He had to keep moving, that the man instinctively knew. He had to get away, from the rioting, the lawlessness, the killing. Away from the brutal gangs that ruled the highways. Then there was the boy that he found along the way, an orphan with no place to go. He couldn't leave the child behind; that would be murder. Together they had to make their way across the razed landscape of post collapse America, west to where there was safety, a chance to begin again. If only they survived the journey.
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Quickly he opened his eyes. The man knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore so finally stopped trying. He felt lucky to get the few short hours he had. The man knew if he hadn’t been so sick and exhausted he wouldn’t have slept even that much.
He lay there and could see the ceiling high above him. From studying it he could tell it was old. The timbers were roughly cut and overall it appeared well made and sturdy, as if it had been built with pride and been there a long time. This building was probably once a barn, he thought, or maybe some type of storage building. He couldn’t really tell what it originally was as much more modern construction obscured most of his view.
Running the length of the building was a new inner framework of walls constructed of 2x4s and four-by-eight-foot drywall sheets set on end. The walls were unfinished and the exposed interior studs reminded him of the skeleton of a long dead cow scattered about on the ground. He had seen it just days before. These inner walls sectioned off the area, effectively creating an eight-foot-tall cubicle with an open ceiling, the very noticeable and out-of-place older ceiling above it his only indication this building was not exactly what it seemed.
His room was roughly twelve-foot square and empty, nearly empty. He remembered the mattress and his fingers felt the cool clean sheet he rested on. It was just an old bed mattress but it felt good. It had been a long time since he slept in a bed, let alone a clean one, and this one was clean, the faint and long forgotten smell of bleach lingered. He wondered when was the last time he slept on clean sheets; no answer came.
Just then there came a gentle nudge and with it a soft sigh. The boy was sleeping and in his dreaming clung to the man, his small arm draped over him and his angelic face buried into the man’s side, his body nestled next to him and partially on his right arm. His arm was falling asleep under the weight of the boy and a tingling sensation was starting in his fingertips. Still, he didn’t have the heart to wake the child. He began slowly extracting his arm out from under his small charge. Gradually and carefully he was able to free himself with only a light stirring from the boy. The man was pleased he did not wake him and it showed with a faint smile to his face. The boy deserves a good rest, he told himself. They both deserved a good rest, and even under these circumstances he would take it, if he could.
Laying there, he thought of the boy. The boy’s name was Joshua, he knew that for sure. That name was sewn into his jacket and written on a toy he had with him; he answered to that name. Yes, he was sure the child’s first name was Joshua, but it was his last name that was in question. He believed it was probably Bryce but couldn’t say with complete certainty. He knew the boy’s mother was named Bryce so that should be his name too. The man decided if the boy should ever ask he would tell him his name was Joshua Bryce, because it probably was.
But how old is he? The man considered the question a while. He had met Joshua over four years earlier. At the time he thought the boy to be two or probably three years old, but there was no absolute way to say for certain. So now Joshua would have to be either six or seven years old. The man answered aloud, “Seven, he’s seven.” It just made more sense. If the boy was only six that would mean he was big for his age and that just didn’t seem possible given how little the two of them had been eating over the last four years. If anything, you would think he would be small for his age, but somehow he wasn’t. The more the man thought about it the more he was sure. Joshua appeared to be a healthy seven-year-old. Joshua was seven.
A light rapping of knuckles on wood got his attention. On the other side of the room in the makeshift doorway stood a man, he remained at the half-finished entrance and would not come in any further. He appeared to be only a few years older than him, ten years at most, that might make him in his mid-fifties, maybe. He appeared in good health as well, not malnourished like so many others the man had seen. He was cleanly shaven and his haircut was fresh too. He dressed in the same camouflaged military fatigues he had already seen before. As before, there were no indications of name or rank. He also wore a military style web belt with a pistol in a flap holster on his right side, on his left a pouch holding two extra magazines for the pistol, a canteen and two-way radio. The man swiftly sized him up. He was sure his visitor was probably former military but didn’t belong to one of the numerous gangs that roamed the countryside.
After a couple of uncomfortable seconds, he finally spoke. “My name is Michael Thompson, you feel up to answering some questions?”
The boy stirred but did not wake. He remained deep in his well-earned sleep.
“You’ll understand if I keep my distance?” Thompson leaned heavily on the doorframe. “I was told you had a bad cough when you got here and there have been reports of refugees spreading influenza and tuberculosis. We’ve heard of some serious outbreaks back east.”
“Yes, I understand,” the man felt a little nervous because he really wasn’t sure where the conversation was heading, “but I don’t have influenza or TB …”
“You’re sure of that?”
The reply made him think Ex-Military had heard that before, had been in this situation before, maybe more than once. He didn’t respond.
“Are you in command here?” He found himself getting more anxious by the moment and Thompson’s vague manner wasn’t helping.
“No, we try to run our group by committee, by majority vote.”
“So what happens when your group can’t come to a consensus?” He was trying to confirm what he already knew, that Thompson was in charge.
“Well, in those rare instances I guess you can say I’m the tie breaker.” Thompson said it with a smile and it went a long way to relieve the tension, but the relief was short-lived.
Now the conversation veered in a direction the man did not like at all. “That your boy?” Thompson casually asked as he motioned to Joshua with his eyes. Joshua continued in his heavy sleep, oblivious to the increasingly awkward dialogue between the two men.
He really began feeling anxious now. He sat there speechless on the clean smelling sheets, on top of the mattress, sitting on the pine wood floor. No words came and it seemed to him hours were passing even if rationally he knew it had only been scarce seconds since Thompson asked the question.
Thompson looked the man directly in the eyes and asked again, “I said, is that your boy?” This time the question came with a much more serious and accusing tone. He understood Thompson’s implication. Thompson’s hand, which had until then been resting on his belt buckle, now moved over to rest on his pistol.
Even with all he had seen and been through in the last four and a half years, never before at any time did the man feel so exposed and completely vulnerable as right at that moment. He searched for just the right words because even though he had done nothing wrong, he also knew in these crazy times even the appearance of wrong could get you killed.
In this new America, many crimes could be forgiven, but there were three that were never excused and usually ended in a gruesome and painful death for those involved. Cannibals, rapist, pedophiles, all the worst of humankind, and all the man could think of at that second. No matter where he had gone in this new world, anyone caught in those vile acts, and in many instances even suspected of those acts, were all guaranteed a death sentence. They might get a bullet in the brain if lucky, but very few ever got off so easy. Now that law and order were slowly being re-established, society did not have the time or stomach for such people and they were usually dealt with swiftly and brutally. As brutal as anything he witnessed during the worst of the lawless times.
Images suddenly came rushing back to his mind, images he hoped to one day forget. A rapist crucified on a tree in south central Kentucky, his genitals hacked off and stuffed in his mouth. A cannibal dismembered alive and stacked into a neat pile just outside East St. Louis, the condemned man’s face twisted into a grotesque mask in the last seconds of life. It now sat on top of the pile with a small hand written placard next to it as a reminder to others, “This what happens to canabals around here.” But most haunting to the man was a child molester that had been tied down and cut wide open, his guts pulled out, then left to be eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs. That happened in Mexico, Missouri, and he had been there to witness the excruciating horror of it live and in bloody color. He had wished, hoped, that one day he could forget it but doubted he ever would. Now it looked like he might suffer the same fate, his innocence irrelevant. The man knew he better come up with the right answer and quickly.
Thompson continued looking directly into the man’s eyes waiting for an answer. After an eternity it finally came. “No, he’s not mine, but I think he’s adopted me,” he told him with a disarming smile.
Thompson was caught off guard with the answer and he couldn’t help but smile a little too, but the smile faded rapidly. “I had the sentries watch the two of you closely last night; they didn’t report anything inappropriate.”
“There’s nothing like THAT between me and the boy!” The man found himself angry and flustered at just having to defend himself from such accusations.
Thompson seemed unaffected by the man’s plea. “I think you’re being honest, I hope you are.” Thompson’s eyes moved to the boy as he sleepily clung to the man. The child certainly appeared to be well cared for but he wasn’t sure and wasn’t taking chances. “I’ve got a feeling you might be telling the truth but I could be wrong.” Thompson shifted his weight to the other side of the doorway. “I’m going to be up front with you, we’re going to find out the truth, we will. If there is something between …” Thompson stopped mid-sentence as if choking on the words. Again he looked the man directly in the eye. “If you just tell me now you have my promise that I will end it for you as quickly and painlessly as possible. You have my word on that.”
The man had no doubt of the sincerity in Thompson’s eyes.
“But I promise you something else. If you continue on like this and then I discover you’ve been lying, that you’ve been hurting that little boy … you are going to personally find out how unpleasant dying can be.”
The man just stared at Thompson, struggling to find the right words to say. He began to seriously question if there were any or if it was even possible to get out of this situation alive. Before he could find an answer, a voice came over Thompson’s radio. “Red One, come in.”
Thompson grabbed his radio. “This is Red One, go ahead.”
“Red One, we have a situation with Blue Niner. Please report to command, over.”
“Red One, copy.” Thompson returned the radio to its place on his belt, never taking his eyes off the man, “We’ll have to finish this later. For your sake I hope you’re not lying.” As he was leaving he could hear Thompson tell the sentry through the thin drywall boards, “Make sure he doesn’t leave that room, no matter what!”
The man lay there for a second in shock, not sure what he could do, if anything, to get out of this situation. He tried to imagine what he could have done differently but nothing came to him. His mind wandered back to just the day before when this bad dream began.
Suddenly he was startled by the sound of gunfire. The man had plenty of experience with guns, years of it, and knew to trust his own judgment. He heard rifle fire and not that far off. He had no choice but to get up now, rousing the boy from his gentle sleep.
Joshua was startled too and was on his feet right behind the man. Over the years they traveled together, the boy was always one step behind him. The child stayed close as it gave him some comfort in an insecure world. But now with the uncertainty of this new situation, it made the boy even more frightened and clingy.
More gunshots broke the silence. Definitely rifle fire, he thought, four quick bursts from the same rifle, the man believed it most likely a semi-auto 5.56 millimeter. Then came a single, louder and more distinctive shot, probably a .30 caliber, although he couldn’t be sure. Only a brief moment later he heard numerous gunshots being fired in an uninterrupted string, the shots being so close together he was unable to distinguish them one from the other.
Without thinking, the man rushed to the doorway for a better vantage. He thrust his head out the opening into the hallway outside, both hands straddling the doorframe to keep from falling through.
The boy was right behind him with his small fingers tightly locked onto the man, as if somehow by magic, or by the very force of his will, he could keep him from going any further. In a hushed voice the boy pleaded, “No!”
At that exact time, outside the room came a strangely disjointed voice. It seemed to echo from above and from some feet away. It was a man’s voice and it resonated throughout the building. The voice spoke clearly and to the point, “If you leave the room you will be shot!” There was no uncertainty the voice meant what it said.
Carefully he brought his head back into the room. Looking around he could see nothing outside but more walls and didn’t really know any more about his new home than he already did.
Joshua instinctively grabbed him around the waist holding on tight, as if the moment he let go the man would disappear forever.
In the distance they could both hear the echo of a single faint gunshot.