Scrawn kicked at the iron scum that coated the banks of the river. Along it, the wrecks of skiffs and launches were strewn, as if a massive storm had come through, as if some god had swept them from the water with an angry hand.
He shaded his eyes from the blazing sun, looking down at the younger children playing in the scurvy muck of the shallows. Two kids, skinny and listless, milling around.
He moved down to them.
“It’s not a good idea,” he stated, “the water, you know?”
They glared at him. The shadows under their eyes were deep. The eyes themselves were shifty and suspicious.
“What’s it to you, Scrawn?” one of then. Kathy asked him. She was barely nine.
“Look,” he pointed at the shards of metal, the spent ammunition and assorted jetsam adorning the shore. “You want to get stabbed?”
The girl waved dismissively back at him. Angered, he marched down to herd them back. He gathered them up in his ropy arms, carrying them out of the shallows amid a howl of protests.
“Scrawn!” they yelled. “Throw us in the water.”
“Not in the river. Not here,” he grumbled. “Later maybe, in the lake….go on now…” He turned to the older girl, Esmerelda.
“Didya find any food today, Scrawn?” she asked him.
He grunted, waved up at the tin shack on the shore that was their home.
“Fresh veggies! Oh…and Spam. Lots of Spam.”
A pair of Regime helicopters came howling low and black along the river, barely as high as the rusted pylons from which useless ropes of cable drooped. The kids held up their imaginary rocket launchers and went ‘ack ack ack’ at the aircraft as they disappeared into the haze.
“I think I got one!” a boy cried, tugging at the belt loops of Scrawn’s battered jeans.
“I bet you did, Sammy…” He ran his hand over the fuzz of the boys head. “Stay outta the water now, you hear?”
He left them there.
“Spam!” he heard one of them curse.
Ma Bell was cooking up the evening stew in a giant pot atop a brazier of scavenged timbers. When Scrawn appeared with his cargo of freshly-stolen vegetables she pulled him into her and kissed him fiercely. He braced himself.
“That’s my boy, that’s my lad,” she whispered, her tongue slithering into his mouth. He almost gagged, but knew better than to display aversion and kept still as she mashed her mouth against his.
“What did you get us, what did you find?” she pulled back and examined the booty that he spilled from his burlap sack. “Potatoes? Good…and onions by Jesus good lad!’ and the rubbery folds of her lips descended again upon him.
“We’ll have some fun, later on,’ she promised, squeezing his butt cheeks so hard he winced.
Fun for you, Ma Bell, he thought.
She hefted a big red onion in one hand, a plump tomato in the other.
“Where?” she asked. “And can you get more?”
“Those big gardens, across the turnpike. You know…”
The industrial-scale market gardens were a landmark on the turnpike, the exit to their old village in between. But now the exit was closed, the turnpike open only to Regime traffic, an enclosed corridor between enclaves.
“Those are Regime gardens, Scrawn.” Ella looked at the sacks of produce. He hadn’t heard her come in.
“How did you get in?” she asked.
He shrugged again.
“Don’t matter, Ella,” Ma said as she began to slice and dice and throw vegetables into the stew which until that point had consisted only of spam and some form of chicken soup. “We can’t live on canned Spam and Doritos forever.”
Scrawn felt Ella’s eyes on him. He knew what she was thinking. That he’d lead the Regime to them, that he’d get them all killed.
But the air was filling with delicious smells now. Children drifted in, grey rags of clothing hanging from them.
“So…Ma?” He nodded at the grimy laptop computer on a rickety table in the corner of her kitchen.
“Go on” she said, glancing at the clock. “But an hour, no more, you hear? There ain’t no SpitCoin for extra time.”
He dived at the laptop, logging into the MOOG, pulling up the gameware he’d developed. Overnight another six thousand users had joined his virtuality. Enough SpitCoin to pay the Rackspace bill for another ten days.
The smell of Ma Bells cooking, the constant clamor of small children, the throb of their GenSet behind the tin walls of the shack, everything faded as his digital biosphere unfolded.
He was fourteen that year.
Derek surveyed the haul Scrawn and the Axe Handle twins had gathered, picked up a length of PVC piping.
“This is two-inch,” he said. “I need two-and-a-half.”
Scrawn shrugged. “It’s what I could find…”
“It won’t work!” Derek snapped. He picked up more pieces of PVC. ”…maybe if I can bush it down” he mumbled. “Can you get more?”
“Y’can get whatever you need,” he said. “If you look far enough.”
Derek picked up the guts of a washing machine that they had dragged to the waters edge. “See this? There’s no impeller?” he pointed out to the river, pouring by. “Can’t make a water wheel without an impeller. I told you we needed an impeller!”
Derek was seventeen, tall and skinny, winner of the the science fair for the last three years at Montpelier High. He glared over the rim of his glasses down at the scavengers.
“You said to bring you a washing machine,” Scrawn said in a low voice. “That’s what you told us and that’s what we brought you.”
“I need a fucking impeller!” Derek yelled.
“Impeller,” Scrawn acknowledged. He nodded at the Twins.
They brought back an impeller.
“How much power can you get out it?” Scrawn asked and immediately wished he hadn’t because Derek fixed him with a scornful eye.
“Well, that depends, Scrawn, on a lot of things, doesn’t it?”
“You want me to get you more fucking pipe or what, Derek?”
“No need to get obstreperous.” Derek looked down at him over the rims of glasses. “100W, 300W an hour, depending on the rate of flow and how far we have to run the power…”
Scrawn sighed, turned to leave.
“Enough for your Game, Scrawn, if that’s what you mean…” Derek called as Scrawn stalked off, the Twins in tow.
“Don’t be disrespectin’ that boy,” Ma told him later. “He’s the one built the solar array, built the water purifier and the heating tubes. Remember that…”
Scrawn picked up the Bushmaster rifle he’d been cleaning and hefted it carefully onto his shoulder. Then the crossbow on the kitchen table.
“Ain’t seen him bring home no deer,” he grumbled.
“And I ain’t seen you skin no deer!” Ma came back.
It was true, Scrawn had no compunctions about stalking and killing and dragging home an animal. But stringing it up and peeling it like a banana was another matter. Ma, thankfully, was an able butcher.
“We all got our skills,” she would say. “We all work together.”
He gathered up his weaponry and went to find them more food.
He paused at the stone cairn on a spit of land above the river, where they had marked the grave of Sergeant Donelly.
Ella was teaching a class to the younger kids. Still warm enough to hold classes outside but autumn was coming: winter not far behind. The ramshackle assortment of tin sheds and canvas tents they called home, their village on the river, sandwiched in a swathe of territory claimed by the Regime and fought for by the Rebels, had been a summer resort: a collection of cabins and docks. The Regime had bombed it in a cursory manner but enough to collapse most of the cabins, swamp the docks, wash away the flotilla of small boats that had lined the shore.
They’d fled here from the Purge, a band of children on a field trip by some miracle escaping the summary executions being inflicted upon their people, running and stumbling in the darkness through the foothills, minds smashed by the events of the day.
He watched Ella teach the class, her willowy body seeming to bend in the slight breeze that rose from the water. He thought of the Game he was building, Scavengers, and the virtual reality that was a carbon copy of their own. He thought of the texture he needed to add, later that evening. He cleaned his weapons and looked to the hills. Late afternoon was yielding to evening. It was time to hunt. Time to gather. Time to find whatever they could.
“Not yet!” he hissed at Tomahawk, the oldest by two minutes of the Axe-Handle Twins, grabbing the boy by the hair and twisting his head up to look at him in the wash of headlights from the highway.
Tomahawks brother, Hatchett, grinned his broken-toothed smile and punched his brother.
“One tow-sant,’ he said. “Two tow-sant…”
“Almost,’ Scrawn told them. “But its One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one thousand…you got that? When the truck passes the mark, you start your count. If it passes here in less than five thousand you can’t make it across….listen…” he wrenched Tomahawks head up to hear the throbbing of trucks on the highway. “Is that a truck or a car?”
“A truck…” Tomahawk said doubtfully.
“A truck…” Hatchett agreed.
“It’s not a fucking truck!” Scrawn struck them both. “Listen again…”
A hydrogen-drive sportster went by with a sound like ripping fabric. Probably a Regime officer. Nobody else could own such a machine.
“One tow-sant,” Tomahawk observed sadly.
“Man we’d be like…poof…” said Hatchett dolefully.
“Yeah man,” Scrawn told them. “Run out in front of that thing and you’d be splattered across six hundred meters of guardrail. Got that?”
They both nodded solemnly. Scrawn gathered up their empty sacks and pointed to the tract of industrial-scale gardens on the other side of the turnpike.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s get some grub.”
They moved up behind the guardrail and made ready to run like fuck across six lanes of traffic.
The Axe Handle twins were eleven years old.