Chapter 2:

A Boy and His D***

A Boy and His ****

A day or two later I felt the soil give underfoot. Not a lot — it just loosened a little from the hard pack it had been, and a little more, and a little more, and before long it was brown instead of tan and we started seeing grass.

“We must be getting closer,” I told Scratch. I snapped my goggles off — didn’t need them for the dust as much now — and felt a coolish breeze chill my eyes. I was lucky I had the things. I’d just picked them out of a trash heap one day and started wearing them cause they looked cool. But out here in the wasteland they’d been a lifesaver.

“Mmm.” That was one of Scratch’s ways of saying yeah. “Not much farther now.”

I reached down for a handful of soft dirt. I sniffed it. “Dirt. Not sand. Real, wet dirt.”

“What about it?”

“What about it? It’s brassknuckling my brain how nobody could live out here, that’s what about it.” I looked around. Nothing. Just miles and miles of grass, far as the eye could see and farther. “You could grow stuff out here.” I let the dirt sift past my fingers and some of it did and other bits fell in dampish clumps. “Grow stuff in this.”

“Not if you want to eat it and live.”

“You sure about that?”

“Sure I’m sure. It’s all fucked up.”

I raised another clump to my lips and gave it a lick.

“And don’t do that.”

We kept going.

“Hey, what’s that?” I asked, nodding off to a little swish of forest sliced out of the shrubland we were wandering into. There was actual bushes and the occasional bunch of trees now. The patch I was looking at in the distance was a dense crop of trees all hugged together. Which meant we were getting closer to where we were headed.

But for the time being, it looked like we had more immediate problems. Lodged into the close-growing branches was something cubical-like, angular. Something man made.

Scratch squinted. “Looks like a structure of some kind.”

“A treehouse you mean?” I’d heard of them.

“Perhaps.” He stopped in his tracks and I did too.

“Well?” I said after a couple seconds of him sniffing the air.

He nodded, which meant there wasn’t anyone else around. At least as far as he could smell. But the closer we got to the trees and whatever was up there in them, the sinkier my stomach got. First just from the bad feeling I was getting, but pretty soon from the smell. Yards away I could tell something was wrong. Scratch had definitely whiffed it well before me but hadn’t said anything. By the time I was climbing up the tattered rope to where the treehouse was wedged in and Scratch scrambled up some conveniently stairlike branches after me, the stench was unbearable.

I swung open the wooden door to the wooden box. Inside was this guy. He was on both sides of the room at once. Top half of him on one side. Bottom half on the other. Maroon-black band of blood and guts and whatever else belting the two together and reeking. Flies swarming him. Flesh bedded up with squirming, feasting maggots glowing almost green-white in the gloom.

I pinched my nose. “Dinner’s up. And we didn’t even have to work for it.” Just when we had ran out of food too. What luck.

“Don’t make stupid jokes, stupid,” said Scratch.


We poked around. This was someone’s house, once. This dead guy's most likely. There was a moldy caving-in wooden pallet that was probably the bed. There was a cabinet with some sunken drawers and inside that some smelly rags for clothes. Also there was a coil of rope and two crude spears made out of branches, rope, and knife blades for the points. And some other junk in the drawers, like a metal saucer with some rock-hard dots of wax plastered to it, and a dull metal switch knife. I took the rope, the knife, the saucer, and one of the spears and hid the other one up in the tree branches. I didn’t hide it too good but it was good enough so that someone wouldn’t find it unless they knew it was there, I hoped. The whole time we were in there I had my bandana pulled up over my nose. Scratch wasn’t so lucky — plus his sense of smell was twenty times mine or thereabouts. I felt bad for him, but he didn’t say anything about it so I didn’t either.

We couldn’t spend the night in the treehouse but a little ways beyond that the grass sunk down to a pond with some fish in it. “Think I can catch us some?” I lifted the spear. Scratch just shrugged. Not really but he was giving me a look like shrugging is what he would be doing if he was human.

“Might as well try,” he suggested.

It was easier than I thought. I didn’t know how to gut the stupid things though so after I got a fire up for us all I could do was sit there hungry while Scratch feasted. Eventually I started pawing around in my pack and found half a cookie at the bottom. There was some green stuff growing out of it. I shrugged. Seasoning.

“Where’d you get that?” Scratch asked.

“Backpack,” I said, chewing.

“No, before that.”

“I dunno. Swiped it from school ages ago maybe.” I hadn’t been to school in years. Not since that day Ms. Delaney planted those atomic mines up and down the hopscotch courts and the whole school got blasted to smithereens at recess. No one ever figured out how she managed to slither into the Clown’s weapons shack and get her hands on the things and sneak out without anyone noticing and lighting her up holier than a church. Cause if anyone did, they probably would have gone and done the same as she did.

But that was ok. Who needed school anyway? I had Scratch to teach me. He was always smarter than any of the teachers there. He was smarter than anyone I ever knew.

And since he was so smart, I figured he had to know the answer to the question gnawing on my mind.

“Who do you think did it?” I asked. I nodded back to where the patch of trees was. We weren’t even that far away. Two hundred yards maybe. I bet Scratch could still smell it. The stench of the guy’s body turning to rot slurry, worm food. I leaned in and whispered. “Do you think it was…?”

He picked up what I was putting down enough to answer without me finishing. He really was the smartest person — or whatever, smartest anything — I ever met. “No,” he said calmly. “If this was thanks to them, there wouldn’t have been half a bite of meat left on those bones.”

It was a good point. “So if it wasn’t them, then do you think it was…”

“Outsiders,” he said. “It was outsiders.” And I gulped and felt it sink to the bottom of my chest like I was swallowing a stone.

“Y-you think they’re still…?”

“Still around?” he finished. I nodded. Gulped again. Scratch looked around. The night was still. He yawned. On purpose, to show me he wasn’t nerved out, but I could tell he really was. “Who can say?”


“About time.” When I got back to the clearing Scratch was looking at me like how you might look at a scab while picking at it.

“What?” I said as judgmentally as I could. “You’ve never taken a 25-minute shit before?”

It was the day after we found the body. We were in deep forest now, bonafide woodland. I’d never been anywhere like this before in my life. There was so much trees and plants and grass and damp and everything was green and fogged up with a mist that stenched like chemicals. It almost made me miss the emptiness of the wasteland, where the heat would bake you where you stood with dust coating you inside and out, even caking up your nose and your eyes and your ears and your mouth, but at least it kinda tasted like home. Every time I sniffed here it was a new smell, different from the last and different from any I’d ever smelled before. Every time I took a deep whiff Scratch yapped at me not to and reminded me to keep my bandana around my nose and mouth. “What about you?” I shot back one of the times. “What about we muzzle you up?”

He’d just chuckled at that. “Don’t worry about me. I’m an old dog. I’m as poisonheaded as I’m ever gonna get. I’ll be fine. You, MD, on the other paw, need to keep your bandana up. Especially the further inside we go.”

I’d pulled the thing down and spat. “Max.”

But pretty soon I’d put it back on and my eyes started stinging so my goggles too.

Anyway, while I was off doing my business, Scratch had been waiting for me in a small treeless gap where the growth gave to grass and the ceiling was a circle of sky.

“Take a 25-minute shit? Not in the middle of hostile territory,” Scratch replied, head on like an owl, swiveling back and forth. He was in fight-or-flight mode, that was for sure. That was why he was so jumpy. Well, he had every right to be. Hostile territory was right. It wasn’t safe in here. Who knew what was waiting for us in these dark woods? Trick question. We did. If we were on the right track, anyway. And that was why we were cutting a line straight to the middle of it all, the nerve center of all this overgrowth, following Scratch’s nose as a guide. That was where we would find what we’d been after all this time. The whole reason we’d dragged ourselves all the way out here to start with.

“Look, man. I need some me time, alright?”

“Yeah. whatever, man,” said Scratch. We started up again, dove back into the thicket of green. The brush was getting even more tangled up ahead. I slid one of my knives from my pocket, gripped it in case we needed to cut through anything — vines or shrubs or worse. Dull dink blade like that probably wouldn’t do us much good, especially in the case of “worse,” but it was better than nothing. “Methinks you were doing a lot more than just squeezing a turd or two anyway.”

“What?” I snapped as my boot split a twig. I wasn’t even being careful not to make too much noise anymore. That was Scratch’s fault though. He was the one who was getting me all riled up. Getting my cool all in a melt. On purpose most like. Stupid mutt. If we made it out of this I was gonna skin him alive and turn him into mongrel stew. But for now all I could do was try and twirl some insults his way. “You addlepated simpleton.” More words I’d learned from Scratch. Didn’t really know what they meant though. “What are you incinerating?”

“Insinuating.” He corrected me annoyingly. “And nothing. I’m not insinuating a thing, MD.” He chuckled a little, meaning he definitely was insinuating something, but whatever. I decided to just drop it because I was more concerned about what he had just called me.

“Max,” I said.


Now I knew he was doing it on purpose. Mangy mongrel. Son of a b… well, yeah, literally, I guess. I reigned in my anger before responding. “It’s Max. Scratch, how many times have I told you to call me Max?”

Max. Max Destruction. It was my honest-to-goodness actual real name. The one they put on my birth certificate the day I was born. Really. And since we’re telling the truth here, I’ll say it fit me about as well as a glove fits a foot. Contrary to the overall badass, fuck-shit-up-kill-em-all-take-no-prisoners vibe of my name, I was actually a total pushover. My personality was milder than canned peas. And that’s why I was never particularly successful in getting anyone to actually call me Max like I wanted them to. Most people just called me MD. I wished they wouldn’t and I always told everyone not to, but they never listened. Even Scratch called me MD when he was trying to tease me. And if I couldn’t get my best friend in the whole wide world to stop, fat chance of ever convincing anyone else to. I guess everyone back home knew I’d never do anything about it except keep snapping at them to call me Max and never putting my money where my mouth was. After all, I’d always been more shut up than put up, even when things started to get too furry for comfort and fists or worse started flying. Especially then. And everyone knew it, unfortunately. Knew I hardly even had it in me to get mad, let alone stay that way long enough to do something about it.

Come to think of it, that was probably why I got chose for this mission in the first place. Cause Ted and them knew I wasn’t gonna say whiz about it. Knew I’d never give them any jaw. Knew that if they ordered me to do their bidding I couldn’t stand my ground better than a house of cards in a hurricane. And they were right. Shit.

“Maybe about a billion, I’d guess.” Scratch answered my rhetorical question.

“So will you do it?” I asked him.


“Stop calling me MD and start calling me Max.” He already called me Max most of the time but not all the time.

“Sure thing…”

Well that was easier than I thought it would be.

“... MD.” He snicked.

Goddam stupid son of a monkey’s uncle’s nephew’s motherfucking mother of all fuckers.

I swore at him a few times and silently simmered as we kept going. After a while it started getting too dark to keep moving. That was the problem with being in woods this thick. It was still light out, but by now none of it was getting to where we were. We stopped in another clear patch — smaller than the last one — to set up camp for the night.

“Can’t risk fire tonight,” Scratch said when he saw me pull my lighter out. “Shouldn’t have risked it last night either, what with outsiders maybe around. Can’t risk anyone sighting smoke.”

“But it’s damp as hell and I’m freezing,” I retorted, but I knew he was right. I put my lighter back. That night we sat shivering and awake, too cold and hungry for sleep to come easy. In the grassland, Scratch had done a nice job of catching us meals. At least the animals were pretty safe to eat, or else we’d have already starved out here. I’d skinned a couple of the small animals he’d caught for roasting, but probably I didn’t do too good at it. But tonight there was nothing. Nothing except the damp of the deep forest and the threat of danger hiding in every swatch of shadow. We’d seen some animals but hadn’t been able to catch any of them. “Can’t we at least look around for some plants to eat?” I complained. “Berries or something?” Hell, this point, I’d eat leaves.”

Scratch opened one eye. He was resting a number of feet away from me, trying for sleep I guess. “You know better than that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled. “Toxic. Whatever.”

“Yes. Most of it even for me. And all of it for you.” He closed his eyes again. “And much too dark now to go looking anyway.” And that was that.

I tried getting to sleep too but I couldn’t. I closed my eyes for what felt like the thousandth time but then I opened them again and decided to just sit there and either fall asleep eventually or not. A splatter of moon was leaking through gaps in the clouds and speckling Scratch’s side silver like a square of starry night cut out of the cloth of the sky. I could see him breathing slow in the lukewarm gloom.

“Hey, Scratch?”

“Yeah?” he said without opening his eyes.

“You still awake?”

It was something I asked him quite often. Almost every night, really, while the two of us were trying to fall asleep.

He snorted lightly like dogs do. If you know any dogs you probably know what I’m talking about and if you don’t then you probably don’t. “Yeah, I’m still awake.”

I couldn’t ever remember a time when I asked him and he wasn’t.

“Ok,” I said. “Good night, Scratch.”

“Good night, Max.”

And pretty soon after that, I fell asleep.


We set out again the next morning. It didn’t really seem like we were getting anywhere though. It almost felt like we were walking in circles. I brought it up to Scratch.

“I think maybe we’re walking around in circles,” I said, just like I’d been thinking. We were following Scratch’s nose, but who knows how good that was doing us in here with 800 scents flying by per second and everything so thick and densely forested? It was getting harder to breathe. We had seen some kind of animal a while ago. I think it was a deer or something. Those were the ones with the big things coming out of their heads, right? The big slimy tentacles? How did we know we weren’t following the trail of that thing?

“You know what I think?” Scratch said.


“I think you need to keep up with your studies, man. All this not going to school is making you dumber than a pile of rocks.”

It wasn’t not going to school that was making me dumb. School itself was what made people dumb. I’d probably only started getting any smarter after I stopped going. If anything was making me dumb, it was the inordinate amount of time I dedicated to, uh… well, we’ll get to that later.

“You’ve been going braindead on me lately, man,” Scratch said.

“Have not.”

“Oh yeah?”


“Alright. Then tell me this: what are pickles made out of?”

Shit. History. My worst subject.


“If you’re so smart, you should know.”

I bet he thought he was slinging me a sticky one just cause he knew that I knew that he knew that I was no good at history. But everyone knew what pickles were made out of. “Cucumbers,” I said smugly. Whatever those were.

“Cucumbers soaked in?”

A followup question. Shit.

No, wait. It wasn’t shit. It was something else.

“Liquid fallout,” I guessed out my ass. It sounded right at least.

Scratch clicked his canine tongue. “Lucky guess.” Ha! How about that? Didn’t think I’d get it right on my first try, did you, you mangy mongrel? Fair enough. I didn’t either.

“Anyways,” he said as we pushed past some big green fronds that almost felt like they were grabbing at us, like big wet hands, “we’re almost there.”


“I’ve been smelling something serious for a while now. And I think it’s what we’re after.”

“That’s the direction we’re headed?”

He nodded. There was something in his eyes. Something like fear maybe. Or hesitation.

Eventually the forest gave. We were standing at the top of a hillside gently sloping down to a brown basin like all the earth had been scooped out. Down there was blanketed with mist even now at midmorning, but I could tell it was a town. Here and there thatch roofs and wood walls poked past the thick mist layer. Me and Scratch wordlessly began our descent.

The town was littered with corpses. Some of them bone, some of them rotting meat. They filled the streets. They filled the houses. Their stench filled my nose and my lungs with the stink of rot. Some of the flimsier buildings were trashed. The ground was just a muck of mud and fetid meat and scraps of rat-colored skin and the crunch of brown bone. The whole place was a graveyard.

“Outsiders,” I said past my bandana that I had bunched up around my nose and my mouth. Even still, I could taste the death in the air when I talked.

“Mm,” said Scratch. “Here just days ago from the look and smell. Week maybe.”

“What the hell are they doing out here?” I kicked a wooden door in. More bodies on the other side. Most of them didn’t look too much like bodies anymore. Just mounds of flesh.

“Raiding. Marauding. Indiscriminately killing.” I wondered how Scratch was hanging in there. Whatever I was smelling, he was smelling it a million times worse. “Something like that. Who the hell knows, man?”

“Not me…”

We turned the street corner. It was a river of bodies waiting for us.

“Those guys…” Scratch kept talking. I knew he was scared cause of the quiver in his words and cause he was talking a lot but not saying anything new or important. He only did that when he was scared. “They’re not even human anymore. I don’t know what they are, man. They’re something else.”

“Not like we were planning on doing any better. If we got here first, I mean. Outsiders may be too fucked to be counted people anymore. But not like the fuckers living out here were exactly human to start with.” I kicked a skull lying on the ground and it disappeared into a veil of mist.

“We wouldn’t have done this.” He shook his head. “Not like this.”

I didn’t know about that. I thought I might’ve liked to, if I had the strength and the ability and whatnot. You know, do an entire town in. Just fuck everything in sight for no good reason except that I could and that no one could stop me. But Scratch said it so sure-sounding that I believed him anyway.

We kept going until it became clear that there was nothing worth anything here after all.

“Well.” I looked at Scratch. “Think we’re gonna find any live ones? Not live live but like… you know what I mean.”

He shook his head.

We started leaving. I didn’t have half a lick what we were going to do now. We’d failed, and miserably. We’d followed Scratch’s nose all the way to a fat load of nothing. I couldn’t exactly blame him for steering us wrong. Turns out a million tons of rotten meat smells an awful lot like zombies, especially from far enough away.

But it didn’t change the fact that we hadn’t actually found any. Not a single one. And that meant I was as good as a goner once we got back to town. If we ever got back. Who knew what I was gonna do now? Whether I could ever show my scrawny neck around home ever again without it landing straight on the chopping block? Or maybe outsiders would put us out of our misery before we ever saw home again. Probably put us through a whole lot more first, if all I’d heard was true.

But I guessed we’d figure out what our next move was somewhere else, where it was at least easier to breathe or something.

Suddenly, on the way out of the ruined town, Scratch stopped. No, more like he froze in his tracks. His head perked up. “Hear that?”

“Hear what? You’re hearing things.”

“No I’m not. Listen close.”

I listened close. And then I could hear it too. It sounded like someone crying. Like a baby or something.

But what would a baby be doing here of all places?

We followed the noise. It really did sound like the cry of a baby, or a kid. It was coming from a one-room lean made out of flimsy wooden walls and a dirt floor. No windows. Dark inside. I couldn’t see. Me and Scratch stepped in carefully. I was holding my spear at the ready. Scratch was ready to pounce.

When we saw what was in there, what was making the racket, our guards dropped a little. Not out of relief or a feeling of safety, but out of confusion. Total bewilderment at what we were witnessing. Nothing I had ever seen could have prepared me for what I was seeing. Nothing. It went against everything I knew about how the world worked. Same for Scratch, even though he’d lived five times what I had at least.

Inside the house was a little kid. A small thing, gray and thin and screeching bloody murder and clawing at its empty eyesockets with mangled hands.