Authors: Nick S. Thomas
"I told you to leave and that you weren't welcome here. I told you it's your fault that we are like this! It was back then, and it is again now!"
His brother stood next to him while he sat on the rocks. The effects of the alcohol were starting to wear off now, or perhaps it was the shock having a sobering effect. He turned to his brother. Gone was the sadness, replaced quickly by anger at the hatred that was continually shown towards him.
"All right, I've had enough. Just tell me, what the fuck is your beef?"
Johnnie shook his head.
"Come on, tell me. Once and for all, get it out!"
"You really want to know?"
"This has been hanging over me since I got here, and I've had enough. Tell me, please, Johnnie!"
Johnnie could see he genuinely couldn't remember, and that made him hesitate to tell him for a moment.
"There's no going back from this. Maybe it's best you don't know. Maybe you'll never remember. You have a chance to get out. Just go and find a new life."
"I've had quite enough. Do you have any idea what it's like not really knowing who you are? So why, Johnnie? Why do you hate me so much?"
His brother looked around as if to check if anyone else could hear. As if there was some great secret to reveal.
"Because you’re him."
"Remember the throne, with the skulls of your enemies on top of it."
That sparked a memory in his mind as he saw himself sitting comfortably before a crowd loyal to him.
"Remember the mask, which you used to strike fear into people’s hearts."
He recalled putting it on. A mask made from the skull of an animal and adorned with a vertical spike and a white hair atop it. It was like remembering some kind of horror movie. This was nothing he had seen since waking up, nor from before the apocalyptic event that started it all. These were memories in between. The memories he had been searching for.
"You see it now, don't you?"
He nodded slowly.
"You are the Boss. Or were."
He felt his heart sink. He had heard nothing but terrifying stories of that man since he arrived.
"Can't be, Johnnie. No way."
He got up to walk away as he couldn't bear to hear any more. But as he did so, his brother grabbed him and stopped him from leaving.
"You won't listen to me, and you won't do what's right. So maybe it's about time you heard the truth."
He was still shaking his head from the shock.
"That wasn't me, no!"
His brother just shook him to snap him out of it.
"It was you. You left us to become the Boss. I told Lannie you were dead because the man she married, my brother, he was dead. You left us to fend for ourselves. You left us for dead. The man you remember, he has been gone for a lifetime!"
Zed was starting to accept that he was speaking the truth, as memories began flooding back as a series of violent flashes inside his mind. He remembered standing atop a vast quarry rig that had been geared up for war. He remembered racing across the sands as the leader of a hundred vehicles. All the women he had, the people he had tortured and killed. This was a sick nightmare. He thought things couldn't get any worse. He wished he had never asked or had to find out, but he knew he would never have stopped digging.
"All you bring us is pain and suffering. Get out. Leave. You can't do this to us again."
He tried to put it in the past, to tell himself it was a different man that did those things, but then the face of his brother appeared in his dreams; beaten and bloody at his feet. He shook his head as if it were a memory he didn't want to have. He didn't want to accept it.
"Do you remember the last thing you said to me?"
There was a silence as both men reflected on it, and Johnnie finally spoke.
"Never come South again. Never come again, or you will die..."
But it was Zed who finished his line as he remembered it.
"and everyone you know will die."
He looked into his brother’s eyes and could see it was like a dagger to his heart to hear those words again.
"I am so sorry," he said quietly.
He was still trying to take it all in. He didn't want to believe it, and yet somehow he knew it was true.
"What have I done?"
"More than you can ever be forgiven for."
There was silence for almost a full minute as he thought about all that would mean. He began to hate himself and yet still felt so detached from that life.
"Why wait till now to tell me?
"As much as I hate you for what you became, I could see some of the brother I remembered in you. That is what I hoped to find when I came to you and pleaded for peace, but what I got was death. Your war cost so many lives. And when I tried to stop it, you just killed more. You killed and killed until there was nobody strong enough to fight you. So right now, you are the man I knew long ago. The big brother I grew up with, but for how long? How long until you turn back into him? To the Boss?"
Zed wanted to provide some answer and comfort, but he could find none. He felt sick. He didn't understand how he could have become what he now remembers.
"So what now?"
Johnnie seemed to be crying.
"Leave. Leave before you do any more damage. Haven't you done enough? You killed all those people. Now you bring this to our door. Whenever you are around, there is death and pain and...please go."
Zed didn't know what else to say. He opened his mouth and tried to find some words, but there were wounds that could not be healed, and no more words would help.
"Will you tell the others?"
"No, they have suffered enough."
He nodded in appreciation for that. Even though he could see his brother hated him for all that he was and had done, there was a loyalty and love there that would never go away. He thought back to how Johnnie had saved him during the fight. He could just have easily let him die, and all his troubles would be over. There were so many more questions he wanted to ask him, and yet it would be cruel to do so. He got up and turned to walk away.
"Good luck," said Johnnie.
Zed slowly walked away. His shoulders were slumped low, and he had the walk of a man utterly lost.
"Hey, Zed, you're not gonna let Jay kill my son, are you?"
Lannie blocked his path and stopped him dead.
"No, I won't," he replied.
He was sincere and honest, but not in the way she thought. He was going to ensure the safety of her son by stopping the fight. By giving up. She kissed him on the cheek and smiled as best she could.
"Thank you, thank you so much."
She stepped past on her way to Johnnie, who smiled at him and nodded as if to say goodbye.
Zed carried on to the outskirts of the town to find a quiet spot where he sat down to get a little peace and think it over. He had to leave. He never thought for a moment that there could be any reason why he would want to. Now his whole existence was thrown into question. He tried to imagine how he could ever have become so power hungry and sadistic, but he just wasn't that man. It felt like it could only be some alternate timeline. But the sad reality was that he knew it wasn't.
"So you're the Boss?" whispered a voice.
He looked to his side. Rave had crept up on him.
"Do you listen in on every private conversation?"
"When I can, yes," she said, without any sympathy or apology.
He didn't say a word.
"So is it true? You're really him?"
"It's not something to be proud of."
She smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Yes it is. The Boss is all-powerful, or was. To get that strong...you'd have to be something real special. Have to kill a lot of people to get there."
He nodded in disgust.
"I never wanted this. All I wanted is my family back, and that's the one thing I can't have."
"Why not? The Boss takes what he wants. He doesn't run from problems."
"Yeah, well, I ain't the Boss. Maybe once, but not now."
There was silence as he thought it all over.
"This stays between us, you hear?"
"Yes, Boss," she replied with a wicked grin.
"I mean it, Rave!"
She smiled and looked as crazy as ever.
"You're leaving, aren't you?"
"I have to. I have done enough damage already."
"So when the fight gets tough, you just turn and run?"
He hated that he had to, but it was the only way. He was starting to understand why he was so adept at violence now. He enjoyed it too much, more than he ever had in his old life. Those elements of his character as the Boss had already begun to come through.
What if the rest follow?
He constantly rolled those thoughts around in his head.
"Have you told them?"
He shook his head.
"Probably for the best."
They waited out there for a few more hours until most of the camp had gone to sleep, finally going back for their equipment. Fortunately, there was still just as little to carry as there had been before. They filled up with as much water as they could carry and headed to the walls. Only Johnnie stood guard, with no others in sight. It was likely no coincidence.
"You got what you need?" he asked as they approached.
"Yeah," he replied solemnly.
He tried to walk right on past, but Johnnie held out his hand and stopped him. It was the last thing he had expected.
"You know, back when you were my brother, you used to carry this with pride," he said and pushed a sword in its scabbard up into his chest. It looked like the one he had used in the battle, but Zed noted he still wore his. It was an identical weapon.
"When you left us, you left this."
Zed took the sword. The sight of both together sparked another image in his mind; the two of them stripped to the waist and practicing with the blades on the rock outcrop above the town. It was the only good memory he had of his time in the wasteland.
"You used to do good a long time ago, and you used this sword for that. Maybe you will again."
He gladly took it and drew out the blade. Despite having no shine to it, it was perfectly clean and oiled, and had been well looked after. The brass hilt was slightly buckled from use, but the edge was near perfect from cleaning and sharpening. It was a symbol of his brother’s love, and that meant a lot. He buckled the sword belt around his waist and tapped his brother on the shoulder one last time out of friendship before heading on out.
"Where will you go?"
"Got to have something to live for. Sasha seemed more than happy to have me. It's worth a shot."
"Sasha?" he asked in surprise with a smile, "Your old babysitter?"
"That’s the one."
"Good luck, she's a feisty one. What shall I tell Lannie?"
"Tell her I went to find a family of my own. Tell her I went to negotiate with Jay. Anything. Anything that will let her accept that I am not coming back."
He made twenty paces when he looked back for one last time. Johnnie looked sad. The anger that had been in his eyes and face when Zed had arrived seemed to have all but gone. It was a gut wrenching feeling.
"Could have taken those bikes," said Rave.
"No, we need a clean break, and they attract too much attention, anyway."
They walked on for several hours until they found some shelter and stopped for the rest of the night. They were too tired to make a fire, so they just relaxed against a large rock and tried to get some kip. Almost an hour had gone by, and yet still he could not sleep. There was too much on his mind. He picked up the sword and drew out the blade to marvel at it. It felt right at home in his hands, and he had no doubt that it used to be his. There was a massive sentimental value to it, even if he could only remember a few moments.
"It's nice," said Rave.
He hadn't even realised she was awake.
"Yes it is. Weapon of a king."
"Do you know how to use it?"
"Let's find out, shall we?"
He got up and stood out in the open. He closed his eyes and raised the blade. He took a deep breath and opened them to find his hand raised in a guard posture and his knees bent. It had come naturally. He cut with the blade, right to left as any one might swing a weapon if they had to. But as the blade reached the end of the cut, some muscle memory kicked in. The blade rotated up onto the other side and cut on the opposite angle. Another rotation and another cut, power speed and fluidity. The blade glimmered in the moonlight, and Rave smiled at his display of skill. Finally, the blade recovered to where he had started, and he looked at it in surprise.
"I guess I do."
"On the road again? It ain't so bad," said Rave.
She passed him a glass bottle of food. He opened it and took a sniff. It was disgusting, exactly as he had expected. It looked like the most unappetising slime imaginable.
"Really? You think so?"
She shrugged. "Better than starving,"
He couldn't argue with that.
"So what was it like to be the Boss? Most powerful man around?"
"I got no idea, no more than you do."
"Oh, come on, you must remember something."
He did, but he didn't want to. The first memory that came to him was of eight men and women lined up against a wall in front of a firing squad, and he was the one giving the command. He had no idea the reason why, but he doubted he would like the answer. Maybe it was better not to know.
"I don't remember those years, do I?"
"Some bits you do. You remember that sword, don't you?"
He nodded. At least that was a fond memory.
"Bits here and there. But you know all about him. Tell me about the Boss, who was he?"
She began to laugh, and he could understand why. It was a rather bizarre request.
"Please, just try," he added.
She turned away and thought for a moment. Zed could see that she'd never really dwindled much on the past, at least not about anything except her sister.
"I wasn't around before he took charge, so I can't say much."
"Okay, but what did he want? What was he like to his people?"
"Everyone was scared of him."
"Yes, I already told you that, didn't I?"
"I suppose everyone has a boss."
"But not you. You are the Boss."
He shook his head. "No, I'm not. He might have looked like me, but that isn't me, you hear?"
"Yeah, I know, he's dead."
He wasn't sure if she meant figuratively or actually, but it didn't matter either way.
"I don't understand why you would want to give all that up."
"Maybe because the Boss was a horrible human being?"
"Perhaps, but I wouldn't give anything up," she replied confidently.
He hoped that was the reason. But he didn't know for sure. He couldn't help but feel when he woke up that he had been left for dead.
Was I supplanted? Or did I leave of my own accord? More questions now than I had before, and nobody can answer them.
"Do you know what the Boss looked like?"
"I do now, but not before, no."
"Why, because you never met him?"
"Yeah, that and the mask."
The same memory flashed back into his head as before of pulling the skull mask onto his face.
"People say he always wore that mask. Some even said it was actually his real face."
Zed looked sceptical.
"They said it, not me."
"He always wore the mask?"
"That's what I heard."
"So not many people would recognise him without it?"
"I shouldn’t think so, no."
That explained why he had seemed as a stranger. Not even Jay recognised him, and that spoke volumes.
"Clever move, wearing a mask. Hides emotion. Seems otherworldly, and it would strike fear into men."
"I suppose so," she replied casually as she chewed through her food.
"Easy to replace a man like that. You could kill him and wear the mask, and nobody would know."
"The Brotherhood, they would know."
"Yes, his...your strongest warriors."
"I am not the Boss, so don't say that. Even if I was, I ain't anymore, and you said there's a new boss."
"Yes, there is."
"So let's focus on him."
"I don't know him, never met him. I only heard about it."
"There must be about twenty of 'em, and all loyal to the Boss. Nobody could touch him with them around."
"I don’t think they weren't so loyal after all."
"What d'ya mean?"
"You reckon nobody would give up the throne of the Boss?"
She shook her head. "Only an idiot would do that."
"Then someone threw him out. Guess the Brotherhood isn’t as loyal as their reputation?"
"I suppose so. Maybe."
"That girl we met, Sasha, I do mean to find her. You can help, can't you?"
"I don't know the area that well."
"But you know where she was going?"
"Probably one of two towns to the East."
"Well, then, we know where we are going now."
"Why? Not like we been made welcome in any place yet."
"So what, we just wander the wastelands forever? Live as drifters?"
"Why not? It ain't a bad life."
"And the four things you always want?"
"Find what we can, take what we can't. Same rules as ever."
Zed sighed. He felt more lost and lonely than ever. He liked Rave, but she was simple and crazy in equal measure. Her idea of wandering the lands wasn't appealing at all. Nothing of what he had seen so far made him want to venture any further. It was a community he wanted, a family. He wondered if Rave would ever understand that. Maybe she would is she ever got a chance to try it.
“You ever slept on a real bed?”
“Sure, Jay got a load from a prison down South.”
“Might look like a bed, but that’s where the similarities stop. How was it?”
“It was okay.”
Of all the comforts in life, he would kill for a soft bed right about now.
“This town we are gonna head for, how many days’ walk is it?”
“First one is maybe five days. I dunno, though. Not had to walk these lands in a while.”
“Nice to have wheels, huh?”
“Yeah, we still should have taken those bikes.”
“And where would we get gas?”
“There is gas in Calico, I guarantee you. Town like that always has a stash unless they are too stupid to hide it.”
He wasn’t so sure, but then he thought of how smart is brother was and realised she was most likely right.
“Probably a few cars hid somewhere, too.”
“You seem confident about that?”
“When you go to enough towns, you get to see they are all the same.”
“And you always took from them all?”
“Of course. If you are too weak or stupid to look after what you got, then tough.”
“And you’d feel like that if someone took what was yours?”
She looked surprised that he even had to ask.
“Why do you think this other woman will take you in, when your brother and wife would not?”
It was blunt and to the point, and he liked that about her, even if he didn’t really have an answer or a plan if things went the same way.
“We’ll find somewhere soon enough. How long can we last on the food and water we have?”
“About two weeks.”
He gasped. “Hey, I’ve survived on a lot less. You need to eat less.”
He thought about how disgusting the food was and that made it not seem so bad.
“The gas, where does it come from?”
She didn’t answer.
“Come on, all these years since…well…whatever this is began. Should have run out years ago.”
“A truck comes to Jaytown every few weeks.”
“And you never thought to ask where it came from?”
“From the Boss, I imagine. Why should I care?”
“Four resources you said were important to you, I assumed you would make sure you knew if you ever had to get some yourself.”
She smiled in response, but he didn’t understand why. He expected her to be more insulted by his insinuation that she was complicit or ignorant.
“What?” he asked.
“I don’t know where it comes from, but I do know where Jay keeps a stash.”
“How big a stash?”
“A month’s supply, easy.”
“Does he know that you know where it is?”
She shook her head while still smiling.
“Many other people know about it?”
“No, he keeps it for himself. He’s smart like that.”
“Just the idea that Jay has any intelligence whatsoever.”
“He’s got everything that we haven’t got, the…”
“Four things, yeah, I got that.”
Maybe he isn’t so dull after all.
That was a troubling thought. He wanted Zed badly, and he doubted he would ever stop looking.
“You want to stay round these parts, you either got to kill Jay, or get killed by him.”
“There is no middle ground?”
“Not after what you have done.”
“Okay, and what about you?”
“Well, aren’t you a ray of goddamn sunshine?”
“Just being honest. Life ain’t easy.”
“No shit, but it wasn’t ever supposed to be this hard, trust me.”
They gathered up their belongings. The sword was the last thing he picked up.
“You know that attracts attention. People see nice things; they want to kill you for it. Same goes for that rifle.”
“I’ll just have to kill them first, then,” he replied with a grin.
He strapped the sword on despite the look she gave him and looked out into the distance.
“I hate walking,” he said.
And she nodded in agreement.
“Why would anyone like walking?”
“Well, believe it or not, people used to do it for fun.”
“Walk for fun? Why would you do that?”
As he thought about it, he remembered some long runs in full gear with heavy packs on his back with a unit of Marines. It was a memory of both pain and good times. They began to walk out into the open plains.
“See the sights, get fit.”
“Sights? What sights?”
“You have to admit, it still looks amazing,” he said, looking out over the sands and scrubland, but she was already shaking her head in disbelief. She looked at him as if he was crazy.
“I imagine when you only see the same thing every day it might get boring. But to my eyes, this is all still new.”
“Give it a few more years.”
That is depressing. I want out, but where can I
“You know, Rave, one day we’ll be sitting on a beach with cocktails and swimming in the sea.”
She didn’t even know what that meant, and that made him feel sad.
“Never seen the sea, have you?”
She shook her head. “What is that?”
He didn’t have the heart to explain it, and yet a long silence followed as she waited for him to. He looked out into the distance to see there were miles and miles to cover. No sign of any interesting features or sources of food or water. It was going to be a long walk.
“All right. Huge areas of water, the size of countries.”
“Everywhere, most of the world.”
“But not here?”
“Can’t be too far away, I should think.”
“How many days to walk to it?”
He laughed. It was like talking to a child, and that reminded him of his daughter. He was starting to get the odd picture in his mind of her.
Did I ever take her to see the sea? I hope so. But it’s all too late now. No time to dwell on the past, even though it seems to hang around my neck like a lump of lead.
They walked and camped for days, and the conversations went much the same way. Zed bringing up a subject she didn’t understand and had little concept of; him trying to explain it. On the sixth day they finally caught sight of the town, though it barely deserved the name. A wooden post in the ground with the name 'Oakland' marked the entrance. It was a bizarre sight. The town was made entirely from shipping containers, caravans, and truck trailers. None of which looked like they had moved in ten years.
It was a hive of activity and looked as though there must be a couple of hundred people living there. None of the structures had been arranged with any defensive perimeter in mind, a fact that seemed odd to Zed.
"Why wouldn't they fortify this place?"
"Why would they? Only threat in this area is Jay, and he'll take what he wants from them, no matter what they do."
"But with these numbers, they could fight."
"Some do. It never ends well."
She clearly spoke from experience. He couldn't begin to imagine what Rave must have seen and done in her service with Jay, but he didn't want to ask. He didn't have much of a moral high point to stand on, after realising he had until recently been the most despicable despot in the region.