Dead weight is always hardest to carry, and I was carrying years of it. It’s always hard pushing yourself forward when there seems to be no reason for it, but when that is all you know, it becomes like second nature. You create all these pointless goals that never really mean shit, but you don’t realize they are pointless until you reach them. And that’s what I had just done.
It was a shame that I had ditched most of the supplies those filth had carried, but it’s not like I would need it where I was headed. The crimson forest that surrounded me seemed to melt with the green sky that barely peeked through the leaves. It was all starting to dim, darker and darker, and it wasn’t the day that was running out. I knew I was fading and I was okay with it. In a way, I wanted it. I had finally done what needed doing. I had expected to go on, but death would be a welcome end to my now pointless struggle.
My side was numb, the pain from each step I took made sure of that. Leg was no different. I was surprised how long I had walked with all this weight on me and my leg mauled as it was. Made the bites on my stomach look like tender nibbles. I wished my body would just drop and let me die. I could lay on my back and stare at the thick bark that covered the yellow veins of the tree and recount all the events of my shitty life.
It wouldn’t, it was set on survival. My mind was making no more connection. It was having me watch each limp I took. How each footstep would crush the next pine cone in its path and let the yellow blood ooze out onto the dirt. I had been so set on using the cones for food that I had never noticed how beautiful and vibrant the yellow innards looked.
And then, I dropped.
A shock of pain coursed through my leg and worked its way to my side. I had failed to secure my next step. My hands barely went up in time to prevent my face from hitting the ground with full force. Not that it mattered. Mind and body were one in the same again, and all I had to do was wait. I had always been curious about what I had made plenty others go through, and now I would get to join them.
I could hear a gentle rush of water very close to me. I should have felt panicked, the water would kill me, but why bother? I was already dead. I opened my eyes and saw it in front of me. It was so peaceful, flowing in one direction without a care. I could see light emanating above the surface of the water. It was like sparks of all colors of electricity dancing down the stream to whatever end they would reach. It was so close.
I closed my eyes and just listened. I could hear it so close.
I opened my eyes and stood in a desert. In the distance I could see a circle of trees, but they were like none I had ever seen. They were different, their leaves green and their bark brown with no veins to pump the blood through them. The sun shone down hard and I could feel it slowly searing my skin. I knew I needed cover but the circle did not look right. It was not normal. I heard them saying something, off in the distance. I tried to hone in on what it was and I began to realize, the sound was right next to me.
I struggled to open my eyes and managed to crack them just enough to see a boy rummaging through a pack.
Who was this boy? Where was I? And why was I not dead?
I moved my head without making any noise so I could scan my surroundings. The red woods let me know I was still in the forest. It seemed like a small camp. I could see one sleep sack near a group of wood that looked to be burned. Another pack sat near a tree. I couldn’t look up, but I got the feeling there was someone else there. It couldn’t just be the boy.
If I was fast enough, I could rush him and use him as a hostage. Take back my things and snap his neck when I was far enough out. I tried placing my hand on the ground but instead found I was gripping cloth with something hard underneath it. I was in my sleep sack.
I must have made too much noise because the boy’s head jerked towards me and he stood. I tried to stand as well but my leg and stomach pulsed with agony and I felt my entire body burning up.
“Da! She’s awake!.” He just watched me. At least I knew it wasn’t just him. I glared back as we waited for whatever else was coming.
“How she look?” I could hear the voice, but not yet see who it belonged to. It sounded husky, grating, almost menacing. I was almost scared to find out. He was close, and getting closer. The boy shrugged, never taking his eyes off me. Were there more? I needed to be prepared.
A big figure broke in front of my glare. The voice matched the man. He was large and imposing. He looked like he belonged in this world, which didn’t say anything good for me in the moment. He knelt down and looked me in the eyes. His gaze lingered. There was something about him that looked gentle, like he was incapable of using his tremendous size to harm, but I knew better. He smiled at me. I made him fully aware that I did not trust him.
“How you feel?” Sick, disoriented, dead. Not that I would tell him that. I stared at him without saying a word. “You lucky we found you when we did.” The luck was not mine, you’re the ones with a woman now. “Can you speak?” He was trying to gauge how easy it would be for them. Bastard.
He took off his gloves and handed them to the boy who had come up closer behind him. With his bare hand he reached out and tried touching my forehead. I batted his hand away hard, causing what felt like a tear of skin on my stomach.
I clenched my teeth and ate the pain. “Don’t fucking touch me.”
He must have been caught off guard because his hand stayed up in the air for a second until he brought it slowly back down. I could tell he didn’t know what to do. He probably thought I would just open my legs willingly if he pretended to be different. If he was going to do it then he should be a fucking man and get it done with.
“You got nothing to fear from us.” You got everything to fear from me. You better not turn your back on me or you’re dead the moment you do. He reached out slowly again. I flinched back. “I just wanna check if your fever be gone, that’s all.” It wasn’t, I could feel it weighing my body down. My eyes felt like over filled bags ready to burst. I bore my teeth at him.
“Fair enough. You need be restin’ anyway. That wound be rotted. Cleaned it out best I could but is better you let your body deal with it now.” He stood up and nudged his son to follow. Painful as it was, I turned myself so I was facing them.
I lay in my bag, my body involuntarily shivering from time to time. It was maybe late noon and warm, but my skin felt clammy and cold. My body was at odds again with my mind. My body wanted to rest, to shut my eyes and allow itself to heal. My mind knew if it did, it risked something much worse. I watched them take a large square of sorts from their pack and lay it flat on the ground. The boy kept glancing back at me as he took small objects and placed them on the square. My eyes felt so heavy.
The man looked over at me and smiled. How could he be so calm? He knew I could probably kill him. Or could I? Was he that certain that I could do nothing? I lifted my shirt and removed a cloth that had been placed over the left side of my stomach. Skin pulled along with it and I gasped. Puss covered the torn flesh, its borders flared red and swollen. I almost cried in agony.
“Don’t do that.” I looked up at the big man. “I keep that on if I be you.” I don’t know why, but I listened. I pulled down my shirt and kept watching them. My eyes kept feeling heavier. I knew I should sleep, even with them here. I needed to sleep. If they wanted to kill me, wouldn’t they have done it already? No reason for them to waste their time or resources. Unless they wanted something from me. They could have had me already too, which probably meant they wanted me for the long haul. That was good for me. It would give me some time to heal before they tried to mount me, and that meant I had a chance. To them, I was no threat for now. That was why they were so calm. Right? I…
My sleep was rough, I thrashed around until my body cooled down and I was able to get some tranquility at last. Voices broke me away from it. Without opening my eyes, I strained my ears to listen.
“That what you woulda wanted for your ma?” It was the big man’s voice.
“You saw what she was carryin’” The boy’s.
“And now she don’t.” I opened my eyes and watched them. They were sitting on the opposite edge of the camp, eating. The day had turned dark now, and the only thing illuminating us was the fire crackling in between them. The moonlight only created a red hue from the surrounding trees.
“But why should we use up our supplies on her?”
“One day, I would hope someone do the same for you.”
The big man smiled. “I can still hope.” He grabbed a bowl and stood. I shut my eyes and pretended I was still asleep. I could hear him making his way over to me.
“This ain’t right da.” The boy grumbled. It wasn’t right, he should just tell his boy the truth. Tell him what he really had planned for me instead of feeding him this shit. Nobody does anything without personal gain, and I could see by the way he looked at everything, by the way he had looked at me, he had his. I heard him place something near my head. Immediately I knew it was food. The smell was being swallowed by my nostrils. I kept forcing my eyes shut.
“I know you up,” He said. “I watched my son try actin’ like he be out for long time now. You ain’t foolin’ me.” I kept silent. He chuckled. “You ain’t gotta talk to me if you don’t wanna, but you really should eat.” I opened my eyes and looked at the big man. He had such a welcoming smile, but I knew it was all lies.
He pushed the bowl closer to me. I looked at it and felt my stomach rumble. He must have heard it too because he moved forward to try and help me sit up. I hissed at him to back off. He laughed softly. Was he laughing at me?
I felt anger build in me. I curled my lip and glared at him.
I propped myself up with my hands and leaned back against the tree behind me. It was brutal to do it by myself but worth it. He would not have me easy. I picked up the bowl and dug at the contents with my finger. It felt like heaven as I chewed, and even better as it settled in my stomach. He sat and watched me devour my food. I had been dying of hunger and barely realized it.
“Is carrier meat with pine blood.” I didn’t even bother looking up. I was too preoccupied engorging myself with whatever the fuck this really was. “My son crush the pine and make the paste. He then cut up the carrier and burn it together like that. Enough blood in them both that we ain’t gotta waste any juice.”
I scraped the bowl with my fingers and licked them clean after. “There’s little more if you want.” I took the bowl and tossed it at him. He stood and walked back towards his son to refill it. When he walked back to me he stretched out the bowl and I reached out to grab it but he took it back. I knew he couldn’t keep the act up forever. I glared at him.
“What happened to you?” the big man asked. I didn’t wish to play his games but I was hungry.
“Obviously…did a human do it?” Was he stupid? What kind of human could leave bites like that?
“Does it look like human bites?”
“Wadn’t just bites.” Bastard really did check me well. I clenched my jaw and curled my lip again.
“Food.” I hissed. He stared at me for a long moment and then passed over the bowl. I dipped my fingers in and brought the food to my mouth all while challenging him with my look. He just stared back as I ate. I knew he was just trying to figure out what he should say next so he could keep on with his game.
“Faction done this?” He said.
“Ain’t no faction round here.” I said, mouth full of food.
I nodded. “Animals.”
“Why?” What was he trying to gauge now? I looked up and stared straight into his eyes.
“Same reason I kill you.”
The big man sat for a moment and then stood and went back to his boy who had a thick square full of dirty white leaves. The boy would occasionally take the leaves and put them to the other side. I had seen those before but never understood what they were for. Only the faction preachers would waste their time on them.
I finished the food and set the bowl down. The boy had put the leaves down and had begun to move the objects around the square with his father. It was my turn to watch them.
For what seemed like hours they just sat there and moved the small objects. One would look at the board and move, only to have the other repeat the same and it would just carry on. They were curious wanderers, like none I had encountered before. They were so calm in the presence of a stranger, only preoccupied by the square and its pieces. Any other group would have had me tied up and someone watching me at all times. That is, if they hadn’t tried to kill me off the bat. I always thought of the slit between my legs as a blessing. It always seemed to give me a chance.
My patience began to run thin. “Where my things?”
They both looked up. The big man pointed at one of the edges of the camp where my pack sat propped up against a tree. It was too far out of reach for me. I could probably crawl to it but the effort would be too high and I knew it would just end with me in pain. Sitting up against this tree had already started that. They looked back down and kept on playing at their pieces.
“Haven’t touched nothin’. Just took what you might use to hurt us.” The big man said. I smiled and looked at my hands. Then you forgot something.
“Why you not have me tied?”
“Why? Not like you do much way you are.”
“More than you think.”
“We should tie her up.” said the son. I laughed.
“He have the right mind.”
The father put his hand over his boy’s shoulder and walked back over to me.
“We can if that’s what you want.” I realized he frightened me. I did not understand why, but he did.
“What you want from me brute?” I said.
“I be no brute.”
“You ain’t foolin’ nobody.”
“Good, I not be tryin’.”
“You gonna take me yourself? Or you savin’ me for your boy?” He sat in silence for a long moment.
“What be your name?”
“Keep the bullshit to yourself. I don’t give two shits who you be. I just wanna know what you be plannin’ for me.”
“Nothin’. I ain’t gone stop you if you try to go.”
“What makes you think I don’t come back to take it all?”
He leaned in close to me and whispered “What make you think I not kill you if you try?” Something about the way he said it sent panic coursing through my body. He was dangerous. “Hope it never comes to that.” A smile covered his face now.
“Found a small cove couple miles from here,” he said as he stood, “was plannin’ on makin’ camp there on the morrow. Think you handle it?” I stared for a moment, then nodded. “Good, should be more safe there.”
He walked back over to the fire and kicked some dirt in it. “Probly should clean the rot again, now that your fever be gone. But we can leave it for morning.”
The son looked upset that his light had been taken but he did not complain. They both turned into their sleep sacks and slowly faded. They did not need to watch me. I was useless in their eyes.
I am not sure how long I watched them sleep for but eventually my mind grew tired and my eyes shut. I was back in the desert, the sun attempting to melt my skin. The strange circle of vein-less trees with green leaves off in the distance calling to me. It offered me safety but, for some reason, I would not move. I looked behind me and saw nothing but barren land. It seemed so comforting, there were no surprises there. Everything was the same, but I knew I would die out there. I turned back and took a step toward the circle, and then a second. What was I doing? I felt panic overwhelm me wanted to throw up.
I sat up and released the bile that had worked its way up as I slept. The pain from my stomach was excruciating and it was not helped by the two heaves that followed. I looked up and caught the boy watching me. He was holding a small knife and the red veiny bark of a tree.
“You alright?” he asked.
I spat on the ground.
“Hmph.” I put my thumb to my nostril and pushed out everything that remained. He looked back down at the bark and kept at carving. The inside of my mouth felt slimy from the bile that coated it and rough underneath it all. My tongue worked its way around, exploring the foreign feeling.
“My da went to collect juice. Said it makes it easier to wipe the rot.”
“Seems a waste.”
“I say is all a waste on you.”
“I say you right, but your da doesn’t seem to think so.”
“My da wrong. We shoulda taken your pack and left you by the creek.” I could tell it was all talk. The boy had never killed anything before.
“Smart boy. That’s what I woulda done.”
Small pieces of the red bark fell at the boy’s feet. He stood and picked up some dried meat which he brought over to me. He cautiously handed the meat over.
“Where were you headed?” He asked.
“What you mean?”
“Why were you out here by yourself?”
“Who say I go by myself?”
“Well then wouldn’t your group try helping you?”
“Who say my group didn’t do this? Who say I didn’t get this for doing worse to my group?” The boy looked at me curiously.
I shot a sinister smile at him. He kept trying to read me but didn’t seem scared. Just curious. He looked back down at his carving. I kept tearing at the meat.
“Da believes we’ll find the Vaults.”
I looked up at him. “No such thing as the Vaults.”
“We met a man who said he from there.”
“He a liar.”
“Thought so too, but he carried lots of things.” This time it was me studying him.
“What kind of things?” Before he could answer we heard a crunching of twigs. He stood up.
“What ya’ll talkin’ bout?” It was the brute’s voice.
“Nothin’.” said his boy. The father came over to us and knelt. He had a bowl full of slimy liquids.
“Is not much, but it should help soften the rot.” The brute said.
“I don’t need it.” Seemed like such a waste of liquid. It should be drank.
“You say that now ‘till we start.” He paused for a moment. “You ain’t be in the woods long be you?” How could he know that? “This ain’t past the Road. We spend full day gatherin’ and we set on juice for a week.”
“No.” He looked at me for a long moment.
“Lift up your shirt.” I narrowed my eyes but eventually listened. If he wanted to waste it then let him. I wasn’t going to be the one to gather more. The boy made a sound when I exposed the wound. I didn’t bother to look, I just stared at the sky. I felt wet fingers gently run over the wound, but as gentle as they were, it still hurt. His boy took something out of his pocket and told me to bite on it.
“Ready?” said the brute. I took a deep breath and nodded.
I wasn’t. He might as well have been using a jagged rock to scrape the wound, it likely would have felt the same.
I don’t remember passing out but I must have because when I opened my eyes I was being dragged on my sleep sack by the two thick branches tied together under me. I looked up and saw two big muscular arms straining as they held up the wood. Why had I let him touch me? I didn’t even question why he had to do what he said, I just let him. It worried me, but not enough to keep my eyes from closing.
When they opened again we were in a dark cave. Thick shadows were cast over the rock from the burning fire that waved in the middle. It felt so…safe.
The boy and his father sat around the square again, taking their turns at moving the pieces around. “What,” They both looked up at me. Did I really want to continue this with them? “What is that?”
The boy spoke up. “Is called Chess. We found it in a book house a while back.”
“Was a book house?” I asked.
“Place old timers used to store books before the Doom.” said the father. What the fuck was he talking about? I nodded, trying to pretend I understood. “I forget most us don’t know to read the tongue.”
“That’s all for preachers.”
“No it ain’t.” He watched his son for a moment and smiled. “We gone teach you to play.”
“Chess.” He said. He carefully lifted the square with the pieces atop and moved it over close to me.
He shrugged, “Because I can.”
“What if I don’t wanna.”
“Then tune me out.” He began explaining the small squares inside the big one and how each piece I had watched them move was unique. It all made no sense, but it made me smile. I knew eventually it would come but if he treated me as he had so far, I did not think I would mind.
It reminded me of long ago, of the first man. When I was made his. I was scared at first even angered for not having a say in the matter, but he provided protection and comfort. He was not cruel to me as long as I listened. He treated me well, made sure I was cared for. Kept the others away from me and taught me to defend myself. Taught me how to use everything I had at my disposal. But nothing lasts forever.
This new brute would die, just like the last one had, and I would not be there to have it all slow me down.
“Did that make sense?” he asked. I realized I had not listened. I nodded.
“We gone play one first. You watch. Then my son play you.”
The game went faster than I thought. It had seemed to take ages when I watched them before. When I played I felt frustrated, nothing made sense. All the pieces felt no different, they were just blocks with strange markings on them. What made them any different from each other?
They both stayed calm, even cheerful, as I expressed my frustration. Was it a joke? Was this their way of amusing themselves with me for now? I wanted to scream, but I felt if I did, I would disrupt them. I did not want that. Something about them made me feel strange, bad, for even thinking about doing it.
Eventually, the boy declared himself tired. He went off to his sack and left me and the brute with the square between us.
“Did you wanna try another?” He asked.
He laughed. “You not worry. You get it soon.” He gathered up the pieces and put them back in the pack. He looked to be getting ready to declare himself to the sack as well and I felt I did not want it to end yet.
“Your boy,” He stopped for a moment and then continued putting the pieces back. “He say you searchin’ for the Vaults.”
“He say you met someone.” He wrapped the bag up and stood. “Someone who say he from there?” He nodded. “What happen to him?”
“You kill im?”
“No, my woman do it.”
“Blood be dirtied. Might well have been pumpin’ radiation stead of blood. Thought he could save her but got it inside hisself too.”
“Can’t save no radiated. Everybody know that.”
“Thought so too, but you done prove that wrong,” He said. My eyes narrowed. “Your face in plenty the clear juice when we found you.” He pulled something from his bag and held it up to me. It was a white tube with a large needle on one end “Used few of these on you and it worked. Don’t know how but you alive.”
How is that possible? A little radiation did no harm, but too much and it was sure death.
He shook his head. “He try using these on her. Left us rest when he die.”
“Why he not use it on hisself?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Said it wouldn’t work.”
“Then why it work on me?”
“I don’t know.” He was clearly in thought. Everything I knew told me it was a lie, but I wanted to believe him.
“What else he have?”
“Books, food, weird medicines, journal, and a map.”
“Of the Vaults?”
“No, of the land. It not be complete.”
“Then what make you think he really from here?”
“The journal. He talk ‘bout the Vaults in it. ‘Bout his mission studying us outsiders, his partner’s death, not finishing the map. Losing his way back. It mostly be ‘bout the guilt he feel for his partner, though.”
“But no way to the Vaults?” He shook his head. “Then it be useless!”
“No. It brought us hope.”
“Fuck your hope. You still a wanderer, just like all them other wanderers. You end up dead ‘cuz of your hope and I not think two thoughts ‘bout it.”
“At least I knows I tried.” He stood and walked over to the fire, kicking dirt into it to put it out.
“Tried what?” He got into his sack and laid down, ignoring my question. Was he talking about me? What did he mean? “Tried what?!”
But he did not answer.
The next day things changed. The brute and his boy were burning pines to make paste. While it did not smell the greatest it was still food and made my stomach growl. The boy looked at me and smiled. “Hungry?”
“Not for that.” I answered.
“Well is all we have.” This time it was the brute.
“I gone lay traps, likely be gone all day.” He poured the bright yellow paste in a bowl. “My boy gone stay here and watch over you.” He felt cold, distant. The brute stood and put on a pack. With the bowl still in hand he kissed his boy over the head. Without even a glance at me he took off.
When he was gone the boy poured the paste into two bowls. He came over and handed one to me. We ate quietly for a long moment.
“I wish he would let me lay traps myself sometime.” Said the boy.
“What you mean?”
“Da never lets me do nothin’ on my own. Says is too dangerous.”
“I could do it, though. I set those traps with him before.”
“And imagine what happen if someone like me come upon you doin’ it.”
“Boy by hisself out there? I do you up pretty. But your da, that might make me think twice.” The boy stared down at his bowl.
“You may look like my ma, but you’re nothin’ like her.” And there it was. I laughed.
“I ain’t ever claim to be your ma.”
“I know…” I felt sadness creep up on me. I knew I shouldn’t, in case I had to kill him later, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“Go bring the chess boy. Keep teachin’.”
“Julian. Not boy, Julian.”
“I don’t care, just get it.” He went to get the square.
We played for most of the day until I had finally got it down. I did not understand how sitting in one spot for hours could be fun, but it was. Although I could not win, I still felt excited when I got close. He would laugh as he crushed my excitement, which only strengthened my sense of competition. It was a challenge, and I wanted to win. Eventually Julian asked for a break. I was determined to win, but I needed it too. My mind felt bogged down from all the games.
Julian took out his knife and started carving at the wood. I laid back and closed my eyes. The repeating sound of the knife on wood calmed me. Was this all real? I took a deep breath, gently straining my stomach in the process, and then let it out. When I opened my eyes, the boy was still there cutting away. He looked so innocent. By the way he spoke I knew he was. How had his father kept him from the death this world had become so accustomed to? How had that brute, who had clearly seen and done what this land demanded, kept this boy from it?
I did not understand.
“What was your ma like?” Why did I ask that? Why did I care?
“Ma? Well, she used to sing to me a lot and tell me about the world before the Doom. She the one that taught me to read. She taught da to read too, but he didn’t pick it up too well.” He smiled wide. “Takes a while, but you stick around and I could teach you too.” I wanted to tell him I wouldn’t. That they would only slow me down, him especially, but I couldn’t. I smiled.
“We see.” I said. He went back to his wood. How long would he stay like this for? He could talk about death, but it was apparent that he did not understand a thing about it. When would the world stop him and pry his eyes open?
“How’s your leg?” He asked.
“Great! Just like my side.”
“You up for trying to walk?” Did he miss my humor?
“No.” He put his stuff down and stood.
“Come on, let’s try.” He made his way over.
“I not be ready.”
“That’s why I’m here, come on.” He tucked his hand under me and lifted. I didn’t want to go up but also knew resisting would hurt worse. My stomach burned, but it was bearable. He continued to encourage me. I put all my weight on my good leg and used him for support.
“Try your leg.” He said. I put my toes down on the ground and when no pain came I inched the rest of my foot down. And then it did, like a bruise that keeps getting battered. I was expecting worse, but it was still enough to make my leg give out. I winced expecting to go down but Julian leaned with me and kept me up.
“Woah! You alright?” I cleared my expression and nodded. “Come on then, let’s try again.”
We both straightened, this time I was ready. When my foot came down, I ate the pain. I shifted my weight to my good side to relieve some of it. He set me down and told me to wait. He took one of the thick branches from my sack and wrapped some cloth on one end. He put it under my arm and it became my support. I limped around our refuge with the help of Julian and the branch until I felt sweat building over my whole body. He set me back down on my sack and congratulated me. I was exhausted.
When the sun went down, the brute returned. He carried an extra pack covered in blood and dirt with him. A cold look covered his face. My nerves went wild. He set both it and himself down.
“What’s in it da?”
“Don’t know, found it couple miles out from where we found you.” He looked right at me. He knew something. Had he gone past the pack? Had he found the rest?
“Is mine,” I said.
He studied me. “Big load to be luggin’ round by yourself.”
“Why you think it not be with me?” I felt tension rising quickly. “I’s used to carryin’ ‘round weight on my own. Past the Road, it be only thing that mean you alive.” He listened. They both did. “Here, though, them dogs make it different. Least past the Road there ain’t no place for them to hide.”
“Why didn’t you tell us ‘bout it? We coulda gone get it for you.” Julian said. His father looked at him. Sadness covered his face. I felt…guilt. He turned back to me and gave me a look asking me to keep quiet. I knew at this moment, it wasn’t just the pack, he had found it all.
“I…” I looked at the brute again. His gaze brought fear into my soul. Was I asking permission? “I not know how close we be.”
“Well is there more? Maybe we can find it?” Julian said.
“No.” The abruptness of my response silenced him. What would the brute do now? Now that he knew?
“Go on son, we should turn in.” Julian tried to protest but neither I nor his father gave him room to. When the boy finally laid in his sack his father sat up and put out the fire yet again. He got into his own sack, never taking his eyes off me. I turned and faced the walls. The brute had seen what I was capable of. He knew now that I was no different, and I knew what had to come. If he did it tonight, or days from now, it did not matter.
I felt his eyes burning my back. He watched me, guarding his own. He knew he had made a mistake by leaving me on my own, even with my injuries. By leaving me with his son, alone.
I ran toward the circle of strange trees, leaving the barren land behind me with each step. When I reached them, they pulled me in and covered me from the sun. They were happy I was there. The leaves danced around me but I could feel there was no wind to help them. I could hear them communicating amongst each other and, while I couldn’t understand them, they could understand me. I told them I was hungry and immediately a bright orange fruit dropped into my hand. I looked up and saw that, where the fruit had dropped from, another grew in its place. I picked the newborn off and saw another grow in seconds. I looked around and realized I could have it all. I dropped the fruits and in my hands I gripped something sharp. I took my stance at the base of the strange brown tree and hacked away.
I sprang up from my sack, ignoring the pain from my side. I could still hear the shrieks of the trees swarming in my head. I looked around and saw the brute sitting opposite me, staring at a book.
“Where be Julian?” I asked
“I sent him to check the traps that be close.” the brute responded.
“It ain’t safe for him to be out there by hisself.”
“I reckon is safer than being here with you.” That hurt worse than the pain in my body.
“What you think I done?”
“We both know what you done.”
“You gone tell me you ain’t ever kill a man?”
“Not how you done it.”
“Anybody do the same to survive.”
“That be where you wrong.” He said. I curled my lip. “You kill em’ when they sleep? That how you get all em’?” I clenched my jaw. “That ain’t survival.”
“You searchin’ for your Vaults, and I do my own.”
“What they done that they deserve all that?”
I let out a snort. “You livin’ in the wrong world, brute. Them people, same as any other, woulda done same to you as I did them…done worse to me, but I got mine.” He just stared at me. What was he trying to figure out? “You either gone kill me now, or go on your way and leave me be.” I wanted him to say something, but he wouldn’t. He should just get up and get it over with. He had saved me, it was his life to take anyway. Instead, he just sat there. Silent.
“My boy like you.” I was thrown aback. Why would he say that? “You coulda kill im yesterday, or before that. But you didn’t….why?”
“He ain’t deserve it.”
“All them people you kill. They deserve it?”
“Them folks you seen.” I nodded.
“And any other wanderers?” I stayed quiet. “How you know they ain’t like my son?” I looked up.
“Cuz ya’ll don’t exist. Anyone like you be dead before ya’ll get a chance to see the night.” He knew I was right. And then we heard footsteps.
It was more than one, silent, creeping. The brute took a large blade from his pack and stood. “Julian?” he called. I hissed at him to stay quiet. I forced myself onto my knees and waited.
“If ya’ll got any weapons I set em’ down before we see em’ or we carve up this boy nice.” The voice came from right outside the cave. The brute hesitated but decided to listen. After a moment three men stepped in. One holding Julian by the mouth with a blade to his throat, another with a rifle, and the last with a blade similar to the one the brute had set down. The boy had his eye swollen nearly shut, but through the other I could see the fear that protruded from him.
“Woooohooohoooo! Bud wadn’t you just sayin’ how you hopin’ there be a woman?” The man with the rifle grinned, revealing he had no front teeth. “Rest of the boys gone be real sad they ain’t come. This one got them real pretty eyes.” They all inched their way forward. “Now you listen big man. We ain’t wanna kill ya’ll. Just here for your stuff. Now we see you gotta woman with you. We gone take er just once. Eacha us. But we leave her here with ya. That’s all. We ain’t rootless.” Anger was displayed all over the brute.
“Alright then, now that we all get it. Bud, get all they stuff.” said the same man. I had assumed the toothless man to be Bud but it was the other man that stepped up. The toothless man kept the rifle pointed directly at the brute while the other holding Julian kept an eye on me. Bud cautiously gathered everything and put it behind the man holding Julian. “Woman we gone take you now. Make it easy and it be over quick. No one need get hurt.”
I snarled at them. They all laughed. I looked at the brute but he just watched his boy. He had to know I wouldn’t let them. Would I? The man holding Julian motioned to Bud with his head.
“But I’s hopin’ I be first!” said Bud.
“Next time. I found im remember?”
Bud puffed out air. “You right.” He took Julian and let the other man creep forward. As he undid the tie around his pants he shook his hips, taking them off. He nodded towards me. “Go on now, on your back.”
“Fuck you.” I spat. He chuckled.
“Remember what I says.” I looked at the brute again, the gun pointed directly at him. I felt sad. I wanted him to look at me. I laid back slowly, trying not to stretch my wounds. It hurt, but I almost didn’t feel it. The man motioned for me to untie my pants. As I did, I noticed Bud had removed his blade from the boy’s throat and was massaging his crotch. My pants were torn down and the man’s eyes lit up at the sight of my wound.
“Wooooooh! Somethin’ done fucked you up nasty!”
The toothless man looked over and screwed up his face. “You right Roj! That there-” The brute slapped the rifle down and a shot went off. The explosion left my ears ringing but I reacted quickly. I kicked the man in the side of the face and knocked him back. I sat up and jumped on him in a flash. Without thinking I sank my teeth into his neck and bit as hard as I could, tearing his flesh much worse than my own. I pulled back and felt blood spill from my mouth. His eyes were wide and he gasped for air. I clenched my fist and and made contact with the bite as hard as I could. Over and over and over until I knew there was no more breath that would go through him.
When I looked up I saw Julian on his knees, the brute near him with his hands around Bud’s throat. The toothless man lay, head twisted completely back, where the brute had knelt before. The brute’s muscles relaxed and he sat back, facing his boy. Blood was dripping from his shirt. He took short gasps of air. He lifted his hand and invited the boy. Julian went to him sobbing and, from what I saw, I knew why.
A knife stuck out from the brute’s back. The tears on his shirt showed it was not the only place the knife had gone in. One hand held his stomach where blood wanted to rush past his fingers.
His father was dying.
I pulled up my pants and took the thick branch with the rag tied on it to help myself up. I limped my way over to them and just watched. The boy tried to plead with his father. I wondered how he had reacted when his mother died. The brute’s breathing slowed and he wheezed. My instincts told me to leave, nothing good could come of staying.
The brute looked up at me. He wanted to say something but he didn’t need to. He told me everything with that look.
Just like that, he died. Bastard.
His body went limp, making it impossible for the boy to keep him up. I watched him struggle as the body fell back, the knife preventing him from laying flat.
I turned and made our way to our equipment. At least the one good thing the three had done. Made it a little easier to gather it all up. I could hear the boy trying to deny what had happened. I was sorry I had to be there the day he learned. I picked up what I could and leaned it over on my good side. There was a lot I couldn’t take but I stuffed what I could in a sack and tied it up to drag. I had to leave. The explosion from the rifle would attract the rest of their group.
Each step was as painful as the first but I needed to push through it. I slowly limped my way through the cave until I hit the exit. Then I heard a voice.
“Please, you can’t leave us.”
I stopped and leaned against the rock. This boy wasn’t my responsibility.
“Got enough weight on me as it is.” I would have stayed if the father was around, at least he could care for the boy.
“But we helped you,” sobbed the boy.
“Well you was right at first boy. Shoulda left me.” I pushed off the wall and kept on straining my body. I would rest when I was a few miles away.
I kept hearing the boy repeatedly sobbing, “My name is Julian, not boy. Julian…not boy.” Few limps out and that bastard brute’s look filled my head. “Julian…not boy.”
I tried ignoring it but I couldn’t. I stopped again and turned just enough to see the boy.
“Julian.” I called. He looked up, tears covered his face. “Let’s go.”
“But my da!” I turned away, dropped the bag, and limped on.
After a moment I heard the boy’s steps behind me and heard him pick up the bag.
Just like that a weight was added, but I felt it would all get lighter.