The Debt

The morning air bit at his exposed forearm before he hastily pulled his sleeve to cover it. The air had slipped through the barely opened back door, so before he went any further, he decided to double-check that he had everything he needed for the day’s scavenging. He zipped open the backpack and began pulling items from it.

Flashlight? Check.

Gas mask? Check.

Empty jug? Check.

He unfolded a well-creased paper to show off a poorly drawn map of the neighborhood. He only had a handful of houses left to clear, and he might even finish them all today if the weather cooperated. The rain always slowed him down and he prayed the morning overcast would break into sunny skies.

He threw the pack’s straps over his shoulders and instinctually placed his hand to his hip to reassure himself. The .38 caliber revolver sat clipped to his hip, eager to serve if necessary. Finally, he grabbed the hat sitting on the counter and pulled it over the mop of long black hair, greasy and unkempt from months without running water or any scouring chemicals.

He cautiously opened the door and stepped out from the backyard of his current residence. The street was quiet, as it might have been any morning just a few years ago. But this quiet unsettled him each day, even though he braced himself to expect it.

There was no hum of electricity jumping from house to house. No dogs barked at cats gingerly stalking through the grass. Not a single disturbance rang from that one house that always was a nuisance no matter the time of day. It was like a plague had swept through this street. And in a way, it had.

Actually, he didn’t know if this block had a nuisance house, because he had in fact, never lived here before. But he assumed that it was the red brick one-story two houses down because it looked just like his neighbor’s house back in Ohio. That neighbor shot himself before it got too bad. Certainly an easier way to go than what most endured.

He pushed towards the end of a small cul-de-sac that had three of his remaining houses to be searched. He had gotten good at this part. Not sure that his military training or a natural propensity for camping is what allowed him to survive, but regardless, if ten thousand hours makes you an expert, then he could teach experts a thing or two.

He swept the homes, doing his best to ignore the lingering fingerprints of their long-dead residents as he parsed through medical supplies and dry food. This neighborhood had been poorly searched by someone else before, and they left behind invaluable gifts such as a roll of gauze, a bottle of ibuprofen that hadn’t even expired yet, and a block of knives with a sharpener. He threw everything useful into his backpack, choosing only a couple of knives with the sharpening rod.

The sun never broke through the clouds but nothing had started to fall from them, so he took a quick rest in the grass chewing on uncooked oatmeal he had dug out of one pantry.

And then he heard it.

Across from the cul-de-sac, a small neighborhood playground stood ready to embrace its former patrons should they return. But of course, they wouldn’t. What he was surprised to see was the rusty metallic sound had actually come from a swing set that clawed into the moist sand. The swing was moving, and sat aboard it was death himself.

He had only heard what people had posted online before the power went out, and he assumed it was all a joke. But their descriptions matched it perfectly. He didn’t think that it had seen him, so if he only snuck around the—

He stopped himself from turning and crawling through the grass into the tree line behind the building because he couldn’t help but notice something. Did it seem to be almost happy? It was difficult to tell, but the rhythmic scratch of the swing’s chain seemed to retrieve a childlike bliss that he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

So, he stood out of the unmowed grass that had served to partially hide him and walked slightly closer to the street.

The swinging stopped.

The figure stood still.

Now that the spell of the toy’s chains had broken, a new feeling took over. A paralytic fear.

Death hunched, leaning itself towards the man, as a dry whisper carried through the abandoned street.

“I’ve been looking for you, Scott.”

The rain began to fall, and Scott ran for his life.

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