Country of Origin: United States of America
Trigger Warning: Themes of Violence and Sexual Violence Threat
We walked quietly, my brother and I, our footfalls barely audible through the serried leaves, even to us. We were deep in the Kiamichi Mountains, seemingly away from civilization. Better to be silent and safe, than sorry. We could already attest to that.
When the power went out and the phones died, the world became maddeningly still. At least our world did — the quiet before the storm. Then panic sank in, and survival equaled every man for himself.
We heard rumors of war, but no one really knew what was happening. People got tired of waiting. I expected foreign soldiers to drop from the sky or even zombies bleeding from their eyes to come wandering up. But no one came, except other restless, confused people passing through. Most students left for home after a few days without electricity, but I didn’t have enough gas to get to East Texas. My half-tank got me to my aunt’s house in southeast Oklahoma. Sean was already there.
It took months before anyone bothered us. It was the cattle they were after when they came. They would have eventually eaten us, too, had they been desperate enough.
My brother and I were getting water from the creek. No well water without the electric pump. We hid and watched men hang my uncle in a tree, then rape my aunt before slicing her throat. We didn’t stay.
“I hear something,” Sean whispered. We stopped moving and crouched low. He reached in his pocket for a fistful of bullets. He only had six left. The faint sound of beating and clanking made my heart jump. Woods don’t clank. I could tell by the look on his face the curiosity was getting him. Funny how the dangerous unknown became preferable to the discomforting void.
“Only close enough to see,” I mouthed. He nodded as we crept closer to the sound, a now steady rhythm. Given our grungy state, we camouflaged into the scenery. We stood silent behind trees in the distance, listening and trying to make out the source. Children. Small children with golden skin and dark ringlets glistened in the sunlight, wearing only undies and rubber boots.
A boy, maybe five years old, was beating a stick on a five-gallon bucket while a toddler knocked a pot lid on the porch railing. They were making music, so innocent. We watched and waited. Surely the adults would show up any second.
Maybe an hour passed. No parents. Sean picked up a rock and chunked it as far in the distance as he could. Their little heads popped up in the direction of where it landed. The boy grabbed the toddler, who I now realized was a girl, and ran inside the house.
I stepped forward, intent on following when Sean grabbed my shirt from behind. I turned to the steely barrel of what looked like a Benelli shotgun inches away from my cheek. My breath caught, and I instantly felt sweat beading on my forehead and neck. Sean stood still holding my shirt about two feet from the wielder.
The owner was a boy about eight, if I had to guess, wearing only jeans, barefoot, with a hardened freckled face. I was about to be shot by Opie Taylor, or maybe Huck Finn. Sean stepped closer to me, and farther away from the boy with his hands out at his shoulders, indicating surrender.
Sean’s rifle was on the ground several feet away. The boy said nothing but moved toward the gun, his eyes never leaving us. He bent down and tucked it under one arm, then motioned for us to walk toward the house. I couldn’t help but notice the leaves were still as we walked. Force of habit, I thought.
“Brigg, bring me the zip-ties.” We stopped at the edge of the porch. “What do you want?” His voice was cold.
Sean said, “Nothing, we were just following the sound. We didn’t mean to trespass.”
“Well now that you’re here, I can’t let you leave. We’ve been through this before, and it’s not happening again.” What happened to this child to make him think it was dangerous to let us go?
Sean and I looked at each other. I had no idea what to say or do. Sean spoke in a very careful tone, “Of course you can, man. We won’t come back. We don’t want to hurt anyone.”
He said nothing more. The younger boy returned with two plastic zip-ties and tethered us to the railing while the older brother held the gun on us. I noticed he had three fish hanging from his belt loop.
We sat on the porch, arms bound, listening to the older one yell at Brigg and their sister about not going outside while he was gone. Little bits and pieces of his lecture revealed that the younger boy knew better than to make noise or play with the hatchet, both of which were done while the elder was catching dinner. After some time, he came out and faced us, having come to some conclusion.
He looked at me with a questioning expression. “You are a girl. Do you think you could help wash my sister?”
Again, Sean and I looked at each other, confused. “Your sister needs help with a bath?”
“Yes,” his shoulders slumped as he dropped the tough-guy façade. “I’m not sure how to do it, but I know she needs to be cleaned better. She’s getting a rash. If you help, I’ll let you live.” He tightened back up.
“Sure, I can help her.” I bet trying to bathe a baby girl was close to the top of the list of things a boy his age never wanted to have to do.
They called him Bubba and the little girl Beau. After I bathed Beau while at gunpoint in the icy cold creek, and got her back up to the house, it took a little coaxing to convince Bubba to release Sean, too. He had to give up his bullets, but that was better than the alternative. And we had a fairly safe place to stay the night. It was the first time in weeks we didn’t sleep outside.
When I woke up the sun was bright, and I could hear Sean talking on the porch. “Oh, yeah, I can show you how to make snares. And Talia is pretty good at cooking over a fire.”
I stepped out to find I was the last person up, and Sean seemed to be having a conference of sorts with the children. He smiled when he saw me. “Tal, you want to stay here awhile? Bubba, here, has offered us a place through winter. We have a few weeks before it turns cold, but they have supplies… and a roof.” It was almost impossible not to like Sean; I wasn’t all that surprised he buttered up some kids so quickly. I nodded in agreement. No question about it.
Apparently, Bubba was a boy scout, and was quite apt for his age. Sean and I grew up in the country and camped a lot, we were not completely useless either. It was a godsend to have other people to talk to, even if they were really young. And it was even more of a blessing to have something to do besides drift.
I wanted to ask Bubba where his parents were, but I resisted, too afraid it would upset him. Wherever his parents had gone, they left behind, along with their able-bodied children, plenty of canned goods, rice, beans, and sugar. They had soaps for laundry and baths, even shampoo. Still no toilet paper, but we did find some stale coffee. Oh, sweet bitter coffee. It felt almost normal again.
Two days later, while we were all stacking firewood, Brigg asked Bubba if he was still going to kill the “ones” in the shed. Sean’s face drained of color. I knew something wasn’t right. “What’s in the shed, Bubba?” Sean had been in there several times already. Surely he’d seen.
Bubba took a deep breath before he spoke, “I caught two guys trying to steal Thor, our goat, and I locked them in the storm shelter under the shed.” He looked apologetic.
Brigg’s eyes went wide. “Bubba was awesome! You should have seen him. He sneak attacked ‘em, like a ninja!”
“How long have they been down there,” I asked.
“About a week, I think.”
“With no food, or water? Bubba, they might be dead!”
Brigg piped up, clearly angry I was chastising his brother. “They deserved it! Those turkeys scared Thor off!”
Sean took control, “Bubba, let’s go check it out, you and me. Talia, take Beau and Brigg inside and stay there. You better give me my rifle back, just for a little while.”
The two little ones and I played Hot Wheels while we waited. After a few minutes, Sean came back with a Bowie knife he thrust at me, handle first. “Keep this on you at all times, and be careful. Nobody goes anywhere alone.”
“They weren’t there?” I could feel the panic rising in my chest.
“No, and I’d imagine they are pretty pissed and pretty desperate right now, so I doubt they just took off.” Oh shit.
Several days passed and nothing happened. Sean and I took turns keeping watch at night. I was putting on the kettle early, it was still dark out, when I caught a glimpse of movement through the trees. Was that a deer or something else? I grabbed my knife off the counter about to investigate, when I was yanked backwards by my ponytail. My head slammed into the counter with a force that made me see black for a moment.
“Don’t you dare scream,” I heard a raspy voice. “I’ll bleed you right here.” He snatched the knife from my hand before I realized I was still holding it. He jerked me into the living room and pushed me to the couch. He sat beside me, turned so that his front was only inches away. I could see his face now, his eyes manic, a distant expression that told me he was way beyond thinking clearly. I was terrified.
He put his finger to his lips, reminding me not to make a sound. Then he was on top of me with wild abandonment. I pushed and fought, frantic to get away. He held me still, with one hand fisted in my hair, the other jabbing the knife into the skin under my jawbone. His overbearing body pressed me in place. I could feel his excitement hard against my thigh, and smell his rancid breath and oily, dirt-clod hair. Please, no. God, no.
Suddenly, there was a thwack. He went limp. A second passed before he gasped, then jumped off of me and turned around. A hatchet was stuck square between his shoulder blades, his shirt was beginning to seep red. He seemed to forget I was there while he searched for the cause.
Instinct kicked in, and I grabbed the hatchet handle. It did not dislodge right away, I had to give it another tug before it came out. As soon as I did, he spun back around, remembering my danger. I started swinging as hard as I could, despite him being too close for me to get a good hit. Surely I could do some kind of damage. At least he was no longer after whoever stabbed the hatchet in him in the first place.
I heard two deafening shots too close together to be from the same gun, and he fell on top of me, this time limp and lifeless. Beau began screaming from her bedroom. Seconds passed before I heard slight footsteps towards the kitchen. I waited, paralyzed with fear, trying to breathe under his enormous weight.
It seemed like forever. Beau’s wails had worn down to miserable sobs. My mind raced, and I was just working up a good dose of hysterics when I heard two more shots coming from outside. Moments later, two little bare feet appeared near where my face was squashed under a huge shoulder. Brigg peeked at me through elbow and torso.
“Talia, are you okay?” He sounded like a timid little angel.
“I think so. Are you?”
“Yes,” he said, adamantly nodding his head, eyes wide.
“Brigg, can you see Sean? Is he okay?”
“Okay, I’ll get him.”
“Be a ninja,” I whispered. Please, Lord, don’t let them catch him!
We buried the bodies as far away as we could push them in the wheelbarrow. I wanted to burn them, but it would have taken days and the smoke might have brought more unwanted company. I actually fantasized about beating and dismembering the monsters, as if I could torture their putrid souls from beyond the grave. The depth of my hatred startled me.
Brigg had thrown the hatchet, after waking Sean and Bubba up when he heard someone outside his bedroom window. Sean and Bubba found the other man trying to wiggle in Beau’s window with a garden trowel in his hand.
After they were buried, we went on as though nothing happened. We were not the least bit sorry they were dead… by our hands.
The goat came back once it turned cold and there was nothing to eat in the woods. I was surprised to find that not only was the notorious goat not eaten by wild hogs, but Thor was a female and she could open and close doors. Of course, her milk was dried up after going so long without being milked. But at least the children had their pet back.
The day the power came back on we were catching lightning bugs at dark. We heard a slight bleep, then the dishwasher started like it had never missed a beat. It took a while for the realization to sink in. We all ran inside and stared at the mechanical wonder. Brigg went from room to room turning on lights. Beau’s face was bright with enthusiasm as she giggled and
trailed behind him. Sean and Bub ran for the television.
It took days for me to stop crying. I didn’t even understand if it was from happiness or trauma. It was like I was swimming underwater, holding my breath for almost a year; relief rolling over me again and again as my head finally reached the surface. Every time I turned on the hot water, watched the rebuilding on the news, or even looked at my brother and the children, it was like the dam broke all over again.
None of us would ever be the same. More than just our faith had been shaken, our grip on humanity had eroded. The harsh reality lodged itself in my mind: our way of life was fickle and could once again be stripped away at any given moment.
Thank you to Andrew Aguilar for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Fiction team.
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