A pair of Silencers left on a motorcycle over ten minutes ago and no lights have turned on; it’s time to make my move. I’m halfway through the back yard, but abruptly come to a halt. My eyes meet with those of a raven-haired girl across the yard. Slowly, she turns to look at the back porch, then back to me. We both make a mad dash for the door. No way this girl is about to show up, and take my food.
The door handle is in within my grasp as the girl grabbes me from behind. “This is my spot, not yours. So I suggest you leave, or we’re going to have a problem,” the girl says, tightening her hold on my neck.
“Funny. I’ve been coming here for the past month, and haven’t seen you once,” I say, throwing my elbow into her gut.
She groans, and hunches over to wrap her arms around her stomach. “Cheap shot,” she says.
“Ya, well, you didn’t leave me much of a choice. You did have me in a choke hold; a tight one might I add,” I say, brushing my arms. Her clothes are caked in dirt.
“When you’ve been on your own as long as I have, you pick up a few tricks,” she says, stretching to her full height, which towers over my five foot six frame.
My empty stomach rumbles, reminding me why I’m here in the first place. “Listen, I have a hungry little brother waiting for me, so I would appreciate it if you let me take what I need and go,” I say.
Her eyes widen, and she takes a step closer to me. “You're not alone?” she says.
“No,” I say, dragging out the vowel. “I just said my little brother, Mason, is waiting for me. He’s only six.”
Who is this girl? Her sunken cheeks and lanky build lead me to believe she hasn’t had a proper meal since before the Judgment. My family and I sitting at the dinner table, laughing and happy, flashes through my mind.
“It’s been a couple years since I spoke to another human, give me a break,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You can take what you want under one condition,” she pauses, “You take me back to wherever you're going.”
“Are you joking?” I say, “For the ten minutes I’ve been blessed with your presence, you’ve threatened me, had me in a choke hold, and yet I still don’t know your name.”
“Sutton,” she says, lifting her hand to shake mine. “Willow,” I say.
“You need some lotion,” she says.
“I don’t have much me time between, looking for food, water, shelter and protecting a six-year old boy. Having lotioned hands is not really top priority,” I say.
“Poor you.” she frowns at me, “You think you have it bad? Try being without human contact for three years.” She moves to block the door.
What do I do? If I bring her back, there’s no way I’ll be able to trust her. But the longer I look for food, the longer I’m away from Mason.
“Come on, you know you want to say yes. If I go back with you, someone will always be watching Mason. I have a car too, and I’m a pretty fast runner. Oh, and I can sing. I’ll give you one of my vocals--.”
“All right!” I say, throwing my hands up. “’I’ll bring you back, but only if you shut up.”
“Deal,” she says, opening the door for me. Moist, cool air welcomes us into the house.
“Mmhmm,” she moans. “Do you smell baked chicken? Haven’t smelled something this delicious since before the Judgment.”
My eyes scan the colorless living room. The walls are bare and a blinding white. An uncomfortable-looking white couch sits in the middle of the room, accented by a glass coffee table.
“Come on, let’s get the food and get out of here. This place gives me the creeps,” she says, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. Sutton pulls her satchel closer to her chest, and walks off to the find the kitchen.
Like usual, I seek out potential ways to escape in case the Silencers come back. The light from the kitchen filters into the dining room, creating a faint glow; just enough to see my way around. There’s a sliding door that leads to the back yard, but above it is a blinking white light. I’ve never seen that light before.
“Willow.” She sounds frustrated. “I can’t fit all the food into my bag, can you come help me.”
She glances at me and takes in my confused expression. “What’s wrong?” she says, peering at me.
“It was too easy,” I say quietly. “The last couple times I’ve been here, the doors have been locked and the fridge had a code to open it. And yet we just walked in this time, pulled open the fridge and don’t have enough room in our bag for all the food we’re taking.”
Sutton’s mouth pops open. “Do you think it’s a trap?” She starts to bite on her thumb nail. “Yes,” I say, “We need to go. They could come back any--”
The low creak of footsteps echoes through the living room. They’re back. Sutton turns to me with a deer in headlights look. I bring my finger up to my lips, and point to the sliding door.
We move stealthily to the door, but as it slides open, an alarm blares through the house. “Run!” I scream, looking back at Sutton.
We sprint through the yard, dodging the Silencers’ bullets. The burning in my lungs and ache in my legs takes away from our quick getaway. We momentarily hide behind a rose bush.
“Where is the car you said you had?” I say, out of breath. I can barely breathe. If she doesn’t have it nearby, there’s no way we won’t get injected. We have nowhere else to run-- this town is crawling with Silencers.
She points to a curb concealed by overgrown trees. “Right over there. We can make it if we go now, they aren’t looking our way,” she says, trying to keep her voice even, but it trembles anyway.
“Listen to me, when I say go, we’re going to run as fast as we can to that car. And when we get in it, you better start it up and hit the gas pedal. I’ll tell you where to go. Got it?”
She nods. “Got it.” Then she grabs my hand, squeezing it tight for a second.
“Ready.” I look to her. “Go.”
We continue to run, every step bringing us farther from the Silencers. A thrum of panic goes through me when bullets split into the ground at my feet.
To calm myself, I mumble under my breath, “Don’t get shot. Don’t get captured. Don’t get injected.”
The hail of poisoned-filled bullets rains down on us. One knicks my leg, causing me to fall to the ground. Small, strong hands grab me by the collar, trying to pull me up.
“We have to go,” Sutton yells. “Very perceptive of you!” I scream over my shoulder. I can’t help but look back. Silencers pour out of the house and into the yard; coming for us. My body trembles, every nerve on fire as we push to the car. The whining in my head intensifies as we jump in and she inserts the key into the ignition.
“Come on. Come on. Now is not the time,” she mumbles, bouncing in her seat.
The beat-down car spurts to life, and she steps on the gas, and the tires spin out. We sit in silence for about fifteen seconds before we burst into hysterical laughter.
“I can’t believe we just pulled that off,” she says between her laughter.
We finally calm down. “Our hideout is about an hour away on foot, so it probably won’t take long to get back,” I say.
The window starts to fog from my breath. We pass the houses, each one more extravagant than the last. This is all work of the Silencers. They came four years ago, wiped us out, and took over our cities.
“Look, there’s a squirrel!” Sutton says. The car slows and she points to the supposed squirrel.
The chance of this actually being an animal is less than the chance of my parents coming back. “Sutton, are you blind--that’s s not a squirrel. The thing’s not even moving,” I say.
“What are you doing. Get back in the car,” she says, leaning over the center console to pull me back in.
The gravel crunches under my feet. “It’s a teddy bear. A tattered teddy bear,” I say to myself. It looks just like the one my father brought home for Mason on his second birthday.
I bend to pick it up, and a hiss escapes my lips. Blood runs down my leg. The adrenaline dulled the pain, but now it’s hitting me in full force.
“Sutton,” I say, limping back to the car. “Please tell me you have some sort of first aid kit.”
She looks down to my leg, and gasps. “Oh damn, that must hurt.”
“No, I can barely feel it,” I say, shaking my head. “Of course it hurts.”
She reaches in the glove department and pulls out a roll of bandages. “I’ll just wrap it for now,” she says, bending down. “When we get to camp, I’ll clean it.”
“All right, let’s go,” I say. “It’s only a couple miles down this road, then we have to walk.”
We drive for another couple minutes. “Pull the car into the woods a little bit,” I say. We throw leaves on it to make it look like an abandoned car.
“It’s this way,” I say.
We arrive back at our camp. It’s always difficult to find because it’s hidden behind thick greenery. My footsteps on something that breaks under my weight.
“What the heck?” I mumble. I bend down to look at the broken object. It’s a syringe. Something’s wrong. The bushes have been stomped on and the leaves concealing the tents have been ripped off their branches. My heart drops into the empty pit of my stomach.
“Mason!” My breathing quickens and my legs move to the demolished site and see no trace of him. “No, no, no, no.” My head drops to my hands, fingers lace through my hair. “They took him. What do I do?” I press a hand to my mouth. Mustn’t scream.
Calloused hands grip my shoulders. “Listen, we’re going to find him.” Her voice is soothing. “I met someone a while back, and he told me about where they take a resister. It’s not too far from here, a couple hours, tops.”
I nod, not bothering to brush away the tears coursing down my cheeks. It’s no use anymore.
“Come on, let’s go to the car,” she says.
We drive in uncomfortable silence. The thought of the Silencers hurting Mason makes my stomach twist and my heart ache. A thousand thoughts run through my mind; what if I’m too late? What if we have the wrong place? All this time I worried how he would survive if I was captured. But the real question is; how will I survive without him?
I still think the day he was born was the best day of my life. He brought our family so much joy. Suddenly, I’m choking on my own tears.
“I gotta piss,” Sutton says. “Do you mind if we stop for a minute?”
I shake my head “No. I think I see a lake down there, so I’ll fill up on water.” She pulls over and we walk into the woods, slowly so I can keep up.
“I’m going behind that tree right there.” She points to a nearby tree.
I nod and start for the lake. Beads of sweat form on my forehead as I maneuver my way down the hill. “Could you make this anymore difficult,” I mumble, looking up to the sky.
Crouching down, I fill my bottle through the filter. I splash water on my face and glance at my reflection in the water. My golden waves are matted and my face is tanner than I’ve seen. The torn tank top accentuates my now-wiry arms, and my forest green eyes look wild. I blush at my unkempt appearance, and rake my fingers through my hair, half wishing I had a hair brush.
I trudge back up the hill, ignoring the twist of pain in my leg.
“Took your precious time didn’t you,” she says, starting up the car.
“Oh, I’m sorry, getting shot really has put a damper on my mobility skills.” I slam the car door shut.
She throws her hands up in mock surrender. “Just trying to lighten the mood.”
“I appreciate you trying, but why don’t you just focus on driving,” I say, turning to look out the window.
I think about Mason. Innocent, little six-year old Mason. He’s only ever known this life. It’s not a world anyone should grow up in. I don’t know what’s worse; never knowing how wonderful life was before the Plague, or experiencing that life and know that you’ll never be able to live like that again.
“We’re here,” she says, snapping me out of my daze.
Nothing but woods and open road.
She notices my confused expression. “I parked a little ways away from it.”
My leg will just have to hold out. Somehow.
“Do you want me to pull up, and ask if they have valet?” She raises an eyebrow.
“Oh shut up,” I say getting out of the car.
We walk stealthily, assessing our surroundings. I grip the shotgun in my hand, feeling comforted by its weight. The compound comes into view.
“Wait,” I say, “How are we going to know where he is?”
“The boy who told me about this place, also said where they kept him,” Sutton says. “Behind the building, there’s an underground holding cell.” She turns to me. “I’m going to create a distraction while you go around back.”
“Are you kidding?” I give her a what-the-hell-are-you-thinking look. “That’s about the dumbest thing we could do,”
“You got any other brilliant plans.” She pauses, waiting for my reply. I have none. “Exactly.”
She hands me the car keys, and looks me in the eye. “Just in case something happens, I want you to take your brother and get out of here. Don’t think twice about me.”
“No!” I shake my head. “How could you ask--”
How can she ask me to just leave her like road kill?
“Okay, okay. I promise.”
“All righty then, let’s go.” She starts for the front of the compound as I make my way around back. The blaring of a siren goes off, and over my shoulder, I see Sutton fighting with a Silencer. Please don’t get injected.
“Don’t get shot. Don’t get caught. Don’t get injected,” I say like a prayer.
I finally get to the back of the building, but two Silencers stand guarding the latch. The siren stops and a voice bellows from the speakers. “All Silencers report to the front of the building.” It plays on repeat. Both the Silencers leave. Time to sprint.
My legs are screaming at me, heart pumping fast, breathing hard, but my eyes stay focused on the door to the cellar.
I reach the door and shoot the lock open. I slam slam the doors open. Where’s Mason? Need to find him fast.“Mason!” The only thing lighting the cellar is moonlight. “Mason, it’s Willow,” I whisper.
“Willow?” A weak voice comes from behind me. I spin and come face to face with my baby brother. Mason runs to me and throws his arms around me, hugging me close. I exhale a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
“I’m scared,” he says.
“I know buddy. I’m going to get us out of here,” I say, scooping him into my arms. He nods his head and sniffles, still shaken up. We make our way back up the steps. Peering over the door, I check for any Silencers. None. Sutton must be causing a ruckus. I grab Mason’s hands and squat down to his height.
“Listen, when I say go, we are going to run as fast as we can to those woods over there. Ok?” I rub my hands up and down his arms. He nods his head and sniffles. “Ok.”
“Ready. Go!” We sprint for the woods. I still haven’t seen one Silencer. I start to worry about Sutton.
“The car is right over there, bud, but we have to wait for my friend. She should be coming out any minute.
The sirens blare again, and Sutton comes stumbling out of the doors. My heart starts to pound. “Come on, Sutton. Don’t get shot. Don’t get shot,” I mumble.
She’s almost into the woods when the Silencers open fire. Her body jerks to a stop and her eyes meet mine. I’m taken back to just hours before when I spotted her from across the lawn.
Her body falls to the ground and Silencers immediately surround her. I cover my mouth to stifle the screams. I compose myself and run back to the car blinded by my tears.
Gently, I slide Mason in, and get into the driver's side. On the first try, the car spurts to life. “Thank you.” I close my eyes.
“Where are we going to go.” Mason looks at me with doe eyes.
“I don’t know” I grip his hand, steer with the other. “But I promise you we’re going to be ok.”
My parents, Mason, Sutton, the world. For all of them, I have to believe that.