"What if there's no tomorrow?"
I reached down and raked my fingers through Randy's hair. Sweat greased my fingers and palm, and the energy from his fevered head seeped through my jeans.
"Shhh," I said.
Smoke hung heavy in the air around us. Most of the houses now were nothing more than crumbled stones and charred remains of black sticks rising defiantly to sky. We hated to set the town on fire, but it was the only way to keep the enemy from hiding in the shadows, from picking us off one by one. Randy had actually grown up a few kilometers from here, down in the small village of Felton. He even showed me the house on Frog Lane where he and his parents once lived—before the war, that is. We hated to burn that place to the ground, too, but we did. In fact, across the countryside, the landscaped looked like leopard spots where villages were burned as part of our scorched earth. Even cities like London, I've been told, paint the night sky red.
"I mean... I know there's no tomorrow," Randy said. "Not for me, anyway." He gulped at the air. "But what I'm trying to ask is what happens afterward."
I continued to stroke his brow. His head and body matched the heat that radiated around us.
"Really, Steve," he said. "Do you think there's a heaven or hell?"
"I don't know."
"But what if there is? What happens to buggers like me? Do we go to heaven or... or..."
I shushed him again, and then said, "Don't talk."
His wild eyes rolled back and forth, as if searching the hazy sky for an answer. Maybe if he waited long enough, the sun would give him one. His breathing turned ragged. His chest started to spasm as he fought for each breath, and I knew he wouldn't long.
So much death, I thought. So much pain and misery. The war had waged for going on two years now. So many lives had been lost, and now so many homes burned, that both Randy and I wondered if humanity had finally surrendered and given up its own last gasp. Were we even human anymore?
"Will you..." He squeezed his eyes tight and swallowed hard against the fire that burned in his throat. "I mean, will you..."
"Quiet now," I said. "I promised your mum and dad that I would. And I will."
A smiled pulled at the side of Randy's mouth. At least he had some comfort in that thought.
"You know," he said, "I think there is a heaven." He reached his hand to the sky. Three of the fingers had been reduced to bloody stumps, each of them a reminder that death played no favorites and can touch all of us, especially the careless. "And I...and..."
His chest hitched twice more as Randy struggled for one last breath. Then his arm fell. His head lolled to the side.
I sat there and looked to the sky, searching for my own answer. I don't know why I did. It wouldn't be there. No, the reality of our new existence now lay beside me. There was no way to avoid what had to happen next.
Randy's body started to shudder. His lifeless face, covered now in yellow and gray oxygen-deprived flesh, twitched from side to side. I rolled his head off my lap. I reach down, picked up the pistol, and then stood above him, watching as the disease that had started with the chewed-off fingers now claimed the rest of him. A guttural sound, feral and hungry, came somewhere deep within the body. Randy was gone, I knew, now replaced by something... un-human. That thought didn't make the task any easier.
"Goodbye, my friend," I said. "You were the best mate anyone could've ever had."
I raised the pistol and aimed it at his head. I squeezed the trigger. I squeezed it again and again.
The tears finally came then, tears I had thought no longer existed. Still, they were there, and a part of me rejoiced for what they said about me. Over the next day or two, I would make my journey back to Felton and lay Randy's body in the ground. He would rest along side his parents, just as I had promised. For the moment, though, I wanted to cry as long as I still could.