The storm finally breaks. Thick heavy drops fall down in splatters as thunder roars overhead. Alex curses as he’s drenched, cold rain slamming down on him. He glances over his shoulder and races on. His breath is haggard and his feet ache but he can’t stop. They’re too close. Bushes shake behind him and he pushes himself faster, propelling down a hill. His shoes make a racket on the forest floor but he tells himself that they won’t be able to tell the difference between that and the thunder. He zigzags, whipping in-between trees as fast as he can in an effort to leave behind a flustered trail. Alex hits a patch of mud and slips.
He careens towards a tree, shoes catching in roots, and bites back a yelp as he falls to his knees. His shoulder digs into the trunk as he rolls over, breathing hard. Mud and grass covers his face before he scrubs it off with his forearm. He glances up at the lowest branch; the back of his head scrapes bark. He can make it.
A shrill whistle causes a whine to crawl its way up his throat. He fights the urge to bolt, slamming teeth down onto his chapped lips. They want him to run. They want to flush him out like a quail. He jumps up, straining to wrap his fingers around the low hanging branch. In the rain, his frozen fingers slide, his tennis shoes fight for purchase against the rain-slickened bark. He tries anyway. Roosting in the canopy above sounds like a good idea until he hears more yelling. They are close enough to almost make out their words in the swirl of the wind. The townies won’t give up just because their quarry vanished into the treetops. His fingers don’t loosen from the branch. He can out-wait them in the shelter of the leaves.
A flash of lightning so close he can feel the electricity hum in the air convinces him to remain on the forest floor.
He grits his teeth and releases the branch, landing in a heap in the mud. Scrambling back to his feet as quietly as he can, Alex nearly chokes on his pounding heart. He can’t see much more than shadows in the night. Thunder rolls by overhead and obliterates any other sound. He brushes foliage out of his face and pants. The townies have gone quiet. He swallows, trying to hush the roaring in his ears. His calves protest as he tilts onto his toes. He won’t last much longer. His lungs burn and the muscles in his legs tremor, there’s a stabbing pain in his side, and he’s so cold his teeth chatter into his lip without pause.
He regrets ever nearing the town.
His hand clamps down tighter on his small stake. He uses it for snares but he’ll kill them with it if he has to. The townies want him to pay for his intrusion into their encampment. They want to hunt down their prey and use him. Selling, keeping, killing him for his supplies, whatever suits them. He won’t let them. He’ll die before he gives in.
The bushes next to him thrash at the next crack of lightning. The light reveals a man lunging towards him. Alex yells without meaning to and then cuts it off, turning and running. He doesn’t dare look over his shoulder to see how close they are. His right leg gives out in the thick mud, sending him swerving into a thicket of bushes. Swearing and stumbling to right himself, Alex tears through the shrub, unaware of the stems that scrape his hands. That’s when he sees it. A steep hillside. A large boulder sits on top of it. He can defend himself from there.
It’s muddy here too, though there are no bushes to counteract the run-off. He slams into the rock hard enough to knock the breath out of him as he skids to a stop. He winces as he turns, his side screams. His stake is gripped securely in both hands as he flings his hair from his eyes, blinking in the downpour. They aren’t far behind him, tearing through the trees and whooping. There are three of them, soaked from the rain and covered in mud. Past their shapes, they are hard to make out without the lightning. They are bigger than he is; older. One has a gray-flecked beard and his lips twist into a smile that reveals blackened teeth. He advances with a laugh.
Alex levels him with a glare. The old man doesn’t stop inching towards him. He has a long hunting knife, jagged at the hilt but smooth and shining everywhere else. He is more leanness than bulk, rangy and dirty but he’s not breathing nearly as hard as Alex. He advances and Alex tightens his grip on the stake.
“Ya done runnin’ yet? I’m damn tired and this rain ain’t helpin’ me think ’bout being all too nice to ya.”
Alex jumps. He’s forgotten how loud voices are.
“Yeah, well, I, uh, don’t feel like being nice to you either.” He sneers, twirling the stake with faked nonchalance. Who even talks like that? He quirks his lips a bit and shakes his head. He doesn’t want to waste attention on words. He searches for an opening, crouched up onto his toes. The townies have formed a perfect triangle in front of him. To get past one he has to get too close to another. He presses back into the rock, licking his lips.
Alex shakes water from his eyes. The townies don’t seem bothered by the rain, eyes glittering as they look at him. The two younger men fan out, like young hounds on the prowl. They must have reacted to a signal from the older man that he missed. They are moving toward him from either side, both with rope around their shoulders and a thick stick in hand.
The sticks aren’t sharpened. They are meant to bludgeon.
Though they’ve been chasing him for a while, no one moves. Alex doesn’t even breathe. They watch him with calculating eyes and he returns the stare with a challenge. Thunder crashes loudly and no one in the clearing jumps. The crackling of the lightning is an afterthought to the electric tension constricting Alex’s heart. He swallows, tastes the blood pooling in the cut on his cracked lip, and raises the stake.
He waits until he’s close. He doesn’t want to give up the rock at his back. He strikes out with his stick, aiming for the tender eyes and face. He nicks something but he can’t see what. He ducks to the side instead, sending out a kick that connects against a knee. It sends the attacker rolling in the mud with a grunt.
He jumps back up, slipping slightly. The older man is close now, threatening with the knife. Alex is going to make him have to use it. He won’t be intimidated by the mere suggestion of it. He lunges forward, forgetting for a moment that he needs to keep his back protected. He knocks his elbows into the old man’s chest, close enough to smell the sweat. Close enough to see the desire in his green eyes.
He brings the stake down as hard as he can with both hands wrapped around the wood. He has to stretch up to do so but he manages it. The stake plunges into the townie’s left eye. A bloodcurdling scream rents the air above the thunder. A victorious laugh bubbles up from Alex’s throat.
He’s knocked to the ground in the ensuing flail. Blood flows from the man’s eye, slickening his hands. Alex’s stomach flips. The stake flounders from his grasp. He grits his teeth and forces himself to look away, starting backwards without a weapon. The old man has dropped his knife but Alex is too far away to snatch it and the other men are too close.
A townie races over towards him, this one sandy blond and wild-eyed. Alex waits, heart hammering, until the attacker begins to swing. Then he dives to the side. He rolls farther down the hill than he anticipates and kicks his feet out for purchase on the wet ground. The man runs into the rock with a clatter. It doesn’t keep him down for as long as he had hoped, the townie toddles to his feet within seconds.
Alex is only partway to his feet when a hand wraps around his ankle. The man yanks, sending him sprawling face-first. Blood swells up from his lip and around his teeth as he scrambles to get up. The other townie is already there. The man slams a knee down on his ribs and grabs his arm. Pain splinters down his side as he rolls over into his back, gasping and choking in the rain. For a moment, he can’t see through the downpour. Can’t see anything and he can’t do anything.
He feels the attacker slip to his knees beside him.
He rolls on top and straddles the townie. This one has a severely crooked nose. Alex grabs the flailing arm and slams his knee against the elbow, leaning into the joint until he hears a guttural snap. The man screams and the sandy-haired man kicks Alex in the back, sending him sprawling forward. He whips around to face them. Mud and water falls into his eyes and he viciously draws a shaking and bloody hand across his face. He sucks in a breath that sounds like a growl and charges.
He slides to a stop, frowning and clambering backwards.
One of the townies is fighting the other.
It takes him a second more to realize this is not the truth. The old man is still moaning in the dirt. The two other townies are now sparring against another individual. This one is larger than them both. Alex calculates that he’s at least a full foot taller and much broader than himself. He is also a more confident fighter. The newcomer swings something at the squashed-nosed man’s torso and throws an elbow at the other’s face in one smooth motion.
Alex hears the resounding metallic ring even through the thunder. Lightning reflects off the heavy metal pipe in the stranger’s hand. The townie slumps to his knees. Alex stands up, searching for his stake. He doesn’t know what the newcomer wants. But watching how the fighter slams his pipe into the blond’s temple hard enough to make something snap doesn’t make him want to stick around.
He sees the old man’s machete just a few feet from him. He snatches it up, skidding on his knees as he raises it in front of him. His breath comes in rasps and his body aches but the knife remains steady in his hands. He sprints for the rock again, his back knocking against it hard enough to slam his breath from his body. He winces, wheezing, and flings his hair from his eyes.
The newcomer drops the last townie with a well-placed kick to the face. The man sprawls spread-eagle, blood mixing with mud in a macabre mask. The fighter turns to face Alex. Seeing the knife, he sticks his pipe into the holster he’s fashioned for it. It’s an old shotgun thigh holster. He drops his hands and tilts them so Alex can see they are empty.
Bloodied but empty. As if that isn’t enough to pacify, the other also turns broadside. It means he’s open for attack, like prey. Alex would know exactly what to do if he was. He isn’t and so Alex is confused. He’s sorely tempted to throw the knife and run because it’s the only option that makes sense in his adrenaline-filled brain. He’s got good aim but when he tries to stand his legs nearly give out. He sucks in a curse and presses his shoulder into the rock to regain his balance. The other still hasn’t moved towards him and it’s that non-reaction that makes Alex pause.
He is unafraid of whatever action Alex might take. Or simply doesn’t care. Judging by the soft way he stands, Alex feels it’s more like a bear watching a bobcat. Unimpressed. Alex can’t do that much damage with his weapon. Not before the other retaliates anyway. Despite his best efforts, the knife is heavy and wavering in his grasp.
Lightning reveals more of the newcomer’s attributes. He’s older than Alex but not as much as the townies. Alex places him at twenty or so, not as old as he had originally thought. It’s his build that makes him appear older. His height alone is intimidating. But for the brief moment Alex sees them, his blue eyes are dark but not unkind. Steady in a way he isn’t used to seeing from other wanderers.
“Relax,” His is deep, barely a rumble over the thunder.
Alex’s own voice when he speaks is shaky and rusty, “W-what do you want?”
It’s silent for a moment save for the thunder roaring overhead. The clearing smells of sweat and blood. It is an acidic mix that gets caught in his throat when he breathes in. Alex bites his lips again, sucking on the cut. The tang of blood makes him grimace but his stomach settles.
“Nothing. Looked like you needed help.”
He yanks the hood of his tattered jacket over his head when the rain changes direction with the wind. He doesn’t cover his face, though. Alex can still see the interested expression.
Help? The concept is so foreign that Alex only blinks. Everyone’s always too busy trying to keep themselves alive. Why would they help a stranger? Against townies that always outnumber and conquer everything they want to take? And how did he best them so easily? Alex runs his hand down his face. Though it does nothing to clear the water, the motion calms him.
His rescuer is still staring.
Alex frowns and forces himself to stand fully upright despite the shaking of his knees. He doesn’t like to feel scoped out. It’s inviting them to find his weakness. He slips on the mud some but keeps the knife in front of him. The townies are dead and dying but that doesn’t mean the threat is gone. He has been around long enough to know even others wandering alone are as dangerous as bands. No one likes townies but no one would fight them for fun.
And he knows no one helps just for kicks.
“Yeah, right,” He says, “I was fine.”
Alex is exhausted. The knife in his hand is getting heavier by the moment and he is beyond ravenous. He wants to high-tail it away somewhere safe to lick his wounds and start a new plan. He needs to do it now before he’s too tired. But something in the other’s calm expression makes Alex feel something he hasn’t in a long time. A prickling sense of unease settles in his chest at the thought of harming someone who saved him. Of hurting first.
A conscience, he remembers his father calling the sensation that eventually makes him lower his knife. He tells himself it’s to save energy that he might need later. Not because the other looks genuinely interested at meeting him or that he’d cared enough to save him. Alex somehow matters and he isn’t sure if that’s a good thing.
The fighter looks behind him at the old man still clutching his face and struggling to stand in the mud. Three strides and the pipe-wielder is there. He grabs the older man’s head in his arms and twists. Alex doesn’t hear the guttural popping over the resounding thunder but he flinches as the townie’s body spasms anyway.
Alex inches backwards, a white-knuckled grip on the knife, eyes wide. He’s cornered himself against the rock again. There’s no room to run. He eyes the other, holding his breath, and waits for any sign of attack.
The fighter sets the body down with a loud sigh and stares at Alex. He doesn’t dare breathe or blink and eventually the rain creates a haze over his eyes. He blinks with a staggered inhale and realizes the other is looking not at him but the bodies scattered on the ground. When lightning allows him to see, the brawler’s gaze is not lit with blood-lust like he expected. It is stony and somber.
Confusion makes Alex’s head hurt.
The fighter glances over his shoulder at the shadows of the trees and waves at the tree-line.
He frowns and sucks his lip in-between his teeth.
A hulking mass departs from the shadows. He takes a wary step back until lighting reveals the form. It’s another boy, hiding beneath a thick wool blanket. Alex swears and presses his back into the rock hard enough to sting. The machete blade in his hands wobbles but he holds it ready to swing. The pipe-wielder shakes his head but Alex doesn’t believe him.
When the boy with the blanket joins them, he pulls the blanket hood back a bit. His expression is unreadable when he looks at Alex. However, when the newcomer glances back at the taller one, the disgruntled look he sports is easy to see in the faint light. The pipe-wielder sighs, the sound low and aggravated. Alex warily watches both of them, bringing the knife back up despite the pain in his shaking arms.
“We should probably move. The rest of their party won’t be too far away,” The boy under the blanket says, with a cursory glance at Alex.
The speaker’s attention is on the bigger one and there’s no mistaking the condescending tone in his loud voice. The blanket covers most of him, but it’s still easy to see the sharp rise and fall of his shoulders when he huffs.
Alex knows this; he typically would have stolen what he could and taken off. But this change has thrown him. No one ever just appears and wants nothing. He isn’t sure if the statement was directed towards him or not, so he only watches. He hopes that if he doesn’t move they will forget he’s here.
The bigger one turns to look at him again. Alex’s lips quirk minutely. The two meet eyes and Alex knows that he is weighing him. He is still fearful. He has never seen a person put townies down like that. Townies train from birth to defend their homes and territory. They are traders of flesh, dead or alive, and anything else they can get their hands on. They’re also a necessity. Their towns are the only place to trade for supplies. Or live, if they let you in. They guard them with tenacity. Alex has heard all the tales of the militaristic way they live. No one bests them so easily. How did he?
And why doesn’t he seem to want anything because of it?
“There’s a cave nearby,” The warrior rumbles slowly. There is no denying this time that he’s extending an invitation to join them.
Alex is struck by the offer. He has never found another to band with. Families and lifelong friends stick together. Everyone else is a threat. Everyone else only cares about their own survival. Everyone else sees him with his frail frame and thinks he has nothing to offer or is easy prey. The fact that he looks at him without judgment or greed is an entirely foreign experience. Especially since it appears he hasn’t told the other his plan.
Alex glances at the boy in the blanket. He made a slightly surprised noise at the invitation but otherwise doesn’t argue. Verbally. Alex catches the glare he shoots the other. The naysayer is taller than Alex, nearly as tall as his companion. However, he has a way of hunching that makes him appear shorter. He looks like a willow tree, tall and droopy. He’s a bulky mess in the wool blanket and the sight makes Alex smile.
“I don’t have anything to trade with,” Alex replies. Except for the knife, but one look at the bloodied pipe makes him think it isn’t needed. He can’t think of anything he’s willing to part with. He knows they want something. They’ve got too.
The larger one shrugs.
Alex can’t help the sneer, “Right.”
The other shrugs once more, tilting his head as he does.
Alex frowns. He owes him his life already. He doesn’t want to know what that will cost, let alone what accepting this offer will add to his debt. He’s met others before that pretended to help without strings. He’s learned that even one string pulled tight can strangle.
He is about to tell them to shove off when the one in the blanket steps forward. He holds his hand out.
“Hey, I’m Jeremy.”
Jeremy offers a wide smile. Something about it feels off, as if he isn’t sure how to correctly manipulate the expression. But the sentiment is the same. For now, they will not harm him.
Alex wipes his flattened blond bangs from his eyes. He glares at the townies. They rustled him from his hide-out. He’d left his jacket and meager food supply behind. He has no more protection from the rain. His teeth are chattering so harshly he keeps re-opening his split lip.
The pipe-wielder clears his throat and says, “Donovan.”
Alex should have seen the two of them and run. However, with the rain soaking him to the bone he knows he isn’t going to refuse Donovan’s offer again. He has no idea where he is and it’s too stormy to go without cover. It’s either freeze to death in the rain or one night with strangers.
He licks his chapped lips and introduces himself.
“Alex. And, uh, thanks,” He says, the words tripping awkwardly over his tongue.
He doesn’t take Jeremy’s hand. He still has a hold of the knife to remind them that he isn’t a fool. They will not catch him off-guard.
Donovan yanks his tattered jacket’s hood fully over his dark hair. He turns to Alex and raises an eyebrow. He only sees that because of the lightning. He nods once, hands jittering as he wars with the desire to keep the machete in hand or at his side.
Donovan begins to walk.
Alex could attack them right now and take their supplies, if he really wanted to. It wouldn’t be the first time he has performed the maneuver. But the unease ramps up again at the thought. It’s not right. He sighs as he hooks the machete to a belt loop. It’s not right and he has nowhere else to go and the rain is too bitterly cold to wait out. And Donovan is walking with his hand on his pipe.
“How far did you say it was?” Jeremy asks, “The cave, I mean.”
Alex notes the annoyance that settles across the other’s shoulders, making them hike up to his ears. He chews on his lips and frowns. He knows the basic guide to survival: kill or be killed. Only the toughest, the strongest, the harshest live outside the towns or suburbs. The fact that rough, threatening Donovan seems to care about someone other than himself is surprising. Especially since it seems that the act of charity he performed isn’t the first. He’s much too unmoved about it. His confidence speaks of experience. Did he save Jeremy?
Unless he and Jeremy are brothers or cousins, Alex amends. Families always stay together. It’s the more plausible excuse anyways. Donovan is not a hero; he’s just extending a rare helping hand.
“Around two miles,” Donovan replies lowly.
Alex crooks his lips. It isn’t horrible but with the pouring rain he wishes it was closer. He shivers as a burst of wind hits him. The storm is getting heavier, though Alex hadn’t thought it could. The droplets feel like buckets slamming down. He is completely soaked and his teeth keep chattering against his swollen lip. Goosebumps feel like they have taken up permanent residence along his limbs and his shoes are soaked through.
It’s hard to see in the darker forest and he almost loses the dark mass that makes up Donovan amid the thick foliage and low hanging branches. Jeremy bumps into him as they descend a hill. Alex picks up the pace to catch up. His legs protest and he hobbles, hissing every once in a while when a step pulls on his sore muscles.
It doesn’t take them long to reach the cave. It’s nestled in the shadows of trees, the cavern opening into the side of the hill, a slanted circle in the earth. It’s not a cave so much as a dug-out. Lightning is the only reason Alex can even see it. He speeds up at the sight of it, staggering in the mud. The only reason he doesn’t run for it is because he’s not entirely sure he won’t fall flat on his face.
That’d be a perfect way of convincing the boys he can handle himself.
The cave is dry and blocks the bitter wind. Alex picks a spot close to the opening that also has protection for his back. He sits down before he falls down and starts to wring out his shirt as Jeremy hunkers into a heap on the floor. Donovan pulls a backpack out from behind a rock. The blond watches as he pulls out a brown bag full of leaves. Tinder. Donovan uses it and a flint fire-starter to ignite a small blaze in a collection of dry wood in the center of the shelter.
Alex gets as close as he dares, the flames lick up at him. He utters a long sigh that puffs his hair from his eyes. The cave echoes with the occasional thunder. The fire grows bright and strong and the heat begins to seep in. His goosebumps flee but the rainwater dribbling down the back of his neck remains icy. His heart slows the rapid beating of adrenaline into a nervous patter.
Alex looks at the two boys. Donovan is across from him, towards the open mouth of the cave. He isn’t looking towards them but out at the rain, hood shielding his face from view. He’s covered in shadows and if Alex tilts his head just right he can imagine that he is a giant rock.
He remembers his dad reading to him about rock creatures that moved. The memory pries apart an old wound in his chest that never fully closed over. He shakes his drying hair from his eyes, brushing the strands from his face, and bites down on his wounded lip. He can still remember the way the lantern lit the ramshackle house in a soft warm glow. It wasn’t much different than the way the flames are dancing now. Of course, he’d had sisters on either side of him then. It’s warmer in his recollection in more ways than one.
What would his father say if he knew Alex had no remorse for what he did to the townie? Alex can still feel the way the stake sank into flesh and the way the blood spilled. But he feels only a sense of justice. His parents had done what they could to keep him safe in a world gone to hell but with them gone he can’t hang onto their lofty fantasies. If he had hesitated, he wouldn’t be sitting here. That is the only certainty he knows.
He tears himself from the past, blinking his vision clear. He can’t afford any lapses. He glances at them again. He’s met only a few others in the past three years and none of them offered their names. He can’t believe he’s sitting here with two strangers that aren’t trying to take everything he owns. Or that he hasn’t tried to do the same before they get the chance.
“Are you brothers?” He blurts the question without thinking.
He isn’t the only one surprised. Jeremy startles awake and Donovan snaps his head away from the rain. It’s quiet for a moment, the rain pattering against the stone the only sound.
Jeremy laughs hoarsely, “No. He saved me too, from literal hunters, wolves.”
“Townies are like wolves.”
Donovan smirks, leaning backwards against the cave wall.
He examines him. Alex disregards the characteristics he noticed first. Past the daunting height and muscle, Donovan’s appearance tells a similar story to Alex’s. His life has been just as rough, if not more so. A scar twists through his right eyebrow, a couple of fingers on his left hand are crooked, a thick scar runs around the right side of his neck and curls to disappear past his collar. His clothes are worn and bloodied and he sits with his weapon loose in his hands, the firelight reveals busted and bruised knuckles. Nothing about him screams rescuer. If Alex had seen him in passing, he would have immediately seen a gladiator and decided running was the best option.
Alex glances at Jeremy. Nothing about him seems of worth. He’s scrawny, has no visible weapon, and nothing that marks how he’s lived. His clothes are worn and mud-stained but not destroyed as harshly as his or Donovan’s.
Alex has remnants of his past painted across his skin. A scar on his chin where he got pistol-whipped by the first gun he’d ever seen. He has another on his forearm from rolling down a steep rock-face. His frame screams malnourishment no matter how much he manages to eat. He’s sunburned even though it’s only a few weeks until winter and his lips are a miasma of cracks and rivets. How has Jeremy fared better?
The boy’s skin is pale. He is thin and leaning against the cave wall causes his curly hair to fall over his large but straight nose. His hands are long-fingered and though some are crooked, most appear smooth. Alex tries not to make such prejudiced opinions on appearance alone. After all, no one expects him to know how to break bone, much less have the ability to actually do it. But if Alex had seen him alone, he wouldn’t have bothered to even see what supplies he carried. Not even the wool blanket is eye-catching. Jeremy hasn’t had the same life he has. Donovan saved him from a fate worse than Alex’s mediocre life. At least Alex knows how to survive.
But why had he done it? Alex has never thought about helping anyone. Three years ago, he would have been too preoccupied with protecting his own family. Now he’s just treading water trying to survive. He can’t imagine wanting to help someone. He doesn’t trust enough, not their plans or his own heart. It is easier to shut off that part of him than to open it to strangers that could tear it asunder again. His family leaves a big enough gap as it is.
The lifespan is drastically shorter out here than the already short timeline given to townies or the suburb’s street rats. He’s lucky every time his lungs inflate.
“What about you?” Jeremy asks, his eyes are barely open a slit.
Donovan shakes his head and sighs. Alex doesn’t understand the expression and frowns at him. Jeremy props himself up on his elbow and shoots a glare that Donovan responds to with a certain finger. Alex watches the exchange with amusement. When Jeremy turns back to him, he reiterates, “He won’t answer me much. Talking to him is like trying to pull a tooth. You don’t have to tell me, but what’s your story?”
“My story?” Alex parrots.
He huffs. He’s bewildered that Jeremy wants to know. He hasn’t met another person in months and hasn’t had a real conversation in longer than that. He’s not entirely sure what to say. Or how much. He isn’t sticking with them very long. He can’t. It’s too dangerous. He’ll want to trust them and it’s inevitable that they are all going to look out for themselves.
It’s quiet as the boys patiently wait for him to answer. He straightens, relishing in the warmth from the fire as he does.
“Kinda normal, until three years ago. Townies attacked our house, they wanted Dad’s generator.”
The sentence is short but Alex finishes it on a hiss. He bites his lip, sucking on the gash he’d opened earlier.
Jeremy cocks his head, “A generator? You had a generator? How’d it work? I thought the EMPs fried everything. Nothing like that works.”
“They didn’t fry every form of electricity. Just the big ones. Dad made it; said it was powered by water. The townies took everything with them.”
He folds his arms around his middle. The crackle of the fire pops off the cave walls and rings in his ears. He hasn’t thought about that in years. Too busy scraping by to think about settling down somewhere he could create light. Too busy needing night to cover his tracks.
“What’d they want? With the generator?” Donovan asks, his voice so low and slow Alex isn’t sure if he is supposed to hear the question. Either way, he doesn’t know the answer.
He looks out at the rain, “Do they need a reason?”
The cities the townies live in are reason enough to want any form of power.
The rumbling thunder overhead reverberates throughout the cave, shutting down the conversation. Alex winces as he runs his tongue over his bloodied lip, glancing between the pair. He puts his hand up over his mouth to stop himself from worrying at it anymore. The rolling thunder fades away again, leaving behind the spattering comforting noise of the pouring rain.
“Three months ago the band I was in was attacked by another. There was nothing left,” Jeremy shrugs the rest of his sentence away.
That explains things. Bands are roving clusters of families that collect supplies to trade to the highest bidder. If the townies don’t just take it. Alex’s father said that not everyone in a band was related, that the way they lived was the closest example of how things used to be. He envies that. He’s only ever known his parents and sisters and without them he’s clueless and unanchored.
Alex follows Jeremy’s gaze to Donovan. He looks up, blue eyes dark and jaw flexing. Jeremy props his chin onto his hand. It only serves to make the other sigh, the sound a garbled growl.
Alex looks away. Donovan let him in the cave after saving his life; the least he can do is be courteous. Even if he has to clamp down on his tongue to stop himself from asking. He shifts, his tennis shoes scraping rubble. It’s the only sound between the three of them. Donovan stares unblinkingly.
What does he have to hide?
“I was nine when bea-” Alex can see him bite down before continuing, “Cannibals took my…town. Nearby townies attacked the rest of us. I wandered.”
Alex nods, trying not to show the surprise on his face. A town? As in townie? The look on the other’s face, a mixture of wariness and confidence, makes Alex believe him. He remembers the ease with which the pipe swung. He is-was-a townie.
It would have been at least ten years ago judging by Donovan’s appearance. Could someone really have made it on their own that long? With townies, beasts, and other bands all vying for the same limited resources? By themselves? Alex is eighteen with three years of being alone under his belt. He can’t imagine having to go through what he has as a nine year old.
“So that explains how you fought them off,” He says.
Donovan looks surprised. He shrugs and mutters something Alex doesn’t understand. He thinks it’s probably some version of ‘whatever’. There’s not much to add to his comment. The boys fall silent again. The sheets of rain slamming against the rock soothes with its cadence. Alex rubs at his sticky eyes, fighting back a yawn.
He leans against the wall, bringing his knees up to his chest, wincing as his calves protest. He picks at a scab on his kneecap, glancing up at the boys every now and then. Jeremy is staring at him with a blank expression. He tilts his head and the redhead continues to stare at him, face blank and devoid of any emotion. It should be unsettling but it isn’t. He’s comforted by the fact that there is another person across from him. He is not alone.
Donovan seems wide-awake, sitting at the cave opening with his pipe lying across his lap. He is staring towards the forest. His face is easier to read. Alex can only see half of the wary frown but it’s enough. He’s keeping watch.
Why? Why would someone risk their life for him when he has nothing to offer?
“So here we are, rag-tags on the hunt for a camp to call our own.” Jeremy says with a yawn, placing his hands behind his head.
“What?” Alex asks, glancing at Donovan in confusion. The brunette is still watching the storm, though his shoulders heave in a sigh Alex can’t hear over the rain.
“That is what you’re doing, right? I mean, what else could you be doing?”
“But, camps don’t take extras.”
“Donovan says there’s one. He-”
“I didn’t say was,” Donovan interrupts, glaring. He shifts away from the opening and back towards the boys, “Said might be.”
Alex blinks, confused, “Wait, what? A camp that takes people in?” He frowns, “It’s not a townie’s camp, is it?”
What could they be talking about? A camp for people with nowhere else to go? It’s completely unfathomable. Still shaking his head, Alex looks at the boys expectantly, dropping one leg to the ground so he can lean forward.
“A man,” Donovan inhales heavily, shifting his pipe down beside him before continuing, “has a…town. For people. Like us. People with nowhere else to go.”
“What? Like, he-anyone strolls in?”
“Pretty much. Like a townie’s camp, minus the drugs, slavery, and post country-wide riot scariness. And closed-door policy,” Jeremy says with another awkwardly flat smile.
The idea has Alex transfixed. It’s a dream but it latches into him tighter than a cougar’s claws. What man would care about extra mouths to feed? Towns don’t last long; rising and falling like summer rain storms, not enough resources being the least fatal blight to strike them. People stay with who they know and care for only them. It’s hard enough to do that. There’s no real reason to believe that a man would take in the few that have no one else. But still, it holds a certain sway on the spark of hope in his chest.
To not have to wonder where he’s going to sleep at night? Or if he’s even going to remain alive that long? The idea is tantalizing, images of people and food and gardens like he’d had before well-up strong enough to make him feel sucker-punched.
“Where is it?”
“To the west. Don’t know for sure how far,” Donovan’s voice is surer but slow in cadence, “It takes time finding people that know anything. If it’s real, we’re close.”
“This guy said it wasn’t much farther,” Jeremy says.
“I saw him. He was an old man alone outside a townie’s camp. His name was Harris and he claimed to know the guy that runs it. I don’t think he was lying.”
“You say that like I’m supposed to be comforted by your people reading skills.” Alex remarks, tapping his tennis shoes in the dirt.
Donovan snorts as Jeremy frowns.
“The man knew too much, so unless he’s totally delusional, the guy that runs it has to be real.” Jeremy says, rotating his wrist, fingers scraping his head. “He said it was in Appalachia, which is what this area used to be called and-”
Donovan cuts in, “If it isn’t, so what?”
He has a point. Alex has been wandering around in the same area and trying to avoid others for years. To actually have a destination is strange. The fear that it isn’t real doesn’t outweigh the thought of maybe. He knows he’s going to follow them. The memory-images of a fire and siblings and shelter are too strong in his head. His heart aches for that again. For a home.
“So, we just hope he’s not insane?” Alex asks, wrapping his arms around his knees.
The hope blooms fully, its hooks implant themselves. He’s not sure when any ‘we’ entered the situation but he doesn’t think about it much more than that. The two boys look at him with the same spark in their eyes. They don’t care either.
The conversation stops. He knows he doesn’t know them well enough, but he imagines they are thinking the same thing. There’s a fog of warmth hotter than the fire. In the morning, would he really wake up and find himself with two others looking for a place to live?
It’s the weirdest situation Alex has ever been in.
And he was born after the end of the world.