Tommy finished his story, “And that’s why you’re not supposed to drink cactus juice.” Though it was too dark to see anyone’s faces, Tommy smiled wide and looked from left and right, hoping for some kind of response to his wise tale.
James, the skinny man with wild hair sounded tired, “That’s a good story Tommy. Cactus juice usually isn’t good for anyone.”
They had been driving so long his butt hurt. It was still really dark out, and Tommy couldn’t see anything outside the pickup truck windows except the stars. The four year old barely remembered when his old tribe used to camp all around the sand. Being in a moving truck at night reminded him of his dad.
Tommy remembered sitting in his lap, watching the headlights scan the desert floor as the tribe moved at night. It was strange, because he remembered the old chief tell them it was bad to move at night. He mentioned it, “Mom, isn’t it bad to move at night?”
Mom looked down at her boy, only her silhouette from the stars visible in the dark, “Normally yes, but right now, it’s more dangerous to stay still, okay baby?”
Tommy nodded. He then held his hand in front of his face to see if he could see it. Blinking a lot didn’t help at first, but he thought he could see it after a while. “Mom?”
“Could you see me nod my head?”
“No I couldn’t sweetheart.”
“Well I did.”
Mom put her arm around Tommy’s back and rubbed his left arm, “Why don’t you go to sleep Tommy?”
He pouted, “I’m not tired. Are we going home?”
“James is taking us to his home. We’re just not sure how far it is.”
“Do we have more food?”
“Sorry baby, we have to wait until tomorrow.”
Tommy crossed his arms and cradled himself under Mom’s arm. “Okay.”
James muttered, “There might be some extra food in the back. I know the UV lights are back there. Hopefully a few crates from the garden made it in there too.”
Mom talked back, “You know, I gone on a few raids in my day. We’ve been raided a few times ourselves. We thought life at the oasis would be different. There was so much there. We coulda been peaceful people.”
“Doesn’t usually stay that way for long does it? Out here I mean.”
“No it doesn’t. Is your home so different?”
“We’re big enough I guess. We had a scuffle with the Dust Giants a few years ago. But we’re still there.”
Tommy knew Dust Giants were bad people. He remembered when one attacked his tribe, before the oasis. Everyone had yelled, “Dust Giant!” Mom had scooped Tommy away as the large, angry red and white man tore through the camp with two big swords.
Tommy remembered a lot of red on the blades, ground, tents and cars. He snuggled tighter to Mom. Thinking about the red and white man always gave him nightmares later.
James continued, “I wasn’t very old, but I remember my dad took me to the top of our hill, and pointed at the Dust Giants as they retreated. I had no idea how lucky we were then. It was years before I knew how bad they really were.”
Mom huffed, the way she always did when someone annoyed her, “Sounds nice.”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. I don’t, uh, always think about, what really happens out here. I mostly hear stories from the scouts and traders. Sometimes I forget about the people that, you know…”
James sounded really tired, “I’m just, sorry.”
“Sorry for your ignorance, or the people that don’t live in your fortress?”
The skinny man stayed quiet. Tommy was used to Mom doing that to people. His old friends used to tell Tommy that was why Mom never had any friends of her own.
He might be sad. Tommy spoke up, “Don’t be sad Mister James. You know now.”
James gulped and cleared his throat, “Thanks Tommy. I know now.”
Tommy smiled and snuggled closer to Mom. He liked helping people. Everyone rode in silence again. Tommy tried to think of another story to stay awake, but his eyes were already shutting on their own.
The four year old woke up again in the middle of a conversation. Tommy yawned and rubbed his eyes. He wanted to ask where they had stopped, but it was rude to interrupt people.
James’ silhouette against the stars seemed to be pointing ahead, “If you know this terrain, we should park for the night, then we’ll make better time tomorrow when I can see the roads you’re telling me to use.”
Mom sounded frustrated, or mad, Tommy didn’t know the difference, “I acknowledge that Deborah’s a badass, but there’s no way she’s slowing down, let alone killing, that many vamps. There’s been no wind all night, they’re easily tracking us, and getting closer by the second. At least going into these hills will keep them from surrounding us.”
“Do you realize how slow I’ve been driving? Those things could’ve ran laps around us by now if Deb wasn’t keeping them busy. We’re safe… from the blue eyes at least.”
Mom huffed, “Okay, how long until sunrise?”
“You said Angelica was hungry around midnight, right?”
Something clicked, and Tommy saw a bunch of lights shine from the dash. James continued, “I know this clock isn’t right, but I checked it after the baby’s snack. Midnight for your routine was maybe six twenty on the dash, now it says eight thirty-eight. I’d guess we have—”
“Four or five hours. I can math too.”
“Why do you always assume I’m trying to make myself sound smarter than you?”
“Because you try to use weird words like ‘assume’ and ‘electric magneto pluses.’”
“Electro-magnetic pulse, actually…”
“So, what, I grew up hunting, fighting and driving, but I don’t know how to pick left and right paths at night?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just worried that we’re both going into this tired. We need to recharge before we start making mistakes.”
“RRRAAAGGGHH!” something’s roar echoed outside. Tommy knew that noise too well.
Mom silently yelled, “The dash lights!”
James fumbled until the lights clicked off, “Shit! Like that Megan!”
“Quiet. If we’re lucky they’re hunting something else.”
Tommy felt his chin quiver. The old chief showed Tommy and other kids what the vampers looked like. Gathered in a large cave, the tribe had captured and chained one. They forced Tommy and the others to walk towards it. Fresh blood had dripped from its chin, even slobbering over Tommy’s feet. He clenched Mom’s pant leg.
“Mommy, can we leave?”
Mom curled him in tight and hushed him, “Shhh, baby. We’re safe. Mister James said this truck is very tough, right James?”
“Oh, yeah. I made it bulletproof, and even the glass isn’t glass. It’s actually made out of a resin coating from the swardson cactus, and on each side of that is a clear, high density plastic that I remolded from old bank teller windows. Isn’t that cool buddy?”
Tommy didn’t understand at all, “Mom, what does that mean?”
She kissed the top of his head, “It means we’re safe baby.”
James stammered, “Yep, that’s, basically all I was trying to say. Sorry for the long, weird words.”
Mom spat back, “I knew what you were saying.”
“I was apologizing to Tommy.”
Mom growled, “Fuck you.”
Tommy whined, “Mom.”
“It’s okay baby, I said ‘Fuck you’ to James.”
Tommy whispered, “Aren’t we supposed to stay quiet when the vampers are out?”
Mom whispered back, “Yes we are. You are such a smart boy.”
The roar outside was answered by another. Echo upon echo joined together, Tommy felt his body vibrate with their screeching. He clasped his mother tighter.
Tommy remembered the vamper’s red eyes. Dad had pushed Tommy closer and closer to the leashed beast. Just like the other children, Tommy had cried, unable to stop his father’s persistent push. Those bulging, wild eyes were the only thing Tommy could see right now. The chained monster’s yelling sounded exactly like the roars outside.
Lots of quiet thumping noises were getting louder. Tommy remembered hearing something like it before. It almost sounded like a stampede of cattle. He didn’t know where they were or how long ago, but the noise reminded Tommy of a streak of black and white spots running over flat green plains.
James cursed under his breath, “Shit. Check your door, make sure it’s locked.”
Mom clicked something on the door and something squeaked, “Locked. Let’s get on the floor. Stay where you are Tommy.”
“Be brave sweety.”
Mom and James slowly slid to the floor of the pickup. Tommy thought he saw something outside. Tears were starting to drip. James grabbed the shotgun from the bottom of the seat behind Tommy’s ass. He cocked the pump, loudly enough to make Tommy jump.
Every glance out the window made Tommy see red eyes. He was living in a nightmare he couldn’t wake from. The roars outside made his ears hurt, but covering them didn’t help. Whimpers began to wheeze out of his nose. Opening his mouth to cry wasn’t possible. I can’t make noise. I can’t make any noise.
“Come here baby.”
Mom reached up with one arm to lead Tommy to the floor with her. He jumped down, cradled into her bosom and let the tears fall out. Closing his eyes was almost as bad as looking out the windows. Hungry, pulsating red eyes stared back from the darkness.
The roars outside were getting closer. Something banged on the truck, followed by a high pitched scream and a lot more pounding. Tommy cried more after he pissed himself. He wanted to cry for Mom so bad, but he kept remembering the cave.
The old chief had let the chain loose, bit by bit, and yelled over the vamper’s yells and the children’s crying. His words were imprinted in Tommy’s mind, “Every time you yell, the vamper gets closer.” Tommy remembered when he had curled his lips in and bit them, the only advice Mom and Dad had given him.
Angelica began crying. Tommy’s eyes shot open. She doesn’t know what to do.
Mom tried to coo Tommy’s sister, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Mom swayed her shoulders back and forth, “They can’t get us Angy. Shhh. They can’t get us.”
Claws scraped the windows with streaks almost as loud as the roars and yells. The truck rocked back and forth. Tommy could barely hear Mom, but Angelica’s crying was too loud. He didn’t know what he could do, but reach out and hug his sister.
Whispering was too quiet, but Tommy tried not to be too noisy, “Sissy, Mom and Mister James said we aren’t endangered. You don’t have to be afrightened. We love you and we will keep you safe. Please don’t cry.”
Angelica kept crying, but she wasn’t as loud. Tommy couldn’t see very well, so he tried to remember what she looked like back at the water fountain. Angelica had rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes. He remembered her toothless smile when he fed her mashed potatoes.
He whispered again, “Be brave. We won’t let anyone hurt you.”
The baby’s wailing quieted down a little more. Angelica resorted to a loud whimper.
Wild vampers outside continued to beat on the truck, but Tommy wasn’t worried. Mister James’ raisin glasses were hard, and Mom was strong enough to kill Dad after he had turned into a monster. Tommy had been the first kid to stop crying when the chained vamper had gotten closer.
Tommy remembered when the old chief had yanked back on the vamper’s chain, tripped it to the ground, and stabbed it through the heart with his spear four times. He had turned around and pointed at Tommy, “You’ll have the strength to do this one day.”
The young boy clutched Angelica and thought, One day.