"I'll tell you something stranger, it's been a while since someone's wandered around these parts. The last fella', he was passing through well over a month ago... poor chap. Thin as a stick, he was. Most people are these days, but even so..."

"He was mighty mean though. He had this look in his eye... told me he'd been a soldier. Still had this shiny little badge pinned right near his heart. Told this story, how he watched his family die of disease... guess that's enough to make any man a tad mean, 'innit?"

"We're all kind of mean now I guess... What about you stranger? You got a story? If not I'll settle for a meal, yeah...? Sorry, sorry... My little joke, yeah? Well I'll tell you something stranger, if you stay to wait for this soup to boil, I'll tell you my story. Shouldn't be too long is my guess."

"I was watching the telly when it happened. My wife was cooking dinner, and my daughter was playing at my feet. She was laughing, and smiling, and she hugged my legs. My wife hollered something over the noise of the football game and then suddenly I hear... No, I feel This... this massive thump. It's like that moment when you're reading a story, and then suddenly it all changes. Like some kind of plot twist. Anyway, the telly goes out along with the lights, and my wife screams, and my daughter sobs as she squeezes my legs. I couldn't see a damn thing until my eyes adjusted. On the horizon I saw this faint glow... You remember the dust? Well, I saw it coming, this pillar of ash consuming the earth... It took well over a day for it to clear. You know, it's never been the same. Hell of lot chillier, I'll tell you that."

"That was where I was when it happened: in my home, watching telly, with my family. I thought about it after, and I just think "Oh god... What if I'd been away?" Like on a business trip or something... At least I got to spend a few more days with them."

"So how about you stranger? You have any girlfriends, boyfriends? I mean, you have a decent face... No? Well I guess you don't know what it was like then, at least on that level. My wife... she got this disease. Had no idea what it was. Still don't. The hospitals were still running, but they were overflowing with people and understaffed. They said it was a bad cold, and moved on to more "extreme" cases. "Nothing you can do for a cold," they said. She just wasted away. You know, the night she died, I remember sitting under the stars and looking up and just wondering, like, why? I always used to carry this cross, this little wooden thing. I threw it in the fire that night..."

"You believe in god? I used to. But if god sent that damn disaster up as part of some kind of "grand design" then it makes you wonder: d'you really want to believe in a god who can do something like that? I think it's better just to believe in nothing than in something like that."

"Huh... stew's almost ready... I suppose you're hungry, stranger? Well don't you fret, it'll be ready in nigh over a minute."

"Me and my girl went cross country after that. Left the house, and drove the car 'till it ran out of gas. Then we walked. Well, I walked. She mostly just piggybacked. I reckon I walked clear across something like three states. At the end of every day, I'd be dead tired. I'd light a fire, cook some of the beans we'd brought; about seventeen cans, and I'd collapse. She'd stay up a little while playing with her doll and when she got tired, she'd lean in real close and whisper "Have a good sleep daddy." I looked forward to that at the end of every day."

"We were passing through the town when it happened. This youth, barely a boy, came up to me holding this pistol. He asked for my food, for my supplies. This was a good 2 months after it happened you understand, and I'd begun trying to set traps for animals; I'd learned the skill in boy scouts, but I was a little rusty. I made just enough for me and my girl to avoid starving. I didn't have anything on me. I told him so, in the calmest voice I could that I had nothing. His face was sunken. I'd learned from previous experience that hungry people were hard to reason with. He didn't believe me. Or at least, he didn't want to believe me. And so he pulled the trigger. I can't explain why he did it. Hunger makes people do crazy things. No one knows that better than me. The bullet was aimed at my head. Instead it whistled by my neck. It whistled by my neck, and hit my darling girl in the eye."

"The soup's plenty hot now... I reckon you can start eating. If it's all right with you I'd like to continue... It's kind of... Is therapeutic the right word?"

"Well I'll tell you something stranger; I'm glad she didn't have to grow up in this frozen hell of a world. Still doesn't make it right that she had ta die like that... I killed the boy of course. I pounded his head in until his brain leaked out his forehead. I took his gun and left, with my daughter slung o'er my shoulder. I burned her later that night, and buried the ashes in a state I can't remember. See, I think it was then that I learned; life isn't fair. I thought I knew the meaning of it before. But I didn't. That bullet should have gone through my head. That boy shoulda' killed me. But he didn't. He killed my daughter, and I killed him..."

"So how's the soup? Sometimes a clump of grass grows around here, and I put it in this one. Had a bit of not-so-rotting meat and I put that in too. Good stuff, yeah? I actually think the rot gives it flavor! Trust me stranger, I make the best soup for miles around! Heh, heh... Sorry, bit of apocalypse humor for you..."

"I'll tell you how I got the pot, yeah? There was this group I used to be with, just five or six guys, and we all used to sit around the fire, roasting things. I think it was down in Texas somewhere, and we were all trying to adjust to the only semi-freezing climate. I actually took off my coat once. Anyway, we were sitting around one night, and this old Nutter just walks up with this cooking pot. He tottered forward, and heaved it onto our flame. Then, with us all watching, he takes this tiny little squirrel and plops it into the water-filled pot. The sight was so ridiculous that we all just laughed. He shared the soup with us though..."

"This was back when there used to be enough daylight for squirrels to live, for plants to grow... Now we have to settle for rats, eh? Rats and weeds. That old man stayed with us for a while, made us laugh every once in a while. A rare thing back then. Hell, a rare thing now. Anyway this one day he saw this little flower, this dandelion, growing by the side of the road. He went down and sat beside it and cried. We left him there. I happened to be carrying his pot for him at the time, and so I got stuck with the thing. I become our little group's cook."

"You know, over time the four other guys went their separate ways. Jon asked for my pistol. I handed over, and he just put it up to his head and pulled the trigger. Jon always used to be the joker of our little group, and the meals were a lot more quiet after that. David slumped down on the road one day and screamed. And screamed. We could still hear him a kilometer away. You don't help someone when they give out. There's nothing you can do. Thomas came up to me and shook my hand. He shook Liam's too. And then he left. Just walked out into the cold night. Liam and I were together for... a long time. One day we came to a split in the road. Neither of us said anything as we both chose different paths. I can still remember him slowly disappearing into the dust mingled fog..."

"Stranger, I've seen a lot of things in the years since this thing started. I've watched men devour men, I watched good men lose their minds, and I've watched my family die. I don't want to see any more, and I don't want to waste away in this hellhole. I still have that old pistol, with two bullets. You can keep the gun and my old cooking pot, if you spend one of those two tonight. I've waited a long time for the right person to come along, and you seem to fit. After all can't have just anyone take my battered old pot can I? One bullet's not much, but I figure that when you've seen enough... Well, you'll want it too. The things we see, the things we do... they weigh on us. When your time comes, and you can't bear the weight, I guess..."

"Thank you for listening, stranger."

"Have as good a life as you can in this hellhole."


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