When I came to, the first thing I was aware of was the murmur of Maxwell and Adrian. They were speaking in whispers.
“—Hounds like that,” Adrian said, “I’d need at least four people with me. It could be made usable, but it needs some work and it’d be hard to transport.”
“Four people… Where was it, you said?”
“On Coulieu, in an old Italian restaurant. A wire led up to the apartments above it. It’s about 8 miles to the northwest.”
“And you said you could hear the dog bark from where you were?”
A pang shot up my leg as I remembered the bite.
“Yeah,” Adrian said. “With this wind sound travels pretty well.”
“You heard the explosion then?”
“Why I came running.”
As my mind cleared, I began mentally checking myself to find anything abnormal. A dull throb emanated from my right calf, and I sensed a great stiffness around my left leg. Sitting up, which was difficult as every vertebrae creaked, I found a tight splint around it—a thin baseboard secured with torn cloth.
“And he awakes,” declared Maxwell.
Head spinning, I fell back on my elbows and screwed my eyes shut. Fiery heat surrounded my lower limbs and back and a groan escaped my mouth.
“You’re not going to want to move. Your burns blistered and we didn’t have any aloe,” came a woman’s voice from behind me. “You were lucky,” she said. “The bomb was one of the small ones we planted. If you—“ she shifted over towards my right side and I saw that it was Adrian’s friend “—had been a foot closer you would have lost your foot. The dog went flying over your head.”
“Some of it, anyways,” Adrian muttered. “It was a big one.”
Coughing, I gestured towards the splint.
“Fractured.” The woman took a damp cloth and dabbed at where the dog had bitten me.
I didn’t want to see it, but I was pretty sure I felt a ridge of flesh catch on the cloth.
“What’s your name, again?” I asked.
“Ellie. I’m Adrian’s friend—“
“Fiancée,” Adrian said quickly.
Ellie shot him a look. In the candlelight, I could see her jaw clench and go slack.
“Anyways…” she said. “Your tibia cracked near your knee, so you’re going to have to keep a lot of weight off of it.” She smiled grimly. “Otherwise it’ll hurt like none other.”
Great. At least they couldn’t kick me out now… I hoped. Remembering the boy I had thrown at Ellie last night, I asked if he was okay.
“Kid’s alright, “ Adrian shrugged.
“He wouldn’t talk, however,” Maxwell said. “He wolfed down the food we gave him, barely said ‘thanks,’ and has been sleeping since. I want to ask him about his past and how he’s been able to survive out there on his own, given his young age, but I doubt that he’ll offer me much.” Taking a look at Adrian, Maxwell took a breath, puffing up his chest. “In the meantime… Adrian and I are trying to acquiesce another generator.”
Adrian nodded, his hands in his pockets. “I found one when I was checking a cable a way’s from here. It’s smaller than most, but I might be able to make it work for us. It’s…” Taking a hand out, he scratched his five o’clock shadow. “It was being used by a man who was on his own and it seems he left it on a lot.”
“I want to get it here as soon as possible, but Adrian thinks it’d be dangerous—because of dogs and others. And I agree.”
“So what’s next?”
Max crouched down and placed a hand on my shoulder. It felt large, warm, and soft, but he pushed down on me as he tried to steady himself. Catching the candlelight, his cracked glasses gleamed. “You need to rest,” he said. “It seems that you’ll be with us for a while, after all.”
A musty smell filled my nostrils and cold air rushed to fill my lungs. My watch was beeping. Stretching my arms high above my head and arching my back, I yawned as I roused myself in-between my parents. Though the air was frigid on my face, their bodies were warm against me and I was content. They had both rolled over onto their sides. Using the small glow of my wris****ch, a birthday present I had received a few weeks ago, I crawled out from between them and walked into the kitchen.
We’d been in the homestead for a week and my parents were finally able to fall asleep—even if it was only for a few hours before I awoke. Their eyes were always bloodshot.
I moved slowly. Since the house had only a few candles and I was forbidden to light them, I had to rely on my watch. It gave off a soft green glow that allowed me to make out clumsy shapes. I was thirsty. Going to the pantry I retrieved a warm water bottle and sipped from it, as I had been cautioned to do. We only had half a pack of bottles left, and Dad didn’t like going to the river in the darkness any more times than he had to. He said he could hear cries. Mom didn’t want him to go either.
In the kitchen there was a small round table that I would sit at. That morning, as I was reluctant to look beyond what my watch illuminated, I studied the grain of the wood. The rough ridges curved around each other and straightened out. At a few points they ran into what I had carved: a picture, crudely drawn, of a church. That seemed like a safe point, a sanctuary. I had remembered watching a cartoon when I was little of character who’d cry out “Sanctuary!” when being chased, always trying to get to the church before the bad guys got him. No bad guy would enter a church.
“What are you doing out here, Sammy?” came my father’s voice, low and raspy, when he had come into the kitchen.
Looking up, I thought his face looked longer than before. From his cheekbones to his chin, his skin seemed to have been stretched flat and tight against his teeth.
Fingers that could hold a basketball in one hand grasped the flashlight that he had pointed down. Stretching along the floorboards, light beams reached into the connected family room where a stained rug lay. The light created lengthy shadows from the table and other furniture in the house and formed a large image of my father against the wall behind him. Reminded of the Ghost of Christmas Future, I shuddered.
“Are you okay, Sam?” asked my father, concerned.
“Yeah,” I replied softly, rubbing my forearms. “Cold.”
“Oh, I know, buddy.” He took a chair opposite of me. “I wish there were more blankets here.”
“Do you think we could make a fire now?”
My father chewed on his lower lip. He did that a lot when worrying, pondering, or planning.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that we should wait a little longer. When I go out for food tomorrow, I’ll tell you if we can light a fire when I come back.”
I nodded. I knew it probably had something to do with the cries he heard when gathering water.
“Where are we?”
“I’m not sure. We’re near a large body of water, though, because it’s colder here than it was in the city.”
“Okay… Did you sleep well?”
A weary smile bent his mouth and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Well enough.”
I took another sip from my water bottle and fingered my carving before asking my next question.
“Is mom okay, dad?”
His face grew longer and he chewed his lip again. “She’s resting now.” He got up to get himself a water bottle. “What you heard yesterday… She’s just scared, Sam. Like all of us… Like me.”
He must’ve seen me shrink in my chair, because he quickly bent down by me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders.
“But don’t worry,” he said, putting on that same wearied smile. “We’ll be okay. This is a good place to be. There’s a small town near us, a river a short walk away… We’ll be okay here for a while.” He hugged me close to him. “You don’t hafta worry.”
Wrapped up in his arms, my head against his chest, I didn’t have to worry.
My mom did enough of that on her own.
A few days later, after my mother had been cooking over a wood-burning stove, I heard my parents whispering together. I thought I heard her crying, but I wasn’t sure. I tried to focus on some Lincoln logs and tinker toys that I had found in the house. My Gameboy7 had died a long time ago.
As they talked, I began to smell the scent of burning beans growing in the house. It was like the odor of burnt sugar as the beans had syrup in their mixture. Baked beans and bacon. Sensing the aroma herself, mother frantically stirred the pot.
My father tried to calm her.
When her whimpers and whispers grew louder, I cautiously peeked over at them. She was nearly visibly trembling as my father ran a hand up and down her upper back. She kept shaking her head.
“What’s okay about it?” she shrieked, pushing my father back. Staring at him, her eyes demanded an answer.
When my father couldn’t provide one, she abandoned the stove, took one of the flashlights hanging in the center of the ceiling, and exited to the bedroom, slamming the door.
My father sighed and turned towards the counter, pulling a hand down his face.
“What’s going on, dad?” I asked quietly.
Stirring the beans again and taking them off the stove, he didn’t answer. He served me some in a bowl and readjusted the rifle on his back. “I have to go get some more water, Sam. Want to come with me?”
Laying on one of Maxwell’s floors, I stared up into the darkness, remembering the beginnings of my mother’s sickness.