Short Fiction - Acolyte

Benjamin Britworth

I smacked an elderly woman today, right before I slipped a blade between her ribs. I'm not proud of what I did, but I think she deserved it, especially considering the AK-47 she brandished at me. The gun wasn't loaded, oh no, otherwise it'd be my guts decorating the dirt instead of hers.
I think she intended to use the weapon as a bat to bludgeon my head in. My guess is that given the butt of the gun was rusty with blood I wouldn't have been her first kill. Today, it seems, just wasn't her lucky day.
It's funny. Looking down at the old bag, laying there with her blood leaking out like syrup, I came over all mopey. Her face was bliss and calm and sweetness beneath the wrinkles, and she looked like my Nan right before these troubles began. I didn't feel right leaving her there, all dead like, but what could I do, eh? So I backed off, thinking there was nothing to be done- then I had a tinker come to mind. I remembered what they used to do long ago: they used to bury people what died. Yer, I guess that dog wasn't exactly a loved one, but I weren't considering that, seeing as how I killed her.
I didn't know where to start on the burying job, not having a spade or anything. Neither did I much like the idea of trawling through the soil with my bare knuckles, what with the earth being solid as stones after the trembles and all. There was also the difficulty of the area itself: I was as exposed as one of those nutters what hugged the earth on day zero, and out of defensibles to boot. If I was attacked while doing my bit of digging I would've been master merely of my own hole, not the founder of another's. I had to be careful.
First thing first, I sent up a sentinel. It's a simple device made of pre-war phones and a couple of them hovermagigs, all strung together with solders and screws. It does its bit, and has got me out of scrapes before. The thermal camera picked up no hot spot for three miles: so far as I could tell I was alone. Weird, the old runt didn’t have nobody with her nor tracking her. Then again I travel alone, so why couldn’t she? I drew the sentinel back and stuffed it into my knapsack.
The second task I got down to was searching for a spade. I suppose the one good thing about these lands is the amount of junk tossed up by the bombs, and in no time at-all I'd found a flattened hunk of metal perfect for the task. I wrapped a torn piece of fabric round the end for grip and set about cutting a dusty trench in the soil.
The work was hard going as I cut away the top layer of detritus, but once I reached the under soil it became crumbly and easy to shift. A small pile of dirt accrued by the side of the pit, and soon I was a good three feet into my grave.
The hand I’d been digging with ached, and a blister popped up between my thumb and forefinger, but I didn't stop. 'Bury em deep,' my mother used to say, 'so they can't rise again.' I think she was talking about killing off the enemy, but it's a line that’s sat potent in my mind ever since. When you living in a world of the dead you see them grinning all the time. 'Dead' is just a past time, they're just waiting until your back is turned so they can stand up and strike. I struck four foot before I gave in. It’s more than most could hope for - a four foot grave is paradise. I stood upright, wiped a heavy sweat from my forehead and surveyed my work. It would do.
Paranoid, as I am, I sent the sentinel up again to be sure. No hot spots. Relief.
The hole wasn't exactly deep, but it was better than leaving the old gal to be gnawed by wolves. Again I wondered why I was doing this - why I felt compelled to follow ritual for somebody who had attempted to murder me? Maybe it was something in my regret for the sorry state of the world. I hate what's been left to us. Giving some dignity to even a little bit of it was the best I could hope for… Having said that, I don't bury everyone, in fact that old woman was the first I put beneath the earth. 
Don’t ask me why, I’ve got no reason, but all I can say is dragging her wrinkled, old body to the hole gave me some sense of well being, like I was doing good for a single second. With a heave I dropped her down. Her body crunched on impact and her head clicked back like some macabre doll. Her teeth, or what was left of them, were visible in her open mouth. A great chasm grinned up at me with blood and bile and disgust all settled and swaddled with love. She might've been saying 'thanks' in that look, but moreover she was probably asking 'Why and how we got so such a place as that?' and 'Why had it all turned so sour?' I didn't have the answer - not nobody left does.
I didn't bother laying her out, I didn't care that much, and besides I’d already spent more than enough time in one place. Instead I picked up the metal bar, wincing as it rubbed the blister, and scraped the earth back over her twisted form. In a minute she was covered, her pale face smothered by the everlasting. I didn't weep. I didn't check to make sure she was packed in tight. I just buried her as best I could, stabbed the metal bar into the ground like a marker and went on my way.
Thinking back, I'm glad I did it. There's so little warmth in this world that it seemed a necessary break from the cold. I wonder if anyone will stop to bury me?

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