The ticket puncher clicked one final time, then was put down with a light thump on top of the rising stack of boxes on the pallet. John Andrews stretched his aching back and flexed his arms over his head, wiping the sweat from his forehead that ran into and stung his weary eyes. The warehouse was hot this time of year; nothing could really be done about that.
John glanced at the cheap Seiko watch that hung limply from one glistening wrist, the watch he had gotten on his thirty-fifth birthday from his son. The last good birthday. Time didn’t matter anymore; it was just a constant that went largely ignored by the spare few who were left. But, for John, it was an important part of The Ritual. And you don’t mess with The Ritual. No, sir. That would be bad, very bad.
With an incredulous look, accompanied by a mingled feeling of relief and despair, he realized it was ten minutes after nine already. Break time. John turned toward the candle’s wavering flame, the only source of dim light in the enveloping darkness of the warehouse, and blew it out, making sure to grasp his flashlight first. It was a precautionary measure; he didn’t want to risk starting a fire while he was away. John turned on the flashlight, noticing its beam of light was slightly faltering and getting weaker. Have to get batteries for it soon. He began to walk toward the loading docks, a route he had taken so many times that he barely needed light to guide his way; John could have gone there blindfolded by now. The light was to scare away the rats, and whatever else they may be carrying.
His plodded footsteps crunched on the gritty concrete floor, the shaft of light waving from one dusty corner to another, on the rusted metal of stacked shelves, and boxes; lots and lots of boxes. Precious boxes. The ones on the bottom were untouchable, festering with mildew and God only knew what else. It was dangerous to even lift one of the top flaps open. Too much water had gotten to them, from when it rained, coming in through the leaks in the roof, the cracks in the crumbling plaster walls. But the others were just fine, perfect occupiers of the constant annoyance of time.
John felt in his dampened shirt pocket for his pack of cigarettes, pulling it out and flipping the lid open. Two left. He would have to be sure to grab another pack. John put the filtered end of one of the little blessings between his lips and tugged it free, holding it clamped between his mouth while he continued toward the docks.
The sunlight filtering in through the open garage doors provided him with enough visibility that he switched off the flashlight and struck a match. He put the tiny flame to the tip of the cigarette, and breathed in the deeply relaxing, highly carcinogenic tendrils of coiling smoke that invaded his aging lungs, blowing it back up toward the steel girders high, high above. Before he reached the docks, John would have to take a little detour into the break room. It wasn’t a normal part of The Routine, but, hey, shit happens.
John pushed open the door to the break room, inwardly grimacing as the stubborn hinges creaked loudly in protest. The room was dark, but not dark enough, in John’s opinion. He could still see what he didn’t really want to see. He gingerly stepped over limp arms that snaked across the linoleum floor, over sprawled legs that threatened to trip him every step of the way. He held his breath against the smell, but even then, he knew it was still there, and he knew that, eventually, he would smell it later on his clothes anyway, mixing with his own sweat to create a nauseating musk that he had no other choice but to simply try and ignore.
The vending machine was at the very end of the small room, its front glass paneling broken into pointed shards that resembled monstrous teeth. Please don’t bite me, John thought, working his hand into the cavity of the machine, skimming his wrists on the teeth. He snared a pack of the brand he was currently using (his favorite kind had expired a long, long time ago, just like a lot of other things) and carefully pulled them out and put them in his pocket. John backed himself out of the break room, the final resting place for those who took what would be their final break on that fateful afternoon, and tried not to be bothered by the one thing that still disturbed him the most. Despite the decaying bodies, despite the sweetly sick smell of rotting flesh, it was the silence that never failed to unsettle him. That wholesome, never-ending, never changing silence. John sighed in relief when he reached the door again and quickly made his way to the open platform of the loading docks.
One trailer butted up against the metal railing, its inside only half-full, its tires evaporated of air. It had been white, John remembered that, but it was so mottled by rust now that it had darkened to a reddish-brown stain that was unpleasant to look at for too long. Crumbling holes ran down its sides and along the roof, some of them weather-related, some of them the work of the damn rats.
John sat down on the steps leading up to the platform, looking around at grass that had seen better days (hadn’t everything?) and the sagging, twisted form of a chain link fence that still surrounded the property. Beyond that, tall oak trees stood like ever-attentive sentinels to block out the rest of the outside world from his view. A world that was no more, at least not like it had been. A world that had gone too far, with too much haste, and not enough forethought. A world that had been destroyed with the virus that took his wife, his son, his happiness, his sanity. Everything.
John peeked at his watch, his last birthday present, and noticed with a sense of subtle alarm he was five minutes off of The Ritual. Nodding his head, a smile playing on his lips and a gleam of moisture in his eyes, he stubbed out his cigarette on the leaf-strewn platform and headed back into the comforting confines of the desolate warehouse.
If one cared to listen, that is, if one were still around to listen, they would hear the soft click of the flashlight being turned on, followed by John’s echoing footsteps as he returned to his “job”. The striking of a match to light the candle, and, in the few sparse moments before the endless clattering of the ticket puncher, a strangled sob.