I’m not afraid to die. Not by losing myself in my grief for my late dad, who passed away barely a year ago. Not by the sonic waves of the Swarm that can blow me apart in a split second...like they did for so many of my teammates. For too many of my friends.
But I am afraid of surviving in this wasteland alongside Josiah Knect, my last remaining teammate, who doesn’t seem like he’ll ever give in and admit that the world we know is really gone.
That all we have right now in this moment is each other.
I’m sitting at the table in the dining nook beside the kitchen. Josiah and I are alone and working by the light of his camping lantern. The house creaks. It’s already after seven, the last glimmer of sunlight already a distant memory. Before I can smile across the kitchen table at Josiah, a distant electronic chatter rides in with the latest gusts of wind in the night. Waves of prickling panic flood me from head to toe.
“Rayland, what is it?” Josiah slips the last of three fresh AAA batteries into his small Maglite, then flicks his deep-set eyes my way. I set my pen and paper down on the kitchen table, the muscles along my spine tightening as I look from Josiah to the boarded-up back door over his left shoulder. The plywood sheet nailed against it vibrates for half a second, then stops.
My heart knocks against my chest. I press my index finger to my lips. Josiah nods and peers back at the door. The stillness that elapses between us is short lived; another gust slams the south side of the Cycling House, or Cy House for short. At least, that was the name my roommates and I had given it back in the summer of 2014. Those two years since we first lived here now feel like a decade gone by.
I let my breath out in short bursts, my t-shirt fluttering against my chest. The camping lantern in the center of the glass table we’re sitting at whispers and sighs. The flame dances more and more. It’s our only source of light here in the dining nook. Josiah’s shadow is splayed out across the boarded window behind him like a dark giant. I glance at the last bottle of Nu-Flame that rests on the window ledge behind Josiah, but my fear over our waning fuel supply evaporates the second the branches outside start to creak again. Even with my pulse pounding in my chest, I let my ears do the leading, the darkness of the kitchen inching closer to me and Josiah across the tiled floor.
From the second tier of the Cy House’s raised backyard, Thunder starts barking. I can hear the raw fear in his tone as he alternates between snapping yaps and low growls. Josiah and I lock eyes. “Goddammit,” I hiss.
“I thought he was in the garage!” Josiah’s voice goes high-pitched for a split second. I feel for my knife, safe and secured in my hip sheath.
“He was,” I say. “He must’ve escaped.” Through the broken window, the one with gaping hole you forgot to block. Rayland, you idiot!
We rise at the same time with a shriek from our dining room chairs. Josiah’s arms and legs don’t seem to wobble like mine. He cocks his eyebrow and stares at me, wrinkles forming on his high forehead. “We’re going out there?”
“It’s Brad’s dog, man,” I snap. “I’m not just gonna leave him out there.” Josiah’s uncertainty deflates. He presses his lips together and nods.
Leaves lash against the boarded-up windows, the blinds lowered and shut for the past two weeks. Tree branches groan in the backyard. But we both know it’s no longer the wind passing through.
It’s the Swarm. How many, I don’t know.
“Radios!” I bark it out, then sprint to the nearest counter and snatch up the closest radio out of the sixteen we had stacked in neat rows. It’s a red handheld radio, its paint badly faded from years of use. I flip the sliding switch on, then turn the knob to the loudest and most distorted station I can find. The static is music to my ears.
Thunder’s barks grow more panicked. Josiah grabs the lantern while I turn to the kitchen’s center island, where the six hunting ear protectors he and I had managed to scrounge up rest against one another. I snap one pair over my bushy jet-black hair, then let out an irked grunt; a few strands catch in between my ear and the cup, and I have to pull them out. I toss Josiah a bright green set next, which he catches, fumbles with, and then cups over his ears.
The windows start to vibrate. Then the tinny whine of something powering up begins to sound. It’s coming from the other side of the backyard fence.
Josiah and I take turns snatching up one radio after another, flipping each one to a static-laced channel before we hook them onto our shorts. My friend falls in line behind me before we hurry to the back door.
“Ready?” I ask.
Josiah grunts and holds one warbling walkie talkie up. I clutch the doorknob as the six handhelds clipped to my waistband screech at each other. Josiah’s curls flatten out, his hair squished by the curved band of his earmuffs. The humming outside rises to a roaring buzz, discordant and mechanical in nature, which I can hear even through my earmuffs. I can’t make out Thunder’s yelps anymore.
“Go!” I throw the back door open – and the shock of the soundwaves nearly brings me to my knees.
I only take one step outside before I can make out the purple and semi-transparent mass swirling overhead. The Swarm emerge among the dead tree branches, wailing as they seek Thunder out. With a yell, I raise my first radio and try to use my arm to shield my face from the rain of bark and dead leaves. I have to be pushing crazy, expecting the static to carry over the shrill cries of the creatures. Don’t think, move forward.
I stumble into the dark, Josiah bringing up my back. The air shimmers in front of us. I shut my eyes, the force of the Swarm’s supersonic screeches so strong that I fear my eyeballs might pop. Knowing only a migraine-like pressure in my head and the rippling of my own skin, I belt out a second shout – and this time I can make out the Swarm’s guttural shrieks of pain.
Yes. It’s working.
In the swirling chaos, one radio flies past my head, then another. Josiah is hurling radio after radio up onto the tiered backyard, where only rocks and dirt remain in between tufts of dead grass. The drone of static grows stronger as I follow Josiah’s lead, tossing radios across the yard. The Swarm let out another angry wail. I manage to chuck my third radio into the mass above before collapsing against the wooden deck. The weight of their sonic forces threatens to shatter my bones. Still the static prevails.
A grey blur streaks in my right periphery. This shaking mass of fur and bones tackles me. Thunder is all over me, licking my face and pleading with me. I grab hold of his red and black collar, then swing my hand out and clip Josiah’s bare knee. “I got him!” I scream.
Josiah takes my hand and drags me and Thunder inside. Leaves and twigs rain down on us. I stumble and nearly lose my shorts before kicking off the wooden deck. Some red round grill lid flies inches in front of my head and sails into the dark. When Josiah yanks me over the back-door’s threshold, Thunder already two steps ahead of us, I find it in me to use my feet to push myself back.
The Swarm, however many there are, reach for me with their smoke-like tentacles. I yelp and look away.
Then I land a single kick against the door, one of my running shoes flying off. The door slams shut. Josiah heaves. The sudden cessation of air pressure sets off a small explosion of dead leaves and bits of wood, all of which scatter across the kitchen floor and bowl me and Josiah over.
I’m sprawled out on my back and barely even able to breathe. We’re in pitch blackess, the camping lantern knocked over. Thunder licks my scuffed-up cheek, his hot breath fogging up my vision. When my pulse finally starts to drop, I jerk my earmuffs off and listen. The harsh grating of the Swarm fades away somewhere to the southeast.
We did it.
“Oh, Thunder, I’m so glad you’re safe, buddy,” I murmur, sitting up and rubbing him like crazy behind his shaggy grey ears. When Josiah clicks on his flashlight, I can see how proud Thunder is, his tongue lolling out and his teeth flashing in the sharp beam from the Maglite. I don’t even have it in me to scold him for escaping from the garage.
“He’s a fighter,” Josiah says, exhaling before he spreads his arms out like he’s about to make a snow angel out of the mess around us. His earmuffs tumble out of his hand and across the floor. Then Josiah lifts his head and grins at me. “Just like you and me.”
I spit out a couple of bits of leaves before returning Josiah’s winded smile.
Just like you and me.
I close my eyes and wish the ‘you and me’ I have with Josiah Knect isn’t so complicated.