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A Savior Saved
“Wake up, Joel. Joel! Get up!”
I flipped over, a moan escaping from my lips.
“God, Joel. You need to get up. Now.”
Suddenly, something clicked. I jumped out of my makeshift bed, clothes already on, then instinctively checked my pocket. My glasses were still there. “Thank God.” I breathed. Glasses were a luxury that were not easily come by.
Though we had sworn to protect each other, many members of our gang were no better than the strays that wandered alone, scrounging for valuables. I mean, we did the same thing, but who wasn’t? After the disaster, we were all knocked down to the same level. Sons of millionaires and the bitter daughters of prostitutes, working side-by-side, in tandem or, more likely, competition for that last can of peaches.
I was the member of a larger group, a network of looters spread out, albeit loosely, across what was once a great country. We could all be recognised by a dark mark scrawled across the back of our necks, a reminder that our necks would be on the line for abandoning our war-made brothers and sisters. However loose this alliance was, it was all many of us had.
I stomped through waist-high piles of refuse, flanked by Marena and Daiman, the requisite members to complete my group. The networked believed smaller groups more trustworthy than large, lumbering bands of people.
“What’s up with you?” asked Marena. Our hands touched for a moment, and her dark, dark eyes looked into mine. “Nothing,” I replied. “Bad dream.”
They had been getting worse, the dreams. My mother, falling into a suddenly opened crack in the ground. My father, jumping after her. It was a repetition of reality, the only difference the addition of a brown and muddy sky. Perhaps this was my subconscious’s way of protecting itself from the irony of the day’s perfect summer weather. Who knows?
We continued to walk. Decrepit buildings on the sides of us loomed, daring us to question their superiority. They looked like they were crying, glad to be rid of the pain. It was my mother who taught me to cry. “It releases all that built-up gunk!” she exclaimed. But I had hardened as I grew over and now, any outward expression of feeling was felt as a weakness by the part of me that reviewed my actions. And weakness, in its eyes, would only make my current situation worse.
We selected a building at random, but one that met certain prerequisites. It was neither too short nor too tall. It seemed, from the outside, mostly stable. It resided in the part of town that residents, before they evacuated or perished, avoided. After much trial and error, we found these often rewarded us with materials that could be traded and, if we were extremely lucky, food to refresh our often depleted rations.
As we hiked up the stairs, we kept an eye out for movement. Cats and dogs could be killed and eaten, squirrels and rats had to be exterminated to prevent the spread of disease. I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Knife at the ready, I held my finder and nodded my head to the room on my left labeled 6B. We entered in tight formation, silently with a patience earned after many years of practice. An animal whimpering came from the far right corner, and we drew closer. We cornered it and knocked over the cardboard that had been its home and steadied ourselves for the quick and inevitable kill.
Then we looked closer.
It was a girl.
She was hardly breathing, possibly dead, but she was a girl. Children were the first ones infected by the disease, and were the first burned, along with their sobbing mothers. The chances that she had survived were a million to one. And the chances that she might survive now that she was found were much, much worse.
I stepped forward and nudged her with the butt of my knife. She rolled over, grunted feebly, and opened her eyes.
Marena sighed. “You know we have to turn her in.”
“We’ve done enough turning in.” I replied I closed my eyes. Oh, my poor parents…
“Joel, they can trace us. They might already know–”
“You’re just like them. Just like them! When will you learn, Marena, that we matter. That the girl’s life matters. And I’m not giving up anymore–” I broke off, seeing the pleading look in her eyes. Oh, God, I just messed up. She just wanted the best for us, for our makeshift family.
“Sorry.” I muttered. I started walking out the room, then stopped. I’m the leader, I reminded myself.
“Okay guys, we’re taking the girl. Tonight, we’re walking. I don’t know where or how long. We’re walking out of this hideous excuse for a democracy.” I spit the last words.
They stood still, shellshocked. Marena moved first, her thought process barely taking more than a second. “I’ll come.” She said, more clearly than I would have guessed. Daimian took longer. He was quiet, as per usual, and took longer to make up his mind, also usual. Deliberately, he nodded.
I scooped up the girl in my arms. She was bigger than I had bargained, perhaps ten or twelve. She stirred and opened her eyes. They were very light blue, contrasting deeply with the pinhole of her pupils.
When we got back to the camp, I quickly fashioned a sling from what was left of a sofa, placed the girl, who we decided to call Tally, in it and swung the sling around my neck.
We left five minutes later, running to get out of the city and walking once we passed the border. Tally was gradually getting better, now able to move her ands and twitch her head upwards.
After a few hours of walking, the sun was totally gone from the sky. We sighted a farmhouse on the horizon and made that our goal. We quickened our pace and got there within the hour. Upstairs we found beds and, luckily, a bathtub filled with water. We fell asleep on top of each other, a huddled mass in the center of the bathroom.
When I woke the next morning, I was alone with the girl. Marena and Daimian were gone, their body heat long gone from the disintegrating carpet. I sat up, rubbed my eyes and looked around. There was a note on the ground.
If you’ve found this then we’ve left. We’re sorry, but this just wasn’t going to work out. The girl was already endangering us; you may not have noticed but as we left we were shot at, several times, by the towers lining the city. Marena and I can’t risk that anymore. We’re walking to Detroit, where we won’t be recognized. Thank you for all you’ve done, and goodbye.
-Daimain and Marena”
That was typical. Just typical. They would leave me for saving a child’s life. I stormed outside, angry at the sky as it started to lighten. I decided to go for a run, a run that might clear my head.
I circled around the house, fists held stiffly at my sides. Suddenly, I heard a growl. Lights approached the house, the muted roar becoming louder. Oh no. Cycles.
These outcasts were employed by an opposing government to kill what they could, flatten areas they couldn’t. There was a saying about them: “A war is not lost ‘till the Cycles are crossed”. I was not a religious man, buy I broke down on my knees and started praying. I heard the farmhouse’s door slam, the sound of shoeless feet on wood. I didn’t connect the sounds I heard with the girl inside, I was too busy waiting for the Cycles to come, for it to be over.
The roar drew louder and louder and the dust around me started swirling in strange patterns. I adopted a fetal pose, trying to stem the sensory input that continuousy bombareded me.
The roar stopped. Two men dismounted their cycles. They shot.
I woke up later. I don’t know how much later. That didn’t really seem important. At first I thought myself in heaven, but heaven wouldn’t have orange skies. I considered the opposite option, but hell would not be a home to the beautiful little girl at my side. Then, with a start, I truly woke up; that girl was Tally! Tally, who hadn’t moved of her own accord since who knows when! I guess my fatherly instincts had been developing over the week I had taken care of her, and now I was as happy to see her as to find myself alive.
I sat up groggily, pushing her over a bit in the process. “Hi?” I croaked, my throat hardly pressing air through my lungs. My voice seemed dry and cracked. Our water problem need to be fixed as soon as possible.
She didn’t respond. I pushed her, shoved her, and finally gave up. I checked her pulse, something I had been postponing. I needed her to be alive.
But she wasn’t.
Numb, I entered the farmhouse. There was a note there, a cruel repetition of the events of the morning. I thought I couldn’t hurt anymore than I was, so I picked up the note. After a few moments of heavy breathing, a technique my mother taught me to calm me down during my bouts of anger, I began to read.
“This is gonna be quick. I can hear them coming. You don’t know what you did for me. You remind me of my dad. But thinking of my dad reminds me of other stuff. Other stuff that they did to him. And I don’t want that to happen to you. You saved me, I save you.”
I leaned against the wall. It couldn’t support me. It couldn’t support the turmoil inside of me. So I sat down.
And I cried.