Authors: Thomas A. Watson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Military
“No, that’s what I called him after he beat the hell out of me,” Nathan said as she started drying off Ares. Normally Ares didn’t tolerate this as Amanda had found out, but today he was enjoying getting dry.
The others gathered around Jasmine as she held the boy tightly, talking gently to him. Seeing the other kids, he stopped growling and looked at them with narrowed eyes. Emma walked up to him holding out her sippy cup to him, “Waa-waa,” she said.
“Grrrr,” the kid growled at her, making her jump back with tears coming to her eyes.
“Hey, that’s enough!” Nathan shouted, dropping his towel and storming over. “You hurt her and I will punt you like a football, boy!” Nathan bellowed as he snatched up Emma, hugging her tightly. The boy jumped back, clutching Jasmine for protection. This totally caught her off guard. One second the kid was trying to beat her, the next he was clinging to her for protection.
Furrowing her brow at Nathan, “Nathan, don’t scare him like that,” she snapped.
“Hey, girl!” Nathan shouted. “If he had hurt Emma, I would’ve put you through that wall!” The color drained from Jasmine’s face.
“You okay, doodle bug?” Nathan asked looking at Emma. She grinned at him and slobbered on his face.
“Woof,” Emma said, pointing at Ares and paying the boy no attention.
Nathan hugged her. “Good girl. Yes, that’s what Ares says. He’s a dog,” Nathan said.
Jasmine looked down at the boy. He was just staring at Nathan interacting with Emma. The look was one of remembrance and longing. “Nathan,” she said quietly.
Not turning around instantly, Nathan controlled his anger and slowly looked at Jasmine. When he saw the kid’s face, he felt like total shit. Nathan sat on the floor and crossed his legs, then pulled Emma in his lap. Looking at the kid Nathan let out a long sigh. “You can’t hurt them, and I won’t let them hurt you, understand?” Nathan asked slowly.
When the little boy looked at him and nodded, Nathan almost fell over. It was the first time he had actually communicated, except when he bit and fought Nathan. That’s pretty much universal for “leave me the hell alone.” “What’s your name?” Nathan asked.
The kid just gave him a blank stare, then looked at Emma and gave a little smile. “John, hand me a food bar from the side of my pack,” Nathan said. John handed him some food bars and stepped back. “Want some food?” Nathan asked, holding up the bar.
Hearing food, the boy moved his gaze from Emma to Nathan’s hand. Slowly licking his lips, he nodded his head. “Sit in Jasmine’s lap the right way and you can have this,” Nathan offered. The boy turned, putting his legs across Jasmine’s, sitting on her lap. Taking the wrapper off the bar, Nathan handed it over.
Even Nathan had trouble following the boy’s hand. The food bar was suddenly gone from Nathan’s hand and the boy was trying to shove the whole thing in his mouth, actually choking himself. Jasmine pulled his hands back and the boy growled at her.
“Hey, she’s helping you,” Nathan snapped loudly. “You’re starting to look like a football, boy,” Nathan warned. “Take small bites and if you do, we will give you more,” Nathan added, never seeing the look of anger on Jasmine’s face.
In all reality, it was Jasmine who should’ve been thankful for that. She slowly placed the food bar to his mouth, keeping her fingers back as he bit off a piece. “Give him some juice,” Nathan said over his shoulder. Hearing ‘juice’ the boy stopped chewing and turned to Nathan with a shocked expression.
Amanda poured a flavor packet in a bottle of water and carried it over. Nathan stopped her and took the bottle. “He can’t hurt me?” she told Nathan as he took the bottle.
Nathan pulled her down to him, “Yes he can, maybe not bad but you guys are my kids and family. If he hurt you I wouldn’t see him as a kid so let me give it to him,” Nathan told her. Lost for words, Amanda wrapped her arms around Nathan’s neck squeezing him tight enough to make his face change colors.
“I love you so much Nathan,” Amanda said on the verge of tears.
“I love you too,” Nathan said in a raspy voice. Amanda heard it and let him go.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Please,” Nathan said and turned to the boy, who had just watched the exchange in wonder. “The lady whose lap you’re sitting in is Jasmine. She will hold this while you drink so you don’t spill it or get sick,” Nathan said, handing the bottle to Jasmine.
Staring at the bottle, the boy raised his hands to grab it then looked at Nathan, who shook his head with a hard look on his face. The boy turned to Jasmine, who was just smiling at him. Dropping his hands down to his lap, he opened his mouth. Jasmine let him drink a quarter of the bottle then pulled it back. Before the boy could grab at it she put the food bar to his lips.
“Why’s his belly so big? Did he eat too much?” Casey asked.
“No, he’s starving,” Nathan said. “It’s called Kwashiorkor, from severe protein deficiency. It’s not as bad as I’ve seen but another week or so and he would’ve died,” Nathan explained.
“Is he going to be okay?” Casey asked walking over.
Shrugging his shoulders, “I don’t know, can he? Yes, but it’s up to him.”
“He is coming with us, right?” Casey asked with a worried expression.
“Only if he acts right. If he presents a danger I will give him some food and leave him,” Nathan said, shocking everyone. Seeing their reaction, “Hey guys, I’m not hauling y’all across the country to save everyone we come across. If someone poses a threat to your safety I’ll deal with them.”
“He’s a little boy,” Jasmine said.
Nathan looked at her with a calm face. “Do I feel sorry for him? Yes, I do but I won’t risk everyone’s safety over him.”
Blowing out a long breath, Jasmine fed the last of the food bar to the boy. “I know what you said is right but it doesn’t feel right.”
“John, Tom, go take watch till I get warm. Girls, get some sleep now. Jasmine, stay up with Mowgli. Don’t feed him anything else for at least an hour or he will get sick. Only give him the food bars from the side of my pack,” Nathan said.
Tom sat beside Nathan. “Nathan, it’s still raining. Don’t we want the water to go down before we leave?” he asked.
Looking up at him with a calm face, “What has to happen before the water can go down?” Nathan asked.
“Ah, stop raining,” Tom answered.
“Even after it stops the water will rise from the runoff,” Nathan said. “Did you notice how much the water rose in the time it took me to get Mowgli?”
“Only a little bit,” Tom answered. Jasmine coughed, not liking the name Mowgli.
“We are in a large, flat basin with the water rising. I don’t want to swim out of here on the horses,” Nathan explained. Tom nodded and followed John up the ladder to the loft. “Amanda, take Emma and lie down with her,” Nathan said.
Amanda stomped her foot. “Nathan, she wallows like a cow and slobbers all over me,” she whined.
“That’s tough,” Nathan said. Amanda picked up Emma. Nathan moved over to the boy and looked him over. When Nathan reached for his arm to look at the scrapes, the boy jerked back. “I’m just looking at your owwies,” Nathan explained.
Watching Nathan closely, the boy didn’t jerk back as Nathan looked at his scrapes and cuts. Then Nathan looked at his legs and feet. “You know, why can’t kids wear good shoes?” Nathan asked no one. “I mean a good pair of shoes will save them from so much agony,” he stated, looking at the filthy little feet with cuts and scrapes.
Getting up, Nathan walked to his pack and pulled his med kit and shaving bag from his pack. Looking around till he found a pail and went outside where he filled it with water pouring off the roof. He grabbed some towels and sat down in front of Jasmine as she rocked the boy.
“I hope you didn’t get that water off the ground,” she stated in a hushed voice.
“No, I found the septic system and pulled it from there,” he snapped at her making her jerk back. “I got it off the drain from the roof,” he added, soaking a towel.
“You could’ve just said that,” she mumbled.
Gently soaking the boy’s right foot, Nathan squirted some soap on it. “After all I’ve taught you and these kids, you really thought I didn’t have the intelligence to not use water with dead bodies floating in it?” he asked. After thinking about it, Jasmine decided it was best not to answer.
After an hour, Nathan sat back. “I don’t have the time to get him cleaned up. I have to let the boys take a nap so we can leave in a few hours,” Nathan said.
“What do I do?” Jasmine asked.
“Clean him gently. If you find any red looking cuts, put some ointment on them. He has a splinter in his left foot that I’m going to have to dig out but I don’t have the time now.” Nathan said standing up. Jasmine and the boy looked at him as he walked over to the ladder climbing up to the loft.
It was three in the afternoon when Nathan stood in the loft watching the rain come down. It never stopped. It would turn into a drizzle, then become a soaking rain with intermittent downpours. Only the interstate was above the water level now. Nathan pulled out the map again and grabbed his tablet. The closest rise in elevation was twenty miles northwest. It was where they wanted to go but he was sure the roads would be underwater. Everything depended on how much water was covering the roads.
Through the day he had watched more and more people gather on the interstate. “We can’t risk traveling on that,” he said looking out at the interstate. Not seeing an easy answer, Nathan stood up to get the group ready. He knew some were awake hearing them down in the barn. Climbing down he found Jasmine holding a cleaner little boy.
“How’s he doing?” Nathan asked, feeling his clothes. He smiled, finding they were dry.
“He’s doing better but still hasn’t talked,” she said, then held up her hand. “That was a huge splinter.”
Nathan looked over and saw her holding up a two-inch piece of wood in her hand. “He let you take it out without chewing your arm off?” he asked, amazed.
“Not really. He tried to bite me but I held him still. When I got it out and showed it to him he hugged me,” she said proudly.
“Get up,” Nathan said walking by everyone that was asleep tapping them with his foot. “You did good,” Nathan said looking back at Jasmine. “Find a blanket and poncho to put on him, he rides with you.” Nodding her head, Jasmine smiled and fed the boy some more of a food bar.
It barely took them an hour to get ready and Nathan opened the door of the barn to find the water less than a foot away. “Remember to only go where I go. If you can’t go to the rally point, don’t return here. Worst case, get to the rally point on I-35.” Nathan walked to the pack animals and pulled out the M-4 with the grenade launcher and SAW. He grabbed a few grenades and put them in his duster pocket.
“If we can’t make the rally point, why not come back here?” Tom asked.
“Water’s rising too fast; you’d never make it in a few hours,” Nathan said, strapping the M-4 to the front of his saddle. The SAW he hung over his shoulder.
“You know how to use that grenade launcher and machine gun?” Jasmine asked, situating the boy on her saddle.
“Yes, I have an M-203 and shot the SAW in training,” Nathan said. “I just haven’t shot a real grenade though, only practice chalk rounds,” he admitted.
“Why do you want them with you now?” John asked, a little worried.
“It’s light outside and we really can’t run. Worst case, I can talk someone out of chasing us,” Nathan said moving Emma around in her sling then climbed up. Ares looked out at the water then up at Nathan. “Hey I can’t carry you too,” Nathan said looking down at him.
Kicking Smoke, Nathan led them out to the road and the water was up to the horses’ bellies. Nathan turned Smoke, heading north on the water-covered road. When he had gone to get the boy Nathan had followed the county road south since it was closer. Now he was heading north to another county road that ran over the interstate instead of under it.
He was sure people were under the overpass. Glancing down at the SAW to make sure it had a full belt in it, he looked back up. Sloshing through the water, the group made the mile to the turn in half an hour. Up ahead, Nathan saw a group of people on the interstate under the overpass.
As they neared the interstate the water got shallower, and a hundred yards past it they were on the muddy road. “Stay calm,” Nathan said over his shoulder, resting his right hand on the SAW as the few people pointing at them waved out from under the bridge. Emma babbled away under his duster as he adjusted the SAW forward.
Nathan’s group kept the horses at a steady walk toward the bridge. The other group was about twenty strong now and moving toward them. When the group walked on the road blocking them thirty yards away, Nathan spun Smoke to the left across the road and leveled the SAW at the people. “Stop and don’t come closer. Get out of our way and let us pass!” he shouted.
“Give us a ride!” someone shouted.
“Give us some food!” several shouted.
“Move out of the way!” Nathan shouted, flipping the safety off.
“Let’s just take—” someone started to shout as Nathan pulled the trigger. He was totally unprepared for the noise. Smoke jumped but Nathan yanked back on the reins and dug in his heels, swinging the SAW left and right at the group, sending a stream of lead into them. Some in the group just dropped and others raised their hands to surrender. Nathan raked his aim across their bodies.
When the SAW locked back empty Nathan dropped it and pulled the M-4 off the front of his saddle. He sent bursts into anything moving. Like the SAW, the M-4 didn’t have a suppressor and was thunder in the air. Not that it mattered to Nathan and the others, they had the hunter’s ear and ear buds in for the radios canceling much of the noise. Emma didn’t have any and she thought the world was ending as she screamed. The boy riding with Jasmine tried to climb behind her.
Feeling his bolt lock back Nathan, dropped the empty and slammed in another, continuing to shoot anything moving. He changed magazines again and aimed at the group. The safety meter on the hunter’s ear turned off and he heard Emma screaming. “Let’s go!” he shouted. He rode over the bodies, some of which were still moving. When he reached the other side he spun Smoke around so he could cover his group and noticed John off his horse picking up something off the ground. He climbed back on his horse and kicked it into a run. He flew past Nathan and Nathan wheeled Smoke, around kicking her into a run. When they cleared the bridge Nathan glanced over his shoulder and saw a few more people come from under the bridge, running to the mass he had shot.
When they were several hundred yards away he told everyone to stop. Pulling out his binoculars he looked at the mass of bodies to see people fighting for stuff the corpses had. Dropping his binoculars he hung the M-4 back on his saddle and trotted Smoke to the front of the group. “Emma, it’s okay,” he said, taking her out of her sling and hugging her.
Emma wasn’t screaming but she was sure crying as the others fell in behind him. The boy had turned around, wrapping his arms and legs around Jasmine. The one thing that bothered Jasmine, the boy never cried out, he just wanted to hide.
Half a mile from the bridge, Emma had stopped crying and they were back in the water. It was about a foot deep as they trudged on and still the rain fell. They felt they were leading their horses across a lake. When darkness fell everyone turned on NVGs and silently shivered.
It was just before nine p.m. when Nathan led them out onto a road that wasn’t submerged. With lifted spirits they followed on having to lead their horses through small sections of the road that was submerged but nothing like before. At midnight they crossed into Kansas, and Nathan made everyone get off and do exercises and eat.
It was only misting rain now as they all stood around quietly eating and looking at Nathan. “What?” he asked looking around at them.
“Why didn’t you get out of the way so I could shoot?” Amanda demanded.
Not expecting that, “Ah what did I teach you about that?” Nathan asked in a shocked voice.
“Never shoot if a team member is in front of or near your target unless you have to. That’s why I didn’t shoot, you could’ve moved,” Amanda snapped.
“Amanda, I really didn’t have time to play it out. They were going to work themselves into an attack or I should say a few were going to work the rest into an attack,” Nathan told her.
“You teach me to shoot, make me wear this damn vest, then don’t let me help. I mean we all wear these stupid vests and carry these weapons everywhere. I’ve cleaned it every day and my pistol. Don’t you want us to help?” she asked, tapping her foot.
“Yes I want you to help but I would prefer to keep you from shooting at people as much as possible,” Nathan admitted.
Amanda came over and put her head on his chest. “Nathan, we are never going to be normal kids again. I don’t think even if I live to be a hundred, I will ever see a
kid again. You told me it was them or us. I choose them dying and I don’t feel bad,” she said.
This girl is entirely too smart,
Nathan thought. “You’re right, firecracker. Move forward like you were taught next time,” Nathan said, hugging her tightly.
John walked over handing Nathan two magazines. “Here,” he said. “Picked them up for you.”
“This is what you stopped for?” Nathan asked, shocked. John smiled and nodded. “Two empty magazines aren’t worth the risk,” Nathan said.
“They weren’t a threat. Those under the bridge didn’t want any of what you handed out,” John said.
“Don’t take a chance like that again,” Nathan said, patting John’s back.
“Are you okay with it?” Jasmine asked.
Stopping the smart-ass reply that was on the tip of his tongue, Nathan thought about what else she could mean. Then he still played it safe. “Yeah, I’m good.”
Holding the boy, Jasmine smiled at Nathan. “Let’s go, he’s getting heavy,” Jasmine said.
They all climbed on their horses and were off again. Even though nobody got much sleep they weren’t sleepy, only tired, wet, and cold. Sleep for them could be put off. Emma wasn’t soaked but she was damp from all the rain running down Nathan’s neck under his duster. But she was warm hiding under his coat in her sling, babbling. Nathan had grown so accustomed to it now he rarely heard it. Occasionally, hearing the babble become serious, he would pat the outside of his duster, letting Emma know he was listening. He had tried long and hard to understand what she was saying but had given up, figuring he wasn’t smart enough to know what she was saying.
The rain was still falling as Nathan pulled out his thermal and scanned around. In this part of Kansas, the land was divided into one-mile squares. Roads ran north and south and east and west every mile.
As they rode down the road, Nathan soon noticed light coming from behind the windows of some of the farmhouses they saw. He could tell it was from candles or lanterns but it was light. Since one or two farms were set up on each mile section there weren’t many houses.
It was four a.m. when he led them off the county road onto a gravel driveway. It didn’t lead to a house but to two massive barns. “Don’t you think we are pushing our luck, sleeping in a barn two nights in a row?” he heard Jasmine ask behind him.
“Jasmine, we have to dry the horses off, especially their hooves. They’ve been walking in water for almost three days,” Nathan said. Nathan stopped the group a hundred yards from the barns and crept up with Ares. Seeing that Ares didn’t smell anything, Nathan went in the first barn and found a bunch of farm equipment. Moving to the next barn he found it was filled with hay and bags of seeds.
Almost keying his radio, Nathan stopped and walked outside waving for them to come up. He led them in the massive steel barn. He pulled a lantern off the pack animals and lit it up. The poor lantern barely filled the small corner they were in with light. Pulling out the rope they made a tie off line for the horses and donkeys.
All the towels they had were wet so they hung them up and Nathan had the boys roll out the tent so it could dry. He called Ares and went to see if there was anything in the other barn they could use. Looking around he found enough tools to start his own shop. Then off to the side he found a fish fryer and a propane bottle, and carried them back to the group.
Setting up the fish fryer beside the hanging clothes he turned it on. Everyone gathered around it like it was a campfire thankful for the warmth. Nathan looked at the little boy who was standing beside Jasmine, holding out his hands like everyone else. “He say anything yet?” Nathan asked.
“No,” Jasmine answered. “What do we call him? I mean we can’t say ‘he’ or ‘boy.’”
“Did you look in the back of his underwear?” Tom asked.
Jasmine looked at Tom like he lost his mind. “He doesn’t have a wallet,” she said. Not able to help it, Nathan dropped to the ground laughing.
“No, to see if he has his name written on the back. Mom did that for mine so when I went to camp I knew they were mine,” Tom said.
“He is a little boy, you do it,” Jasmine said, looking at Nathan with disdain.
Tom moved over and held up his hands to the boy, who just stared at him. “I just want to see something, I’m not going to hurt you,” Tom said, pulling out a flashlight. The boy stared at him with curiosity as Tom turned it on and looked behind him. He did jump when Tom touched his underwear. “Hold on,” Tom said. “Yep, something’s written here,” he said and everyone moved toward them, making the boy uneasy.
“C-h,” Tom said, trying to make out what was written. “C-h, and I can’t make out…” he mumbled. “It says Chip,” Tom said. The boy turned and looked at him with shock. Tom looked him in the face. “Chip?” The boy smiled. “Hello Chip, I’m Tom,” Tom said. The little boy wrapped his arms around Tom, hugging him.
It had been so long since he heard his name spoken, Chip started to cry. Tom picked him up, hugging him. “It’s okay Chip, you’re in our family,” Tom said, holding the crying child. Nathan had stopped laughing when Chip started to cry and was getting up.
“Chip, I’m Jasmine, remember?” Jasmine asked, holding out her arms.
Chip let go of Tom and wrapped his arms around Jasmine as the others came over to say hello. John stood beside Nathan. “Nathan, how can a kid that size survive out there?” John asked, trying to figure it out.
“We don’t know how long he’s been on his own, but I can tell you this, kids survive,” Nathan said. “Think back to every news broadcast you saw in third-world, war-torn countries. You always see kids. Unlike adults, they aren’t held by rigid thought process. They figure out how to survive.”
“So kids have a better chance?” John asked, confused.
“To some extent, but they are physically weaker so the strong prey on them. Then they can hide,” Nathan said.
“Hide?” Amanda asked.
“What have I told you since that day you found me? If something happens to me, run and hide,” Nathan said.