James’ eyelids slid open, but he immediately covered them with his elbow. Dawn reflected from the truck’s rearview mirror directly into his face. James rubbed his eyes as he tried to sit up, something stopped him. He tilted his head to see little Tommy sleeping soundly on his chest. James tilted his head the other way to see an empty seat and an open door.
Instantly awake, James softly searched the floor for his shotgun, but it was gone. He scanned the windows above him to see if he was being watched. He didn’t see anyone, but he heard someone talking outside. The voices were too faint to hear clearly.
Footsteps plodded through the sand. James fumbled for his pocket knife, opened it, and hid it under his palm and wrist. He closed his eyes and feigned sleep.
A man’s dry voice quietly called out, “Fucka’s still sleepin’. I ain’t got to use me new axe.”
Someone added to the conversation, but James couldn’t discern any solid words.
The first man said, “Good call.”
James felt the other man’s hands slowly clasp underneath his armpits, and just as slowly drag him across the seat to the passenger’s side. Warm, filthy breath drifted over James face. James immediately opened his eyes, staring at a filthy man with clumps of dirt traced throughout his long hair. The man’s eyes bulged behind smudged goggles that had already made his eyes look bigger.
With his left hand, James grabbed the man’s long hair and dragged him in. Before the man could make a sound, James plunged his knife into his throat. A gasp of air pushed past the man’s total of five or six teeth. James removed the blade and stabbed again, then again and again until the raider’s grip faltered and he slumped over.
James’ eyes were closed from the blood shower, but he still managed to slide the man to the truck floor. The young man took his shirt sleeve to wipe his eyes clean, but he could feel that there was just as much blood soaked into the cloth already. Using his left forearm and wrist seemed to do the job.
Enough blood had been wiped away for James to open his eyes and see Tommy’s face frozen with fear and sprayed with blood. James could’ve cried for the toddler, but instead, he motioned the little boy to stay quiet. He whispered, “Get on the floor.”
Tommy’s tiny legs swung down and he huddled under the steering wheel.
“Do you see a gun?”
Tommy nodded and pointed to the raider. James rolled to his belly and saw a sawn-off grip to a shotgun. The mechanic pulled on the grip, but the other side of the weapon was a hunk of bone manipulated into a tomahawk. Fuck.
James heard the other voice call, again, too faint to make out. He rummaged around the dead raider’s loose coat for a few knickknacks and a necklace of thick jerky. A closer look let James know that they were dried tongues. He kept looking.
The other voice grew a little louder, “Horace? You fuckin’ ‘em now? Greedy bastard.” Footsteps were coming around the truck.
Shit. James found a kitchen knife better suited for peeling an orange than for combat. He grabbed the tomahawk and just tried to feel the balance.
“Come on ya sod… Horace?”
James locked eyes with another dirty man in thick rags of misshapen colors and fittings. The other raider reached for a weapon at his hip. James launched out of the truck like a coyote for a loose tackle. The raider flipped James on his back and drew a rusty machete.
Just at James’ feet, the raider inhaled and put a finger-length whistle to his lips. A quick, high note filled the air for less than a second before James slammed his boot into the whistle. The raider was on his back, trying to pull the whistle out of his mouth. James raised his tomahawk and split the man’s jaw apart, along with most of his left cheek and eye. A trickle of blood flowed out of the whistle’s edge.
James slapped away the man’s flailing hands and brought the tomahawk down again. Blood sprayed misted into a small puddle in the sand. Satisfied, James fell back to a knee and looked around. A raggedy tent flapped in the gentle wind. At the edge of the tent was a boy, just a few years older than Tommy.
The boy sat under a tattered umbrella poking out of the ground. He wore a dusty bowler hat, with a wrinkled brown coat and a gaudy purple and green patterned clip-on tie atop a stained, white dress shirt. He held James’ shotgun casually on his lap, pointed towards a crying Angelica atop a blanket on the ground.
Wisps of gentle air filled the silent void. James stared the boy down. The kid didn’t seem to be frightened, or even upset that James had just killed two of his gang. James tilted his head to the tent, he could hear another noise. Megan was crying between quick gasps of breath.
James was just outside the passenger door. The shotgun boy was sitting on a crate just behind the tailgate. James started to stand, very slowly. As he did, the boy tightened his grip on the gun. James dropped back to a knee, and the kid relaxed the gun.
He had a small voice with a neutral tone, “She’s almost done.”
James was starting to lose his breath. He spoke just loudly enough to be heard over Angelica, “This is wrong. Please put the gun down.”
James instantly dropped the tomahawk.
James steadily lowered his ass to the sand. He didn’t know what else he could do but talk. “You saw me kill these two. Why not shoot me?”
The kid had no response but to stare blankly back.
James heard Megan stifling cries, the pained sound drilling straight into his brain. “Did you ever shoot a baby before?”
“Are you allowed to talk to me?”
“You don’t have to live like this. You don’t have to be bad.”
“We aren’t bad. We just have fun.”
James felt his fists shaking. Then his eyes went wide.
Tommy was silent as a shadow, with James’ pocketknife in hand. The older boy’s mouth opened wide. He released the trigger to slowly reach for the back of his head.
James already felt his face grimace as he sprinted forward, gathering the tomahawk in stride. How old is he? The boy’s mouth twitched without a sound, still no emotion. Fuck. James swung the tomahawk into the boy’s neck. His head tilted to the opposite side, and he fell.
James caught him and carefully let him fall to the ground. He looked over to Tommy, who still had fresh blood sprayed over his face. Tommy cradled Angelica until she stopped crying.
He whispered, “Tommy, get back in the truck.”
Aside from moving, Tommy didn’t make any movement towards the truck. James knelt down almost to Tommy’s eye level. The boy’s blank stare went straight through James, then he focused on his baby sister again.
“Tommy, you did what you had to do. Get in the truck. Your mom needs help, but I need to make sure you’re safe first.”
The little boy shook with a small tremor and nodded. James lead him to the passenger side. The first dead raider was still laying inside the open door. James dragged the body to the ground and lifted Tommy and Angelica into the seat.
He tried to use a softer tone that he had been using, “Tommy, just lock the door and wait for us. Honk if you see trouble. Can you handle that?”
The boy kept Angelica tight as he slid across the seat to close and lock the driver door. He slid back to the middle and crossed his legs to lay his sister on. Tommy maneuvered to make sure no sunlight touched either of them. James locked the passenger door and closed it gently.
Walking back to the dead pre-teen, James tried to focus. The image of the blood soaked toddler refused to leave his mind. James picked up the shotgun, checked to see a shell was indeed ready to fire. Little fucker wasn’t bluffing.
James scanned the horizons once again, certain no one else was around. He walked towards the tent. The raised tarp wasn’t much taller than James’ chest, but it was wide enough for three or four people to sleep side by side.
The flap rippled with the wind, exposing louder and louder cries from inside. James unbuttoned the tarp, pushed the flap aside with the bloody tomahawk, and slid into the opening. Crouching, he looked to the right to see the back of a naked, sweaty, dirty woman thrusting her hips back and forth. James cringed as he realized the woman was wearing a bright red strap on.
James scanned the ground to see that there were no weapons within reach of the raider. He moved forward and shoved the barrel into her back. His voice growled, “Get up.”
The brown haired woman slowly raised her hands, “No sweat love. I thought we agreed on the order.”
The last raider awkwardly crouched as she picked herself up and followed James’ order. James saw Megan’s wrists tied to a corner post, with her ankles tied to separate stakes. A dirty rag was stuffed in her mouth along with multiple bruises beginning to show around her face and bare legs.
James almost pulled the trigger, but decided to swing the tomahawk into the rapist’s back until she stopped moving. Moments after, James made his way to Megan and freed her of all her bindings. The young woman rolled to her side and cried uncontrollably.
Looking away, James searched for a blanket or something, but everything he saw was caked in filth of one kind or another. He decided to just exit the tent with the rapist’s corpse.
Outside, James scanned the area for any movement. He walked up to the pickup, the three corpses hadn’t been moved. James peeked in the side window to see Tommy still cradling Angelica, gently rocking her back and forth. The young man was glad to see that Tommy had found a rag to clean most of the blood from his face.
James knocked on the window, “You okay Tommy?”
Tommy didn’t react at all.
James knocked again, “You’re mom’s alive.”
The boy swiveled his head towards James and nodded once.
James glimpsed the side mirror and took a better look at himself. He took off his blood soaked shirt and started rubbing himself off with sand. With no idea if it would clean him or not, James just had to do something, anything in that moment.
About an hour had passed. James was satisfied with a clean face, though his clothes were still faintly stained with blood. He had gone through the raiders’ corpses, but there were no more weapons worth collecting, let alone selling back home. James had stopped expecting more of them after he had followed the four raiders’ tracks.
They had been traveling on foot together for nearly a kilometer that James had seen. Then their trail had disappeared when the wind had picked up. Not too confident in his scouting, James was at least sure they had been following the base mountain range to the east.
James now sat at the edge of the tailgate. He ate one of the yellow tomatoes his people had scavenged from the oasis. A splash of water from the canteen made it the most delicious meal James had had in a while.
As he quenched his thirst, James turned around to look past the pickup’s roof. The small mountain range wasn’t too steep, and he could make out a few smooth paths to get to the top. No more than a kilometer to the peak.
The man’s gaze fell down to the pickup’s rearview mirror. He could only see the top of Tommy’s wild black hair. Can’t believe he killed someone at his age. He wouldn’t have to live like this at Anthill.
James flinched when he caught movement in his peripheral. Megan had put all of her old clothes back on. Her arms were crossed into her armpits. She locked eyes with James, and then over to the corpses he had dragged into a line earlier. The woman seemed to linger for a moment.
Her naturally hoarse voice broke through the quiet breeze, “Ready?”
James nodded, “You?”
“Wasted enough time.”
“The wind hid our tracks. I haven’t seen any more drones in the sky. You take the time you need.”
“Done.” She walked to the passenger door.
James slid off the tailgate and closed it without slamming it. No one deserves to be out in this shit.