eath doesn’t schedule an appointment.”
Jake Dent had said this on many occasions, but wasn’t certain the mantra had stuck in his son’s teenage brain. Still, it was the truth. Death could show up at any hour, on any day, uninvited, unwelcomed.
Jake was dressed for the cool March weather; and much like a hunter, he wore three layers to protect him from the elements. The windproof fabric of his camouflage jacket was a four-color woodland pattern, designed to blend with the widest variety of western Massachusetts foliage.
It would help him evade the enemy.
At three o’clock in the morning, his son would be sound asleep. Sure enough, Jake could hear heavy breathing through the hollow-core door to Andy’s bedroom. Jake could have upgraded that door to a more substantial model, but it would have been an unnecessary expense. Jake opted to invest his limited resources in products that could help him and his son stay alive.
For this reason, Jake kept everything to only essentials in the double-wide trailer he and Andy called home.
To reach safety, Jake and Andy would have to traverse several miles of rugged woodland in complete darkness. If anything went wrong en route to their destination, they’d carry enough provisions to make the forest their new home until it was safe to move again. Everything Jake needed to survive was stored neatly inside his GOOD (Get Out of Dodge) pack. The nylon camouflage bags mounted to an ALICE frame, standard issue for the U.S. military for some years, offered plenty of storage. Two zippers on the front of the bag allowed rapid access to the contents within.
Inside the bags, Jake had packed three liters of water—one liter per day per person—as well as a four-liter water-filtration system. The other contents of his pack were equally vital. If they couldn’t reach their destination, the meals and energy bars would provide enough nutrition for several days. Jake prepared for the “ifs” as
they were certainties.
He had packed enough clothing for a weekend camping trip. Sturdy boots, long pants, long underwear, two shirts (good for layering), two socks (wool, not cotton), two hats, and a bandanna. Bandanas had multitudes of uses, Jake had discovered over the years. A tent and ground tarp would provide some protection from the elements, and his down-filled sleeping bag was long and wide, perfect to cocoon his broad-shouldered, six-two frame. Jake had also packed three different ways to make fire, cooking gear, hygiene products, a first aid kit, and, perhaps the most important item of all, a .357-caliber SIG SAUER P226, carried by police officers and the military. Jake’s SIG held fifteen 9mm rounds and was a durable weapon that could thrive in tough conditions.
Jake opened Andy’s bedroom and sidestepped several piles of clothes strewn about like mini moguls. Standing beside Andy’s bed, Jake gazed at his son and watched him sleep. They should be moving, and quickly, but he couldn’t resist the urge to stop and stare. Even though Andy was sixteen—
Sixteen? How did that happen?
—Jake could see the little boy lurking inside the young man. This was his son, the one person in life Jake most wanted to protect.
With his ruffled mop of curly, dark hair and penetrating chocolate eyes, Andy would one day grow into a truly handsome man. But according to him, the girls at Pepperell Academy—popular, preppy, and loaded with cash—focused on Andy’s braces, his nose (a bit too big for his face), a slight peppering of acne, and thin arms not yet muscular. While the awkward teenage years lingered, Andy would concentrate his energies on things other than dating.
Andy’s cluttered room was typical of any teen. Posters on the walls showed characters from the hit television shows
Doctor Who, The Big Bang Theory,
and some cartoon that was apparently an Internet thing Jake didn’t even pretend to understand. The most spectacular object in Andy’s cramped but cozy bedroom was a desk he and his friends had built to look like a large-scale model of a TIE Fighter from the
movies. Andy and his pals from Pepperell Academy were self-proclaimed geeks, and damn proud of it.
Atop the TIE Fighter desk was the largest computer Jake had ever seen. Andy had built it piece by piece, and it looked to Jake like a sentient robot, with all the blinking lights and wires jutting out from the back. While Andy was a computer code maestro, writing apps that he and his buddies sold via iTunes, Jake’s knowledge of the blasted machines was limited to e-mail, Google, and the occasional Microsoft Word document.
Jake shook Andy awake. The boy’s bony shoulder fit inside his palm like a baseball, and Jake’s thoughts flit back to days long gone. He closed his eyes and imagined the smell of fresh-cut grass, the feel, the texture of the pitcher’s mound, and the roar of the crowd. How times had changed.
Andy’s eyes fluttered open. He looked disoriented, but only for a moment.
“They’re coming,” Jake said, his voice calm and even. “We’ve got to go. Now. It’s go time.”
Andy swung his legs off the bed. A second later, he was on his feet, sturdy as if he’d been awake for hours. In the next instant, Andy had the accordion closet doors pulled open, grabbing the clothes he’d set aside for this very moment. They were the only clothes in his bedroom neatly folded and organized. His steel-toed hiking boots were intentionally unlaced, making them easy to slip on. Like his father, Andy dressed in layers, and wore a matching camouflage pattern.
Jake observed the rise and fall of Andy’s chest. A push of adrenaline had turned his son’s breathing visibly rapid. Adrenaline had its advantages. It would help Andy move faster through the woods, and might make him impervious to pain—should he fall or twist an ankle during the run. It had a downside, too. If stress and adrenaline induced insulin resistance, Andy could be in serious trouble, but his son knew best how to manage his diabetes.
Keeping Andy to a regular eating and sleeping schedule would have been ideal, but that was no longer an option. Andy must have shared his father’s concern, because he took out his OneTouch Ultra-Mini blood sugar monitor and a test strip. He held the lancing device against the side of his finger, pressed the release button, and didn’t flinch when the needle broke the skin. A small drop of blood materialized with a slight squeeze of the finger. Andy placed the blood drop perfectly on the test strip. Practice, thousands of repetitions.
Andy didn’t share the results with Jake. This was part of adolescence. Monitoring Andy’s condition had been Jake’s responsibility since his son was five. At some point, however, the baton had passed, and Andy took responsibility for his blood glucose levels without Jake’s intervention. Like setting a curfew, Jake trusted that Andy would follow the rules and be diligent with his health. It was all part of building Andy’s confidence and self-reliance.
When the levels weren’t ideal, Jake had learned to avoid making accusations. As much as he wanted to shout,
“Why is your blood sugar so high? Did you eat something you weren’t supposed to?”
he didn’t. Jake believed in giving roots and wings, and he needed to show Andy that he trusted his judgment. He encouraged his son to make decisions for himself, offering praise whenever Andy made the right ones. It was what any parent of a teenager would do.
The glucose reading must have been fine, because no insulin injection followed. Andy slipped on his own GOOD pack. Inside were the same provisions Jake had brought, minus the SIG SAUER, as well as everything he needed to manage his diabetes.
Once his jacket was on, boots laced, pack secured, Andy got his night vision system in place. It was a tactical helmet, military issued, with an L4G30 mount from Wilcox. Secured to the swiveling J-arm was a PVS-14 night vision monocular, powered by a Gen 3 image intensifier. Jake had the same unit on his helmet.
For Andy’s sixteenth birthday, Jake had bought his son an X-Bolt Micro Hunter rifle and helped him with the paperwork for his firearm identification card. It was a lighter-weight rifle with all the features of a full-sized X-Bolt. Jake had wanted Andy to have some way to protect himself for years, and now, legally, he could.
Andy slung his rifle over his shoulder and without a word headed for the trailer’s back door. Jake fell into step behind his son, grabbed his own rifle by the door, and checked his watch. In five minutes, Andy had gone from being sound asleep to crunching dead leaves on his march through the woods.
His son was learning.
Through the night vision monocular, the world was an eerie shade of green, but the powerful optics made the forest come alive. They could see everything in pristine detail, from the smallest tree branches to the bumps and ridges on fallen leaves. The path they walked was a well-defined escape route that Jake meticulously maintained. It was far enough back from the road so they passed behind houses without being heard or seen, and wide enough in most places to let them walk side by side.
Both Jake and Andy were on the lookout for the slightest bit of movement that might betray the presence of the enemy. They refrained from talking, though Jake used preset hand signals to check in with Andy.
Andy kept his rifle slung over his shoulder, while Jake’s was trained on the darkness. Both were on high alert, ready to pick up any noise—a snap of a twig or the rustle of some branches. Nothing. Not a sound. But that didn’t mean they weren’t out there somewhere. Eyes could be watching from the shadows.
No other choice would do.
At some point, the path widened and became a road. Jake and Andy kept to the wood line and continued their march. Moonlight, which had powered the night vision optics, now provided enough illumination all by itself.
Eventually, the duo emerged from a copse and entered a vast hilly field, looking like a pair of soldiers returning from a scouting mission. They trekked another quarter mile before reaching a small fieldstone building situated directly behind the Groveland Gymnasium.
Built in the 1980s, the Groveland Gymnasium served the students and faculty of Pepperell Academy and housed an indoor hockey rink, squash and racquetball courts, swimming pool, basketball courts, weight-lifting area, and all manner of fitness amenities. It was best of breed, as was everything at “The Pep.”
Jake lowered his night vision to scan the darkness once more. All clear. He took a moment to assess his son’s condition anew. Sweat matted Andy’s hair below the helmet, and his short, sharp breaths meant the adrenaline rush was still in effect. Through it all, Andy remained alert and focused. He was disciplined and well trained. Jake didn’t like to brag, but he was proud that his son’s body and mind were as strong as his character.
To the east of the fieldstone structure stood the other campus buildings of Pepperell Academy, Andy’s school and Jake’s place of employment for the past ten years. While Andy looked on, Jake removed a loose stone affixed to the side of the field house to reveal a hidden key. Through the unlocked door, Jake and Andy entered a room crammed with supplies—bags of ice melt, sand, cones, all sorts of maintenance equipment.
In the center of the room, Jake moved a pile of lightweight mats to reveal the outline of a two-by-two square cut into the wood of the floor. One side of the square had two hinges, and a rusting metal ring lay in the center. Jake pulled open the trapdoor to reveal a ladder to the level below.
Nearly all of the buildings of Pepperell Academy were connected by a series of tunnels, some of which were rumored to date back a century. Forward-thinking architects, long before Jake’s tenure, had designed the tunnels to hide the infrastructure belowground. They understood the value of distributing services (water, gas, power, heat, steam, telecommunication, and even coal) around campus without impeding the pedestrian traffic or having to maintain unsightly sewer lines and utility poles aboveground. The effort created a labyrinth of passageways few had ever seen.
As head custodian and grounds manager for Pepperell Academy, Jake was one of the few employees with access to these secret passages. The kids and faculty, even other maintenance personnel, were not permitted to use them. That was one reason it made a perfect bug-out location (BOL).
With their packs still on, rifles slung over their shoulders, Jake and Andy descended the ladder to the underground passageway below. The corridor they traveled was in an older portion of the tunnel system, and they followed it to another locked door. The passageway included several rooms—most, but not all, unoccupied.
An ADEL Trinity-788 Heavy-Duty Biometric Fingerprint Door Lock secured entry to one of the rooms. Jake put his finger on the biometric scanner, and the door opened with a click. They entered the room and Andy turned on the light.
The room was a massive larder, well stocked with canned and dry food, sacks of rice, water, fuel, portable heaters, gardening tools, guns, knives, and ammo. Jake lowered his weapon and took out a stopwatch. He pushed the stop button and the tension left his body in a long exhale. Andy relaxed as well.
“That’s three minutes faster than the last time,” Jake said to his son. “We’re doing well, but we can still do better.”
Andy slumped to the floor. He needed a moment to regain his composure. Jake could see the stress of the trek had taken a significant physical and mental toll. Andy’s eyes flared with anger, but he mustered enough restraint to keep his emotions in check. His son hated these drills, and had been vocal about it for some time. However, whenever he protested, Jake would say, “Death doesn’t schedule an appointment.”