Fiction: For We Walk

By James Dupree

How much longer? Thought the Herder as he rubbed sunscreen on his pale face, the last of his supply. One mass panic had caused sunscreen to fly off the shelves with people desperately lathering and spraying themselves down before they even left the store.
Cotton-mouthed and running on empty, the Herder reached for his insulated bota bag. Printed along the hard plastic side read: Don’t be a sucker. Keep your chin up and pucker! Lifting his chin, he pursed his lips against the horn-shaped feed tube. The last blood droplets wet his tongue. The metallic taste was only enough to tease his hunger, but God did it taste good! One bag could last him a hundred hours–just enough to reach the Iowa or Wisconsin border and survive the trip back.
Style was limited at the sunglass stand near the gas station entrance, mostly large and unflattering frames. He grabbed a pair styled in purple leopard print. Anything was better than his current pair; plain, cracked frame with one lens scratched to hell. He modeled them in front of the dusty vertical mirror on the stand. They masked the silver in his eyes. Maybe they would help add some character, make him more fun and approachable to potential flock.
Another pair sat on the counter. It belonged to another herder, and Ted’s smell was all over it–stale and woody, but with a hint of sweetness. Like cinnamon. Another Herder’s scent was meant to ease the sense of loneliness, yet somehow it only made the feeling worse.
The scent brought a rush of memories. That damn office mixer. Right before everything went to hell. He had stood with Ted off to the side of the crowd by the hors d'oeuvre table. “Isn’t she beautiful, Teddy?” he had asked, motioning to Evelyn, the gorgeous young blonde gripping the arm of their CEO, Jack Primos. 
“Get in real tight with Primos and you could probably snag a girl just like her. Speaking of, that new risk analyst.She’s real intense, but, bro, I’m into it.” said Ted. Hebalanced another big scoop of some over-priced hummus on a near-crumbling Ritz cracker. He mumbled under the noise of his crunching, “Dude, if I die, bury me in hummus. Seriously.”
“You gotta love the guy. Here we are, in our lame business causal bullshit, and he’s there in a black t-shirt and jeans. And he looks great! We keep making all these sales, then we’ll be able to dress down like that.”
“What do you think is causing people to get sick?”Ted said.
“I don’t know. Probably Global Warming or some bad fish or something. Nobody ever really knows how these things start. And hey, I wanted to say thanks for putting in a good word. Never would have gotten this job without it.”
Ted planted a comforting pat on his shoulder and said, “Anything for a fellow Sigma Phi.”
After Derek in Accounting double-dipped at the mixer, the Herder’s infinitesimal world sped into dystopia. His cubical walls expanded across state lines. In six month’s time, he had gone from somewhat successful salesperson with a salary, great benefits and a cushy, ergonomic chair, to glorified contract worker with sore feet and poor posture. No union or benefits. He made as much as he delivered, which recently hadn’t been a whole lot. At least I’m still employed. He thought.
With all the sudden promotions, demotions,reclassifications, company rebranding, and of course the end of the world, he had seen less and less of his shaggy, redheaded colleague. 
The Herder sighed and wrapped a scarf around his head covering all but his sunglasses. He was burning up in his pants, boots, long-sleeve shirt, jacket, and gloves. All regulation ivory white and all incredibly difficult to keep clean. The “fun” pastel colors marketing had originally designed sounded better by the day. But white was truer to Haven’s desired perception of “pure” and “welcoming.”
His flock of two scavenged the abandoned BBQ joint across the street. The Herder slipped through the broken automatic doors of the station and crossed the street to the restaurant. The two survivors, an older woman, late forties, and a ten-year old boy, dug through trash and scraps. He had traveled with them for less than 12 hours after discovering the two sleeping in a refrigerator lying on the floor of a dilapidated home. The fridge door had been propped open just enough to let air in. The woman had held the boy tight against her.
They embodied a strange paranoia: shaved heads (even their eyebrows) and masked faces. Their clothing was tight: athletic long-sleeve shirts and pant legs tucked into their tall military-style boots. The stench of homemade disinfectant settled deep in their pores.  
The flock took notice of him and finished their rummaging. He held open the door as they exited. “Find anything good?” he asked them.
“Just some old cans of beans,” said the boy. He pulled off the adult-sized yellow rubber gloves that practically covered his forearms. “Nice sunglasses.” His tone was ripe with sarcasm.
“Thanks,” said the Herder. He landed a stiff pat on the boy’s shoulder as he passed by, and incorrectly sensed that this was the perfect time for a sales pitch. “Once we’re at Haven, it’ll be like you never left home. Cooking just like Grammy’s!” 
“There’s nothing like my cooking,” said the woman as she passed by. She was short and intimidating and unconvinced of the promise of salvation. The world was drying up, and no fancy semi-organic nature-revitalization products were going to fix it. Not that Soma, the once successful brand of health and beauty products and his former employer, hadn’t tried. The Herder would break her eventually. She was along for the ride after all. Something was keeping her from immediately blowing his face off.
The cinnamon smell lingered in the breeze. The Herder quickly found himself straying from his usual route in order to track the scent. The flock traveled single file, the woman staying close behind the Herder with the kid in tow. The bottom of the Herder’s staff was sharpened and tapped against the pavement, the sound bouncing around the remnants of a decaying town. Much like his clothing, his staff was regulation, carefully crafted from a highly durable something or other. He hadn’t paid much attention during that part of the meeting due to being overwhelmed by the news that his position was being “reclassified.” No matter how much he was assured it wasn’t a demotion, it sure felt like one.
Blisters were beginning to form on his feet, causing a painful, yet manageable sting between his toes. The Herder slowed his pace to match the woman’s. “Sorry about the whole ‘Grammy’ thing,” he said softly. “I just assumed you were his mother.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said. “My daughter-in-law had him in her teens. Her husband chickened out long before things went to Hell. Just like his papi.”
“Where is she now? Sorry, that’s a terrible question.”
“It’s not terrible. Looking at our circumstances, where else can she be but dead.”
Her bluntness left him gasping.
“I’ve moved on. I got more important things to worry about now.” She glanced back at the boy.
“You know a place called, Plenty?” said the boy.
“Can’t say I do,” said the Herder.
“We heard of it from this woman that traveled with us for a time,” the boy’s grandmother added. “She spoke of this place up in the north west with green grass and blue water and all these other ridiculously amazing things. But she had heard it from a traveler who carried a pressed flower in his pocket. A rare flower too. Don’t remember the species but it was rare.”
“Sounds a little too good to be true,” said the Herder.
“Yes, but then, I could say the same about your ‘Haven.’”
“Fair. But you won’t have to worry. You’ll see it for yourself soon.”
“Yeah, that’s what the woman said… before she stole our food and left us for dead.”
Up ahead, a rat popped its head out of the shadows from a tight alley. Taking in the mid-afternoon sun, the rodent relished the scent of decay in the air. Emerging from the dark, a spindly arm of a sucker snatched up the rodent. The ghoulish thing chomped down on its prey like it was freshly buttered corn on the cob. 
The Herder’s mouth watered. He imagined the sensation of warm flesh hugging his gums and the sweet bodily juices slipping down his throat. Keep your chin up and pucker!
Frail bones crunched as the sucker’s crudely sharpened teeth dug deep and with little grace into the rat’s back, provoking a shrill squeal. It was efficient cannibalization–pests consuming pests.
Startled, the woman pointed her rifle at the sucker and pulled the boy back behind her. The Herder lifted his staff as a barrier. “Go around and stay silent,” he ordered his flock. And don’t mess this up. He ordered himself.
They obeyed, keeping their sights on the creature. As they passed, the kid tripped on a shallow pothole and scuffed the sole of his boot across the pavement. One of the sucker’s gnarled ears twitched, and with a jerk, the thingturned its attention to the flock. Its grip eased on the rat, and it fell limp with a wet thud.
The sucker’s pearl eyes gleamed from the shadows. The corrosive funk of sewer water came off its skin. Rising gradually from its crouched position, the ghoulish thing curled its thinning bloodstained lips. “Commme…” it hissed. Its boney fingers reached out, teasing the border between light and dark. 
“Let’s run,” said the woman.
“No,” said the Herder. “Keep moving, but slowly.” He could see the desperation in the creature. The sucker dipped its fingers into the light. Its grayish pale skin grew flushed, but it ignored the danger. Shoulders tensed, the sucker prepared to strike. It shot out from the shadows, passing the Herder. Before it could attack the others, the Herder hooked the sucker’s neck with the curved top of his staff. With a twist, he slung the ghoul backward, forcing it down onto the pavement. One thrust with the sharpened end of his staff to its cue-ball head and it was over. As it lay half in the light, exposed flesh gradually darkened and blistered. The flock turned away in disgust. He couldn’t blame them.With their backs turned, the Herder uncovered his nose and sniffed the body. It wasn’t Ted. He sighed in relief andcontinued forward, recited to himself, Don’t be a sucker. Keep your chin up and pucker.
The strip of sunlight that illuminated the road grew narrower. The woman quickened her pace to match the Herder’s. “How much farther are you taking us?”
“Another hour,” said the Herder. It was a rough estimate based more on a general awareness of his surroundings rather than expertise.
“I think we should find some place to stay the night.” 
“It’s really not that much farther.”
Her eyebrowless– and wide-eyed stare made it hard to tell what she was feeling. Was she angry? Worried?Probably both.
A roar shook his belly and the beast inside beat wildly. Feeling too weak to argue, he would let her have this one. Maybe it was for the better. As much as he hated it, it was safer to go hungry a little bit longer than risk losing the flock and his payment.
“How about that bar?” The woman pointed to the typical hole-in-the-wall establishment. “No windows and a thick door.”
“The perfect place to find suckers,” said the Herder.
“Fine. What do you recommend?”
Down the block nestled in the remaining sunset was a small church. Originally styled in the traditional sense, the church appeared to have been inflicted with more modern reconstruction. Old stonework was smoothed, and abstractly twisted and jutted out like some failed clay mold; something God forgot or lost inspiration with. “There.”
She groaned.
The entrance was marked with a heavy red door. The Herder wrenched it open and let his flock inside. As he closed the door behind him, suckers crept from their hiding places, sensing the gradual change in temperature. They emerged from the sewers and alleys and doors to dark abandoned places.
“There’s better spots to hide,” said the woman.
The Herder grabbed a large remote attached to the wall and pressed a button. Several UV spotlights snapped on around the perimeter of the church. “We have a select few churches hooked up to solar panels. This is the better place.”
“Still. Would have liked a drink or two.”
The flock looked to the pews for respite, but not before the woman shot a cloud of disinfectant at the old wooden seats. “Stay here. I’m going to look for some candles, and hopefully something more comfortable to sleep on.” Before leaving, she slipped the boy a pocketknife. It wasn’t subtle. But then again, the Herder assumed it wasn’t meant to be.
The kid watched as his grandmother disappearedbehind the altar and into the back room, before pulling down his mask and taking a deep breath. “So, this Haven place.” He flicked the blade out and then folded it back, and so on. “There’s other kids, right?”
A lump grew in the Herder’s throat. Children were separated from adults. The younger, the easier to manipulate, raising them to be obedient for blood farming. If they had a smile while being drained then it made the lab geeks more comfortable. “Plenty of kids around your age. You’ll get to spend a lot of time with them.”
The boy flicked the blade out again and stared into his own dull reflection in the steel. He studied the elongated, smooth bulge that was his brow and the spacing of his ears in relation to his head. “Are they nice? Do you think they’lllike me?”
“I have no reason to believe they wouldn’t. You seem like a good kid. I’m sure you’ll make a lot of friends,” the Herder said dryly. Hunger pains seized him. He’ll be fine. Safer in there than out here.
“Cool.” The boy nodded and the corners of his mouth tightened, trying to hold back a smile. Maybe he wanted to play it cool. Or maybe he didn’t want to get his hopes up.
The woman returned with a handful of candles, a couple small decorative pillows, and a white tablecloth. She placed them in the pew, next to her grandson, then took the tablecloth and threw it over the statue of Jesus near the altar. 
At dinner, the Herder watched as his flock fed themselves on beans by candlelight; expiration dates be damned. The sour scent wafted over and made him gag briefly. For once he was glad he didn’t need to rely on normal food. The flock was carful not to allow any beans to rest on their taste buds for too long. Their throats bulged with each swallow, and appeared particularly thick and warm in the light. Just underneath the skin, veins throbbed with a red glow; thumping like a chorus of wild drums. He repeated to himself. Don’t be a sucker. Keep your chin up and pucker. Don’t be a sucker. Keep your chin up and pucker. Mouth still hidden by his scarf, the Herder slithered the tip of his tongue along the soft plastic caps glued to his teeth–an insurance policy for potential asset ruination. 
“You want one?” the kid asked the Herder with a testing look about him, and motioned to the can of beans.  
The Herder snapped out of his trance, which caused him a mild dizziness. “All yours. I got some rations still. Think I’ll go up top and keep watch.”
He turned away, smothering the low rumble in his gut. That was too close. I’m losing it! I should’ve pushed them to keep walking. Take control. A slight tremble spread throughout his hands. His own hunger and anxiety were working together to screw him over. Screw him out of his payment. Screw him out of a job. Leave him scrounging the streets and hiding out in sewers. Nothing more than an animal waiting for dark.
At the entrance of the church was a staircase that led to the small balcony containing more pews. The place was trashed like a wild animal had gotten loose. The Herderplaced his staff and pack at the end of a pew positioned in front of a window that had been broken from the inside. He again uncovered his nose and sniffed the air. A sweet aroma was there, but too faint to know if it was Ted’s.
He plopped down on the pew and rested his head on one hand. The Herder removed his sunglasses to let his eyes revel in the gloom. Outside, the suckers started their nightly routines. Due to his normal daytime work ethic, he had never known what suckers were like when they had a full run of the place. They stretched their gangly limbs and publicly scratched unsavory parts of their bodies. Several children chased each other back and forth down the block–some running on all fours–and laughed a high-pitched inhuman laugh. 
He watched a female sucker creep into a clothing store to try on various hats. And down the block, another one had multiple cages packed with rats, squirming to escape. It set the cages up on the sidewalk and within seconds others lined up in front. They seemed to barter with whatever they could find, hats, sunglasses, small tools, and on the rare occasion, sunscreen. Anything that seemed useful was exchanged for rodents of varying sizes.
Something crumpled under his boot. He reached down and grabbed a flyer. He flattened it out and instantly recognized it as one given out to Herders. One side depicted a sucker creeping in the dark. The technique was amateurish, and the image unsettling, but for all the wrong reasons. Red lettering warned, THIS COULD BE YOU! He flipped the flyer over to reveal another illustration; one depicting a Herder, strong and confident, leading a flock of several dozen. It read, Stay Strong! Take comfort knowing you’re currently employed. The Herder balled up the flyer and tossed it in the corner, ruining a carefully constructed spider web. 
That morning, the Herder caught the sound of a sniffle and a quick “Amen” as he awoke from slumber. Someone was sitting beside him. The woman. He turned to her. She held her rifle tight, though she wasn’t pointing it at the Herder directly. She stared through the window, occasionally wiping away a small tear.
“For we walk by faith, not by sight,” she said softly. “I hated my ex after he left. After some time I bounced back. Then my son hurt a perfectly sweet girl, a girl I held as my own. I hated him too for a long time. I hated everyone that told me it was just bad luck or that I was a bad judge of character. Some days are harder than others, and I find myself being forced back into old habits. I won’t be able to protect him forever. I’ll slow him down eventually. All the food will expire. Not much grows anymore that’s worth eating. I can barely sleep at night knowing those things are out there.”
She turned to the Herder, suddenly aged through weariness and loss of hope. His heart beat wildly. She could see his face. He had fallen asleep before covering himself. “I wondered if you were one of them,” she said. “They say the eyes are the soul. I’ve never seen yours.” She gripped the rifle, slowly pointing it at his chest. “But I see them now. Was I wrong to trust you?”
Carefully, he sat up to give himself a better position when and if things turned bad. “Everything I said I meant. I can’t promise you’ll love everything about Haven, but it’s safe.”
Her finger danced around the trigger.
“We still have our humanity. You’ll have to give blood. But there are warm beds, shelter, and regular meals. I can’t swear that it will be anything like your cooking, but it’s probably better than expired beans.”
The woman let out a chuckle. She seemed almost as surprised as he was that something in this world could make her laugh. She took one last look out the window. The morning sun was peeking out from behind the city skyline. “Better get covered up,” she said. “Can’t have you getting crispy.”
“Will you tell your grandson?” he asked as she started for the stairs. “About me? About what I am?”
“I think he already knows.” She nodded to the boy peeking over the railing at the top of the stairs. He stared in wonder and alarm, like he witnessed some circus clown rip off his face and unveil the lion beneath. He was right to be worried. Hunger pains bellowed from the Herder’s gut.
The flock descended the stairs, and the Herder exhaled deep and slouched back in his seat. If it weren’t for his sickness, he would have sworn he was sweating. Orange light slipped over the lower half of his body. The warmth seeped through his pants and coated his legs. He removed one of his gloves and placed his hand in the sunlight. The flesh grew red and sizzled like raw fat. Clenching his teeth didn’t mitigate the pain, nor did he want it to. He came too close. They were counting on him. The skin darkened and he slipped his glove back on. Today is a new day. He thought. I’m gonna get my flock to Haven and get paid.
The suckers had slunk back into the city depths to retire, leaving the streets silent. Their snores came from the supports of the bridge as the group continued southwest over the Mississippi river. 
“Do you hate garlic?” asked the boy.
“I was never crazy about it, but in small amounts it was fine,” said the Herder. “It’s good for blood pressure.”  
“If I stabbed you in the heart with a wooden stake would it kill you?”
“If you stab me with anything in the heart it will kill me. Please don’t stab me.”
“Depends on if you’re lying about Haven.” 
“Ay!” The woman gave the boy a quick smack on the back of the head. “Sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize, really. You’ll see soon enough. In fact, you can see Haven from here.” He pointed with his staff to the building in the distance. Surrounded by dark pillars stood a piercing obelisk. The Herder’s eyes watered behind his sunglasses. His flock shielded their eyes.
“That’s Haven,” said the Herder. “Just like I told you. Fifty stories covered in mirrored glass. And near the top, are large solar panels attached to the roof and around the southwest side of the building. Helps power the lights, in-door hydroponic system, and even the air conditioning.”
“I forgot what AC feels like,” said the boy.
“Looks promising,” said the woman. A pinch of uncertainty lingered.
As they continued, the sun hung above waning towers of glass and metal in Downtown West Minneapolis. A breeze howled through the depths of the urban canyon.
Up ahead, pieces of white something littered the street that led to a thin trailing of smoke. Using his staff, the Herder swept up one of the white pieces and discovered it to be a glove. He hurried forward and passed more shedded parts of a uniform and stopped at the origin of the smoke; a figure on their knees. Dead black flesh crusted over the body like a fungus, except for a shaggy patch of red hair; an ember in a dying fire. Under the stench of death was the unmistakable scent of Ted. The Herder’s stomach dropped, though it was a mere prick to the ever-increasing turmoil within him. No sign of a flock, yet he was so close to Haven. He must have given up. Made his way back. Maybe even bargained with Haven to let him in. To give him enough of something to keep him going. The likelihood of that happening was slim to none. Haven didn’t give handouts. You earn what you deliver. 
“Sorry about your friend,” said the boy, holding a dusty white jacket and noticing its similarities with the Herder’s uniform.
“Thanks,” said the Herder and covered Ted with the discarded jacket.
Charred corpses of suckers littered the streets outside the imposing walls surrounding Haven. A remnant of the guards’ nightly boredom. From atop the gate and under the shade of a large patio umbrella, the Herder could see a pair of boots crossed over one another and the faint sound of snoring. The Herder whistled and waited a moment for a response. 
He saw an empty can by his feet and picked it up and tossed it as close to the guard as he could. Disappearing over the wall, there was a thump against something soft then a clink as the can hit the ground. The snoring abruptly stopped and a head peered over the edge of the wall. The Herder waved. 
“Just a sec,” said the guard.
The black iron doors slid open with a long-winded screech. A second guard came from an enclosed booth as the first came down the stairs. Both shrouded in white. Their faces were hidden under hoods and behind scarves and eyewear. Neither of them smelled all that familiar to the Herder, though he never had grown particularly close to security. He found their usual brashness unappealing.
Evelyn emerged through the revolving door at Haven’s entrance. She greeted every new flock. Once the secretary for Soma Pharmaceuticals’ CEO, her charm made her a perfect fit for her new position. The brim of her sun hat stylishly flopped over most of her face. Round-mirrored sunglasses hid her eyes while accentuating her slender nose and sharp cheekbones. An off-white long-sleeved sundress flowed over her body along with a red scarf that caped her shoulders. The little skin that was exposed was dark, clearly an avid user of the sunscreen-bronzer combo. “Hiii!” she said, joyfully waving with both hands. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” Her fashionable heeled boots tapped along the pavement as she approached. 
Evelyn attempted to wrap her arms around the flock. The woman was quick to grip her weapon in response, as were the guards in response to her.
“Right.” Evelyn stopped. “Well, it’s great to see new faces. I’m sure you’re tired and anxious to see all of the wonderful amenities Haven provides their guests.” Evelyn cupped her hands together. “Unfortunately we don’t allow weapons on the premises at this time.” She continued, gesturing her hands in a dainty but sympathetic manner. “I know, I know, trust me. New place. New people. Gets your nerves running, right? But don’t worry; it’s just a formality. Nothing to be scared of here. We don’t bite… but our needles might!” She let out a half snort as she playfully smacked one of the guard’s chests with the back of her hand. “I kid, I kid. Well, if you would please proceed with our wonderful guard, he’ll give you a quick looksee and then I’ll lead you inside.” 
Hesitant, the flock followed the guard to the booth where he took their weapons and gave them each a through pat down. 
Evelyn approached the Herder and leaned in close. “Just the two?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah. It’s getting scarce out there. Don’t really have the resources to travel further out. If I could get just a bit more in my payments I think I could-”
“I hear you. I really do.” Her voice was sweet and warm going in. She gently caressed his upper arm. Soft and comforting. Peeking out above her sunglasses, her pupils looked like two mini eclipses with bright silver light bursting out from behind each. Her smile curled on one side before glancing back at the flock. “You know Greg brought in a family of six this morning. From a whole state over too. You should have seen the birthing hips on one.” She surveyed the woman. “She seems older. Also, last time I checked, purple leopard print sunglasses weren’t standard regulation. I’ll give you a pass because I like your style, but management won’t go so easy on you. Think about putting in an order request form for a new pair when you get the chance.” Evelyn patted the other guard on the shoulder. “Pay the man,” she said before leaving.
The Herder thought about Ted’s sun-scorched corpse. It left a pit in his already bottomless stomach, and yet he felt compelled to say nothing.
The guard threw the Herder an insulated bag, no different from a lunch box. The Herder unzipped it and pulled out a travel-sized tube of sunscreen. “SPF 30,” he read aloud.
“Upper management said to cut back,” said the guard. “Resources are getting low. You know, I remember hearing that anything over SPF 50 isn’t that much better so…” He shrugged.
The Herder sighed and placed the sunscreen in his jacket pocket. It’s better than nothing. He went back to the bag and was surprised to find a small white bottle. He shook the bottle causing a light rattle. There should have been two ration bags. Two humans, two bags. “What is this?”
“Ration capsules. Blood mixed with a bunch of other nutrients. Don’t ask me what. It’s above my pay grade. The geeks upstairs said it’s just as good as the bags.”
“Is it?”
He shrugged again. “They still got us on the bags.”
Evelyn walked the flock inside. The Herder had never asked them their names, and they never gave them. Names only made things harder. He could let every face he walked through those gates fade; blend together. The woman gave the Herder a questioning glance. The same glance he was given by every human. With each step they must have asked themselves if they were making a mistake. Would they have been better off on their own? Or was it safer to put their lives in the hands of Haven? However they felt, whatever their conclusion was once they disappeared through those doors, the Herder would never know. He only entered Haven out of necessity rather than desire; wanting to keep whatever truths he may learn to a minimum. He stuck to what he knew: weekly mandatory blood drawings, shelter, beds, and regular meals. The Herder had kept his promise.
The Herder tossed back the insulated bag to the guard and turned and left. The gate screeched close like a dying animal and he wondered if Ted had made a similar sound in his final moments. Did he release all his torment in one visceral plea? Or was he calm? Did he take pleasure in it, knowing it would all be over? He returned to Ted’s body and contemplated what to do with him. It felt wrong to leave him. Returning herders would lay witness to the smoldering corpse of their coworker. Would he be taken as a warning to work harder? Or would his sacrifice turn to martyrdom? A symbol for what is wrong and what needs to change.
Across the street was a Mediterranean café, a favorite lunch spot of Ted’s from before. The Herder entered the café through the long-busted glass of the door. It was dark inside with only a little light coming through the row of front-facing windows. Most of the tables and chairs were stacked in one corner. One set remained out.
He put his feet up on the metal chair opposite of himand pulled down the scarf from over his mouth and took a deep breath. Why would they change his payment? Maybe they had enough humans? Maybe this was their way of slowly easing out the need for Herders? Just when he thought he had some semblance of job security, now this? Maybe he could get transferred to guard duty?
There wasn’t much in the way of information on the pill bottle. “Take only one capsule per twenty-four hourperiod,” he read, and then skimmed the surprisingly long list of side effects. “Upset stomach, possible skin irritation, heartburn, faintness…” He gently squeezed one of the large maroon pills between his thumb and forefinger and rested the capsule on his tongue and swallowed. Quick and easy. Like anyone, he was usually a fan of quick and easy, but he missed the taste. 
The blood bags were always cold to his tongue and lubricating for his throat. It wasn’t just nourishing but refreshing. He thought about how he may never experience that feeling again. Would he always remember it? Would he miss it more and more with each passing day? Would he become desperate for it? How long before he was scrounging or bartering for rats? How long before he was immolated and on his knees? How much longer? Thought the Herder.
He looked back at what was left of Ted peeking from under the jacket. He left the café and pulled the jacket off of the charred remains of his friend. Ted hadn’t been one for lighting fires, but this seemed different. Maybe he wanted his voice to be heard? Well, bud, I hear you loud and clear.
It was Ted. No doubt about it. She could still smell the faux cinnamon of his cheap cologne under the acrid scent of burned flesh. A sweet leathery aroma she could almost taste. For two days she had tried to get his smell out of her clothes after their one-nighter in the supply closet during the office mixer all that time ago. But there was the smell of another herder. One she recognized but could never remember his name. A friend of Ted’s. A least back in the day.
“One of yours?” said her flock of one. He was aged, but not like a fine wine. Not in any manner that would get her more pay. He had a whole two feet over her, but desperation had made him easy to tame.
“Come,” the herder said and tugged on the length of rope that bound the man’s hands. Normally, she wouldn’t use such harsh methods, but the knowledge that there was a woman buried under all that white was enough for the guyto get a little handsy. 
They passed the crispy bodies of suckers glued to the pavement like worms on a hot summer day. They stopped in front of Haven’s gate. It was open, which struck the herder as odd, as the guards had never been that proactiveor hospitable. They also weren’t usually dead.
“I thought you said this place was safe?” her flock said.
“It is. Now, shut it.” The last thing she needed was her meal ticket getting jumpy. The entrance to Haven was sealed and she could detect the faint sound of an alarm inside. She bent down to examine the body of one of the guards. He lay sprawled by the railing to the stairs. Several shallow lacerations along his left thigh and midsection. But it wasn’t what did him in. The gunshot through his right eye, now a messy hole of blood and plastic shrapnel from his sunglasses, had taken care of that. The other guard sat slumped against the booth near the building’s entrance. His head bent in a way it shouldn’t have. A white staff, much like her own, lay broken in half by the guard’s feet. 
She uncovered her nose. The smell of gun powder still lingered. And that other herder’s smell. He had been hererecently. And a woman, older. A young boy too. Following her nose, she could tell they had gone west. No, north west. What the hell was north west? Nothing, she imagined. So why had a herder killed the guards– and maybe more inside– and taken two normies with him. Were they hostages? Maybe he had gotten too attached. Why use blood packs when you got an entire blood bank with you.She had thought about it before. Looking at her current flock, she subtlety tongued the plastic caps on her teeth. 
Five years’ experience of risk analysis convinced her that that was a bad idea. But how long could she keep this up? Especially with the current state of her employer. She had heard rumors from her connection in the lab of a transition away from blood packs. If they had enough breeders, then they wouldn’t need more normies either. What would stop them from transitioning away from herders? All that work and dedication and ass kissing going right down the shitter.
The sun was getting lower. Odds were, Haven was in no shape to open up at the moment. She would need to find a place to crash before dark. Maybe she could double back to the church before then. But her supply was running low, and her self-control could only last for so long on an empty stomach. She would have to make it work. She would find a way. But it wouldn’t stop that nagging question from running through her mind. How much longer? thought the Herder.

James Dupree is a writer/editor from Chapel Hill, NC. He has published work with Defenestration, Clover+Bee, and Bewildering Stories.


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