art by Jonathan Westbrook
A Wizard of the Roads
by Therese Arkenberg
He was more and more a wizard each day now. He even had a staff, tall as he was, that he had found where the tracks wound through the trees a few days back. The pale wood had strange symbols in it, like the magic wand he found in his backyard once Before. Dad had said the symbols weren't carved, just the chewed tracks of bark beetles, but that was because Dad hadn't believed in magic.
The wizard knew it was real.
The road was falling apart, too bumpy to walk on anymore, so he'd taken the railroad tracks instead. On and on they went, without the curves of the blacktop, and the telephone poles marched alongside them. The wires hanging from the poles were empty, and so were the wires leading to the dark lights in the towns, or to the TVs and fridges and stuff in people's homes. He felt their emptiness. Empty, empty, empty.
Maybe that was why all the people were gone.
He didn't mind. He liked being alone, playing by himself. He was a little hungry, but lots of people had left their doors open, or if they hadn't, there were always windows that could be opened with rocks. He always knew when houses had cupboards full of food, just like he knew the wires were empty.
Because he was a wizard.
He walked along the train tracks, swinging his wand, and fat ravens gathered on the empty wires to watch him.
Jenna had never spent a night outdoors until the world ended. She still wasn't used to it, and her inexperience showed.
Unfortunate but ready example: the tent she pitched the night before had collapsed just as Aaron and Becca enjoyed some private time inside. From their looks, neither of them had forgiven her for it yet, and neither had Royce. Royce wasn't in the collapsing tent, but he'd come out of his own to help uncover Aaron and Becca from the ruins. He was too stoic for Jenna to imagine the exertion bothering him much; he was probably unhappy with her because it was the leader's job to be unhappy with incompetence.
She really was sorry.
"Why can't we just sleep in houses?" she asked. "It's not as if enough of them aren't abandoned."
Because she was trailing behind the main group she hadn't expected any of them to hear her, but Royce looked over his shoulder and said, "There are things in houses."
He had ears like a hawk, or maybe that guy from Poe who heard the telltale heart. Part of why he was the leader.
"Right," Jenna said, regretting the burst of combined ill temper and wishful thinking that had prompted the question. "I know. Sorry."
He turned back--hadn't missed a step on the uneven railroad ties even while glaring at her--and kept walking.
Then they left her in peace, which was really the kindest thing under the circumstances. Shame was the most efficient punishment, but like baking soda on a stain it should be left to soak in on its own before scrubbing. She didn't doubt Royce, or maybe Gloria, would get at her with a scrub brush soon enough.
God, if He was still in the office and not using up His sick days during the end of the world, continued to work as mysteriously as He always did. Because she was trailing behind, Jenna saw the boy first as he climbed up the rocky embankment to the tracks, and because she was numb with persisting embarrassment, she didn't yelp or run towards him or any of the myriad things that would have frightened him away.
She did stop walking, and by his leader's sixth sense Royce realized that and also stopped; then Gloria, Aaron, Jimmy, and Becca were all standing there on the tracks, staring at the kid.
He, for his part, had eyes only for Jenna. Big blue eyes, or maybe green. His white face was covered in a red spider web of scratches and the backs of his hands were no better. He looked a little tall for his age, Jenna thought--and then she realized she couldn't tell his age. He was older than seven, and younger than thirteen; his ash blond hair was long in a way that made him look more mature, and he held a long, thick stick in his hand like a toy.
"Hi," Jenna said, very softly. Even then she was afraid she might frighten him off.
"Hi." He blinked. She realized it was the first time she had seen him do that, after staring for a good twenty seconds.
"I'm Jenna," she said. "Who're you? Where're you from?"
"I'm Will." She saw his hand tighten on the stick. "I'm a wizard."