"We don't have any weapons!" I said abruptly. Loudly...but not TOO loudly. You never know when someone has an itchy trigger finger these days. I guess it all depends on what kind of horrific bullshit they've been through before they crossed our path.
What can I say? The apocalypse comes with its variety of 'trust issues'.
"Please...we just...we were just getting ready to leave. I swear." I told the two boys holding crossbows on us. I could feel the tension in the air as they struggled with the idea of whether to believe us or not. And once the little boy with the ghoulish face paint on began to stir again and worked to get back up on his feet, we found ourselves stuck in a murderous triangle between them all. "We didn't mean to break into your store, or whatever. We were just on our way home."
Milo was breathing so hard that I was afraid that he'd have to reach for his inhaler again. A habit that he never thought much about, but it would be a twitchy and dangerous movement to these other teens who wouldn't know whether he was grabbing for a knife or a gun or anything else. Please, Milo...just get your breathing under control. Just for another few seconds so we can de-escalate the situation and maybe make it out of here alive.
I've gained WAY too much in my life in the past few hours to throw it all away now. Not over some stupid altercation in an abandoned junk store.
"Are you sick???" One of the boys asked us.
"Are we what?"
"Are you INFECTED??? Don't play any fucking games with us!"
"No!!! No, we're not infected!" I told him.
"Would we be out here in the open air if we were?" Ricky said. Fuck...now is NOT the time for him to be fiddling around with sarcasm!
One of the boys saw Milo wheezing slightly, his breath getting shorter and shorter by the minute. "What's the deal with your friend over there?" He asked.
"He has asthma...that's all it is. He's had it since he was little. It's not the super flu, I swear." I said with a shaky voice. "Look...he has an inhaler. Just let him take a quick hit so he can calm down a bit, ok?"
They never loosened their grip on their crossbows. They kept them aimed right at our heads, and made sure to keep a close eye out for any sudden movements. Just in case.
Milo reached in his pocket and then took a deep puff from his inhaler, and then his nervous wheezing settled down a bit, and he closed his eyes to draw in a few normal breaths before putting it back in his pocket. Luckily, they didn't overreact to the situation, or we would have been toast.
It was just a few seconds later that four more of their crew showed up just outside of that broken store window. They came stepping inside, all of their faces covered with darkly colorful bandannas as well. This made me even more nervous than before, as we were now officially outnumbered by our assailants. Bringing our odds of being able to fight our way out of this down to a near zero. I would have started crying if I wasn't so afraid.
The anxious tremors inside threatened to rip me apart if I didn't get any relief from them some time soon.
Two of them were girls. One with short, black, hair with a boyish cut, and the other with long strands of firebrand red. Both of them had skull bandannas covering their faces, mouths and noses. There was another boy who looked to be about Milo's age, with tanned skin and dark hair that seemed to be covered in dust, giving it a dull gray look. And then there was the boy in the middle, wearing a black and gray camouflaged hoodie and a pair of dark sunglasses. Probably a bit older than me, but not by more than a year or two. He seemed to be the one in charge of the group. He didn't have to speak a single word to prove it, either. There was just something about the way he carried himself...the way the others responded to him being there, stepping aside and silently letting him know that they were willing to follow any order that he was willing to give them. His very presence displayed authority, and demanded loyalty. Not respect...just loyalty.
"I would sure like to know what brought you boys out here to our neck of these urban woods today." Their leader said, his feet crackling on the broken shards of shattered glass as he stepped forward. "You boys out to do some shopping?"
I prayed that Ricky would just keep his mouth shut and let the rest of us handle this. I prayed that Milo would keep his fear in check and that he'd be able to keep himself from totally freaking out. But, more than anything...I just wanted to make sure that Jordan was ok. It's selfish, I know...but when you're thrust into a state of survival mode without warning...it forces you to figure out just what your priorities are in this world. Even if it's just for that moment.
Guilt or shame, be damned...it shows you the truth.
"We were just goofing around. Honest." Ricky said with a shaky voice.
"Goofing around? Interesting." The main boy walked over to stand in front of me, and I made sure to lower my eyes so as not to challenge him on a subliminal level. "Is that what you folks were doing out here? Goofing around?" He asked.
I nodded slightly. "That's all it was. We didn't know this area belonged to anybody. We were just looking to get away for a while. Maybe see the sun come up."
"Get away from where, exactly?" He asked. That's when my breath got caught up in the back of my throat. I didn't want to say anything that might make things difficult for the people back home. Who knows what kind of psychos we might be dealing with in this place?
"Just...away.." I said. But he obviously wasn't buying it.
"Now...if Finn was here...what do you guys think he would tell us to do with this little gang of 'goofies'?" The main boy asked.
One of the girls said, "I think he'd tell us to kill half of their group, and have the other half give us the goods on where they came from." That one comment chilled me to the very core. I could feel the panic in my heart, my body switching over into panic mode...and I began to look around the room on who I would attack first if it came to fighting for my life against the threat they had brought into our midst.
I think he could see the fear in my eyes, hear it in my erratic breathing. Visibly shaken, he raised a hand up and told them to lower their weapons. Which I was happy to see, considering the fact that I was just about to fucking WET myself!
"I think that might be just a little over the top, Sophie." The main boy said. "I can't see these feisty little 'street raccoons' being capable of causing us much trouble. You guys were just passing through...weren't you?" He asked.
I nodded quickly, saying, "Just let us go, and we'll be out of your hair. We don't have anything on us to take...or to trade..."
"Shhhhh..." He whispered. "No need to get into all of that. I'm giving you a free pass this time. No questions asked." The boy then lowered his bandanna, and took his hoodie down to reveal strands of shiny brown hair that hung down past his cheekbones...removing his sunglasses to bring his dark brown eyes into view. I'd be lying if I said that he wasn't really cute. Scary as hell...sure. But if Jordan Chadwick was the prettiest face left in the world, this boy might have been in the top five. Easily. "What's your name?" He asked.
"I'm Noah. These are my friends. That's Milo, with the glasses. And that's Ricky. And over there...that's Jordan." I said, not realizing that I still had my hands up in the air.
"You can put your hands down now." He told me, and it allowed us all to finally relax. "The name's Benjamin, but everybody calls me 'Blitz'. That's Sophie, Jess, Curtis, Santiago, Jericho...and the weirdo kid in the clown makeup is Cecil."
Looking over at him, he didn't seem to appreciate being called a weirdo. Something about that boy was just 'off the rails' creepy. Clown makeup or not. He didn't say a word, he just stared at us like he was itching for the moment when he'd be given a reason to STAB the rest of us to death or something.
"Where are you guys headed?" Sophie asked us.
I was still a bit apprehensive about what I told them and didn't tell them. These are rough times. Resources like food, shelter, heat, running water...hell, even a decent amount of company to talk to in order to keep yourself from going insane...were scarce. Which leaves people like us stuck between those who don't want to share their rations with people they don't know and can't possibly trust...and those who believe that they're so desperate that they'd be willing to slit your throat and TAKE it from others if it meant their survival.
Telling them about home did NOT sound like a good idea.
Unfortunately, Milo wasn't known to have much of a filter when it came to this sort of thing. "We're in a neighborhood about two miles from here. Just on the outskirts of town." Ugh!!! Did he really have to be so specific?
Jordan and I made eye contact, but neither one of us said anything in the contrary. The information was already out there, and the last thing we wanted to do was make them think that we were hiding something that could be of great benefit to them. That would cause them to follow us home for sure.
"Interesting..." Blitz said. "Well, listen...I'd get out of here if I were you. 'Apocs' are probably still out of sorts this early in the morning, seeing as they mostly like to move around at night and all. They stick to the subways during the early morning hours where it's dark enough for them to sleep. Decent supply of rats to eat, too. But they won't be down there for long. They'll be resurfacing soon...looking for supplies. That's why we try to grab everything that we can get our hands on before 10 AM. Less trouble that way."
"Yeah. I get it." I said, breathlessly...the tension in the center of my gut finally untangling itself enough for me to stop shaking visibly.
"We've got rats to breed back home. Sometimes they get pretty big, too." Milo said, and I tried my best to give him a stern look to tell him to shut the fuck up! What the heck was he DOING??? We're not making new friends here! We're just trying to survive long enough to keep them from putting a couple of crossbow arrows in the center of our faces! "We've got this guy, Dirk...he's pretty cool...and he..."
"We should get going." I said through gritted teeth, interrupting Milo in mid sentence. I hope my attempts to silence him weren't too obvious, but I didn't have time to come up with much of a game plan. I just needed him to stay quiet about our personal business and our little oasis away from the rest of the city. A feat that was hard to pull off without actually tackling the poor kid to the floor and covering his mouth with both hands. "We're sorry for treading on your turf, or whatever?"
"Our 'turf'?" He giggled. "We don't really have a turf. We just want to make sure that people aren't taking too much shit from us and making it hard for people to survive out here. To each his own, and all that jazz."
"I get it. That's cool. We'll just...we're gonna go..." I said.
"Go? No no no...we've got to run that by Finn first." Blitz said. "And THEN you can go. Deal?"
"Finn? I don't...I don't know who..."
"Doesn't matter. That's the rule. We take you by Finn. And if he decides that you guys are cool...we'll let you get back to your regularly scheduled program. Ya dig?" He said.
Ricky spoke up and asked, "And what if this 'Finn' guy doesn't think that we're cool?"
Blitz looked at him with a smirk. "Let's just say that you boys should probably try pretty hard to be cool. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." He stepped aside and waved his hand to the hole in the broken window, signaling us to start moving. "I don't want to be rude...but it's not a request. Let's keep this nice and easy, shall we?"
As we all started moving, I felt Jordan take a hold of my hand and give it a little squeeze. I could tell that he was nervous too. We all were. But unless we could find a way to escape this entire group of teens without losing somebody...it was best to play along for now.
The others walked us back out onto the abandoned street, guiding us along and keeping an eye on us. I kept thinking about what it might take for me to just make a break for it. If there was a way to signal my friends to do the same. Or if one of the random objects in my pocket or the pockets of one of the others could be used as a weapon. I don't know who this 'Finn' person is, but if that Sophie girl is right, and his first instinct would be to instantly kill half of us? Then I don't see this ending up being a good plan for any of us.
"Can I ask you who Finn is?" Jordan said. And Blitz just kept walking for a couple of steps before he answered.
"Finn looks out for us. Taught us what we know. Helped us to survive the culling once all of our parents were gone." He replied.
"Gone?" I said.
"Red Listed. All of them." He said. "They came rushing in like a horde of giant army ants, snatched everybody up, put us camps. Wouldn't let us leave. But Finn came up with a plan. He took the strongest of us and he helped us to escape. Who knows what would have happened to us if he hadn't."
"You were in one of the camps???" Milo asked. "How did you get away?"
"Long story. Keep walking." Blitz answered.
Milo turned to Ricky and said, "See? I told you that some people can get out of the camps." Then he looked at Blitz and told him, "My mom and dad went out for supplies a while back, but it's been a while. I'm sure if they got sent to the camps...they could have found a way out too. I mean, it's possible, right?"
Blitz replied with, "I wouldn't hold my breath on that one, kid. If you've been to one of those places, you'd realize that hope is a rare commodity in that hell hole."
With hope shining through in Milo's shaky voice, he asked, "But it's...it's POSSIBLE though! Right? I mean...right?"
Blitz could hear that he was almost in tears, anxiously awaiting his answer. And when he looked at me, I tried to let him know that breaking Milo's heart right now wouldn't be the way to go. Deep down, he needed this.
"Sure, kid. Whatever you say." He said, feeling a moment of empathy for Milo's sad puppy eyes. "Maybe they made a break for it too, huh?"
Ricky sort of rolled his eyes at the idea, but I was thankful that he didn't say anything. His mouth was his deadliest weapon.
"It can't be easy..." I said. "...Being out here all alone."
"Who's alone? I've got my squad with me. We do pretty good. Considering..."
Taking a chance, I whispered, "No offense or anything...but what's with the kid in the clown makeup?"
"What do you mean? He likes the makeup. Puts it on fresh every morning before breakfast." He replied. "Why? You got a problem with it?"
"No." I said, looking over my shoulder to see the boy sort of...glaring at us, one at a time as he kept in step. "It's just...you don't think that's a little...odd? Why would he go out of his way to do that every day?"
Blitz said, "He's a twelve year old boy who likes knives and has a particular flair and an unhealthy obsession with building and detoning a variety of explosives. Needless to say, we don't ask him a lot of personal questions. Ya dig?" And he instructed us to turn around the corner to head down to the end of the next block. "Besides, we're not the ones you need to be worried about right now. Finn is the one that you've got to impress. So save your mojo."
Jordan pleaded, "Can't you just let us go? You can say that you never saw us. We'll be out of your hair, and we'll never come back to this part of the city. Not ever."
"Well, now...that would be dishonest, wouldn't it?" Blitz said sarcastically. "We're in a crisis...honesty is an essential resource, is it not?"
I tried to get his attention off of Jordan and back on me. I don't know what I'd do if he threatened my only sense of hope and freedom in this world. "We're not looking for any trouble. We weren't invading your territory, we just..."
"Everybody's got an excuse." He said. "They're just waiting for us to get comfortable again, you know?"
"Who?" Milo asked, almost out of breath again as he tried to keep up with our brisk walking pace.
"The ones who created this chaos. The Order." He said. "They need to finish cleaning out the camps first, taking care of whatever Red Lists they have left. Then the Yellow and Blue listed civilians come next. Once they're all dead and burned to ash, the military will come out here to find the rest of us. And they'll start all over again. The virus didn't do its job as effectively as they had hoped, I suppose. Now they've got to round up the survivors and put in the rest of the dirty work."
Ricky said, "But why? The whole thing is over with, isn't? Why come back?"
"Why did they come for us the first time? Who knows? Evil is a deliberate action with a self serving outcome. It may not be anything more complex than a snake eating a rat. Heartless people simply do what they do."
I asked him, "When you say...they're coming back for us, what does that mean, exactly?"
"It means what you think it means. This isn't over. Not for us." Blitz told me. "This wasn't a war, kid. It was an agenda. And it slid right by us for years until they found the appropriate moment to crush us with it. The people who thought they'd be so 'safe' once it all went down, they found out too late that they were on their murder list too. Like I said...heartless people simply do what they do."
"They can't kill ALL of us." I said. "That's just ridiculous."
"You're still not getting it, boy. That's the agenda!" Blitz said, and then stopped us from walking outside of big multi-leveled garage. "In here. Go. Maybe Finn can talk some sense into you."
"Listen, we just want to go home, ok?" I begged.
"Yeah. Pleeease?" Milo squealed.
At that point, the other members of his crew raised their crossbows again, and I saw the clown boy draw a knife out of his pocket. Blitz said, "I really don't like to repeat myself, ya dig? It's exhausting. Move. Now. Because if we decide to leave you here...we're gonna leave you bleeding. So quit being difficult."
What choice did we have? I guess we had to move...
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