Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
The farmhouse was in shambles. Branches had collected around the first floor, piled haphazardly by whatever great wind had swept through. Leaves shook in the breeze, rattling against the side of the house and the windows. The white home with green shutters had sustained the most damage to the second floor, which was caved in at the front. A soiled white sheet, clinging to the debris, rolled like a flag, signifying defeat. The biodome was equally covered in debris, but Peter couldn’t see any breaks in the glass. But that didn’t matter. If the house had been breached by the wind, predators could have easily followed. And there was no denying that the place looked...dead.
“We should keep going,” Anne said. “It’s still morning, and this place doesn’t look safe.”
Peter was inclined to agree. They had a lot of daylight left to burn, and they could cover a few hundred miles if nothing happened on the way. The girl’s instincts were honed for survival. Like her mother’s. Like his had once been. Before he had had a son, who he knew was about to insist they check.
“Dad,” was all the boy said.
It was enough.
“We have to check,” Peter said.
“It’s a mistake.” Anne turned back to Jakob. “You’re going to get us killed.”
“Since when did you become such a—”
” Peter said, silencing his son. He understood the boy’s frustration. Anne had become antagonistic. But he also understood why, and he hoped Jakob would, too. With her mother unconscious, Anne had slipped into a kind of hyper-aggressive survival mode. She might trust Peter and Jakob in the simplest sense, but she didn’t fully trust their ability to keep her alive. And safe. That deep trust was reserved for the woman sprawled across the back seat. Anne might be acting combative, but she was really just terrified.
“They’re good people,” Peter said to Anne. “Friends. We don’t leave friends behind, just like we didn’t leave your mother behind.” He watched the girl’s expression slowly shift. Her mother had taught her survival at all costs, but he still lived by a different code. No man left behind. And if the previous night’s events had revealed anything, it was that Anne preferred the credo ‘No man left behind,’ over, ‘Every man for himself.’ He leaned toward the girl. “Right?”
“Ugh.” Anne doubled her effort at crossing her arms so tightly she couldn’t breathe. “Fine. But if there’s a predator waiting in that house, I’m out of here.”
Jakob leaned forward between the seats. “If there is anything not nice in that house, we’ll face it together.”
, Peter thought. Jakob had seen past the girl’s walls and figured out what was really bothering her.
“As long as we’re alive, you won’t be alone,” Jakob added, and the words acted like the sun on an ice cream cone, melting away Anne’s anger.
She deflated, but recovered quickly, saying, “Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think?”
“Had to make sure you’d understand,” Jakob said. “You
a little slow.”
Anne shook her head, but was smiling now. “Going to kick you in the nuts when we get out of this truck.”
Peter laughed despite what he feared they were about to find inside the house. “Okay now, let’s get this over with. No nut-kicking.” He put the truck in gear, and idled forward. The mood shifted back to tense as they rolled over the carrot-shrouded pavement. Their view of the house was clear, but nothing had changed. The place was deserted and lifeless.
Or was it?
As he pulled closer, he noticed that there wasn’t much debris on the ground around the home, just up against it. He also couldn’t find any sign of destruction in the distant woods around the house. Either the tornado had touched down to smite the home, leaving everything else unscathed, or, “It’s all fake.”
“Is that like an existential comment?” Anne asked, leaning forward to look up at the house, as they stopped in the paved drive, fifty feet from the front of the building.
“Do you even know what that means?” Jakob asked.
“Quiet,” Peter said, and both listened.
The truck windows broke the silence, whirring as they lowered, letting in the wind and the hot, humid air. The vehicle’s interior quickly became stifling, though not nearly as bad as the previous night, beneath the tarp. With the windows down, Peter turned the truck off. They listened for a full minute and heard nothing louder than the ticking of the cooling engine.
Peter picked up the reloaded shotgun from between the seats and opened his door.
“What are you doing?” Anne blurted.
“Can’t take a look inside the house from inside the truck,” he said, and then added, “can I?” so the kids would know he wanted them to stay put. He normally would have wanted them as close to him as possible. But he wasn’t about to leave Ella alone and unconscious in the back seat.
Peter leaned back in and tossed the keys to Jakob. “Anything happens to me—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jakob said, climbing from the back seat to the front and sliding behind the wheel. “I get it.”
“I can probably drive better than him, you know,” Anne said.
“Probably.” Peter smiled, hoping to put the pair at ease. They didn’t like being left behind, especially unarmed. An hour after the sun had risen, he’d thought to look for the Beretta, but the weapon had been lost. He’d realized that Ella had been carrying it the night before. Since she hadn’t used it, and it wasn’t on her person, he’d assumed the weapon dropped. With the machine gun drained, they were down to just the shotgun and a collection of knives. “But I have to make him feel important somehow, right?”
Anne just rolled her eyes and sat back.
“You see something, you honk.” Peter said, and when Jakob nodded, he closed the door and turned toward the house. He was hoping to spot movement, perhaps someone ducking back as he turned, but the place was just as motionless. Even if the destruction was a façade, that didn’t mean the inhabitants hadn’t met with a dire fate.
He walked toward the house, shotgun held casually at his side, but ready to aim and fire. His eyes flicked back and forth, searching for signs of life, finding only the subtle shift of things caught in the wind, which rolled freely over the short carrot stalks. He took a moment to turn 360 degrees, searching the field and woods beyond for signs of life. But the world around the house was as dead as the inside.
He slowed as he got within ten feet of the front porch, sensing danger within the shadowy interior. Anne was right. Anything could be lurking in the dark. Going inside might be a mistake, but before he could turn around and explain that to Jakob, a voice, sudden and loud, startled him.
“That’s close enough,” a man’s gravelly voice said.
He raised the shotgun toward the sound, but held his fire. He recognized the voice, though it was deeper than he remembered. He lowered the weapon. “That any way to talk to a man whose best bowling score is ten points higher than yours?”
There was a moment of silence, followed by a confused, “Peter? Peter Crane? That you?”
During their radio conversations, they had discussed bowling more times than Peter cared to remember. Brant Rossi, Alia’s father and the owner of this farm, had been something of a bowling enthusiast. Peter had only bowled a handful of times, but like most things of a physical nature, he’d taken to it easily. When he’d told Brant his top score, the man sounded like he’d had a heart attack. When he’d recovered, he’d revealed that Peter’s near perfect score was in fact ten points higher than his personal best, after twenty years hurling balls. Since no one bowled anymore, they’d gotten a good laugh out of it, but Peter had heard the competitive tone in Brant’s voice, hoping they’d one day get a chance to go one-on-one.
“It’s me, Brant.” Peter looked over the destruction. It looked just as real up close, especially that caved-in second floor. “Everything okay here?”
Brant stood from behind a tipped over table on the second floor. A metal table. Peter could have put all nine shotgun rounds into the table, and not one would have gotten through. The man was older, maybe late fifties with a full head of gray hair. On his own, he wouldn’t be very intimidating, but the M16A1 assault rifle in his hands more than made up for his lack of physical prowess. “Don’t mind the look of the place. Keeps out the curious. We did it a month ago, after some trouble with a hungry fellow.” He motioned to the side of the house, and Peter saw the crumpled remains of something large.
“Oh, my God,” came a younger female voice from inside the house. “Did you say Crane? Is that Mr. Crane out there?”
Brant chuckled, but remained in place. “You think living with just your son is rough, try living with two women.”
“We can hear you,” said the younger voice, whom Peter assumed belonged to Alia, hidden somewhere back inside, probably being held back by her mother until Brant gave the all clear, which he had yet to do.
“So...what brings you this way? We haven’t heard from you in a long time. You haven’t been out there—” He motioned toward the horizon. “—this whole time?”
Peter understood the man’s apprehension. If they’d been out in the wild all this time, there was a good chance they’d eaten ExoGen food. “Ran out of fuel for the generator. Was waiting for winter to risk finding more. We’ve only been off the farm for a few days.”
“Company fell into our lap. Brought trouble with them.”
The older man scanned the horizon. “A little bit like this?”
“Let’s hope not.”
“But no promises?”
“I wouldn’t disrespect you by making a promise I might not be able to keep.”
Brant’s lips twitched back and forth. “S’pose any trouble you’ve led in this direction is going to find us whether you’re here or not.”
Peter didn’t agree outwardly, but the man was right. If they were still being followed, Brant’s family was in danger whether they stayed or were sent on their way. “Sorry to impose,” was the best he could offer.
“Bring that beast round the side,” Brant said, motioning to the truck. “Hide her in the garage.
Peter gave Jakob a wave, and the truck started with a roar, rolling slowly up behind him.
“That your boy driving?” Brant asked.
“And is that your company in the passenger seat? Looks like a dainty thing.”
Peter smiled. “Not in personality. Her mother is in the back seat.”
“What kind of woman would bring a girl through this hellish world to see you?”
Brant meant it as a joke, but Peter answered. The Rossis were one of a select group of people who had biodomes supplied by Ella. They’d know who she was as soon as they saw her. “The kind who plans ahead for hellish worlds.”
Brant looked confused, but only for a moment. Then his eyes went wide. “Don’t tell me you’ve got Ella Masse?”
“Well shit, I’ve got an earful for her.” He started toward the upstairs door, which upon closer inspection, appeared to be solid steel. Certainly not the original.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for her to wake up first,” Peter said.
Brant paused, and a genuine look of concern crossed his face. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough,” Peter said. “But she’ll pull through.”
“She’s a tough one.” Brant sounded absent minded, lost in a memory.
“You knew her?” Peter asked.