. I trudge steadily south, joining the stream of refugees trying to escape the chaos of the frontlines. There are countless thousands of men, women, and children walking with me.

Everything on wheels has been commandeered by the military. Trucks and armored carriers blast their horns to clear our sorry ranks from the road. I shrink into the crowds, afraid of being seen. I cover myself with a blanket left by the side of the road. It's damp and smells like piss.

It is more than 350 miles to my home in Tennessee.

The exquisite misery of the march deepens at night. Footsore masses simply collapse into ditches at nightfall or gather around campfires that die within a few minutes. There are no provisions or water. Some try to boil rancid water from the ditches or loot abandoned houses near the road.

When full darkness has fallen the criminals among us begin to prey on the weak.

I can hear them in the night around me. I take out my pistol and hold it in my lap. I am going home. I am not going to be caught up in someone else's problem.

With my cowardice again decided I listen to the cries of children torn from their mothers, the moans of anguish stifled by the rough hands of men, and the desperate screams of the murdered.

A man or woman being killed makes a terrible sound. A sound you never forget. Some animals give in to the slaughter. They go meekly into the jaws. A man fights with everything he has even when he knows he will lose. He is terribly aware each time the blade slides into his body.

Each morning there are fewer than before. Rime covers their faces. Their eyes stare up at the gray dawn.

I ask for phones, but none of them work. On the third day I break into a locked house and try to use the phone, but the line is dead. Copper filaments cover the rural power lines. Bombs have pulverized the cellular towers.

Throughout the days many small groups of refugees break off and head in different directions. Others simply give up and disappear into abandoned buildings to wait it out. A bad idea. I've seen the pictures. The Unfolders aren't trying to be friendly anymore.

At a town called Gaston the streets are full of stinking, headless corpses. Birds and stray dogs are having their fill. The bodies seem to move from all the rats. Some of the refugees still with me become giddy. They drag sweaters and shoes from the dead. They pointlessly loot, filling pillowcases with baubles from the surrounding houses.

I enter one house to use the phone and almost weep when I get a dial tone. I dial the number again and again until my finger hurts. No one answers. I drink bottles of wine from the house's cellar and smash out every window.

Zone wardens arrive before dawn driving trucks with the headlights off. The drivers are wearing night vision goggles. Their uniforms are haphazard and many of them seem drunk. They take the women that look healthy and line up everyone else. I escape by pure luck, running into a field of rotting cornstalks.

The staccato pop of their automatic rifles chases me south.

Alone, desperate, I steal a bicycle from an empty school and wear Reyes' guitar case on my back like a samurai sword. The bicycle blows a tire after only a few miles and I leave it by the roadside. At night I light a fire in someone's fireplace and open the case to play a bit.

Instead of a guitar, the case is full of things Reyes must have stolen or hidden. Ration bars, pornography, night vision goggles, exotic knives, two tightly-wrapped bricks of marijuana, and enough pilfered engineering explosives to blow a bridge.

I laugh at the absurdity of the package and push the guitar case away. I snap it closed and strap it to my back again at dawn.

On the eighth day on the road I find another telephone. This far south, the houses are boarded up, but still inhabited. An old black man threatens me with a shotgun, but I convince him to let me in his house to use his telephone. I dial again and again, but no one answers.

I give up.

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