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Authors: William Todd Rose

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BOOK: Apocalyptic Organ Grinder
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VIII.

 

The thunderous drums had been replaced with the frantic pounding of Tanner Kline’s heart.  Though his body ached with every move, he knew the squirming child was his only hope of ever seeing his daughter again.  So, he pushed the stinging and throbbing into the far recesses of his mind, allowing recklessness to surge through his system like flood waters from a burst dam.

“I’ll do it, I swear to God I will.”  His voice sounded foreign, even to his own ears.  He barked the words in a guttural rasp that bordered on slurring as they passed through his swollen lips.  “Stay away!”

The crowd around him had initially surged forward, but now they shuffled backward.  Their faces, though only glimpsed for a fraction of a second, beamed hostility as hundreds of eyes bore into his soul.  The outrage rolled off them like heat.  Waves of malice blasted over his body and his suit crinkled as the child thrashed and kicked.  But the hatred burning the most intently came from the savage called Lila.

The woman looked as though it took all of her will to keep from lunging at him and ripping him to shreds with her teeth and nails.  Her entire body shivered with pent-up aggression and wrath distorted her features, pulling her face into the long caricature of a demon.  The eldest of the Spewers had their palms facing him, as if showing that they meant no threat, and they babbled in quick bursts of words that were lost on Tanner.  It didn’t matter what they said:  without his hostage, he was a dead man.  He only salvation was banked on the hope that these savages valued their children as dearly as his own people.

He eased away from the Spewers but continued spinning in circles, more slowly now so that dizziness wouldn’t tumble him to the ground.  At the edge of the village, and cloaked mostly in shadow, was the forest.  Within its darkness, he just might have a chance.  If he could make it into the trees then perhaps he could find his way back home.  If nothing else, he would be away from these infectious animals and would have a moment to think, to plot out his next course of action.

The child sank its teeth into Tanner’s forearm, but the pain was nothing more than a discomfort compared to the torture of being drug through the forest.  In retaliation, he squeezed the little monster more tightly, allowing the crook of his arm to crush the air from its lungs.  Gasping for breath, the child opened its mouth again as Tanner continued dragging it toward the edge of the woods.

The tribe of savages followed him with faltering steps, keeping just enough distance between them so he wouldn’t feel threatened.

“Let him
go
!  Face me with honor and die like a man, coward!”

It was that mangy bitch again.  Something told him he’d have to watch her more closely than the rest.  She’d already proven to be a slippery little harpy with that whole net trick.  But he’d be damned if he played into her hands again.

“I’m getting out of here,” Tanner shouted, “and if anyone follows, this little bastard is as good as dead, you hear me?”

He was close enough to the forest now that he could feel its coolness against his back.  His eyes darted from face to face, only to return time and time again to Lila.  She stood in the forefront of the group with her knuckles white as bone as she clutched her spear.  Perhaps it was born of stress, but the rest of the crowd had blisters erupting like tapped wells.  Infection spewed into the air and oozed across their flesh, contaminating the air with that unmistakable stench.

But then darkness enveloped Tanner.  The torches and campfires of the village were nothing more than a wavering glow glimpsed between the trees and the sky was blotted out by a canopy of leaves.

With as much strength as he could muster, Tanner hoisted the child up and tucked him beneath his armpit like a parcel.  And then, with no clear direction or plan, he ran.

He had no doubt the Spewers would follow.  It wouldn’t take long for them to realize he would never let the child go.  Once enough distance had been put between him and the village, he’d have no more need for a hostage and they’d know this.  So it was important to cover as much ground as possible in the least amount of time.

The problem was, the kid wasn’t content being a passenger on this ride.  The little brat writhed and twisted, kicked his legs like a swimmer, and clawed at the slick fabric of Tanner’s suit.  His voice, shrill with terror, cried out for his mother between blubbering sobs and his constant struggles shifted Tanner’s balance.  The man stumbled and scrambled as he forced his way through thickets and the frenetic beat of his heart thumped painfully in his temples.

At night, the forest was like a dark and twisting labyrinth.  Deadfalls and obstacles lay at every turn and it would be all too easy to get turned around.  The last thing he needed was to come crashing through the undergrowth only to find himself right back where he’d started.  Without the stars to navigate by, he needed something else.  Something that could be used as a guide and assure he was headed in a consistent direction.

It was riskier to stagger blindly through the night than it was to gather his bearings, so Tanner stopped near the remains of an Old World house that was now nothing more than a mound of decaying wood within a brick-lined pit.  He listened past his own haggard breathing, past the swishing of blood that seemed to fill his ears;  ignoring the child’s cries and protests, he closed his eyes and focused.

He could faintly hear shouts in the distance, voices calling out to one another in the darkness, and they sounded as if they were fanning out.  So he’d been right then.  The Spewer Village had decided on pursuit.  How long would it be before he glimpsed their torches?  How long until the human net closed in around him? 

He knew he’d move more quickly without the kid, but part of him insisted that it would be more dangerous at this point to go it alone.  These savages moved through the wilderness with ease.  Even if he did dump the little one, they’d swarm over him before long if he didn’t come up with a solid plan.  So it was better to keep his prisoner for the time being . . . just in case.

So he had to ignore the sounds of the search party and allow them to become as unimportant as the chirping of insects.  Nothing more than background noise.  And then, just barely, he heard it:  the sound of a river.

Using the rushing waters as a beacon, he darted into the darkness again, this time with purpose.  Rivers provided water and fish so settlements often sprang up on their banks.  Some of the newer ones were even experimenting with dams and water wheels in an attempt to return to the reign of electricity.  If he could find this river, he’d be able to follow it, perhaps find allies and guns.

As the sounds of the water grew louder, hope welled within Tanner.  Such a story he’d have for Shayla when he returned home, one which would even rival the history hidden within the fairy tales she so loved.  The three other children in his community would gather around as well, each chewing their fingernails and leaning forward with round eyes as he told of the Spewer village.

By the time the soft earth of the forest turned into the loose rocks and sand of riverbank, Tanner had almost convinced himself that escape was a certainty.   But now he felt that optimism fade like a lantern running low on oil.  He could see the torches of the villagers now, bobbing through the forest like giant fireflies.  And they were so fast, the savages:  some of the closest ones looked like blurred streaks of light as they darted through the trees and he heard a voice, much too close for comfort, screech out what he assumed was the child’s name.

Behind him, the river roared like an angry god as large waves crashed over partially submerged boulders.  The previous week, it had stormed so heavily that it seemed as though the deluge would never end.  Torrents of rain had pounded against the tin roof of his sleeping quarters and the ground had become so saturated that every squishing step caused water to rise up within the grass.  While the sun had dried the earth, the river still raged with after effects.  It’s waters, even on a moonless night, were green and murky;  toppled trees undulated on the white crested waves, hundreds of pounds carried effortlessly by nature and tossed about as if they were no more than splinters.


Asham!  I’m coming, child!  I’m coming!”

The voice was close enough to be heard above the river and a cold certainty dawned upon him:  he’d never be able to outrun them.  Before the night was through, the Spewers would have his life and, despite his heroic attempt at escape, Shayla would be left an orphan.  Unless . . .

Tanner whirled around and faced the river, watching how quickly the logs and debris were carried downstream.  Even the fastest Spewer wouldn’t be able to match that pace.  Of course, there was the chance that he’d be dashed against the rocks or pulled into the undertow.  He could die out there in the raging waters.  But staying ashore was a certain death.  At least in the river, he’d have a fighting chance.

Turning around again, Tanner tossed the child onto the ground like a sack of laundry.  His small head  smacked flatly against a rock and the child’s eyes glazed as a low moan escaped through his throat.  The kid was stunned, but if he was as resilient as adult Spewers that wouldn’t last long.

Kneeling beside the boy, Tanner took the dagger that was meant to spill
his
blood and held it against a bulging vein in the child’s neck.  A hostage was no longer needed . . . .

But his hand refused to make the cut.  Without the scars of infection and spurting blisters, the child could have easily passed for a settler.  His skin was clear and unblemished and only residual stink from adult savages clung to him.  If the child were bathed and the filthy loincloth replaced with honest to God clothes, the beast would almost be human.

But he’s not
, part of Tanner’s mind urged,
you know this.  He’s a disgusting little animal that will grow up into a Spewer.  He could kill dozens.  Hundreds, even
.

The child blinked rapidly, seemingly unaware of both his surroundings and the weapon held to his throat.  He shifted slightly and, in a weak voice, muttered a single word:  “Mommy.”

The torches in the forest glowed more brightly and seemed to getting larger.  Within moments, he and the child would be discovered.  Maybe he should just leave the boy on the bank.  When they found him, alive and unharmed, perhaps they’d be content and give up the chase.

He’s not a child, you idiot.  He’s a fucking Spewer.  He may look harmless enough, but that won’t last.  It never does.  Would you want Shayla playing with this piece of shit?  Would you want her drinking after him or using a pillow he’d laid his disgusting little head on?

“Asham!  I’m coming . . . .”

For perhaps the first time in his career as a Sweeper, Tanner Kline had no idea what to do.  But if he hoped to live, he knew he’d have to make a decision within seconds.

 

IX.

 

Asham was close.  Lila knew this as surely as she knew the man would suffer for taking her child.  It was almost as if she could sense his presence in the forest, drawing her to him like iron filings to a magnet.  She called out his name again and again but whether or not he replied was of no consequence.  All that mattered was that he knew she was out there, that he wasn’t alone and she was coming for him.

She should’ve killed that son of a goat when she had the chance.  If she would’ve run him through when she first spotted him, none of this would have happened.  Her child would be safe and happy, not being spirited away by a man whose heart was as small, cold, and unfeeling as a nugget of ice.  But she had to think of The Way, didn’t she?  She had to let tradition dissuade her from what she knew in her soul to be right.

“Maybe The Way no longer applies.” She thought.  “Maybe the time has come for action.  To stop being hunted and pick up our spears.  To
fight!”

This time the voice the voice of her late husband, offered no arguments.

From somewhere nearby, Lila heard the sound of the river.  She imagined herself out there in the darkness: the hunter now the prey, surrounded and scared and knowing that death was on its way.  She’d search out something familiar, something that would give the illusion of hope.  She’d know there was no way those who pursued her could be on the far bank.  The waters were too high and the rapids too turbulent.  So they would close in on her from a single direction, a
known
direction . . . .

The murderous swine was heading for the water.  He had to be.  After all, it was what she would have done had their roles been reversed;  and, while it was true that he was the very embodiment of evil, he was far from stupid.  Which made him all that more dangerous.

For that reason, if nothing else, she would kill him this time.  She would rend the flesh from his bones and show him his own intestines before allowing him to die. Even that would be too good for him.

When Lila broke through the tree line, she ignored the torrents of water rushing by.  Instead, her eyes scanned the bank, looking for the slightest sign of movement or perhaps a flash of white from the man’s suit.  But as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the silhouettes of rocks and mounds of debris that had washed ashore from past recent flooding..

He had to be here somewhere.  Her instincts told her to look more closely, to take in every detail as if it were the last time she’d gaze upon the earth.  Sweeping the landscape again, she allowed her
Cougar Eyes
  to crawl over moss covered stones and rusted hunks of metal that had washed ashore;  like an invisible serpent, her eyes slithered along the contours of the river bank until they came to rest on what she’d originally mistaken for a large piece of driftwood.

For a moment, Lila’s heart forgot to beat.  The moisture in her mouth evaporated as quickly as a drop of water on a glowing coal and the night air suddenly felt colder.  In some ways, she was planted firmly in the here and now:  she was acutely aware of how restrictive her necklace felt, almost as if it were cinching around her throat like a noose;  she also heard the waters of the river gurgling and rushing with such clarity that it almost seemed they surrounded her on all sides.  But at the same time, it also felt as if her consciousness had fled into the back of her mind, as if she were trying to distance herself from this dark riverbank.  Her body was a shell and her spirit nothing more than a speck of dust within it.

BOOK: Apocalyptic Organ Grinder
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