The Survival Game
The pebbles on the street hurt their bare feet as the two ragged looking boys stumbled along, but both were far from caring at this point in time. The younger boy, aged about five years, grasped his fourteen year old brother's hand tightly, gripping it like a lifeline. Both wore only ripped and frayed clothing and were clearly starving to death, if the bones showing through their skin was any indication.
The streets around them were a dull gray, blending well with the sky above. The sun had disappeared long ago - almost as long ago as the plants. They plants had been the first to go, all dying almost simultaneously around the world. Then the animals had started to die. The humans came next. Within a week, the entire planet was vacant of life, beyond the few people that had somehow managed to survive. Even those were barely hanging on at this point. He wasn't quite sure how it had happened. It had all been so quick.
"Myles, what is that?" Hugo's small voice asked, breaking Myles out of his thoughts.
Myles looked up from the dust at his feet and peered into the shadows where Hugo was staring.
"I think it's a person," Myles answered, squinting.
They stumbled forward a few more steps, trying to get a better look, then Myles called out, "Hello?"
They hadn't seen another living soul in days. Finally, they caught a glimpse. A girl, perhaps a year younger than Myles, stepped out of the shadows and faced them.
Myles looked her other and noted her ragged state was similar to theirs.
"Who are you?" the girl's voice called out. It was harsh.
He was cut off as the girl stepped forward further. "This is my territory. Clear off," she growled.
"Your territory? But this is-"
"My territory. Go. Or do I have to remove you?" she shuffled closer.
"Can't we just have some food?" Hugo begged softly from Myles' side.
The girl glared at them. "You think I'd just give you some food? That's a precious commodity these days, kid,"
"But I'm hungry,"
The girl's glare deepened. "So is everyone else. Now go!"
Myles still hesitated and the girl took it as a threat. Rapidly, she drew a small knife from her belt and rushed at them.
Myles gripped Hugo's hand and stumbled out of the way, only to trip and land on his back. He prepared himself for the attack, but it never came. Looking over at her, he noted that she had stopped. Sticking out of her arm was a long arrow. Her knife had fallen to the ground.
With a last cry, the girl turned and fled again into the shadows.
Myles clambered to his feet hurriedly, looking around for whoever had sent the arrow. He found her a moment later. Behind them, another girl was standing. This one looked a bit older and, more shockingly, looked as if she had actually been eating regularly. She was holding a bow, but it was lowered toward the ground now as she strode forward and picked up the abandoned girl's knife before turning to them.
"You're lucky I came along when I did," the girl told them matter-of-factly. "She would have slaughtered you in a second."
"Um, yeah. Thanks," Myles murmured, still looking at her in surprise. Hugo had climbed back to his feet as well and was peering at the girl from behind Myles, now weary of the stranger.
"So, I'm Nellie. Who are you?"
"Myles. This is my brother Hugo,"
Nellie nodded. "You looked starved. Come on," she tilted her head in the direction they had come from and then started walking that way.
Myles didn't hesitate a second before he gripped Hugo's hand again and went after her. They followed her through the winding city streets silently. Everything was quiet now, and only their clumsy footsteps could be heard, echoing off the empty buildings.
Nellie stopped before one of the dilapidated buildings and waited for them to catch up. Once they were at her side, she looked around carefully, then pulled open the door and ushered them in. They walked through a dark hallway and down to the basement, where Nellie pulled open a trapdoor. Myles stood over the edge of it, staring into the darkness for a long moment, but Nellie didn't seem to notice his apprehension as she jumped down and disappeared into shadow.
“Are you coming or not?” Nellie asked, reappearing.
“Yeah,” Myles replied. She was the best chance he had of surviving, currently. He lowered Hugo down to her, then jumped down himself. Nellie gave him Hugo's hand again and closed the trapdoor, trapping them in the darkness.
“This way,” she murmured, taking his arm and leading him through the tunnel that the trapdoor connected to.
They walked for a ways, then Nellie helped them climb up through another trapdoor into a different basement.
"This is my safe house. Be glad you're here, Myles. If Hugo weren't here, I wouldn't let you in," Nellie commented.
Nellie didn't answer, just walked down the hallway and disappeared through another doorway.
Myles followed, Hugo close at hand. Entering the room, they found at least a dozen children, all under the age of eight, sitting around the room.
"They can't fend for themselves," Nellie explained. She knelt by Hugo. "Why don't you go sit by Sam over there? He must be just your age." She pointed to a young boy sitting close by.
Hugo stared at the boy, then up at Myles. "Go ahead,"
While Hugo shyly approached Sam, Nellie grabbed Myles' hand and pulled him back out of the room. "Come. I'll show you,"
They went through the dark hallways of the house and down some stairs to the cellar. There, Nellie pushed open a door, revealing a rather large room full of cans.
"You have food," Myles murmured. Cans lined the room on shelves, gleaming in the dim light.
"I stumbled upon the jackpot near the beginning of everything. I've been gathering little ones here and feeding them. With this store, we can live here at least a year,"
"But everyone else. What about the older kids?" Myles asked, running his finger along a can of green beans and staring at the picture.
"They're too violent. They would want it all for themselves. I offered, at first, but they, well, there was an incident that ended in death,"
"You've been caring for Hugo," Nellie remarked, then moved along the shelves. She snatched up a small wrapped cupcake from a stash she had on one of the shelves and tossed it to Myles.
"Yes. Funny how everyone was all crazy over the healthy foods before. It's actually a good thing there was so much processed stuff in the world that lasts nearly forever, because that's all we have now. That and this stuff," she knocked on a can.
Myles stared down at the cupcake, then upon seeing Nellie's intent gaze, opened it. As he had learned from the previous days, he ate it slowly, barely nibbling at it to make it last. Nellie didn't comment, just leaned against the shelf, watching.
After he had finished, Nellie had him help her grab half a dozen of the cans, then led the way back out of the room and to where the children were. She settled at a table and he sat across from her. Hugo was sitting next to Sam. They were both chattering contently as if they had been friends for ages. Myles hadn't seen Hugo so happy in weeks.
"Did you get a shot when the plague first was introduced?" Nellie asked suddenly, leaning across the table as she poured the cans of food into various dishes.
"Yeah. Me and Hugo both did,"
Nellie nodded, looking as if something had clicked in her mind. "I think it's the shots that saved the kids. That plague killed everything in its path - plants, animals, and humans, yet mere kids survive?"
"Only kids were given the vaccine, until they were sure they had enough," Myles added, thoughtfully.
Nellie nodded. "It worked, but had the side affect of us being the only things left on earth that were alive,"
"It didn't work. My sister died. She got the shot too," Myles protested.
Nellie sighed. "Well, it worked on some of us, anyway,"
Myles stared around the room at all the children. "How long will it last, though?"
Nellie didn't reply, just looking pensive. Suddenly, she stood up. "Alright everyone, dinner time!”
The children responded with glee, surrounding the table, each holding a small bowl in their hands. Myles just watched as Nellie scooped a small amount of food into each of their bowls, then into a new bowl that she had brought up just for Hugo. As she handed it to him, Hugo smiled toothily and dug in right there, not even waiting to sit down again.
As the children all around them ate, Nellie settled back, her arms folded as she examined them all.
“What about you?” Myles asked.
Nellie looked at him intently. “I don't eat until I can't help it. The food here is for the little ones,”
Myles wasn't sure what to think of that answer, but looking at Hugo, he somewhat understood. Often, he had gone hungry because they had enough food for only one to eat.
After the children had finished their food, and were playing more rambunctiously, with full stomachs, Nellie stood up again.
“Time to get to bed. It's late,"
There was some groaning and protests, but the children didn't fight as she ushered them into the next room, where make-shift beds were set up. Hugo settled onto a ragged mattress next to Sam.
"You can sleep up there," Nellie pointed toward a hammock near the doorway.
"Where will you sleep?"
"I won't. I've got to keep watch. I shot that girl. She'll want revenge. Tonight very well might be the next time the others choose to try to attack,"
Myles stared at her, wondering if he actually was safe here, but she ignored him, turning and leaving the room.
Sighing, Myles climbed up into the hammock and stared out the window at the darkness that had settled over the street outside.
"Myles! Myles, wake up!"
Myles awoke to find Nellie standing over him, looking anxious.
"Can you fight?" Nellie asked.
"Fight?" Myles groggily repeated.
"Yes. Can you fight? They're here," Nellie informed him. "Get up and help me wake the little ones."
Nellie disappeared and Myles rubbed his eyes tiredly. That had been the most comfortable sleep he had had for a long time, but it had been cut far too short.
Feeling the ever familiar ache of a body being permanently strained, Myles sat up and scanned the room. Nellie was moving among the children, shaking them to wake them up. Most of them seemed reluctant, but obeyed, climbing out of their blankets and moving toward the other room. Hugo, Myles saw, followed right along with them, not even glancing back toward Myles.
Feeling a stab of indignation, Myles scrambled out of the hammock and hurried toward Nellie. He reached her just as she ushered the last two children out of the room.
"What is going on here?" Myles demanded.
Nellie sent him an impatient glance, then sighed, "I'll show you."
Nellie led him out of the room and up a route he hadn't previously been. They entered an attic, then climbed out onto the roof through an open window.
Surrounding the house, just beyond the thick brick walls, were dozens of kids, ranging from Hugo's age to several years older than Myles.
"There are so many of them," Myles gasped out, staring at them all.
"All the rogues in the city," Nellie agreed, "They rarely stay together in groups of more than two or three people, because they just can't find enough food for all of them."
"Don't you feel bad for them? They're starving and you have a huge stash of food," Myles asked.
Nellie shifted. "Didn't I already tell you? I tried helping them, but most are too selfish to share. They're too desperate. Besides, there are other stores of food around the city that they fight over. This is just the biggest, which is why I'm using it to feed the helpless,"
Myles frowned, but he understood her reasoning. "What happens when you run out of food?"
Nellie smiled. "I have another secret. Come on,"
Myles cast one last look at the hoards of raiders, then followed Nellie off the roof. "How long can the wall hold them?"
"No idea," Nellie admitted.
Myles didn't liked the sound of her anxious tone, but said nothing as they passed through the hallways of the house. They continued back all the way down to the cellar. Nellie led him through the shelves of food and to the very back. There, she crouched on the ground and grasped a handle. Giving a mighty heave, she lifted the handle and gestured for Myles to look in.
Cautiously, Myles looked in. "Bags?"
Nellie shook her head. "Seeds. I think I can plant them and actual food will grow,"
"They aren't infected?"
"I don't think so. They were harvested before the plague came," Nellie smiled excitedly. "I can't wait to see the green again."
"But isn't the soil still infected?"
Nellie nodded again. "That's why I'm going to wait until I see other plants growing, then try to plant them. That's why I need this food storage until then,"
A loud bang from outside startled both of them then and screams of the little ones were heard.
Nellie quickly closed the trapdoor again and scrambled to her feet, rushing from the room. Myles was right on her tail.
They arrived in the main room with all the children and went to the window. Outside, they could see the others pounding on the wall with a large pole, trying to break it down.
"That wall won't last long," Myles told her. It was already starting to crack.
Nellie stared out at them.
"They've never attacked with this much force. They've breached the wall before, but I was able to get rid of them by throwing rocks down from the roof. There's way too many for that now,"
"So what's the plan?" Myles asked.
Nellie looked around at all the children who were huddled together and looking at her for reassurance.
"I don't think we can win this battle, Myles," Nellie informed him softly.
Myles stilled and his gaze went to Hugo, who was sitting among the other children, like he belonged there. He too was looking at Nellie for protection.
"Then I can't stay here. I wanted Hugo safe, but that's not going to happen here,"
Nellie stared at him. "You're leaving me?"
"We never should have come in the first place. We survived this long on our own, I'm sure we can survive longer. Longer than we would staying here, anyway,"
Nellie bit her lip, looking over the other children. "Fine. Go. I'm heading to the roof to try,"
She rushed off, leaving Myles standing there, looking after her.
"Hugo, come here," he ordered.
Hugo tentatively stood up and separated himself from the others. He stumbled over to Myles and took his hand again.
The other children watched as Myles ushered Hugo out of the room and back down the hall. They would sneak through the back and leave without the attackers even knowing they were there in the first place.
"Where are we going, Myles?" Hugo asked, looking back at the room they just left.
"It's not safe here. We're leaving," Myles told him.
Hugo was silent as he stumbled along, trying to keep up with Myles' long strides.
Finally, he asked, "But what about Nellie and the others?"
Myles paused, pulling open the trapdoor that would lead outside.
"She'll be okay. We might even meet up with her again later, if it ends alright," Myles told Hugo, but it was an empty promise. Even if Nellie ended up surviving this attack, he didn't think they'd ever see her again. He was leaving the city. The country was far safer right now.
Hugo seemed to accept the answer, however, and allowed Myles to lower him down into the tunnel that would provide their escape. He dropped into the tunnel after Hugo, then took the boy's hand again. With rushed steps, they ran down the tunnel. Myles was glad that it was flat and straight so he didn't have to worry about running into anything as he went.
It wasn't long before they reached the end of the tunnel and Myles was boosting Hugo out of the other trapdoor into the empty house across the street. The racket was now huge, and out the windows Myles could see the shadows of people moving around.
"Out the back, come on," Myles murmured, leading Hugo towards the back of the house.
They escaped out of the back door with ease. Nobody was paying any attention to the houses across the street. With little effort, they took off down the road, running as they had before. Both had more energy than they had in days, what with a good night's rest and having eaten something. Myles was confident they could easily make it out of the city, especially since everyone was so distracted trying to attack Nellie.
As soon as they could no longer hear the racket that the raiders were making, Myles slowed to a walk. At his side, Hugo kept looking back, a worried expression marring his face.
"It'll be all right," Myles assured him, trying to sound soothing. Somehow, it didn't sound as soothing as it should have been. Myles was just as worried about Nellie and the others, but really, what could he do about it? Had he stayed, he would have been trampled down too. He had to protect Hugo.
Myles followed Hugo's finger to see a pair of teenage boys standing near a pair of double doors. Both looked incredibly bored and looked over toward where the battle was taking place longingly.
"I bet this is one of the stores of food that Nellie mentioned," Myles murmured, watching the two boys from the shadows. He considered his options for a long moment. Food would be nice to have. He could take some and leave the rest for them to fight over. They probably wouldn't even notice. Besides, the security on it had be to relaxed considering most of the people in town were fighting a battle.
"Stay here," Myles ordered Hugo. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?" Hugo asked.
"To get some food. Try to stay out of sight of anyone, okay?"
Hugo nodded and hid himself further in the shadows. Assured that Hugo would be safe, Myles set off around the buildings, keeping the two boys guarding the door in sight. As soon as he was off to the side enough, he reached down and picked up several pebbles from off the ground.
He took aim, then threw the first pebble far across the street. It hit a building on the opposite side of the doors where the guards were. They both stopped and turned to stare at the sound.
Myles chucked another pebble and it bounced off the empty street.
Both guards murmured to each other, staring in that direction. Myles threw the third pebble. As it landed with a clatter, one of the guards headed toward the sound, leaving the door partly unguarded.
Knowing he had only moments before the first came back, Myles started throwing pebbles in another direction, causing the second guard to stare over at it for a long moment, glancing back and forth between where his partner had disappeared and where the noise was coming from. Finally, he moved forward to investigate.
Smiling in triumph, Myles crept toward the door and slipped through the slightly open doorway, keeping an eye on the closer guard, whose back was still turned as he investigated the sound.
Inside, the hallway was dim, but Myles was able to see it was vacant of people. Cautiously, he started walking. He was sure the food store, if there was one, would be hidden, like Nellie's was. At the first staircase he came to, he went down. It led to another hallway, which he followed., checking every door he came to. Most were empty or only held broken and vandalized furniture. At the end of the hallway, he found the door he was looking for. Pushing it open, he found the storage. It was hidden in the corner of the room under a tarp, but was easily identified as cans. It was much smaller than Nellie's and much less organized but it was food.
Opening his ragged backpack, Myles began stuffing various food products in it, not caring exactly what they were. The guards were, no doubt, outside the door again and he would have to find another way out. He wanted to be in here the least amount of time possible.
When his backpack was stuffed full, Myles stood up and made his way back the way he had come. He reached the top of the stairs, turned, and made his way the opposite direction from where he had entered.
It took only five minutes for him to find a back door and an even shorter time to unblock the door so he could get it open. Once he was out, he silently congratulated himself on a mission well done and headed back to the place where he had left Hugo.
When he arrived there, Hugo was gone.
"Hugo?" Myles called out softly, hoping the boy was just hiding somewhere else.
"Looking for someone?"
Myles turned to see the two guards restraining a terrified looking Hugo.
"Release him!" Myles demanded, straightening.
"You stole our food, we steal your companion. Fair trade, yeah?"
"I'll return your food," Myles told them, slipping his pack off and holding it out to them.
"It's too late for that. We don't deal well with thieves,"
"And where did you get the food from? You had to have stolen it," Myles retorted.
"Let me correct that. Thieves stealing our food. We have to teach you a lesson,"
"Fine, but release Hugo," Myles pleaded.
"I think not,"
All at once, one guard stepped forward and snatched the pack of food out of Myles' hand while the other smoothly snapped the young boy's neck and let him fall to the ground.
Myles could only stare in horror, distantly aware that the two guards had run from him into their building, closing the door solidly behind him.
Hugo was dead.
“No,” Myles whispered, his thoughts running frantically through his head even as he stood frozen. “No!”
Myles stumbled away then, not wanting to look anymore at his brother's body, not wanting to see it sprawled out there in an unnatural position as it was.
His mind a mess, Myles could only think of one place to go – back to Nellie. She was so strong and confident. She would know what to do. He needed her.
Desperately hoping that the girl would help him now that Hugo wasn't with him, he took off running. He arrived at the house across the street and flew through the door. Just as he made it to the trapdoor, it flipped open, nearly hitting him. Standing there, looking startled, was Nellie.
"You came back!"
Myles nodded tightly. "Hugo is dead," was all he could say.
Nellie stared at him for a long moment, then hoisted herself out of the hole without a word. Once she was situated, she turned back to him with a frown. "And whose fault is that? You ran out on me when I needed you. It's all you deserve,"
"I was just trying to protect Hugo," Myles whispered faintly.
Nellie folded her arms in front of her. "Listen, I'm sorry about your brother, okay? But there's a dozen other kids here that need our help. I can't do it alone. Help me,"
Myles hesitated for a long moment, then slowly nodded. "What do you need me to do?"
"The children are in the tunnel already. I've got them out, mostly. Our only chance of survival was to bail. I need you to go in and collect the seeds for me. We can find food other places, but the seeds are our future,"
"Okay, I can do that," Myles agreed, pushing the thought of Hugo away. He had to focus on this task right now.
He was just about to go, when Nellie grabbed his arm. “Get in and out as fast as possible. You don't want to be in there for very long,” she warned.
Nellie didn't reply and Myles finally replied without her answer.
"Fine. I'll be quick,"
Nellie nodded, then gestured toward the trapdoor. He lowered himself into it, bumping into the children that waited there. He squeezed past them and started running desperately down the tunnel. As soon as he reached the house he became aware that people were already in it, searching for the food. He kept quiet as he crept along to the staircase that led down to the cellar. He managed to keep out of sight and realized that they had only just breached the house. Nellie had been effective in blocking off their path further in.
Myles went down the stairs to the cellar in two leaps and threw open the door. He ran full out through the shelves of food and slid to a stop at the trapdoor. With a giant heave, he pulled open the trapdoor, and jumped in. He landed on a bag of seed. Clambering off, he started lifting the bags of seed and putting them on the ground right outside the trapdoor. There were three in all.
Once he had lifted the last one, he pulled himself back out of the hole and stared down at the bags wearily. He would only be able to carry two, at the most. The third would have to be left behind.
Selecting the two lighter bags, Myles pulled them up onto his shoulders awkwardly, then started for the staircase again.
Reaching the top, he paused. He could hear people rummaging through the house now, throwing furniture around and generally destroying things.
Walking quickly, which was the fastest he could manage carrying the two bags of seeds, Myles made it again to the trapdoor without anyone seeing him. It was as he was dumping both bags of seeds down into the trapdoor that someone called out to him.
Myles turned and saw a pair of younger teenage girls standing at the end of the hallway. Both started running toward him, obviously intent on stopping him.
With a cry, he dove into the hole, and slammed the trapdoor shut behind him. He held it closed even as the girls yanked on it from above, trying to open it again. He heard them call for backup.
Suddenly, Nellie was at his side. She had a piece of plywood and she wedged it into the handle and braced it against the lower side of the wall, so they couldn't open it from above without breaking the piece of wood.
Nellie then scooped up one bag of seed and started off down the tunnel. Myles grabbed the other and followed.
They made it to the other end of the tunnel and out of the trapdoor in record time. "Help me block it," Nellie ordered, dropping her bag of seed and rushing toward the nearby sofa.
Myles helped her slide the sofa over so it directly covered the trapdoor. Hopefully, it couldn't be opened from below.
With that being done, Nellie scooped up her bag of seed again and headed up the nearest set of stairs. Myles followed.
After a short trip, they reached the roof. All Nellie's little kids were gathered there, watching the attack on their home. Nellie put down her bag of seed and picked up a flare.
"I soaked the walls in gasoline last night. I had this plan all along. All I have to do is throw the flair and the house will go," she told him.
“You're going to explode it?”
"With all of them inside?" Myles cried.
"Less people to fight over the remaining food, yeah?"
Myles felt uneasy about it, but he didn't say anything. Had that been what those boys were thinking when they killed Hugo? One less person in the world; one less person to fight with over food.
Nellie stooped down and lit the flair easily against the roof. She held it in the air for a long moment, then threw it. With expert aim, it went through one of the back windows and landed inside. Within seconds, they could see bright orange flames start up inside the room. It spread fast, going to the next room in another few seconds.
"The old house was ready to collapse anyway," Nellie commented lightly, sitting down among the children. They all just sat and watched as the house started to burn in earnest. From insides the house, the sounds of screams came as the raiders tried, and failed, to escape from the flames.
"It's a harsh world, here, Myles," Nellie murmured, seeing his aghast state. "It's all about survival."