There’s no such thing as civilized. Not anymore. Not since the fall.
Was there ever, though? Can a society ever really be civil when the deck is stacked so much in favor of the ones who deal the cards?
It was manageable for a while, this charade. They handed them enough to get by, but never more. Provided plenty of means to numb the pain and kill the clock.
But hunger of any kind breeds desperation; the soul demands something more than simply busy hands.
So when the bread dried up, they were left with only circuses. And even entertainment grows stale. Blinded to the real enemy by years of conditioning, the huddled masses turned on one another.
The powerful, having created the collapse, slipped away without a sound, their hands plunged deep into their pockets, holding tight to their treasure.
And from the safety of their towers, they watched the world devour itself.
Jules looked to the sky, the noonday sun vicious out in the open. Power lines, unused for decades now, still hung over head, held aloft by massive steel structures, their arms outstretched to the heavens. He walked beneath them, Vince in the lead. They’d be following the power lines for days now, hoping they would lead to the source.
This is what the map had instructed anyway.
Vince carries a shotgun and a backpack. Supplies for travel. Jules carries nothing. Just a burden of a different kind. His feet falter beneath him and he almost stumbles, catching himself.
“Wait,” he calls out. “Just wait.”
Vince keeps walking.
“Come on, man.”
Vince stops, sighs.
“We don’t have time.”
“I need a drink,” says Jules. “I…” he wipes the sweat from his brow. “I can’t keep going.”
Vince turns around, his voice harsh.
“There’s no time. They could be anywhere.”
He turns back and keeps walking, but Jules is still bent over, trying to catch his breath, trying to will saliva back into the his mouth. Vince tugs angrily and Jules staggers forward, almost falling again, the chain around his waist pressing against his raw skin.
Vince tugs again on his end and says angrily, “let’s move.”
“You want me to die?” Jules blurts out, desperation in his voice. “Cuz I don’t think you’ll outrun anything if you’re draggin’ around a fresh meal.”
Vince stops, considering the truth of the matter.
“Fine,” he says, turning and walking back to Jules. He pulls off his pack and gets out a canteen. He hands it to Jules.
“Make it quick,” he instructs, eyeballing the thin strips of forest on either side of them, the power lines cutting through the middle of a wide grove of trees.
Jules drinks, famished. He wipes his face as his breathing steadies, hydration returning to him.
Vince takes back the canteen and wipes the mouth of it with his shirt, takes a swig of his own. Looks around again.
“They’re out there,” he says, his voice grim.
“What?” says Jules.
Vince grows upset.
“This route is horseshit,” he growls. “We’re too exposed. Let me see the map.”
Jules doesn’t move right away, caught off guard by the sudden request.
“The fucking map, man!” yells Vince. “Gimme the map!”
Jules looks up at him a moment, bewildered by this terrified man, wondering how he ever found himself chained to someone so afraid. He sighs and straightens, pulling off his shirt and turning around in front of Vince. He crouches down as Vince approaches.
Vince removes a worn pair of glasses from a front pocket and places them on, then bends to inspect Jule’s back.
Tattooed there on Jule’s brown skin, the jet-black ink just visible in the sunlight, is a map. It’s large and ornate, full of strange symbols and markings, and it covers most of his upper left side.
As Jules sits, hunched, waiting for the man to find whatever it is he’s looking for now, he spots a piece of glass in the dirt by his feet. Vince, still studying the map, doesn’t notice Jules pick it up.
“Shit, man,” says Vince. “We’re going the right way. There’s no other option.”
He walks back over, back to his pack and his shotgun.
“Motherfucker,” he murmurs. “What do they want with us?”
Jules stands, pulling his shirt back over his head and into place, tucking the glass surreptitiously into his pocket.
“What do they always want, man,” he says, his voice resigned. “To eat.”
“Well why don’t they fucking come and get it then, huh?” shouts Vince, spinning towards the trees beyond, his arms spread. “Come on, you sons of bitches!”
But the world is quiet. There comes no response.
Vince shakes his head.
“Come on,” he says, throwing his pack on. “There’s a road up ahead about two miles. We’ll stop again then.”
“I’m tired, Vince.”
“I told you when we’d stop again, what more do you want from me?”
“No, Vince. I mean I’m tired of this.”
Vince turns, exasperated. Jules has the shard of glass to his own throat.
“Of this stupid, hungry world.”
Vince lifts the shotgun, pointing it at Jules.
“Drop it, J,” he orders.
Jules just laughs.
“Really, man? You’re gonna shoot me to stop me from killing myself.” His face grows serious then.
“We used to be friends, man,” Jules says. “We grew up together. Played ball together. Now look at us!” He rattles the chain between them, the metal chain padlocked to the both of them. “And you’ve got a gun to my head!”
Vince glances around at the woods, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead. They’ve stood still for too long, they’ve been shouting too much.
“Because you’re acting like an idiot!” says Vince in a harsh whisper, trying to remain calm. “Now put down the glass and let’s get out of here.”
But Jules just shakes his head.
“I’m the one with the map, Vince,” remarks Jules.
“And I’m the only one that can read it!” returns Vince, his voice harsh.
Jules finally explodes.
“So why does that put you in charge? Huh? I am. The only one. With the map. Without me, there’s nothing to read!”
“And without me,” Vince shouts back, “you wouldn’t know where to go!”
“Maybe not,” concedes Jules. “Or maybe I’d have found another way. My own way.”
Vince shakes his head.
“Not in this world,” he says. “Not now.” He points at Jules.
“We need each other.”
Jules just stares him down, and offers him a choice.
“If you really believe that,” he says, his voice calm. “Then let me go.”
Vince doesn’t say anything, stunned to silence by the weight of the request. He wipes the sweat from his brow before it can drip into his eyes. Jules tightens his grip on the glass.
“Let me go or else.”
Vince turns, walks away while shaking his head, runs a hand through his hair.
“I can’t do that,” he mutters.
“Just let me go.”
Vince spins back on Jules, boiling over with the truth of it all, the guilt.
“Because I don’t trust you!” he screams in the man’s face. “Okay? … I don’t trust you. I’ve seen too much. I’ve had…” Vince shakes his head again, his eyes to the ground..
“You wouldn’t understand,” he says quietly.
Jules is emptied, the air sucked from him. He wouldn’t understand?
Slowly, a look of pain and anger, mingled with resolution, creeps across his face.
“Oh, I understand,” says Jules.
And he starts towards Vince, the glass brandished in his fist.
“J, wait,” beg Vince, “don’t—“ he raising the rifle again. “Back up, man. Back up!”
Long, powerful strides carry Jules and bridge the gap. Vince looks for a moment like he’ll pull the trigger, but doesn’t. Jules is on him now, two grabbing him by the shirt collar, pulling him in. Vince drops the gun in surrender.
“Give me the key,” growls Jules.
“Gimme the key!” he demands again.
“I don’t have it,” Vince says quiet, his voice smaller than it’s ever sounded. He barely recognizes it coming from his own throat.
Jules is speechless, stunned.
“I don’t have it,” Vince admits again. “Quentin had it. I never had it.”
Jules’ hands fall away from Vince, his arms suddenly anchors, dragging him back to earth. He paces away, his eyes blank.
“I’m sorry, J,” says Vince, tears coming to his eyes. “I’m sorry, okay?”
Jules looks down at the shard of glass in his hand. It’s cut his fingers, the blood dancing on his brown skin, and he hadn’t even felt it until now.
“Well,” he begins, his voice low and sad, his heart heavy with the finality of it all. “I guess you’re just stuck with me then.”
And Jules plunges the glass into his own throat. Blood blossoms immediately from the gash, taking everything the man has ever known with it: memories of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal. He thinks of his son, dead now almost five years, seeing his brown eyes and quick smile, and hopes he will be with him again soon.
Vince watches in horror, almost unable to believe what he sees before his own eyes. He rushes to Jules as the man’s knees buckle and give way.
“No no no no no,” Vince pleads as he catches him. He grabs the wound in Jules’ neck, trying to hold it all in. But Jules’ eyes are already fading. Vince begins to cry, for his former comrade, dead in his arms; for himself and his guilt, his decisions, his short-sightedness.
“Come on, man, come on! What the fu—?”
A lonesome wail of a hunting horn sounds from the forest, the smell of blood now heavy in the air. Vince looks up, his eyes filled with terror. Another horn sounds from the opposite side, then a third a little south. Wild shouts burble up from the distance. The ground shakes with running feet, the war drums sound.
The hunting party, hungry and know their spoils are now at hand, makes their presence felt at last.
“Oh shit!” bellows Vince, standing and looking around. He sees the movement in the trees, the looming shapes coming forward, but has yet to see a face.
“Come on!” he cries to the body of Jules. He tries to drag him, but only manages to pull the sturdy man a little ways forward. Between the sobs and the fear and the exhaustion, Vince’s strength is gone. He collapses to knees, defeated; looks at his hands, red and dirty and cut from the chain. The chain he locked on Jules all those months ago.
The chain he locked to himself.
Alone, Vince looks to heaven. He prays to a god he longed stop believing in as the cannibal horde comes into the view. People, just like Vince and Jules, reduced by hopelessness to snarling, slobbering monsters. They’re sprinting towards their latest kill, clubs and blades and fists raised, filed teeth bared.
The cacophony of their howls, of their hunt, intensifies to a fever pitch.
The last sound Vince will ever hear.