As promised, the road stretches on in the latest snippet of the plague doctor schultz trek to the east;
Caleb and Dr. Schultz are headed to the next spot on the map; the small town of Stillwater. Another stop on their cross-country trek to make it to the east coast as they travel across an all but abandoned world left in the hands of those who couldnt leave.
Going to put up the story as it stands currently and will figure out a clean way to break it up and chop it apart for easier digestion later.
Also, an amazing artist I stumbled across on deviant art been so kind as to illustrate a shot from the story. I’ll be checking with her to see if I can’t upload it here as well, but if you’re interested check it out here (warning, takes you to deviantart.com webpage)
Otherwise, check below the line for The Plagued Road, hope you enjoy!
Caleb stood up from the recently deceased body and sighed.
“Schultz, that’s the fifth this week…” He said, scratching his head as he stared down at the lifeless man.
“And it won’t be the last,” Schultz nodded back toward the road, “c’mon,” he added and turned and walked away.
”There’s always more…” Caleb mumbled.
He adjusted the over-sized bag on his back, centering the heavy load between his shoulders. The various bits and pieces within shifted and settled with every step as he trotted after his friend. As he caught up, he didn’t say anything, only fell in step behind him.
They walked for a time without a word. The whisper of the soft breeze rolling through the overgrown grass as it passed between them. The sun had already started to climb high into the morning sky. The birds, their vibrant shades of blue and red and brown, zipped along the full, billowy, clouds. He’d never told Schultz, but it was his favorite part of their time together. Not the rushing from city to city, not the ever-present threat of bandits and burglars along the abandoned highways, but the long stretches of open field, the grounds reclaimed by Mother Nature over the years, that lay between them and their destination.
Caleb watched the slow-rolling clouds keep pace with them for a long moment before breaking the silence.
“You still think its worth it?”
“Do I think what is worth what?”
“All of this. Movin’ place to place even when we find a fair spot we could stay? Trying to help folks even when most of ’em don’t want to be helped?”
“Everyone wants help, Caleb,” Schultz gestured his arms open wide from under the folds of his long black coat, “there is still a reason to live, even if some don’t see it.”
He stared at Schultz, a silent hope for more than to justify their endless travel. Schultz continued silently.
The long, crooked, cone nose–like the beak of a bird–jutted out from the mask over his face, as if pointing the way. Green lenses set into large, round, copper goggles reflected the light over the eye sockets. Dr. Schultz maintained the unsettling mixture of man and crow to his appearance, like the plague doctors from the stories of old. Only they weren’t fighting a plague.
“Caleb, you’re a good man, but I beg you to have faith in the work that we do.” Schultz said. He fished around in the folds of his coat and pulled out a golden locket that hung on a chain around his neck and flicked it open.
“How could we live with ourselves, once we arrive, if we hadn’t done all we could along the way?” He closed the locket and tucked it back into his layered clothes.
“Where to next?” Caleb said.
They started to walk, the open countryside changing from a sea of overgrown weeds and plants to a long stretch of dead grass as they went. Caleb followed behind Schultz, a written-on map held open in front of him. He matched the small markings on the page to the weathered road signs, worn down from the years of neglect. The road itself was littered with cracks and potholes, entire sections broken off or eroded away entirely. Caleb kept his eyes fixed on the map, glancing up from it whenever they approached anything with a note beside it. The crisp, clean, white paper long since aged to a muted shade of yellow-brown. Even so, following the lines of that tattered old map had brought them that far, Caleb reasoned.
“Just over this ridge here, looks like there’s another town…” He said, finger hovering over the mark on the map.
Caleb glanced back and forth between the map and the hillside in-front of them. He slowed, peering up the shallow hill that rose up like a stairway to the sky.
“Doc you think we should maybe go a-” he stopped and looked around. Schultz was gone. Caleb looked about nervously for a moment before noticing the doctor up ahead. Already on his way up the side of the hill.
“Hey, hold up!”
Schultz didn’t respond, only marched ahead, one foot after another, as he pushed up the stretch of ground before them.
Caleb’s legs were already numb with soreness. The jagged broken highway they had followed for miles paired with the relentless heat of the mid-afternoon sun beating down on them was wearing him down. He barely even felt his leg muscles as they worked to stretch and contract with every step. To the top of the hill, then they’d rest, he’d convince Schultz of that much, he had to.
“Doc, C’mon, slow down,” Caleb said, taking big gasping breaths with his hands on his hips as he finally caught up.
The jagged outline of the town, like a broken toothed smile, came into view as he reached the top. The town of Stillwater. It was a tiny place, the words “safe” and “small” scribbled next to it on the map.
“Swear you’re tryin’ to kill me.”
Schultz turned, the oversized beak-nose of the mask pointing toward him.
“Look how close we are.”
Schultz gestured to the shadowed outline of the city at the foot of the hill.
“No point stopping here…”
“Knew we shoulda gone ’round.” Caleb mumbled.
Caleb folded up the map, stuffed it into his pack and hustled after the doctor.
“You think they’ll any food there?”
“No way to know.” Schultz said, continuing to march ahead, fixated on the distant town.
“We’ll ask if there is anything we can help with, then see what, if anything, they may provide us.” Schultz added; his voice muffled inside the raven-faced mask.
“No, I know. It’s just, we’re startin’ to run a lil’ bit low an, honestly, dunno how much further I can go without a break, some actual food, maybe a nice shower…”
The doctor looked back to him and laughed.
“Well, you certainly look like you could use one.”
Caleb ran a hand through the brown curls of hair matted to his head as he looked down at his clothes. He pulled the breast pocket of the red and black checkered flannel shirt, sniffed it and shrugged. The boots and jeans were fairly new, having picked them up from a warehouse that they had passed just days before; the shoes only off by a half size and it hadn’t taken him long to get used to the heel dropping each time he lifted a foot. He made it through winter fairly well, he thought, but he couldn’t argue with getting some rest.
He looked back up and saw Schultz hunched forward, staring off straight ahead. Caleb followed the direction the doctor was looking and saw what had drawn his attention; a thin child dressed in tattered rags approached from the direction of the town.
Caleb straightened up and drew in a deep breath and let it out again in a long sigh. It wasn’t that the kid scared him, after all, what could it have done against the both of them, it was how the child looked. The skin seemed loosely hung on its frame, a frail looking thing with dirty, ratty hair that stumbled on uneasy feet. They were likely walking into another graveyard.
“Can you help me?” The small voice said.
It was soft, melodic and colored with a sense of desperation. The child was a little girl.
Schultz threw a look to Caleb and then turned back to the girl and knelt down in-front of her.
“We shall certainly try. Tell me, What is wrong?”
She raised dirt stained fists up to wipe at the tears pooling in her eyes. “It’s my mom.” She said.
Caleb watched as Schultz peered over the girl’s shoulder and then looked around.
“What about mom? What happened? Where is she?” He asked, focusing back on the girl.
“She’s really, really sick and I dunno what’s wrong and she won’t get out of bed and I dunno know what to do. She needs help,” the girl blurted out all at once. Schultz held out his hands trying to calm her down, gesturing taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
“Its alright child, its alright, we’re going to try to help, okay? We need to know where she is, so we can help, can you tell us?”
She turned and pointed back toward the town.
“This way,” she said, reaching out a hand toward him as he stood.
A weak smile spread over her face behind her dirt-caked hair. Schultz looked down at the child’s outstretched hand for a moment.
“What is your name?” He said, still looking down at her expectant grasp.
“Abby,” she said, a hopeful grin curling her lips.
“Doctor Rene Schultz, pleased to meet you Abby” he said and bowed his head. He reached down and took the girls hand.
“Doc, shouldn’t we…”
It was too late; the two of them had already started off toward the town; the doctor’s leather-gloved hand swallowing the girl’s tiny fingers as they went.
“I dunno bout this…” Caleb said, mumbling to himself.
Even from that distance the city looked every bit as dilapidated as the road they had left in heading there. A string of shoddy houses stood walled by a chain-link fence that stretched well across the outer limits of the town. The fence itself held together by patchwork and necessity; road signs filled gaps in tandem with the lines of barbed wire woven into individual links. An unwelcoming sight to any that would’ve found themselves wandering that particular stretch of field.
The girl led them to a spot in the fence that had been bent back until it would no longer stay upright.
“Through here,” she said. Abby climbed through the opening herself and waved them over.
Caleb whispered, “Schultz,” he grabbed the doctor’s arm, “can we talk about this?”
Schultz stopped, the green-lensed goggles reflecting the late-afternoon sun as he looked back.
“Talk about what?”
“I know you want to help, I know you do, heck I do too, but don’t you think this might be a trap or something?”
The doctor started to lean his head to the side as if to protest, but Caleb quickly continued, “I mean, look around, something’s goin’ on here…”
Bits of garbage lay strewn about along the path that ran behind the houses. The driveways held cars with broken windows and loosely hanging doors, if they remained at all, on their hinges. The houses themselves seemed to barely defy crumbling to the ground. Siding was split and cracked or missing entirely; holes were worn through giving a glimpse of the mess contained within.
Caleb watched Schultz methodically look about as if cataloging everything he saw. Caleb waited, silently hoping his friend would see reason.
After a long moment, Schultz redirected focus toward him, “and what of how I found you?”
Caleb shifted uncomfortably, “well, I know, I just-”
“Your parents lay in their bed in the room next to yours. Their state of decay telling the number of weeks before I arrived that they had passed. There you sat, pacing, gun in hand, trying to commit yourself to a decision you didn’t want to make.” Schultz reached his hand out and put it on Caleb’s shoulder.
“We don’t often get to choose the trials we face, only the way that we respond. It may indeed be some sort of plan or trap, as you said, but if it’s not, then we could be condemning a person to death.”
Caleb shrunk back, regretting having said anything, and nodded silently.
“C’mon,” Schultz said, nodding in the direction of the girl.
Abby sat on a small concrete block, her arms and legs dangling through the metal rail along its side as she waited.
Schultz moved over and stood beside the girl.
“I understand if you don’t wanna…” she said, her eyes searching the ground as her fingers danced along the rusted metal.
“Well,” Schultz turned away and looked down the line of busted houses, “we don’t want to stand here any longer than we have to. Let’s go find mom.”