Sam is a drifter.
He had been on the road for ten years now. His mother, long dead, had told him to go see the world. She didn’t want him to settle in a small town like she did. She didn’t want him to have the life she had. She became a mother at twenty-two. His father was long gone before Sam was born. She raised him on her own and it wasn’t easy. There were many nights Sam felt the rumble in his stomach, but he never said anything. She did the best she could and sometimes it wasn’t good enough, but she loved him. That’s more than he could say for anyone else he had known.
She had told him to go find what made him special and he had. She would be so proud of him if he had been able to tell her. She died before it happened. Every night since, he would look at the sky and ask her if she was proud. He never did get a response but he felt she was. He felt she would understand. If anyone could, it would be her.
He had been catching a late night ride in an open box car when he met the man who would give him purpose. Three other men were in the car, two were complete assholes, the third was quiet like Sam. Sam spent most of the night looking out at what he could see of the scenery. Everything swirled past in a black and gray haze. When he turned his attention away to try to sleep he noticed how silent it was. The only sound he could hear was the clattering of the wheels underneath the train. The quiet man stood over the two men who up hadn’t failed to stop arguing with each other since they hopped on the train. Something was wrong, but Sam didn’t say a word, he grabbed his pack and slide up against the back of the car.
The two men weren’t moving. He thought they might be asleep, but it was hard to see much, and the one man’s neck didn’t look right. Sam watched the other man go to the other side of the car. He laid down, facing Sam, and Sam knew he was being watched. Sam dozed off at some point. He woke up when the man’s hands were wrapped around his throat.
“You want to live?”, the man asked.
Sam tried to say yes, but all that came out was a croak.
“Yeah, you do. If you didn’t you’d have started hollering when you knew those men were dead.” The man loosened his grip on Sam’s throat, just enough for Sam to be able to choke out a “yes”.
The man let go, he took a pack of smokes out from the front of his denim shirt, offered one to Sam, which Sam took. The man lit his own and then Sam’s.
“The name’s Jonas. I’ve met a lot of men in my time but very few like you, Sam.”
Sam knew he hadn’t introduced himself to any of the three. They had come along after he did. First, the two men, then Jonas shortly after. Sam didn’t like Jonas, his hands were hot. Hot enough to make Sam start to sweat, and Sam suddenly didn’t feel too bad for the dead guys on the train. He knew they could have gotten much worse. Sam wasn’t scared, he knew that if this man wanted him dead he could have killed him easily.
Jonas walked over to the dead men. He dragged one to the open door, then heaved him over the side. He waited thirty minutes or so, then threw the other one over. He didn’t say anything while he did this. Sam wanted off the train, but knew Jonas would follow. He could see it, as clear as if it had already happened. Sam stayed put.
Jonas lit another cigarette, he leaned back resting his head against his pack. The sun had started to come up, the shadows stretched back into the car, but Sam could see the parlor of Jonas’ hand. His skin was yellow. Sam saw gray patches among the yellow, it was kind of like the eczema his childhood best friend had suffered from. He tried not to look, but as the sun came up curiosity won out. The gray had taken over half the man’s face. His eyes were sunken, a faint beard could be seen among the reddest lips Sam had ever seen.
“Did you ever hear the phrase, ‘a dead man tells no tales?’, Jonas asked. Sam nodded his head. “Everyone has and what a true statement it is. What you’re looking at Sam is a dead man. My time is up, but I’ve got one last turn to make, and my tale will be told. It’s no coincidence that I’ve come across you, even though I don’t believe in fate.” Sam nodded again.
“I was turned when I was seventeen. A stranger came in to town, made me what I am. I loved Hal, more than I have anyone. He’s the one that gave me purpose. If not for him I’d have been slinging buckets of fish heads at the dock yard all of my life. He made me a man and gave me the power. I spent thirteen years with him. He taught me everything I know. I wish I could do the same for you, but this is my last turning. After this my body will die and I’ll go on to my reward in whatever happens next. You’ll be rewarded too, Sam, when your time comes.”
Jonas lit a third cigarette, inhaled deeply, then blew it out forcefully. His hand holding the cigarette dropped to his lap. He sat for a few moments looking out at the passing trees and hills. Sam waited.
“The turning itself doesn’t hurt. It’s what you feel after your first encounter that can break you. Humans are programmed to feel guilt, and all I have to say to that is what Hal said to me. He said there weren’t anything to feel guilty about. These men and women, sometimes children, although those are rare, will do terrible things. You’re ridding the world of a plague that could spread if we weren’t here. It’s your job to recognize them for what they are, and to put an end to them. You’ll never see the ones who have already split, only the ones that will given time.” He took another drag off his smoke then went on. “Lemme explain a little better. Turning is what you’ll go through, it opens your eyes to a new world that not everyone can see. How you see it is different for everyone. I see something similar to flames around a person. Hal saw a blackness, kinda like oil, running down their bodies. You’ll see it somehow.”
Jonas stood up, bent over his pack, pulled out a rolled up piece of paper, a knife, and a purple cloth with what appeared to be blood stains on it.
“The split I was talking about, that’s what the people will do if you don’t stop them. See, they can see the world in a different way too, but they only see the bad in it. They use that bad to spread the bad further. They walk in the land of the living, but their souls are dead. That’s why we say they’re split. There’s no redemption for them, no way to recognize them for what they are. That’s why it’s so important to get them before that happens. If there are more splits then there are turned the world is doomed.”
Sam said nothing as Jonas rolled out the paper. He watches as Jonas placed rocks from his pack on all four corners to keep it down. He picked up the knife and looked at Sam.
“I’ve never been a religious man, but I do believe there is a God. I believe he has picked us to help him fight the good fight. It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, I have, but when you do realize that there is one who does not want this work to be completed. He wants to win, Sam, and he’ll use you like a puppet if he can. Stay clear of the golden eye. You’ll know it when you see it. Don’t let guilt eat you up either. The turned live a long time, but some have opted out well before they was supposed to.”
Jonas threw his cigarette out, then motioned for Sam to come closer. Sam went. He thought if he played along he might make it out of this alive. He also thought Jonas was right, he was a dead man, death was at his heels, and if Sam did what he asked he might keel over before he could do whatever it was he had planned with the knife.
“You’ll come across others that have been turned. You may form a bond with one or two over the years, but most want to be left alone to do their work. We’re known as the swarm. If you see one acknowledge them, but move on from that town. If they approach you, be cautious. Some have gone over to the other side and are working against what we are. If you find one of those, kill them on the spot. You won’t be seen, you’ll be protected, so don’t worry about witnesses.”
Jonas picked up the purple cloth, he cleaned the edge of the knife with it, then said a few words that Sam couldn’t understand. He put the knife in the center of the paper, bowed his head, and continued to mumble. When he picked up his head and looked at Sam his eyes were glowing with a faint red light. For the first time since this had started Sam felt real fear. It crippled his guts, his mouth went dry, and no amount of will could get his muscles to move.
“One last thing before this happens. Take my pack when you leave. Everything you need to know is in a brown leather book in there. It will teach you all the things I didn’t have the time to. Just remember, you must turn seven others before leaving this earth.”
Jonas took the knife and cut a line into his palm. Sam couldn’t struggle as Jonas grabbed his hand and cut a line into his palm as well. Jonas put the knife beside the paper. He grabbed Sam’s hand, held it over the paper and squeezed. The heat grew between their hands, Sam couldn’t move, he couldn’t speak, he watched as their blood ran down to drip on the paper. The paper, which had symbols and circles Sam didn’t understand, soaked up the blood. Sam passed out.
When he came too, all of Jonas’ things had been put back into his pack. Sam had a headache behind his eyes, but at least his hand had been bandaged. He peeled the bandage away and noticed the cut had already started to heal. The scar it would leave would be deep. Jonas was laying on his back in the middle of the car. Sam got up, thinking Jonas was dead, picked up Jonas’ pack, and approached him slowly. He stood above him, but Jonas was still alive.
“Go now, boy. Go do as you have been sent to do. Don’t let anyone stop you.” With that Jonas took one last breath and then all the life in his eyes was gone.
Sam kicked at Jonas’ leg to make sure he was dead, then hopped off the train into the morning sun.