Rage. Tunnel vision like a darkened corridor, worming through his subconscious, searching fervently for light. Devoid. Terrified. The rage chased him through the maze inside of his mind, looking to overcome him once again. There had to be more, there once was more, but the names, the faces, the language was drifting in an ethereal plane just out of reach. Only the darkness existed.
Written in neon ink on the smooth stone surface of the wall, invisible when the lights were on, but visible only in the dark. Only to him. To him. Him. He had a name; he had a face and a voice and a family and existed. Existed beyond the endless race through the maze, away from it, from what he had become. Rage. A double occupancy that ate away at his consciousness.
The word was splashed on the wall, bend after bend. “Remember.” But remember what? There was only darkness now. Blind stumbling and fumbling, hoping to remember. But why? Who? Remember. Remember. Remember.
The name came on in waves, like a low, throbbing pain. A scar, leftover from a past injury. A sunset from days long past that once meant so much, but was now just a facsimile of what it once was. Demoreo. Demoreo wasn’t there anymore, but Demoreo once was. Demoreo. That was his name, wasn’t it? His name. Remember it. The woman told him to remember; she wrote it all down, wrote it all down to remember. He must remember, he must fight the darkness and the rage.
Demoreo. That was his name. He was Demoreo.
* * *
“Dad,” the voice echoed through his halls, bouncing from room-to-room and into his mind. “Dad! You gotta get up!” His eyes darted open, the sun-bleached everything in sight, his mouth was dried up and the words could form but barely escape.
“T-Tyler,” he reached out for his son’s hand; it was warm, clammy to the touch compared to his. There was a wound festering on his leg. The maggots had already set up shop, and the stench of death had followed them throughout the wasteland. “Let me go,” he mumbled. “Just go.”
“We can’t leave you, not yet,” he was a good boy, older than he had any right to be, that the world had any right to expect of him. He should’ve been worried about starting high school. Instead, he was dragging his father towards an oasis in the middle of a destroyed city while Shar followed. “It’s so close now, just look,” the boy held Demoreo’s head up, the gaudy “BRANCH” sign in bold, red letters sat atop the last standing monument to Las Vegas.
“Go on without me, you gotta,” he said.
“Yes, you can. We’ve come so far, just a little further.”
“Not without you.”
“Shar, please,” Demoreo called out to his wife. She had suffered enough trauma that she had more-or-less shut down. Just like the dead they had encountered, she was a husk of a person.
“I don’t know,” she mumbled.
“Just think of Marie, Shar. Please, we’ve come this far. I know we lost our baby, but Tyler needs you. We’ve come so far.”
“What does it matter, anyway?” She asked, not expecting an answer. “We’re all doomed.”
“Tyler,” Demoreo reached out for his son’s face, Tyler grabbing a hold of his hand in his own. “Just please, get your ma to safety, get her to the tower. You’ll be safe there, I just know it.”
“We’re a family,” Tyler said. “Didn’t you say that? Isn’t that why we’re here? We’re a family.”
With a mighty push of all of his collected strength, Demoreo sat up, pushing back against the remnants of a roadside barrier that was propping him up. The skeletal remains of the Las Vegas highway system hung overhead, pylons without roads to support reaching out to the sky, twisted and bent like a withered, dying tree. Fallen ash had all blended together with the crumbled rock and steel from the buildings to create a solid sheen of grit beneath them. Blood soaked through the dressing on his leg, it being more ornamental than functional.
As much as it pained him to admit, he was dying. The sun beat down on them from above unobstructed, but he felt a chill coursing through his body. Each breath took tremendous effort, taking more and more out of him. Tyler’s eyes were red and swollen, tears stained his cheeks, and his shirt was barely holding onto his body. He was a sturdy boy; he had done well, but he couldn’t forget about Marie and that dumb mistake of letting her go into that old pawn shop to look around on her own. Fuck anyone who said the undead weren’t motherfuckers, because they tore into his baby and he had to finish it before she turned. He had to look her in those big, brown eyes, hair matted to her forehead while she begged him to not let her become a monster.
“Dad? Dad?” The boy shook him, tearing him from his reverie.
“Ya,” he said, fighting to remain conscious, “I’m here.”
“We gotta go. It’s getting dark, and it’s just a ways down the road, see?” He pointed.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Ma ain’t gonna make it without us, dad…”
“I know,” he said, trying to pull himself up and stumbling. “I know.”
“Here,” Tyler pulled Demoreo’s arm up and wrapped it over his shoulder. He was still just a boy, but he was strong, strong enough to make it in that hellscape and strong enough to remind Demoreo to keep pushing. But this wasn’t what he wanted for him, not by a longshot. Tyler was an artist. He was a sensitive boy who cared little for sports like his old man did. But he was strong. With a heft he made it to his feet, leaning on Tyler’s lythe frame. “C’mon, ma.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, following while Demoreo limped alongside his son.
The wound was from one of those zombies; it had ambushed them when they were crossing the Hoover Dam, catching him by surprise and latching onto his thigh. Fucker took a huge chunk outta him, too. It bled like a bastard. Tyler told him he was lucky it didn’t hit some sort of artery nearby, but it still bled. Shar had worked at an old folks’ home back in Flagstaff, so she was able to wrap him up and dress it, but it wasn’t like they had much to work with. Infection came swift and hard, spreading like wildfire. He didn’t like to look at it much and the pain was a constant, so it wasn’t like he’d ever forget.
They were making their way down South Las Vegas Blvd, known as “The Strip” in a time before the fall, lined with overbearing edifices that were the casino resorts the city was known for. Now it all had been demolished, smoothed over by the blast, the fall, the ash and the winds. The street bore a closer resemblance to a barren desert, with the occasional hunk of man-made splendor fighting its way through the desolation. Branch Tower beamed out through the hazy dusk sky, a lone beacon calling to them on the horizon.
“Sure looks weird,” Tyler commented, “just sitting there like nothing happened and all.”
“Sure does,” Demoreo groaned.
“You think we’ll be okay there?”
“I dunno,” he said, “but we gotta hope, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Who was this guy again? Some sort of scientist?”
“The guy,” Demoreo said while they trudged forward, doing his best to push forward through the pain.
“He’s the guy who fucked it all up,” Shar interjected. “Some big, fancy white asshole that felt that he knew better. Well, he knew better, alright.”
“Oh,” Tyler fell silent.
Jordan Branch felt like an illusion more than anything else, a character from a TV show that had nothing to do with the Johnson family down in Arizona. There were stories—a lot of them—about whatever role he may have played, but out in the wasteland he was a legend, working on a cure for the undead in his tower that survived the fall of society. It had all sounded too good to be true, yet there it was, closer with each pained step.
“We’re almost there,” Demoreo broke the silence with. He needed to remain strong, to keep pushing forward. They just had to make it to the building, then he could rest, then he’d know that his family was safe.
“Where ya headed?” Tyler dropped his father at the sound of a voice, Demoreo craning his neck to see an older man emerge from the rubble of a broken down building, the bottom floor looking partially intact. His skin was pallid and devoid of any color, while his skin looking like someone had peeled it off, dried out in the sun and then stretched over a pile of bones. The old man was eyeballing them, either amazed to see another set of living beings or that he had seen no one of color in years.
“To Branch Tower, sir,” Tyler responded, clearly scared.
“Branch Tower, eh?” The old man approached, Demoreo summoning what little of his strength remained to reach for the shotgun that was slung over his shoulder. “Just a short ways now for ya, then.”
“That yer dad there?”
“Looks mighty hurt. Ya think he’ll even make it that far?”
“I’ll… I’ll make it,” Demoreo groaned.
“Strong one, this one. You got yourself a strong pa, boy.”
Demoreo’s hand was on the gun, but it felt heavy, just like everything else around him was. Tyler was keeping him up and keeping it together. That boy was gonna be something someday.
“Ya think that Branch’ll care for ‘em? Lookit us, just poor lepers left out here to rot in the wasteland while he’s up there sipping brandy and fuckin’ whores—no offense, m’am,” he looked at Shar and licked his lips.
“We’ve really gotta be going,” Tyler said, reaching down for his father’s arm and hoisting him back up.
“I see, I see.” The man’s beady eyes were burning a hole through them. “Boy,” he reached out and tugged on Tyler’s shoulder, the boy jerking to the side and Demoreo falling to the ground in a heap. “I’m trying to help you, here.”
“We don’t need your help.”
“But you do! Your father will be torn limb-from-limb by Branch’s sentinels. Don’t you s’pose if Branch took any ole’ wastelander we’d be up there, sippin’ martinis and fucking broads dry? Not out here, not in the forsaken wastes scavenging for every scrap of food? Don’t be a fool, boy.”
“The boy says we’re good,” Demoreo said.
“Aren’t you the brave one, old man? Your boy, your woman and you, all headin’ for the green grass of Branch Tower. Gonna frolick in dem irradiated hills, too? It’s all a fuckin’ lie.”
“Just let us go,” Demoreo summoned the strength to raise the gun towards the man, who recoiled before a wry smile unfolded across his pale skin.
“So brave,” he said, “so tough.”
“Dad…” Tyler leaned in to pick him up, Demoreo swatting him away.
“Tyler, I’ve got this.”
“Dad, no, let’s just go…”
“Your boy is quite brave as well,” the man said, “but he’s wrong. You can’t go. I was giving you a chance before, a chance to join us, but now…”
“You back the fuck off!” Demoreo shouted, finger trembling by the trigger while he could hardly hold himself up.
“Oh come now, you can barely keep yourself up, big poppa,” he said, approaching with his hand extended. “Your boy has seen enough horrors, hasn’t he?”
“Just leave us be and nobody gets hurt,” Demoreo said, trying to control his breathing.
“You don’t have the—“
Boom. The shell shredded his skull, sending blood and gore flying, splattering all over Demoreo and Tyler, who stood in shock while the body fell to the ground in a pool of blood. Tyler fell to his knees, aghast in horror. Demoreo had killed before, but Tyler had never had to see it. He had always helped his mom away before anything happened, but this time was different. There wasn’t a choice.
“Tyler,” he said, hands trembling from the shot and ears ringing, looking at his awestruck son. “Son, please, get your mom and let’s get out of here.”
The boy stayed there, frozen in place, while the body twitched on the ground.
“Tyler!” he shouted. “There might be more, c’mon.”
Tyler was reaching down for him, but Demoreo knew he couldn’t keep going and that he’d just drag them both down. Imagine that, just steps away from salvation, from the tower, then Demoreo Johnson goes and ruins the whole damned thing by being a goddamned bump on a log. Demoreo brushed his son’s hand away, Tyler reaching again and Demoreo slapping it away with whatever might he had left.
“I told you to leave me, now leave me, damnit!” The tears were blurring his vision beyond what it already was, his glasses lost on one of their first days out in the wastes; dropped, smashed, forgotten.
“No, daddy, please,” the boy plead, “We need you.”
“Goddamnit, Tyler,” Demoreo tried to prop himself up against a chunk of concrete from a fallen building, but he slipped and was on his back again. “Just go, now,” his words were slurring, the world dimming.
“He don’t look so good,” Shar muttered, “c’mon, boy, let your father rest. We’ll find help, okay, sweetie?” Her words were meant to be comforting, but the tone of her voice was that of resignation. She knew, he thought, of course she knew this was it.
“We can’t!” He pulled away from her. “We can’t just leave him to die! Not after all of this!”
The boy’s hands were on him again, Demoreo doing his best to sweep the boy away, but he was strong, stronger than whatever was left inside of Demoreo. That boy would make something of himself yet, even in this fucked up world, he’d be something. Of all the things that could be final thoughts, that one was a soothing one; Tyler would be alright, he’d survive.
“Dad, c’mon,” the boy shook him again, Demoreo summoning every ounce of strength and pulling the shotgun up and pointing it at Shar.
“Go now, boy, don’t make me do it.”
Tyler froze in place, his body trembling. Demoreo could feel the boy’s heart break, but there would always be more. Shotgun blasts weren’t subtle, and dragging him along was just a liability. They needed to get the hell outta there, and fast. He had gotten them this far.
“I got you this far, just go, finish it.”
“I can’t, I…”
“Go,” he pointed the gun at his son, his heart breaking into a million pieces. His last memory wouldn’t be of his sturdy son moving out to save himself and his mother, but the look on his face at his father pointing a gun at him.
“C’mon, baby,” Shar tugged Tyler by the shirt, “it’s just up ahead, we’ll get help.”
“Why?” Tyler asked, fighting through the tears. “Why?”
* * *
Branch’s coliseum was grandiose, as magnificent as anything could be in a world that was overrun by the walking dead and ground to ashes from nuclear weapons could be. Demoreo stood in the arena that first time, feeling as naked and vulnerable as he was, only a stranger in his own skin. The crowd gasped, gawked, and marveled at Demoreo, at what he had become through Branch’s experiments. He was unlike anything that they had ever seen; a true ghast among a cornucopia of horrors.
Fear. Was this what he had become? Loathing.
Demoreo was special. Branch had made that clear to him. All his other projects had been failures, insults not worthy of a god. Branch believed himself to be a hair away from learning the key to immortality, to being superhuman, and Demoreo was the missing link. Before it was either death or death and reanimation, but never sustained life, added strength or abilities. That all changed with Demoreo, Branch’s great breakthrough, or, as they introduced him to the arena spectators, the Crusher. The changes gripped him more with each passing day, his body alien, uncomfortable, and his mind foggy. His mind was slipping. Details that came naturally were slipping from his grasp until they dissipated, forcing him to repeat his name to himself ad nauseam, just so he wouldn’t forget.
The constructed images in his head of Shar, Tyler and Marie were fading with each passing day, which made him weep every night when the guards had all stopped paying attention. He stood out in the sunlight again, after what felt an eternity in darkness, or barricaded away in the depths of Branch’s laboratory, being tested on night and day without pause. Sunlight pierced through him like millions of tiny needles. The once-familiar sight was now alien and painful where it was once soothing and invigorating. Tonight’s crowd was hungry, bloodthirsty, and impatient. Rage. There it was, bubbling up and creeping through his subconsciousness. He had been fighting, remembering, which only made the rage come on harder. He glanced around, hoping to glance at Shar and Tyler’s faces in the crowd, but there were so many faces, all of them unfamiliar and distorted, crying for violence.
A thundering clang cut through the buzz of the crowd as two armored guards peeled the mighty iron doors across the arena from him open. A hush washed over the crowd, but from this distance Demoreo saw nothing, just a dark hallway across the massive arena. What was coming next was beyond his power. The rage would overtake him, it would drown out his consciousness and force him to feed on the flesh of the living and undead. All of it would unfold in front of a crowd, no longer in a darkened cell in private. The guards had ensured that he had eaten nothing in days, and the hunger was growing with every passing moment. Whatever had taken over his body and mind was a good parasite, and it did what it had to do to survive, even if it meant overtaking the host.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” an announcer’s voice boomed over the arena. “Tonight Jordan Branch presents to you, the disgusting cannibal of the Wasteland, the Crusher!”
The crowd roared while the guard poked him in the back with the muzzle of his rifle. “C’mon, Crusher, Branch wants you to play to the crowd.” Demoreo turned around to face the guard, only for three others to swarm in, guns pointed at him, motioning for him to turn around. They feared him, knowing what he was capable of.
“My god, he’s a lively one, isn’t he?” the announcer boomed again. “Tonight we will see the Crusher against an entire horde of the undead. Can the terror of the Wasteland outlast them? Only time will tell!” He boomed. “It’s feeding time!”
The crowd fell silent while the groaning emerged from the tunnel across the arena. The sounds of the approaching undead had triggered something inside of him, and the dark cloud rolled in over his mind. Fists clenched, he advanced towards the tunnel. If he was to live as a monster for the rest of his life, how bad would it be to just have it all end here? To fight, to not let the monster take hold and to die while he could still remember the face of his children? Death would be the only thing that he was in control of because it was his and his alone. Not Jordan Branch’s.
The only thing standing in the way of this noble death was the boiling rage flowing through his veins. Rage was bubbling up inside of him, overtaking his personality and clouding whatever logical thoughts were left inside of his mind. A few of the undead emerged from the blackness, moaning and shuffling towards him, the guards with stun batons to herd them. The crowd roared and all that Demoreo could think about was ripping them all—undead and the alive—limb from limb. His senses were dulling, the fog inside of his brain solidifying to the point of blocking everything else out, the rage overtaking him. He stumbled, falling down to one knee while the pain inside of his head grew. That pain, that blackness had overtaken him before and the only way that he knew to stop it was to let go, let it encompass his being, to let the monster take charge.
There was a dual-residency inside of his head; a struggle for dominance as to which personality would exist and eventually only one would remain. Demoreo, he whispered. Demoreo, your name is Demoreo. The pain inside of his mind intensified while the horde closed in on him. Demoreo, your name is Demoreo. A sudden jolt filled his body, a set of rotten teeth digging into his shoulder. He let out a mighty roar, exploding to his feet, flinging the few undead that had clutched onto him off to the ground.
In one swift motion, his foot came down like a piston, crushing the skull of the one who had bits of his flesh still in its maw. He grabbed another around its decaying throat, its menacing tongue lashing out, a hiss emanating from inside of it. He hoisted the monster into the air before its skull came crashing down onto the packed dirt, exploding upon impact. Crusher let out a mighty roar while another two hobbled toward him.
He reached down and grabbed a hold of a leg, using his might to fling it aside, taking the whole body with it. The body flew, but the leg remained in his hand, finding its way into his jaws. He tore a sizeable chunk of meat off from the leg before tossing it aside, another clawing at him. This one he grabbed by the top of the head, leaning down and sinking his oversized teeth into the monster’s stomach. With one tug there were entrails spilling onto the ground, the monster still hissing at him before he tore the head from the body, tossing it into the crowd, forcing a panic among the first two rows.
He was at least three times the size of them surrounding him, meaning that they stood no chance. There were no human thoughts left, just rage, just hunger, just destruction. The crowd was under control again, screaming in joy while he ripped through each one that stood before him, taking pieces into his jaw when he saw fit, other times tearing them limb-from-limb much to the delight of the crowd.
A commotion came from his right, him turning to see that a member of the crowd had fallen in. A woman in the front row was screaming, crying out, reaching for a man that had tumbled from the stands who lay flat on the ground trying to regain his senses. Crusher dropped the twitching body from his hands and stomped over towards the man, who was attempting to scramble to his feet. The guards stood silent, watching. Their orders weren’t to save anyone, their orders were to clean up.
“No, please! Someone help him!” The woman shrieked, a few guards surrounding her, taking her by the arms and restraining her. “Jonah no! Please!”
It was only a matter of a few steps before the Crusher stood before the man, blood and guts dripping from his maw and streaking down his muscled chest like a primitive beast on the hunt. Demoreo, he heard in his mind. Your name is Demoreo. A sharp pang traveled through his head, causing him to pull back, before the cloud washed back over him, the man’s torso in his grasp having the life squeezed out of him.
“No, ple—” The man was pleading, but the Crusher was hungry. Always hungry. Restraining himself only amplified the pain in his mind, making the choice a simple one.
The head popped inside of his mouth like a water balloon against a warm summer’s day sidewalk, squishing and crunching while the body fell limp in his hand. He tore off an arm like he was munching on a game hen, a natural and effortless thing for him to do, when out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the guards approaching him in defensive postures. The body flew towards two of the guards, knocking them to the ground before he felt the sharp pain of the taser throughout his body, falling to his knees, blackness flooding through his mind. Demoreo, he heard his voice say inside of his head. Demoreo.