He awoke with a start. His head throbbed and agony was laced through every inch of his body. Donald opened his eyes cautiously and blinked. The sun, its light obscured by haze, shone on him from a sheet of pale yellow. The glare hurt his eyes, and the pain in his head spiked. With an effort he sat up.
The shell of a gas station stood nearby, its windows shattered, its walls crumbling, looking as if it might fall over at any moment. Cracks and craters spread through the asphalt lot around it, and an old pick-up that belonged in a scrap yard sat near the toppled gas pumps. Amber dust coated everything.
He tested his arms and bent his neck. His limbs felt like they had been stretched much too far for far too long. His muscles cramped and ached, and his head was pounding steadily. Ignoring the pain, he carefully lifted himself to his feet.
Donald looked down and saw he had been sitting in a groove in the hardened dirt. A man-shaped groove, the earth in and around it scorched. He frowned, but the pain in his head wouldn’t let him even begin to wonder about it.
He swept his gaze over his surroundings. Aside from the gas station, there was nothing. Hills rose gently to the west, but otherwise the land was flat and bare.
Donald sighed. Gas station it was. He made his way towards it, his legs – each one feeling like a hundred pounds – protesting with each step. The soreness eased as he moved, and by the time he came to the truck, only a dull ache remained.
It was a Dodge. Up close, he realized it wasn’t old – at least, not by his standards. Patches of rust coated the sides, the tires were dilapidated heaps, and the windows were shattered. But the style was modern; Donald guessed it was no more than five or ten years old, yet it had fifty years of damage on it.
He ran a hand along the truck as he moved towards the station’s door. A sudden crackling noise filled the air and an icy tingling flared on his palm. He pulled it away with a cry and the feeling stopped. Frowning, he inspected his hand and, seeing no wound, leaned closer to the vehicle. The paint had crumbled and there was a shallow furrow where he had drawn his hand over the metal, but no explanation for the strange sensation. Must’ve just been the roughness of the corroded surface, he told himself, flexing his hand.
The interior of the station was like the aftermath of a tornado, one that had come through a hundred years earlier. Glass and debris littered the floor and counters. Shelves were tilted or toppled. An opening in the ceiling and a hole in the rear wall let sickly light in from outside. A musty odour filled the air and the amber dust had crept in to layer everything.
Donald stepped over a twisted magazine rack and wandered through the mess. He looked about for an old map or newspaper or even a magazine, something to give him an idea of where he was (and, though it was silly to consider, maybe when he was). There was only garbage. Donald picked through piles of it, throwing aside all manner of useless refuse. He found the remains of some newspapers, but the ink was too faded and the material too brittle to handle. One piece that had survived gave him a date, but it was only yesterday’s – Donald’s yesterday. Which, judging from his surroundings, was not this place’s yesterday.
Deciding he would learn nothing more from this place, Donald set about looking for supplies. His worst-case-scenario thinking was kicking in, and he realized it could be days before he found anything else to eat. There was almost nothing edible left in the gas station’s little store, but he did find a few intact cans. Using a polyester flag – the star-spangled banner, although last he knew, Donald had been above the 49th parallel – found in the debris, Donald rigged up a sling and filled it with the canned goods. He threw it over one shoulder and staggered back outside.
He was crossing the asphalt, heading north, when a noise from behind the building caught his ear. Donald flinched and spun around, but saw nothing. Grabbing a rusty tire iron from beside the Dodge, he crept along the side of the station.
The thing he found may have once been a dog or coyote, but no longer. It pulled itself feebly over the dirt towards him, hissing and letting out low, guttural barks. The creature had a long, twisted head, its snout drooping, and its body bent and lumpy, bulging severely on one side. All of the thing’s legs were gnarled and seemed barely able to hold it up; one had given out altogether and dragged along the ground. Flat ridges and plates, shining in the yellow sunlight, protruded all over its body.
As pitiful as it was, the abomination frightened Donald. As soon as his legs would let him, he turned and ran.
He guessed it had been about a mile before he slowed. Donald looked back and saw the gas station, a blur on the horizon. The abomination was nowhere to be seen. Even so, Donald only gave himself a few moments rest before he continued on, jogging north.
That evening he stopped in the remains of a small stand of trees, many miles from the gas station. As the sun set, the yellow of the sky turned to a vibrant orange, and the withered husks standing around him clawed at the last of the light.
Cursing himself for having completely forgotten a can opener, Donald scrabbled in the shadows. Finding a stone, he sat down against a fallen tree, prepared to cave-man the cans open. He pinned a can to the parched ground and struck it with the sharpest end of the stone. A dent appeared and the tin crumpled, and on the fourth hit he made an opening.
He sniffed: smelled okay. Canned tomatoes weren’t his favourite, but he didn’t have much choice. Prying the can open, he half-drank-half-scooped the contents into his mouth, finally bringing the can to his mouth to suck out whatever was left. As the tin grazed his lips, a strange feeling and an even stranger thought went through him. He held the can away and looked at it.
For some reason, he wanted to eat the can.
With a shudder, Donald tossed it away. Must just be hungry and over-tired, he thought. He grabbed another can.
Once opened, he sliced his finger on the sharp edge of the metal. Cursing, he put the digit in his mouth. The metallic taste of his own blood was like a switch, and the urge to eat the can became overwhelming. Donald drew it to his mouth and bit.
Hard enamel hit harder tin, and nothing happened but a soft ting. Donald held it between his teeth for several moments, startled and unsure of what to do. Why did he think he could chew metal? Putting it off to delirium, he decided it was time to try and get some sleep.
Before he could release his teeth’s hold on the can, however, an intense tingling flared to life in his gums. He closed his eyes tightly and let out an alarmed squawk. Crackling filled his ears, and as he opened his eyes he saw in the gloom of twilight a flickering blue light coming from his mouth. Then, through the tingling in his gums, he could feel the tin give way beneath his teeth. A piece broke off into his mouth and he swallowed instinctively.
As soon as they had appeared, the noise and glow from his mouth vanished. Startled, Donald tossed the remains of the can away into the dark. He clutched his chest, but the chunk of metal went down smoothly. No pain, nothing. The other cans he threw away into the trees, too. It was all the food he had, but he didn’t care. He was horrified.
Donald then laid down on the hard ground. It was a long time coming, but eventually he drifted into an uncomfortable and restless sleep.
The next morning, Donald continued his way north.
Days passed. Donald was tired, hungry, sore, and could barely move. He was sick.
He felt like he was dying.
Three days from the gas station, he came upon a small town. It was deserted and hadn’t survived the ravages of time well, but he scrounged up some food in a few of the houses. He was loathe to try any more canned food, but by then he was too hungry and ill to care. Squatting in one of the homes, this time using a can-opener found in a drawer, Donald ate. The urge to eat the cans rose, but he resisted it.
On his way outside, Donald stopped in the bathroom to check for any medication. There was none, but a mirror remained intact above the sink. Inspecting his sickly image in it, Donald saw that silver had crept over several of his teeth.
He broke the mirror and set out onto the road again.
He came to a weathered sedan sitting at the side of the road. The desire to eat it – to eat the car – overpowered him, and Donald’s charged bite took piece after piece of the metal bumper. Any part of his skin that touched the car crackled with tiny blue lightning bolts and absorbed the metal. Furrows and pits appeared in the metal under his flesh. He wept, but he couldn’t help himself. He was hungry.
After having his fill, he looked into the car for the first time and saw, huddled on the backseat, a skeleton. Filled with revulsion, Donald stumbled back and hurried on his way.
The next day found Donald on a farm. Nobody was there. He searched the house and found nothing.
Behind the house was a metal garage. On seeing it, Donald’s hunger spiked, and like a madman he lurched towards it. A ladder on the side let him climb to the roof, and Donald stripped naked and laid on the furrowed surface. His flesh crackled with blue fire. The slope was shallow, but in his desperate attempt to feed – to absorb – he rolled over the side. He realized only too late and could do nothing to save himself.
Donald fell, and a rusty tractor broke his fall. He felt pain and, once able to sit up, saw that he had several cuts and his leg was mutilated. Skin and muscle had been torn away, and bone showed. But the pain was minimal and there was little blood, considering.
And the bone shone. He picked at some of the deeper cuts on his arms, and saw that, as he pried them open, the bone beneath was silver, too. He had expected that. It only minimally lessened the shock, but, having had only one bowel movement in the past six days, at least now he knew where all that metal had been going.
He climbed to his feet. Testing his wrecked leg, Donald found it still worked well enough to walk. With a glance at the metal garage, he decided he was no longer hungry, and he left the farm.
His wounds began to fester and rot. The smell was awful, and Donald did what he could to cut away the rotten flesh.
His leg was almost entirely devoid of skin and muscle now, and it shocked him every time he looked down to see his skeletal leg. The wound ached on his thigh, where some living flesh remained, but below that he could feel nothing. The persistent pounding in his head had gotten worse and was almost unbearable. He was constantly fatigued and nauseous, and his consciousness continually threatened to leave him.
But he kept walking.
Two weeks from the gas station, the rot had spread to his groin and was creeping down the other leg and up the torso. Donald woke from one bout of unconsciousness to find his testicles and penis had crumbled away. He was more than a little horrified by this, but hardly surprised.
The cuts on his arms had eaten away more slowly than his leg, but still the flesh on his upper limbs and chest were in tatters. Like the decay on his lower body, these he had given up trying to clean – there was nothing he could do now.
Donald’s road came to a bridge, its ruin heaped in the dirty river below. Seeing no other options, Donald slowly climbed down the embankment. Near the bottom, his foot slipped and he stumbled. He caught himself before he fell too far, but the damage was already done: with a sickening sound, Donald’s gut ripped open. His flesh tore and his intestines spilled out. The remains of his intestines: a slimy, chunky stew. Instinctively he clutched his abdomen, but the stew oozed over his hands. The smell was absolutely terrible, and Donald was sure he would have thrown up had his stomach still been intact to do so. He let his insides spill out, and waded into the shallow water to wash away what remained.
A metallic skeleton from the waist down, shreds of flesh hanging from his bones, and his torso a cavern beneath his ribs, Donald struggled up the opposite bank of the shore and back to the road.
The following day, Donald lurched towards a rock beside the road and sat down heavily. His tailbone made a tink as it hit the stone.
He looked down the road. There was another town. He had seen no one yet, not a single living soul aside from the abominable dog at the gas station, and didn’t expect to find any at this place.
For some time Donald had been aware that his heart had stopped. He had realized days earlier that his breathing had ceased, and shortly thereafter so had his pulse. He couldn’t remember exactly when. It didn’t matter. All that did matter was that he could feel something shifting in his chest with each step and it bothered him.
Closing his eyes, Donald reached gingerly under his ribs. He was glad the sense of touch in his rotting flesh had been impaired, but it certainly wasn’t limited enough. He pushed through spongy substance, grimacing with every movement of his hand, and found it. His hand closed and he tugged lightly. It came easily and without pain. Moaning and weeping, his tears mostly dry, Donald pulled out his own heart.
He hesitantly opened his eyes and looked at it. A pathetic, pale, limp husk. Once his most important organ, now here in his hand, useless. He stared at it for a long time. When he saw that night was falling and orange fire had appeared in the west, Donald decided what he would do.
His heart he left on the stone, and he staggered as fast as he could to town.
A search of several homes and garages gave him all he needed. He hauled bottles and cans in a wheelbarrow to the biggest house he could find, and wasted no time in coating the floors and walls with their contents. He left one bottle filled between his feet, then picked up a match. It lit nicely on the first try.
Donald dropped it onto the puddle in front of him. Flame spread swiftly over the sheet of alcohol and gasoline. The wood of the house was dry and the fire ate it greedily, and within minutes the entire building was aflame. Donald picked up the bottle that remained at his feet, poured half of it over himself, then threw it to the floor. Flames engulfed him.
He revelled in the heat, welcomed it, feeling the remains of his flesh burning. Smoke rose, and he watched his skin bubble and crack. His nerves were dying and he felt almost no pain. He was sure it smelled awful, his rotten flesh burning, but whatever of his nose that hadn’t already decayed was now smouldering. Silence fell as his eardrums burst.
The house became an inferno. Flames crept across all surfaces and leapt through the air. Old wood splintered and cracked, floors buckled, walls fell, and the house began to crumple.
He didn’t want to die there. The house would collapse, and he would be buried beneath it. Flames had crept over his head, but his eyes were not yet ruined; Donald used what remained of his eyesight and stumbled through the blaze towards the door. Pieces of the floor above had fallen into the foyer, but he managed to crawl over them and stumble outside.
It was dark. Clouds obscured what remained of the sun and night had almost fallen. His body wreathed in flames, Donald staggered towards the street in front of the house. Chunks of flaming flesh and drips of blazing fat fell with each step. Fire swept into one eye and his vision went black on that side. Batting the fire away from his remaining eye, Donald tripped and fell to his knees on the pavement.
He realized then how difficult it was to move. The heat had been so extreme in the house that his metal skeleton had softened, and the evening air was hardening it. His joints were seizing swiftly. With great effort, he turned his head to the north and looked down the street.
At first, he ignored the faint glow on the horizon. But as it grew, and as the flickers of fire that remained on his scalp consumed the last of his vision, Donald realized too late what it was.
Donald twisted his neck one last time and stared vacantly up at the sky, as towards him along the street came a cluster of headlights.