It was a few harsh shoves and a silent demand that pushed us forward. Milo seemed to be more curious than afraid, but Jordan, Ricky, and I, knew that things could be much more serious than that. There were other children wandering around in that garage...dirty, unbathed, some of them still reeling from the trauma of losing all of their friends and family to the horrors of this 'brave new world'. Either from the sickness, or from having them carried away to the camps and executed with heartless efficiency. They stared at us as we made our way to the upper floors of the parking garage, where we were eventually led to greet their mysterious leader, Finn...who was sitting in the seat of a large minivan that had been broken in half when we arrived. Decorated with a few candles to highlight his face, and a half empty bottle of liquor in his right hand.
He was maybe eighteen years old, but his experiences in this world had aged him considerably. Bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and lines from the sides of his nose, almost down to his chin, from excess frowning and sadness. Messy brown hair, but steel blue eyes that could level you with their intense stare. Thin, but with a menacing aura about him that alerted you to the fact that he didn't need much muscle at all to leave you dead on the floor if he saw fit to do so.
Again...in this situation...there was no question, whatsoever...who was in charge here.
"Hey, Finn! We caught a couple of scavengers rolling around through a few of the main streets, looking for stuff they didn't ask permission for. We figured we'd bring them your way." Blitz told him.
The boy took a deep swig from his bottle of alcohol. There wasn't a label on the outside of it, but it was brown liquid. I assumed that it was some kind of rum or whiskey, like my dad and Mr. Harvey used to drink. "Where are they from?" He asked.
"Just like everybody else...they're afraid to say." Blitz told him. And he nodded.
"Respect." Finn said. "There's an ounce of loyalty there. I take it that none of you have spent any time as 'campers' then?"
"Campers?" I asked.
"Oh yeah...these boys are fresh. Free born. Heh..." He smirked, and drank a little bit more. "You never spent a single day in the camps, have you? I can tell. You've still got a glimmer of 'hope' in your eyes. That's a shame. It's entertaining to witness after going so long without seeing it...but a shame, nonetheless." He said. Then he turned to Blitz and asked, "I trust you checked them for infection?"
"None of them have any symptoms of the virus. It looks like they're immune, just like we are." He answered.
"You poor sons of bitches." Finn giggled. "Looks like you're going to have to wait on the second round up...just like the rest of us. To be honest, I would have rather had the pandemic take me out. Would have been much better than giving those assholes the satisfaction of erasing me, personally."
Jordan surprised me by stepping forward, getting the clown-faced 'Cecil' kid to suddenly stand in his way and keep him in line. "Look...none of us are sick, ok? We walked through the city to watch the sun rise up over Lake Michigan...that's it. We weren't trying to intrude on anybody's territory."
Finn smiled. "Is that what you think this is about? Somebody's 'territory'?" He stood up from his seat, and I began to worry that things might go South for all of us at any moment. "There are no territories here, kid. I'm sure there are plenty of delusional 'Apocs' out there who want to go out of their way to bully and threaten anyone who travels through their bullshit neighborhoods in some odd attempt to feel like they have some kind of control over all of this...but it's all a joke. We're not that crazy. Not here."
He stepped closer to us, and I could feel the fear building up in my chest as he looked each and every one of us in the eye. Brazenly. To the point where we were forced to look away to keep his intimidating gaze from breaking us down completely.
"Like he said...we weren't trying to crowd your area or intrude on your space..." I told him.
"And yet you did it anyway."
"We're NOT a threat!"
"If I thought you were a threat, you'd be dead already!" He growled. "And lower your voice when you talk to me, boy. I've got little patience for conflict and an itchy emotional trigger. Especially when it comes to people in a compromised position." He said, as I heard the faint 'click' of weapons as his minions raised their crossbows up to our heads again. "So...do you want to learn something? Or do you want to argue?"
I looked over at Milo and Jordan...and I saw Ricky trembling slightly over the idea that we could all be flatlined right here and now and we'd never make it home again. So I said, "Learn something...I guess."
"Good choice." Finn replied. "The alternative wouldn't have ended well for you. Trust me." He looked around the room at the four of us, and he asked, "Do any of you still have parents?"
"Parents...?" Ricky asked, an arrow still targeting the center of his face.
"PARENTS! Yes! The male and female specimens that I assume gave birth to you all? You DO know what 'parents' are, right?" He said, frustration creeping into his voice.
I cringed slightly as I saw Milo gently raise his hand. "I have parents..." Why did he do that? Why can't he just...fuck!
"So, you're not all orphaned like the rest of us, then, I take it?" Finn asked him. "Where are your parents now?"
"They're...they're on an extended supply run." Milo said softly. "But...they're coming home any day now, so..."
"Any DAY now?" Finn smirked. "How long have they been on this 'supply run' you're talking about?"
Shamefully, Milo looked down at the ground, still trying to maintain the fantasy that his mom and dad were ever going to come back to us. He mumbled, "About...eight months...I guess..."
Finn looked at the rest of us. Almost as if we were the bad guys for allowing him to hold on to this fantasy for as long as he did. Then he looked back at Milo and told him, "Hey...kid? Your parents are dead. Alright. They're gone."
Angrily, Milo stared him back in the eye and said, "They're NOT dead!!! You're LYING!!!"
"They got caught by the government's personal exterminators...they were probably shoved into an unmarked bus..and they were taken to the camps to be slaughtered, just like everybody else. They're DEAD, get it? The camps MURDER people! That's what they do! That's ALL they do! It's not a side project...it's what they were built for." Finn said, causing tears to pour out of Milo's eyes as he fought to hold on to the truth that his mind had been sustaining for nearly a year now. And yet, despite his blunt delivery and cruel revelations...Finn actually put a hand on Milo's shoulder as if he really had some level of empathy for what he was feeling at that moment. Telling him something that neither one of us were willing to say earlier on when Milo might have been more equipped to deal with the horror of it. "Listen...I know it hurts." He said. "We've all been hurt. Every person that you see in this room has lost someone important to them. But lying to yourself isn't going to make things any better or make the facts any less true than they are. The camps are designed to find and execute as many people as humanly possible in a quick and efficient manner. That's the only purpose they have. Killing us off is their only agenda. They're done taking prisoners, kid. The true agenda has been exposed now. And the people they targeted waited too long to fight back." Finn told him as Milo began to cry, even though he was defiantly holding on to the belief that his parents were still alive, and would be coming back for him eventually...once they found a way to do so. "All they have left to do is pick off the scraps now. They came for the protesters and the defiant ones first to silence their voices. Now? They just have to round up the people who were too scared, too blind, or too complacent, to allow this chaos to happen in the first place. We had our chance to stop this. We had an army the likes that they've never seen before. And now...?" He said. "...Now we're just scavengers...late to the party...trying to feed off of what the true 'lions' of our society left behind. Hyenas without any laughs left. Prey for the heartless predators who plan to come back and finish the job once they decide the time is right." Finn told him. "We're merely in the eye of the storm right now. Trust me...it won't last."
Angered beyond my sense of fear, I stepped forward as well and put my arms around Milo to comfort him. It was as if he had suddenly become weak from my affections, melting into my embrace and weeping softly as his brain tried to repair the wounds that this 'Finn' guy had just ripped open within him. "Look, we don't want anything from any of you, ok?" I said, staring him down with a nasty look. "We don't want to be here. We just want to go home."
Finn asked, "So...tell us where 'home' is, and maybe we'll just let you walk."
"That's none of your business."
"It became my business the second you starting walking our streets."
"Funny..." I said. "...I thought territories were for delusional 'Apocs'. Isn't that what you said?"
"Are you trying to be a smartass now? Is that it?" He asked. "We can't afford to be soft on strangers around here. We just want to know where you came from, and where you're going back to. Supplies are limited. Food is scarce. Trust in humanity is at an all time low. How do we know that you're not scouting out the area and won't come back with a small militia, hell bent on taking everything that we've got and killing us in the process?"
Jordan asked, "How do we know that YOU won't do the same to us?"
Looking over at him with a smirk, Finn replied, "You don't. And as much as you may like to think that this is some kind of an equal standoff between us...I don't see a single one of you holding a crossbow shot to the face as leverage. So I guess you'll just have to trust us, now won't you?" He saw that we weren't giving up any information about where we lived, and he said, "I'll tell you what...how about you give us a general direction. North side, South side, West side? Clue us in."
Milo, practically shivering in his own shoes, said, "Just out West. Ok? Can we go now?" Shit! Why did he even tell him that much? Does he have any idea what we might be dealing with here? These kids were going to murder half of us before we even got here!
"West side boys. Alright." Finn smiled. "That's your part of town, isn't it Blitz?"
Blitz hesitated for a moment. "It used to be. Yeah."
"So...no parents, West side of Chicago, close enough to make it to the lake to watch the sunrise on foot...I think I'm getting a decent idea of what's going on here." Finn told us. "You certainly don't seem like 'Apoc' trash to me. I'll admit to having some faith in the true colors I see in you."
One of the girls, Sophie, stepped forward. "What do you want us to do with them, Finn?"
He thought about it for a moment, his fingers lightly rubbing his chin. "I don't see anything dangerous about these boys. I say we let them walk." He told her. Then he turned to me and Jordan, saying, "The next time you guys get all thirsty for seeing another sunrise...I suggest you take a detour to another part of town. You hear me? You've gotta be careful out here. We all do."
"Fine. We got it." I said.
He nodded. "Understand...this is the new normal. Ever since things fell apart...trusting people has become more of a liability than a virtue. It leads to bad things. We're all just struggling to make it as long as we can until the second round up comes along."
Ricky, now calming down a bit from before, asked, "Do you really think the soldiers are coming back? The chaos? The trains?"
"It's inevitable." Finn told him. "All we can do is train ourselves to take a stand...and hopefully take some of them down with us. The rest is all written in stone as far as our lives are concerned." Finn nodded towards the other teens to back up and lower their weapons. "Better to die fighting than withering away in some FEMA camp. Our eyes are wide open now. I only wish that it had happened earlier. Befor the Culling."
Ricky said, "Noah's dad knew what was coming. He tried to warn people, but nobody would listen."
"Ricky!" I snarled. Ugh! Can everybody just shut up and let us get out of here unharmed? What the fuck???
"Is that right?" Finn said, his eyes examining me with their pervasive gaze. "Was your father one of those conspiracy nuts? Huh? Illuminati and shape shifting lizard people and all that?"
"My father didn't believe in that nonsense. He was an observer." I said. "He...saw what was happening and tried to make sense of it all. He wrote a book...and it got him 'red listed' almost immediately. Nobody believed him. And he..." My breath got caught in my throat before I was able to complete that sentence. "...He died...never having reached anybody. The soldiers came for him, and the world went to shit anyway. So what good did it do anybody?"
For a brief moment, I could have sworn that I saw a touch of empathy in Finn's expression. He attempted to hide it, but I could feel it just the same. "Very sad. But at least he tried, you know?" He told me. "Blitz over here...he knows what that's like. They took his whole family to the camps in the early days after the veil of diplomacy began to drop. Rounded them up like animals ready for slaughter."
I looked over at Blitz, who seemed to be tearing up slightly from the memory of it. He said, "It all happened so fast. You never think that something that extreme is going to come knocking on your front door until it's too late." He fidgeted a little bit before continuing. "My grampa wrote a book too a few years ago. He was red listed too. One of the first to go once we got separated and were taking to the camps. It was called "America: The Fallen Kingdom"...and when the military came to take his entire neighborhood away at once...they made sure that he was high on their priority list of people to be shut down."
Is it strange that the name of his grandfather's book sounded super familiar to me? It's difficult for me to remember right away, but I wondered if maybe it was a part of my own father's research. It definitely sounds like something he would have had me read, front to back, in his attempt to prepare me for the coming storm.
Milo asked, "Did he find a way out of the camps? Like you guys did?" Still desperately holding on to the childish fairy tale that such a thing is not only possible...but common.
Blitz slowly shook his head. "I saw his body on the back of a wagon. Right next to my grandmother. Piled up with other bodies, being taken out to be dumped in a hole like sacks of garbage, or maybe incinerated and turned to ash. That was the last that I saw of them. My mom and dad...I never got to see them at all. But I assume that they got the same treatment." Blitz...Benjamin...began to cry. Tears were running down his cheeks, but there was no emotion in his face. He had spent two years numbing the feelings inside. In these difficult times, it's hard to know when the emotions are going to overwhelm you beyond the point of recovery. So you make it a practice to avoid them all...at all costs. He didn't begin to let his stoic position break until he said, "My sister, Katie...I...I still don't know what happened to her. Finn was able to break some of us out, but...I lost sight of her for a minute. Just...just for a minute..." His sniffles got worse, and I could feel the depth of his sadness as he fought back the urge to break down completely. "I ran. I TOLD her to keep holding my hand, and she let go. She got...lost. And...I ended up leaving her behind. For all I know, Katie might have ended up as another piece of trash on the back of one of those trucks. And the only thing that brings me any peace at all is that I didn't have to see it with my own eyes...and that, maybe...just maybe...her suffering is over and done with."
I couldn't deny that his story touched me. Thinking about my own sister, Anna, and how sick she's been lately...worrying every day that I'm going to wake up one morning...and she won't. But, much like the rest of the people in that room, I've been building a brick wall around my psyche that would bat away and protect me from such thoughts. I didn't want t deal with the severity of the world as it exists today. It's too much.
And yet, the one thing that we all seem to have in common is the need to express some of our pain...share some of our loss...whenever we get a brief opportunity to do so. Even if it's only for a few minutes. A short confession of our vulnerability before covering it uo with shovelfuls of obscuring emotionless dirt again.
In this current world...denial is our only shield.
"I'm sorry..." I said. It was the only words that I had to give him. But, what does giving condolences, thoughts, and prayers, even mean at this point. The whole practice of saying it out loud seems so empty at this point.
Finn gave Cecil a nod, and told his small gang of orphans to back off. "The sun's up now. Apocs will be surfacing soon. If you guys are going to avoid dealing with them, you should get moving. They won't be as easy to negotiate with as I am. Trust me."
Milo asked, "So...we can go?"
"Go for it. Get out of here." He said. "Blitz will escort you back out to the street. Just...do yourselves a favor...keep away from places with resources left. Got it? There are people out here who are in a perpetual state of self preservation. They'll slit your throat for a candy bar if they think it's the last one left."
Finn's eyes met mine for a moment, and we exchanged a nod. "Thanks."
"Go." He said. "Stay out of the city limits."
"We will." I said, and Benjamin turned to lead us back down the ramp to get out of the garage. I looked over at Jordan, who seemed to be trembling slightly over the idea of what could have happened to us if Finn decided that were going to be some kind of menace to hi and his little battalion of tween and teen soldiers in this place. But as his eyes met mine, he was able to work up a subtle smile to show that he was glad that everything turned out ok. And for him...I was able to do the same.
We got lucky this time. We really did. If I was a cat, I'd only have eight lives left after this run in. But...you have to count your blessings when you can. And another day to spend with Jordan Chadwick was a serious blessing, indeed.
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