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Chapter 1: Leaving Home

A soft breeze brushed against his face, the August sun still warm on his cheeks. Collin laid amongst the brush of what had once been a cornfield, the world around him quiet and peaceful. His mother called his name from the back porch, stirring him from his daydream. He stood up and looked across the field to see her waving for him to come back. His feet had to make large strides to avoid the brush and often times he would stumble. His mother's calls became more urgent and the tone in her voice caused him to look up again. He witnessed several bright streaks of light burn through the clouds above him.

Collin jolted from his dream, his breathing erratic at first, but calmed quickly. It was the same dream, every night. It was a relic of the life he once had. He would think back to his family and his tiny little single-wide trailer plopped in an old cornfield in that tiny little town of Alabama. Even the name of the place was a ghost to him now. All that remained was ash, and names meant little. His hands wiped at the dust on his pale face and slowly rose from his make-shift bed. He knew he was somewhere between Georgia and North Carolina but that was as close of a guess he could make. The world had become so much different after The Fall.

He gathered his things in the olive drab satchel he had found among the debris of his father's things. There was little to save but he managed to salvage some clothing and canned goods. It had taken him a long time to leave town but when he realize help was not coming for the only survivor of his home, he knew he had to look for help. He had learned a lot in the few months he had been alone, being cautious being the most important. Collin stepped out the gaping hole within the half-broken grocery store he had taken shelter in just as the sun attempted to light the sky. The color was distorted to crimson through the haze that remained in the air, but he knew it was dawn.

Collin removed his father's survival guide from the pack before tossing it on his back. He had read it multiple times, along with the Bible his grandmother had given him. It was the only two books he had been able to save from his home. For that he had been lucky, one kept him sane and the other kept him alive. He tried to remember the things his father had taught him and wished he had paid more attention. His feet shuffled through the debris of another tiny town that no longer had a name. It had been weeks since he had seen another person, which had frightened him at first but now it was a relief.

When Collin was young he had always thought that most people were good. He had the naive notion that if he truly needed help he could find it within walking distance. His neighbors had always seemed like nice people. His dream was shattered after the event. It was shocking to what lengths people would go to in order to survive. He witnessed his old bus driver put a bullet in a woman's head for a can of Spaghetti-O's. There was no going back after that. He could not even remember the last time he had spoken. He only let his father's 9mm Beretta do the talking.

By the time the sun had rested directly above him, he came upon a large sign that read, "Welcome to South Carolina". Collin stood stoic, the words almost alien to him. He had never been this far from home. He had tried to find his aunt in Georgia but the landmarks had been so distorted from the damage he could not discern his true location. Everything was burnt and broken, even him. He brushed away tears from his eyes as he continued forward into the blank canvas before him and wondered if anything would be created here ever again.

Cars lined both lanes of the highway he traversed. Bodies lay frozen in time within each seat. The television broadcast had told large cities to evacuate and they all tried. What the report did not inform them of was the fact that there was nowhere to run to. Collin stopped to examine each vehicle, looking for anything of use. His eyes rested on a small car seat in the back of an SUV, the skeletal remains of a child still secured tightly inside. His fingers brushed across his face, feeling the scars from his own burns and thinking of his younger brother. He had to shake off his despair, he could not break down in the open, it was not safe. Nowhere was.

Collin passed through what was probably once a bustling main street, crumpled buildings greeted him at every step. The sun was falling and he knew he would need shelter. The night had brought its own pitfalls. The more troublesome members of society had taken over the dark. Most of them had learned that people moved at night to avoid detection and had started hunting in the twilight hours. He made sure to not be their prey, finding shelter in an abandoned gas station. He had always hated the dark but this was something different.

Now that the moon no longer guided the night, it was like being plunged into oblivion. His body curled up behind a crumpled countertop, resting his head upon his satchel. Clouds rolled in the distance, tinted purple by the ash of the sky. He could smell the tainted moisture that filtered the air. There was a storm on the horizon, which meant there would be less movement in the night. The raging of Mother Nature use to frighten him as a child, but it was a shield in times like these. Collin knew he would be able to sleep soundly for the first time in over two weeks and his lips curled slightly into a smile as lightning split the sky. His eyes fluttered in the darkness and were lulled to sleep by the rhythm of thunder.

His younger brother Danny pounced on him, reminding him that Saturday morning cartoons were on. Collin rubbed the sleep from his eyes and made his way to the living room. With a click of the remote he appeased his brother and yawned as he walked to the kitchen. He would make them both a bowl of Lucky Charms and sit quietly until his parents woke up. They sat and giggled with each other at the antics on screen until their fun was disrupted by an emergency broadcast. Tornado sirens wailed in the distance, but Collin saw no clouds out the window across from them. The sound had startled his mother and soon both of his parents stood beside them, eyes fixed on the screen. It had been their first warning of what was to come.

Collin was startled by the sound of rustling within the gas station. He pulled the pistol from his coat and eased around the counter. The sun had not come yet and he could barely see. His pale blue eyes were even worse for seeing in this darkness, but his ears had become sharp. The sound of cans and bottles being rummaged through were like a beacon he honed in on. When he was sure he knew where the intruder was located he lifted to aim. The sound of the safety releasing caused the figure to pause, dropping their loot. They did not move and Collin froze as well, not knowing if they had a weapon or not. His body shook as he slowly applied pressure to the trigger.

“Please, if you have a gun don’t shoot,” the voice of a child called out, “I am just looking for food, not trying to start any trouble.”

Collin’s voice replied, raspy from lack of use, “Anyone with you?”

“N-no sir,” the child whimpered.

“Then take what you need and leave, that’s your last warning,” he barked.

Tiny feet shuffled in the dark, grabbing at things Collin could not see. He followed the sound until it exited the store. He listened intently as the steps drew further away from him and even after they were gone he could not go back to sleep. He simply sat gripping his weapon until the daylight allowed him to see. The store was a mess and the kid must have been knocking things over to try and tell what they were grabbing for. Collin felt guilty for not helping, but he had seen far too many people lured into traps by children. He could not risk it.

Once Collin could see his surroundings more clearly he exited the gas station, a few extra rations in tote. His pistol scanned the area, making sure he was alone. He circled the tiny building and checked nearby cars but there was no sign of the kid. When he returned to the front of the store his eyes fell on an old newspaper stand. The stacks of paper still read the headline, “The End?” He had seen that page thousands of times and knew the article word-for-word. He wondered if any other newspapers were still printing after the event. He wanted to read a different story for once.

From what Collin understood the Earth had been pelted with several large asteroids. They had rained down in the atmosphere like buckshot and destroyed several communication satellites on their descent. The smaller objects burnt up in their entry but the larger bodies stayed intact until they collapsed in a burning display of light. A force emitted from each of these that leveled most structures, something they referred to as an “asteroid air burst”. Apparently, it was not an unknown phenomena but nothing on this scale had ever happened before. The initial damage and lack of proper communication is all it took to send civilization, as they knew it, to a halt and left the world around him a primal version of what it once was.

Collin pulled a tattered road atlas from his pack and trailed the road he thought he was on with his finger. He had made a point to avoid large cities due to the level of damage and major highways that seemed to attract the more dangerous members of society. From what he could tell he was north of Augusta, Georgia near a small town called Clarks Hill, South Carolina. His exact location was unclear but he was sure he was on the right track. He had no other family, at least none he had found and had decided to go north. He had heard rumors of places untouched in Canada and that was his only hope.

His hand shoved the map back into the bag and before he began walking again. The first hundred miles had been far easier, before someone stole his bicycle. He thought about his tenth birthday, when his father rolled out that ten-speed with the biggest grin on his face. His family had never been rich, by any means, so a gift like this was a big deal. Collin remembered riding it until late in the night before his mother made him come inside. The growling of his stomach broke him from his day dream and again he had to brush a salty speck from his cheek before reaching for a bag of beef jerky. A couple bits dropped on his tongue and he chewed, remembering how teriyaki flavor had always been his dad’s favorite.

Collin was approaching an intersection and he would usually take a moment to double check his location at places like this but something about this one felt wrong. There were more cars in this particular crossroad than there should be in a rural area like this. His eyes scanned the area as he came to a stop behind a large Ford pickup. Two sets of cars seemed to block the left and right passage and the direct route held an overturned school bus. Someone had created a blockade here, a rather large blockade. He saw no movement ahead, but that meant nothing. Any number of people could be hiding within the abandoned vehicles. He quickly removed his pistol and slowly made his way to the trees to his left.

He followed the road from the tree line, watching intently for any sign of life. Collin’s steps were deliberate, making sure to step heel-to-toe in order to create as little noise as possible. He could hear his heart beat within his ears, it echoed at him as a warning. He knew what he was doing was stupid but he had to keep going forward and could not risk getting lost. As he approached the far side of the intersection he heard voices. The sound made him creep even slower and drop down to crouch. There seemed to be a scuffle of some sort just around the end of the bus but he could not see clearly.

Collin crossed behind a van, kneeling down and looking underneath toward the commotion. Three men stood over a young African American boy, rummaging through a torn backpack. They seemed to be looking for anything of value but only found a few cans of beans and child-size clothing. One of the men kicked the boy, which caused him to cry out in pain. Collin’s eyes drew open wide, instantly recognizing the voice from the night before. He had always hated bullies and his first instinct was the run for the boy and almost started sprinting but one of the men turned to reveal a 20 gauge shotgun within his hands.

The more he watched, he realized they all had weapons. Each had a pistol holstered at their hip and the other two held hunting rifles, complete with scope. This made Collin realize that the only reason he had been able to approach was that they were too preoccupied with the boy. He argued with himself internally on what to do, watching as they spat and kicked the child repeatedly. Then one of them pulled their pistol, aiming it to the back of the boy’s head.

One of the men yelled, “What are you doing Earl?”

“He’s got nothing we want Ned and he’s gonna die out here anyway,” his friend replied.

Collin snapped into motion, his feet moved before his mind even registered the action. Within seconds he had rounded the bus, dropped the safety, and emptied half of a clip into the three men. The shock forced the leader of the group to release a shot into the air but the other dropped before they could fire. The boy lay on the asphalt, covering his ears from the sound and crying. Collin’s heart felt like it was about to beat out of his chest before the reality of what he had done came crashing down on him. His hands hung limply by his sides as he fell to his knees. He had never actually had to kill anyone and it was hard for him to process.

He sat, staring down at his hands and feeling like a monster. Soon his face was soaked by his inability to hold back his despair. The boy slowly crawled over to Collin, placing a hand on top of his knee. Collin jumped, not used to being touched, almost falling back. “Thanks, mister,” the young man said through sobs as he slowly got to his feet. It took a good fifteen minutes for Collin to compose himself and get up from the road. He shuffled around the men as the boy searched each one for anything useful. They all looked like the kind of men that would have been buddies with his father. The idea that the world had become so horrible in just a few months was torture and he had hoped he would not have had to become one of its monsters.

Collin grabbed one of the rifles, an extra pistol, and as much ammo he could carry. He only took one can of food and a bottle of water. He left the rest for the kid and began walking north again. The boy followed a few feet behind and Collin simply ignored him for about a mile. They both walked in silence until his new companion decided to speak. He repeated how thankful he was for the help and came closer to Collin. When the boy was walking beside him he noticed a small hand reach over, as if wanting to give him a handshake.

“My name’s Anthony, but everybody calls me Tony,” he tried to smile through a swollen lip. The older of the two stopped and scratched his head for a moment and finally took hold of the kids’ hand. He shook it gently, not sure how hurt Tony was.

“I’m…Collin,” he sighed, “So, are you gonna just keep following me now?”

“No, a matter of fact, I was headed this way anyway,” he smirked, “You might say you are following me.”

Collin shook his head and started walking again, “Whatever you say, kid.”

They continued this way for the next day, mostly silence until Tony decided to spark up a conversation. It was usually silly things that did not matter anymore, like old television programs or comic books. Collin never said much but did not completely ignore the boy. The way Tony spoke reminded him of his younger brother and something about that was comforting. The two finally came upon an old farmhouse tucked back inside the tree line and since darkness would be on them soon Collin told Tony to follow him to it.

Collin handed Tony a pistol and made sure he knew how to use it, pointing out the safety switch on the side. He told the boy to wait by a tree nearby until he could search the house. The older of the two disappeared into the dark structure, moving from wall-to-doorway with his pistol trained on anything within his immediate view. He remembered the basics of breach and clear tactics, not just from his father but from so many years playing first-person shooter games. He hoped it was enough to keep himself safe. When each room was found empty he returned to the front door and whistled for Tony to come inside. They made themselves at home within the living room and had been lucky enough to find a small kerosene lamp to fight back the night.

Tony attempted to entertain Collin with horrible knock-knock jokes as they passed a can of Frank ‘n Beans across the small wooden coffee table. The scene almost felt normal to Collin and he started to forget what the world had become around him but with every sound from outside the door, his eyes would jerk toward the window. Each time he would search the surrounding area before coming back inside and eventually the routine had become exhausting. He just wanted to get some sleep before they had to start walking again in the morning.

“Enough jokes, let’s get some rest,” his voice being much harsher than he intended. Tony’s head lowered before he slid back to the couch, “Sorry, just use to talking with my brothers before bed.”

Collin felt like a jackass and shook his head, “No, I’m sorry kid. I forget I’m not the only person to lose people. I should remember that,” before taking a seat across from his companion.

“And I don’t understand why you keep calling me a kid,” Tony barked, “You don’t look much older than me.”

Tony was right, Collin was only sixteen when the event occurred. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking about this, he had felt so old lately. He did not want to admit he had no real idea what he was doing but he was afraid to stop. There had to be something better than what he had come to know and he had to find it. Tony turned and noticed the fear in Collin’s eyes, which made him uneasy.

The boy spoke to break the tension, “So, how old are you anyway?”

“How old are you?” Collin said as he snapped back to reality.

“I asked first,” Tony said, sticking out his tongue in mockery.

“I’m older, so that trumps who asked first,” Collin replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Fine,” the boy huffed, “I’m ten, well what month is it?”

Collin pondered for a moment, “Should be November.”

“Then I’m eleven this month,” Tony beamed.

“What day is your birthday?” the older of the two asked.

“The twenty-ninth,” Tony replied.

“Same day as mine,” Collin laughed slightly under his breath, which was the first time he had done that since before The Fall. They both joked about sharing a birthday party and baking a cake. Of course, Collin knew this was all fantasy and probably would never happen. He knew that either of them could be dead at any moment, but he did not want to crush the boy’s dream.

“I will be seventeen this month,” he finally answered the boy’s question.

Chapter 2: Painful Memories

Collin dreamed of January, his family huddled around the tiny kitchen table as his younger brother sat in front of a large chocolate cake adorned with twelve lit candles. They sang happy birthday and their mother told Danny to make a wish. The young man’s eyes glowed with excitement before taking in a deep breath and extinguishing all of them but one. The remaining candle made Danny frown but Collin leaned over and put it out with a huff. “I didn’t see it still lit, you got ‘em all,” he said with a chuckle.

He was startled from his dream by the sound of an engine roaring to life. He shot up from the couch to notice Tony was no longer inside. He grabbed his pistol and rushed outside as a rusty old Chevy truck plowed through the field in front of him. Tony sat bouncing in the driver’s seat, with a grin from ear-to-ear. Collin bolted from the front steps, bounding across the field. He yelled for the boy to stop but his calls could not be heard over the truck. He finally came across the path and waved for Tony to stop. Tony’s eyes shot open wide as he slammed on the brakes.

The truck came to a stop, kicking up dust, just a foot from Collin. He rushed to the driver’s side, turned off the engine and yanked Tony out before screaming, “What in the hell do you think you are doing?”

Tony’s eyes welled up, “Just wanted to have a little fun, at this rate I’m never going to get to drive a car and I don’t know why you don’t, would be a lot better than walking everywhere.”

Collin’s voice was still booming, “Listen I didn’t get to practice enough before all this shit happened, ok? Plus, don’t you think all that racket is bound to draw some attentio-“

His words were stopped in his throat by the sound of another truck. Collin had been right and someone now knew where they were. He quickly jerked Tony up and began running for the house. Within moments the door shut behind them and they tossed their things into their bags. Collin peered out the window to see a huge four-wheel drive stop outside the farmhouse, two men inside and two more standing in the bed of it holding rifles. They all climbed down and began calling for the two to come out. They had already been spotted and now they were trapped inside.

Collin whispered for the boy to follow him upstairs. They crept slowly up the wood planks and made their way to a bedroom that overlooked the men. Then Collin instructed Tony to go to the side window and open it. As the boy did this, Collin brought his rifle up to aim. He peered down the scope and dropped the reticle at about neck-level of one of the gunmen. Collin told Tony to let off a few rounds as soon as he took his shot. He squeezed the trigger slowly, remembering to exhale as he drew it all the way back.

The crack of the rifle caused Tony to jump, his finger jamming down on the trigger of the pistol again and again. The first man fell to the ground, blood spurting from the side of his neck. The other men scattered at the repeated popping of the pistol. They attempted to seek cover behind their truck but Collin was already trained in on the next one. The bolt dropped the next round in place and he fired, sending a round through the next one’s chest. Another round chambered and fired within seconds, shattering the driver’s knee as he tried to run. The last had made a dash across the field but Collin’s last round buried deep in the back of his skull before passing through the other side.

When he lowered the rifle Tony was still clicking away at the pistol, having no ammo left in the clip. Collin took the pistol from Tony’s hands, shoved it back in the holster he had stolen and guided the boy down the stairs. They exited the front door to see that the driver was still trying to crawl for his truck. Tony was told to remain on the porch as Collin approached the injured man, he stood over him for a moment as the man rolled over to come face-to-face with Collin’s rifle. A final shot rang out in the open field before the two gathered their belongings and started their trek back to the road in silence.

An hour later Tony attempted to apologize, “I’m sorry.”

Collin stopped walking and without even looking back to the boy began yelling, “If you want to survive you are going to have to listen to what I say and start acting less like a little kid. You keep running around and joking about this situation you’re going to be dead, Danny!”

Then he started walking again, leaving Tony speechless behind him. Tony kept his distance for the rest of the day. They did not even speak during meals or breaks. It was the longest day either of them could remember and by the time they came to rest at a deserted diner they were simply ready to call it a night. Collin closed his eyes, his pistol resting in his lap. Tony sat across from him, staring at the pistol for a few moments. He had never seen anyone act like Collin did and questions bubbled up inside him. One question in particular.

“You called me Danny,” he almost whispered.

Collin peeked out to the boy, “What?”

“Back on the road today, you called me Danny. Who’s Danny?” Tony finally asked.

Collin shook his head for a moment, “Don’t worry about it.”

Tony was afraid to push Collin anymore, he knew it would just make things worse. He shuffled against his backpack and tried to get comfortable as the sun disappeared over the horizon. Collin turned away from the boy as he felt the salty tears form at the corner of his eyes. The two of them lay in silence for hours before they could actually fall asleep. When both drifted off to a restless sleep they dreamed of the same thing and it wasn’t birthday cake or presents.

Collin simply nudged the boy awake with his boot and tossed him his backpack. He had already been up a couple hours and had stocked up on what few things were still edible from the diner. They began walking again and found themselves passing through a tiny neighborhood. Each house looked similar, yet minor differences drew their attention. They both quietly admired the change of scenery, it had been all trees for quite some time. Collin’s eyes trained on the windows most of all, his rifle in hand. Tony had even kept a pistol in his pocket now, knowing danger could be around any corner. They had both become hardened by this world even though neither of them were truly ready for it.

Then Collin’s eyes came to rest on something laying in the grass. It was shiny and new, even though it was more of a purple than the blue one he had. He slowly picked up the bicycle, pressing on the tires to check for air. They were firm and he knew they could use it to move a little quicker. He waved Tony over and sat on the seat, then gestured for Tony to hop on the back pegs. The two of them began rolling down the hill and the breeze on their face reminded them of a better time. Collin wanted to yell out with excitement but he knew it would be a bad idea. When the hill tapered off the bike came to a stop at a sign that read, “30 Miles to Charlotte”.

Collin’s fun had been dampened at the thought and he simply pulled out his map. They would need to turn north to avoid the city and he began plotting a path. Tony slipped off the bike and walked over in front of it, reaching up and pulling the paper down so that Collin could see him.

“You feel like talking to me now?” the boy said in an almost bashful tone.

“Just didn’t have anything to say,” Collin replied before pulling his map back up.

“You could start by telling me who Danny is,” Tony quipped.

Collin closed the atlas and shoved it back in his satchel with a sigh. He rubbed at his eyes and tried to think of the right words. He tried not to think about his little brother but Tony was a constant reminder of his mistakes. He wanted to tell Tony the truth and just get it out. It was the first time he even had someone to talk to in months. Collin was simply afraid that Tony might leave and never come back.

“He was my little brother, about your age actually,” he finally let it slip.

“Was?” Tony’s face wrinkled in confusion for a moment, but soon realized his mistake, “I’m sorry, what happened?”

“He died,” Collin replied before looking at the ground where his foot kicked at the asphalt.

“Before or after?” the boy quickly responded.

“After,” was all Collin could say.

Tony wanted to ask why, he wanted to hug his new friend and tell him it would be, “Ok”. Something in him told him that it wasn’t the right time and he knew it was getting late. So, he simply climbed back on the bike and tapped Collin on the shoulder before pointing forward. The bike whipped to the left, putting them on a more northern route. The pedals whirred as they left the tiny neighborhood and their small moment of happiness behind. They disappeared over a hill clouded in the ashy smoke that brought them back to the world they truly lived in.

By the end of the following day, they found themselves rolling down Burke Street in Rhodiss, South Carolina. Their light was fading and decided to take refuge in a small Dollar General store. As usual, Collin swept the property before allowing Tony to come inside. The two of them scoured the aisles for any supplies. Most of the good canned food had been taken but there were able to find a few bags of dry beans. Collin found a first aid kit and Tony waved a few flashlights that still worked down the aisle to his friend.

This meant they did not have to spend another night in the dark, at least until the batteries ran out. They barricaded themselves in the manager’s office and gorged themselves on the snack cakes that had not gone stale. It was the closest to a birthday party they were going to get but it was just as good as long as they were together.

When they emerged in the morning Collin removed his map and showed Tony the route they would have to take. It would put them crossing a bridge, which he hated to do, but it would save them the hours it would take to go around. They mounted their bicycle and quickly descended on the bridge. Their eyes fell on the crumpled remains of the landing and what was once a passage across the lake now lay in the water. The two slowly descended to the docks, looking up and down the shore to look for another bridge.

Tony hopped off the bike and ran down the shore a bit, pointing toward what appeared to be a dam in the distance. He waved to Collin, drawing his attention to their salvation. A smile grew on Collin’s face, he really did not want to have to go back and around the water. The bike began to roll forward as Tony came running back. The two boys met back at a small building up from the landing and decided to make their way toward the dam. A whistling noise caught Collin’s attention and he stopped the bike just as an arrow struck him in his right shoulder. Tony screamed at the sight and started toward him but Collin yelled for him to run for cover.

Tony dove behind a pile of canoes and Collin began pedaling as fast as he could. His eyes scanned the buildings as he went and just before he passed beyond a building another arrow buried into the wall beside him. His body fell from the seat of the bicycle and he began crawling behind a storage container. The two boys were only ten feet from each other but without knowing where the shots came from it might as well have been miles. Tony cried into his hands, trying to be silent because Collin had already taught him how important that was.

Collin looked down at the shiny projectile that jutted from his jacket, the red dyed the cloth quickly around it. He was in immense pain but he could not let that stop him now. The two of them were still in a lot of danger. Collin tried to peer over the crate but the roof over him blocked most of his view. He knew the shot must have come from an elevated position but he could not see any open windows or rooftops. He pointed to Tony, then to his eyes, then back out toward the building across from them. It took the boy a minute to understand but then shuffled to the other side of the canoes. Tony inched over one of them and searched the area.

An arrow punctured the hull of a nearby boat, which sent Tony diving for the ground. He tried to whisper something but Collin could not make it out. Then the boy pointed to his eyes, then across the street, and made an arch from his hands that signaled, “roof”. Collin put up his hand, instructed Tony to stay put then eased around the opposite side of the building. As approached the opposite corner he took a quick peek toward the roof. Standing with the bow drawn was a very thin man wearing a hockey mask covered in what appeared to be dried blood.

Collin watched the man for a few moments, seeing that he was still focused on the other side of the building. He moved closer, coming to a small car. He attempted to aim the rifle but pain pulsed through him when he lifted it. He hoisted the barrel over the trunk of the car with his left arm and tried to steady it as best as he could. His breathing had become erratic, causing the reticle on the scope to jump violently. Collin tried to calm himself, he knew he would only get one shot. The crosshairs swayed from the man’s head down to his left arm, which happened to be the one holding the compound bow. His breathing slowed and when his aim was as steady as he could make it his finger pulled the trigger. The shot grazed the man’s left arm, pieces of his jacket scattered to the wind. He turned and fired an arrow that stuck into the hood of the car in front of Collin. The young man ducked for cover as another arrow was let loose. From the corner of the building he saw Tony, tears streaming down his face. He had used the shot as a distraction to come help but Collin was not sure what to do. They both made their way back around the building and moved back further away from their attacker.

The building was small and would not hide them for long. The man had them at a disadvantage and Collin knew this. Plus, he now stood between them and the dam. They would have to eliminate him but they were not sure how. As they rounded a side-street and attempted to come around to their attackers left, Collin knelt beside a tree and told Tony to take the rifle. He hesitated but Collin simply shoved it in the boy’s hands. Tony shook his head and tried to hand it back but Collin resisted.

“No, I can’t lift it and if we don’t stop this guy we are dead,” he gasped through his pain, “You have to take the shot, kid.”

Tony cried, he had never had to kill anyone and did not want to. Collin could see it in the boy’s eyes and he did not want to have to make this choice. There really was no choice though and he began to tell him what to do. He pointed at the bolt, drawing it back and placing a new round in the chamber. He dropped the bolt closed and told him to bring it up to his shoulder. Collin pushed the stock into Tony’s shoulder hard.

“You got to have a good grip on this one, it has more kick than the pistol. You’re going to want to look through that lens right there and where the two lines meet is what you are aiming for. You try to calm yourself, line up those crosshairs, then take a deep breath. You pull that trigger as you breathe out, slowly and you will be fine,” the word came rushing back to Collin, just the way they had from his father.

Tony crouched and crawled around the tree. He could see the man still searching for them but only the top half of his body was visible. He rose to his knees, trying to brace himself. Collin stood right behind him, reminding him to try to stay calm. The man turned to look in their direction and came close to that side of the roof. Tony began shaking at his feet and it traveled through his whole body. Collin rested a hand on his shoulder and promised it would be alright. The crosshairs danced around a bit and Collin reminded him to shoot for the biggest part of the man’s body he could see. When the two lines intersected over the man’s stomach Tony let out a sigh and pulled the trigger.

The two found their way to a church nearby and Tony sat on a pew as Collin dropped his bag beside him. He told Tony that he needed him to break the back end of the arrow and pull it out. Tony hesitated but Collin insisted, handing him a thick towel. He told him to break the end off, remove it and cover the wound with the towel, stressing the fact that he would need to press hard. Tony was still shaking, but he knew his friend was right. He had seen all this in the movies but he wasn’t sure if he was strong enough. The shaft cracked and broke free, causing Collin to scream out in agony. They both removed the halves of the arrow and covered each side with a towel.

“What happened to Danny, Collin?” Tony’s voice low, his hope dwindling. “I told you he died,” Collin snapped.

“But how Collin? How did he die?” Tony pushed harder for the answer.

Collin couldn’t take it anymore, he had almost got both of them killed and now he couldn’t even lift his rifle. His body jerked from his sobs, unable to hold it back anymore. Tony immediately felt horrible for even asking but was not sure what to say. He simply kept pressing the towel against Collin’s shoulder, which was soaked with blood by now.

“I...,” Collin paused, the words not wanting to come, “I c-couldn’t protect him.”

Tony listened as a story was told about two young boys playing in an old corn field. The land had long been without a harvest, his family no longer sowing the seeds. It had been a dream of his grandfather’s and once he was gone no one saw the need. His parents placed their little mobile home on the land to keep his grandmother company. She enjoyed having her grandchildren so close. The boys would spend their evenings and weekends playing in the field and down in the trees behind it. That was until The Fall.

His parents had died trying to protect them. They did not have a shelter but all huddled in the center bathroom of his grandmother’s two-story house. The two boys had been placed inside a large cast iron tub and both parents’s laid over top of them. This was the best shield they had as the heavens rained down on them. When the commotion ended, Collin had to force his parents off of himself and his brother. The medicine cabinet had come crashing down with such a force it had jabbed into their father’s skull and shards of glass protruded from their mother’s neck. Danny cried relentlessly as Collin searched for their grandmother. She had lost hope and they found her body laying outside, still clutching a picture of her late husband.

The weeks that followed Collin could not greave his parents, he had to be strong for his brother. He drug him along while collecting things they would need to travel. His first plan was to make his way to his other grandparent’s house, which was in a town nearby. It would be a long walk but he had no choice he had nowhere else to go. He had already tried to neighbor’s homes, but they had all attempted to flee. Their cars set lifeless a few miles down the road. He shielded Danny’s eyes as they passed. They came to the yard of their bus driver, who had his shotgun in hand. A young woman clutched a can of soup and begged for help. Collin pulled Danny away as the gun fired and the woman fell to the ground. That was the last time he approached people.

Their father taught them to move at night, that way you were less likely to be seen. That might have worked during combat situations but this was a different world. It was only a week into the two boys being alone when the bandits found them. A group of middle-aged men and women had been searching for food and weapons. They took Danny first and Collin drew his father’s pistol. It vibrated in his hands, he’d never had to use it outside target practice and he was not sure if he could kill someone. He aimed it and ordered them to let Danny go, but they refused. Before he could react they tossed his screaming little brother in the back seat of a car and sped off. The shots of the pistol pelted the back of the vehicle but it was no use, Danny was gone.

“So, you see,” Collin looked back to Tony with tears in his eyes, “I couldn’t protect him, I can’t protect you, and I obviously can’t save myself.”

Tony hugged his friend as best as he could without releasing pressure on the towel, “It’s not your fault Collin, we’re just kids. You did the best you could, hell you’ve saved me twice already.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t bring Danny back,” Collin sobbed.

“Well, you said they took him. How do you know he’s dead?” Tony questioned.

“You know first-hand what happens to kids that are of no use in this world,” he replied with a cold stare and Tony knew it was true.

They both sat quietly. Collin cried himself to sleep and Tony sat up watching over him for hours. Over the next month, Collin made it his mission to teach Tony everything he knew. They both read from the survival guide and the Bible at night. They even found a small home library that offered more information on foraging and handcrafted items. Tony even picked out a few books for entertainment value but Collin was firm on training each day. While Collin healed, Tony became more adept at the world they now lived in and soon Collin felt safe with him by his side. They could protect one another like brothers should, which always made Collin a little sad.

Chapter 3: A Cold Winter

Winter was what they were not prepared for. Neither of them came from places that received much snow. By late December the ground had been coated in white and the two boys found themselves making more frequent stops to rest. Their clothing was not adequate for this type of weather and Collin constantly cursed himself for not being prepared for this. Tony always tried to be his ray of hope and assured him they would find better attire before it got too bad. Collin tried his best to believe his friend, but as the weeks past, that small sliver of hope began to fade.

They had been making poor time already but when they finally reached what should have been the northern portion of Ohio, they knew their map would be almost useless. The rising waters of the Great Lakes had engulfed most of Michigan, turning the state line into beachside coated in snow. They had been moving more west to avoid Columbus and had no choice but to continue in that direction and across Indiana. They had abandoned the bicycle long ago, the snow had risen too high to push through with the tires.

Collin stopped at a sign that read, “Kishauwau Country Cabins,” his eyes intent on the words. His will was spent and so was his body. Tony tapped him on the shoulder and asked what was wrong but Collin simply stared at the sign. The wind stung his face and he could no longer feel his toes. They had spent almost two months walking through this and they had only made it to Illinois. Collin knew that if they had to avoid major cities and the rising waters from the lakes then it would be another few months before they reached Canada. He began to regret coming north, he started wishing he had just stayed home and tried to survive there.

“Are you ok, man?” Tony nudged him again.

Collin remembered why he kept going, “I’m cold and I’m tired.”

“No shit, so am I,” Tony quipped.

“I think we should find one of these cabins, get a fire going and hunker down. I don’t think we can survive out here much longer,” Collin replied, barely taking notice of Tony’s remark.

Tony’s eyes lit up at the thought of being warm for a while and took off toward one of the log structures that remained at the camping ground. After a few attempts of finding an unlocked door and failing, Collin simply kicked the door in. They would have to board it shut but at least they were inside. Tony rushed over to the fireplace, seeing that whoever had stocked the cabin left enough wood to get it going. He began lighting kindling and grabbed for the first log while Collin surveyed the place. They had abandoned their normal caution for warmth and he needed to make sure they were safe.

The tiny cabin had a living room, two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and one bathroom. Even if the facility was on a well Collin knew the pipes would have frozen long ago. They would have to melt down snow over the fire to drink and bathe. The fridge was empty but there were a few canned goods left in the small pantry. It wasn’t much but it was something. Tony yelled for Collin, letting him know the fire was ready and Collin grabbed a couple blankets from the bedroom before joining his friend. They both stripped off their dripping coats, shoes, and socks then laid in front of the light as the sun went down. Tony asked what Collin’s plan was from here, but he was silent for a moment.

“Let’s worry about that in the morning,” he finally replied before tossing Tony a thick comforter.

Collin dreamt of lying in the old cornfield again, but this time Danny was right beside him. He turned, staring into his brother’s eyes and noticed malice within them. Danny asked why he had been forgotten so easily and Collin tried to explain through tears. He tried to tell him how sorry he was and that Tony wasn’t a replacement, that he could never replace him. The sky above turned dark and cold, the wind picking up rapidly. Collin looked up as snow began to cover his face and when he looked back Danny’s form was replaced with Tony’s. His friend spoke, “Wake up, wake up Collin!”

Tony stood over Collin, shaking him and trying to get him to open his eyes. Collin’s eyes remained shut but mumbled apologies over and over again. Tony felt his forehead, it was extremely warm and sweat beaded upon it. The young boy could tell his friend was shaking, despite how warm it felt. He knew that Collin must have a fever. The boy dug through their back for the first aid kit, finding a small packet of ibuprofen before grabbing a bottle of water. He heaved Collin up from behind and pushed the pills between his friend’s lips. His hand shook as he tried to pour the water in and get Collin the swallow, begging him to take the medicine.

Through his fever-induced haze, Collin choked down the pills. Tony laid him down again and rushed to find a towel, he knew he had to bring down his temperature. For the next few days, Tony medicated his friend, tried to keep him comfortable and gave as much water as Collin could swallow. They did not have any antibiotics and Tony could only hope Collin was strong enough to fight off whatever infection afflicted him. The boy was scared, but his friend had prepared him to survive. Tony had learned to shoot, track, hunt, and prepare food. Which would come in handy as their stocks were running low. They had not seen many animals but anything would do.

When Collin’s fever broke, Tony decided to go out to look for food. They only had a couple of cans of beans left and he knew that wasn’t enough. Collin would need real food once he woke up. Tony had found a winter coat in one of the bedrooms, it was a little big but it would help keep him warm. He took the pistol, Collin’s hunting knife, and the rifle as he set out into the endless mounds of white. The wind was harsh to his cheeks, but he knew he had no choice.

Collin awoke four hours later, his head pounding, as he scanned the room. A small sliver of paper had the words, “Gone Hunting,” scribbled upon it. This caused him to rush to his feet, knowing Tony should not be out there alone but as soon as his feet came to the floor he stumbled in his weakened state. His body crashed into the couch, sending pain throughout him. He screamed in agony, gagging and coughing in an effort to catch his breath. He called out for his friend but unknown to him Tony was at least a mile away.

Tony sat covered in snow near a small bush, his eyes trained on the slight movements of what appeared to be a snow rabbit. He had been waiting for hours and this was his chance to bring home some meat. His finger pulled the trigger and the shot rang out just before the animal dropped over lifeless. Tony let out a laugh of joy as he ran for his reward, grabbing hold of it and his knife. He quickly skinned and cleaned his kill before burying the unused portion. His feet drug in the snow to cover up any trace of blood or his tracks as he made his way back to the cabin.

When the boy stepped into the cabin Collin almost tackled him in a hug. Collin was sure he had been hurt or taken while out hunting. He squeezed him so tight that it hurt his chest and eventually had to stop and sit back down. A coughing fit erupted from Collin’s chest as Tony sat down the rabbit. He ran for the first aid kit, looking for something that would help with a cough but there was nothing. He returned and asked what he could do to help.

“You came back, that’s enough,” Collin attempted to smile, “So, you got yourself a rabbit?”

Tony grinned, “I got us a rabbit.”

Tony had learned a little about cooking from his mom before the world turned to crap, not necessarily rabbit but he figured it could not be much different. He diced the meat and scrounged the cabinets for any kind of seasoning. There was a bit of salt, pepper, and maybe a sprinkle or two of oregano. It wouldn’t be much but it would add a little flavor to the pot. It boiled over the fire as the Tony detailed his hunting trip. Collin smiled as he listened to every detail. He was glad his friend was safe.

They shared the meat and broth, the warmth of it easing Collin’s throat. It was the first time they felt full in a couple of months. The two of them had not had meat since before the snows. With their bellies full, they huddled by the fire again. Tony pulled out one of the books he had acquired along the way, “Alice in Wonderland,” and began reading. Collin would normally tell him to brush up on something useful, but he felt the boy had earned something more upbeat. He laid there against the couch until he fell asleep. Tony shook Collin violently, “Wake up!”

Collin groggily responded, “What the hell? What’s wrong?”

“There are wolves outside!” the boy yelled.

“That’s not possible, wolves don’t live around here,” Collin responded while trying to go back to sleep, then he heard a very distinct howl.

Collin shot up and to the window, Tony following just behind. In the darkness they could make out three sets of eyes, pacing just beyond the tree line. The wolves had caught the scent of Tony’s kill and followed it back to the cabin. They drew closer, following the smell until one of them was at their door. The other two circled the tiny house, scratching at the wood at random intervals. Collin could only guess that the scarcity of food had drawn them back to a place they rarely visited. Now they knew where to find a meal and had no intentions of leaving until they had it. Collin quickly called for his rifle and Tony placed it within his hands.

“How many rounds do we have left?” he asked the boy. “About five,” Tony replied while shaking the box. “Shit, we need to save these. We really didn’t need this right now,” Collin cursed.

Tony apologized but Collin assured the boy he was not mad at him. He put the rifle down and grabbed for his pistol. He knew they had more rounds available for it and if he was careful it should do the trick. He handed Tony the other pistol, if they worked together they could split the group up.

Tony took the back door, while Collin gripped the front knob. The door slowly parted, the pistol steadied for aim. The animal turned in curiosity but was met with a 9mm bullet. It yelped and ran back for the group as Collin stepped out onto the porch. The other two had advanced on the house just as Tony rounded the corner. Collin dropped three shots at one, missing the first two due to the wolf’s speed. The third hit it in the hip, which made it stumble but barely slowed it down. Tony lined up his shot, firing two rounds. The first hit the wolf’s shoulder and the other landed between its eyes, putting it down. Collin fired two more shots as the last of the pack continued to advance. It lunged for him as he was firing, causing Collin to miss. He struggled to keep the gnashing teeth at bay and slowly pressed the barrel of the pistol to the thing’s ear. With a final pull of the trigger, it fell limp on top of him and Tony shoved it to the side before lending his hand to his friend.

They both cleaned up the bodies, and drug them away. When they returned to the cabin Tony finally asked the question he had been waiting a week to have answered. He wanted to know what they planned on doing next. They were almost out of food and were no closer to Canada. Collin had almost forgotten that he had promised him a plan before he fell ill. He rubbed at his eyes for a bit, going over what he had originally wanted to do that morning. It did not seem like the best idea now that they had seen what could be waiting in the woods and predators had become more aggressive due to lack of food sources.

“You ever had coffee?” Collin finally spoke.

“No, but what’s that got to do with anything?” Tony responded, his face wrinkled in confusion.

“Follow me,” Collin said with a smile. He had found a half-empty can of Folgers when they had first arrived, but did not think it important at the time. He grabbed a rag, emptied the grains into it and tied it closed. He boiled the grains in a pot before filtering it through another rag. It came fairly clean before he placed it in two mugs. He sat one at one chair within the kitchen and the other across from him. He pointed to the chair and Tony sat, gripping the warm cup.

“Ok, I don’t think we should go any further until this snow clears up,” he said before taking a sip of the strong brew, “Maybe even wait until Spring.”

Tony attempted a drink, gagging at the taste, “Wow, how do you drink this stuff?”

“You get used to it,” Collin lied, he had always taken his coffee with a lot of sugar and cream but that was a luxury they simply didn’t have, “So, what do you think? Hang out here and wait for warmer weather?”

“Sounds fine to me, but we’re gonna need food,” Tony responded before attempting another drink from his mug. He grimaced again after swallowing hard.

“I think I might have an idea about that too,” Collin took another drink, “We still have all these cabins around us and if there is one rabbit there is bound to be more, we just have to be more careful next time.”

They both agreed to make the campground home for the winter and set out the next few days searching each cabin, one-by-one. They managed to stockpile their pantry with plenty of canned beans, fruits, vegetables, and dried goods. Then they took to the woods, looking for meat. It took a few weeks to get a few pounds of decent food. They converted the stand-up shower in the bathroom into a meat locker, insulating the walls and packing the bottom with as much ice as they could find. It wasn’t perfect but with a little salt, their meat would stay fresh between uses. They simply had to keep the ice fresh and keep their stock up every few weeks.

The weeks passed and they feasted on several rabbits, squirrels, and random rodents. It wasn’t ideal but it kept them fed. They became more creative with their recipes to make sure it didn’t become redundant. They hunted during the day and set traps for predators. At night they read from a small library of books that they found during their searches of the cabins. Some of their literature was comprised of magazines but anything new was a blessing. Collin even made sure to set aside time to teach Tony anything he could remember from high school. They had become a family, with their own home.

“You don’t talk much about your family,” Collin said one night after dinner.

“You never asked,” the boy replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Well, I am now. So?” Collin quizzed. Tony paused for a moment, his eyes drifting off into a memory of a life he had almost forgotten. When the facts came flooding back he began telling a story, just like from one of their books. Tony had come from a broken home, he had never met his father and his three older brothers did most of the providing. Their mother was addicted to heroin and when he was nine a social worker arrived to remove him and his brothers from the home. They spent the next couple years being shuffled between foster homes. That was until The Fall, he had been separated from his siblings and had no real idea where they were.

Collin almost cried to find out that Tony had been abandoned the day of The Fall. The boy had huddled in their basement alone while the world came crashing down. When he emerged the home he had been living in the last few weeks had been destroyed. His foster parents never even called to let him know they were not coming back. Collin hugged his new friend, which made Tony cry as well. Collin made him a promise that he would never leave him like that and Tony promised the same.

Chapter 4: The Long Road

When the snow began to melt and winter gave way to spring Collin was hesitant to leave their new home. It had become a comfort in a world so devoid of such pleasantries. It took Tony reminding him of their destination to bring Collin back from that dream. They both knew they could not survive here forever, especially now that there was no snow or ice to keep their food fresh. It had become more difficult to find wild game as of late as well, they could only assume that their activity there had drove most of the wildlife away. They would have to prepare to leave their home.

Their pace had slowed, there was less of an urgency to make good time. They had one another and for now that was all they needed. It took them far longer to make it to Wisconsin than it should have but summer was close and the map showed a nice size lake right within their path. Collin wanted to take a break in a town nearby and enjoy the season. It was like having a real family vacation for once. He had never traveled much as a child and this seemed like the best time as any to have some fun, especially now that Tony was with him. They unloaded their belongings into a large home at the end of what should have been Lewis Street, West Salem, Wisconsin. The backyard had a view spanning across a lake that the map named, “Neshonoc.”

Collin stood at the edge of the dock as Tony ran to the end of it. There was a small boat still tied to a post, just floating within the water as if it had been forgotten as well. Tony came rushing back with fishing poles in hand.

“Look, maybe we can catch some dinner!” the boy yelled with excitement.

“Maybe,” Collin said with a smile, “You know how to fish?”

“Not really, my brother’s took me once but it was a long time ago,” Tony seemed sad at the thought, “But you can show me right?"

Collin nodded and grabbed a pole before following Tony to the dock. They stood at the end casting lines, they tried to bait with the franks out of a can of Frank ‘n Beans but did not have any luck. The two of them stayed out there for hours chatting about the last few weeks and where they were headed. When the sun went down they made their way back to the house, hoping to find better bait tucked away somewhere.

“If nothing else we can dig for worms,” Collin said as they stepped in the back door.

“Can we go back out tonight?” Tony jumped with enthusiasm.

“Let’s start early in the morning, I’m pretty hungry and we could both use a rest,” Collin responded.

Tony looked disappointed but he understood and began unpacking some cans to make dinner. Collin started looking over the house, checking for blankets and maybe fresh clothes. As Collin entered the living room Tony was standing over their bags, holding the Bible Collin's grandmother had given him. Tucked between the pages was a small photograph of a family. Collin dropped two blankets and a couple sets of clothes on the couch before coming over and pointing down at the picture.

"That's my dad, mom," he pointed at the faces on the page, "and me and my brother, Danny."

"You guys looked happy," Tony replied.

"We were," Collin said, taking the picture into his hands.

He stared at the yellowed image, it was from long ago. They all were dressed in their Sunday morning attire. Collin with his button-down shirt and red sweater vest, his younger brother looking almost like a sailor, and his parent's holding them close with big smiles playing on their face. Collin remembered the day and how much he didn't want to take the picture, but he would give anything for one more day like that. He brushed a tear from his eye before placing it back between the pages.

Tony could tell that something was wrong and handed Collin his bowl of beans. He knew that bringing up the past would ruin the day they had already had. They simply ate their dinner and made themselves comfortable in the living room. Tony dreamed of freshly caught fish, but Collin faded back to that open field and the autumn sun and his mother's voice. He remembered the streaks of light falling from the sky. His vision changed to the moment his parents covered him in the tub and the impact of the falling debris. He witnessed his parent's death all over again before Tony shook him awake.

"It's time to catch some fish!" Tony screamed with excitement.

"Ok, ok, ok," Collin said as he found his way to his shoes. The two of them found their way to the dock and Tony dug in the mud for some worms. They cast their lines under the dim light of what should be daylight Collin looked up at the haze the rested in the sky. It wasn't quite the summer he used to but it would do. They stood there for hours, Tony keeping the conversation going as always. Soon the boy was silenced by a tug on his line.

"I got one!" he yelled.

Collin dropped his pole, stepping over to help his friend. They both tugged on the rod and reeled in the largest bass either of them had ever seen. It flopped about on the line as Tony held it up high in celebration. Collin only wished he had a camera to capture the moment. They both laughed at the sight and were glad they would have a decent meal. Collin instructed Tony how to descale a fish and prepare it to be cooked. They were lucky the house they had taken residence in had a fire pit. Their seafood dinner roasted nicely over it as they shared more stories.

"I caught my first fish when I was five," Collin said with a laugh, "I was too afraid to touch it when it flopped onto the bank."

"Did you eat it?" Tony asked.

"No, my family wasn't big into seafood but it was more about spending time with my dad," Collin responded.

Tony paused for a moment, looking at the fire, "You talk like you and your dad didn't get along too well."

Collin turned the fish on the pike they had created to evenly cook the meat, "Well, he was good at teaching me things but he wasn't so good at showing how he felt. I don't think I ever remember him hugging me or telling me he loved me."

"That sucks," Tony replied.

"Yeah, I always told myself if I had kids I would always tell them I loved them. I don't think a kid should have to go his whole life not hearing that," Collin said, his eyes still focused on the fire.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Tony said, almost in a sigh.

Collin knew the tone in Tony's voice. They had both come from places without love. It constantly amazed him how lucky he was to meet Tony in a world like this. It was easy to forget the smog that filled the air and the ash that occasionally littered the ground. Everything seemed easier with Tony around and secretly he prayed for God to protect the boy, even though he was not sure there was a God watching over them anymore.

The two went to bed, bellies full of their fresh catch and canned vegetables, but Collin sat up thinking of his family while Tony slept. He thought about what Tony had said about Danny possibly being alive. His young friend had been right about so many things and wondered if his little brother might still be out there somewhere. He wondered what he might say to him if he ever saw him again. He found a pen within a desk drawer and began writing in the blank pages at the end of his Bible.

When Tony woke up he watched Collin tuck his Bible back into his pack and asked what he was doing. He brushed it off and acted as if he was checking his supplies. Collin suggested they go down to the water and take a swim, but Tony became hesitant. When Collin noticed how apprehensive his friend became it caused him to question it. That is when he found out that Tony could not swim. The day was spent tossing the boy into the water and drawing him out until he learned his way in the water. "Thanks for teaching me to swim," Tony gasped as he pulled himself from the lake. "No problem, sorry it was so rough. It's the only way I ever learned," Collin laughed slightly.

Tony brushed the water from his face, "No, it's fine. Seems to be the only way to learn anything anymore. You get tossed into the deep end and if you come up, you survive." Collin couldn't respond to that. It was the most honest thing he had ever heard. The whole world was the deep end now and everyone had been tossed in. The people that were left were the ones who were either strong enough to stay afloat or just plain lucky. Collin wondered what of the two he was and looked to Tony, questioning the same thing.

"Listen," Collin said, in a somber tone, "If something happens to me, remember everything I have ever taught you and survive, Ok?"

Tony's eyes got wide and he leaned back from his friend. Collin had never spoken to him that way and it was almost as if an elderly family member was saying their last goodbye. His eyes shifted side-to-side, not sure what to say when Collin's hands grasped his shoulders.

"Promise me?" Collin's voice was serious.

"I promise," Tony responded.

They spent the rest of the summer enjoying the lake. Collin was sure they had plenty of time to make it to Canada before the next winter and wanted to enjoy as much time here at the water as possible. By the time they decided to leave Tony was an expert fisherman and swimmer. They had even taken the rowboat out a few times to learn the water. It had been an amazing summer, better than any memory Collin could remember from his childhood. He only wished he could have shared it with Danny.

Chapter 5: Autumn Leaves

By August they had reached North Dakota, which meant the border was not far away. The open fields that once held wheat went on for miles with the occasional town specked between them. Tony would make games of tag last for hours, the two of them chasing each other across old farmland. Collin almost felt like a kid again and there was no one to tell them when to stop. They had not seen another soul in months, which meant the world was theirs. When they reached a sign that read, "Pembina", Collin pulled out his atlas. His finger trailed the route they were on and showed Tony that they were less than a day away from the border. Tony jumped up and down with excitement before slapping Collin on the shoulder, "You're it!" The boy took off into a field nearby, stalks of old wheat still dancing in the wind. Collin quickly shoved the map back into his pack and took off into the brush.

"I'm gonna get you kid!" he yelled, abandoning his normal caution in light of their good news.

The two ran through the field, tagging each other back and forth. The tall grass parted at every step. Tony stopped abruptly and crouched, giggling as he watched Collin fly past without seeing him. Collin pushed the stalks away from him, searching all around for his friend. When his hand landed on Tony's shoulder, he gave him a light push and it sent the boy down on his hands and knees.

"You're gonna pay for that!" Tony yelled.

Collin ran full speed away from the tiny spot, rushing to find a place to hide. His body emerged from the field beside a dying tree. He circled it and looked around, there was nothing in the area to give him away and without the motion of the brush, Tony would have a harder time locating him. Collin simply crouched behind the small tree and waited for his friend to find him. That is until he felt the hard steel of a rifle barrel push into his back.

"Stand up," a man's voice said.

Collin slowly rose from his kneeling position, bringing his hands into the air, "Listen, I don't have much but you can have it. We are just trying to get to Canada."

"Doesn't look like you're gonna make it kid, hand me the pack. Do it nice and slow," the voice commanded.

Collin did as instructed, letting the straps slide down his arms and drop to the ground behind him.

"Now the rifle," the man said, his tone growing more serious.

The gun was let down and rested by the bag. The man had seen the pistol and the holster and Collin was forced to remove it as well. His captor walked around the back, pushing it to the side with his foot. Soon the man stood in front of Collin and told him to get on his knees and put his hands behind his head. Collin begged to be set free but the man did not respond. Collin could tell he had been waiting at the border for people like him and began to regret this whole trip again. He felt so stupid for not being more cautious in the field and the thought reminded him that Tony was still out there somewhere with no knowledge of what waited for him.

The man prepared to fire but just as his finger came to rest on the trigger Tony burst from the field screaming, "I GOTCHA!"

Within an instant, the man's barrel began to turn toward the younger of the two and without thinking Collin grabbed for it and screamed, "NO!" His hands pulled it back and as the round left the chamber it buried deep within Collin's chest. Just as quickly Tony pulled his pistol from his belt and fired a shot into the man's head. Both Collin and their attacker fell to the ground almost simultaneously.

Tony shoved his pistol back into his waistband and rushed to his friend. He placed both hands of the wound that blood now gushed from. He tried desperately to stop the pouring liquid but it was no use. Collin gasped for air as his lungs filled with the same blood. Soon the red sprayed from his lips as he struggled to speak.

"No, don't talk. I'm gonna take care of you, like last time. You're gonna be ok," Tony said through the tears that soaked his face.

Collin simply shook his head and tried to smile, "It's ok Tony."

"Shut up!" Tony cried. He removed his jacket and tried to apply more pressure to Collin's chest, but it was no use. The wound was too severe and Collin knew this.

"Remember, you promised," Collin said weakly through gurgling gasps for air.

"NO!" Tony screamed.

"You p-promised," Collin struggled again.

"I know I promised. I will survive," Tony finally agreed.

Collin's vision began to blur but his mouth opened again, "I love you, Tony." "I love you too Collin," Tony's tears flowing like a faucet now as he tried to hug his friend one last time.

Collin's eyes closed slowly, his mind fading back to a field that used to grow corn. He lay in the sunlight again with his brother Danny beside him. In the distance, he could hear his mother calling them back home. He got up slowly and smiled at her while waving. He took his brother's hand and started back to their little trailer and when he turned his eyes to the sky he saw the light coming down again. This time, when it came, he left with it and his family.

Tony took the time to bury Collin's body next to the tree. With the hunting knife, he carved Collin's name into the bark and the best date he could remember. He wanted to make sure his friend was never forgotten because he knew that he would never forget Collin. He had been not only a brother but the closest thing he had ever had to a real father figure. Tony gathered their things and started toward the Canadian border. He wasn't sure what he would find there, but he would keep his promise. He would go on and he would survive, no matter what.

Chapter 6: Apex Predators

The heavy steps of combat boots echoed down a long corridor as Tony was escorted by armed guard into a large concrete structure buried in the side of a mountain. His weapons had been confiscated upon his entrance into Canada. Tony had approached the border station, which appeared to be abandoned upon first inspection. He had only made it a few yards within the gate before a dozen rifles were trained on him. The guards had taken all of his possessions and forced him into a Jeep. Tony had been blindfolded for what seemed like an hour before they allowed him to see the large entrance of the bunker. Tony could only wonder what their intentions were with him and found himself wishing Collin was still alive to protect him.

The procession stopped at a large iron door. One of the men pounded his fist on the entrance, causing it to reverberate against the concrete walls around them. Within seconds a metallic clamor was heard from the other side and the door opened. Another camouflaged man stood on the other side and directed Tony to enter. The boy was pointed to a small chair sat behind a large metal desk. Tony sat, his body almost shaking at the thought of what would come next. The door shut and was latched before the man sat across from Tony and opened a small folder that rested upon the desk. The man’s pen clicked and the folder was tossed open to what appeared to be some sort of form.

“Name?” the man said.

Tony jumped slightly, not expecting the voice. “Um...T-Tony.”

“Full name please,” the voice changing to annoyance.

“Anthony James Williams,” Tony replied.

“Age?” he asked.

“Eleven, twelve in November,” the boy said as he looked around the room, “What is this place?”

“Your questions will be answered later, but first we need to get some from you,” the man said as he finally looked up to Tony. “So, where are you from?”

Tony sighed and for a moment he was not sure if he should be so honest. “G-Georgia.”

With every answer the man scribbled on the form and soon it was filled with most of Tony’s personal information. The boy sat nervously tapping his foot on the floor below him, the steady buzz of the fluorescent lights above him the only sound other than the questions. He found himself thinking of Collin again, wondering what his friend would have been doing in this situation. The boy imagined Collin fighting back against the guards at the border and finding a way to take them all down. He had built his recently departed friend into something superhuman and the thought made him smile. The sound of the folder clapping closed broke him from his daydream.

“Ok, that’s enough of the boring stuff, it’s time to get to the reason you are here,” the man said with a smile playing on his lips. “This is Forward Base Charlie and I am Bandit.”

Tony’s eyebrows contorted at the name. “Bandit?”

“Yep, when you start here you get to change your name if you want. Most people have name’s like that around here. When we get you setup you can choose one too, but I would think long and hard about it because once you pick one that’s your name from here on out.” Bandit’s pen tapped on the folder as he spoke.

“So, what is all this?” Tony’s hands waved around him at the room.

“Well, when the world went to shit a lot of people didn’t know what to do. Government went out the window and most of the Army regulars weren’t sure exactly what to do without the proper guidance. Some of them even lost their shit,” Bandit said with a slight laugh in his tone. "So...it kind of left a hole that had to be filled. That’s where we came in.”

“And who exactly are you?” Tony quizzed.

“Well, our higher ups are former military from various places. They came together to try and protect who was left and have been recruiting every able bodied person since. That’s how I started, I mean I was a snot nosed kid from Oregon before I came here, never used a gun in my life,” Bandit laughed.

“But...who are you?” Tony’s voice became annoyed at having to repeat himself. “Oh sorry,” Bandit paused, “Man I have a tendency to ramble, I mean, they say I have a big mouth. I guess that’s why they have me doing these little interviews for newbies.”

Tony simply shook his head before Bandit realized he still had not given the boy an answer. “Ok ok, we call ourselves the Apex Predators.”

“That sounds... really lame,” Tony scoffed.

Bandit shook his head. “Listen I didn’t make up the name, some old fart did. Something about there are two kinds of people in this world the predator and the prey. You know wolf and sheep shit. They wanted to make sure we were the top of the top, you know?”

Tony’s eyes rolled a bit in his head. “Most of the guy’s I have seen so far don’t look much older than me. And you’re what? Fifteen?”

The look on Bandit’s face showed how insulted he seemed to be. “Sixteen actually.”

Bandit finally escorted Tony from the tiny room and further down the hallway. They came to a large bay window with a desk just behind it. A young Hispanic girl sat at the desk with aisles of shelving behind her. Bandit passed the folder through a slot to the left of the window and the girl retrieved it. As she skimmed Tony’s form she exchanged small talk with Bandit. Tony stood quietly, listening to the exchange and learned that the girl’s name was PackRat. It seemed fitting since she seemed to be the guardian of all of the supplies for the base. Tony’s eyes scanned the shelves and saw stacks of clothing, food rations, weapons, ammunition, and various personal hygiene items.

The girl finally turned her attention to Tony and began asking for his shirt, pants, and shoe sizes. Just as Bandit had taken his notes, so did PackRat. Every answer was scribbled into Tony’s file and once she was done her little body disappeared among the stacks. When she returned a pile of clothing was dropped into the slot by the window. Bandit pointed to it and Tony only assumed he was to gather the things. The boy opened the metal slot and removed three tan t-shirts shirts, three digital camouflage button down shirts and matching pants. Once he closed the slot, PackRat dropped a pair of black combat boots into it and shoved it back through. Bandit opened the door, grabbed the boots and plopped them on top of Tony’s pile. Tony looked down into the boots and noticed they were filled with rolled up balls that must have been his socks and underwear.

“Ok, that’s all you get for now,” Bandit said, “That is, until we learn a little more about how capable you are.”

Tony was then escorted further into the compound, past a large set of double doors that approached a cross walk within the hall. They took a left and approached another door. Through a small window at the top of it Tony could tell that this was some sort of barracks. The other side held lines of bunk beds and young men scattered among them. Some lay on their racks reading, some played cards over their footlockers, some slept, and some of them were cleaning their rifles. The longer he looked the more he realized that all of them seemed to be as young as he was.

Bandit pulled open the door with one hand and waved Tony in with the other. “After you.” The boy entered slowly, his stack of clothes almost covering his face. His eyes shifted from the faces before him, the faces that now turned to see him enter. It seemed like everything came to a stop to witness the newcomer and this made Tony uncomfortable. His feet shuffled under him as Bandit entered just behind. The group sat in silence for a moment before Bandit introduced Tony to them and instructed the room to show the “newbie” around before turning on his heels and exiting the room.

No one moved at first, especially Tony. The world he had come to know recently had taught him to be cautious and at the moment he felt like he was standing in front of t-rex, trying to be as still as possible so that he was not attacked. Tony wanted to be invisible, he wanted to crawl into a hole away from the constant stare of every boy in the room. That’s when a hand clapped down on his shoulder, causing him to jump and turn toward it. A dark-haired Caucasian boy laughed for a moment before removing his hand.

“Sorry about that,” he spoke through a slight laugh, “I forgot how jumpy I was when I first got here.”

“Haha, y-yeah,” Tony faked a laugh.

The dark-haired boy shoved an open hand forward. “Name’s Duke.”

“Hey.” Tony reached out and shook the inviting hand. “Duke, huh?”

Duke gave a weak chuckle, rubbing at his close shaved hair. “Yeah, I didn’t pick it, some of the guy’s did. They said it’s cuz I sound like one of them Duke boys, you know from that old show?”

Tony shook his head, “Never seen it.”

“Ah, guess you won’t get the reference then, anyway let me show you around,” Duke said as he started down the path between the rows of beds.

As Duke passed by groups of people he named off people. There was Skinny, who was, of course, a very skinny Middle-Eastern boy. Then there was Tex, who was not from Texas but somehow was roped with the name. He met a HotRod, Flex, Rabbit, Joker, Fox, Bug, Wolf, and a Mack which was short for Mack Truck because of his size. All of these names had corresponding meanings and applied to the personality that held them. Tony began to understand the reason for the name choosing tradition. They all seemed visibly happy to be someone different from who they had once been. It was like starting over and prying themselves up from whatever hell they had come from. That was when Tony began thinking of what he would want his new name to be. That thought rushed through him as the tour continued and he missed the next group of names. He did not snap out of it until they approached the bathroom.

“Now this room has your showers and shitters,” Duke said. “We have two bathroom rules. One, if it’s yellow you let it mellow. If it’s brown flush it down. We have to conserve water.”

Tony laughed at the thought as Duke continued, “Two, we get showers on Monday and Thursday, that’s it. Again, to conserve water.”

“I’m used to going without showers, so that’s no big deal,” Tony replied.

“Yeah, we all were too when we got here.” Duke scratched at his head again as he looked down. “So, how long were you out there, anyway?”

Tony’s eyes trailed off, thinking of the last year of his life and Collin. “I was alone for the first month or so after The Fall, but I had company over the last year... he just, didn’t make it here.”

Duke shook his head as he looked up. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok, we almost made it, some asshole tried to jack us just outside the border and my friend stopped him, but got shot in the process.” Tony kicked at the concrete as he spoke.

“Man, that really sucks,” Duke replied. “But, you made it here and we take care of each other.”

Tony felt Duke’s hand slap him on the back and something about it made him feel better. He even gave a little laugh at the thought of feeling safe again. He had wondered if he would be after losing Collin, but the people here did not seem too bad. Duke showed him to an empty bed that he could use. Tony placed his clothing in the footlocker at the end of it and unrolled the folded sheets and pillow case. He prepped his bed just before Bandit returned to the door. He called out to the room, “Lights out, we got an early day tomorrow ladies,” and the flickering fluorescent lights above them went dark.

The room was woken by a blaring trumpet. A very large man stood at the doorway while a young man blared the instrument. As the horn fell silent the man instructed them to get on their gear and meet in the training area. Tony rushed to pull on his clothing as some of the other boys disappeared out the doors. He did not want to be left behind because he had no idea where the training area was. While he struggled to tie his boots Duke stepped over to him and helped him finish. Duke stayed until Tony was finished and told him that he would not let him get lost on his first day. Tony thanked him and something about the way Duke cared reminded him of Collin, which made him sad. He tried to hide the feeling, and forced a smile as they exited the barracks.

When they exited a doorway at the rear of the hall Tony was greeted by a large clearing that was surrounded by a concrete wall on all sides. His eyes scanned the enclosure in the dim daybreak, guessing that the wall had to be at least twenty feet high. The area was as large as a football field and was littered with ropes, ladders, ramps, tires, and metal bars. Tony knew what this was, it was an obstacle course. The boys lined up in rows of six and Tony fell in line next to Duke. His new friend pointed to the man that had woken them all up, as if to tell him to pay attention.

“For those of you who do not already know me, I am Sergeant Buzzkill.” The man’s voice sounded like thunder. “But you will call me Sir, understood?”

The group screamed in unison, “YES SIR!!!”

Tony jumped at the sound, as the sergeant spoke again, “I’m sorry I thought I asked you a question.”

The boys screamed again and this time Tony joined them, “YES SIR!!!”

The sergeant paced back and forth across the front line but his eyes caught sight of Tony who stood in the back. The man’s broad shoulders pushed passed the boys between them and came to stand over Tony. His eyes were intense, the kind of stare that you only developed from combat. He stood silent for a moment, weighing in his thoughts of the new recruit.

Tony’s mind swam with worry, unsure of what might happen next. Tony’s eyes shifted slightly over to Duke and at that second the sergeant spoke directly to him.

“Don’t look at him, look at me,” Buzzkills voice boomed again and Tony could feel his spit splash his face.

Tony stiffened, his eyes wide. “Yes Sir!’

“What’s your name kid?” the man barked.

“T-T-,” Tony stammered.

“Spit it out punk,” the sergeant yelled.

“Tony!” the boy forced it out.

The sergeant huffed, a smile curling on his lips, “No, what’s your real name boy?”

Tony had not decided on a name yet, so he scrambled for an answer. He was quiet for several moments, running through the options he had been contemplating. His eyes shifted slightly and he noticed the people in front of him were watching intently for his answer. The sergeant seemed to lean in closer, his smile widening at the idea of causing Tony distress. Suddenly the boy did not want to be here, he wanted to be back in the cabin with Collin. He wanted to go back and start over. Fear crept up in him, a fear he thought he had escaped. All of this swarmed his mind as the sergeant waited for an answer. “Well?” the man bellowed.

Tony’s mouth opened without thinking, “Stone!”

The sergeant leaned back and let out a hearty laugh, “Stone? More like Pebble!”

All of the boys joined in the laughter, all of them except Duke but they were silenced quickly by a raised hand from the sergeant before he spoke again, “Very well, Stone.” The sergeant turned on one heel and returned to the front of the group. Tony felt Duke’s elbow nudge him and when he turned toward his friend there was a grin spread across his face. Tony had chosen a name, which he could not change. From that moment forward he would be known as Stone by everyone within the base.

The day started with calisthenics as a warm up. Then they hit the course and though Tony had been worried about the task, he seemed to have no trouble with the challenge. His year with Collin in the emptiness had not only taught him a lot but it had prepared his body for the future. That thought pushed him harder, Tony wanted to live up to Collin’s memory. As Tony crossed the finish line before anyone else one thing echoed within his mind and that was his promise to survive. Through his gasps for breath he was still able to smile and he imagined Collin smiling back.

“What are you smiling for Stone?” the sergeant yelled.

Tony was broke from his dream again, “I’m alive sir!”

“For now,” Buzzkill responded, a sense of seriousness in his voice. Tony’s smile faded as the rest of the boys joined him at the end of the obstacle course. They all struggled to breathe, some hunched over and holding their knees. They all poured sweat and begged for rest. Tony could only imagine how tired everyone else was but his muscles burned from the strain. Duke patted him on the back and congratulated him on finishing first. Tony feigned a smile again, unable to shake the sergeant’s words. He knew how dangerous the world was but the illusion of this place had allowed him to forget for a short time. The boy knew he would have to leave these walls eventually and he was sure that was what his instructor meant.

Chapter 7: On the Rise

The young men spent the winter training, Tony finding himself outshining most of his squad mates. While most of them had come from backgrounds with survival knowledge, Tony had lived it his year with Collin. His sergeant soon requested that Tony become their training squad leader and would be tasked with carrying out their daily routine. When the announcement was made, Tony could feel the daggers dig into him from some of the older boys within the group. He knew his promotion would stir bad feelings but there was little he could do about it. Tony had made a promise and he would do whatever it took to survive.

After one particularly grueling day of traversing the course through harsh winter conditions, the boys took to their bunks groaning in pain. When Tony’s head hit the pillow, his exhaustion brought him to slumber far quicker than it ever had. The grumbles and complaints around him had become common but it faded as visions of the warm waters of a lake filtered into his mind. He saw Collin standing on a bank as Tony swam, the summer sun warming their bodies. A smile crept across Tony’s lips during his sleep until the sun was eclipsed by darkness. He began to gasp, unable to breath and slipped under the water.

Tony woke to his blanket being forced down on both sides by multiple boys. He quickly struggled to free himself but their combined strength was too much to protest. Tony screamed into the sock that had been shoved into his mouth, begging for help. Soon a slurry of fists buried into his abdomen. He was struck repeatedly for several minutes within the dark room of their barracks. Each of them had blacked out their faces to avoid identification but it did not matter Tony knew who was attacking him and why.

The commotion stirred Duke from his bed, he scrambled from his bunk and across another. When he reached the group, his body dove shoulder-first into one of the boys holding down Tony. Another released his hold on the blanket to face Duke, slinging a fist in that direction. Duke quickly evaded, grasping hold of the arm as it passed and tossed the boy to the side. As Duke tried to right himself from the maneuver another punch landed firm in his jaw, sending him to the floor. This had left one side of Tony’s bed partially free, giving the squad leader the ability to free himself with squirms and kicks until his body slid from his bunk.

Duke struggled to his feet, the other boys rounding the bed. Tony dropped his heel into one of their knees which caused it to buckle. Soon Duke and Tony were back-to-back surrounded by the remaining boys. They both bore their fists and prepared to fight as the ones on the floor regained their stance. Tony landed a right hook in one of the boy’s ribs, while Duke’s knee buried in one’s gut. Their attack left him open and soon felt knuckles bury in their face. They stumbled, but came to rest against each other’s back for support. The two advanced again, ready to strike but just before they could land a hit the fluorescent lights flicked to life above them and their sergeant’s voice echoed through the hall.

“What in the hell is going on in here?” Buzzkill’s voice boomed.

All of the boys stood like statues, Tony and Duke turning to face their instructor.

“Squad leader Stone?” the sergeant’s eyes cutting to Tony.

The group looked to Tony, his face bruised from the altercation. It was easy to see what had transpired and all of them knew the consequences of their actions. Several boys shuffled their feet behind Tony, preparing nervously for their punishment. Tony had no reason to defend them but he also knew that if they were punished for fighting then so would he and Duke. It only took him a few seconds to make his decision. He stood at attention, steadying himself, and clear his throat.

“Everything is fine sir, just a sparring session,” Tony lied.

“Well, it’s over now. It’s lights out, clean yourself up and get to bed,” Buzzkill barked.

All of the boys quickly made their way back to their bunks. Tony stood at attention until all of his men were back in bed, staring at the sergeant. Buzzkill gave the boy a slight nod, knowing what he had done for his fellow squad mates, before turning and leaving the room. When the lights went out again, Tony slid back into his bed and pulled his blanket up over his aching body. Every muscle screamed at him in pain but he would not let it show. There were whispers around the room as he closed his eyes and tried to return to his dream, despite how much he hurt.

When they were roused by the morning bugle each boy made their bed, dressed for the day, and stood at attention at the end of their bunk. Tony stood at the end of the isle, counting them off as each member of his squad took their place. His eyes fell on six empty bunks, Tony stared at them noticing the neatly made bed. His trance was broken by the sound of Sergeant Buzzkill announcing their orders for the day. They would be participating in a live fire exercise and they were to report to the indoor firing range. Tony turned on his heel and ordered his men to follow him. They marched down the hall, their instructor walking in tandem with Tony.

“Permission to speak sir,” Tony requested.

“Go ahead Stone,” Buzzkill’s voice barely above a whisper.

“Where are my men?” the boy questioned.

“They are not your men anymore, we don’t need soldiers like that here,” the man answered.

The group entered the indoor range and took a place at each position. Tony knelt and retrieved his issued AR-15, readying it for use. Buzzkill stood at the end of the line, hand resting on a lever. When it was pulled their targets would drop from the ceiling. They were instructed to ready themselves, release the safety, and prepare to fire. Tony took his stance and adjusted his breathing, his finger preparing to reach for the trigger. Buzzkill dropped the level, the opening in the ceiling parting and six large figures hanging from ropes with their heads covered in black bags. Tony’s eyes shot open at the sight, his hand loosening its grip on the rifle. None of the boy’s fired a shot, but stared at the targets in front of them with nooses around their neck.

“FIRE!” Buzzkill yelled.

“Sir?” Tony questioned.

“I said fire!” he repeated.

“No, stand down,” Tony replied, looking back to his men.

“Excuse me, Stone? What did you just say?” Buzzkill’s eyes grew wide and the vessels in his face grew close to bursting.

Tony had been used to firing at training dummies and sand bags but this was wrong. Each boy clicked the safety on their rifle and held it at an angle while coming to attention. Tony did the same, his face showing the seriousness of his choice. The boys hanging from the ceiling were already dead, Tony knew this and saw no sense in defiling their corpses, and these boys did not deserve this. The squad leader stared at the instructor, his eyes curled in anger.

“Stone, you do understand that if you are your men don’t fire on those targets then it will be you that pays the price?” the sergeant quizzed.

“Yes, Sir!” Tony’s voice echoed through the firing range.

“Very well, the rest of you return to your barracks. Stone, you come with me.” Buzzkill disarmed the boy as the rest of the squad exited the room, his heavy hand coming to rest on Tony’s shoulder. “Follow me, boy.”

Tony took one last look back as Duke exited, a sense of worry playing on his friend’s face. Tony simply nodded, telling Duke that everything would be alright, even though he did not believe it himself. He simply turned and was escorted out the other exit and down the hallway. They came to a stop at a door with two armed guards. Buzzkill handed the AR-15 to one of the men before the other opened the door. Tony was guided inside by the rough hand of his instructor. He was placed at a small desk, one like you might see in a classroom. The instructor took a seat across the room in one of many chairs that lined the wall.

The door opened again, several uniformed men entered in a single file. They each took a seat across the room and as Tony watched the sergeant rose and held a salute until each one was seated. Their uniforms were more intricate than the one Tony had been given and each were adorned with a patch that signified they were actual Apex Predator forces. When the sergeant’s hand dropped from his greeting, he called for his folder. One of the guards entered holding a file that looked strikingly like the one filled with Tony’s information. The folder was then handed to the man at the front of the line and he flicked it open to begin scanning the contents.

“So, this is the one you have been bragging about Sergeant?” the man spoke behind shadows.

“Yes sir, I think he has what it takes,” Buzzkill responded.

The man passed the folder down as he finished reading, “You think? Or you know?”

“I know sir,” Buzzkill quickly corrected himself.

The man stood slowly, approaching the light. When the dim glow illuminated the man’s face Tony could finally place it with the voice. He had a terribly scarred appearance and one of his eyes seemed glassy and whiter than should be natural. Tony could only assume this man had no vision within that eye. The close cropped hair and build suggested this person had seen true combat in his life and Tony could only wonder what they wanted with him.

“My name is General Foreman.” The sound was deep and almost rang in Tony’s ears. “Who are you kid?”

“T-To,” the boy almost slipped, “Stone, sir.”

The group laughed, “Stone? You look like a pebble to me.”

Tony tried to keep from rolling his eyes as the General spoke. “So, you want to be a Predator huh?”

Tony was confused, he had never expressed any interest in combat. “I just want to survive sir, I made a promise to survive.”

“A promise huh? To who?” the General smirked.

Tony thought back to Collin, “A friend and I intend on keep it, no matter what.”

Foreman turned back to the rest of the men, who seemed to be officers as well. They spoke in hushed tones for several minutes, deliberating over some decision that still confused the boy. Each one slowly nodded as if placing their vote while Tony sat unsure of what he would be asked to do next. His sergeant looked back and nodded as if to assure him that everything was fine, but this man had just asked him to shoot the dead body of a helpless boy. He was not sure if he could trust any of them at this point. Tony tried to think of what Collin would do, but before he could find an answer the General was standing over him again.

“Ok, Private Stone, we are going to see if you have what it takes,” Foreman smiled.

The officers exited the room, just as they had entered and Tony was left with the sergeant again. The folder was placed on the desk in front of the boy as he was given a detailed description of what would happen next. Tony would be taken, along with any other recruit that had been accepted to the next phase of training. Any of those who did not make the cut would be given other duties to attend to. That was when Tony questioned the sergeant regarding the six boys that had been murdered.

The sergeant laughed, “They aren’t dead kid, just relocated. Those bodies were of enemies, they died in combat.”

“Wh-what?” the boy struggled to understand.

“It was a test, to see if you would shoot or act on your better instincts,” Buzzkill smirked. “And you passed.”

Chapter 8: Becoming Stone

Tony almost sighed in relief, completely surprised by this revelation. He was sure he had wandered into a camp full of psychopaths that had murder on their mind. The boy was escorted back to the equipment room, where PackRat was instructed to return all of Tony’s personal belongings they had confiscated on his arrival. She returned soon after with the olive green pack that he had taken from Collin. A tear almost formed in the corner of his eye at the sight but he pushed it back with his hand. He took the bag and was escorted to an area of the compound he had never been to, another barracks full of young men.

The young man scanned the room, he only noticed two familiar faces and could only assume the rest had been reassigned. His heart sunk a little when he did not see Duke but he hoped it was for the best. Tony was not even sure he wanted to be a member of this group, but it did not seem he had much choice. He could only hope he would be safer with soldiers around him. An older boy, who seemed to be at least seventeen approached him. The boy had dark scraggly hair that hung about his ears and down to his shoulders. Some of his locks were tied back behind his head, enough to keep it out of his face. His skin was dark and heavily tanned by the sun

“The name’s Apache,” his hand stuck out quickly for a shake.

“Stone,” Tony replied.

“Welcome to B Company, Stone, let me show you your bunk,” Apache said before guiding Tony to his bed, “Get settled, chow is in thirty minutes and we have a hike after that.”

Tony sat on his bed, removing his belongings from the bag and placing them in his footlocker. The trunk already had a weeks-worth of uniforms and toiletries inside. The clothing was all the right size and his name, “Stone” was labelled on the end of the bed. His place had been reserved within the few minutes it took to arrive. This place was rather efficient, Tony thought. As he squared everything away and closed his locker the door to the room opened again. Tony did not look up but noticed that the footlocker across from him read, “Duke.”

Duke and Tony were only a year apart, so that coupled with their previous training in the same group placed them as partners. Each partnership was responsible for each other during training and missions. What missions they would be partaking in Tony was unsure, but he was glad to have Duke watching his back. It was the first time he felt he could truly trust someone since losing Collin. The next year would be spent training much as any other soldier, the only difference was they had to prepare for the world they now lived in and learn how to combat it.

Once their superiors were sure they could handle themselves in the field a training exercise was implemented to test it. The pairs were sent outside the walls with a specific task in mind. Tony and Duke set off in the night, shivering in the cold. They had minimal gear and each carried a rifle. They watched as the other groups split off and went different directions. Once the two of them were alone on the snowy path Duke began to make idle conversation. Tony answered as best as he could, his mind thinking back to the last time he was outside the base. His eyes constantly scanned the area around them. All he could think of was being attacked, his mind returning to the day Collin died.

“You ok?” Duke asked.

“Yeah, just not sure if I’m ready for this,” Tony replied.

“Well, that’s what we are out here to find out,” Duke said as he nudged his partner.

“Maybe, or maybe we are being fed to the wolves,” Tony said with a sigh.

The pair stopped and knelt down near their destination. They laid unmoving under snow-covered brush, their eyes trained on a large moving truck in the distance. Three men stood outside an old barn, smoking and chatting with one another. Their mission was to retrieve that truck by any means necessary. Duke tapped Tony on the shoulder then pointed toward the tree line on the western side. Tony simply nodded as they crept from their hiding place toward the trees. The two boys kept low and moved from tree to tree, their camouflage and the darkness hiding their movements until they were close. They paused at the edge of the trees, watching the men until they returned inside.

Duke made a break for the driver’s door and Tony headed for the opposite side. The two eased the doors open and gently pressed them closed. Duke’s hands ran across the dash behind the steering wheel, feeling the hard metal of the keys still in the ignition. He gave one more look to Tony as if questioning if he was ready. Tony nodded again as the truck roared to life. The truck had only moved a few feet when the barn door opened and the men came running out, firing their rifles at the sides of the truck. The two boys ducked slightly to avoid a ricocheting bullet and Duke’s foot pressed the pedal to the floor. They were out of sight within minutes and laughing to each other of their success.

Two miles down the road Duke pulled the truck into a small clearing in the woods. They would need to check the contents of the truck before returning home. Tony jumped down from the passenger seat and met his partner at the back door. The metal creaked and moaned as the latch dropped and the door began to open. Duke stumbled back for a moment, bumping into Tony as four teenagers stepped from the cargo area aiming their rifles at the two boys. Tony’s head turned to the ground in disappointment and Duke simply shook his head in disbelief.

“Looks like you boys failed,” Apache said smiling.

“Only because we got bad intel,” Tony scoffed.

“Yeah, plus the two groups aren’t supposed to be working together, just partners,” Duke reprimanded.

“You think there are rules out there?” Weasel mocked.

“I think I know where you got your name from now,” Tony popped back.

“Watch it kid,” Weasel replied as Tech laughed in the background.

“Ok, ok ok,” Apache broke up the argument. “Let’s get back to the base before it gets too late. Wheeler, get this thing moving.”

With a quick acknowledgement of his orders one of the larger boys jumped from the cargo area and climbed into the driver’s seat. Duke and Tony approached the truck but were informed that their punishment for failing the mission was a walk home. Duke glared at Apache, the thought of a six mile hike back to base in the snow making him furious. Tony simply tapped him on the shoulder and shook his head, knowing it was useless to argue. The truck sprang to life again and soon it was so far away they could not even hear it. The two boys began walking, their eyes scanning the trees around them in the darkness.

After about an hour of walking Tony tapped Duke on the shoulder. He had noticed the lights first but as soon as Duke’s eyes fell on them they both dropped to a crouch and crept to the trees. The moving truck sat unmoving on the side of the road but the area around it was still light by the headlights. They sat watching for a few minutes, scanning the area, but saw no movement. If the truck had been over taken by an opposing force they would have surely taken it. The scene just did not make sense. Duke raised a finger to his mouth signaling for Tony to be quiet then waved for him to follow. The two move slowly through the trees toward the truck.

Tony slid his rifle from his shoulder, his eyes intent on the truck. Duke soon did the same, readying for whatever they may encounter ahead. The cab was empty and there was no sign of their squad mates nearby. Tony eased his way to the back door, which was still unlatched. One hand pushed the door open while the other pushed the barrel of the rifle into it. It too was empty, but something inside did catch his eye, a dark brown stain in the middle of the floor. Duke rounded the passenger side of the truck to find Tony staring into the empty truck. It took a second for Duke to look at the spot but at soon as he did his hand grasped onto Tony’s arm and began pulling him back to the trees for cover.

The two sat listening to wind push the canopy about above them. The faint sound of laughter began to filter in among the still of the night and Duke turned to the direction it appeared to emanate. Instinctively they began moving toward the sound, purposefully avoiding any twigs or brush that might signal their approach. The crackling of a fire could be heard now and the voices were more audible. There appeared to be four separate male voices having a conversation. Duke noticed the trees began to thin, which meant they were approaching a clearing. The light from the fire became visible and the shadows of the men danced through the grass.

“I really wish you hadn’t killed the long haired one,” one man spoke, “He was pretty, I could have had some fun with him.”

“We’d still have that little girl if you weren’t so rough with her,” another replied.

“Both of you shut up, you’re giving me a headache,” a third broke in. “You could be helping me clean this meat so we can eat.”

Those words caused Tony to step back a moment but Duke urged him forward. They both needed to see what was ahead even if they did not want to. When the group ahead came into view they could see one man poking at the fire with a stick, another rummaging through the packs on the ground, and two standing over the shredded body of Apache. Tony covered his mouth as vomit tried to roll up his throat. Duke put his finger to his lips again, begging Tony to be quiet. The other three boys had been bound together and gagged at the edge of the makeshift campsite. They all were beaten and bruised, fear apparent in their eyes.

“We’ve got to do something,” Tony whispered.

“I know, just give me a minute to think,” Duke tried to be quiet as well. “There is too many of them for us to take so we’re going to have to split them up.”

“Let me go around, get their attention,” Tony suggested. “You go get our friends.”

“No, if they catch you then I am alone,” Duke shook his head as he spoke. “I’m going to try and pull the one by the bag out, get your knife ready.”

Duke crept through the trees, Tony following behind. They reached the back of the tree near the pile of bags the man was steadily pulling items out of. Tony pressed his back to it, pulling his combat knife from its sheath. He nodded to Duke just before his friend leaned down and picked up a rock. Duke leaned to the side and whipped the rock at the man, landing it against his leg. The man jumped and looked out into the darkness where the rock had come from. The man pulled a knife of his own and began easing toward the tree. As he rounded it, he saw Duke standing about ten feet inside the trees and gave a sick smile.

As the man stepped past the tree he began licking at the blade of his knife. He urged Duke to come to him while laughing to himself. Before he noticed the motion Tony had leapt onto his back, cupping a hand over the man’s mouth and slid his blade across his throat. Blood gurgled from the wound, mixing with the man’s attempt to scream. The sound was muffled by Tony’s hand but the man began to struggle. Duke approached and restrained their prey and forced him to the ground. They stood over him, keeping his cries quiet until he finally fell still. Tony leaned back against the tree, staring down at the blood on his knife and hands.

“Ok, now we just have to split off another one,” Duke said as he leaned around the tree.

When Tony didn’t respond his friend looked back. “Stone, you with me?”

Tony just stared at his hands, causing Duke to grip onto his shoulders. “You gotta stay with me Stone, I can’t take these guys on my own.”

Duke could tell Tony was afraid, he could feel the boy’s body quivering under his hands. “You did what you had to do, they killed Apache and they are going to kill all of us if you don’t help me stop them.”

Tony snapped back to the reality he was now facing. The seriousness of the situation had become a weight on his shoulders but he knew Duke was right, just like Collin had always been right. There were sometimes, you had to kill to stay alive. He started moving before being told to, his body weaving between trees as they circled the camp. He felt like one of the wolves that had attacked his cabin so long ago. They stalked their prey in the dark, working their way closer and closer. He started to understand why they were called Apex Predators, they hunted the hunters.

“Where did Jeb go?” one of the men quizzed.

“I don’t know Bill, probably went to take a piss,” another said.

“Well he didn’t take his gun, so go check on him,” Bill ordered.

The smallest of the group stepped out into the brush, grumbling about having to chase after Jeb and carrying one of the rifles that they had pulled from one of the boys. His feet shuffled through the brush calling out for his friend and scanning the area. The light from the fire began to dim as he rounded a tree and tripped over something solid. He landed with a thud and his rifle tumbled away from him. He cursed out in pain, having landed on a rock. He slowly rose from the ground, brushing dirt from his pants.

“What happened, Rick?” Bill called from the fire.

“Nothing, just tripped over a root or something,” Rick responded.

“Well, get Jeb and get your ass back here,” Bill yelled.

“Yeah, yeah,” Rick mumbled as he wiped at his pants again.

His hands touched something wet and when he raised it to his face he noticed the red tint. His eyes widened as he turned to look at the body of Jeb crumpled up by the tree. He turned to scream for help, but just as he did two shots rang out from the campsite. He quickly picked up his rifle and rushed back to the fire to find both of the remaining men laying in pools of their own blood, bullet holes buried in their skulls. His eyes searched the trees but he saw nothing, he turned back toward Jeb’s body to see Duke aiming at him.

“Put the gun down,” Duke said.

“Yeah right, kid,” Rick lifted his gun as well.

“Do what he says,” Tony’s voice broke as he pressed the barrel of his AR-15 against the man’s head.

They disarmed the man and bound him with the same restraints that had held their friends. Duke instructed two of the boys to gather material and make a gurney so they could bring Apache’s body back to the base. Tony told Wheeler to head back to the road and make sure the truck was still there. Once they had gathered their things, along with their prisoner, they marched back to the road and loaded Apache into the truck. The group rode in silence, keeping their guns trained on Rick, who sat gagged in the back of the truck.

When the group pulled up at the base they quietly unloaded. Their instructor came to check on the results of the exercise and noticed the ravaged body of one of his trainees. He began to question the group when Tony and Duke exited the truck with their prisoner in tow. They shoved him toward the instructor, indicating his crimes as they passed. They were tired, hurt, and covered in dirt and blood. All they wanted to do was to bury Apache but their superiors had a different plan. The body was confiscated for evidence and Rick was placed in a holding cell.

Chapter 9: Night Stalkers

The following day the entire group were called to speak to General Foreman, one at a time. They were questioned about the events of the previous night and told not to repeat them to another soldier. Tony and Duke sat outside the office waiting their turn, unsure of what they would be asked. Duke considered asking Tony if he was going to be alright but the blank stare that still hung on the boy’s face made him second guess it. Tony sat emotionless while Duke disappeared into the general’s office. He sat thinking of the blood and Apache’s body. Then he thought about how it felt to kill again. It reminded him of Collin and how small it made him feel. His name being called broke him from his dream as Duke passed by him without looking at him.

“Specalist Stone,” Foreman said as Tony took a seat, “I’m sure you know why you are here.”

“Yes sir,” the boy answered, staring at the wall behind the man.

“What happened?” Foreman asked, while scribbling notes and staring at his papers.

Tony relayed the story for the general, his eyes not leaving the white washed wall, barely even blinking. The words told each step he had made and what he had witnessed. It played on repeat in his head as he spoke, his body shaking when he began detailing Apache’s body. Then when mentioned killing he would look to his hands. They still felt dirty. In his mind he could still see the blood staining it. When he was finished he sat staring at his hands and the general finished writing to notice. The room was quiet for some time, neither of them sure what to say at first.

“Wh-why?” Tony mumbled.

“We call them Vultures, it’s one of the things we are fighting against out there,” Foreman sighed.

“How did they even know we would be out there?” Tony’s eyes became wild and turned directly at the general.

Foreman turned in his chair, stood and walked around the desk. He sat on the edge of it and for a moment just looked at Tony. He shook his head for a moment, trying to decide what to say. There were a lot of things in this world that had changed but he was still having trouble understanding it himself. When he was sure of the right words and how to say them he gave another sigh and slid the folder across the desk. Tony looked down to see images of two men in Apex Predator uniforms, one of which looked familiar. He looked closer and his eyes grew wide, remembering the man who was carving into Apache.

“We have found that some of those Vultures have found their way into our ranks,” Foreman said with a frown.

“Y-you mean,” Tony shook his head, “No, not in here too.”

“Not anymore, you took care of that,” Foreman rested his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Tony pulled away, “How do you know there isn’t more?”

The general stood and went back to his seat, pulled the folder back to him and said, “That’s why I asked you here Stone.”

It took the next year for their small unit to uncover the wolves among them, but with the general’s help they did. There had been six charged with molestation, four for rape, and three more groups killing their younger counter-parts. They only found one more instance of cannibalism but it was enough. With each mission, Tony became harder. He was becoming the wolf that stalked in the night and his pack grew strong.

At the end of that year each member of their group was promoted to Corporal and B Company had been nicknamed the Night Stalkers. Where their individual strength was lacking, they made up for with teamwork. No one dared cross them in packs and it was not long before they received their first mission outside their usual scouting grounds. They would be sent south, back across the border. Tony would be going back to Pembina, North Dakota for the first time in over two years and he immediately thought of a tiny inscription over a shallow grave.

Like usual, the group set out at night. Buzzkill had been requested to drive them by jeep to the border, where they set out on foot. They moved quietly through the overgrown field, the brush higher than their crouched bodies. The moon overhead guided their movements as they approached a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Pembina. Tony recognized the place, he had passed it not long before being taken by the Predators. His eyes scanned the field, especially further south. There stood the decrepit tree, a monument to his past. He tapped Duke on the shoulder and pointed to it, signaling to head that way.

The group came to rest under the tree, several of the boys taking an opportunity to check their gear, grab a gulp of water, or check their map. Duke hovered over one of them, staring down at the map and asking questions of the designated target. Tony stood by the tree, running his fingers along Collin’s name. It took a few minutes for Duke to notice but he approached and placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder.

“You ok?” Duke asked, his brows curving in concern.

“Yeah, just saying hello to an old friend,” Tony smiled slightly.

“What?” the older of the two said, confused.

“Remember I told you I had help getting all the way here?” Tony replied.

“Well yeah, that’s about all you ever really told me.”

“This is where he died,” Tony waved his hands around to the clearing, “So, this is where I buried him.”

“Oh,” Dave shuffled his feet and looked down before coming closer, noticing the name in the tree, “Collin?”

“Yeah, he was like a brother to me. I would not have made it here if it were not for him,” Tony sighed, a tear forming at the edge of his eye.

“Funny,” Duke laughed slightly.

“Why’s that?” Tony turned to look at him.

“I had a brother named Collin,” Duke said while smiling, his eyes trailing off in a memory.

Tony found himself staring at Duke, shocked by what he had heard. What were the odds? He stared harder and soon Duke noticed. Duke squinted again, asking if his friend was ok. Tony simply knelt down and removed his pack. A small compartment on the side was opened and Tony revealed a tattered old Bible. Between the pages he found what he was looking for, a yellowed and warn picture of a family. There was a mother, father, and two very young boys. He tucked the Bible under his arm and stepped to Duke, handing him the picture.

Duke’s eyes narrowed as he attempted to see the image in the dark but soon he realized what he was looking at. His thumb trailed over the young image of his mother and the smiling face of his father. He laughed slightly at seeing his chubby cheeks as a tiny boy and when he saw Collin, the tears began to roll down his cheeks. Tony brushed a tear away as well, seeing this and stepped back to the tree. He knelt there over Collin’s grave holding the Bible and looking at Duke.

“How?” Duke said.

“I have no idea. He thought you were dead,” Tony said in a quiet tone of remembrance.

“So, he’s buried here?” Duke asked.

Tony nodded, “Right under your feet. He died protecting me and I couldn’t just leave him out here to be picked at by the animals. He wouldn’t do that to me.”

Duke knelt by the makeshift grave, his hand touching the ground. Salty specks littered the dirt as they both sat quietly. The rest of the group had noticed the exchange but decided to stay out of it. Tony then leaned over, pushing the Bible toward Duke. He told him it had been Collin’s and he knew that his brother would want him to have it. Duke took the worn book from Tony, his fingers pressing it open and scanning through the pages. The ink was faded but he could still read some of the scriptures. The front still had his brother’s name written in it and he remembered when his grandmother had gifted them both one. Duke’s hands flipped to the back pages, which had been left blank for writing notes. He found a letter address to him in his brother’s handwriting.

“Danny,

If I don’t see you again and you’re reading this, I am sorry I could not protect you better. I spent the last few months so sure you were dead. Then I found Tony. He gave me hope to find you again. He has become like a brother to me, he reminds me so much of you. He could never replace you but it made it easier out here without you. If you find him with this book, stay close to him. He can’t replace me either, but you won’t regret meeting him. Take care of each other, survive and remember, I will always love you.

Your Big Brother, Collin”

Duke tucked the Bible in his pack and gave Tony a hug, their group turned away and Weasel started asking about the mission to try to change the subject. Tony stepped away, patting Duke on the back. He nodded to him to say it would be alright and promised they could talk more once the mission was done. Duke agreed and they stepped back to the group. Weasel had pointed out the path they would take that lead to the farmhouse ahead. It sat just on the edge of the property and according to their sources a group of murderous scavengers had taken up residence in it. According to General Foremen, this is where most of the Vultures had come from recently.

The radio keyed up, a message came through from Overwatch group requesting position of the Night Stalkers. Tony touched at his ear, before identifying himself and informing them of their position. They were asked for confirmation of “Go” status, Tony looked to the group who nodded in agreement. Tony gave the confirmation as they all readied their weapons. The group moved toward the farmhouse as a larger group waited on the hill behind the house. Overwatch was made up of a more experienced adult group which had been instructed to observe and assist. This was their first sanction mission outside the wall and would determine their future within the Apex Predators.

Tech observed from the back with binoculars, calling out targets appearing through the windows. There had been two armed men standing on the front porch, three inside that appeared to be drinking and unidentified motion within one of the upstairs windows. The group advanced, Duke took Wheeler to flank left while Tony, Weasel, and Tech moved right. They approached from the tall grass, stopping just at the edge. The two men outside seemed to be having a discussion which might take some time. They would not be able to enter through the front without being spotted.

“It’s not like it’s going to matter anyway,” one of the men said.

“What do you mean?” the other replied.

“You know we’re all going to be speaking Spanish soon,” the first retorted.

“Ah…that’s just rumor. The Mexicans aren’t gonna come all the way up here,” his friend said.

“Either way, I’m gonna have as much fun as I can before then,” the first said with a laugh.

Tony had no idea what they meant, but he made a note to ask the general when they returned. He looked across the field to Duke, who was signaling for him to take his group around back to find an entrance. Motioned with his hand a confirmation then pointed to his right, the group followed behind him closely with their weapons at the ready. They moved in a staggered formation, slipping through the brush until they reached the backyard. The grass had not been kept cut, which allowed them to draw closer to the rear entrance. The steps were broken and the door appeared to be boarded shut. They would not be able to enter without making a lot of noise. Weasel tapped Tony on the shoulder and pointed to two large doors that lead downward. They could only assume it lead to some sort of cellar, which would be their best bet. Tech fished for his lock picking set and started work on the fastened chain that held the doors closed.

The boys eased the doors open, deafening the creak the old wood would make. They entered one at a time, descending into darkness. Their feet met concrete steps that dropped below floor level toward a dirt floor. Each flashlight attached to their rifles flickered to life and they took the room in sweeping formation. The interior was only half that of the upper floors, surrounded by a cinder block foundation. Wooden shelves lined the room with glass jars of varying size. Weasel approached, his light refracting through the liquid inside. It revealed a fleshy mass that had once been a human foot, floating in some sort of preservative.

Weasel’s eyes widened once he realized what was in front of him and when Tony noticed this, he clasped his hand over the boy’s mouth. Tony shook his head and raised a finger to his mouth. They could not afford to be heard before they knew what was waiting upstairs. Tony radioed the rest of the group to inform them that his group had made it inside. After receiving confirmation the group continued to search the room for an entry into the home. Among the jars were various body parts but what was most disturbing was the intact body of a fetus. Tony stared at this particular specimen for several minutes, unable to understand why anyone would do this.

Tech’s flashlight waved side-to-side to draw their attention to a ladder. The rungs ended at a hatch in the ceiling. Tony motioned for his squad mate to go up then pointed to his eyes to give an order to look around. Tech slid his rifle over his shoulder and started to ascend, once he reached the hatch he gave it a slight push. To his surprise it moved, so he reached into his pocket to reveal a small mirror. The hatch raised slightly and with the mirror he circled the space. It appeared to exit into a pantry full of more jars, so he finished opening the hatch.

Once Tech gave the all-clear, the other two joined him in the cramped pantry. Tony took the mirror and slid it under the edge of the pantry door. The other side held a kitchen with a large butcher block table in the center. The wood was still stained from the last use, which caused Tony’s dinner to try to exit his throat. He held it back and swallowed, gagging at the taste. He relayed what he saw to prepare his group for what they would see next as he reached for the handle. Tony allowed the door to part just enough to see out and noticed the hallway that lead to the living room.

The door swung open slowly, Tony’s rifle rising as he exited. Weasel followed just behind, scanning the area to the rear of Tony. Tech was last, pushing the door back behind him and crossing the kitchen. Various cutting tools had been scattered across the kitchen counter and the sink was still specked with blood and viscera. Tech covered his mouth and nose to try to block out the odor but it was too powerful. The kitchen was tiny and the back door was all that lay behind them. They had but one direction to go and that was toward the living room.

Each area was dimly lit with candles and oil lanterns and the light danced along the walls. This only added to the sense of paranoia that grew in the young soldiers. They knew that at any corner they could be met with a fight. Tony held up his hand to signal the group to stop as he approached a doorway to his left. All of them could hear the men in the living room talking now but they had to check each room as they passed. The leader’s rifle made the corner of the door, with Weasel just behind. It had once been a bedroom but now resembled a torture chamber. The bed had been fitted with chains that currently held the lifeless body of a young woman. Tony checked her pulse to verify what his mind already knew to be true. He pulled the sheet over her cold and naked body. It was the best he could do for her now.

They exited back into the hall and switched to the opposite wall in order to approach the next doorway. The passage was shut, so again Tony used the mirror to judge what may be on the other side. When he stood, he could only look back and shake his head. His hand grasped the knob carefully, turning it as slowly as possible. The light from the hall spilled into a tiny closet where another woman sat bound and gagged within. The woman’s eyes grew wide and began shaking at the sight of the boys. Tony could only imagine she thought they were there to hurt her.

Tony whispered, “We are not here to hurt you, we’re gonna get you out of here, Ok?”

The woman nodded as if she understood, tears filling her eyes as Tony helped her to her feet. He ordered Weasel to escort her back to the cellar and away from the house. Weasel took the woman by the hand and headed back to the pantry door. Tony whispered into his radio for assistance, Duke responded and once he was aware of the situation he took Weasel’s place in the group. They stood silent in the hall, the stairs leading up were to their left and the doorway to the living room was right ahead. They could not risk alerting the men in the living room but had no idea what lay in store above them.

Tony pointed to the living room and moved forward, then pointed to Duke before gesturing toward his eyes and back up to the stairs. Duke nodded and aimed his rifle to the staircase, he fell to the back of the group to watch their back. Tony’s rifle passed into the living room first, with Tech’s shoulder at his back. Once he could see the two men within he noticed they were playing cards at a small folding table and drinking beer. Their angle made it easier for their entry without being noticed at first but once both of the boys were in the room it was hard to hide. The men had weapons near them but Tony and Tech were locked on their position.

“Get up slowly, do not speak,” Tony whispered.

The two men rose slowly, their hands coming up and over their heads. Tony gestured toward the front door and the men began moving toward it. Tony tilted his head to key the radio in an attempt to inform Wheeler that two men would be exited in a minute. As he did the man in the rear dove for Tony’s rifle, shoving it against the wall. The boy instinctively fired but the bullet buried into wood. He felt the man’s fist punch him in the face as his body was shoved back into Tech. Tech could not shoot without harming Tony and simply stumbled back. By this time Duke had turned his attention to his friends and attempted to get a clear shot.

Tony struggled with his adversary as the other man ran for the shotgun that rested by the table. Feet bound down the stairs questioning the noise, Duke turned to shoot but was tackled to the ground by the man who had come down. One of the man’s hands pressed the rifle into Duke’s chest while the other drove its knuckles into his face. Tony was finally able to bring his knee up and push back the one that held him. His rifle snapped into place and three shots were fired before the man could regain his balance. As that one dropped Tony turned to the next, who was about to fire the shotgun. The boy pulled the trigger while dropping backward into the hall. The doorframe was splintered by 5.56 rounds and buckshot simultaneously as Tony hit the floor.

Duke blocked the next few punches with the butt of his rifle and attempted to shove the man off of him but it was no use, he was too large. The body of his rifle began to bury into his neck, cutting off his air until Tech turned and dropped the end of his gun into the man’s temple. The large figure crumpled to the floor holding his head and cursing. Tony looked back as the man attempted to get up and screamed for Tech to shoot. His friend simply stared with his gun trained on the person.

“Damnit! I said shoot!” Tony yelled.

At the sound of gunfire and screaming, Wheeler and Weasel forced their way in the front door. Weasel popped a couple of rounds into the man in the living room who was injured but trying to get up from the floor. The man’s body dropped limp after one bullet pierced his skull. Wheeler shoved Tech aside and fired three rounds at the final adversary, two hitting him in the chest and one in the neck. Blood sprayed across the hall and created a peppered painting on the wall.

“You guys ok?” Weasel asked.

“We’re fine,” Tony said while gasping for air, “You get the girl out?”

“Yes sir, she’s with Overwatch,” Wheeler replied.

“Good, let’s finish sweeping this house and get the hell out of here,” Tony replied.

Duke nodded while as he adjusted his gear again, preparing to ascend the steps. They fell in line behind him, Tony taking up the rear. If there was anyone else inside they would have to face all of them. When they reached the top step they were greeted by several young children. They stood whimpering in doorways of bedrooms and staring at the stairway. The boys approached slowly, asking if there were any other adults inside. Some shook their head and others simply stared blankly while the group searched each room. After a short interview of some of the oldest children the group learned that each one had been abducted, along with their parents and had not seen either of them for weeks.

“Night Stalker-1 to Overwatch,” Tony spoke into his radio transmitter.

“This is Overwatch, Go ahead Night Stalker-1,” the voice replied.

“Mission complete, we have twelve civilian minors that will need extraction,” Tony’s voice sounding far older than it was.

“10/4 Nightstalker-1, extraction in route in fifteen,” the voice came again.

Chapter 10: Survival

The ride back to base was a quiet one. The group was bruised but not nearly as bad as the children they accompanied. Tony had felt bad about their near failure but when he saw how much worse his life could have been, he let the feeling fade. This was the world he was part of now and at least he was on the right side of it. The children hugged each other and questioned their destination. Some of the other Night Stalkers attempted to explain the base but Duke suggested they limit their information until they could speak to the general.

Tony let their words fade away as he stared at the farmhouse ablaze. They had burned all evidence of the carnage in hopes to deter anyone else from repeating it. He had seen so much death in such a short period of time, his body felt numb as the light danced in the distance. Everything continued to burn, even though The Fall was over. He wondered if this was what life would be from here on out, death and destruction. He use to like fire, the beauty of it but that was when it was for roasting marshmallows. His hands gripped his rifle a little tighter in anger as he was reminded of another thing he may never do again.

Once again, Tony found himself sitting in the Foreman’s office for debriefing. The small glimmer of light was gone from his eyes now. It faded in the distance with that burning farmhouse. The general spoke but the sound was muffled by Tony’s thoughts. He answered robotically, giving any pertinent information. When the meeting came to a close Foreman asked if the boy would be alright. Tony simply nodded and stood from his seat. He headed for the door but just as he reached for the knob he remembered something.

“A question sir,” Tony turned back to the general.

“Go ahead Stone,” Foreman responded.

“Is there an army marching on North America?” the boy questioned.

The general paused and closed the file he had been scribbling in. “Yes,” he sighed.

“That’s why you need the kids, right?” Tony pressed harder.

Foreman rubbed at his eyes. “We need everyone we can find, we’re severely outnumbered.”

Tony opened the door. “Then I should get back to my men, we have training to do.”

When Tony entered the barracks the rest of his group were breaking down their gear and preparing to head to bed. He stood in the doorway watching each of them, their faces showing defeat. He knew that if a few locals almost took them down there was no way these boys could survive war. This could not be the end, he thought. He had just found Collin’s brother and friends. Tony stood silently watching each of them move about the room and imagined their death. This world had too much of that already.

“Stop unpacking,” Tony finally spoke.

Duke looked up, “We’re not going back out are we?”

Tony nodded and listened as the group groaned in unison.

“We’re leaving,” Tony said.

He drew them in close and told them about the conversation he had overheard during their mission and Foreman’s confirmation of the rumor. Each of them listened intently and Tony could see the fear in their eyes. None of them were older than seventeen and knew they were not prepared to face battle hardened soldiers. Tony urged them to pack as much supplies as possible over the next twenty-four hours and to meet at the motor pool at sunset. They would commandeer a vehicle and leave this place. The Apex Predators would have to fight this war without them. Tony had made a promise to survive and he would protect his new family, especially Duke.

The following day were spent gathering food, weapons, and ammunition. They were not sure how long they would be on the road but several packs were prepped for their last mission. Wheeler had acquired the key to the motor pool under the pretense of gassing up with one of the Humvees. Weasel distracted PackRack long enough for Weasel to gather the items they would need. Tech had always helped in the kitchen so it was not odd when he requested access to the pantry. One-by-one they acquired the supplies they would need and by the time the sun had fell they had all met at the motor pool.

Duke and Tech loaded gear into a Humvee as Tony and Weasel plotted a course. The weather north was too harsh and there would be enemy forces to the south. They had to be careful no matter their choice but it had to be made now. Wheeler climbed into the driver’s seat as the rest took their places inside. Tony climbed into the passenger seat and pointed at a destination on the northeast coast as the vehicle roared to life. The group approached the gate where a guard questioned their actions. Tony leaned over and gave an excuse of having a secret mission. The guard was not convinced and radioed for confirmation. Tony simply nodded and Wheeler hit the gas, barreling through the barricade and into the night, gun fire peppering the vehicle in their retreat.

Duke leaned forward, “So what’s the plan?”

“We’re going to get as far away from here as possible and hopefully, stay alive,” Tony replied.

Duke leaned back and the vehicle fell quiet. None of them were sure where to go or how they would be able to sustain themselves in this world. The Apex Predators would surely be looking for them and they would have to avoid the army that was taking control of North America. All of this only made surviving more difficult but they had each other and that would have to be enough. As they passed the remains of the old farmhouse their eyes fell on the smoldering wreckage. Smoke still tainted the air above it and they wondered if that could be their future.

Headlights of three vehicles topped a hill behind them and they instantly knew it would be the Predators. Their vehicle began receiving bullets within seconds and each of them ducked to avoid any ricochet. Wheeler forced accelerator down further until it touched the floor, he struggled to remain on the road as their pursuers drew closer. Weasel grabbed his rifle and leaned from the window, returning fire. Tony screamed for him to get inside but it was too late, the boy was shot four times in the chest. The rifle tumbled from the vehicle and his body fell limp in the seat, his head still hanging out the window.

“No one else try to be a hero,” Tony yelled as Tech scrambled to cover Weasel’s wounds.

“It’s too late, he’s gone man,” Duke said as he pulled at Tech’s arm.

“Their gaining on us Stone,” Wheeler yelled.

Tony looked back and the lead vehicle was only two car lengths away. They would overtake them and more than likely kill them. He had to do something and fast, so he told Wheeler to head for the trees. The wheels kicked up dirt as they rapidly changed direction, the boys were tossed about inside as they bound over a hill and into the woods. The two Humvees behind them followed after and weaved between trees. Wheeler struggled to avoid each one as well but side swiped a large oak, causing him to lose control. The wheels caught at an awkward angle and turned the vehicle on its side.

The world went dark for a moment and when Tony opened his eyes he could have sworn he saw Collin kneeling over him. He smiled slightly and Collin did the same. He could hear talking around him but he simply looked back to his old friend. Tony began to apologize but Collin simply shook his head. The figure mouthed the words, “You’re not done yet,” before disappearing. Tony was forced back to reality by the sound of Tech screaming for help. General Foreman had him by the hair and was dragging him toward one of the other vehicles. Duke struggled to remove himself from the overturned Humvee and it appeared that Wheeler had been killed during the crash.

Tony slowly rose from the ground, his eyes searching the area. Duke was almost free from the vehicle and Foreman had returned to claim another one of the boys. The other Humvee had turned back once they noticed the crash. They would need equipment to retrieve the vehicle and Foreman was sure he could handle a couple of kids. Tony grit his teeth and began walking toward the general despite the pain he now felt in his knee. His hand reached down and grasped a grenade, pulling the pin. He shoved it out in front of him so Foreman could clearly see.

“You step away from that Humvee,” Tony screamed, “We are taking it and we are getting out of here.”

Foreman paused and held up his hands, “Now hold on, let’s don’t do anything stupid.”

“No, no talking,” Tony barked, “You get away from the vehicle now or we all die.”

The general laughed, “You can’t be serious kid.”

“Dead serious, we are leaving and you are not going to follow us,” Tony replied, “We don’t want to be pawns in your war, we are not soldiers we are kids and we are going to live.”

Foreman slowly backed away as Duke grabbed a few bags from the crashed vehicle. The two boys joined Tech in the general’s vehicle and Duke took the driver’s seat. Tony eased himself into the passenger seat still holding the live grenade. As they rolled passed the crash Tony tossed the explosive in the crashed Humvee. Foreman dove behind a tree as the three boys drove away. The sound of the explosion echoed through the trees as they exited the woods. They never looked back as they headed east and toward anything better than the life they had come to know.



Written by L0CKED334
Content is available under CC BY-SA