no. 7

Cen tripped on something hidden in the grass, fell hard, and landed on his palms and right knee. A bright pain flashed from knee to hip. He shut it behind a curtain of resolve, stood up, and continued running forward without examining what he tripped on. Just a rock or door frame. He had about five minutes before he would be engulfed in dark; the pink sun was already below the horizon, and low, oppressive clouds obscured the moon and stars. He wasn’t afraid of being in an unfamiliar area in the Zone after dark, but having no working flashlight, he knew it would be impossible to manage with zero visibility. There was no shelter in sight in this desolate field, and tonight would be cold and wet. The last place he’d seen was a sunken-in garage a mile behind him. If he ran fast enough, he might see the guiding lights of Lee to the south before long.

The deep redness in the clouds began to dissolve to black as the unseen sun continued to slip. Cen’s rapid breathing and foot falls in the grass were the only sounds in the surrounding stillness. Alone here, above his buried panic, he felt like a king.

Soon, he was running in a void. Unrelenting darkness was everywhere. He continued sprinting straight ahead, forcing down anxiety, waiting for a distant spectre of light to materialize. The thrill of running blind brought an invisible smile to his face. Each fast step was a risk, could be his last, before he would fall off an edge into another void. But eventually form came to the formless; the orange-purple crown of smoky Lee gave gave way to fine points of light on the southern horizon.

He ran on for some time, untiring, coming to the border of the shanty sprawl. The electric lights of the city were a mile or two away still. This far out, only a few fires shone amidst the decrepit shanties made of scrap. There were people here, but Cen needed shelter tonight. His late afternoon was wasted scavenging fruitlessly in the south-central Zone, and he was driven further south in the futile hope that the seemingly vacant land there would offer up unpicked crash sites, lonely estates, trucking weigh stations, anything. Having lost track of time and distance, he had realized grimly as the sky faded that he’d have to sprint for two miles just to spend the night in shithole Lee.