By Max Masen
Patriots is a work of fiction and any similarities between real people, both living and dead, are purely coincidental and products of the author’s imagination. Any places that resemble real locales in the book are, again, purely coincidental, and have been fabricated for your enjoyment.
Story by Max Masen
Edited by Shannon Johnson and Tommy Jay
Cover design by Shannon Johnson and Max Masen
For my lovely girlfriend
I pushed back the flaps of the tent and found the community was sprawling, everyone moving intently in different directions. Mr. Bran held a bucket of water and dropped it on his growing crops. Jane, the teacher at our makeshift elementary school, stood outside the door and motioned for the children to come and join her inside.
The sun was high in the sky, shadows mere dots beneath our feet. I overslept. Jess approached me and slapped me on the back.
“What were you dreaming about?” she asked.
“Home, I think,” I replied.
“You are home, Dustin.”
“Sure, sure.” Seven years later and I still don’t feel like it’s home. But I’ll let her have it for now. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.
I lowered my gaze to the ground, my brow slightly furrowed. I had another dream about that night. I suppose it was more of a memory than a dream, yet a nightmare nonetheless. Every time I had the dream, our town was always crystal clear, and I could make out the look of the house perfectly. My parents were starting to disappear, though. They were in the dream but they were starting to grow fuzzier and fuzzier every time the dream occurred. I didn’t want to lose them completely.
I saw Levi was in line over by the mess hall and walked over to him. The sun was out and the weather was beautiful; it wasn’t too hot or too cold. Jess was clearly upset that I ignored her; she had that look in her eye that told me so. I wasn’t mad at her though. I had actually grown pretty close to her during this time.
“Levi, what’s the plans for the day?” I asked. I already know the answer.
“Y’know, I figured we’d go over the wall today and go about town. Maybe do some shopping and go-karting,” he said sarcastically. Yup, I guessed it exactly. Maybe it’s because his answer never changes from day to day.
I shifted my gaze to the metallic wall. It was built to keep us safe. Can it really keep us safe? It spanned the length of a small town and every Hyena outpost had one. Nobody was allowed in or out except for the Soldiers of the Revolution. Many of the outposts had been located underground early in the revolution. The government could easily bomb any settlements above ground so it was only logical to go where they couldn’t be reached.
Many of the soldiers were just average people that had fallen on hard times and had a gun in their house. Anyone could fight and the Hyenas used that as the calling. The Hyenas aimed to fix the apparent problems and blights of the country, most of them not even being able to agree on what those problems were, but they were determined to do something. Many of them weren’t sure how, but they knew that they had the nation’s best interest in their hearts. I guess that was enough to start this whole thing. Maybe that’s what gets every revolution, every instance of change, to start.
“It gets funnier every time, Levi,” I said back.
“Dustin, this sucks.”
“I know, buddy, but we’re safe. Seven years and still alive. That counts for something, right?” I asked rhetorically.
“I don’t like Jess,” he stated bluntly. He didn’t look at me when he said it, knowing I would be upset.
“I know. You wear that very well.”
“I get bored in here, Dustin. There’s not a lot of kids left. They keep getting sick and have to leave.”
“I know,” I said sympathetically. “They’re looking in the city for antibiotics. Everybody is gonna be fine soon.”
Living in close quarters with a shortage of doctors led to catastrophe. Many people were growing more and more ill and eventually died. We’d lost around twenty in the past two weeks. Jess was showing signs of the sickness but brushed off any remarks regarding her health.
“You better be right, Dustin. I don’t want to live here anymore. This isn’t living. This is just not dying.”
“ That's more than a lot of people have right now,” I replied sternly. “They'd kill- literally- to be in the spot you're in right now. So get cozy. We're not going anywhere.”
“ I didn't mean it like that. I just- I meant there's gotta be better things out there.”
“There’s not, Levi,” I replied. “Outside of the walls there are hunters, raiders, madmen, cannibals, and all other sorts of horrible things.”
“You just keep saying that to scare me.”
“No,” I said softly. “There’s people outside of these walls doing anything in their power to stay alive right now and you’re complaining because there are a shortage of kids to play with. Get over it and grow up.” I was quiet after saying that. I didn’t want to upset Levi, but I had to give it to him sternly. He had to know that I was not the bad guy, and neither was Jess. We were doing everything we could to keep him and everybody else safe.
“This is because of Jess, isn’t it?” His tone was becoming more hostile.
“What do you mean?” I didn’t like playing oblivious, but sometimes I was too tired to do otherwise.
“Because you feel some kind of misplaced obligation to her instead of me.”
“You are the most important person to me, Levi. The only reason we’re here is because of you. So stop picking fights and start thanking me for keeping you alive. I know none of this makes sense but it will when you’re older,” I chastised him.
“You’re not dad, Dustin.”
“Yeah, but I’m all you got so get used to it.”
A moment of silence passed and Levi looked down at the ground. He slowly raised his head to look me in the eyes.
“I’m sorry, Dustin. I just miss how things used to be, you know?” he asked softly.
“Trust me, I know. It’s been years, though, and this is what we know now. Things are going to get worse before they get better. That’s what Jess told me seven years ago. I think we’ve already gotten through the worst of it. Things are finally going to get better. I know it’s hard but we have to trust the leaders know what they’re doing. Things might actually get back to how they used to be.”
I waited for him to answer, but he never did. I could see in his eyes that he was trying his hardest to think of a response, but he couldn’t. He knew I was right. I was his older brother and no matter how smart he thought he was, I was always right.
“Now go get something to eat,” I demanded.
He turned to face the line again but he turned back suddenly to face me.
“Dustin, you’re the most important person to me too,” he said.
I turned to face the rest of the community with the abundance of tents and makeshift homes. We had families living there. For the first time in years, we were finally starting to rebuild what once was. We were not well off but we had running water and a lot of food. That was enough. Also, we had each other.
These were people that seemed like your average townsfolk, but just a few months prior they were slaughtering the few government officials and army personnel that remained in the area. I held them in high regard, though, and had actually gotten to know many of them. I still couldn’t get used to them calling me by their former leader’s name, however. I just wanted to be able to tell them that Marley was dead and my name is Parker. I didn’t feel that knowing their leader was dead would do anything to their cause now, anyway. After all, the war was seemingly won for the rebels. I kept up the charade for Jess.
I walked through the center of the town. I decided to talk to Jess again. She always knew what to do to keep me from getting too bored. She would be in the only building that served alcohol, the bar. It was a beat-up, rundown joint, but that’s how she liked it. A few nights back she got hit in the face pretty hard, left a shiner by her left eye. Still, she couldn’t get enough of it and so that’s where I went. She was in her usual seat in the corner of the place. The building was dimly lit and had the feeling of a bar before the revolution started.
“Jess,” I called out.
“What do you want now? You’re not gonna mouth off to me again, are you?” she asked jokingly.
“Right now, do you believe what you’ve done has made the country better?”
“We’ve gotten rid of the ultra-rich. We’ve killed or removed the ones who fell into the top one percent and watched the rest of us suffer and scramble for the money that was left over. I think that counts for something,” she explained.
“Making things worse for a few just to make a point doesn’t mean things are better, though, Jess. Are the previous poor any richer? Everybody is living in shacks. Everybody.”
“Take a seat, Dustin.” She pointed to the seat adjacent to her. She had an unmoving expression on her face. Nothing I was going to say would change her opinion on what she had done.
I sat down and looked at her, waiting for a response to my previous question. She had no answer. She just looked back at me with a smirk on her face and a drink in her hand.
“Do you not like that we’re friends? Is that what this is?” She raised her drink, looked into it, seemingly contemplating, before setting it back down.
“No, Jess. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately.”
“You think too much.”
“Somebody has to do it around here,” I replied. “The Hyenas don’t even know what they’re going to do with the country if they manage to take the new Capital and I’m the spokesperson.”
“If we take the Capital?” she asked with an amused expression.
“Yes, Jess. If. Nothing is certain right now, is it? You don’t even know if you’ll last until the end of the week.”
“You shut up right now, Dustin.” She raised her voice. There was a frustration coming from her, evident from the bulging veins in her forehead. She didn’t think I could see them, but I always could. “Nothing is wrong with me. They’re bringing back the medicine and I am going to be fine.”
“We need to look at the bigger picture. You’re getting older, Jess, and you’re the one who’s in charge around here. What happens after you do go? Am I in charge? I don’t feel as passionately about this as any of the rest of you do. I’m just here for the ride. I’m just here for you. But most importantly, I’m here for my brother.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Dustin. Remember that. Remember that I’m going to lead this country into the next era,” Jess said poignantly.
“Yeah, you’re gonna lead this country.” I rolled my eyes. “Nobody even knows your name. They hang pictures of me all over the damn place but you’ll be the one leading things.”
Things started to get heated between the two of us. The tension had been rising for a while. I started to question her too much and was pointing out her faults. She couldn’t handle it. Her plan was poorly thought out and she was starting to fear that it would crumble from under her. The government was on its last legs for a while but was starting to bounce back. Its power was uncertain.
“Dustin, I-” she was cut off quickly as an explosion shook the entire town.
“We’ll discuss this later,” I said sharply.
Jess reached for her pistol, which was resting in its holster. The man standing behind the counter was yelling to me. He threw me a shotgun and instructed me to hide.
“Listen to him,” Jess demanded of me.
“No, I need to find Levi!” I examined the area, looking for the exit. I knew where it was, but a sense of fear took hold of me and became dominant over my previous knowledge of escape.
“I’ll find him. Just get to cover.”
Jess grabbed my shoulder but I threw her hand off. She tried to grab me but I threw her to the ground. I quickly ran out the door of the building and witnessed the drones flying overhead.
“Dustin, get down!” Jess yelled. “If you die, this is all for nothing!”
I ignored her and kept running. I was determined to find Levi. Nothing was going to get in my way. I refused to lose another brother.
Bombs were dropped and tents started to explode along with everything inside of them. There was nothing left of my tent when I reached it. My ears were ringing and soldiers in power armor were climbing the sides of the walls. The scraggly Hyena soldiers attempted to hold them off but the government warriors pushed on and decimated the rebels on the wall. A line was drawn that the remainder of the rebels were holding. I used this to my advantage as I ran through the town looking for Levi.
There were about two hundred of the rebels living in the outpost. Within a few minutes, there was only a fraction of that.
“Hold the line!” one of the Hyenas yelled.
“I got one! I got one of them!” another yelled upon shooting a government soldier.
The military’s might, what was left of it that is, compensated for their lack of numbers by being crack shots and experts with any given offensive tool. I may not have gotten into any conflicts before that moment but that much I knew was certain from what Jess had taught me about them.
The attack was coordinated. The government soldiers seemed to have been after something. It appeared as though they knew I was there. The Hyenas weren’t trying overly hard to conceal my location. Jess and the others were under the impression the government was too weak to launch an attack like this. They were wrong.
I finally came upon Levi on the other side of town. He had been hiding under the remains of one of the makeshift brick homes. He was curled up in the fetal position and covering his ears. I grabbed his arm and he punched me in the face. He looked terrified and he clearly didn’t realize who I was. I wiggled my nose around, fearing that it was broken. The shock of the punch finally wore off and I leaned down again.
“Levi? It’s me, buddy,” I said.
“Dustin?” He looked to me in shock. “Get us out of here.”
I grabbed his arm and pulled him up. We ran back the way I came to get him. We dodged bullets from soldiers and bombs that the drones were still dropping. Jess and a team of men came from the side and were making gestures indicating she wanted us to follow her. We ran to her as quickly as possible.
“Jess, what’s the plan?” I asked.
“Escape,” she replied. “That’s all we can do. We’re going to lose this outpost. The few men still holding the line will allow us the time we need to get out of here.”
“We’re leaving them to die?” Levi asked.
“It’s either that or we all die,” Jess responded.
“We don’t have any other options.” I knew what I was doing. I was scared, but what I did was put myself above the other men that had used their lives to protect me. There was no getting past that fact.
Levi appeared confused. He looked at me as if I should have done something. There was nothing I could do. I knew I was disappointing him. He looked up to me and I was letting him down. He couldn’t believe his brother would leave these people to die for us.
“Let’s go, Dustin,” Jess ordered. “There’s another outpost close by that we can evacuate to.”
We went into one of the buildings that was bombed out. There was a hidden door under a rug that we used to sneak underground into. I could still hear the battle raging above ground after we had exited. I heard men and women screaming in pain. The bullets were unrelenting and the death toll must have been massive.
“Were all those deaths necessary too, Jess?” I asked furiously.
“We didn’t see it coming. We thought there was nothing left of the government. You can’t get mad at me for this, Dustin. We had no idea about any of this,” Jess said defensively. “By all means, if you can find better out there, continue on by yourself.”
“I can get mad at you for this. You dragged me into this from the beginning. I’m the one responsible for all of this, because of you. Had I just exposed that I wasn’t Marley, none of this would have happened. This is on me!” I yelled.
“Think what you want. Let’s keep going, though. They’ll be looking for us. Whether I like it or not, I still need you alive,” Jess said in response. She didn’t mean it, but she knew it would get to me.
We walked the length of the tunnel in silence. We finally saw light at the end. We cleared the rocks that led to the outside and walked out. The outside was beautiful. Plants, trees, and insects all around. The sounds of birds could be heard.
“Get down!” a voice yelled.
We looked above and standing on top of the rocks were two government soldiers waiting for us, ready to ruin the beauty of the outdoors for me upon first step onto the unkempt grass. They had weapons trained on me, Jess, and the other Hyenas we snuck out with. I carefully raised my shotgun but one of the soldiers spotted me.
“Drop your weapons or we’ll shoot right now!” the soldier yelled.
They were in the power armor that amplified their strength and resistance to bullets. Their faces were covered.
“It’s Marley. Tell command we have a positive ID,” one of the soldiers said to the other.
“No, let’s just kill him here,” the other suggested.
“Or we could forget about all of this and you guys could pretend you didn’t see anything?” I said uneasily.
“I’m doing it,” the soldier said. “I’m ending this right now.”
He lifted his rifle to me and put his finger on the trigger.
“No!” Jess yelled.
Jess raised her pistol and shot the soldier in the head. The bullet bounced off his helmet but caused him to lose balance. I raised my shotgun and blasted the other soldier in the chest, causing him to bounce back and fall to the ground. We knew the blasts from our weapons wouldn’t kill the soldiers; the power armor was far too resistant to be penetrated by a regular round from a pistol or a buckshot from a shotgun. The other soldier raised his rifle and shot Jess repeatedly before I could pump the shotgun and fire another buckshot into the soldier that was still standing. He also fell to the ground and I walked up to the one that shot Jess. I ripped off his helmet and grabbed my knife. I looked to Levi, then to the knife. I gripped it tightly in my hand and then threw it away from me. The other soldier began getting up and limping away.
“Yeah, go ahead!” I yelled to the soldier who was in full retreat. “Run away! Tell everyone you meet who kicked your ass!” My heart was beating too quickly, threatening to rip out of my chest. The second soldier got up, looked at me with wide, terrified eyes. “Get up!” I yelled to him. “Get out of here!” I reached for the shotgun as the soldier got up and ran to meet up with his friend. I shot a buckshot into the sky and screamed. Jess, I remembered. Jess is in trouble.
I raced to Jess who was struggling to breathe.
“Jess,” I said faintly, “I’m sorry.”
“Dustin, you were right.” She looked sad, remorseful. “I was in over my head. You’re in charge now. I trust that you’ll make the right decisions for us. For all of us.”
“I never asked for this.” My eyes were filling up, my vision becoming blurred. I was angry, confused, and I felt more lost than I ever had before. Without Jess I didn’t know what to do, where to go, how to carry on.
“I know. And I’m sorry I put you in this position. What was that you always used to say?”
“The one thing that never changes. The only constant.”
“That I’m always with you.”
Jess smiled and I shot her a smile back. I held the back of her head loosely and tried to savor the moment. I tried not to look at the blood; I only looked at her smiling visage. But she suddenly lost her expression and her head rolled back. I got up to look at Levi and the two soldiers that accompanied us.
I lifted the shotgun up and aimed it at the sky and cocked my knee. “We got a long road ahead of us.”
I was sitting by the fire in my torn clothes, greasy and dirty from going unwashed for so long. I looked around the area. Across from me were the two Hyenas that escaped with us. Their names were Dave and Chuck. They had become vital in showing us the way to the Hyena outposts. We started in St. Clair, Michigan and our goal was an outpost located in Abbott, Texas. It was a long shot but it was our only chance of survival.
The government gained some of its strength back and had been using drones to destroy the Hyena outposts all throughout the country. Texas and a few other southern states were the only ones I’d be welcomed in. The Hyenas resorted to burrowing underground once again. Therefore, they were harder to find when we did come upon them. We couldn’t stay long when we did find them, though. Many of the outposts we actually made it to were destroyed a week or so after we left. It wasn’t safe for our kind anymore.
The worst part of all of it was knowing I didn’t even believe in the cause. I was being hunted down for something I didn’t want to be a part of. The worst part was putting Levi at risk because I was too scared to go it alone. I traded a false sense of security for our livelihoods.
“Y’know, after we make it to the next outpost, there won’t be another for a long time,” Chuck said to me. “Do you think you’re ready for that?”
“We won’t have any ammo or food,” Dave said to back up Chuck.
“I don’t know.” I was becoming uncertain about everything. I couldn’t protect Levi. I couldn’t even protect myself. “I wish I knew. We have food right now. We’re already running low on ammo but Levi found the bow he’s been using to hunt.”
“That won’t take down a drone.” Chuck laughed a little, most likely out of annoyance.
“But your gun can?” I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Or will you be punching it down with your bare hands? Please, tell me more about your hands of steel.”
“Alright, guys, that’s enough,” Dave butted in.
“Look, we are fine,” I asserted. “And you have no right to talk to me like that.” I held onto my false sense of leadership for the roadtrip.
“I know you’re not the real Marley.” Chuck furrowed his brow and shot me a daring glance. “Even if you were, it wouldn’t make a difference. You’re just a prick that can’t lead and can’t fight.”
“You’d all be dead if it weren’t for me,” I said.
“He’s got a point,” Dave said in support of me.
Levi came up quietly from behind a tree with a row of rabbits he had caught. He held his bow tightly and looked much older.
“What were we discussing now?” Levi asked. “Politics?”
“Something like that,” Chuck replied.
Chuck didn’t normally act so aggressive. It was most likely his hunger that was getting to him. It was getting to all of us. Hostility was reigning when hunger took over. Luckily Levi had managed to bag some rabbits for dinner. It didn’t help either that the air was getting colder. I was beginning to see my breath in the air, and the leaves began to change. We had to adapt to the changing climate. The Hyena outposts we passed had supplied us with warmer jackets, gloves, and hats. The cold of winter was still a few months away. We prayed we’d be somewhere warmer when it came. We still had hope and that kept us going.
I got up and walked the perimeter. Upon seeing Levi’s footprints farther out, I realized there was a second set of footprints. Fear set in and I raced back to camp.
“Levi!” I yelled.
“What’s going on?” Levi asked.
“Were you followed back here?”
“No. Why do you ask?” Levi said with a confused expression.
“There was another set of footprints next to yours. We need to keep moving,” I said dramatically.
“I just finished building this fire,” Chuck said angrily.
“And now you’ll have to start putting it out,” I barked back. The urgency in my voice must have been apparent, because he immediately went to work smothering the flames. Either that, or he knew I was right.
“I’m gonna have to agree with Dustin on this one,” Dave said. “I don’t want to die today.”
“There’s a town close by on the map,” I said. “We can go there and see if we can find a spot to spend the night.”
It was decided unanimously that we head out for the town. Chuck wasn’t happy about it but he knew it was for the best, therefore, he agreed with us. Most of the walk was in silence. We were getting tired and weak. We walked most hours of the day. We walked every day. It was starting to take its toll. I looked at Levi as his head started to weave and bob. He collapsed a moment later.
“Levi, can you hear me?” I asked.
“He’ll be fine,” Chuck said. “He’s probably just dehydrated.”
“Do we have much water left?” Dave asked.
“Down to three and a half bottles. Give him one,” Chuck demanded furiously. He swiped the bottle from Dave’s hand. He was becoming defensive over my brother.
Levi was still awake, but appeared disoriented. His eyes looked around the area but he didn’t appear to know where he was. I put my hand out for Chuck to give me the water bottle. After a moment of consideration, he finally put the bottle in my hand. I told Levi what I would be doing so I wouldn’t alarm him. I then sat him up and put the top of the bottle in his mouth.
“You’re gonna be alright, buddy,” I said to Levi.
He started to come to and looked at me with knowing eyes.
“What happened?” Levi asked,
“You passed out,” Chuck said laughing.
Levi always seemed to cheer Chuck up. I wasn’t sure why, and I was afraid to ask.
“Let’s get going,” Dave said.
I helped Levi to his feet and he held onto the water bottle tightly for the rest of the journey into town. We came over a hill and found what we were looking for. The town was sitting quietly and was smaller than I imagined. Most of it had been cut off from the center which was barricaded. The only way in was through the middle of town. It looked like someone made it so whoever entered would have to funnel in through the narrow passage.
The sun was setting in front of us and we knew time was short. We had to get in there and set up camp quickly. First, we had to secure the area. This meant making sure it was safe to stay in.
“I don’t like this,” Chuck said.
“I know. Do you have any other ideas?” I asked, sincerely hoping he would.
“We’re being followed. This is the safest place,” Dave said.
Chuck finally nodded, and our short discussion ended. We only had two options, anyway. Levi was looking down at the ground as we entered through the town square.
“Are you scared?” I asked him.
Looking offended, Levi quickly answered, “Of course not! I’m fine!”
“Alright, alright,” I said laughing. “Just checking on you.”
“I’ve killed lots of things,” Levi tried to reinforce his point.
“You’ve killed defenseless rabbits and woodchucks. They don’t fight back. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a good shot, but you’re not a killer,” I said.
“I could kill those soldiers, though,” Levi said sporadically.
“Don’t talk like that,” I scolded. “Those soldiers are people, Levi. They have families just like all the people that lived at the camp with us.”
“They’re trying to kill us,” Levi was upset, anger bled from his words.
“That’s because the people we’re with have taken everything they’ve ever known,” I replied.
“You almost killed them, though, Dustin. You wanted to. I could see in your eyes when they killed Jess,” Levi remarked.
I looked down to the ground. I was about to reply, but before I could there was a snap, and a whine of running rope. Dave smacked against the ground, and was lifted high into the air. He had broken a wire that activated some mechanism that hung up a few feet above us.
“Dave! You okay?” I screamed wildly. My heart started pounding. I surveyed the area briefly to see if there were more traps around.
“I’m fine! Just get me down!” Dave yelled back.
I looked at Chuck and Levi for ideas. They looked back at me, both looked just as confused. We had knives, but there was nothing close to Dave we could climb on to get to him.
“Guys, the blood is rushing to my head,” Dave said worriedly. He’s running out of time. We need to get to him. He can’t stay upside down like that or the blood rushing to his head will kill him. There’s nothing around here we can use to get him down.
“We’re gonna get you down! We just need to brainstorm first!” I replied loudly. Dave is going to die. There’s nothing anywhere we can get our hands on that will help us. He knew I was bluffing when I said we would help him. He had to have known.
Suddenly, the rope broke and Dave fell. He landed on his head with a sickening thud, and the all-too-familiar sound of breaking bones. Chuck approached him cautiously. Dave was dead, his neck bent at an impossible angle, and Chuck looked back at us knowingly.
“We need to get out of this cursed town,” Chuck said to us.
“Agreed,” I replied.
I was terrified. There was no way to know what lay beyond in the town. I don’t think any one of us really wanted to know. If the rope death was the welcoming committee, what could possibly be beyond it?
“No! Look, the gate is closing!” Chuck yelled.
We all looked back the way we came in and the gate was indeed closing up our only exit. There was no escape. We had to dig in for the night. No way out. No, this can’t be right. I promised Levi I would protect him. A night in this town will surely kill of all of us. We’re not alone. We can’t be alone. Is that someone in the window?
“Which building looks safest to you guys?” I asked.
“No! I’m not spending the night in this place!” Chuck yelled madly.
“Hey!” I shouted to Chuck. “We don’t know who’s watching us and if they’re listening or not right now. Why don’t we get comfy and lie low?”
“No! I’m not gonna stand still and let this asshole kill all of us!” Chuck yelled back to me.
We were in the middle of town surrounded by tall buildings. Each building had numerous windows that someone could have taken a shot at us from. This realization put me on edge. Chuck was flailing wildly and waving his pistol in the air. I suddenly saw a glimmer from one of the windows and instinct kicked in. I tackled Chuck to the ground and narrowly avoided a round from a high-powered rifle. The sound was deafening, with its echo against the large buildings making it worse. Chuck threw me off of him and motioned for us to get into one of the buildings. The three of us ran frantically for a destroyed building with enough cover to keep us momentarily safe. A second round rang through the air that also missed us.
“You okay, Levi?” Chuck asked.
“Yeah, don’t ask if I’m fine or anything. Not like I just saved your ass or anything,” I said in reply to Chuck.
“I’m okay,” Levi said.
“Good,” Chuck remarked to Levi. “But touch me again and you’re dead, Dustin.”
“That guy’s still out there,” I reported. “Do we have any plans?”
“I’m thinking!” Chuck said rabidly.
“There’s no way out of here,” I asserted. “We have to take him head-on.” I was still looking around the area for ways out as I said that. As much as the reality of a looming fight was setting in, I still would have rather avoided it.
“We’re down to fifty-six rounds of ammo for various weapons,” Chuck disclosed.
“We can work our way through the buildings to get to him,” Levi chimed in.
I said back: “Good thinking. Cover and flank.”
“We don’t know how many there are of them,” Chuck stated.
“There can’t be more than one,” I said back.
“What do you base that off of?” Chuck asked suspiciously.
The three of us were talking very rapidly. Our nerves had gotten the best of us. We were in a standoff that we weren’t sure anyone could win. Our enemy clearly knew the environment well. He or she had already taken one life from our party. The buildings could have traps in them or could come down easily. They appeared to be all bombed-out during the last battle this town had seen.
The early days were rough in the war. Many people had lost their homes, families, or their own lives. Bombs were dropped, cities were destroyed, and lives were torn into pieces. Drones patrolled the area and killed on-sight. Whoever was living in this town clearly was no stranger to killing and death. Killing was what most of us had known. I tried to keep Levi away from the violence, but it was inevitable. He had to learn and, at that point, I was regretting not teaching him how to fight or fire a gun earlier on. He was thrust into the world of taking lives and having casualties on his own side.
“That’s how many I want there to be,” I replied to Chuck viciously. I felt more determined than I should have.
“I’m giving Levi the pistol,” Chuck said to me.
“No!” I yelled angrily.
“Shut up! You’re gonna give away our position!” Chuck hissed as quietly as he could.
“Why not, Dustin?! I’ve been shooting the bow!” Levi pleaded loudly.
“That’s a lot different, Levi,” I tried to reason with him. “You’re not killing anyone.”
“You need me for this,” Levi said to me. He had a determined look on his face that attempted to convey to me that he was ready. I wasn’t convinced.
“No, Chuck and I will handle this,” I said.
“The kid has a point. He needs the gun in case he runs into trouble,” Chuck remarked.
“I’ll be there if he runs into trouble. He doesn’t get a gun and that’s final,” I said definitively. A bullet ricocheted off the wall in front of us. Whoever was taking aim at us was toying with us. He or she was attempting to draw us out. It got us jumpy and ready to move. Their plan was working.
“That’s it!” Chuck yelled nervously. “I’m going for it! Cover me!”
“Chuck, no!” I shouted to him.
Chuck jumped over the wall and ran for the building adjacent to us as quickly as he could. He tripped but quickly regained his balance and continued running. From the time he jumped the wall to the time he made it to the other building, our adversary had shot two more rounds at him. I saw the glimmer of the scope and made note of it.
“You’re welcome!” Chuck yelled from his new position. “Did you guys see him?”
“Yeah, he’s in the far building to the east,” I replied.
“I’m making my way to him!” Chuck yelled.
I screeched back to him: “Alright, I’ll cover you!”
“I need a gun,” Levi said to me, pulling at my shoulder gently.
“It’s final, Levi. Stay with me and you won’t need one.” I wasn’t ready to give in.
“I can help you guys.”
“No, Chuck and I have this under control. He’s on his way to finish it up right now,” I said in response to Levi’s concerns.
We waited a few moments until we heard a few gunshots and an eerie scratching sound. Levi and I turned to look at each other. He looked terrified. I knew it was time for me to step up. I looked up and scanned the area to see if the glimmer of the shooter’s scope was visible. It wasn’t, so I made a dash for the building Chuck ran into.
My heart was pounding and I was becoming tired more easily than usual. I knew my nerves were getting to me but I couldn’t think straight. Time was moving more slowly. I ran through the building to where Chuck had gone. I made my way through an entrance where the door had been blown off. I was still trying to catch my breath.
I looked to the ground where Chuck was lying. His eyes were open and he appeared to be staring at me. It was unnerving but I continued on. I was more cautious now. It looked like Chuck had tripped some kind of trap like Dave did.
I kept walking and found my way into a room filled with jars that contained weirdly-colored fluids and body parts. There was a table that looked like it was used for surgeries in the center of the room. A body with both arms and one leg removed laid on the table.
Only a little light shone through the window so the room was mostly devoid of luminescence. The quiet was chilling. Seeing the body forced me to stop moving; it made me think what would happen to Levi and I if we didn’t make it out.
I was suddenly hit over the head with a blunt object. I hit the solid floor hard. The blood could be felt on the back of my head where I was hit. I was being dragged by my feet to the operating table.
“Shouldn’t have come here,” a strange voice said. “I don’t want to have to operate on you!”
My vision was hazy and I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
“They just can’t learn to leave me alone!” the voice continued.
I was then lifted onto the table by the man who had set the traps. I looked on the wall and saw a doctor’s certificate. I was lying next to a mutilated body and could barely move.
“They’re all sick and they need help!” he assured himself. “We have to operate on them for their own good!”
“What?” I said disoriented. “You- You're operating on who?! How many of you are there?!!”
“He talks to us!” the man said. What’s going on?! Is the doctor talking to himself or is there someone else in the room with us?
He had long, unkempt hair. His jacket was covered in mud and filth.
“Us?! Who’s us?!” I yelled worriedly. I tried to get up, but my body ached. I couldn’t move.
He suddenly went into the corner and stood there for a moment. I attempted to move slowly, finally feeling a burst of energy surge through me, but he turned around quickly and hit me in the stomach with a baseball bat.
“You can’t leave! We haven’t had dinner yet!” he said frenetically.
“No, I’m not hungry. Thanks,” I said. I attempted to play his game with him. My mind was racing with possible escape plans or various dialogue options that could be used to get me out of the situation.
“We insist!” he said as he grabbed a dirty saw and approached me.
He put the saw to my arm and made a small cut. I yelled in pain and used my other hand to punch him in the stomach. This made him laugh. He then quickly punched me in the face. His hand was bleeding and he laughed wildly.
“You can’t do this!” I yelled to him.
“This one doesn’t like the saw! What do we give him then, doctor?” he asked himself. “We just have to use a little more force!”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me off the table. Walking slowly back to his corner, he picked up an ax and approached me once again.
“No!” I yelled hectically.
He held out my left arm and knelt into my chest with his knee to keep me from moving. He gripped the ax tightly and lifted it into the air.
I then looked behind him and saw Levi holding a gun to him.
“Levi, shoot!” I screamed. What am I doing?! I can’t ask my little brother to shoot someone! But if I don’t then he’ll cut my arm off. It’s the right thing to do. It has to be.
He hesitated. The ax came down and in one excruciating moment, my arm was separated from the rest of my body. I yelled in agonizing pain. Another moment passed and the doctor looked pleased with his work.
The gunshot was loud and pierced the doctor’s skull, pieces of it flying around and into me, causing small cuts. I was still writhing in pain on the now-bloodied floor. Levi was standing in the entrance, still holding the pistol up where he had taken the shot. He was paralyzed with the thought of what he had to do.
The blood loss mounted and shock set in. I closed my eyes and darkness ensued.
“Dustin, you coming tonight?” Jason said quietly. He nudged my arm when I refused to respond. “Dustin.”
“I told you I don’t know.” I kept my gaze trained on the teacher.
“Come on, Dustin. You haven’t come out since you blacked out at Mitch’s three weeks ago. It wasn’t that embarrassing.” Marissa said, a laugh escaping her mouth.
“Exactly. That’s why,” I replied. I tried to keep my voice calm but her bringing it up frustrated me.
“You’re really going to let that stop you from having fun tonight?” she asked, her head tilting and a disappointed look appearing on her face.
“You know I don’t like to think about it.” I looked over to her, a smile forming unwillingly on my face. “It’s just-” Loud swooshing noises outside cut me off. They became so loud the teacher’s voice trailed off as he rushed to the window to see what was happening. Lines of tanks and humvees rolled down the road and they were accompanied by a group of fighter jets flying overhead. The teacher took his eyes off of the road and returned to the center of the room and continued the lecture.
“Dustin, it’s gonna be crazy tonight, man.” Jason said in an attempt to persuade me again.
“I know it is. And I’m sure I will be sorely missed,” I whispered. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m trying to learn here unlike you two bums who are never going to make it into a prestigious community college like myself.”
“I heard you don’t need a degree to work at a carnival,” Marissa said. Her lips kicked up an inch on both ends upon making her remark. She looked at me slyly and awaited a rebuttal. Alright, Dustin, I thought to myself, I have to burn her but not too bad. “Well, you should know, shouldn’t you?” I said, a cocky smirk appearing on my face. I brushed my hands through my hair smoothly. “Ball’s in Dustin’s court now,” Jason said in a deep voice and he had his hand cupped over his mouth. “Will he shoot? Not only that but he scored! Or should I say he will score tonight.” He winked at me. Dammit, Jason, you’re ruining my chances. But you are a sly son of a bitch. I can’t help but cock a grin at everything you say. “No, I told you guys I can’t go. I have to watch my little brothers before work,” I said back. Mr. O’Riley suddenly stopped talking, turned to face me, and balled his fists and put them on his hips. “Something to tell the class, Dustin?” he asked. “Whatever you’re saying must be very important to interrupt my lecture on the variations of…” Good God, man, get to the point. What class am I even in? “Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again. I promise.” I sounded as convincing as I could muster while Jason sat next to me giggling. As soon as Mr. O’Reilly turned around, I snapped my fist and punched Jason in the side.
“Guys,” Marissa said suddenly. “What is that?” We all suddenly heard a low rumbling noise. The water in various bottles started to ripple. Then the desks shook. The roof felt like it was about to come down at any second.
“What’s happening?” someone had yelled from the back of the room. More questioning voices piped up throughout the class. “What is that?” “What’s going on?” Then we saw it. A drone flew overhead, metallic and shiny, flying too quickly to get any more than a glimpse. A few moments after it passed, we heard an explosion from farther into town. “Don’t worry, students,” said O’Reilly. “It’s just a drill… coming from the direction of the mayor’s office. I’m sure everything’s fine.”
Sirens screeched through the air like a grouping of birds taking flight- sudden and sporadic. Police? Why are they getting involved in this? A squad car rolled into the parking lot outside of the school, tires leaving skid marks on the asphalt from an abrupt halt. Two officers- Walsh and Polanski- emerged from their respective sides of the car. They moved into the building without pause, their uniforms and equipment skirting to each side of their bodies as they went. “Dustin,” Jason said to me through closed lips well enough to make a ventriloquist envious, “is that Walsh?” I kept my eyes trained on the two policemen. Walsh’s was a face we saw routinely, his dark features and even darker uniform contrasted with the glow of the sun beating down on him. “Yeah, that’s Walsh.”
Marissa shuffled her gaze between Jason and I hoping one of us would notice her and explain. Finally she blurted out: “How do you two know them?”
Jason and I ran into trouble frequently, occasionally resulting in incidences with law enforcement. And all of those incidences were concluded by meeting with our favorite policeman: Officer Walsh. Nearly every Friday night was ended by Jason and I being chauffeured by Walsh- sometimes his partner Polanski joined him- and Jason and I would repay them by singing various songs in our drunken states on the way home. For some reason, Walsh cared about us. Week after week he ensured we got home safely to our families. He never bothered reporting us, regardless of the possibility of him being able to get a medal from the sheer volume of MIPs he could have doled out to Jason and myself from confessions. We loved Walsh. Our parents likely loved Walsh even more. But this was different. His concerned, tense expression overshadowing all past memories of compassion and friendship. This Walsh was cautious, peering in every direction to see if he was being watched, This Walsh was scared, an emotion I had always in the back of my mind assumed he was incapable of.
Answer Marissa you idiot! “He’s my… chauffeur,” I replied placidly. I probably didn’t appear too convincing, the usual stupid grin coming to my face beyond my control from talking to her.
“Chauffeur?” Marissa said back with a doubtful glance. “No offense but if that’s true, I’ve seen your house and I would say your parents are investing in the wrong things.”
“Well-” I started but was quickly cut off from a voice over the intercom saying: “Dustin Parker to the Principal’s office. Dustin Parker. Principal’s Office.” The mandatory “ooohs” began throughout the classroom as well as hushed speculation. I ignored everything and stood up and my heart started to pound, slowly gaining speed and strength until it finally felt as if it were bracing itself to burst out of my chest. Walsh is here. What could this be about? I looked to Jason. He looked back and nodded his head to me. He balled his fist and hit his chest with it. “I’m not letting him go alone,” said Jason suddenly to Mr. O’Riley.
“Another case of two lovers that can’t be separated,” Mr. O’Riley muttered to himself. He looked to us and said: “Go ahead, Jason. I don’t really care to try and stop you two from being together.”Jason and I celebrated for a brief moment and walked to the Principal’s office. He could see I was nervous from my incessant trembling. We neared the office and Walsh was waiting outside of it. What could this be about? He wouldn’t come here if it wasn’t important. Jason and I exchanged nervous glances. Walsh’s face spelt fear and impatience. He ran up and said hurriedly: “Dustin, we have to get you out of here.”
“What’s this about?” Jason asked with a suspicious gaze.
Walsh shuffled around and searched for answer. “I’m sorry, Jason, but I need to bring Dustin with me. You have to stay here.” Jason’s face was glowing red and he was about to yell but Walsh cupped his mouth. “Jason, this is dangerous stuff we’re dealing with. The buddy-buddy thing isn’t cute right now. You need to believe me when I tell you that Dustin is safer with me but if you come then we’d just be putting you in unnecessary danger.” Walsh had finally convinced Jason to calm down and to stay but a disapproving look told us he wasn’t happy about the decision. “Let’s go, Dustin,” Walsh said. Polanski poked around the corner. He was watching all entrances and exits while Walsh talked to us.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’ll explain on the way. For now we just need to get you and your family to safety until all of this blows over,” Walsh said smoothly with a hint of unease. I knew I could trust him though. My skin relaxed and I realized I had stopped shaking.
“Alright, Walsh.” My voice was still trembling. If only I knew what was going on I wouldn’t be so scared. I turned to Jason and said: “I’ll be back in time for sixth period.”
“You mean in time for me to school your ass in dodgeball?” Jason swung at my arm jokingly.
“Dustin!” Walsh yelled. “We have to go! Now!” I’ve never seen his face so stern, so serious. Something really is wrong.
Walsh and Polanski led the way out of the school through a narrow, deafeningly-white hallway out into the frigid outdoors, the wind nearly taking my breath away as it stole what warmth remained in my body. The brightness of the sun polarized my perception. I had hurried out and with the hectic nature of the situation, I had left my jacket in the classroom.
Walsh called for me to climb into the back of the car. He and Polanski hurried in after me.
“What’s going on, Walsh? Is Jason going to be okay?” I asked in a demanding tone.
“Yes, he’ll be fine,” Walsh replied. “But we won’t be if we stay here much longer.” Walsh put the car in drive. Polanski gripped the door and braced himself. I did the same. Walsh cocked the wheel fully to the right and floored the gas pedal.
We made it about a mile before a military convoy cut us off in the center of town, forcing the police car to come to a sudden stop. Soldiers got out of their vehicles, military rifles in hand. They ran close to the police car and crouched abruptly, training their weapons on the vehicle, with myself still inside. My heart started to pound, and I found myself unable to swallow. They were about to shoot. I could feel it.
“Walsh, what’s happening?” My speech was quick, wanting a fast answer to calm me down.
“Shut up, Parker. I’m taking care of it.” He attempted to sound confident, calm, but it came out nervous.
Suddenly, a voice came over a loudspeaker from the military side of the road: “You’re carrying a terrorist. Release him to us and you’ll be free to go.”
Walsh said calmly under his breath: “No way in hell am I letting them have you.”
We heard a loud explosion across town that forced the military men to put their heads down for cover. Upon looking up back to the police car, they noticed that Walsh had put the car in reverse, the tires starting to spin. Walsh floored it, black marks being left on the road from the tires attempting to gain traction. The soldiers opened fire on the car per the instructions of their commander whose voice could still be heard over the loudspeaker.
“What’s going on?!” My head was spinning, not just from the movement of the car. Why does the military want us? What’s really happening here? I can trust Walsh. I know I can. I just have to slow my breathing, think rationally.
The soldiers continued shooting, bullets landing all around the car, as well as in the side of the door and the back. A round knocked out one of the tail lights. They were aiming for the tires to stop us.
We finally had enough distance grow between us and the soldiers that we could afford to slow down. Walsh breathed a sigh of relief. He watched each side of the street carefully, still checking to see if any other military vehicles were in sight.
“Can you explain what’s happening now?” I directed my question to Walsh.
He hit the steering wheel as hard as he could and took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, I can. We discovered a plot to destroy the mayor’s office, with him in it. Unfortunately, that part of all of this is over. The Mayor’s dead. But we had surveillance footage and the guy in the video looked a hell of a lot like you. We didn’t identify the real guy until just an hour ago.”
“So… they still think it’s me?” I said rhetorically, coming to the realization that the military actually did intend to kill me.
Walsh took a moment to answer. I looked into the mirror to make contact with his eyes but he avoided me. Finally he said: “Yeah. Someone at the crime scene had seen the video and mentioned your name. Luckily for you, I was there and I knew you weren’t capable of something like that. I knew I just had to get to you before they did.”
We drove in silence for the next minute or two. I checked my watch constantly. “Walsh,” I said suddenly, “my brothers are home by themselves. We need to stop over there to bring them with us. If what you said is true, then they’ll be targeting my family too, right? To get information out of them.”
“Yeah, that’s where we’re going,” Walsh returned calmly. His hand was starting to slip a bit on the steering wheel from sweat growing. “We need to hurry up and get them out of here.” Something caught his attention to the side of the road. “Look at that.” He slowed the car to a halt. The three of us watched. A man ran up to the window of a radio store and threw a brick through it, breaking the glass and sending it spiraling into the street. He jumped in through the broken window and unveiled a gun. Others joined from behind him, the man turning around to shoot the others coming in. Eventually the others outnumbered the bullets in his revolver and overran him. We weren’t able to see the outcome as we looked to the other side of the road. Countless people were looting the stores on the road.
“Walsh!” I screamed in terror. “What- what are we going to do? Are you going to help those people?”
“I see it, Parker! We can’t risk it.” Walsh put his eyes back on the road and put the car in drive again.
Suddenly, a beige tank, complete with a machine gun and turret trained on us, emerged from around the corner of the building. It took a large chunk of the structure down with it as it moved.
“Walsh!” I screamed and hit the back of his seat.
“Shit.” Polanski froze in terror.
The tank unloaded its turret, smoke coming from the barrel and filling the air. The round landed close enough to the car to flip it upside down. When the rubble from the road cleared, I was on my back, trapped in the back seat of the police car. Walsh and his partner were attempting to gather themselves. They managed to get outside of the car and were attempting to open the door to free me. We assumed the tank crew was prepping its turret for another round, forcing us to move faster. This is it. I looked down the barrel of the tank. Time froze and the noises around me went mute. I’ll never see Jason again. I’ll never kiss Marissa again. This is it. The tank stood complacently as Walsh and Polanski fiddled with the door, violently hitting it and attempting to open it. I didn’t even get to tell my mother I loved her. Will she know?
“Just give them the kid!” Walsh’s partner told him desperately, not wanting to wait around until the tank to fire again. We were sure they wouldn’t miss us the next time.
“Not a chance, Polanski!” Walsh was still determined. He was the kind of hero you only see in the movies, someone more concerned for people other than just himself. That trait was what saved my life.
“Hurry!” I was still nervous, only thinking for myself while I was in the back of the car. I should have just let them give me up. It’s not like Walsh would have done it anyway.
The door finally swung open, revealing the freedom of the world to me. Walsh grabbed my arm and helped drag me out. The tank’s machine gun, upon the crew realizing we had made it out alive, began firing at a rapid rate around us. Polanski was hit in the knee, knocking him down to the ground. He gripped his leg tightly, screaming in pain. Maybe we should leave you. No, don’t think like that. Polanski saved me just as much as Walsh did.
The tank continued firing, giving us no way out. We hunkered behind the cover of a parked car and truck, hoping it would be enough. The vehicles were getting shredded by the barrage of bullets. Our cover was diminishing in a matter of seconds.
The bombardment caught the attention of the crowd of looters. They hurried over to the tank, climbing on top of it and attempting to open the hatch. The tank fired wildly into the crowd but was quickly overrun. Thank you!
“Now’s our chance! Run!” Walsh picked Polanski up and instructed me to help on the other side of him. “We’re on foot for now!”
We carried Polanski down an alley. A group of people were playing a card game and placing bets. Upon seeing us, they scattered and ran away, allowing us to run through the aftermath of their game.
“What’s going on?” I asked, still feeling confused despite having seen just as much as Walsh.
“This isn’t a riot, Parker. This is a revolution. They attempted an assassination of every official across the country. The terrorist that hit the mayor’s office here was the one that started the whole damn thing. Now they’re just inciting the additional riots and the looting to rub salt in the wounds.” He stopped for a moment and reached for his belt, his hand forming around his gun in its holster. He saw that I was watching and quickly pulled his hand away from it.
“Revolution? Are we gonna win?” I braced myself for his answer, knowing it wasn’t going to be the one I wanted to hear.
Walsh thought to himself for a moment as we continued carrying Polanski. “Yes.” He didn’t bother to look me in the eyes or even take his eyes off of the path in front of us.
We entered into a parking lot littered with cars. A fence leading to a small backyard rested on the other side. Walsh stopped us abruptly to look for alternative ways to proceed. We looked the way we came as well as in the opposite direction. Both options led to ongoing lethal riots. Not the best choices. I was growing more nervous, my hands sweating profusely onto Officer Polanski’s uniform. I didn’t have time to stop and feel bad about it, though.
I looked to Walsh and asked what his next plan of action was. He looked to the ground, then the sky. He threw his hands down in frustration and let out a cry. His face started to tense, his expression showing defeat. We needed a way out and fast. The protesters were closing in, people were starting to take notice of us and working their way down the alley. It was most likely the police uniforms that were drawing them in.
Polanski fell to the ground; we were loosening our support on his sides and forgot to hold him up. He hit the ground hard and let out a yelp. Walsh attempted to pick him back up, but Polanski pulled his gun on him. Walsh put his hands up and backed up.
“What are you doing?” Walsh asked slowly, making sure Polanski thought it through.
“You two are gonna hop that fence over there. Go,” Polanski explained quickly. He pointed to the fence with his gun, then put the pistol right back on Walsh, making sure it caused him to stay back.
“They’ll eat you alive.” I tried to be more empathetic, but I was too scared.
“This is nothing, kid. I’ll be right behind you. Now go!” Polanski screamed, the veins in his forehead popping out and spit coming out of his mouth. He turned his pistol to the incoming crowd of protesters and unleashed a short barrage of bullets. I mouthed “thank you” to him.
We turned our backs on Polanski and vaulted over the fence, never looking back. We ran through the yard and kept going. Walsh put his arm around me and halfway through the second yard, Walsh collapsed into a fit of tears. He’s gonna slow us down, I thought. My feelings were selfish but I couldn’t help it. The situation forced immoral thoughts into my head.
I bent down and put a hand on Walsh’s back. “Walsh, I know you need to grieve but if you don’t get up and keep running, then Polanski died in vain. You need to get to your feet now. Please. For me and Polanski. I don’t want to die here.” Walsh shook his head assent. He stood up and took in a breath. Walsh and I swung our arms up and wrapped them around each other’s backs as we walked. We worked our way back to my house and away from the riots. After walking a few blocks, we were at the front porch of my home. My parents’ car was parked in the driveway. The houses lining the surrounding streets were on fire, some with broken windows and bashed-in front doors. My house was one of them. The door was taken off, busted off at the hinges, and the side windows were destroyed.
My heart sank. Thoughts swirled through my head of what could have happened there. The looters left no house untouched, surely killing at least a few inhabitants of the various houses. The ones still inside, that is.
I barged in, a man standing over two lifeless bodies came into my sight. Coming from the sleeve of his leather jacket was a revolver gripped tightly in his hand. He attempted to aim it at me, but a sudden burst of adrenaline sent me hurtling at him. I knocked him over and gripped the hand with the gun in it. After a moment of wrestling it from his hand, I held it as tightly as I could. I aimed it in his face and started screaming. I don’t remember what was coming out of my mouth; I just remember feeling a rush of anger and adrenaline that I had never felt before. I squeezed the trigger tightly but only the sound of a click emerged. No bullet. No life-ending shell came from the gun. I felt more anger. But I also felt relief.
“Give me the gun,” Walsh said solemnly. His voice was filled with disappointment; he must have seen the whole thing. His hand came from over my shoulder and moved slowly toward the gun, gripping it and pulling it away from me.
“I… I’m sorry.” I could barely make anything out. My lips started to quiver and I couldn’t bring myself to move. “Walsh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Parker. I understand.” He wouldn’t look me in the eyes. He flipped the cylinder out of the revolver and emptied the rounds out of it. He then turned to the looter and said: “Get out. Now.”
The man got off of the ground and ran out hurriedly, careful not to look back at us. Walsh looked to the bodies on the ground, identifying them as my parents. He came up close to me and put his arm around my shoulder. “You have nothing to be sorry about right now, Parker.”
Walsh put his head down and crossed his hands in respect for what I had lost. I walked up to him and put my head down too. His head slowly lifted, becoming level with mine. His arms flew out, grabbing me up and pulling me in. “I’m sorry, Dustin. I promise I’m going to take care of you and your brother until this whole thing blows over.” He spoke slowly and softly.
My brother, Levi, was sitting on the stairs nervously, holding onto the bars of the stairwell. Why did you have to see all of this, Levi? The shock is enough for me, I can’t imagine what you witnessed here. Walsh looked to Levi and said, “Come on, son. Let’s go. I’m going to get you two to safety.”
We followed Walsh out the front door. Loud swishing noises came from the sky, a helicopter coming into sight. Its blades blasted away at the air, causing a burst of wind to push at us as it landed on our front lawn. A tall woman with strawberry blonde hair emerged from the door of the helicopter. She wore a beige uniform that looked natural on her toned, built body. Her face was rugged and old, appearing worn from continuous confrontations. Two men walked out of the helicopter with her, each one carrying a military-grade weapon. The men didn’t wear uniforms but dressed in the best gear for combat that they could scrape up around their houses, including motorcycle helmets, camouflage, and leather jackets. After everything we had went through, they still managed to find us. This has to be fate.
“What is this?” My face tensed up, my bottom lip rising up over the top one. I looked the woman up and down as she came up to greet us. “Walsh, what’s going on here?”
“Sorry, Dustin, I brought you here for a rendezvous. We’re with the resistance. You are now, too.” Walsh looked to the woman while explaining, not wanting to see the angry, confused, and hurt glance I was shooting him. “We are the resistance. We are the Hyenas. This is our second-in-command, Jess. Our first-in-command, Mr. Marley, passed away. And you look a hell of a lot like him. We need you, Dustin.”
I continued to watch the woman approach, no words coming out of my mouth. I was too upset to respond. Walsh was the only one left I could trust, and he betrayed that. I trusted you, Walsh. How could you do this to me? My parents. How could you do this? My eyes started to fill up. Jason. How could you desert him? You made me leave Marissa.
The two soldiers walking with the woman stayed behind, careful not to get close enough to hear the woman talk to Walsh when she neared us. “Walsh, thank you,” she said to my escort. “You got Mr. Marley here safely.”
“That’s not my name! Get away from me!” I said loudly. I backed up slightly and cocked a defensive stance. I wanted to sound affirmative and strong for Levi. I needed him to know I was still in charge of the situation, even though it was becoming entirely clear that I wasn’t.
“Dustin, stay calm,” she said smoothly, her lips not coming apart from each other too widely. “Walsh didn’t lie to you. We are going to keep you and your brother safe. Our leader passed away, and we need someone like you to take up the mantle.”
“Why?” I needed answers and fast. My lips were pushed together tightly and my brow was lowered over my eyes. “What could I possibly do to help you?”
“Make it look like he’s not dead. It would shake our organization to the core if they found out the truth,” she said. I could only assume she was being truthful with an answer like that.
“Pretty weak organization you have then. Falls apart if there’s no leader to hold your hands. You have to be told to walk, talk, and take a shit?” I wanted to hurt her and Walsh like he hurt me.
Jess laughed and put her head down to look at the ground. After a moment, the laughing let up and she looked back up at me. “So, what do you say, Dustin? Come with us. Please.”
I looked around the area. I looked to Walsh, then to Levi. I scanned the area, noticing the destroyed cars and broken-into houses. Then my gaze went back to Jess. “I need a guarantee that we’re going to be safe and completely out of danger,” I said through a nearly closed mouth. Jess shook her head affirmatively, giving me a soft smile. “Fine.”
“Good choice, Dustin. We’re going to keep you safe,” Walsh told me. He moved in and put his arm around my shoulder.
“Yes, good choice, Dustin,” Jess said. “First things first, we need to make sure nobody knows who you really are. Starting with this.” Jess unveiled a gun from her holster and quickly shot Walsh in the head. He fell to the ground lifeless, and she looked back to me and Levi.
The world started to close in around me. I fell to my knees screaming but no sound came into my ears. Walsh! The last one I trust is lying dead on the ground in front of me. The person who promised me safety is gone. I never wanted this, Walsh. All of those nights you took care of me and Jason. Why did you have to get tangled up in this? “No! No, what did you do?! Walsh, no!”
“That was for your security, Dustin. Your new name is, and will be from this moment on, Mr. Marley. Welcome to the Hyenas.” She moved to the side and pointed her arm up to the helicopter, waiting for Levi and I to walk to it. We reluctantly followed her lead. I was still reeling from Walsh’s death. The image kept replaying in my mind. If she could that easily kill a friend, what will she do with me when I’m no longer needed? Am I expendable too? What about my brother? I thought. “I have a lot to fill you in on, Mr. Marley. We’re going to be good friends in no time,” she said happily.
When I woke up, I found myself in the backseat of a small car. The spot where my arm should have been was covered with cloths. The blood seeped through and onto the car seats. Chuck was driving and Levi sat next to him quietly. They hadn’t realized I woke up.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “We agreed we wouldn’t drive! The drones can see us too easily!”
I was still weak and tired; everything on my body was sore.
“If you want to live then we have to get you to the nearest town quickly,” Chuck said.
I ignored Chuck’s response because he was right and I couldn’t admit it. I then turned to Levi and examined his stoic expression.
“Levi, how are you doing, buddy?” I asked.
He didn’t respond and he sat very still. I waited a few more moments for an answer but none came.
“Turns out the kid having a gun saved your life,” Chuck said to me. “We all need to be prepared.”
“Alright, alright. He can keep it for now,” I said. I wasn’t proud to admit that Levi had saved me using the gun, but I couldn’t deny its usefulness.
“Good. We all had a close one back there,” Chuck remarked.
“Yeah, I thought you were dead, Chuck.”
“He couldn’t kill me,” Chuck said laughing. “I triggered one of his traps that shot me with some kind of dart. Had me out cold for a little while. He was probably using that to keep the meat fresh for when he was going to eat me.”
“That’s messed up, man,” I said with a shiver.
“Don’t think about it too much,” Chuck said back. He took his eyes off of the road for a moment to look in the mirror, carefully eying me in the back. I couldn’t tell whether or not he was concerned about me.
I tried to lean up farther but a sharp pain shot through my back and forced me back down. I had to recognize what I was and was not capable of now. I hated the feeling of being incompetent. That was what I would have to look forward to from that moment on.
I looked at the back of Levi’s head helplessly. I was still his protector but I had no strength. He saved me from one of the worst demises imaginable. The roles had been reversed and I paid a large price to learn that.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Somewhere in Ohio. All the road signs are gone. It looks like someone’s trying to make sure the people passing through get lost,” Chuck replied.
“I thought we were heading through Indiana next.” I said.
“Too many government outposts. This is safer,” Chuck declared. “Just get your rest. You’ll need it. It might be a while before we come in contact with anyone.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I wanna stay awake until we get to the next city.”
I fell asleep within five minutes and woke up to the sight of tall buildings an hour later. It was night by the time we reached Columbus, Ohio. The signs leading to the city were gone. All road signs in the city had also disappeared.
“So, we’re passing through here, right?” I asked, concerned that we might be staying instead of going through it.
“You need medical attention,” Chuck said as he drove through the streets. “There’s gotta be someone around here.” His voice was determined; he was not ready to let me die and I respected that. No, I appreciated that.
“This entire place is abandoned,” I said back.
“It’s a big city. We’ll find someone.”
We kept driving for half of an hour. There was no signs of life in the entire city. Chuck was starting to lose hope. The expression on his face showed he was growing tired. He knew I needed help but that I might not get it there.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked softly.
“We might have to keep moving,” Chuck said regrettably.
“Let’s just keep going,” I said.
“Dustin, we’re gonna have to talk about that,” Chuck insisted.
“We don’t have to discuss anything,” I retorted. I was not ready to talk about the loss of my arm. Or, more to the point, the implications of my missing arm.
“You’re not gonna last. We cauterized it as best as we could but I’m sure you’re still losing a lot of blood. You might have an infection,” Chuck said back. “If you die…”
“I’ll be fine!” I choked out.
He was right. I was losing blood and I felt weak. The cloths were soaked in my blood. I didn’t know how long I’d have without help. I wanted someone to watch over Levi in case anything did happen to me. It looked like that would have to be Chuck. I didn’t always get along with him, but I trusted him with Levi. He cared for him, and I could see that.
“Chuck, you’re gonna have to take Levi to the Hyena outpost. Make sure he’s safe.” I didn’t want to say that, but I had no choice. It was the most logical option we had.
“It was just a what-if scenario,” Chuck said uneasily. “You might be fine.”
“You’re gonna be fine!” Levi cried out. “Stop talking like that!”
I was taken aback. Levi hadn’t spoken the whole ride. I didn’t realize what I was saying was destroying what little hope he had left. I felt terrible. I suddenly discerned what everything that we’ve been through was doing to him.
“He’s right,” I declared. “I will be fine. Nothing’s gonna happen to me.”
“Guys, we have bigger problems,” Chuck said with a scared visage.
Chuck slammed down on the gas pedal as hard as he could. The wheels attempted to get traction and finally jerked us forward. We looked through the back window and saw a drone flying overhead. It started shooting missiles around our car.
Chuck drove quickly but the drone caught up too easily. He attempted to evade it by driving sporadically and going down side streets. Nonetheless, the drone flew overhead, casting a shadow over us. It let up a little and shot a missile at the back of the car which exploded one of the back tires. We spun out and landed on the curb.
I moved frantically to get the car door unlocked and opened. Fear set in and my hand began moving around sporadically. I couldn’t control it. I just kept yelling for help from Chuck. He was already out of the car. The drone circled overhead; it was making another pass. I yelled but Chuck was helping Levi. I was shaking uncontrollably. It’s okay. Let it happen. Levi will be safe with Chuck. The drone was turning around and making its way back toward us. Chuck opened my door and pulled me out. He was carrying Levi and dragging me. He took both of us into a building with a broken-down door.
I was still shaky but I went to Levi after Chuck set him down on the ground. He was unconscious. I had let him down again. I couldn’t handle the fear that Levi would die because I couldn’t help him like I was supposed to.
“We made it,” Chuck said exhausted.
“We haven’t made it anywhere!” I yelled.
I grabbed Chuck’s gun from his holster and gripped his hand with it. I put it to my forehead and motioned for him to pull the trigger.
“Do it while he’s out!” I screamed. “I’m a burden now. That drone is gonna keep coming. You won’t make it with me alive.” My hand was moving around uncontrollably. I had no intention of dying, nor did I want to, but I was finally thinking of the betterment of the others. I truly felt that they could not have made it out of the situation unless I was out of the picture.
“That’s what you want?” Chuck asked, acknowledging that what I was saying was true.
“Yes,” I said definitively. “I feel weak. I can’t keep going like this.”
“We need you for the resistance, though,” Chuck said uneasily. I still am unsure whether or not he felt he could have done it. Sure, the two of us didn’t have the greatest track record of getting along, but murder was different.
“Give a dying man his final request,” I replied. “Forget about my role in all of this. This is what I want.”
“Alright,” Chuck said unwillingly. “This is for Levi.”
Chuck brought the pistol to rest on my forehead and held it sternly. He clasped the trigger, but couldn’t bring himself to pull it. His hand started to shake.
“Don’t move!” an outside voice commanded.
We looked to the side of the room and a stranger wearing a gas mask had entered. He held an assault rifle and aimed it at Chuck. He motioned for Chuck to get down on the ground and hand over the gun. Chuck complied and the stranger walked up to me. He searched me over and proceeded to frisk me.
“You bastard! We finally have you. We finally did it! We’re gonna end this!” He sounded excited, happy to have found me. “We’re going to kill you. You know that? We’re gonna have you put to death for what you’ve done!”
“Sounds good, but there’s just a brief waiting period,” I said sarcastically. “Actually, if you give this gentleman the gun back, he’ll save you the trouble.” I motioned for him to give Chuck the gun back.
“You’re all coming in,” he said. “We’ve been waiting a very long time. Seven years, to be exact!”
The stranger grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet. He then motioned for Chuck to follow as well. He looked at Levi and examined him. Chuck then told the stranger that Levi had died in the drone attack. The stranger decided not to press it further and allowed Levi’s body to stay there.
He led us through the building. We went down the stairs that seemed to have no end to them. Holding the rifle to our backs, he insisted we hurry. He even hit us on our backs a few times with the butt of his firearm to motivate us to keep moving.
We came to the bottom of the staircase to a gold door. The stranger told me to open it. I adhered and twisted the doorknob slowly. I wasn’t anxious to see what was on the other side. I wasn’t scared anymore though; I acknowledged that our problems would grow.
I was worried for Levi more than anything. He was hopefully still alive, but I was afraid for when he woke up. The drone was still circling the area and Levi was alone.
We walked through the door and found an extravagant party taking place. It looked like the party a rich family would have before the war. Women were in long, flowing dresses while the men wore fancy tuxedos. Smiles were on all of the participants’ faces as they drank, ate, and danced.
The people had moved underground like in many other places. Many of the rich people throughout the country must have been transplanted here when the war started. They had a seemingly never-ending supply of food and water; they even had enough alcoholic beverages to last them this long.
If only the rest of the country could see how these people were living still. This was one of the reasons the war was started. The wealth had fallen too far into the hands of the people who were already rich. It appeared that nothing had changed.
“You’re the guests of honor,” the stranger remarked to us.
He lifted off his gas mask and looked at us. He was wearing a suit like many of the other men in the room. His black hair was parted and all facial hair had been removed. He was very clean and looked at us with content.
“Benny, get over here!” he yelled to another well-dressed man.
Benny approached us and looked us up and down. He smiled and shook hands with us.
“I’m Benny,” he said to us with a wide smile on his face. “I’m in charge around here. We’ve been waiting for this moment for seven years.”
“Actually, we were just stopping by. We need to get going,” I said uneasily.
I looked to Chuck, who was staring at the two men in front of us with his head low, but his eyes never diverting from the two. He was upset, discouraged. Defeated.
“Ha!” the first stranger laughed. “You’ll be here for a while. We just need to keep you until the government shows up.”
“And then?” I eyed Benny, scanning him.
“And then you die,” the man with the gas mask said arrogantly.
“Don’t be rude to our guests,” Benny chimed in.
“Looks like your wish is granted,” Chuck said hopelessly to me. “You didn’t have to drag me down with you, though.”
“We were always a team: You, me, Levi, and Dave,” I replied with remorse in my voice.
The stranger and Benny pushed us forward into the heart of the party where two gold cages were. They rested on the ground and Benny proceeded to open them. He still had a smug smile on his face and looked right into my eyes knowingly. I knew what he was planning and he knew that I knew.
“String ‘em up and hang them for show!” Benny said enthusiastically.
The stranger proceeded to push us into the cages with his rifle. He bashed Chuck aggressively with the firearm after he refused to enter the enclosed space. Chuck isn’t going to like this. I don’t either but what choice do I have? I’m drained of energy and what was left of my resolve was left back in another state. Everything that happens now must be fate.
“I’m not getting in there,” Chuck said softly.
“Get in,” the stranger replied sternly.
“I’m not getting in there just for you to parade me around like some kind of trophy,” Chuck asserted.
“Trust me, you’re no trophy,” the man said jokingly. He lifted his glass and swished around its contents.
The tension was rising quickly.
“Just get in,” I said to Chuck, fearing for his life. They’re gonna kill him.
“You can get in and be their little puppet like you’ve always been. I’m a man and I won’t allow this to happen,” Chuck uttered to me with a sense of pride. He held his head high.
“You’ll get in or your corpse will,” the stranger said to Chuck. “Your choice. I’ll wait.”
“I refuse.” Chuck had made up his mind. Nothing was going to change the inevitable.
“Very well,” the stranger responded happily.
The stranger motioned for armed men standing in the corner to come forward. They made their way through the party and the room grew quiet. They grabbed Chuck’s arms and dragged him through the room and out the door. Please no! Chuck, why can’t you just comply? I can’t do this without you. Why are you so thick-skulled?! Gunshots were heard and a few gasps echoed in the room. A moment passed and the people were back to drinking and dancing as if nothing had happened. I was next.
“And you said you’d do what I said?” the stranger said to me with a grin.
“Yeah,” I replied. I was feeling disheartened. Nothing I could do was going to affect the situation. I was powerless.
The stranger pushed me into the cage and I fell on my rear. I looked back up at him as he continued to smile menacingly. He closed the door on me and hoisted the cage high into the air for the whole room to see me. I was their prize. I was their puppet. I had let Chuck down. I had let Levi down. I was a failure.
The music was still blaring and all of the old people in the room continued to dance and drink. Drink and dance. Dance and drink. It was never-ending and I was caught up in the middle of it. I watched as one larger woman was being twirled by a skinny, frail man and she proceeded to fall on the floor after losing her balance. She laughed and I couldn’t help but laugh too. I was laughing at her expense but she was laughing because she was having fun. I had to keep reminding myself that these were the people that the resistance was fighting. I believed in the cause at that moment more than I ever had but I still had the sense that these people weren’t evil. I knew I wasn’t evil, but these people felt like I was because of what I had forced their lives to become. I wanted to tell them the truth. I wanted to tell everyone the truth. The war would be over and Levi would be safe. Why didn’t I tell them? I should have told them. I should have told them!
I woke up and the room was dark. Footsteps were audible and the light from a flashlight could be seen. The resistance had come. I hoped they had come. Maybe it was the government coming to kill me in my sleep or maybe Benny was back to finish the job. The reality was somewhere in between.
Benny came up to my cage. He was alone and moved cautiously. He continuously looked behind him and appeared nervous. He opened the cage and attempted to say something. Before he could get any words out, I had tackled him and began pounding on his face with my one arm. This didn’t last long as he grabbed my hand and pushed me off with his other. He put me into a headlock on the ground and forced me to hear him out.
“I’m with the resistance!” Benny screamed to me. “I’m here to get you out!”
Nothing he was saying was getting through because of my anger. The memory of Chuck was still freshly imprinted on my mind. Of all the people at the party, he was my least favorite. Even the stranger that ordered the execution of Chuck hadn’t arisen the kind of anger I felt for the smug face of Benny.
“No!” I screamed back.
“I’m gonna pick you up now,” he said smoothly. “Try not to attack me.”
His smugness had disappeared and he now appeared a normal human. He lifted me to my feet and I looked at him with a new perspective. I suddenly saw a flash of Chuck’s face before my eyes and I went to strike Benny with my arm. He ducked and punched me in the stomach. I was immediately on the floor in pain and he bent down to help. He apologized many times but I still wanted to get up and take another shot at him.
“The great Marley? Here in front of me?” he asked himself in admiration.
“Not so great, but yeah,” I replied. “How did you get here?”
“The resistance has agents in many of the government outposts. I’m surprised you don’t know about me,” Benny said.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I said back. “I don’t know a lot of things.”
“I’m starting to get that sense,” Benny remarked. “Nonetheless, I’m here to help. How did you find yourself all the way out here?”
“The outpost I had been living at was bombed. I had no choice but to go on the run and find another one,” I explained.
“You mustn’t go out there by yourself,” Benny said with concern. “After we exit here, I will escort you.”
“That’s sweet, but the one who was escorting me before was murdered… by you.”
“It wasn’t me. Even if I had to be the one to give the order, I would have. Your friend was being obstinate and he would have blown my cover if the order wasn’t given or if I had run to his aid. He was stubborn and deserved what he got.” Benny’s words were cold, calculated. He knew what he had to do to stay alive in this world. That much I could tell. Maybe he did know how to keep me alive, I thought.
“Sure, sure,” I said in slight discomfort.
I was attempting to hobble to the door with Benny as I stumbled and fell. He looked down to me and examined my arm. He looked at me with a deep interest and unraveled the cloths on my arm. He looked back at my face with a terrified expression.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“An infection is starting,” he replied. “You won’t last long without medical help. We’ll get you to an outpost and see what can be done.”
“Sounds good,” I said back. “Now help me up.”
Benny put the cloths back on and helped me to my feet. He put my arm on his shoulder and helped me through the doors. Two men in suits walked down the stairs and saw the sight of Benny helping me up. They looked at us in horror and froze for a moment. Benny revealed a revolver and shot the two of them. A moment later an alarm was triggered.
“Great! Now what?!” I yelled.
“I’m thinking! Keep screaming in my ear and I’ll leave you here, Stumpy.” Benny said back. He began snapping his fingers, searching around the room to come up with an idea. We needed a plan and quick.
We ran to the stairs and began climbing. We made it up seven flights of stairs and footsteps ascending up the stairs could be heard that were moving rapidly and with purpose behind us. They were coming for us.
“Benny, let’s go!” I yelled. I was becoming too heavy for him to hold up on his shoulder.
“I don’t see you helping here, Stumpy!” Benny yelled back.
“Well, have we thought of anything?!” I was hoping he had finally come up with an idea that he had promised me he was capable of.
“Uh, yeah. There’s only one thing I can think of,” Benny said with a shortage of air as he continued to run upstairs.
“And?” I asked somewhat enthusiastically. “Don’t hold out!”
“Well, we, uh, we have a tank,” he said. “We’re gonna take the tank.”
“And you know how to drive it?” I asked.
“I was a tank commander, actually,” he replied. “It’s my tank. It’s getting to it that’s the problem.”
We pushed on and went down a hallway. Benny was starting to grow weak from having to carry me. I looked at his expression and knew he wanted to drop me. He was doing this for the revolution; he wasn’t doing it for me.
“Benny, leave me,” I said as he continued to haul me.
“Don’t be crazy, Stumpy,” he said in reply.
“No, Benny, leave me,” I said. “We’re not both going to get out of this. I can’t even see the tank yet.”
“I’m not leaving without you,” he said. “Then it would all be pointless. Just keep quiet and let me do all the work.”
Men ran down the hallway and began firing at Benny and I. They were moving much faster than us and were quickly catching up to us. Benny was becoming worried. He made a quick turn down a hallway and threw me to the ground. He pulled out a pistol and held tight to the wall for cover.
“This is it, mate,” Benny said to me.
“What?” I asked surprised. “What about the tank?”
“We can’t get to it from here. There’s too many of them.”
Benny took a few shots from around the corner without looking. He was hoping to keep the attackers at bay. He didn’t appear hopeless; I was just starting to believe he didn’t have a hopeless expression to utilize.
“Three shots left,” he uttered to me.
“Then what?” I asked.
Benny didn’t respond; he continued scanning the area. He looked around the corner and the wall was bombarded by bullets. Benny returned his head unscathed and proceeded to shoot another bullet. He looked at me and still had a smirk on his face. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen a man face death with a smile. He put his gun around the corner and fired the last two rounds.
“How many are left?” I asked.
“Does it really matter?!” he replied. “We’re already dead.”
“Man, how do you do that? How do you keep smiling like that? Aren’t you scared?” I was screaming by this point. I was surprised we could even hear each other over the barrage of bullets.
Benny was about to respond, but was cut off when we heard a distinct gunshot. It sounded again and we peered around the corner. The men who were chasing us were on the ground dead. Levi stood over them with his pistol in hand; he must have snuck up on them. Benny and I ran up to Levi. I was about to thank him but I had to think twice about rewarding him for killing.
“Levi, how did you know they were chasing us?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he replied.
“Guys, no time for that,” Benny said in a panic.
Benny was staring out the window and saw the drone making a pass. It fired at the base of the building and the entire complex came tumbling down. I grabbed Levi and held onto a pillar. Benny held onto a pillar parallel to us. The building came crashing down.
We pored through the rubble and found each other after the climactic end to the building.
The men were still looking for us as we could hear their voices. Benny urged us to get up and keep moving through the rubble.
“I can lead us through the underground until we get to the next city and away from that drone,” Benny said to us.
I arose early one Fall morning to find Benny awake by the fire. He was staring intently at it with no emotion on his face. I wondered what he was thinking about. Blank face and mysterious intents. What’s going through your head, Benny?
Two months passed since our escape from the city and we’d been on the run since. Shortly after our escape, we found supplies in a few convenient stores and abandoned pharmacies. My stump was no longer infected, and we had enough food to last us for a while.
We went through forests when possible to escape the dangers of the open road. Government drones and highwaymen patrolled the roads. There were checkpoints all along government-controlled territories which ensured we wouldn’t make it far if we pursued that path.
I approached Benny carefully. He hadn’t noticed me. Something kept his attention trained on the fire. I decided to implore further.
“Benny, you look crazy. What are you thinking about?” I asked. I walked across the fire and sat on the log with him. He kept his gaze on the fire but loosened his mouth.
“What I’m gonna do when I get home,” Benny responded half-heartedly. He moved his head up and looked me in the eyes.
“Yeah? And what is that?”
“I was kidding. There is no home anymore,” Benny said as his face started to lighten up again.
Benny had intrigued me since I met him. There seemed to be something genuinely concerning him and he didn’t want to talk about it. The wrinkles on his face showed more than just his age. They showed the stress and hardship he must have endured prior to saving Levi and myself. I wanted to know more but I was afraid to ask at the time. I decided I would take small steps to figuring out more about him.
“Well, where was home?” I inquired politely.
“Virginia. My home was in Virginia. Not that I’d been there in a while. I was deployed overseas,” Benny responded.
“As a tank commander?” I asked.
“As a tank commander. I got to blow up stuff. I got to blow up a lot of stuff. Those fields and buildings didn’t stand a chance. I got to blow up a lot of things. Other… things just got in the way,” he said with a hint of disgust for his own actions.
“Tell me about home,” I said, attempting to turn the conversation away from the war.
Benny looked away from me and threw a piece of wood he’d been holding. He cupped his hands around the lower part of his mouth and closed his eyes.
“Fine,” Benny answered. “Home was just fine.”
We looked over as Levi approached. His hair had grown out and he wore a black polo with tattered jeans. We were down to wearing whatever clothes we could find. I motioned for Levi to join us and he sat in the leaves in between us. He scooted over slightly toward Benny.
“How are you today?” Benny asked Levi.
“I’m fine,” Levi replied with a smirk.
“You want another round of drinks tonight?” Benny asked him. “It’ll help with the nightmares.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Benny,” Levi responded.
Levi had been having dreams about the conflict with the doctor. No amount of intervention on my end had done any good. He talked to me less and less every day and talked to Benny more. They had a growing relationship that made me feel uneasy. Benny resorted to drinking with him to cheer him up. I reluctantly allowed it, knowing nothing else was working.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink the past few nights? Aren’t the nightmares getting any better?” I asked Levi. I was hoping he would agree with me and we could finally put an end to the severely underage drinking.
“He’s fine,” Benny said to me. He lowered his head and stared at me intently.
“He’s my brother, Benny,” I responded. “Mind your own business.”
“You’re both of my responsibilities, Stumpy,” Benny retorted. “You’d both be dead without me. You couldn’t even keep from getting caught. That was your only job.”
“Well, here’s your new job: Stay out of my way and let me take care of my brother. I’m in charge, Benny. Besides, we still don’t know if we can trust you.” My voice was starting to sound angry, but I couldn’t help it.
“Dustin,” Levi broke in. “You can’t talk to him like that. He’s part of the team now.”
“No, that’s fine, kid. He’s right,” Benny said. “I was with those rich assholes for months and they’re the enemy. I was in the military and they’re the enemy too. You guys are probably wondering about a lot of things. I can assure you that you can trust me, though.”
“Why did you switch sides, Benny?” I asked with a sense of victory.
“Which time?” Benny laughed.
“Start from the beginning.” I thrust my hand out in some form of primal way, feeling that I was in charge of the situation.
“I was there,” Benny began. “I was at the Battle of D.C. I was called back to the States to fight the terrorists. Well, that is what we are. That’s what you are. You’re the original one, Mr. Marley. And that makes me one too. But soon we’ll be called ‘Founders’ or some shit. Ha! Imagine that! I’m escorting the most important man in recent history. What will I be? Will I be Franklin? Maybe Jefferson? You could let me sign the new Constitution so I can be Hancock.”
Benny was laughing at what he was saying. It seemed like he was purposefully getting off-track. I snapped my fingers and raised my eyebrows when I had his attention. Benny’s small figure mixed with his shifty eyes gave me an uneasy feeling. I motioned for him to continue his story. I had always been intrigued by the events of the Battle of D.C. and wanted to know more from Benny’s first hand accounts.
“Anyway, the revolutionaries dug tunnels underground all along the area. The government started finding some of them and knew immediately what was coming,” Benny explained. “Now, as you know, this took place three years ago. The revolution was gaining strength but the government controlled the skies. The revolutionaries knew a frontal ground assault would be suicide. I’m just assuming the Hyena generals didn’t tell you any of this. Why would they? You’re just a symbol.
“Speaking of symbols, that’s what D.C. was. The President and the other officials had fled long before any fighting started, so the Hyenas weren’t looking for any hostages. They were looking for a bigger prize; they were looking to claim a piece of the government’s will to fight.
“The Hyenas took many of the cities surrounding D.C. in the months before the battle. This led them to grow more brash and to come out in the open more. They believed they had the upper hand. The government ordered more drones to the area and for more bombing runs on Hyena outposts. They also believed they had the upper hand. They had advanced technologies the Hyenas could only dream of. They had power armor, tanks, armored cars, planes, jets, and drones. The Hyenas were just people playing soldiers to the government. But that’s what we all are now.”
“And you were in a tank for the fight?” I asked. What have you been through, Benny? What did the war do to you?
“Yes, I was in a tank. My tank. I had a team, of course. We had all grown very close. We fought in Iraq together. But that’s a story for another time.
“The rebels tried to get as close as possible to the White House without being detected; that was the goal. Drones spotted the rebel scouts and the government began their artillery barrages and bombing runs. I remember the intense sounds of those guns. Man, it was crazy. I was safe inside my tank for another hour, though. I had time to think and eat my bagel. That was the turning point, though. That was when the government realized they had been tricked.”
“When they realized they accidentally gave you control of a tank?” I said laughing.
“No!” Benny looked at me angrily. His face slowly started to become cheery again and he continued: “Well, kind of. I meant during the artillery barrages. The Hyena scouts tricked the government into thinking the main attack was coming from the front. They ended up using most of the gun batteries’ ammo on the false positions. That’s when the Hyena’s launched the real attack from the flanks.
“Now, I’m not proud of it, but I had to kill a lot of the Hyenas. Ha! Hyenas… Hyenas, government, soldiers. We give them all names so we don’t have to admit we’re killing another human being. It was them or me, my friend! And if Benny died, Stumpy wouldn’t still be here, would he? So don’t judge me!” Benny was acting more strange. erratic than usual. If I had to guess why, I would assume it was because he had such a hard time admitting these things. He was not comfortable with telling Levi and myself about all of this, but knew he had to to gain our trust.
“We’re not judging,” Levi said to Benny.
“Good, kid,” Benny replied. “We’ve all killed to survive now.”
“It doesn’t make it right,” I cut in. I wanted to have the last say as to what was right and wrong for my brother.
“No? Why not?” Benny asked. “Really, tell me why not! You think I’m a bad person? You think I’m going to hell?!”
“You’re a character, Benny,” I said passively. “You’re a man of many different faces. I never know how you’ll react.” I didn’t want a confrontation with Benny while he was like that, but I could see I upset him.
“I like to keep you on your toes. The same could be said for you, though. You say you don’t like killing, but then what do we find you doing?” Benny asked provocatively.
“I don’t like it. It’s a necessary evil. Just like bringing you along.” I ensured my responses were not too threatening. A fight would have been too much for me after the loss of my arm.
Benny laughed and looked around. It was about the time we would be up and moving for the day. We still had a long way to go and we hadn’t even packed up our gear yet. I wanted to know the rest of the story, though.
“Continue the story,” I commanded of Benny.
“Alright, this is the good part,” Benny stated. “My tank and my team were forced onto the front lines. The military men managed to dig out some trenches and foxholes for cover. We were on the defensive. My tank was on a hill; a good spot for continuous firing. They kept coming up and we kept knocking them down.
“The Hyenas didn’t have a whole lot of explosives to destroy our tanks with, even if they did get close. The drones passed by overhead and completely obliterated spots of land. We were fighting average people. They didn’t know what they were doing; they didn’t know what they had gotten themselves into. Once they got onto the ridge and saw our tanks, there was no turning back. They definitely had us outnumbered, though. Our resources began dwindling but they kept coming. My tank ran out of shells and we were forced to abandon it. I ordered one of my men to get on the turret and cover our escape. That was the turning point. Not just for me, but for the war. That was the moment the government lost; that was the moment the people took back their land.”
“The war isn’t over yet, Benny.” I knew what he was getting at, but I could not stress enough that we were still in danger.
Benny’s face turned idle and then his eyes wandered. He was thinking about something as his gaze strayed further away from me. I looked to Levi with an uncertain expression and he shrugged, not knowing what was happening.
“Benny, what’s going on?” I asked him. I got to my feet and walked over to Benny. His face was bobbling further away. I snapped my fingers a few times in front of his face, finally getting him to acknowledge us again.
Benny said: “My brother was the one on the turret. I looked back one last time and watched as the bullet penetrated his armor. It should have been me. What kind of leader sacrifices his men for himself? Sacrifices his own brother.
“But you want me to get to the really good part.”
Benny’s tone shifted as he spoke about the different topics. He talked rapidly for most of the time and his movement seemed unnatural.
“The line was breaking apart. I ran down the path covered with holes created by the shrapnel and stray explosions. It slowed me down but not enough. Turning back occasionally, I used an assault rifle to suppress the Hyenas chasing me. The bullets were whizzing by and I wondered when mine would come,” Benny said in a more somber tone.”
“I know what comes next,” Levi said excitedly.
“It’s not as glorious as they made it seem,” Benny explained. “I kept my pace down the path until a bullet struck my leg. It was mine. It finally came, I thought. At that point, as I screamed in pain on the ground, time slowed down and I took note of the other soldiers doing likewise.”
“How did you get out, Benny?” I asked suspiciously. “Don’t think I don’t know what happened.”
I had been examining Benny’s face as he told the story. He didn’t appear entirely honest in his account; he seemed the type to lie and to be good at it.
“An angel reached down and grabbed me,” Benny laughed. “Well, it was actually a soldier lifting me into the helicopter. I didn’t want to be saved. I couldn’t live with what I’d seen, with what I’d done. Nonetheless, medics rushed me to a nearby helicopter that was getting ready to take off.
“I was really high in the sky, Stumpy. I watched the White House fall to the Hyenas. They spread out and stormed all the other buildings nearby. There were swarms of your people. The government never stood a chance. They never knew what they were up against. You can’t fight the American people. Not even the American people can fight the American people.
“How does one describe what I saw next? The light of a thousand suns? The heat of a thousand more? God coming down and decimating everything it took Him six days to make? No, those all make it seem too glorious. No, it was a nuclear bomb. The kind no one survives from. No one thought the government would resort to it. Perhaps the White House was just bait for the Hyenas to bite. They took it and the government took them. And themselves. There’s nothing left.”
“Your story checks out.” My voice was almost mechanical. His story was tragic, but I did not want any more reason for Levi to be drinking. I turned to face my brother and asked: “What do you think?”
“That’s everything Jess told us,” Levi responded.
“Think we can trust him?” I asked Levi about Benny.
“I think we can keep him around for a little longer,” Levi said back jokingly.
“Yeah, real funny,” Benny cut in.
“We’ve been through a lot,” I said. “We have to learn to get through it. Maybe even with a smile.”
“This is all your fault, though,” Benny replied.
I kept forgetting that I was Marley. That I was supposed to be Marley. I forgot that’s how everyone else saw me. I had to live with everyone believing I was responsible for their suffering. I didn’t have to pretend for seven years because Jess knew my secret. Our secret. But now I was thrust into the horrible world Marley created. Maybe it was my fault. I could have told them the truth. I knew Levi questioned my motives; he didn’t always believe I just went along with it for him.
Jess had chosen the path for me the past few years. Now that she was dead, I had the option to be what I wanted. Once I reached the Hyena outpost, I could shape the entire world how I wanted.
“You’re right, Benny,” I said after some consideration. “But you chose my side for a reason.”
“I did,” Benny replied. “I chose it because Marley hadn’t resorted to using nuclear missiles on his own people. I heard about you, Marley the Great, and that you were a leader for the people.”
“So choosing the Hyenas was just a matter of morals?” Levi asked.
“Absolutely,” Benny replied, showing his pearly white teeth to us. “I went with a few of my fellow soldiers traveling the remains of the country until I found the folks living under the city. I was coming up with a plan, but you stumbled in.”
“You didn’t see us coming?” I looked to Benny suspiciously, narrowing my gaze.
“Not until you were very close,” Benny replied.
I put my hand flat on the ground behind me and pushed up. I had heard enough. I then motioned for Levi to come with me as I turned my back to Benny. Levi stood up and walked to me. Benny stared at us suspiciously.
“Want me to accompany you?” Benny asked.
“We’ll be fine,” I replied. “Just going for a walk. Watch camp for us, will you?”
Levi went to his sleeping bag and uncovered his bow as well as a few arrows. He picked them up and walked back to me.
I led the way into the woods and away from camp.
“Do you need a warmer jacket?” I asked when we got deep into the woods. “We can go into town and scavenge. I’m sure some clothes will be left in a few of the stores.”
“No, I should be fine,” Levi said back. He put his head down for a moment and continued: “Why don’t you trust Benny? He’s trying to help us.”
He caught me off guard. I struggled to find a response and finally said: “It’s not that I don’t trust him. You and me are a team, though. We have to rely on each other.”
“You have to learn to trust other people.” He gave me a smirk. “You trusted Jess for seven years and she was just using you. You couldn’t trust Dave or Chuck and they had the same goal as you: Stay alive!”
“Look, I know you think you know what you’re talking about, but-”
Levi cut me off saying: “No, Dustin, I know what I’m saying! Benny is going to help us. He’s a good guy.”
“We’re the good guys, Levi. We’re a team. We watch out for each other.”
“And now we have Benny to look out for us even more! He saved you, didn’t he?” Levi gripped his bow tightly.
“We don’t know him, Levi. He’s with us for now. We’ll see what happens.”
“Damn straight it’s fine! You gotta trust me. I might not always make the best decisions but we’re both still alive, aren’t we?!”
“That’s all that matters to you, isn’t it?” Levi asked.
“That you stay alive? It’s one of my higher priorities.”
“You’re not dad, Dustin.” Levi said coldly. “You keep saying everything he used to like it’s gonna bring him back.”
“Every man needs a legacy. He’s still alive through us. If I repeat it, a part of him is still there,” I explained. What he was saying was starting to get to me. I hadn’t thought of my family in so long, but he was forcing the memories back into my head. My parents’ dead bodies. My world had crumbled, but Levi could only pick fights with me, hoping it would change something.
“Alright,” Levi said back after contemplating.
“Thank you, Levi. I don’t like fighting. The cold is starting to get to me.”
Levi attempted to change the subject by saying: “But why can’t I have my gun?”
I laughed and replied: “You’re getting pretty good with the bow.”
“That’s for hunting animals. We’re hunting people.”
I looked at him in complete disbelief. Was that my brother talking?
“We’re not hunting anyone, Levi! We only kill to stay alive. You know that! We’re not soldiers,” I said with conviction.
“Yes we are. We’re fighting for a cause, aren’t we? That’s what soldiers do.”
“No, we’re not fighting for anything other than survival. That’s it,” I explained definitively.
“You have to have a cause. We have a chance to make a difference, Dustin. Everyone really believes you’re the leader of the revolution. You can shape everything from here on out.”
“That kind of responsibility doesn’t belong to someone like me,” I said back with fear of disappointing Levi.
We made our way back to camp after walking a full circle. Loud talking could be heard as we approached the location we left Benny at. As we got closer, we saw a group of men and women standing over a tied-up and incapacitated Benny. They had weapons aimed at him. Benny looked up, spotting our position. His eyes widened, letting us know danger was imminent.
“Kill him!” a man yelled. “Do it so he can’t get a good look at us and tell anyone what we did.”
“No!” a short woman stepped forward and uttered. “If we kill him then we’re no better than the ones we escaped from. All we need is the supplies.”
Levi looked to me, frozen with fear.
“I think we can reason with them,” I whispered to Levi from the cover of a bush.
I motioned for Levi to get in position behind a tree. On my instruction he would fire an arrow at their feet. I made sure he knew not to give away his position too early otherwise we would all be dead.
I stepped out of hiding and into the sunlight that was partially masked by the tree canopy. I instructed them not to move as I aimed my pistol at their matriarch’s head. She was apparently in her late thirties and had a rough face; she appeared tired. From behind her stepped her daughter who was around Levi’s age.
I took them by surprise. Unfortunately, that was as far as my end of the plan went.
“Don’t shoot!” The woman yelled to her group. “He will not harm us. He only has one arm.”
I took note of my stump and retorted: “I’m still capable!”
“Is this man part of your group?” She asked Benny, pointing to me.
“No.” I answered hastily before Benny could say anything.
“Yes he is!” Levi shouted from behind the tree.
“There’s more of you?” A man from the other group asked startled.
“I have an army at my disposal.” It was just a matter of time before they called my bluff.
“We just want the supplies. Give us them and we’ll be on our way,” the woman said persuasively. Her face showed sympathy; she didn’t look like she wanted a fight.
I kept the pistol trained on the woman and gripped the handle tightly.
“We need them,” I said back.
“So do we,” a man from the other group said threateningly.
“Stay back!” I commanded. “If you kill me, I’ll have my people kill all of you.”
I raised my arm into the air and heard the string of the bow retract as the arrow left it and landed in the ground near the stranger’s feet. Their faces began showing panicked expressions. It wasn’t the show of power I was hoping for, though.
There were seven of them: The woman and her daughter, another woman who looked about twenty, and four men between the ages of twenty and fifty. The men and the younger woman raised their guns to me. My plan was exhausted and so was I. I had a strong feeling they would kill me. Perhaps my threat was holding strong; maybe they believed I had more people than just Levi.
We reached a standstill.
“We can work together,” I suggested. “Nobody wants to die.”
“We’re carrying something far too valuable,” the woman replied.
Benny began making noises from under the duct tape. He was trying to say something. The woman walked over and uncovered his mouth.
“We have something valuable too,” Benny stated. “He wasn’t lying when he said he had an army at his disposal. You folks ever heard of the Hyenas? Take a good look at my friend there.” Benny motioned with his head toward me.
“You’re saying he’s Marley?” the woman asked in disbelief. “We heard he died during an attack on the Hyena headquarters.”
“Well, we have proof that says otherwise,” Benny said back. “And he needs immediate medical attention.” Benny was no stranger of pulling a successful bluff.
“We have problems of our own,” a man from the other group asserted.
“No, if we get you medical supplies, will you help us?” the woman asked us earnestly.
“Lower the gun, Stumpy,” Benny said to me.
“We’ll help you,” I replied to the woman’s question.
“I’m glad we could work this out,” the woman said. “Come with me. We have antibiotics.”
We fit into the group and began mingling. It was later in the day when the woman- Emily- finally told me what was so important that they were carrying. We were around the campfire when she pulled me aside.
“Marley,” she said to me. “What is it that you’ve been doing out here? Isn’t there some kind of base you three should be at? You know it’s not safe out here.”
“I don’t know what we’re doing, to be honest. I’m glad we found your group, though. It’s good to know there’s good people left.” I lifted my head to look her in the eyes.
“Earlier, when we said we had something important, we were just bluffing.” She let out a big breath, letting her stomach finally come to rest.
“I appreciate you telling me that. We were bluffing about everything also. Well, save for me being Marley. I guess that’s important,” I said, laughing a little. She laughed along with me.
She moved her body awkwardly, looking like she was preparing to say something but would not let it out. Finally, she said: “We’ve been on the run for so long now. They’ve been killing us off little by little. We’ve seen too many good people get killed. The truth is, we’re just average people trying to survive.”
“I know,” I replied. “We can help now.”
“No. The Highwaymen are close.”
“Then we’ll avoid the Highways.”
“You don’t know who they are, do you? They’re going to find us and when they do, they’ll kill us,” Emily stated with terror. Her eyes grew wide.
“How will they find us?” I cocked my head slightly.
“Normally they just stick to the roads and set up traps for anyone still driving a car. They usually ambush military vehicles for supplies. But they know which way we ran and they’re following us.”
“How close do you think they are?” I asked.
Emily replied: “They’re most likely already in the woods.”
She pointed to the area they’d be coming from and explained the need for traps. She was terrified and again expressed her concern that we’d be unable to hold them off in a fight. Her group was running dangerously low on food and ammunition. Her people were weak and resorted to using melee weapons such as crowbars and bats.
“For a while, we actually started building a life for ourselves. There were many of us and we took refuge in scattered buildings in a small town. There was no government or rebels. There was no violence. We were happy,” Emily revealed.
“Nothing good ever lasts,” I said solemnly.
“No, it doesn’t,” she replied. She put her head down and appeared to be reflecting.
After a moment to give Emily to think, I asked: “Were you with the revolution at the beginning?”
“I was as fed up as everyone else,” Emily responded. “But no, I wasn’t with the revolution.”
“I was just wondering if we were friends or just doing this together because we have a common enemy.” I looked to her and smiled. It made her uneasy.
“Look, you’re obviously biased. We really need your help right now, though. You’re a strategist, right?”
I avoided the question and responded: “Tell me what your stake is in this. I just need to know why you’re helping me. You can imagine a person like myself has reason to worry about people that don’t have my best interests at heart.”
“It was the military,” she said with a hushed voice and somber expression. “When the government came in and rounded up what men were left in our town for conscription, my husband refused to go with them willingly. They took him away from my daughter and me by force. We spent the next few days hoping they would return him. We couldn’t help being naive. We didn’t know any better at the time. We finally got sick of waiting and knew we had to take action. We tracked down where the ones who refused to go and the dissenters were being taken. We didn’t know how to get him out but seeing him again was enough for my daughter and I that night. But the next day they were transported. They went to the middle of town… for public demonstrations… meaning shootings…” She looked away from me. “When he was up… it just didn’t feel real.”
I shouldn’t have asked. The pain I’ve caused these people. The pain I’ve caused every person in this country. There’s no way I can compensate for this kind of injustice.
“I’m sorry, Emily.” I reached a hand out gently for her shoulder but quickly pulled it back. “I- I didn’t know. What was he like?”
“Always smiling. He was a great father and husband. He worked for a computer company and-” She started to choke up, something caught in her throat. Her eyes were filling up and she looked away. “And he loved spending time with us, with his family.”
Am I responsible for that too? When will this end? I stood fixed in place and concentrated on Emily. I listened while she spoke but I had nothing left to say. The guilt was too much.
I went back to camp after our conversation to tell Levi and Benny the ambush plan I had conceived with Emily. I finally agreed to swap Levi’s bow for a pistol. His joyful response wasn’t what I was hoping for. Benny grabbed my arm and took me aside. He asked what Emily and I discussed. I shook my head and told him we only talked about the plan for the Highwaymen. Benny expressed concern that what I’d been through was causing damage to my psyche. My expression showed no such burden.
“This is all getting to you, Stumpy. We don’t have the firepower to take on these Highwaymen. They’ll kill us all. We should just slip out during the night.”
“Benny, I assure you we have what it takes. We have to prove our worth to these people so they’ll let us stick around.” I gripped my lips together, concealing them in my mouth. “We’re safe with them.”
“No, we’re safe at the next Hyena outpost, Stumpy!” He was starting to raise his hands. He was getting to the point that he was hoping his arms would help convey how loud he meant his words to be.
“You mean on the road?!”
Levi burst in excitedly from our side. “What’s the plan, Dustin?”
“We’re gonna hide as long as we can and see if we can avoid these Highwaymen altogether,” I explained.
“They’re bad guys, so they need to die, right?” Levi responded. “Why don’t we just shoot them when we see them?” Stop thinking like that, Levi. What do I need to say to get it through to you? We’re the good guys because we don’t kill.
“There’s way more of them than us. You can’t be so eager to rush into a fight.” I lifted my arms and made a slight motion for Levi to move away from us.
“You’re just weak, Dustin,” Levi said sternly.
“You don’t know anything about this, Levi. There’s way more to life than just being strong or brave enough to take on an army,” I replied hastily. I turned my back on him again and hoped I had said enough to convince him to leave.
He bursted back in furiously and yelled: “I killed that doctor to save your life!”
“You think that makes you a man?” I asked. “You think taking a life is what defines you? It’s how we live that defines us! Do you want to be defined as a murderer?!”
Benny stepped in and asked me to tone it down.
“No, Benny! I yelled to him. “There’s only one thing that will never change. Me and my brother! Me and Levi! You’re not in that picture, are you?! Remember that!”
I walked away from Benny abruptly and sat next to Emily by the fire.
“When do we start?” I asked.
She studied my face for a moment and replied with a glimmer of a smirk: “Immediately.”
Where I was from, I never heard of him. But around here, he was a big deal. Huge, in fact. Everyone knew him because everyone feared him. They feared they were next to be captured and enslaved. That was his thing. Emily told me he’d enslave people and have them do embarrassing, menial tasks. Most of them, however, he had work in mines and farm. It didn’t sound so bad. However, he reaped the benefits while they worked. He sat back and commanded his men to torture and kill the people he didn’t like. It was his utopia. It was his world. It was Joe-land. That’s what he called it and he would kill anyone who refused to call his land exactly that.
I was more interested in what got him started. I wanted to know what made him like that. He was a seemingly ordinary man for most of his life. After the fall, he took the chance to reshape the world around him how he wanted.
Joe lived at home with his wife and eight children. He didn’t like what he was seeing outside of his window. He knew the country was falling and he prepared for his hostile takeover. He was a farmer and he quickly rounded up the people in his area. He persuaded them to join his fight and they agreed. He promised them a bright future: A future in which they would never have to work again. He would force out all traces of the American government from the region and he would create his new world. The people liked what he was saying. Sure, most of them didn’t understand the full extent of his plan, but they followed their charismatic leader nonetheless. It was the country man’s time to shine. That’s what they thought.
What had I learned so far? Charisma will get you very far as a leader. Also, while preparing for a hostile takeover, be crazy. People seem to love crazy. Aside from being crazy, you have to keep people on their toes. Be unpredictable. Joe did exactly that.
Joe’s oldest nephew confronted him about his plans. Joe attempted to have his nephew join his ranks. His nephew, however, after learning his fears were true of his uncle being a madman, pulled a gun on Joe. Joe knew his nephew wouldn’t pull the trigger so he called in backup from his sons. Let’s just say Joe’s nephew isn’t in the family tree anymore. He’s hanging from it.
Joe’s wife was attracted to his new and powerful status. She encouraged him and Joe knew he had no more immediate threats. His family and neighbors prepared their takeover.
Joe stormed the mayor’s office along with his small group of militant followers. The mayor forfeited the town without a fight. Joe-land was born. Joe stormed the buildings around town with his men. They rounded up the citizens and threw them into a big heap in the streets. They killed the ones that wouldn’t cooperate. The rest became slaves.
A wall was built around the city that separated Joe-land from the rest of America. The main reason for the wall was to ensure no one could escape. All objection to Joe’s rule was squashed very quickly. Joe was the absolute ruler. A new, small nation was born in the aftermath of the war.
Shortly after solidifying his hold, word reached Joe that the U.N. was sending in troops to put down the rebellion. Joe’s new world was at stake so he armed all of his people, including the slaves.
The residents of Joe-land manned the walls and prepared to defend their city. A detachment of one hundred British soldiers from the U.N. were sent to take care of Joe. They surrounded the wall and demanded that Joe give up his hold on the city. The soldiers were prepared to end the confrontation peacefully. However, Joe picked up his rifle and shot the commanding officer in the chest.
The soldiers returned fire and took up defensive positions around the city. The siege was broken and there was no backup for either side. The U.N. forces were occupied with the rest of the country and one hundred soldiers was all that were allowed to deal with Joe. The U.N. had thought most of the revolutionaries would give up peacefully. They didn’t know the American people.
The British soldiers threw grenades and planted explosives to tear down Joe’s walls. Joe’s approximately one thousand former civilians held off the soldiers for three days.
After the third day, only fifteen British soldiers remained. They had killed off about six hundred of Joe’s militia. Joe had six soldiers hostage. He and a group of his men took the hostages outside of the wall with guns pointed to their heads. They approached the soldiers and taunted them. The soldiers were beginning to show signs of desperation and fear. Joe gave them the choice to leave. He told them it was either that or he would have them all killed.
The British routed as Joe shot the hostages anyway. He then ordered his men to shoot the soldiers in the back. Only one escaped with his life.
The U.N. only stayed in America for five out of the current seven years of the revolution. Many of the countries were forced to pull out due to problems they faced back in their own lands. The American people were too determined, powerful, and armed to be swayed by the power of the U.N.
Joe showed his ability to lead during the battle against the British soldiers and the slaves grew even more scared. Some attempted to fight back with their new firearms but they were quickly put down by Joe’s militia.
Joe lost three of his children in the fighting. He was ready to cement his grip on the region. Joe ordered his people to go out and round up as many sturdy vehicles they could find, preferably jeeps and trucks. They found machine guns at an abandoned military outpost and mounted them to the tops of the trucks and jeeps. Soon after, they came across landmines and planted them in the roads. Joe began ambushing passing vehicles and taking their people for slaves and using their supplies. His numbers quickly grew and his people became armed, even better than before.
Joe became determined and spread his reach. His influence and momentum increased with no end in sight. We were in his influence. We were in his territory. We couldn’t escape. We were going to have to fight.
Back at camp, I was talking to the girl from Emily’s group about what her life was like prior to the fall. “What were your parents like?”
“Nice,” she replied in an uninterested inflection.
“Any siblings?” I inquired, hoping to peak her activity in the conversation.
“Doesn’t matter now. Everybody’s dead,” she said back.
“Look, it’s been a while. I kind of forgot how to flirt. I know that I like you, though.”
“No, you like how I look.” She refused to look me in the eyes. She appeared fully unamused, as well as withdrawn.
“Well, that’s enough, right?” I asked desperately.
She looked at me in disgust and took a step away from me.
“No, it’s not enough,” she retorted angrily. “Have you lost the ability to communicate?”
“I used to be able to talk to girls. I mean, I used to be able to talk to girls that I liked. When is the last time you were with a man? Was it one of those guys?” I asked pointing to the men in her group.
“No, it wasn’t one of those guys,” she replied abruptly.
“Don’t tell me you think Benny is better looking than me. Benny’s a creep,” I stated harshly. I raised my right hand slightly and cocked my head. My voice was becoming softer, hoping to coax her subconsciously into thinking that I was a decent guy.
“I never said anything about Benny. Do I sense some insecurity out of you?” she asked jokingly. Her tone was changing to a more pleasant, more affectionate one.
“What?” I asked offended. “Of course not. Benny’s a dick.” My voice got deeper suddenly. “You want a man. You want me,” I told her. I puffed my chest out slightly, hoping she wouldn’t take notice of it.
“Oh, do I?” she asked flirtatiously.
“Well, yeah. I’m one hundred and forty pounds of malnourished man, baby.” Raising my eyebrows slightly, I moved in a little closer.
She giggled and looked into my eyes. Her eyes sparkled and her lips formed a smile. For the first time in a long time, I was happy. I finally felt content with another human. I felt a form of success by simply being able to communicate properly with another person. I was beginning to feel that I was losing touch with Levi. I couldn’t always communicate with him. This was my moment. I had finally found someone to talk to.
I leaned in toward her. She already knew I was interested so I went less than halfway to see if she would take my queue. She did. She went in also and pushed her lips together. I closed my eyes and she closed hers. We moved closer until we finally made contact. At that moment, there was a loud bang. I opened my eyes slowly and saw a hole in her head. She was dead before we could finish the kiss.
Everything went quiet. I grew numb and a shiver shot up my spine. Loud noises were surely all around, but I couldn’t hear them. I screamed as loud as my body would allow me. Bullets began flying by but I couldn’t hear anything. I was paralyzed; my body was indifferent to the ensuing violence around me.
The Highwaymen were closing in around us. Levi was with Benny in a hole they had dug out prior. They were returning fire along with Emily’s remaining group. Mines went off that we had planted for the Highwaymen’s vehicles. We realized that they had surrounded us from every side. There was no escape now. We had to fight and most likely die.
A burly man from Emily’s group threw me to the ground to protect me.
“Marley, get down!” I heard him yell despite my shell-shocked state.
Levi. Where is Levi? I had to get to him. I tried to get up but the man’s hand forced me to the ground and held me tight. I could see through the foliage the army coming toward us. Jeeps pressed through the woods as some exploded or fell through hidden traps we had planted. They inched closer as our bullets didn’t even seem to faze them.
I scanned the area and finally saw Levi getting up from the hole. Benny was dragging him out as Levi wrapped up his legs and arms in fear. The intensity of the fight had Levi terrified. The Highwaymen approached them and one hit Benny with the butt of his rifle. The others lifted up Levi and threw him into the Jeep. Benny was then beaten violently by the members of the Highwaymen close by.
I looked next to me and realized my protector was shot and killed. I stood up, slowly and awkwardly as my functions began returning to me. My hearing was almost returning to normal. My nerves and fear had nearly been disbanded. I raised my arm in surrender. Levi had been taken and the battle was over. Death will be a relief. I can’t know what they’re planning on doing with Levi. Or Benny. Or Emily.
They finally noticed me and one said while laughing: “Look, it’s trying to surrender.”
Another Highwayman retorted: “Only halfway.” He motioned to my stump. “What do we do with it?”
I looked at them and said as seriously as I could: “My name is Marley. If you release me and my brother, I may have my army spare you.”
Why am I fighting it? My reprieve is only a muzzle flash away. Nothing I said mattered. They weren’t even listening. They came up next to me and grabbed me. They were entrenched with military gear scattered throughout their bodies. Most of their faces were covered by balaclavas or other masks.
I was thrusted into one of their Jeeps, my body nearing the breaking point upon hitting the leather seat in the back.
They could kill me. They should kill me. Only then will the nightmare kickstarted by the death of my parents be over. Only then I can finally go to rest, go home. Levi will be there. My parents will be eagerly awaiting us. I don’t even know what I was still clinging onto up to this point. I should have put Levi and myself out of this when I had the chance. Now it’s up to someone else what my fate is.
During the ride, I asked one of the men for a drink of water. The man in the passenger seat turned around and slapped me across the face.
“You like hitting the handicapped, do you?” I asked sarcastically.
I felt powerless and my sarcasm was the only sense of victory I could get in a situation like that.
“The handicapped is lucky I don’t kill him,” the man replied.
“You follow a crazy man and you expect what? Safety? Is that the arrangement?” I asked.
“Are you the real Marley?” the man in the passenger seat asked, ignoring my question.
“Real Marley?” I attempted to play stupid. It didn’t work.
The men exchanged knowing glances and the driver pulled the vehicle to the side of the road abruptly. What now? Throw me in a ditch and kill me before we can even make it back to camp? I guess there’s worse fates.
“Don’t play any games with us,” the driver said sternly. “We’re giving you a chance to live.”
“What’s the offer?” I asked. I leaned forward and grabbed the back of the passenger’s seat to show my interest.
“You’re not seriously gonna let him go,” the passenger said to the driver.
“I know what it’s like back there. I was one of the slaves before I proved myself to Joe and he gave me a gun,” the driver explained sympathetically.
I kept my guard up and pretended to act strong by asking: “So?” I kept my tone direct and my voice deep.
“Get out of the car,” the driver demanded of me.
“No, you took all of my friends.” I released the seat and held on tightly to the cushioning beneath me. A tempting offer. I’m almost convinced to take it. But I can’t leave Levi or Benny back there with them.
“They’re already dead. You will be too when we get back there,” the driver revealed harshly. He avoided my gaze and almost appeared to show empathy.
“Look, I can tell the two of you are up to something,” I stated. I felt my intuition was getting better. Regardless, I was not even sure if my statement had anything to back it up with. I just wanted to keep the conversation going. By gaining their trust, I was hoping my life inside of those bars would be easier and maybe even have a chance to save the others.
“Nothing you’d be interested in,” the passenger said in a dismissive tone.
“We need all the people we can get.” The driver sounded more enthusiastic. He was ready to talk. “And he’s a real leader too. He started the revolution so I’m sure he can help take down an idiot like Joe.”
“If you help free my friends, I can help you take down Joe,” I offered.
“Good,” the driver said definitively. “We’re going to tell Joe that you’re Marley. He’ll want to sit down and have a chat with you. That’s the distraction we’re going to need to free the slaves and arm them for the revolt.”
“As long as my friends make it out okay.” I took a moment for them to fully understand what that meant. “Hear me? I need all of them alive or this goes nowhere.”
“We’ll do the best we can,” the driver asserted.
The passenger looked to the driver as if he was crazy. “I don’t like this.” He reached for the top of his balaclava and pulled it up to cover his mouth and nose. “I don’t like this at all.”
“Marley! I’ve been waiting for you!” Joe yelled excitedly.
I zoned his voice out. All that was present to me was my surroundings after Joe’s men had thrown me to the ground in front of their leader. Slaves carrying pickaxes to be taken to the mines. Others carried farming tools to reap fruit for Joe. Joe-land. I was finally here. I didn’t want to admit it, but I felt Joe and I did have a sort of weird connection. I felt like it was destiny that we met. I just wished I knew what came next.
“Marley, answer me!” Joe demanded as he grew increasingly frustrated.
“Sorry, Joe,” I replied. “I was just… admiring what you’ve made.”
“I can thank you for this! If it wasn’t for the revolution, Joe-land could never have come to be!” he said enthusiastically.
“We do have some things in common.” My voice was hesitant, reluctant.
“What do you plan when your Hyenas win the war, Marley?” Joe asked interestedly.
“I, uh, like to think realistically,” I began. “We need to make sure we have strategic advantages and high morale for the troops. We have to make sure we can win the war before we make plans for after the war.”
I hoped my answer appeased him for the moment. It didn’t. I could tell by the look on his face.
“Don’t be so modest, Marley,” Joe said. “What kind of government will you come up with? What rules will you put in place? Will people like me be allowed to live in your new world?”
“Government? Uh, well-” He’s going to see right through me. His guards did so how can he not? “Democratic,” I said uneasily.
“Relax!” Joe ordered of me. “We’re friends, Marley! We have aligned interests! I’m not killing you in my home so I trust you won’t have me killed when you take this whole country as your home, correct?”
“Absolutely. We can… we can make this work, Joe.”
I acted businesslike. I was only entertaining this crazy man until my driver and his passenger could put their plan into action. It was my one and only chance to escape. I had only one job: keep him busy. I could do it. I was beginning to sweat. Joe still looked to me with excitement. I was his idol and I couldn’t understand why.
“How close are you to winning the war?” Joe questioned.
“As you can see, I’m away from my army at the moment. I don’t know what their condition is right now. The quicker I get back to them the faster we can put an end to the resurgent pain in my sides. Or should I say our sides?” I was hoping I could persuade him. I was creating a distraction at least. He’s listening. Good. I can make this work. Maybe I can save Levi after all.
“Ha, of course!” Joe yelled enthusiastically. “We’re going to be-” A noise coming from his earpiece distracted him. “What is this?” He put his stubby finger to his ear and listened attentively.
I finally had a chance to examine him while he was distracted. Joe was a short, chubby man with black, balding hair. He wasn’t even close to intimidating. Regardless of that fact, I was terrified of what came next.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” I asked with a hint of fear in my voice.
“Marley, how do you deal with traitors? People you thought you could trust. But then it turned out they were only around and got close to you to kill you and took what you worked so hard for.”
“I, um, I would… I guess it depends. You can always give them a second chance if…”
I’m out of options. He can see through to the other side of me.
“Give them a second chance?!” Joe bellowed and laughed uncontrollably. He rested on his guard and his guard joined in forced laughter with Joe. “Of course you would think that. That’s funny.”
“What’s the plan, Joe?” I asked in distress.
“Bring them in! Show the traitors to me!” Joe said, commanding his soldiers outside of his private tent.
Joe’s soldiers brought in my driver and his passenger. He found them out. I then knew I wasn’t leaving anytime soon. The soldiers ripped the mask off of the driver’s face and revealed his bearded visage. His face showed the desperation he was surely feeling. It was over for these men. Joe didn’t appear to be one to show mercy.
“What will you do with these men?” My voice raced quickly, wanting to cut Joe off before he did anything rash.
“What would they have done to me if they were given the chance?” Joe asked calmly. He walked up to the men and screamed in their faces: “ I will make you wish you never crossed me! Do you two understand that?! You’re not going to die, no, no, no. Death will be a welcome relief that you will greet like a friend when I’m done with you two!”
“Joe…” I attempted to interrupt him.
“You’re next, Marley!” Joe screamed to me. He then turned to his soldiers and ordered: “Cut whatever appendages off of these traitors you think will hurt most and let them bleed to death. I’m not done with Marley. He sided with these men and then tried to lead me to believe that we were friends! He gets a different punishment. A worse punishment. Lock him with the other prisoners until I think of something gruesome enough!”
The guards grabbed me and dragged me outside. A group of other guards came over to spit on me and kick me. Finally, one stepped forward and hit me in the head with the butt of his rifle.
I woke up about five minutes later with Benny leaning over me. I was put in a cage with only Benny. The cage was on top of a hill overlooking the city. We could see the slaves working the fields and some coming out from the mines. They were put in whatever rags they could find for clothes. I had realized my jacket was taken from me. My jeans were tattered and my t-shirt was ripped down the middle.
“Thank God! You’re alright, Stumpy!” Benny said enthusiastically. “Look, I’ve been thinking of a few ways out of here.”
“Benny, there’s no way out. We’re lucky we even made it this far. Maybe we should just count our losses and move on,” I suggested. He’s thinking too positively. He always does. Maybe he knows something.
“No, no, Stumpy. Don’t tell me he got to you. You gotta have some hope left.” He grabbed my shoulders and shook me wildly, seemingly hoping that jarring my body would knock his sense into me.
“I have one arm left and everyone blames me for everything,” I said devoid of ambition. “So no, I don’t have much hope left. We’ve made no progress!”
“We haven’t made progress?!” Benny asked furiously. “You met me! That’s progress! You and your brother are still alive! Isn’t that progress?! And on top of that, you’ve made more friends that are going to help you through this. That are going to help us through this.”
“We lost. That’s it. We lost,” I stated definitively. I was done, defeated, and ready to quit.
Benny was growing frustrated and finally yelled: “You’re not dead yet!”
“Benny, I’m sorry I let you down. You know I’m not Marley. I can’t do this,” I explained in disgust of myself.
“You’re a liar, I know that much. But fine, I’m gonna kill you myself then,” Benny said aggressively. What did he say? Does he think that’s a threat? “You’re right, Stumpy, you don’t deserve to live. Why should a pathetic, lying piece of shit get to live when all of those other good people had to die?”
Benny got up and grabbed me by the collar of my shirt. My eyes grew wide and I struggled to get any words out.
“Benny, no!” I pleaded. Why do I suddenly want to live?! Wanting death and receiving it are two different things. What is this?! Adrenaline?!
“You’re gonna beg?! You want your brother to remember you this way?!” Benny screamed. “Be a man!” I am one. Levi needs me. Emily needs me. All of these people need me. I didn’t die all that time ago because I can still do some good. That has to be the reason.
Benny released his hold on my collar and threw me to the ground violently.
“Alright!” I yelled back. “You made your point! Let’s get out of here.”
“What’s the plan?” Benny inquired.
“What do you mean?” I tilted my head, shooting him a confused expression.
“You’re the leader of the former free world. You make the plans,” Benny demanded.
“Alright, alright. Let me think about it.” I just have to know what the shifts are for the guards. They’re the ones with the keys. They’re the only ones that can unwittingly help us out of this situation.
I spent the night discussing various plans with Benny until we finally settled on one. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t need to be. It just had to get us out of there.
“Wake up!” a guard yelled to me the following morning.
I didn’t want to get up. I knew what I had to do now. It was all on me.
I finally have to step up and live up to my false title. All I wanted was safety for my brother and I. I got it the wrong way and now I have to suffer.
Two guards stepped into our cage and kicked Benny and I. Benny woke suddenly and put his arms up for the guards to grab him. The guards hoisted us up into their arms. Benny and I exchanged glances and he nodded to me, signalling that it was time. He swung wide and broke free of the guard’s hold. The man holding me threw me and tended to his partner. They cornered Benny in the cage and Benny cocked a defensive stance. “Run, Stumpy!” Benny screamed to me. I didn’t look back. I ran down the downhill gradient. They’re going to kill him. If I don’t save Levi then Benny died for nothing. The guards in a tower on the north side began shooting in my direction as warning shots after the guards had alerted them I broke free. Bullets skidded all around my feet.
I didn’t know what to do. We had the arrangement planned out the night before but now with bullets whizzing by, everything looked different. Interference came from unexpected areas.
I ran through the dirt and the dark buildings. A few slaves stood in my way as I ran. I pushed past them and yelled for them to follow me. The guard house was up ahead. A few more slaves joined in on my side. My vision was blurred and my mind was jumbled with possible scenarios. After another moment of running, I finally heard something. It was chanting. The slaves saw me run and they were chanting. The slaves working and the slaves held in their cages. They were all chanting “Marley. Marley. Marley.” I finally stood up for something. Levi would be proud to see me now. But they should be chanting “Dustin.” I want to be known for what I really did. I want to be known for this moment.
I kept running until I made it to the guard house doors. The doors appeared to be locked loosely. A strong slave stepped forward and motioned for me to step away. He came forward and bashed the door open with a sledgehammer. He then stepped away and used his hand to signal that he wanted me to step in first. All this politeness while Joe’s guards were shooting recklessly in our direction. Slaves dropped on all of our sides but they outnumbered the guards at least one hundred to one. All I needed was the keys to the slaves’ cages. I gave them power and encouragement to stand up to Joe; now they only needed the physical freedom to fight.
The guard house was small but about ten slaves fit into it with me. About thirty more stood guard outside as bullets landed all around them. I searched frantically for the keys through cabinets and desks. A few bloodied slaves were in cages in the guardhouse screaming at me to help them.
The building suddenly shook violently after a deafening explosion from outside. One of the slaves screamed that they were using bazookas to bring the building down around us. It was suddenly becoming a desperate race. Where could the keys be? I’m running out of time. Any second the building is going to collapse on top of us.
“I got the keys!” a slave screamed in excitement. “There’s five sets of keys!”
The man gave out the sets of keys to the other slaves and he gave a set to me.
“Let’s get moving!” I bellowed.
“There’s weapons in here, Marley!” another slave stepped forward and told me.
I could barely hear anything over the sounds of battle outside of the guardhouse walls. I nodded my head and told him to get out as many as he could and hand them out. He handed out assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols to as many slaves as he could. He then stepped toward me and handed me a short sword. He told me it was for my handicap. He then proceeded to tell me that a sword would look intimidating while I led the charge against Joe.
I had forgotten that leading meant leading by example. I completely forgot that the completion of this scattered plan would require me to push toward the enemy; it meant no more running away. I would have to fight Joe for freedom. He wasn’t just going to give it to me if I ran fast enough.
“What’s the plan?” a slave asked approaching me.
“There’s more guardhouses! That means there’s more keys to free the other slaves!” I explained loudly. “We need to spread out and get to the guardhouses to help the others!”
The surrounding slaves overheard my orders and agreed to group up into teams and then spread out. The problem was that we were now trapped in a small guardhouse with all of the guards waiting on the other side.
“How do we get out of here, Marley?!” a slave screamed to me.
I have to get to Levi and Emily. People are dying so quickly. What if Levi’s already dead? Any attempt to rescue just him might be a waste of time and a waste of lives. Is that something a leader would do? Would a leader sacrifice his people to save one person? I can’t look for Levi until after the battle is won.
“There’s explosives in the corner!” I yelled back to the slave. “Blow a hole in the wall and let’s go out the back door!”
A few slaves stepped forward and set off the explosives against the wall, effectively creating a hole big enough for us to escape through. I ordered my new guards to get their weapons ready as we went through our new escape route. We encountered three of Joe’s guards hiding behind cover. The slaves laid down suppressing fire so we could slip through and use the cover of buildings to progress.
I led the way through the streets with my sword raised. We got a few hundred feet before I was tackled from the side. I was being held down by an unknown assailant. My attacker was attempting to tell me something but the noises surrounding us drowned out his voice. I ordered my guards to put their weapons down. The voice was finally discernible. It was Benny. He was telling me that he knew where Levi and Emily were. He helped me up and led the way.
Some of the slaves following us broke off to help others out of their cages. More of them joined in and clustered up to help in the charge. We had a few hundred people joined in our group by the time we reached Joe’s stronghold. Benny had explained that Joe was holding Levi inside. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to break Levi and Emily free.
Benny took a large group of slaves and led them to the right side of the house while I led the other half of the slaves to the left side. My group successfully broke into Joe’s house after a slave with a shotgun shot off the hinges on the side door. I ordered a small group of my followers inside to storm the house. I stood outside and showed the others where to take cover at to create a circle around the house to ensure Joe’s guards couldn’t flank us. Intense fighting raged outside as the slaves held their ground. Joe’s people continuously moved closer and threw grenades to dispel our lines and send the slaves routing. Fifteen minutes of brutal firefighting took place before the slaves finally appeared through the side door with Levi, Emily, and the others. What have they done to the two of you? It was a small victory, but it was one we needed to keep the momentum up.
“I need a runner!” I yelled into the vast amount of former slaves.
“I’m here if you need me!” a young woman said stepping forward.
“Tell Benny on the other side of the house that we got what we came for! We’re getting out of here!” My voice was becoming hoarse from the screaming but I wasn’t ready to stop just yet.
The area surrounding us was filled with black, opaque smoke. It was perfect cover to escape through. I didn’t know how many of us were left or if we even had enough people to mount a full retreat. It was an uphill battle from the moment I broke free. Now we were all going to break free.
The smoke was spreading which made it so I could no longer see more than a few feet in front of me. Joe’s guards were shouting to fix bayonets and get out other close range weapons. They were getting ready for a charge. My people weren’t prepared. We were trying to escape, not fight. Joe’s men were ready to take the initiative, and with it, the momentum.
I yelled to anyone that could hear me to begin running away. They can’t hear me over the sound of gunfire and explosions. Nonetheless, mostly everyone knew what was coming and began running.
I started sprinting through the smoke and down an unseeable, yet level path. I could see silhouettes of others running alongside me. Some were my allies, while others were those trying to kill us. I could suddenly make out the fence holding us within. We were almost free after less than a minute of sprinting as fast as I could. Many of the slaves outran me and were grabbing onto the fence and were trying to climb over it. I then discerned that gunfire was coming from our side. The enemy set up a killzone, waiting for us to get that far. They gunned down the slaves on the fence and those nearby me. It was a heavily fortified machine gun nest on the top of a building.
“Turn around!” the slaves were yelling as a warning.
I turned to face the other way as one of Joe’s guards came upon me and attempted to hit me with the butt of his rifle. I moved abruptly and he hit what was left of my left shoulder with the rifle. I recovered quickly and unveiled my newly-acquired sword. He lifted his rifle again to bash it against me, but I stabbed him in the stomach too quickly. My sword pierced through his vest with ease and went clean through his abdomen. As I pulled the sword out, he fell just as quickly. That was for Levi.
Joe’s guards were too prepared for a slave uprising. It was amazing we even got close to having the upper hand. It was almost over. The last of the slaves were being wiped out quickly and the bullets were landing around my feet and were getting closer. At least we didn’t go down without a fight. A smile nearly formed on my face. I stopped in place and waited.
A hole was suddenly blown in the fence a few yards down. The hole was large enough for a person to escape through. The slaves near it began funneling through it as fast as they possibly could. Many were getting caught on the fence because too many were trying to fit through such a small space. More explosions occurred near us and the fence. More holes were blown in the fence until the fence came down completely. Joe’s explosives had worked against him and his fortifications. He was now without slaves and walls for his city.
I ran to the broken-down fence and jumped over parts that looked like they could get stuck on my shoes. All this as the battle continued raging around us. We were still getting gunned down but we could see safety and freedom. That was all that mattered. No more slaves. No more masters for these people.
“Keep going! We all go together!” I screamed as the slaves ran with me.
I made it past the fence and ran into the woods as quickly as possible, while checking behind me occasionally to ensure I still had a decent-size following.
“We made it, Stumpy!” Benny called excitedly from behind.
He picked me up by the waist and lifted me up. Swinging me around in excitement, I could hear him crying. He had been through so much. I had been so focused on the terrors I had been exposed to, I forgot my people had seen just as much, if not more than myself. I had it easy while these people were outside the government and Hyena walls. They fended for themselves over the dwindling resources. Benny was out there too. Benny fought for his life more than once. This whole survival thing was new to me. I was thankful for Benny and everything he did for us. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did without him. I wasn’t ready to admit that to him, though.
“We did it! We’re free!” I shouted to the masses.
“You did it, Stumpy!” Benny yelled in reply.
“Dustin, you’re a hero!” Levi uttered as he came up on our side. “You actually came through for us.”
“Actually?” I asked jokingly. “You had doubts?”
“None of us thought we’d be outside those gates again!” Levi remarked.
There were fifty-four slaves left after the fighting had died down. I managed to get a headcount later that day. Emily and her daughter were among the living. They ran up and hugged me. No words were spoken. No words needed to be spoken. We weren’t safe yet, though. We had too many people and no place for refuge. Surely more would die soon due to disease or starvation. A better death than by Joe’s guards, though.
I led the group with Benny, Levi, and Emily helping spearhead. We walked for another few minutes until we heard a branch break. We halted the entire party and ordered them to be quiet. A man dressed in military gear and a mask exposed himself to us. He had a military rifle but he kept it around his back and lifted his hands up in peace.
“Are you alone?” I asked after a moment of hesitation.
“No, I have an army. Are you slavers?” His voice was patient, polite.
“No, former slaves,” I replied pridefully. “We just escaped from Joe-land up the road.”
He gave an exasperated breath and looked at me through the eyeholes of his mask with a relieved expression.
“I don’t want to know how you did it, but you people need a safe place to stay. We can offer that to you,” he stated.
I accepted his offer and ordered all of the former slaves to follow us to where this man was leading us. As we walked, we passed the man’s supposed army. There were around a hundred men in military gear and a few trucks loaded with supplies. They were gearing for an assault. They were coming to attack Joe. They would have freed us. We weren’t alone.
“Follow me,” Jed instructed.
I followed this man through his town. He appeared at least fifty years of age and wore a flannel shirt with a ripped, white undershirt. His visage was covered with a thick black beard. He had long, uncut hair that reached down almost to his eyes. His voice was soothing yet stern.
“You know I’m not pleased with everything you’ve done,” Jed stated rigidly. Jed’s gaze narrowed and his mouth clenched. He didn’t look me in the eyes. Get in line. There’s a lot of people I’ve upset and left disappointed. But I can’t talk to you like that.
“I know, Jed. And you know I’m haunted by all of the deaths I’ve caused,” I replied with real sympathy.
“Your revolution cost me my son. For that, I would have killed you. But you led the enslaved people to freedom as Moses did the Israelites many years before us,” Jed explained. “God sent you and it’s beyond my understanding why my son had to be a casualty. I’ve forgiven you, Marley, and have accepted you as a friend.”
“I appreciate that.”
I was afraid to elaborate. I didn’t really cause the death of Jed’s son but I couldn’t tell him that. I was too far into the lie that it was starting to consume me.
We walked in silence for a few minutes. I observed all of the buildings as we passed them. Many were still miraculously intact. The people there lived as if a revolution had never occurred. Aside from Jed reminding me about his son, not much about this place made me feel guilty. I felt content.
We came upon a baseball diamond where a game was taking place. Residents of the city of all ages were playing. People were cheering and an air of enthusiasm could be felt.
“This is the spirit of America, Marley. It cannot be broken,” Jed said, breaking the silence.
“I never wanted to break it. I know we’re a strong people with an even stronger will. Sometimes you have to break down the people to strengthen their resolve, though. They will come back even stronger and, better yet, wiser,” I explained with charisma. Do I believe that though? Why am I speaking like a politician? Years of giving speeches did this to me.
“A lot of these people have suffered and we have taken them in with open arms. The people from this area, though, haven’t suffered the way you have. We still have electricity in some buildings as you can see. My son had to cross the country for the Liberators. I pray we don’t have to get involved with further bloodshed. The people have travelled far to avoid war. We’re refuge for them,” Jed explained thoroughly, pride coming through in his tone.
“I know I’ve kept to my boundaries so far, but what side are you really on, Jed?” I inquired in a friendly tone.
“I’m on the side of peace.” He didn’t care to elaborate on that.
“Many have made that claim with less than pure intentions. I believe you, though,” I said back. Peace. What does that word mean even mean anymore?
“You’ve grown wiser even since you’ve been here. If you are to win this war, I have enough faith in you to restore what was lost to the best of your ability. I don’t know how, but you’re good at heart, Marley,” he said in a fatherly voice. “Either way, having you in charge is better than those slavers.”
Jed’s starting to put stock in me. I can tell he’s starting to believe in the cause. I don’t think he’d fight, though. He lost too much already from fighting. What is the cause, though? For me, it’s staying alive. Even if that means lying.
“There’s so many threats beyond your walls. Is it ignorant to think the Hyenas even have a chance?” I asked curiously.
“Why would it be? The Hyenas have won almost every major battle so far. They crushed the Liberators and the government is weakening,” Jed explained devoid of interest for sides or factions.
“Aren’t you curious at all?” I questioned him. I asked because I knew he had to be wondering the exact fate of his son’s organization.
“Maybe,” Jed started hesitantly. “What happened with the Liberators?” His voice faltered slightly. He wasn’t sure whether or not he really wanted to know.
“They formed in the west, which leads me to believe you’re originally from the western coast,” I began. “Their base was in California. A lot of people either forget that or don’t know altogether. They began as a few people, high school or college students if I remember correctly, running raids on military outposts and ambushing government convoys. This was before the Hyenas even formed, of course. And Marley, I mean I, actually took many of the ideas from the Liberators for the foundation of the Hyenas. I was watching them closely. They were too small to be considered a threat to the government at the time. However, the military was too busy dealing with riots to hunt down and execute the Liberators. Especially because they were growing in number rapidly. The Hyenas were forming in the east and becoming a serious threat. They formed much faster than the Liberators could have ever hoped to. The Hyenas took D.C., or what was left of it after, and expanded east as the Liberators expanded west at a much slower rate. The two factions finally met up in the middle of Colorado.
Our population was decimated at that point due to the constant fighting and disease. Everyone would rather take up arms than work on making medicine or learn how to administer it. All they knew how to do was administer lead. Useful. Until you or someone in your group gets sick. Twelve million Americans. That’s how many couldn’t live without medical help before the war. Imagine that. All of those people died first, most likely.
Anyway, when the two sides met up in Colorado, most people believed that would be the end of the fighting and the war would finally be over. The pre-war government was but a memory at that point. The fighting was far from over, though. The leaders from each side, the Hyenas and the Liberators, met and talked for three weeks. Talks got heated. The Hyenas wanted to dig for oil in America and expand on the previous way we lived before the war. They wanted to become self-sufficient and keep America’s coal to itself. The Liberators knew the world was far from recovering and selling our resources wouldn’t hurt our country due to a much reduced population of the world. They also knew they were in no condition to fight. The Hyenas had a large standing army that were trained in conventional warfare and most of the soldiers had gone through actual battles. The Liberators were guerilla fighters and much smaller in numbers. The Hyenas prepared themselves and launched a surprise attack on every barracks belonging to the Liberators. They executed their leaders in one final meeting. The way I heard it, there’s no surviving members. I don’t know, though. Maybe a few found their way out.”
“You’re quite the historian, aren’t you?” Jed asked with a downtrodden expression. He was very clearly thinking of his son and what my story implied. Why did I tell him that? I’m too proud of my knowledge of the time and couldn’t hold it back.
“There were heroes on both sides,” I replied with respect for what Jed had lost. “I’m not one of them. That final meeting should have been one of peace but my advisors requested war. We could have made it work. That’s one of my biggest regrets.”
I wasn’t really at the meeting. I was across the country in Michigan at the time. I heard the reports from Jess about it all of the time, though. There was no escaping a fight. That was the way I heard it, anyway. Jess told me it was the Liberators who were gearing for a fight. They were looking for a sneak attack. The Hyenas wouldn’t let them have it, though. They attacked first and wiped out the Liberators.
“My son was dead long before that,” Jed stated abruptly.
I looked down at the ground. Another person who’s faced loss because of me. When is all of this going to end? When will the world fix itself?
An arm was felt on my right shoulder suddenly. I looked to discern who it was. It was Benny who was standing with his arm around me and he suddenly inquired as to what we were talking about. I assured him it was nothing. I didn’t want Benny knowing about Jed’s past. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Benny; it was more that Benny was incapable of even attempting to act sympathetic. And why should he have to? He lost just as much as everyone else.
“We’re talking about how I lost my son,” Jed said to Benny.
“Again?” Benny asked with a smile. “This is an everyday occurrence.” Benny began snapping his finger and moving them in a circle.
“Excuse me?” Benny’s mocking motion caused Jed to look surprised.
“Enough of that, Benny,” I said, attempting to quell the rising tensions.
“No, why should old Jed here get to bitch all day long and you don’t even get a say as to what happened to your family?” Benny asked energetically.
“Because all of this is his fault,” Jed replied to Benny as he pointed to me.
“Bullshit, this revolution was coming one way or another,” Benny asserted. “Dust- I mean Marley’s entire family was murdered by looters when the shit hit the fan! He has his little brother that he’s forced to take care of now in this unforgiving world and you want to complain about what you’ve gone through?!”
Jed puffed his chest and gave a slight smirk with his beard moving with his smile. He rotated his arms as to loosen them up. He then proceeded to punch Benny in the face. Benny fell to the ground and held his cheek where he was struck.
“I’m an old man, son. If I want to bitch, then I’m gonna bitch,” Jed said proudly. “And never try to fight an old man again. We’re tired. We won’t fight, we’ll just kill you. This is your warning.”
Emily ran over to Benny’s aid. She looked at Jed in disgust and then looked to me as to perceive my expression. Emily and Benny had grown close since we moved into this new town. They always had each other’s backs and would sneak over to each other’s rooms in the middle of the night. They didn’t think Levi and I could hear, but we all could.
“I’m alright,” Benny said to reassure Emily.
“If this fighting continues, we’ll have to leave,” Emily said frantically, not really meaning what she was saying.
“And go where, lady?” Jed asked with a slight chuckle. “Face it, you’re stuck here. This is paradise compared to all of the slave camps out there. You think you can make it to the next Hyena outpost by yourselves? Think again. It won’t even be the government that catches you. The raiders, slavers, or worse will get to you first. Maybe even a bear.”
“Enough,” I demanded. “We know the situation. We’re grateful, Jed. And yes, I am sorry about your son, but Benny is right, I lost my family too. And so did everyone else here. We’re all broken. That’s why we’re here. For a fresh start.”
“I appreciate your words, Marley. You’re respectful to my town and these people. You truly are a man of the people,” Jed said praising me.
“Quit sucking up to the kid,” Benny said in disgust.
I bent down and grabbed Benny’s arm to help him to his feet. He looked at me with a remorseful glance.
“And what about you, sinners?” Jed asked Benny and Emily.
“I have no idea what that means,” Benny replied with frustration in his voice. He barely acknowledged Jed as he cleaned his suit jacket off from the dust.
“You sneak over to her room in the middle of the night every night and think we wouldn’t notice. You’re both sinners,” Jed affirmed with a sense of moral superiority.
“How dare you say that?” Emily said to Jed. This can’t be good. If they keep this up then Jed is going to kick us out for sure.
“It’s true and we all know it. That behavior isn’t welcome here,” Jed stated.
“You’re a prude, old Jed. Nobody’s going to hell,” Benny said. “Everybody’s boning here and you just don’t know it.”
“Maybe Marley stays and you two leave. How does that sound?” Jed asked rhetorically, wanting to anger the two of them.
“It sounds to me like it’s time I broke in,” I stated. “Jed, this is pointless. If you keep arguing with Benny, you’re giving him what he wants. Let’s talk about something that matters.”
“Like what?” Jed replied with a slight anger in his voice.
“Like the fact that your entire group lives ignorantly. You all think the war won’t come here. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just look at Joe’s group. They managed to establish right next door to you,” I affirmed my opinion.
“We dealt with those slavers,” Jed said in a monotone voice. He was still staring at Benny.
“I dealt with those slavers, you mean.” I was still proud of my barbaric victory at the slave camp.
“We would have taken care of it had you not,” Jed said with uncertainty.
“Regardless, you’ve demilitarized since then. Your people are back to playing games instead of preparing for the next group that moves in,” I said.
“The kid’s right.” Benny was backing me up. Whether it was just to get back at Jed, I wasn’t sure.
“Demilitarized?” Jed said laughing. “We were never militarized. We don’t plan on it. We planned on taking out one evil man and we did. There’s no point in training an army here,” Jed stated.
“Your oasis will fall,” Emily cut in nervously. “You have to arm yourselves.”
Jed didn’t respond. He looked around at us. He knew the supporters of my notion outnumbered him.
“Look, Jed, we don’t want to lose this place just like you don’t. We like it here. It’s safe. We want to help keep it safe. We can help raise an army,” Benny said.
Jed glared at him.
“Police force? Call it what you want, but there needs to be armed people here,” Benny asserted. He sounded more willing to work peacefully with Jed.
“I don’t come into your home and tell you that you need more guns,” Jed said.
“This isn’t just your home anymore,” I broke in again. “We all paid the price for this land. It’s all of ours and we need to decide together.”
“What are you saying?” Jed asked.
“We can call a city meeting. This needs to be a direct democracy,” I explained.
“Tomorrow. We’ll call a city meeting tomorrow. Then you’ll all see that everyone agrees with me. We’re safe.” Jed didn’t sound entirely sure. All he knew was that he wanted to be right about there being no more threats.
Where Do We run?
“Wake up!” a voice called to me.
I was sleeping. I didn’t plan on waking up for anything. Why is it still calling? It kept demanding that I wake up. I refused to open my eyes. It was still yelling to me. Come to think of it, what are those loud bangs? Why do I hear the shuffling of feet? What’s happening?
I finally opened my eyes to the sight of a bayonet about two inches from my face. Attached to it was the long, black resemblance of a military assault rifle. But it wasn’t a soldier that woke me up.
I was dizzy from lack of sleep. Ideas swirled in my head of what was happening. I was almost deaf to the sound of the woman screaming for me to get up. Is she going to shoot? I doubt it. She looks nervous. More nervous than me.
“Get up!” she screamed again.
“I want my lawyer,” I replied weakly. My mind was still a little hazy from just having woken up.
I don’t know why, but after having lost my arm, I had become immune to the shock of situations like this. No more fear.
“That’s it, I’m gonna shoot!” she yelled.
“No, you won’t. Not unless someone was pointing a gun to your head. Like him,” I said as I pointed to Benny.
Benny appeared from her side with a pistol to her head. Without hesitation, he shot her and helped me to my feet.
“What the hell is going on out there?” I asked Benny.
“Jed proving us right about needing an army. Now it’s too late,” Benny told me.
“Who’s attacking us?” I looked around, trying to make sense of what was happening.
“Hell if I know. Probably bandits. They want what we have. They all want what we have.” Benny searched the area frantically. People were getting gunned down left and right. A rag-tag army was overrunning the entire community. Most of Jed’s people were completely defenseless against the onslaught.
“Where’s Levi?” My face tensed up. I was nervous to hear Benny’s answer.
“He’s with Emily. That’s where we’re going,” Benny explained briefly.
“They’re across town. These bandits are all over the place,” I said back.
“I made it here. We can make it back,” Benny said seemingly without concern.
He grabbed my arm and pushed me to get me to move. Explosions sounded around us but mostly we could only hear gunfire and screams.
These were no bandits. There were too many of them. Bandits generally only travelled with five to seven men. Hardly ever any women. That was one of the other things that tipped me off: the woman with the gun in my face. Whoever was behind this wanted more than just our stuff. They wanted our land. I could feel it.
We ran past several people from Jed’s group on the ground bleeding out. There was no time to stop and attempt to save them. Not that we could. Their wounds appeared far too severe. All we would be doing was comforting them before the inevitable happened.
There’s no help on its way. No police, army, or firefighters in case of emergency. Maybe this is the apocalypse. It’s finally sinking in. Maybe this is the end of the world. What if there are no Hyenas left? No government. What if the last few humans live in this small piece of land and they are all fighting for it? The size of each group was a few hundred a piece. Humanity had been in a downward spiral since the beginning of the war. No, before the war. Either way, I don’t see any coming back from this. It’s all over.
I had to stop thinking like that. But I couldn’t. These thoughts kept emerging. What if I die? Of course, that thought was omnipresent since I lost my arm. Levi is capable enough now. Maybe I should have died. Maybe if Marley died, everyone would have been done fighting. It wouldn’t have been that easy, though. It was a fairytale to think it would all be over with one death. The news wouldn’t even reach the outposts for weeks or months. Maybe longer. Therefore, I have to keep fighting, right? No, not fighting. Running. All I did was run because we kept getting caught off guard. Because of Jed this time. It isn’t my fault this time.
“Keep up,” Benny yelled back to me.
“Sorry, I don’t have an extra arm to swing so I go slower,” I said as I was losing my breath.
“Shut up and run!” Benny screamed with a sound of concern in his voice.
I was falling too far behind. Benny knew it. The look on his face showed that he was gathering information on his surroundings. He was forming a plan. His arm rammed into mine as he ran in reverse. He threw me to the ground and laid there with me. We were behind a few bushes that kept us hidden enough.
“Look, man, just go, alright?” I pleaded with Benny. I didn’t really want him to go. He knew that. I wasn’t ready to be the one to let him die though. Then we would just perish together.
“Shut up, I’m thinking.” He looked around but, after a moment, his face showed a frustrated expression.
“Get Levi and Emily. Get out of here,” I said trying to convince him. “I’ll go out the… back door or something. I’ll figure something out.”
“Just… stay here. I’m gonna come back,” Benny said and waited for a response from me.
I was too tired. I gave him a thumbs up. My arm toppled back down to the ground as I lost all energy. Benny ran about ten feet before I heard a gunshot close by. A body lay on the ground. I threw my head back to the direction Benny ran in and immediately I recognized the jacket. It was Benny. I suddenly felt a surge of adrenaline. I ran out from behind cover and tackled Benny’s assailant. I hit him with my arm and went to hit him with the other. I realized there was no other arm to hit him with and attempted to use my other arm again. It was too late. The stranger lifted his hand and grabbed my arm, except this was no stranger. I recalled the face of this man. It was Joe. He came back to finish us off. If finally made sense. They weren’t bandits. They weren’t even slavers. Joe convinced all of these people to join him and fight us. They gathered together to kill this group of innocents. This is all about revenge.
Joe had a smile on his face. He used his free hand to pummel in my face repeatedly. A smile remained poignantly placed on his face.
“You said we were friends,” Joe said in between punches. “You said I would be your right hand man.”
I couldn’t talk. I felt the warmth of blood on my face. It wasn’t all my blood, though. A lot of it came from Joe’s hand.
I couldn’t stand the thought of it ending by Joe’s hand. Literally. I thought he was dead. We all thought he was dead. There was no killing this bastard. He was back and he destroyed everything these people worked so hard to build and maintain. Their sense of security had been obliterated. If there was anyone left that is.
I kept wondering where Jed was. That shouldn’t have been my main concern but it was. So many things should have been on my mind before the thought of Jed’s whereabouts. I should have been wondering where Levi was and if he was safe. Or, more immediately, if I would survive this ordeal.
Suddenly, Joe’s hand switched from a fist to a cup and grasped my throat. There was no hesitation in his movement. He meant to kill me. His other hand joined his choking hand and squeezed viciously. I used my one hand to attempt to push him off. It wasn’t that I thought I could actually get him off; it was more out of instinct. His grip suddenly shifted from aggressive to deadly. I felt his intentions every second he held onto my throat. There was no escape. There was no help. Benny lay dead and I was soon to join him.
Maybe I would have been better off a slave. At least I would have been alive. Suffocation was a horrible death. Fear encapsulated every second of it. My legs jerked frantically. My body was looking for a way out but my mind was relaxing. I felt my phantom arm trying to join my real arm in its attempt for the freedom of my airway.
My body finally joined my mind in relaxing. It’s over. I’m dying.
My leg abruptly jerked itself upward into Joe’s crotch. He let out a whelp and quickly keeled over. I let out a long breath of relief. My airway was finally free. I was finally free. I got to my feet quickly and looked over my adversary. He was lying in pain on the ground. I noticed a pistol resting next to him. He must have dropped it during our fight. Upon regaining some strength, he reached for it. Once I realized his plan, I quickly lifted my foot and stomped on his hand with my steel-toed boots. There was a cracking sound in his palm. I reached down and grabbed the pistol while he gripped his hand in agony. I stood over him and squeezed the trigger.
I stood half-victorious and half-traumatized. It hadn’t sunk in yet. Nothing had.
“Joe?” I asked. Is he dead? He has to be.
His finger twitched sporadically. This lasted for a few seconds until his hand dropped. He was dead. I won. But the town hadn’t. I still had to run. We all had to retreat. Joe lost but his army was sure to take the oasis.
I lept hurriedly to Benny’s side. There was a faint glimmer of life left in him; his body still breathed softly.
“Benny?” I asked. I wasn’t expecting an answer. I knew I didn’t have time to stick around. It was time to leave. If Benny wasn’t dead, he would have been soon after I left.
The battle was still raging. It had almost completely avoided me. I still heard people screaming which meant people were still dying. These thoughts brought me to my feet and urged me to hurry. I had to get Levi and Emily. How can I tell them Benny was dead? Or worse, that I left him behind when he was still alive. I pushed these thoughts aside and pressed on toward the direction I believed I would find Emily and Levi.
I watched around me as untrained, unarmed people from Jed’s group attempted to hold off members of Joe’s army. If only they knew their leader was dead. Not that that would make a difference. They had no rules or morals. These people just wanted blood. Our blood.
I continued onward until my vision started to blur. What’s happening to me? My body feels weak. I’m bruised and… everything hurts. I was starting to fall over. Soon after, I hit the ground and lost my vision altogether. My mind shut down and I fell unconscious.
What Does He Want?
How did Joe do it? How did he come back from the dead? We all thought we had seen the last of him but he made his miraculous recovery solely for revenge. Or, perhaps, revenge was what fueled his recovery. Nonetheless, he wasn’t dead. He had lost his army, though. All that remained was a few men, broken-down walls, and a plethora of military-grade weapons. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t enough men to man all of those weapons. For a leader like Joe, however, this was a minor setback. All he needed was more bodies and he would have his army yet again.
After the slave rebellion, we went one way through the forest and Joe had the other direction all to himself. He knew to follow us would be suicide. We outnumbered him vastly. Therefore, he stuck to his side for a while. He attempted to spread out, but other raider groups in the area began killing off his search parties. He grew desperate. But desperation fuels creativity. And when the person in question is a creative type already, the change becomes drastic.
Joe went beyond his walls. He lived as a wanderer for quite some time. His remaining army back at his camp wondered where he had went. They waited days and the days turned into weeks. Joe still hadn’t returned. They needed food and water but still they remained stagnant. Joe’s loyal army wouldn’t move without his command. Or, at least for a few more days they wouldn’t. They were on the brink of starving to death. They couldn’t wait much longer.
Word had reached Joe’s group that he made contact with another group. Most likely it was a raider group. They didn’t know how large the group was or their motives. All they could do was sit back and wait for more news.
Two more weeks passed and news had reached Joe’s group that Joe was dead. He attempted to make an alliance with the other group, but the story went that it did not go over well. The new group had Joe killed. This was not true, of course.
The real story was that Joe made contact with another group outside of his walls. They weren’t raiders, however. They were another group of average people trying to survive. They numbered fifteen. Prior to violent engagements with a different survivor group in the region, there were over thirty of them. Joe approached cautiously and made his intentions known.
Joe reached the destroyed house that this group called home. They switched houses every day, but Joe knew this was where he would find them because he had followed them back to it. His approach was to make himself appear kind and sympathetic.
The group’s leader made herself visible and demanded that Joe explain why he was there.
“My people need help. There’s very few of us left,” Joe pleaded. He attempted to act like a normal person. He tried to blend in.
“Keep your distance,” the woman demanded harshly.
“Give me a chance,” Joe requested. “We need help.”
“We have problems of our own,” the woman explained. “There’s other groups in the area that want what we have. We can’t afford to give you anything.”
“Tell me about these groups.” Joe used a kind, caring voice.
“How about I have you killed instead?” the woman asked rhetorically. “I’ve had enough of this.”
The woman raised her hand and turned her back. Two armed guards grabbed Joe’s arms. One of them kicked in Joe’s leg and forced him to the ground. A third guard approached with a machete from behind. Joe heard the distinguishable sound of steel and pleaded wildly with the woman. The machete pierced Joe’s stomach quickly. The guard pulled the blade out of his stomach and all persons in the room gazed at Joe’s new wound. He got to his feet and continued talking. He made a proposition in a manner that didn’t fit his new condition.
“Help me and I’ll help you. Of course, I’ll help you first. So, I suppose it’s I’ll help you and you help me. What do you say?” Joe asked with his hand out to accept a handshake.
Joe’s side was bleeding profusely, but he wouldn’t show that it affected him. If it did affect him, that is. The others in the room were in shock worse than Joe was. A dead man standing in front of them making a request. He didn’t even request medical assistance. They were most likely wondering when he would drop dead. When he did, he would no longer be their problem. They continued waiting for that moment, but it never came. Joe continued standing in a business-like, charismatic manner awaiting the acceptance of his offer. The woman offered her hand limply and with terror in her face. Joe reached his hand out further and grabbed the woman’s hand tightly with his own.
Their pact was complete; the deal had been made. What the deal was, the woman was too in shock to remember. She just knew that Joe was dangerous and was, at least for the short-term, an ally.
“Good!” Joe exclaimed. “Now, where do you keep the booze?”
A guard approached and pointed to the side of the building. Joe took the cue and walked over to his newly-acquired alcohol.
Maybe that was Joe’s goal all along. No, he still wanted revenge. He wasn’t content with just a large piece of land and a small private army defending it. He wanted the Hyenas at his back. He wanted the army. He wanted America. He wanted everything.
Some versions of the story say that Joe eventually collapsed and succumbed to his wound. However, legend goes that Joe kept standing and never accepted medical help, despite the group having a former medical professional.
“Get your people together,” Joe said smoothly. “Get all of your weapons in their hands. We’re finishing this.”
“That was our plan all along. You can’t just say that and expect it to happen,” the woman said.
Joe looked at her intently and said: “No, you’ve had small skirmishes. I’ll give you war. I’ll give you total war.”
Later that night, after Joe had devised a plan for his new group he had acquired, he commanded that they split up into three-man teams and hide on the rooftops. Most of the groups had machine guns or pistols, most likely acquired from a military base not far from there. They hid for hours, careful not to make too much noise. If they had given away their positions, the plan would be compromised.
The rooftops they manned surrounded the center of town. Joe hooked up a loudspeaker to the area before they got into position. He continuously requested help over it. His voice gradually got louder and louder. Joe’s group was losing faith in him. They weren’t fully with him to start, but now they thought he was crazy. The hours dragged on until they finally saw a five-man team come in through the alleys. They approached the area with caution. They looked up at the loudspeaker and back at each other. They were confused. Suddenly, Joe’s voice came through the loudspeaker: “I’m sorry you have to die this way. I’m sure you were just pawns, anyway, but this is a message.” He took a moment pause. “Open fire.” The five people in the center of town appeared terrified for their lives. Joe’s new group was hesitant to shoot. Joe had to command it again. “I said shoot the bastards!” Finally, after another moment of hesitation, Joe’s group shot at the people he successfully trapped.
A few minutes of constant gunfire finally ceased to show that two survivors from the rival group remained: A man and a woman. The man was severely hurt with bullets lining his right leg. The woman stood upright with arms in the air to signify her surrender. Joe approached her coolly with his assault rifle slung over his shoulder.
“What is this?” Joe said laughing.
“I surrender,” the woman explained with a stern look on her face.
“Good. Tell me where your friends are hiding out and you get to live and all that other good stuff,” Joe stated without attempting to sound persuasive.
“I would rather die.” The woman’s expression was unchanging. She seemed to have accepted her fate.
“Then you die,” Joe said as he lifted his rifle.
Joe fired a round into her foot. She fell to the ground in pain. He loomed over her and started asking questions. “Are you ready to talk?” “Huh?” “How about now?” She couldn’t hear him. She was in too much pain. She screamed wildly and writhed on the floor. Joe gave an expression of victory.
“She’s not going to talk,” Joe said to his people. He put his hand out in anticipation of a pistol. A teenage boy stepped forward quickly and put a gun in Joe’s hand. He put it to the girl’s head and pulled the trigger.
Joe and his group returned to their base for the night. They had accomplished what he set out to do.
Joe rose to the sound of a knock on the door of the apartment he was staying in the next morning. He heard knocking for almost a full minute before he finally got out of bed to answer the door. To his surprise, on the other side of the door was a masked man in a suit of bulletproof armor. What he wore appeared to be a modified military suit. He spoke to Joe in a deep voice.
“Murderer. You killed people in the square last night,” the armored man said to Joe.
“Yeah… so?” Joe replied.
“Are you not accustomed to having to answer for your crimes?” the man asked courteously.
“This is how it goes then: Since you took a life, I’m going to take yours and turn your body in for a bounty,” the man said monotonously.
“Or, you tell me your price, I pay it, and you work for me,” Joe said back hastily. “You’re a bounty hunter and I have bounties. We could work together and return this land to what it was.”
“Ah, yes. America,” the armored man said while seeming to be reminiscing.
“No, Joe-land. Common mistake,” Joe remarked quickly. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Jay. Your proposition is… interesting,” the man said contemplating. “What will be in it for me?”
“You’ll be my executioner. You seem to know your way around a weapon. Together, we’ll capture Marley and kill him,” Joe explained. “After he’s gone, you and I can proceed however you want.”
“Marley!?” Jay asked almost excitedly. “What was that name? Marley? You know where to find him?”
“Of course. That little bastard took everything from me,” Joe replied with visible anger in his face.
“Then let’s get started.”
Joe and his new friend spent the night thinking of a plan for the next day. They rallied their troops and told them all what their roles would be. Of the fifteen, three had been sent out to hook up loudspeakers throughout the surrounding area in strategic locations. However, Joe wanted them hidden. Joe wanted as few casualties as were possible, so his strategy was to scare the other groups into submission. He began playing the sound of gunshots over the loudspeakers. Soon, he added in the bang of grenades and other explosions. People from the other groups began coming outside to see what the commotion was. Once outside, Joe sprung his teams to capture the curious ones. The confusion continued for three hours until everyone had returned back to Joe’s camp. His people had captured thirty more. Two for every person that had been sent out. Joe was more than pleased. Not a single person from either side had been injured or killed. The prisoners came willingly.
Once back to base, the prisoners told Joe of the desperation they lived in back at the other groups’ camps. They were low on food and they feared scavenging because Joe’s group or others might attack. Joe assured these people that they were in good hands now and they wouldn’t have to worry again. After another thirty minutes of talking to the prisoners, Jay came to Joe’s door with ten people in handcuffs. Six men and four women. Joe looked in shock at what the armored man had brought him. He gazed for a moment before his mouth formed a menacing smile.
Joe said to his new friend: “Now, total war commences.”
Once more, Joe made use of his loudspeakers. He set up five prisoners from varying groups in town square with a loudspeaker overhead. He began saying over the loudspeaker: “I have those which you lost. Come now to claim them so we can talk things over.” This lasted for over two hours with no one coming. It was obvious to Joe that those whom the message was intended for could hear him, but feared coming out to rescue their friends. Finally, a group of seven people appeared. They approached cautiously.
Joe said to them happily: “Finally. I thought you guys were gonna reject the party invite!”
A man from the other group replied: “What do you want of us?”
“A parlay,” Joe said back.
The man looked at Joe with confusion and remarked: “What are you looking to get out of this?”
A group of eleven people joined in from the other side suddenly. They also approached with caution.
“Good, you finally made it!” Joe cried out to them.
“What is happening here?” a man from the other group asked worriedly.
“I wanted you all here to hang out, get a beer, and talk about a truce,” Joe said charismatically.
“It’s about damn time we called a truce!” a woman yelled out.
They heard Joe out attentively and decided it was best to team up in their efforts against Marley. They would set out with combined supplies back to Joe’s base in a week and regroup. From there, they would strategize a plan and launch a full-scale operation against the revolutionary that brought all of this upon them.
On Our Own
They left me. I woke up and realized they had left me alive. Dead bodies littered the ground. I could only assume everyone I knew was among the dead. I got to my feet weakly and screamed. I screamed until I could no longer make a noise and I grew hoarse.
“Take me! Fucking take me!” I yelled wildly. “You forgot me! Take me too!”
Nothing and no one ever came. No one ever presented themselves to claim their prize. Joe was dead, Benny was dead, and I assumed my brother was too. Jed and Emily were gone. I was completely alone. There was finally nothing to worry about. I felt relief. For the first time since the revolution, I felt relief. This was what I was waiting for this whole time. I was waiting to be alone.
Are you happy, Dustin? Are you content that you finally got what you wanted? It came at the price of your brother, Dustin! Your brother!
I fell to the ground and started laughing. Tears rushed down my face but I tried to hide them.
From whom? Who are you hiding them from, Dustin?
“Stop taunting me!” I screamed to the nothingness.
Let’s walk, Dustin. Where to?
I contemplated and finally answered: “How’s home sound?”
Where is home, Dustin?
I began making noises as I searched for which way “home” would be. I pointed in a direction and said: “There! There is home!”
We’ll make it home. We’ll make it our new home, Dustin.
“Why are you toying with me? What- what is this?”
Been waiting a long time to say that, haven’t you, Dustin?
“What do you mean?”
Everyone is gone, Dustin, and yet you still need company. You still need someone to keep you company.
“I’ll be fine with or without you. Leave if you want. There’s the door,” I said as I pointed to an invisible door.
Do you miss Benny more or your brother? Or do you miss Emily? Well, Jed is dead too. Who do you miss most, Dustin?
“Why do you keep saying my name?” I asked slightly irritated, yet with a hint of knowing.
Your name has been Marley for so long, Dustin. We want you to be yourself again. You can finally be yourself again.
“Well, I appreciate the gesture and all, but this is just a setback,” I replied.
Setback? Everyone’s dead, Dustin.
“I’m coping, dammit! It hasn’t sunk in yet!” I yelled back in anger.
“I won’t,” I said back definitively.
Suddenly, my body began moving in the direction the voice compelled me to go.
“We’re one, aren’t we? I need you and you need me,” I said to the voice.
For now. Let’s get you somewhere safe, Dustin.
“What’s your stake in all this?” I questioned the voice.
Same as yours.
You tell me.
“To get my brother to-”
“But he’s not-”
Here anymore. So it’s time to start-
“Thinking for myself. What do we do?”
It’s completely up to you. You have the power to shape the world how you want.
“But I need your help,” I pleaded. I was scared to face what was ahead on my own.
I’ll be with you the whole way.
I stopped in my tracks to think. What is happening to me? How did I lose my mind this quickly? What is my goal? I’m lost. I can’t stop for directions. Where do I go? What do I do?
These sentiments quickly consumed me and I became overwhelmed. I decided to voice my thoughts again.
“What is our goal?”
“Yeah, you’re in this with me. Start talking.”
Are you sure I’m not just your conjuring of your true problem: dependence?
“Don’t say that!” I ordered.
Are you scared, Dustin Parker?! You always need someone at your side to blame things on when things go wrong, isn’t that right?!
Now you’re paying the price. First it was Jess that had to save you.
Then Dave and Chuck had to step in. If it weren’t for them, Levi would have died a long time ago.
“I don’t want to hear this!”
I fell to my knees and attempted to cover my ears with only one hand. It didn’t work. I could still hear the voice. It was still taunting me.
No, you can’t hear this!
Then Benny. And what did you do? You fought and accused him! What did he do to you!? You were jealous! He saved you! He saved Levi!
“I said enough!”
I waited a moment. No noise, no voices. I was alone again. I stood straight up and waited. I stood there for another minute and realized I had dispelled the voice. That was it. I was finally alone.
But Can I Trust Them?
I walked the lonely street ahead of me. No one to keep me company and nothing to think about. My thoughts had been devoid for some time. My mind slipped further because of this.
Two months I had been wandering alone. Or maybe it was three months. I lost track of time after a while. I kept a watch on my arm that I had found in my travels. It was broken, but it was something that reminded me that time was still real and would maybe one day matter again.
The Hyenas and the government were a distant memory to me. No more fighting but a lot of scavenging. I swapped out my clothes for even heavier ones because of the changing climate. Snow had fallen three days prior. I wish I could say a temperature.
I had been crawling around in houses for the time I had been wandering. There were people hiding out everywhere too in scattered pockets, just trying to make it somewhere safer. Raiders walked the houses while I hid with others that I didn’t know. We helped each other, each of us knowing we had a common goal: survival. After the raiders left, the strangers and I gave each other a knowing nod and parted ways.
The path I walked was an expressway. The signs had been taken down for other purposes so I can’t say which expressway I walked. I wasn’t even sure which state I was in.
The day before I came upon a bridge on my path. I approached it cautiously, bending down and nearly crawling some lengths of the path leading up to it. If I were to go over the bridge I would be heavily exposed. There was no other way around besides down and under the bridge itself. But who knew what was waiting for me below? I didn’t want to chance that. I decided to test my luck on the bridge.
As I got close to the bridge, I began hearing the distinct sound of gunfire from one side. I saw a man fall from the top of a building on the other. Suddenly, the other side of the street erupted in gunfire as well. Both sides were quickly embroiled in a heated fight that I wanted no part in. Large trucks with mounted guns approached and began returning fire. A small battle had begun and I had no way out. I took cover behind a car. Neither side had noticed me and if they did, I wasn’t a priority for them because neither side had shot at me yet. Please just stay to your sides. Leave me alone.
I waited it out. Five hours passed and both sides had finally dispersed. The left side had noticeably been drained of soldiers and ammunition so they retreated first. The other side decided not to pursue them and retreated as well. I was alone again. At least they’re gone now. Safe for another night.
Five more days passed that I walked the path. I came upon a makeshift town in the middle of the expressway. It was attached to a bridge overhead that was being used as cover. There were about five houses made of differing materials. Parts were made of various metals, wood, and signs from the expressway.
I was weak, tired, and hungry. I didn’t have the ability at the time to decide if approaching this town was a good idea. I pressed on uneasily and barely standing. I heard someone screaming to me. They were telling me to stop. They began shooting at my feet after I disregarded their order. Now they were telling me they were going to shoot me if I didn’t stop. Still I pressed on. I hadn’t much sense to me left by this point. Bullets surrounded me and began littering the ground.
Clearly they had something important to hide if they could afford to waste bullets. I didn’t have a gun or bullets left at this point. All I had was the sword on my side.
“S-Stop shooting!” I demanded.
They must have thought I was drunk or some other form of crazy to be commanding them as I was. They have to let me in. I won’t last any longer out here by myself.
“We will shoot you!” a man yelled back to me.
“Do it!” I screamed back. “I got nothing left.” Why did I do that? It’s not too late. I can still turn around.
I didn’t think they’d actually do it. Nevertheless, I found a large welt and broken skin on my leg from where the rubber bullet had struck me. It had enough power to deliver the finishing blow. I was unconscious for the next two days.
When I woke up, several people stood in the room with me. They were noticeably dirty and varied in ages.
“What are you doing here?” a woman stepped forward and asked me.
“I just wanted to meet your welcoming committee,” I said, still a little delirious.
“”You’re hungry, aren’t you?” a man asked.
“Yeah, what do you got?” I asked weakly and with a smile.
Some of the people in the room began laughing softly at what I was saying. They began getting closer to me as they realized I wasn’t a real threat to them. I could tell they were on guard up until that point.
“I like your town, y’know? I really do. The houses here have a nice modern look,” I said of their makeshift housings.
Again, they began laughing. Some were uneasy at what I was saying, but it seemed to lighten the mood a little.
I started coughing uncontrollably and suddenly. A man stepped forward and propped my back up to help. It didn’t do much good. My cough intensified and my energy levels dropped drastically again.
“What can we do for you?” a man asked worriedly.
I couldn’t talk. I could only cough. I shook my head rapidly to tell them there was nothing they could do. A woman appeared with a water hurriedly and I grabbed it out of her hand. I drank it quickly and my cough started to die down a little.
“Thanks,” I said. “Maybe you guys aren’t so bad after all.”
“Now that you can talk, where are you from?” a woman asked with a slight suspicion in her voice.
“I don’t remember, honest,” I said. “I can’t tell you where I’m from or where I’ve been. The signs are gone and I’ve been walking for so long. I’ve met so many people and watched so many more die in front of me. To be truthful, I don’t care where I’m from. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“That’s the most honest thing I’ve heard so far,” a man said, trying to sympathize with me.
“Yeah,” I said back. I looked at a painting on their wall. It was of a mother and child. Past it were bulletholes littering the wall. “No way to tell anymore where anything is.”
“How’d you lose your arm?” a woman asked, scared to hear the answer.
“Lost it in ‘Nam,” I said with a disgruntled voice.
A few of the people in the room laughed again. A man stepped forward and with a stern face said gently, “Please tell us.”
“Sure,” I replied solemnly. “A while back we were going into-”
“We?” a woman asked.
“My brother and I. Sorry. Anyway, we went into a small, bombed-out town that we had no business being in. Only a former doctor called the place home and he decided unanimously that I needed surgery.” I pointed to my stump softly and continued, “He had went insane sometime after the fall obviously. Desperation. Isolation. A man reduced to his instincts.”
They nodded in unison and with a tender look about them. “I’m sorry to hear that,” a man said.
“Can we trust you?” a woman asked me.
“I don’t know. What does that even mean? Trust. You say that like it still has meaning. I don’t know you. You can trust I won’t try to hurt any of you, steal from you, or whatever else your concerns are,” I proclaimed.
The people discussed among themselves. They turned to each other and spoke as if I was no longer in the room with them. I waited patiently until I finally broke their conversations by giving a deliberate cough. They turned to look at me.
“Where were you going to?” a man asked.
“Someplace safe. I was hoping this was it when I saw it,” I replied.
“You were right,” said a man approaching from a dark corner. He moved slowly, twisting his entire midsection with each step. “It is safe. Just not for you.” He wore a tophat hanging low which covered most of his face. Only a shadow cast over his visage. He suddenly lifted the hat up to reveal his face.
What could his comment mean? I thought these people would be different. There has to be a chance I can appeal to them.
“What is your name?” the man asked me.
“Dustin,” I replied. I felt weak, scared. Fear of the unknown gripped me and refused to let go once he started talking.
He looked to me suspiciously and said again: “What’s your name?”
“I already told you.”
“You’re gonna give me the real answer this time,” he said sternly.
“Screw you, my name is Dustin!” I proclaimed emphatically. I perked my body up and gripped the side of the table I was perched on.
“No, you’re someone else. Someone much more important, aren’t you?” he asked. He gave a menacing smile and walked closer.
“Why would I be less important if my name was Dustin?! Which it is!” I yelled angrily.
“Because you’re the savior to millions. You’re the leader of a revolution. Your name is Marley,” he explained.
“No it isn’t!” I screamed. Why can I not escape this nightmare? When will they not see me as that?
“You look the part to me. Any pleading won’t do you any good here. You thought you could weasel your way in here, gain our trust? You may have fooled them,” he said and pointed to the people around him, “but you cannot fool me. I remember when they showed your face that day on the news. The day the world came crashing down. I still remember it as clear as your face is to my eyes right this moment. You’re him.”
There’s no chance I’ll be able to talk my way out of this one. He has his mind set. I have nothing on me to prove that I’m not Marley and there’s nothing I can do to show it either.
“So now what?” I asked with a silent expression. I’ve accepted whatever comes next.
“You’ll sleep in the basement tonight. In the morning we’ll transfer you to the closest government outpost. I don’t know what they’ll do with you there. I don’t care either. But I’d say that’s all you need to know,” he said.
He looked around the room to his peers. They looked back at him knowingly.
What happens now? What do those looks mean?
“Take him to the cellar,” the man demanded of the others in the room.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” I said to no one in particular. I looked around the room as they closed in on me.
Once again, I was being lifted off of a surface against my will. There were at least five of them that grabbed me. The one that was by my missing arm looked around awkwardly, wondering what he should grab. I waited for him to figure it out. He grabbed my back and lifted me upon realizing there was nothing he could grasp near my shoulder.
They threw me to my feet and made me walk the length of the house to the wooden door leading to the basement. It was old and had growing mold encrusted on it. I could only wonder what was down there before I was joining whatever it was. I looked to my captors and they showed remorse in their expressions. They didn’t want to throw me down there. This should have made me happy, but it only made me realize that whatever was down they too feared.
It won’t kill me, though. After everything I’ve been through, I’m convinced nothing can. Maybe that’s why I don’t want it to end.
“What’s down there?” I asked innocently.
“You soon enough,” one of them replied.
We neared the door and a woman stepped forward and opened it. She put me up to it and a bulky man behind me pushed me down the stairs. I hit every step hard and I felt the brunt of the force with which he threw me down the stairs with. My head hit one of the steps and I felt a patch of warm blood grow on the side of my face and then the next step cut through my lip. My back was bruised and the wooden steps splintered through my remaining arm, leaving another trail of blood to cover my jacket and jeans. My hair was disheveled from the tumbling and darkness awaited me at the bottom of the steps.
Where’s the light? I can’t see anything. I couldn’t observe anything with my eyes but I heard the noises of others breathing. It was soothing but eerie. If I can’t see maybe I’m better off just turning in for the night. It’s the only way to get my mind off of everything. Closing my eyes will be my escape for the night.
The next morning I awoke to find my legs in chains. The room was empty, despite me having heard people the night before. Where did they go? Was I imagining it to comfort myself? To be honest, I was picturing the others in the room with me as Jed and Levi. Benny and Emily.
I looked around the dimly lit basement in a futile attempt for an escape route. There was a door but where could it have led? We were in a basement. Were there multiple rooms down there? Could it have led up through a tunnel and out to freedom? I scooted closer to it. I attempted to get to my feet, but I didn’t have enough strength yet. I continued to scoot to the door. Suddenly, I heard the door creak upstairs. It was opening slowly. After a moment of panic, I began reaching for the door even more hurriedly. It was so close, but in my head it seemed so far away. My heart was beating so fast. The door continued to open, even slower now. They’re toying with me.
I used my arm to push off of the ground to get to my feet. It took all of my strength, but I was able to stand again. The door upstairs burst open. This sent me into a frenzy; I hopped for the door sprightly. Suddenly, the door in front of me unfurled in a rage and hit my shoulder. This sent me back to the ground. I looked up to see the man responsible for putting me down there standing over me. He was staring down at me almost with pity in his eyes.
“Now what?” I asked. I squinted my eyes from the harsh sunlight coming through
and creased my brow out of anger.
“Now what?” he said mockingly. “I want you to stop trying to escape. Just get
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dirty water bottle and a pack of beef jerky. I reached my hand out unsteadily and he put the water and beef jerky into my hand.
I waited a moment and continued to make eye contact with him. He stared back at me. I continued my gaze while I opened the bag of beef jerky and stuck a stick into my mouth. I reached my hand down after for the water bottle and unscrewed the top. The opening touched to my lips and I tilted the bottle upward to drink.
“Were there people down here last night?” I asked, nervous to hear the answer.
The man thought for a moment and finally replied: “Yes.”
“Where are they?” I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready to hear the answer.
“Just… get cozy.”
After having finished the conversation, he walked back to the door. He opened it and left me in solitude again.
Just get cozy. I did what he said. I sat on the ground and braced myself for whatever amount of time I would be spending down there in quiet imprisonment. How would I spend the day? How could I? There was nothing in the room with me. No games to pass the time. Why did I think they would be so kind? I’m a prisoner. A prisoner of the war I started.
You didn’t start it, Dustin.
“Not you again,” I said aloud.
“Someone there?” a voice said from past one of the fragile-looking walls in the basement.
I didn’t know whether to respond or not. Was it real? Was it just in my head? I had to know.
“Yes,” I replied hastily.
“What’s your name, boy?” the masculine voice asked.
“Dustin,” I said back quickly. I don’t know why I talked so fast. It felt like if I didn’t, the voice- my company- would go away.
“How’d you end up down here?” the voice asked smoothly.
“They think I’m someone I’m not,” I explained briefly.
“Yeah, I’m used to that,” the voice said back.
“What about you? How did you end up down here?”
“A lifetime’s worth of lying to people. This is karma, I guess.”
I took pause after hearing his answers. He appeared to be someone who could relate to me. I finally found someone who could hear what I was saying and understand it too.
“Did you fight it?” I questioned.
“What, coming down here? Them throwing me in the basement? Nah. Why would I? This is better than whatever’s up there, right?”
“What do you mean?” I asked confusedly.
“There’s cannibals, you know that? There’s people up there that want to eat you. Isn’t that neat, boy?” the voice asked rhetorically.
“I’ve seen a lot of messed up shit, but I don’t think I could believe that. People resorting to that. Why would they?” I said back.
“People gotta eat. And when people gotta eat, they either get people to make them food, or people eat people,” the voice elaborated.
“Makes sense. It’s a bit of a broad summary of the human condition, but it makes sense,” I replied uneasily.
“Well, I’m sorry I’m not as philosophical as you like. Perhaps you could tell me what it is you see out there,” said the voice to challenge me.
“I see a world waiting to put itself back together. I see millions of people- if there are that many left- suffering a setback. After it’s over, the next chapter can start.”
“So this is just a setback. Like the Dark Ages. So you’re the hopeful type, then? Good for you, boy.” His voice started to sound condescending. I need to put a face to this voice.
“If you have no hope, there’s nothing to live for. So, why are you still alive then?” I said in frustration.
“Easy. I guess I do have hope. I’m still alive because… well, I guess I don’t know. I’m curious, I suppose. I want to see what happens next as badly as you do. That’s the source of my hope then. Curiousity. You okay with that?” The voice was becoming less aggressive and more friendly.
“What’s your name?” I asked spontaneously. I scooted toward the sound of it.
“Did you come here with a large group of people?” the voice asked, ignoring my question.
“What’s your name?!”
“How many of them were there?”
“What is it?!” Why won’t it answer my question? What does it have to hide?
“Were you related to any of them?”
“How did they die?”
“Tell me your name!” I was yelling.
“Listen, you don’t want to know my name,” the anonymous voice said in reply.
What could that possibly mean? I stared at the walls with a curious expression for a moment before saying anything back.
“Why?” I asked in eager anticipation.
After what seemed like forever with no response, the voice finally said back: “Fine, I’ll tell you. But everything you know is gonna change.”
What does that mean? What would change from learning a name? “Don’t be so dramatic.”
“My name is Marley,” the voice said.
My heart dropped. Marley? Marley who?
I said back: “Marley? As in…?”
“The one and only, son,” the voice said in reply.
“No, he’s dead. Don’t you think I know that?! He’s dead!” I blurted out angrily.
“Look, I know you think you know-”
I burst through the wall, effectively interrupting Marley’s speech. I grabbed his throat with my hand and stared into his eyes with anger and passion burning through mine. His beard matched mine. His hair matched mine. His eyes. His hands. His everything. I was looking into a mirror.
“You son of a bitch!” I said furiously. “You put me through this!”
“Holy shit, you look just like me!” Marley said back to me.
“Everything I’ve lost! You! You killed my family! You took away everything from me!”
“You said your name was Dustin?” Marley asked calmly. “By the way, you can take your hand off now.”
I slowly released Marley’s neck. I was still in shock and continued to feel the anger boiling inside of me. I wanted to kill him. I at least wanted to punch him. I balled my hand into a fist and raised it slightly. I finally calmed down enough to think rationally.
“Sorry,” I said. I felt disturbed. My hands shook. I was scared and angry. I wanted to kill him. I really wanted to kill him.
“Remember a few minutes ago, boy? We were friends, no? Let’s go back to being friends,” Marley suggested.
“I… Everything you’ve done. Everything that’s happened to me. All of this. Why? You played dead? You played dead?!” I yelled harshly. My entire body was surging with adrenaline, ignoring the aches and pains of my travels.
“Yes, I played dead, alright? I’m sorry I ruined your life and everybody else’s,” he said unapologetically.
I punched him in the face upon realizing his lack of sympathy. He fell to the ground hurriedly and I jumped on top of him with my fist raised in the air. He looked back up at me with his hands up to protect himself and his head tilted to the side. He knew he could have overpowered me but he let it play out.
“You’re not sorry!” I screamed.
“What are you planning on doing, kid? Punching me until I am sorry? Think this through,” Marley said, trying to reason with me. How can he not feel? After everything he’s done and he’s an empty shell. No compassion, no remorse.
“I’ve thought enough through. I’ve had nothing but time to think. They thought I was you. They used me to keep the revolution going. I’m you! I could kill you now and no one would ever know!” I shouted. I kept laying into his side and shoulder with my balled fist. He fought it off but didn’t fight back.
“Dustin. That was your name, no?” Marley asked in distress. “Dustin, I can get us out of here.”
“After everything you’ve put me through, after all of the lies and death I’ve suffered, you do not get to say my name!” I screamed. But isn’t that what I’ve always wanted? The anger fueled me. I shouldn’t have had enough energy to prolong my rage but something inside, a burning sensation kept me going.
“Dustin, listen to me!” Marley screamed wildly.
“What?!” I howled back at him. Nothing he says matters. I can’t let him leave alive.
“I can get us out of here! I can get us out alive! Remember how you were telling me about wanting to get out alive? You still have hope, Dustin!” he said desperately.
“I want to leave. But I can’t let you,” I said bitterly.
Marley took in a deep breath. “That’s it.”
He lifted off the ground almost effortlessly. He raised me up and threw me to the side of the room. My head was spinning from a mix of anger, confusion, and pain. He was saying something to me as he narrowed the gap between us. What is he saying? I can’t focus.
“Dustin, grab my hand. I’m getting us out of here,” Marley said with an arm outstretched in my direction.
I reached for his hand after a moment of waiting for my head to feel right again. I didn’t have much choice. I couldn’t bring myself to kill him and I didn’t want to stay in the dim basement, fearing what the people upstairs had planned for us. I did what he said.
“How are you gonna get us out?” I asked with a hint of doubt.
“They don’t guard the door well. To be honest, they don’t care much about their prisoners at all. We’re not worth much to them,” Marley explained slyly. He leaned up against the wall and brushed off his tattered jeans and beige henley. He rolled his sleeves up and looked me in the eyes waiting for a response.
“Don’t they know who we are?” I asked surprisedly.
“Listen to yourself. Getting too cocky.” He was laughing at what I said to him. “Yes, they know. They just have more important things on their minds right now. Everyone does. We’re simply not worth the trouble. It’s not like the government’s going to make sure they’re set for life or anything for turning us over. These people just want to stay alive, just like you and myself.”
That can’t be too true. The two of us combined would be enough to end the revolution. What if the government doesn’t care anymore? What if there is no revolution anymore? It doesn’t matter. I have to trust Marley. It’s my only option if I want to live. “Fine,” I replied. “Let’s go then.” I pointed to the door. He laughed and led me to the entryway the man had come through earlier. We passed through it and went through the tunnel that resided on the other side. While in the tunnel, we could hear what was going on throughout the house. We paused for a moment as we heard a man say, “Yes, we still have them here. Both of them. Tell him we’ll meet with him tomorrow to exchange.” Marley and I gave each other a knowing look and continued on. The tunnel was long and took a few minutes to pass through. Cobblestone lined it and barely any light passed through it. The ground was moist and the ceiling was littered with cobwebs and spiders looking to lunge on top of us. I brushed a few out of my hair toward the end. We had to ensure we were quiet and crouched our way through the extent of the tunnel. Upon reaching the exit, Marley gave the gate a nudge and it remained stagnant. Marley gave me a concerned look. Unlocking the gate was all that stood between us and freedom.
“Now what?” I asked in confusion.
“What do you mean?” Marley asked back.
“There’s a gate here,” I said. I was getting agitated. He could tell. My eyelids started to twitch from a combination of a lack of sleep and frustration and my tone quickly changed.
“Where?” Marley queried. Right in front of you! Open your eyes!
I pointed to the gate. Marley gave me a baffled look. I continued pointing at the gate for a few more seconds until he felt his joke had ran its course.
“Oh, that gate?” Marley asked rhetorically.
“Yes, that gate!” I said loudly.
“Oh, well I have the key for that gate,” Marley stated as he unveiled the keys from his pocket. If I didn’t want to kill you earlier I sure as hell do now. No, it’s not me thinking that. I’m just tired. And… I just need to relax.
I threw my hands up in disbelief.
“Marley,” I said more calmly now, “where are we going next?”
He finished opening the gate and replied, “Dustin, wherever you wanna go.”
I looked beyond the gate and saw the vast scenery lying in wait for us. The world was ours. We had the power to shape the world. I wasn’t fond of my company, but I wasn’t alone. That was all I needed.
Party of Two
Marley and I walked the wilderness for three days. It was almost entirely mountains. The sights were beautiful, surreal and we had finally pinpointed our location thanks to a sign that was still intact and upright; we were walking through the remains of Kentucky and going into Tennessee. We walked into a house on the second day to scavenge for food. An older couple was residing inside and offered us dinner. We stayed there for the night and continued walking the following day. We weren’t thriving, but I finally felt stability for a short time.
We passed two hikers the following day dressed in clothes that were fully intact and seemed to show the two had not been affected by the war in the least. In fact, nothing in the area seemed to have had any impact from the war. They were still living as if nothing had happened. The hikers were even polite. They waved to us and smiled as we passed. I assume that everyone believed that Marley and I were twins upon seeing us, despite not having been questioned about it.
Marley looked to me and said: “Does anything seem strange about this to you?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Everyone’s too nice.”
“I’m glad I’m not the only one seeing that.” Marley tilted his head in the other direction, as if making note of the wilderness.
“So what are you thinking?”
“Nothing, I guess. Just… keep your eyes open and keep looking for anything else weird,” Marley suggested. He sounded slightly suspicious.
“Do you think they know who we are?” I asked intuitively.
“Some might have suspicions, but this area was cut off from most of the war. Most of the people here don’t care much about what’s going on in the rest of the world,” Marley explained. He made a quick leap and tripped over a loose branch and nearly fell to the side of the mountain. He gripped a tree for support and I latched onto his jacket to pull him back up. We both peered over the side to see the fate he almost met; it was possibly a thousand feet down. “Thanks, Dustin.” He caught his breath and picked the loose pieces of brush out of his jacket. I can’t let you die. Then I’d be alone again and…
We had made it to the peak of a particularly tall mountain nearing the end of the day. We realized we had to make it down to the other side. There were more houses on the other end that may have housed people that would let us stay the night. We continued our descent, but the sun’s descent was quicker. It was nearing nighttime and, as it got darker, we heard more and more animals in the wilderness. I started to shake as it got colder. The animal noises we could discern began sounding less like the small and fuzzy variety and more like the large, feral types. I wasn’t sure if I was shaking more from fear or the cold.
“What kind of animals do you think are out there?” I asked worriedly. I attempted to cover up the fear in my voice but it was most likely still audible.
“If anything I’ve heard about Tennessee is true then most likely mountain lions and bears. The kind that want to kill you,” Marley said with a chuckle in his voice.
“Great,” I replied quietly. People I can reason with. This is different.
I peered over the ridge and noticed a silhouette. It was dark at this point. I quickly pointed the silhouette out to Marley and he instructed me to get down behind a rock. It moved slowly and appeared cautious in its movements.
“What do we do?” I whispered.
“Well, we can’t stay here all night,” Marley said back. He scanned the area, worry in his gaze. Worry turned to fright as he began to see that our possible avenues of escape were slim in the event that the animal would attack us.
“What do you think it is? It looks like a bear.”
“It doesn’t look friendly, son,” Marley stated bluntly.
“What weapons do you have?” I put my hand out toward him, half-expecting something to be placed in it.
“Are you crazy?” Marley asked angrily. “They took away everything we had, remember? That means no weapons.”
“Sorry, I forgot,” I replied. “I’m nervous.” I have to keep my head straight. If I start to fear what’s out there then I’m already dead. I’ve faced worse than a bear.
I was relying more and more on Marley. I didn’t want to, but it was natural for me. I was dependent. The voice in my head was right. I was never meant to be a leader. That’s why I found Marley. This was fate. Finding him was the universe letting me know I was never meant to be put in charge of anyone.
“It looks like this is it, Marley,” he whispered to himself.
“Are you talking to me?”
Marley gave me a concerned look and continued his gaze for a moment. Finally, he diverted his eyes back to the looming threat.
“How old are you?” I asked suddenly. I don’t know what spawned my questioning other than fear.
“What?” Marley asked. He shot me a confused look.
“How old are you?” I repeated.
“I’m thirty,” Marley replied almost annoyedly.
“Why did you pretend you were dead?” I asked in a manner appropriate for the kind of interviews conducted before the war, not for the situation we were in.
“This isn’t the time for that.” Marley was becoming more frustrated with my questions. He was putting all of his focus on the threat not far from us.
“Now’s the only time!” I said as loudly as I could without alerting the nearby predator.
“Alright, let’s talk then,” he said reluctantly. He leaned up a little bit to get a better look while still talking to me.
“Answer my question.” I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down.
We could hear the unmistakable sound of a large animal getting closer to us. This hurried our speech.
“I wasn’t ready. I killed enough people when I blew up the mayor’s office. That was hard enough for me to live with. Then I realized they would want me to lead them all. I couldn’t just be the catalyst. That meant more deaths on my hands,” Marley explained somberly.
“But all of these people died afterwards because of you anyway,” I rebutted. “There’s no escaping that.”
“Look, kid, this is what helps me sleep at night. Let it go,” Marley said back.
“You’re scared,” I pointed out abruptly.
“Of course I’m scared. There’s a goddamn bear over there.”
“No, you’re scared to admit that you’re the bad guy,” I said with a feeling of revelation coming over me.
Marley looked at me with a pompous grimace and replied: “Only time will tell who the bad guy is.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whoever wins the war are the good guys. I’ll either be a savior and a martyr or… well… We’ll see,” Marley said with remorse in his voice. His head lowered slowly in shame and probably consideration. What’s going through that head of yours? Surely you can’t believe everything you say.
“Now I understand,” I stated disheartenedly. “This was inevitable to you. You believed a revolution was coming no matter what. You didn’t have to be the catalyst. You just wanted to be.”
“No, son. I’m not the catalyst. You are,” Marley said with a smile.
“I lived it, but it’s your name,” I explained, attempting to take the blame off of myself.
“Tell me, why did you pretend to be me?” he asked, still smiling.
I said back earnestly: “For my brother.”
“No, you were scared. It seemed like a safe bet.”
The bear was getting closer. Despite this, we were becoming more relaxed in our tone and movements.
“Stop talking,” Marley said with his eyes closed. “This bear is death come for me. I accepted this a long time ago.”
“No, you’re lying. You haven’t accepted shit. We’re leaving,” I said as I got to my feet.
I grabbed Marley’s arm and picked him up. Lunging him forward, we made our way down the side of the cliff. We tumbled slightly and tripped on loose branches jutting out of the ground. Marley fell once, but managed to recover quickly. We heard the predator approaching quickly from behind, but didn’t stop to look.
A quick snapping noise and Marley was stopped in his tracks. I looked to the ground hurriedly and realized he had sprung a trap meant for a bear. It encapsulated most of his leg and sent him to the ground, screaming in pain. Subtlety was off the table now. The bear knew exactly where we were and was rushing towards us. No! I can’t lose him. I can’t lose another.
“Marley!” I yelled in disarray.
I knew I couldn’t get the trap off of him in time. The bear neared closer and closer and I could see its fangs upon looking up. This is it for him. He can’t escape but… I can. A sense of fear and urgency came over me. It was time to decide what to do. I attempted to reach for the trap, but realized I was stuck in place. I was too scared to move. It was a feeling of shock I hadn’t anticipated for. Marley’s eyes widened and looked to me. He knew it was over. I knew it was over. He’s accepted his fate. It’s time for me to accept his as well. No, I can’t think like that. I can save him. I don’t know how but running away isn’t the way to go. I need to save him.
“Get this thing off of me!” Marley shouted helplessly to me.
I began stepping in the other direction. It’s over for Marley. The trap had done him in so I began to walk away. I kept my eyes trained on him as he continued to stare at me. My feet carried me further away. Finally, I began running in the opposite direction as I heard the bear encroach on Marley. His scream was loud and violent. He began cursing at me and crying. I couldn’t bring myself to go back.
Suddenly, a gunshot was heard that cleared the nearby trees of wildlife. The blast forced me to stop moving. Is Marley okay? How can I go back and show my face even if he is okay? It doesn’t matter. I have to. I hurried back to him. Shame came over me. I should have ran the other way and never turned back. I shouldn’t show my face to Marley. What is he going to think of me?
I came upon Marley where a huge black bear was lying on top of him. He was struggling to get it off, but was making no progress. I attempted to help, but the two of us could barely move it. A large man with a rifle slung over his shoulder approached and helped us lift the bear. The strength of all three of us was finally enough to push the bear off of Marley. He began breathing rapidly and I stood up to stare at the stranger that saved us.
“Trying to get eaten alive out here?” the man asked with an uncomfortable smile.
“We’re lost, sir,” I replied weakly.
“I had a feeling. Sorry about your leg there,” the man said sympathetically to Marley.
“It hurts! Do you think we can do meet and greets later?! Get me to a doctor!” Marley screamed.
The man agreed and sprung the trap from Marley’s leg.
We spent the night descending the mountain and carrying Marley down the side of it. The man disinfected what he could of the gaping holes in Marley’s leg with alcohol, which forced him to scream savagely.
During our descent, Marley looked to me weakly and said: “You left me to die, son.”
I looked back to him and replied bleakly: “You were right, though. You died a long time ago.”
“What’s he talking about?” the man asked, looking to me.
I ensured the man it was nothing to worry about. He reluctantly accepted not to persist with further questions.
We finally neared town in the middle of the night. There were only a few houses and they appeared to be in rough conditions. Lights were still on in them, however, which meant electricity was working in the area. They were old-style country homes in a valley in between huge mountains. I never thought I’d live long enough to see something like this.
The man led us to the town doctor. We laid Marley on the table and stepped outside to let the doctor work on Marley.
The man suddenly said to me: “Where are you two from?”
“Michigan,” I replied.
“Why did you leave?” he asked concernedly.
“You thought things were bad before the war. The state is nearly decimated now,” I explained.
“I never really followed on those kinds of things,” he said to me.
“What do you mean?”
“The economy. State by state. I guess I never really concerned myself with those things. I did what I do here and that was that. I made an honest living and I still do. All of us here do.”
“It’s nice to see that after all of this traveling,” I said back. “It’s nice to see a place get along well.”
“What kinds of things are out there?” he asked with intrigue.
“Cannibals,” I replied.
“Did you meet any?” he asked with engrossing curiosity.
“Not that I know of. I mean there’s no way to tell who’s what until the moment comes, right? Maybe I did, though. Maybe some of the people I met out here are eating somebody right now. I don’t want to go back and find out,” I explained solemnly. I kept my gaze trained on his eyes.
“Well, you and your friend traveled pretty far. You two must be quite the survivors,” he said to me in astonishment.
“Yeah, my journey’s far from over. I mean I think anyway. I know we still have a long way to go,” I said to him.
“Where are you headed?” he asked me.
“Originally Texas. But we were starting to think about Florida,” I said back.
“We heard there weren’t good happenings in either of those areas. Big concentrations of Hyenas,” he disclosed to me.
“We’re just looking to blend in,” I told him. “We just want to survive.”
“You and your… partner?” he asked carefully.
“What do you mean?” I shot him a confused look.
“Your partner. You two are…”
“Gay? No. I mean I don’t think he is. Not that I care,” I replied.
“No hard feelings. Just trying to get an idea of what our new guests are like,” he said cheerfully.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you’d like. Given you and your friend aren’t afraid of a little hard work.” He smiled and laughed lightly.
The man pointed out a log cabin down the road that we would be staying at. He took me over to it and got me situated. I asked if Marley would be alright and he assured me he would.
I spent the night in solitude. Noises could be heard outside from animals howling and trees scraping on the windows of the cabin. It was much colder than when we were at the peak of the mountain. I was wearing my winter jacket in the bed, trying to get warm and comfortable. I accepted that it wouldn’t happen. I was supposed to sleep well that night. I finally had a bed to sleep in. A comfortable one. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t my living conditions that made me stay awake at night. It was me. It was what I went through. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything. But what was there to even think about? Everyone was dead. I was lucky to have any company at all. Marley would most likely be dead soon too, though. How could he survive the holes in his leg and the blood gushing out?
Medicine was nowhere near what it was before the war. What medicine we had left, that was. It wasn’t like companies were sprouting up all the time offering medicine or medical services. Most areas had devolved to using other forms of currency by now, too. Every area valued different things and some relied on simple barter. Therefore, many reputable people from before the war were reduced to scroungers. Fortunately, that was almost exclusively in the areas affected directly by the war.
These thoughts were keeping me up. I decided to close my eyes and relax. How was it they said to clear your mind to sleep? Counting sheep? No, that’s stupid. Maybe I should have just counted those damn sheep because I was awake for another three hours thinking about our future in that town. At least I wasn’t thinking about the past. I was finally looking forward. I was just unsure if Marley would be alive to experience it with me.
I couldn’t stand the thought of losing another companion. One would think I would lose all compassion for those with me at this point after having lost so much. On the contrary, it felt good just to have somebody with me who had experienced so much that I had also.
Halfway through that thought, I lost consciousness and finally fell asleep. I was at peace for the night.
Is It Rude to Ignore?
The next morning, I went over to the makeshift clinic in the center of town that I had dropped Marley off. He was a little delirious due to being on so many painkillers. I can’t believe they had sacrificed so heavily to medicate him. I was sure they hadn’t that much medicine left. I was thankful, though. They were willing to save a person they didn’t even know.
The doctor explained to me everything he had done to Marley in mostly words I was unable to understand. Finally, he attempted to tell me something but fell short in actually saying it. He seemed extremely hesitant. I asked what he was trying to get at and he finally showed me; he lifted up the cloth covering Marley’s lower half to reveal that he had to amputate his leg to save him. I acknowledged that I understood why he had to do it. He asked if I was upset and I explained that I was sure Marley would be more upset than I was. Regardless, I expressed thanks for everything the doctor had done. He assured me there was no need to repay him in any way because we would be doing that the following night. He said we’d be entertaining the whole town with our presence and laughed. I laughed back uneasily and explained that I wasn’t much of a public speaker. He laughed even harder this time, which made me even more uncomfortable. I expressed my uneasiness and told him I’d be outside if I was needed. He was still laughing as I turned my back and walked outside. I thought to myself, these people have a weird sense of humor.
Upon walking outside of the clinic, I was greeted by the man that had saved us the night before. He told me that I shouldn’t be walking around town unescorted. That statement made me feel even more apprehensive than what the doctor was saying. I asked him the reason for my needed companionship around their town. He told me there was a wolf problem in the area; he explained they kept prodding at a weak spot at the northeast corner of town and would occasionally break in and kill a townsperson or two. He said that they had lost fifteen people in the last month due to wolf attacks. The wolves would continuously find different weak spots in the walls surrounding the city and come in through those. The northeast corner was just the most recent spot the people had forgotten to reinforce. The town was large, so to cover the entire area in gates and fences was nearly impossible. On top of that, nature took its toll on the fence and would wear it down to the point wild animals could push down what remained and come through.
The man then looked to me and told me the troubles his group had been through. Despite being a small town- larger than most groups that remained- he still referred to the people there as a “group.” They had seen their fair share of tyrants like Joe that had bulldozed through and looked to pillage and steal rather than work the land. At least that’s how the man put it.
I began wondering if the majority of people really were working the land. How was everyone getting supplies and food? The country had been drained. That’s how I saw it, anyway. This area was so much different than anything else I’d seen. This area was so pure, so untouched by war. The north was decimated but this land was safe and secure. Why? How did they avoid it? Why a, I at the center of it? How did I even make it this far? The man was still talking to me, telling me about the miracles he’d seen, but I could only focus on the thoughts of my own miracles. The fact that I was still alive was a miracle in its own.
“Are you listening to me?” he asked suddenly. “It’s rude to ignore somebody.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I replied. “I was just thinking.”
“About?” he inquired with curiosity.
“How sheltered you people are,” I replied with no particular tone, “No offense, of course. It’s just I’ve been through so much on the road. I’ve survived so much more than your stories could hope to witness.”
He looked to me with a shocked expression due to my blatant rudeness and replied: “Well, boy. it’s not the living we honor. It’s the dead that weren’t so fortunate. You should remember that.”
“I get that,” I said back. “I’ve lost my fair share. Notice I came into your town with only one person as my companion and not a legion of people. I had an entire group too at one point. Guess where they are. They’re dead. They’re all dead. You still have people left alive. Remember that.”
His face showed his inability to respond. I didn’t care if I was being rude. I had been through more than he had and he had the audacity to tell me his troubles as if they could compare. I was losing my empathy. I used to almost care about other people’s troubles, but now I only counted the days I managed to survive. That was the only feat I could boast about and I did it silently because everyone else had that same struggle. But I’d made it after being hunted down by the most powerful army in the world. That was my feat. That was what I was proud of. I survived. I missed everyone, but I survived.
The man disregarded what I’d told him and asked me to follow him. I obliged him and let the man lead as I followed behind him. He led me through the town and allowed me to witness the people going through their daily lives. A husband and wife were washing their clothes, a man and his son were chopping wood, and a group of people gathered around a fire, singing songs and telling jokes. It was a utopia compared to any other place I’d visited.
Suddenly, a man ran out of a building with a woman holding a shotgun in pursuit. The woman was screaming wildly for the man to come back and return what he’d stolen. I couldn’t see what the man had in his hand. It was covered in a sack. The whole scene caught me off guard. I felt the adrenaline course through my body rapidly, but I froze up in anticipation. He made it about a hundred yards before the woman was able to take aim and fire the shotgun. The man I walked with began laughing casually after the man who was shot hit the ground. Why is he laughing? Maybe there’s something about this place I don’t know yet. These people… this whole place… feels different.
It wasn’t until after the showdown that I realized the woman called him by name. They knew each other and he still tried to steal from her.
“Not the utopia you’d hoped for, is it?” the man asked jokingly.
Feeling a sense of shock, I said back: “That was funny to you?!”
“Look, it gets boring around here. We just try to enjoy the little things. If Henderson thinks it’s wise to steal from Patty, who should stop her from shooting him? Isn’t that the right thing to do?” he said back casually. “Keep following me. I have something to show you still.”
“I don’t know if I want to,” I said uneasily. Nothing good can be waiting for wherever he’s taking me. I can feel it.
My eyes wandered and came to rest on the sight of the woman going back into her building casually with shotgun in hand still. Two men walked by and lifted the dead man’s body up and brought it to the fence to be thrown to the wolves.
“Don’t make your final judgement until after I show you this,” the man said persuasively.
I reluctantly agreed to follow to the sight of a small arena with bleachers on both sides. The arena was caged off so no one could get in or out unless through two small doors on either side.
“What is this place?” I was hoping he would say it was for sports.
“We let newcomers fight in the arena for a chance to stay with us. Whenever a group comes into the area, we put them in there and let them fight it out. The winner gets to stay. Note that I said ‘winner.’ Only one person gets to stay out of every group. You following me? You and Marley are gonna be put in there tomorrow night. The winner gets to live with us and the other… well, the other is dinner for the night,” he explained dispassionately. The man’s mouth suddenly formed a sinister smile. His eyes narrowed to stare deep into mine.
“You’re joking,” I replied, diverting my gaze from his. I stared into the arena, noting the marks of dried blood lining the sides of it and the sand throughout it.
His expression refused to change and he replied: “We just want to know who wants to stay and who deserves to stay. We need a hard worker to help work the land. This isn’t a place for leeches.”
“Look, I didn’t want to have to do this, but do you know who I am?” I asked cockily.
He raised an amused eyebrow.
“My name is Marley,” I said softly, waiting for him to show that his interest is peaked. It doesn’t happen.
“What do you mean ‘so?’”
“Is that suppose to mean something to me?” he inquired.
“I’m the leader of the Hyenas! They’ll come looking for me!” I said angrily with a bit of desperation in my voice. “Let me go now and I will spare you!”
“Not gonna work way out here. The government and the revolution has left us alone. No one’s ever gonna find you out here,” he said back in a certain tone. “You got fire in you, though. I will definitely be looking forward to watching you fight.”
“There’s gotta be another way,” I pleaded. “You saved us and for what? To have us kill each other?!”
“Town’s gotta eat,” he said unmoved.
“What?” he asked concernedly.
I felt a sudden realization come over me and said: “The meat we had this morning. Was that his… leg?”
He cocked a smile.
I stepped back in horror. What have I done? He has to be lying. My stomach suddenly pained and I felt the urge to puke. My knees grew weak and I took another step back.
“No!” I screamed in terror. “You tricked me!”
The man looked back to me over his shoulder, broadened his smile and lowered his eyes and walked away slowly, leaving me to myself.
On the Other Hand
I slept uncomfortably that night after coming to my new revelation of the town’s secret. Waking up and facing the next day was even harder though. I knew it was either Marley or myself that wouldn’t see the next day. One of us would snuff the life out of the other. But I wondered if they had told him yet; I wondered if they told him they planned on eating the loser.
How would he walk into the ring? He was down to one leg now. Did they tell him they ate his leg? I cringed at the thought of the very real possibility of my body being the main course the following night.
But what did I care? I was handicapped. My family was dead. My friends were dead. I was close to dead. On the other hand, what did Marley have to live for? What did he have left? I began thinking of our various attributes. What did I contribute? What was good about me? I was a caretaker, a good person. I was tasked with watching over my brother. Aside from that, I was tasked with watching over an entire country in turmoil. On the other hand, I didn’t really do anything. Jess handled all of it for me. I was just a public face. A face that the public hated, to be more exact. That was with every leader, though. That’s how I thought it went, anyway. I don’t know that much about history. I never cared about politics. Therefore, I was a bad choice to lead the Hyenas. Again, I wasn’t the leader though. I was just a face.
I’m overthinking it. Well, no, actually I’m not. There’s no amount of thinking that’s too much when lives are at stake. I have to keep thinking. I named my good and bad traits. What about Marley?
Marley was a liar that couldn’t own up to his faults. But I was a liar too. He started the revolution, but I allowed it to continue. He was a coward. He actively admitted to being unfit to lead when he ran away from his obligation.
Marley needs to die. It’s decided. I will get to live and Marley will die. But that’s a big decision to make by myself. I already decided that I was also unfit to lead, so what gives me permission to decide if Marley gets to live or not? What if I can find a way that made it so neither of us have to die?
A powerful feeling of recognition swept over me. I could save us both. I just had to think. I began reviewing my options. What had the man told me earlier? The wolves are constantly at the fence. If I could get my hand on some cutters, I could spring a trap. I then knew what I had to do. I would save Marley and myself. We would both leave alive. It was then my obligation to ensure we both made it out of this.
The man was right when he said there was a fire in me. I felt it burn. Was it a fire or was it just anger? If the first dire situation I had landed in was a town of cannibals, I may not have been so mad. It was the constant threat of death that got me riled up. I was furious. They were screwing with the wrong man. No more dependence for me. No sitting around and waiting for rescue. This time I have to save Marley.
A feeling of uncertainty was in the air. It didn’t affect me in the least though. Fortitude would be my strength. Independence was my blade, endurance my shield. A knock at the door sent me rocketing back to the comprehension of my current state: imprisonment. I opened the door to reveal a tall, stocky man standing firmly with little expression to be had on his face. The sunshine broke through on the sides and created a stark contrast in my mind between the hulking man and the freedom of light beyond him.
“Let’s go,” the man demanded.
“Where to?” I asked, my face matching his.
“You don’t get to ask questions until after,” he said. My arm suddenly felt the harsh pull of his hand and my body the harsh throw of being pushed to the ground outside of the shack. Townspeople gathered around to watch. They looked on knowingly, excited for the coming fight. I could sense they just wanted to get a feel for the combatants. This was their entertainment. I got up to my feet quickly and got into a fighting stance facing the man who took physical liberties with my body seconds before.
“You people want a show?” I announced courageously. This isn’t courage. This is stupidity.
The burly man took one swing at my head and I was knocked to the ground. I wasn’t unconscious, though. I was dizzy and my head ached uncontrollably. Some of the townspeople stepped forward to lift me by my arm and legs to carry me to the fence. I was dazed and my head was spinning. We neared closer and closer to the fence. There was purpose in their steps toward my demise. They were still getting pleasure out of this. Suddenly, a man’s voice was heard instructing my honorary pallbearers to release me. I peered over to the man entering the area and a shiver went down my back when I realized who it was; it was the same one from earlier. The one who took me to the ring and told me about mine and Marley’s coming fight for our lives.
“Get him away!” I yelled fiercely. “All of you get away!”
This is pointless. It’s all pointless. There was no getting away. I was just wondering if he would be taking me to the ring immediately or if I would have time. Time to enact my plan. I wasn’t sure if it was a good plan, but it was something. How could I know if it was a good plan? I couldn’t think straight.
I stood up and faced him, attempting to appear strong. “I’m ready for whatever you throw at me!” I said to him.
“I’m just going to take you to your friend. That’s what the gentleman you picked a fight with was going to do also. Now come with me,” the man stated politely.
“Oh…” I replied. “Okay.”
I followed him to the doctor’s building and we entered it, finding Marley still laid out on a stretcher, appearing weak. He looked to me and attempted to say something, but stopped short. There was a look of desperation in his eyes. He knew. He had to have known. They must have told him that the loser of our fight was slated to be eaten. And by the looks of him, he knew he didn’t stand a chance. Not in the condition he was in. His missing-leg body was no match for my missing-arm body.
The man that escorted me to Marley then left the building, leaving me alone with Marley, my soon-to-be opponent. I looked into Marley’s eyes for a moment without saying anything, the expression on my face not changing. I put one hand on the pillow behind his head and grasped it tight. The look on Marley’s face changed. I picked the pillow up about a quarter inch, very subtly before having a change of heart and setting it back down. This seemed to calm Marley down. I could tell his heart was beating quickly. He didn’t want to die. The genocidal maniac in front of me doesn’t want to die. Genocidal maniac? What am I thinking? I’m just trying to justify having to kill him.
“You know we’re gonna have to fight…” I said solemnly. “There’s only suppose to be one of us that lives. I know you can’t really talk, but… I don’t know. I guess I just thought we should talk about it first.”
I looked at him somberly, half-expecting an answer but knowing I wouldn’t get one. The curtains began blowing as a gust of wind passed through the open window. I felt the cold on my face.
“Dammit, Marley! Talk! Talk, damn you!” I screamed as my knees gave out and I fell by the side of his bed crying. I finally let it out. The tears came streaming down and refused to stop. I didn’t care, though. It was about time I broke. “I don’t want to die, Marley! They’re gonna make us fight and I don’t wanna die!”
“I… don’t… either,” Marley retorted with what energy he could muster.
I threw off the blanket covering him and revealed his infected stump of a leg. He couldn’t not only walk, but he would probably die soon regardless of fighting me or not.
“Marley… My father always used to tell me something. The only constant, he called it. He always used to tell me that we can make it through this. Together,” I told him as I looked intensely into his eyes. “And we can get through this together. I promise.”
“Dustin… you were the best decoy I’ve ever had,” Marley said as he began laughing. His laughter stopped abruptly and transformed into a coughing fit. His body began shaking and the doctor rushed back into the room, throwing me out of the way to get to Marley. I took this as my cue to leave. I turned my back and walked out of the door, listening to Marley dying slowly in the room I left him in.
Walking over to the makeshift stadium seemed like a good idea. I made my way to the pit I was to be thrust into later. It was starting to get dark, the clouds were rolling by, unmasking the moon. The seats would be filled soon. I held onto the railings and looked down into the pit. Glancing up, I made note of the lights that would be turned on before the fight started. I wondered how these people could find joy in two cripples fighting. My thoughts wouldn’t stop it from happening, though. I could think it was deranged as much as I liked and it wouldn’t change a thing. This fight was going to happen.
I heard the shuffling of feet behind me. My head shifted to look at what it was and I saw the people piling in to get to their seats. I hadn’t realized how long I was by the pit thinking.
A hand swiftly grabbed my arm and thrust me forward down the length of the walkway toward the entrance of the pit. It was the man from earlier. “It’s time,” he said devoid of emotion, sympathy, empathy. He felt nothing. “Who do you think will win? You or the other one?”
“Both,” I replied nonchalantly. I rolled my head slightly to the left, effectively making a cracking sound in my lower neck. I was hoping it was a show of my resolve.
“What are you getting at?” he asked almost angrily. His fists balled up, his lip quivering.
I tried not to smile, knowing it would enrage him. I couldn’t help it, though. My lips formed upward. I had a plan. I didn’t know if it would work in time, or at all. But I had a plan.
We finally got to my entrance into the pit. A steel fence stood in front of me and a similar fence stood at the other end, presumably to unleash Marley. The man still stood behind me. I could feel his presence close to me. I hated the atmosphere surrounding him. He was evil. Like Joe. That much I could feel.
The crowd was going crazy. They were chanting and screaming. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, though. They were too loud. I just kept wondering how they could enjoy this. A bright light suddenly shone in my eyes. I raised my arm to shield myself from it. I kept stepping forward, fearing for when I would see Marley hobbling in. Or worse, crawling in. That moment never came. I felt a swift punch across my face and fell to the ground. I attempted to get myself in order and stand up but the blow made me dizzy. Upon finally gaining my vision back, I looked up to find Marley wearing power armor. It negated his missing leg and made him more powerful. His body was completely covered except for his head, which had a smiling visage on it.
“Come on, Dustin!” he said happily. “Now who’s the cripple?! I saw you looking down on me in the doctor’s office!” He kicked me in the stomach and this sent me down a good length of the stadium. The audience lost it at this. They knew the fight was gonna be quick now.
There’s no way I can win. They gave Marley an unfair advantage, one I can’t hope to overcome.
I got up and began walking away, my hand covering the spot where he had kicked me. I couldn’t stand up straight. I was in a lot of pain at this point. My legs were ready to give out. Marley made his way up behind me quickly.
“Marley! We were friends!” I screamed to him. “We were suppose to get through this together!”
He picked me up by the neck and began choking me. I was violently thrown into the air and couldn’t do anything because of the strength of the grip allowed to him by the power armor. I let go of his hand and punched him in the face which forced him to let go and fall back a few feet. I ran up quickly and jumped on his power armor, reaching my hand deep into the front of it and pressed a button. This made the suit loosen and come off of him. He fell to the ground and the pieces of the suit fell around him.
I could kill him. I should kill him. But I have to wait. My plan. I hope it’s not too early… or late.
“Dustin, let’s talk,” he tried pleading.
“Not this time, Marley,” I said furiously. I grabbed his collar and threw him to the ground viciously, forcing his head to hit to the ground. I punched him several times and formed my hand around his airway and started squeezing as hard as I could.
He attempted to say something, but as he did, I tightened my grip, not wanting to hear anything he had to say. I can’t hear anything from him that might change my mind. I have to silence him. I was about to kill him. I felt a culmination at that point. I felt everything I had been through up to that point come together in my hand. Marley’s neck was my path and I was going to win. I had beaten everything that the world had thrown at me and now this was it. I was going to win.
Marley’s face began turning from a red to a purple color, his eyes were growing wide and the veins in his face and neck started protruding intensely.
A noise was growing in the background. I didn’t listen to it at first. I could only focus on Marley, but I finally found myself listening to the interfering noise. It was howling. I loosened my grip on Marley’s neck and fell back, landing on my back. Marley started gasping for air as I felt a sense of shame enter me.
I surveyed the upper areas of the bleachers and watched wolves enter. People were running and screaming, the wolves reaching them and tearing apart the ones they caught.
“Dustin, you did this?” Marley asked somberly.
I gave him a deafening stare. What was I about to do? I almost killed Marley. He almost killed me. What happened to us?
“You really had me going,” Marley said, trying to force out a laugh. “I mean… what would have happened if the wolves didn’t get here in time?”
“I don’t know…”
Time To Talk?
We walked in almost complete silence the next three days. Escaping the town was a miracle. We earned some peace and quiet on the road. We passed through a few abandoned cities, towns, and makeshift villages. We avoided the ones with people still living inside of them. They were probably decent enough people, but we decided the risk was too great, especially after our last mistake. Marley hobbled most of the way, leaning on me for support. On the second day, we found him crutches in a long-forgotten house. This made it much easier on both of us.
The people we passed were in for quite a show, seeing two cripples barely getting by. We didn’t care, though. We were still alive. Most of the people we ran into were friendly enough, many of them even giving us shelter for the night or food they had managed to collect.
The third day, Marley broke the silence. He asked: “Why have you been so quiet?”
“Why have you?” I retorted quietly.
“How about we don’t play this game and you just tell me what’s wrong?” he said angrily.
“You tried to kill me. I was just wondering when the next time I’m gonna have to deal with that will be. That’s all.” The anger in my voice was more than apparent to him.
“That wasn’t a problem, Dustin,” Marley replied. “You had a plan and it worked. Besides, you tried to kill me.” He was raising his voice. I could tell he was trying to scare me into quelling our fight.
“Only because you tried it first!” I screamed.
“You wanna go again?!” Marley yelled back.
“You want me to kill you again?” I said softly.
He picked up one of his crutches and pushed the end of it against my body. His expression intensified and his face started to redden. I held my head down low. I wasn’t proud of having to fight him or anything else I had to do. He turned his back to me and started hobbling away.
“Marley, wait!” I yelled.
“Dustin, don’t you feel any kind of connection to me?” he asked, turning to face me again. “Take a moment. Look at me. Notice anything familiar? Maybe you’re mad at yourself and you’re taking it out on me.”
Maybe he’s right. I’ve made poor decisions that have gotten people close to me killed. But I still can’t fully bring myself to trust Marley after what he tried. He attempted to kill me because he was scared. While I had come to the revelation that I could save us both, he thought only of ways to kill me to help himself.
“No, you’re wrong,” I replied. “We’ve been through alot together, Marley. But that doesn’t forgive what you did.”
“What’s that?” he asked, appearing intrigued.
“You killed all of these people.” I didn’t sound convincing in the least. I knew that.
“Just like you killed all of those people back there,” he returned.
“That wasn’t me. That was the wolves and you know it.”
“Just like it wasn’t me. It was other people. I don’t kill, Dustin.”
“You’re hiding something,” I said, unsure if I was really on to something or not.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said with head low and voice quiet.
“Maybe it’s time you finally told me. We’re getting close to the outpost and I think I deserve to know,” I said, knowing our journey was coming to an end.
“Tell me what you’ve been hiding, Marley.”
“The bomb that detonated in D.C. It wasn’t the government’s, Dustin. It was mine. It was ours. That was the plan from the beginning and I couldn’t go through with it. We would take our loyal faithful to D.C and kill all of them with a bomb when they were close to completing their objectives. This was so it would look like the government was okay with using nuclear bombs on its own people. It was a calling to the rest of America to wake up and rise against. How else do you think we would have had the numbers to take on the army? We’re bad people, Dustin. We’re bad and I couldn’t deal with it so I ran. I ran as far away as I could get. You happy, Dustin? Just remember, for the last seven years you dressed up and pretended to be a man that was okay with killing his people,” he said morbidly, quickly changing to a much darker tone. He looked me in the eyes, let up on his crutches and gripped my hand. “It’s my time. I can’t deal with this anymore. Telling you this, finally getting it out. I feel… relief. I think. Kill me, Dustin!”
He put a knife in my hand and gripped my fingers around it. He brought the knife close to his abdomen and held my hand more tightly.
“Kill me, Dustin, or I promise you will come to regret it. You have a chance to kill the most evil man in recent history and you’re hesitating. Why?” he said, looking shocked.
“We’re… friends,” I said weakly, looking away from the knife.
“No, we’re not!” he screamed. “We’ve been travelling together. That doesn’t make us friends, Dustin! You hate me! After everything I’ve put you through and you’re hesitating?! Kill me!”
“I won’t,” I replied after another moment of contemplation.
“You were thinking about it,” Marley said assertively.
I attempted to shake him off but he tightened his grip, staring aggressively at me. I averted my gaze but I could still feel him looking at me; he was waiting for me to meet his eyes again.
I couldn’t do it. He wasn’t a dying man anymore; the doctor had healed his infected leg and the power armor gave him his strength back. I had no reason to meet his request. If it even was a request. He doesn’t really want it. Marley is in no hurry to die and he knows I can’t kill him.
“Do it!” Marley screamed intensely. His face was nearing mine.
I looked back to him and replied: “I can’t!”
“I knew you couldn’t. You massacred all of those people back there for me and now you can’t even finish this. Our journey is over. Our trip is finished. It’s been fun, but we are done!” he yelled, throwing my hand down. The downward motion forced me to drop the knife.
Marley leaned on his crutches and said: “Pick it up.”
I grabbed one of his crutches and tossed it to the side of the highway we were standing on. Abandoned cars littered the area. Marley began falling over but latched onto my dirty shirt in his descent, bringing me down with him. We landed by a low-sitting truck. Marley grabbed my head and threw it into the side of the vehicle, making my head spin after a moment of lapse of pain.
“Dammit!” I screamed. “I’m done! Let’s be done!” I took a moment to breathe. It was getting harder and I was getting weaker.
“How did you do it, Dustin?” Marley asked feebly. “How did you get us out of there? The wolves. The escape. How?”
“Wire cutters from the doctor’s office,” I replied. “I saw an opportunity and I took it.”
“Interesting. So had you not said your goodbyes to me then you wouldn’t have been able to spring your trap. But why? Why save me? You must have known that you could have easily won before you found out about the power armor trick.”
“I made you a promise,” I said, turning my head to look at Marley. “I told you I’d get both of us out of there and I did.”
Marley smiled and put his hand out as an offering. I stuck mine out after moment to consider. I met his hand with mine and we shook.
“I’m… sorry,” Marley said as though he felt unsure about the situation.
“Not easy for you to say, is it?” I said back.
I stood up and put my hand out for him to accept again. He did. I lifted him off the ground and he leaned against the truck while I retrieved his crutches for him.
“You know, you’re a really lucky guy, Dustin,” Marley told me abruptly.
“Nothing I’ve been through would qualify me for a term like that,” I replied almost angrily.
“You’re still alive. Just when you lost all of your friends, I come into the picture and I save you. We saved each other. I consider that pretty lucky,” Marley remarked.
“Marley, I need you to shut up,” I said definitively, ending the conversation.
Will They Be Expecting Us?
“Well, you think they’ll be expecting us?” Marley asked.
“Won’t know until we get over this ridge,” I replied determinedly.
We worked our way up a hill, knowing the outpost was on the other side of it. We were finally going to be in a friendly area. We wouldn’t have to worry about rogues, cannibals, wolves, or slavers anymore. This was it. It was supposed to be anyway.
“We still gonna be friends when we get there?” Marley asked me abruptly.
“Have we ever been?” I replied nonchalantly.
“We’re practically twins,” he said, trying to joke back.
I stood still, motionless and without expression. “No. No, we aren’t,” I said back sternly.
“Look, Dustin, we already did this, didn’t we? Can we go one mile without an argument?”
I refused to speak.
“Dustin! I am sorry about your brother. I am sorry about your family, your friends, about everything you’ve lost. But that’s not on me. If you need to vent then do it. I’m here for you and right now I’m the only friend you got!”
“I… I don’t have the energy,” I stated after a moment to consider his offer.
A sudden explosion over the ridge caught us off guard and forced us down to the ground for cover. We moved instinctively due to our bodies not being given enough time to register what was happening. Marley hit the ground hard and grabbed onto me. He crawled over to the top of the ridge and attempted to drag me along with him. We got to the top and peered over the other side. We saw it all. We saw the outpost in all of its glory. The last great stronghold of the rebellion. The walls were huge and the city it was harboring inside was massive. Some of the buildings were on fire at that point. Another explosion sounded and lit up in the middle of the outpost. We looked to our left and in the open field was a convoy of military vehicles. Troop transports worked their way to the front, dropping off soldiers when they got close to the walls. The soldiers wore their power suits to showcase their might. They appeared to be in pristine condition, undamaged by the several years of continuous fighting.
Marley looked to me with panicked expression showing on his face. “Dustin… it’s over.”
“For both of us,” I replied. “They’ll hang both of us for this.”
“We have to run.”
Marley and I got to our feet and turned our backs only to be caught by a man holding a crossbow pointed at us.
“Don’t move,” he demanded nervously. His entire body was trembling.
“Look, we were just leaving,” I said persuasively. “We won’t be a problem.”
“No. See that town down there? That’s my town and you two are gonna help me get it back,” he explained quickly.
“You’re gonna take on the military?” Marley asked jokingly. He started walking away from the man to show he was not prepared to take him seriously.
“No. We’re going to,” he said sternly. His nervousness was beginning to wash away, showing his true determination.
Marley stopped in his path and turned to the man. A curious expression showed through on his face. His eyebrows raised and he continued looking at the man in apparent anticipation.
“How?” I cut in.
“I have a plan,” he said, sounding unsure of himself.
“Great,” Marley retorted.
We followed the man to a hut deeper in the woods. Through a megaphone down the road, we heard the military commander requesting that the outpost’s inhabitants stand down and relinquish their weapons. They wouldn’t and the three of us knew that. There would be fighting soon.
“This is the rebellion’s last outpost,” I said to the man. “We don’t know how many more troops the government has. Is this really a good idea?”
“This is the last of the Hyena’s outposts. The rebellion is still well and strong, though. It’s just fractured into many different parts. If anything, it’s the government that is weak and scattered. We were so close to our goals and this is just a hiccup. There’s no reason the military forces should be this far out. That means this is just a small detachment. They’ve been planning, though. They just want to look strong with their equipment and vehicles, but they don’t have much firepower to actually back it up.
“And that’s just a theory, isn’t it?” Marley inquired knowingly.
“Yup,” the scraggly man replied as we moved inside of the hut.
How can we trust him? He must be insane.
“And we’re going to test that theory, aren’t we?” Marley said back.
The man led us inside the small one-room hut which was filled with a military-grade arsenal: assault rifles, power armor, grenade launchers. This guy had it all.
“Where’d this all come from?” I asked.
“You don’t ask a man those kinds of questions,” Marley said before the man could reply.
“The one missing the leg is right about that,” the man replied with a smile on his face. “But I got these from killing those military guys. A lot of them from raids on the police stations.”
“Police stations? Why would they need rocket launchers?” I asked confusedly.
“Remember before the war. The police looked more like soldiers than the actual soldiers did. And they started acting like soldiers because of that,” the man explained. “Works for me, though, because it’s all mine now.” He laughed for a moment upon cradling a submachine gun that he appeared quite fond of.
“And you have enough ammunition here?” Marley asked.
“What do you think?” the man replied rhetorically without turning to face Marley.
“So what do we get to use?” My voice made me appear nervous, but I was more confused. I was ready for whatever came next. I just wasn’t sure of how it would play out.
“In your conditions?” he asked, looking to me and Marley with a hint of concern. “Look, I have a power suit here for myself. I can be a formidable distraction and that suit can take quite a pounding, but something tells me you two can’t. I have a little something around back for you two. Follow me.” He led us around the side of the hut and showed us a towering macine with a tarp covering it.
“What is it?” I asked the man.
“Our key to destroying that army over there,” the man replied. He put his arms on his hips and smiled to whatever resided underneath the tarp.
The machine towered over us. It had to have been at least twenty feet tall. At the top something protruded from it even further. The man walked over to it and took the tarp off. It was a tank. The man looked to us and smiled, showing his teeth.
“I don’t even want to know how you got this, do I?” Marley asked, still staring in awe at it.
“What kind of tank is this?” I questioned, having never seen anything like it.
“A drone,” the man replied. “And there’s another around the back. You two will be piloting them from the inside of the hut. How does that sound, boys?” He was still smiling and we could feel his enthusiasm.
“We’ve never… “ Marley started. “We’ve never done anything like this. We have no idea how to work one of those things.”
Marley’s right. As much damage these things will do to their morale, we won’t actually be much use.
“Don’t worry, boy. It’s like piloting a remote control car. Except bigger, harder, and much more dangerous,” the man explained.
“I don’t like this,” I said quietly.
“Oh, you don’t?!” the man asked loudly and sarcastically.
“Look, man, we don’t have to help you!” Marley barked back. He threw one of his crutches in the direction of the man and almost fell over but I caught his arm and he leaned on me for support. “We didn’t ask for this! We didn’t ask for you!”
The man just stood there and smiled for a moment before saying: “You’re scared. You’re scared and you’re not even the one going out in the power suit. It’s alright, boy. I just need you to trust me and we’ll get through this all. Okay?”
Marley looked to me and I nodded. “We can do this,” I said to him. “This is far from the hardest thing we’ve had to do.”
“It’s not that. We’ve been through so much, I just want it… to be over already. It was supposed to be over. Over that hill, that was supposed to be it,” Marley said.
“Well, it’s not. It’s been a living hell for all of us, so shape up and let’s get through it together,” I said to Marley.
Marley hung his head down low for a moment before picking it back up and looking to me, his arm still around my shoulder and his hand still gripping me tight. “Thanks, Dustin. You’re a good friend.”
“Enough of that shit. Let’s get going before the kissing starts,” the man said, half in disgust, and half jokingly.
“Wait,” I called out to him. “What’s your name?”
“Garrett,” he said back. He turned to face the hut and walked to the door. We followed him through it again and he motioned for us to sit in the seats with monitors in front of them. He explained how to guide the tanks using the sticks and there were various buttons to be used to fire missiles or to shoot the machine guns. I didn’t want to compare it to a video game but it was a little too much like the feeling of a controller of one.
“You alright, Marley?” I asked.
His breathing was getting heavier and faster. “Yeah, I should be fine.”
Garrett was in the corner of the room putting on the power armor and gearing up. He put grenades and extra ammunition in the reserve pouches on the armor. Once everything was on his person, he gathered a large rocket launcher as well as a sniper rifle.
“Not using the crossbow for this one?” I asked Garrett rhetorically with a smile.
He laughed, never making eye contact with me. He was scared, more scared than us. And rightfully so. He was going into the fray. We just had to sit here and watch the monitors.
“This is it, boys,” Garrett announced. “Once we push the military out of here, it’s all ours and it’s gonna stay that way. You ready?”
“Yeah,” I cheered slightly.
“We’re ready,” Marley chimed in, putting his hands on the controls.
“You two will clear the path for me as I take them out with the sniper rifle. I have most of the treeline ready to blow with explosives. I’ll trigger them if they get that close. Start moving as soon as I leave this hut. Is that clear?” Garrett looked to us with a stern expression and hoped for affirmative answers. We nodded our heads to him as we turned to face the monitors again. We heard Garrett leaving the hut and we started up the behemoths waiting outside. They moved loudly and clunkily all the way outside of the treeline. The military men saw our tanks approach and turned to face them with weapons trained, not that their weapons would have had any effect.
I don’t like this. Those people out there, the ones that are starting to looking more like ants on my monitor. I don’t want to kill them.
I looked to Marley and his face revealed nervousness. He pushed his hand on the button that would allow the men to hear his voice through the tank.
“Lay down your weapons and we will pull back,” he instructed.
The military commander ordered his men to stand down and raise their hands. They knew they were outmatched. We’d won.
Suddenly, Marley’s tank fired a rocket at one of the troop transports, destroying it and scattering the debris throughout the field.
“What did you do?!” I screamed.
The soldiers retrieved their weapons and began firing in every direction. More troop transports appeared from the wooded area and two vehicles came rushing through with ramming rods on the ends of them. They raced hurriedly to the frontline and blasted a hole through the wall of the Hyena outpost. The rebels on top of the wall attempted to hold off the soldiers nearing the wall, but they began pouring in.
“This isn’t over until they’re all dead, Dustin,” Marley said with a sudden resurgence of courage.
What has he done? We could have avoided this whole mess. It was almost over. The military was going to pull back and let us live. This can’t be happening! I have to pull myself together. Look at the controls. No, everything’s going fuzzy. I can’t see. I can’t think straight. Those soldiers out there aren’t to blame for any of this. Only one person.
I loosened my grip on the controls and suddenly became aware. This was his plan all along. He wanted them all dead so he wouldn’t have to fear them coming after him ever again.
“You son of a bitch!” I screamed as I lunged out of my chair and on top of Marley.
“What are you doing?!” He stared into my eyes with a determined gaze. “We have to finish this, Dustin!”
The tanks stood motionless but we could hear the sounds of battle coming through the machines. Out of our peripheral vision we saw the flooding of the troops into the Hyena outpost. I had grabbed Marley by the collar and he gripped my arms. We stopped our bickering once we were aware of the shift of power in the battle that mattered.
Without saying a word, we both got to our feet and manned the tank controls again. As much as I hated that the battle was even happening, it would be more detrimental to us if the Hyena outpost were to fall. We weren’t ready to let that happen while we had a means to stop it.
Small arms fire bounced off of the tanks. The military forces didn’t have much in their arsenal to take on the beasts we piloted. We moved them forward like chess pieces moving toward the king. The commander in his humvee cowered upon seeing us approach. He retreated into the inside of the vehicle and ordered them to go the other way, away from his troops as well as us. It appeared we wouldn’t get the king after all. It moved faster than we could move the turrets to target the vehicle. It didn’t matter. Getting them to retreat was all that mattered to me. To Marley, all that mattered was every man and woman in uniform to disappear forever.
“We’re doing it, Dustin!” Marley cried triumphantly. The field was then filled with either dead military troops or retreating ones. The troop transports didn’t even bother waiting until the soldiers could get back into the field. They stormed off as quickly as they’d come.
The ground started shaking after we had a moment of feeling victorious. Suddenly, drones flew through the air faster than we could comprehend. They dropped a load of missiles onto the tanks as well as the outpost and flew off. The tanks burst, becoming immobile and unusable. The outpost set aflame and the occupants started rushing out for safety.
“Hands up!” Two men rushed in the room from behind us holding Garrett at point blank. One stayed back with Garrett while the other moved forward toward Marley and I. The soldier hit Marley in the gut with the rifle and pointed it at me afterward. Marley fell to the ground.
It’s over. It’s really over. They’ve caught the one they’ve been after since the start. I don’t want to imagine what they have planned for us. “Kill us now,” I said weakly. I was in disbelief. The tide turned so quickly.
“Dustin! What are you saying?!” Marley yelped in pain.
“It’s either quick and painless here or they’ll take us back for a public execution!” I explained loudly to Marley.
“We’re not with the military,” the soldier said. “We’re with him.” A man stepped in the room. He wore shiny power armor and carried a large rifle.
“What do you want?” I was becoming confused and following my confusion was anger.
“You, Dustin,” the man said in a familiar voice. “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
The man took off his mask slowly and looked at me. Long, scraggly hair was pushed out of his face. His beard had grown but his face was recognizable. Cuts and scars littered his face. The years had not been kind to this face, but it was one I knew; it was one I had not seen in years. Seeing him almost gave me a sense of comfort; a feeling that told me: “You can go back to your old life now. Everything is going to be fine.” But I knew it wasn’t like that. I started to fall over but before I could falter, he grabbed my shoulders and stood me up straight.
“You came all this way for me?” I asked nervously.
“Of course, Dustin,” the man said. “You were my brother.”
“It’s been so long.” A smile formed on my face and the man also composed a grin on his. Slowly I said his name, “Jason.”
“How could I forget?”
“That’s a good question,” Jason replied. “Because you did.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you were coming back for me. You and Walsh. I waited for you for days. Then the days turned into weeks. And then… into years. Dustin, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve had to go through. The scars on my face are nothing compared to the scars covering the rest of my body, the scars on my mind, and where were you? I’ve been waiting for so long. Just to… to see you again.” His voice was bitter, yet peppered with hints of joy and compassion. “You were my brother.” He slowly reached his hand out and gripped the back of my head, feeling the full length of my hair. He pushed his head in and our foreheads met.
“You are my brother, Jason,” I replied.
“What do you mean?”
His face was unmoving. “You left me to die, Dustin. Me and Marissa.”
Marissa?! I haven’t thought about her in years. Those kinds of memories only caused me pain, pain I didn’t want to feel. But now everything’s coming rushing back to me.
“Marissa. How- how is she?” I asked nervously.
“She died a long time ago, Dustin. I didn’t think you’d care. I tried protecting her the first few weeks. We both thought you’d come back for us. We waited for you. My family was murdered. My little brother, and they even got my sister. All Marissa and I had was each other. She needed you. But this cruel new world eventually took her from me too. I was alone. I’ve been alone for a long time. And then I found something I was good at. And I knew I wanted to know what happened to you. I’ve been living this- this nightmare, this curse for so long now. I just wanted it to be over. And some part of me thought it would be over when I found you. Maybe when I found you, I would stop feeling this way. Maybe I would have some kind of closure. I could ask you why you left. I could ask you why you never came back. So here I am.” He lifted his arms slightly to his sides and waited for me to respond.
“Jason,” I started. I looked away from him and tried to compose myself. “I don’t have any reason or excuse for you. I had to protect my brother. That’s it. But I am glad you made it out alive. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. You still are my friend.”
“You made up your mind a long time ago, Dustin. Back when you chose not to come back for your friends. Just like I made up my mind a long time ago also.”
“And what did you decide on?” I asked uneasily.
“Soon enough,” he replied. He turned his back on me and instructed for his mercenaries to grab ahold of Marley and I. They each grabbed an available appendage and lifted us up. They guided us through the woods. Looking back we could see the aftermath of the battle, the wreckage and city still burning bright. We finally reached an idle helicopter littered with bullet holes in its hull. Jason instructed us to get in. We complied.
Marley shot me a nervous glance and whispered: “I know you have a plan like back in the town. How are we going to get out of this?”
I ignored his gaze and looked out the window as the ground shrunk below us. “We don’t.”
Should I have trusted him? No. And I didn’t. Should I have known this was the end? Of course.
Marley walked completely devoid of emotion. He knew too. We were passing by some sort of work camp surrounded by a fence laced with barbed wire on the top. Large, beige tents surrounded the outside, close to the fence. It was then I started wondering if we would just be put to slave labor for the rest of our lives. It wouldn’t have been the first time. I could always try to escape. If I died during the escape, even better.
Marley and I wrapped our arms around the others’ back as we walked to the entrance of the camp. Jason and his constituents walked behind us, weapons carefully trained on our backs in case we were to veer off the path given to us. It wasn’t like we would get far.
“Jason, where are we?” I asked suddenly, hoping to get some answers.
He looked to me and scoffed.
We got close to the entrance, and a rifle hit Marley over the head as he reached for the gate. Marley fell to one knee and gripped my back even tighter, relying more on me for support in that moment.
“Sorry about that,” Jason said, coming forward to grip the gate. “I usually open it.”
I grabbed Marley and lifted him up. He was weak and with every step we took, he grew weaker and lost resolve. Marley faltered again.
“Pick him up or it will just be one of you going forward.” Jason was growing impatient.
I used all of my strength to pick up my friend. I had no idea what was happening to him. He knew something I did not.
“Marley, what’s going on?” I whispered to him, hoping Jason would not overhear us and take action.
“I’d rather die than step foot into this place. Let them do it, Dustin,” Marley replied, sounding louder than I had asked him the question, apparently wanting Jason to hear him.
What is he talking about? What could be in this place? Now I don’t want to step foot inside either.
“No!” I yelled, thrusting Marley upward. Whatever was inside, I didn’t want to endure it alone. Marley obliged my lifting motion and got up to his one leg willingly.
We went inside and I made note of a strong stench. Once we passed the tents, we came up to an open field on the right. Dead bodies littered it. There had to have been hundreds of them. They were drained, appearing to have starved to death.
“What is this?” I asked, dropping to my knees, and releasing Marley.
“I didn’t want anyone to see this. Ever. It was part of my original plan,” Marley said with remorse in his voice. He looked away from the horror in front of us. “I… can’t believe they went through with it.”
This was Marley’s plan. This has to be the real reason he didn’t go through with everything.
Jason grabbed Marley’s head and forced it in the direction of the bodies. “Take a look at what you’ve done! This is on you! This is all on you!” Jason came to me next and grabbed my arm, forcing me up. “And Dustin, you allowed this to continue.”
“No. Had I known…” I had nothing to finish that statement with.
“You would have what?” he asked rhetorically and shook his head slowly. “I’m sure these people wish you would have known too.”
“Dustin, is that you?” I heard a familiar voice say from behind us. I turned to identify it and, to my astonishment, I saw Levi, Benny, Emily, and some of the others from our group locked in a cage. I ran up to it and hugged the bars of the cage. I shook it wildly and realized it had a lock on it. I attempted to tear the lock off in a fit of rage and anticipation. I felt a calming hand on my back which quickly relaxed me and stopped my fruitless attempt at getting my friends out.
“Dustin, I’m going to give you your friends back, but first, you have to play my game,” Jason said soothingly.
“Just tell me what you want me to do so we can leave!” I screamed, grabbing Jason’s breastplate armor and shaking it.
Jason pulled a pistol from his holster and flipped it, pointing the barrel at himself and the grip in my direction. I looked over and noticed that one of the other bounty hunters did the same with Marley.
“I want a fair duel between the two of you. Only one of you gets to leave here. Once one of you lies dead, your friends are free to leave with the victor. Are we all understood?” Jay asked, looking back and forth between the two of us.
I nodded my head in confirmation that I understand his rules. I said, “Before we do this, I have to know something. Why? Why track me down like this?”
“I need you to know what I went through. When my family was killed, I knew there was nothing that could bring them back.”
“Dammit, Jason, I lost family too! This isn’t the way!”
I grabbed the pistol from his hand unwillingly, pinching my teeth together and shooting him an angry stare.
“It is, though. I was supposed to be your family too. You didn’t care what happened to me, Dustin.” He started walking away but quickly turned back around to face me. “And Dustin, if neither of you shoot, I get to personally kill your friends. Or should I say your family? That way we’re even.”
Marley grabbed the pistol from the bounty hunter’s hand and I walked to meet him on my side. Marley was assisted by the bounty hunter and got to his position, about one hundred feet away from me. Marley was now leaning on Jason’s constituent for support, aiming his pistol right at me. I lifted mine too. My hand refused to stay steady; I couldn’t hold the gun straight.
Neither of us pulled the trigger. I looked behind me to see Jason holding a shotgun to my friends. They were pleading with him to let them out, to let them see me one last time.
“Hurry up, Dustin,” Jason called to me. “Your friends won’t last long in here.”
“Whatever you gotta do, Stumpy, just remember that we’ve been through worse,” Benny said to me. “We’re gonna get through it together.”
“Dustin, we’re here for you!” Emily’s voice was shrill, scared.
“Dustin, I’m sorry about everything. You’re my brother and I have faith in you.” Levi thinks I can save them. I only have one last time to let them down. Then this will all be over.
Suddenly, everyone from the cage began chanting my name. “Dustin! Dustin!”
“Your family thinks you can save them, just as mine did. Go ahead, let them down,” Jason said, leaning in close.
I looked forward, locking eyes with Marley. His pistol was still aimed at me, and mine at him. This lasted for over a minute. Finally, Marley nodded to me. I nodded back. He looked over to the third bounty hunter, standing watch with a shotgun trained on us. Marley lifted the pistol, firing it into the head of the bounty hunter holding him up. Marley fell with the bounty hunter. I turned around swiftly and shot into Jason’s helmet, killing him. His body flew into the fence and shook it. Another blast sounded, this time from a shotgun, making my body numb. My body twisted on its way to the ground. The third bounty hunter was still up, holding his shotgun to me. He was moving toward me, finger surely twitching over the trigger. Another bullet flew through the air, bursting the helmet of the bounty hunter. He fell to the ground devoid of life. Marley saved me. He grabbed a shotgun and stood up, leaning on the shotgun for support. He made his way to Jay’s body and lifted a key from his side. He then proceeded to unlock the gate, freeing my friends.
Marley came up to me, holding my newly-acquired wound.
“Dustin, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve this.” Marley looked away from me.
“No, I do.” It was hurting to talk.
“Now I have to figure out what to do next,” Marley said, quickly changing his tone to a rushed one.
“Do what you do best. Play dead,” I said to him, smiling and grabbing his shoulder.
Marley got up and grabbed the shotgun. He began walking away, using the shotgun for support.
Benny and Emily came up to me next, Levi waiting patiently behind them. They looked to the holes in my body, and they peered to my eyes with knowing, somber expressions.
“You’re a good person, Dustin,” Emily said softly.
“And a good friend, Stumpy,” Benny said with a smirk.
Emily continued, “We’re gonna take care of Levi.”
"Th- thank you. Both of you," I managed to say. It was hurting more and more with each passing second. I could feel the blood rushing out.
Benny walked up to Jason’s body and pulled out a small object. He pressed a button on it.
Finally was Levi. Levi grabbed my side and a tear rolled down his cheek.
“Dustin, I’m sorry,” Levi began.
“Shut up,” I said sternly, my voice sounding disparate and cluttered. “You’re my little brother and I love you. Don’t be sorry. That’s not gonna help right now. Listen to me. Dad was wrong. The only constant isn’t that I’m always with you. It’s not that dad’s always with you either. It’s change, and you’re gonna have to get used to that. You’re gonna live a long life. You’re gonna live a good life. Do that for me.” Saying that only weakened me further, but I was glad I was able to get it out.
Suddenly, a swift, continuous chopping sound was heard. A helicopter appeared and landed close to us. Five soldiers appeared from the door of the helicopter. It was the government. It wasn’t over yet.
I looked to Benny. He stood calmly and tossed his hands in the air. The soldiers had guns out and ready. They’re here for us and while all they can do for me is put me out of my misery, they will surely kill my friends.
“Dustin Parker.” The soldier ran up to me and put a breathing mask over my face. He proceeded to lift a small light and checked my eyes. “We’re going to take care of your friends from here on. We’ve been following you for a long time. We know everything you’ve been through. We know you’ve been held hostage for the past eight years. You’re safe now.” They’re going to help Emily and Benny. They’ll take care of Levi. What is this feeling consuming me? I feel… complete.
A warming sensation came over my body. The pain finally subsided. It was okay. It’s all finally okay. A smile formed on my face before I closed my eyes for the last time.
Author’s Note: Thank you for reading until the end. As a new author I would love to hear your opinion on the story. If you enjoyed this ebook I would appreciate your support in the form of a review on the sales page you bought the book from. Thank you again.
Terrorist. Patriot. Take your pick. In the ruins of the United States travels Dustin Parker and his brother, trying to cross the country to get to safety. A revolution decimated the country seven years ago and forced Dustin from his home. Nowhere is safe, a truth he learns very quickly. The revolutionary Hyenas and the remnants of the American government scrounge through debris and ravaged cities to find Dustin- to find him because of a secret he keeps from both sides. One is meant to protect him. The other would see him executed. But the only question on Dustin’s mind is in regards to which will find him first.