It's Killing Me
New FriendsThe rising sun hit his back in such a way that his body cast a sinister black silhouette against the sky.
His face was obscure, hidden behind an untidy fluff of rags and a baseball cap with the bill pulled low over his brow.
Instincts, when you've spent so much time cultivating them, are hard to suppress. For that reason, I jumped to my feet a split second after spotting him.
I hardened my grip against the cold handle of the knife, pulling my hand slightly behind my back so as
He stepped forward, trudging across the silt laden ground swiftly, making no attempt at concealing the fury his body language conveyed.
For a moment, time stood still. Suddenly, the guilt of slaying the creature left my mind completely, and the adrenaline kicked in. Should I have needed to fight, I would have. I would have fought to the death. It wasn’t really a thought process. It was a natural feeling. I felt the urge to grapple and pull and punch until every pore covering him bled.
It was almost disappointing when he stopped two feet away from me, the prospect of physical conflict diminishing. I could feel the fire in my blood dwindle.
The man pulled the stained, thread-bare handkerchiefs from his mouth and hung them loosely around his neck. The absence of gruff facial hair or wrinkles was astonishing. He was the size of a grown man with the face of a boy. I couldn’t even begin to guess his age. He could’ve been a mere few months older than I or he could have been twenty.
I wouldn’t find out until much later…
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, rolling the sleeves of his blue jacket up just past his elbows.
I couldn’t connect the words in my mind to my mouth- I couldn’t make the explanation flow.
“I-, I-, um…” I stuttered.
“Never mind,” he scoffed, shaking his hand at me, “It doesn’t matter. But,” he paused, "you shouldn’t be here. Get lost before you’re seen.”
“Seen?” I found my voice just before he could step forward to shove me away. “There isn’t anyone around to see. I’ve been walking for nearly three days and you’re the first person I’ve come across.”
“Three days!” He exclaimed, raising his voice in surprise. “How did you manage to-” then he stopped.
The sun was high enough now that his features were highlighted, and I could clearly see the shape of his pursed lips, flared nostrils, and brown eyes that were scowling at me.
He looked so… angry.
“Look, I don’t know what it is I’ve done that’s so offensive, but I have a destination.” I said plainly. “If I’m not allowed to go this way, then what route should I take?”
He tipped his head slightly to the side, studying my plain expression.
“And,” I added, casting a glance toward the carcass at my side, “what do I do with that?”
He studied me for a moment, a look of tension creeping slowly back into his pale face.
A thick sigh escaped his lips “Where are you planning on going?” he asked, not sounding too enthralled about hearing the answer.
“The coast.” I announced, afterward realizing how feeble and childishly dreamy my voice sounded when I uttered the words.
I expected him to argue with me, like everyone else- to tell me the coast was a fairy tale, a myth, a legend created to keep the hope alive in the hearts of the youth.
I expected him to mock me, at the least. I thought maybe, if I could just explain my reasoning, he would help me out.
I had already begun constructing my argument in the back of my mind when a faint, gentle smile tugged at his the corners of his mouth.
“I know what you’re going to say, and no. You’re not going to stop me. So either you can tell me another way to get there or-”
“I wasn’t planning on stopping you,” he cut in.
“Well, I’ll be on my way then. I guess you can take that,” I gestured again towards the carcass.
I bent to pick up my bag when his hand caught the strap.
He pulled it up over his shoulder and, catching a glimps of my blade, stepped back.
I clicked it shut and shoved it into my pants pocket hastily, wiping my hand on my t-shirt.
“You look exhausted,” he observed, “come back to my place and we’ll cook your rabbit and you can sleep a while. Maybe a new shirt wouldn’t hurt either.” he smiled at me.
I looked down at the ragged piece of cloth and sighed. Its original yellow was now stained dark orange, spattered with crimson where the blood had hit it. It said ‘I have the body of a god’ with a faint silhouette of Buddha ironed onto it.
It had been Luther’s until about two years ago when he outgrew it, and I really had no desire to get rid of it. But, not wanting to be rude, I accepted his offer and we made our way seemingly aimlessly through the desert.
“I guess I should thank you for finding me,” I said after a few minutes of walking silently alongside him.
“You’re lucky I‘m the one who did,” he said faintly.
This startled me, so I stopped to face him. “What do you mean?” I said, raising a brow.
“I mean,” he began, grabbing my wrist and pulling me back around to resume walking, “that we aren’t the only ones out here. There are others- men that guard the area.”
“Oh,” I said, “and I take it they’re not very friendly?”
He didn’t answer. “Just keep walking. If we haven’t been seen by now, chances are, we won’t. But I’d rather just get done quickly and not take any chances.”
“If you know they’re out here, then why’d you come?”
“They don’t usually patrol on Sundays, and I had chores to tend to.”
“Collect water, mainly. See if there’s anything worth bringing back to eat.”
“Water…” I repeated dreamily. The word caught my attention, making my blood rush wildly with thirst.
“Yeah, there’s an underground stream not to far from here.”
Then, without warning, he stopped and pivoted, continuing forward without missing a beat.
“Where are you going?” I asked, confused.
“Taking you to shelter before it gets too hot. The chores can wait.”
“But what about the-”
“Water? I’ll go back out during the night and retrieve some. Like I said, it’s not a far journey. In the meantime, though,” he said, unhooking a canteen from his belt buckle, “have some of this.”
He tossed it to me. The sound of the cool liquid sloshing around in the plastic container made me salivate slightly.
“Thank you so much,” I told him, uncapping the canteen. “You’re an angel.”
“No, actually. I’m just Daniel.” he said. “And you are?”
“Guys, this is Celia. Make her feel at home. Thank her for this lovely meal she’s so graciously offered us. And, after it’s done cooking, we’ll have a breifing. Joe,” Daniel said, locking gazes with a lanky boy with red hair and glasses, “is going to give us an update on what’s going on back at the home front and…Alyssa?”
“I’ve got the plan, Dan.” she smiled at him, her baby-blue eyes twinkling in the dim light of the crudely-dug basement room.
“Great,” he said, then turned to me. “I’m gonna go find you a shirt. Stay here and…hang out. I promise, they’re all fairly easy to get along with.”
They consisted of seven people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities.
The boy, Joe got up and walked me around the room, introducing me to each and every ‘rebel’. They were all very welcoming.
“This is Walter, but we call him ‘Recon’. He was a-”
“Marine Corps special ops Sergeant Walter Dean McConnell, at your service” The man cut Joe off. His skin was a deep brown color, his black hair and moustache were speckeld with grey, and his smile was very warm. I felt like I already knew him just by shaking his hand.
I got the feeling he was the kind of person that could tell great stories.
Then there was Alyssa, the ‘wo-man with the plan’ as Joe referred to her. She was very, intensely happy. Meeting her made me so nervous, I didn’t even want to know what living with her would be like. They all seemed immune to it, though, and ignored her as she and her blonde curls bounced out of the room to go look for Daniel.
“She’s got a major crush on him, incase you didn’t notice. Thinks he’s old enough for her…or, heck. Maybe she thinks that she’s young enough. I never could figure her out.”
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Heck, I don’t know,” Joe said, leaining into my ear. “Thirty, maybe.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have pegged her for a day over twenty.”
Joe shrugged, leading me across the room to a brown couch where a 40-something man sat, reading a hefty-looking novel.
Joe cleared his throat. The man looked up, waiting silently for Joe to begin the introductions.
“Doc, this is Celia Swann. Daniel found her wandering around out by the Sink.”
(I would later learn that ‘the Sink’ was just an affectionate term for the underground pool Daniel had spoke of earlier.)
The man lowered his glasses and raised his eyebrows at me. His gaze was that of a man who was used to being listened to- one who had once had huge authority that still lingered over even a stranger like me.
“What was she doing out there?” he asked, obviously speaking to Joe, but never taking his eyes off of me.
The fact that he didn’t just ask me personally and couldn’t be bothered to even introduce himself insulted me a bit.
“She claims she’s on a mission to overthrow the British Ministry and has come to recruit us. Isn’t that exciting? They’ve got helicopters and everything waiting for us outside.” Joe winked at me.
Doc didn’t seem to care much about what Joe had told him, joking or not. The man didn‘t seem to have much of a sense of humor. He didn’t ask any more questions, either, before lowering his eyes back to his book, sliding his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, and clearing his throat ( a signal for us to leave).
I nearly stomped off, disgusted with the man’s horrible attitude.
“Don’t let Doc bother you,” Joe said, laughing at my reaction, “he’ll become more personable when he gets to know you. He’s funny that way. An old ARMY vet, sort of like Recon. Doc’s just got a harder shell, always talking about how much he ‘hates people’. He lost his daughter when the storm happened. We think that’s what made him so bitter, but…he claims he’s always been like that.”
“And he attends to all of your medical needs?” I asked.
“Well, most of them. Alyssa is a nurse, too. So, we go to her for the minor stuff.”
Well let’s hope I’m not here long enough to have any major medical issues, I thought as Joe wheeled me around, down past the couch to a corner where two kids, a boy and a girl, stood talking.
The girl had about two inches on him, so I was guessing he was about twelve because she looked about my age.
They both had the same dark freckles, light-brown hair, and dimpled, sweet faces. They were obviously brother and sister. A very close pair.
“Corey, Martha, meet Celia, our new roommate. And Celia, meet Corey and Martha.”
“Hi,” Martha said quietly, waving at me.
I waved back and smiled.
Her little brother, Corey, who was almost taller than me, held out a hand.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” He said, trying to immitate an English accent.
I laughed, shook his hand, and he bowed.
“You should stick around a while,” Corey said, “we don’t get much company.” He batted his pretty eyes at me.
“Plus, she’s really hot, right?” Martha mocked him.
Corey turned a brilliant shade of red, and I couldn’t help but feel my own face heat up a little bit.
I gathered that their bluntness was a family trait. Corey’s was just more involuntary.
The last person Joe introduced me to was Greg, a massive guy who looked like he could walk right through a concrete wall if he wanted to.
“Hey there.” he said to me, tipping his head back, what sounded like a southern drawl lingering a bit in his words.
“Hey.” I said quietly.
“When’s breakfast, ‘cus. I‘m starving.” he asked Joe
“‘Cus? Cousin?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “Greggy here and I are cousins. Our moms were sisters.”
Both of them lowered their eyes in silent respect.
I lowered mine, aswell. We all let a moment pass, then carried on as if the comment hadn’t even been made.
It was custom, by now, for people to recognize when someone carried the loss of a loved one with them.
It made us respect each other. And, I guess, that is what bonded this small band together was a mutual respect and need for one another.
They were, in their own sense, a family. It was evident.
“It should start here shortly,” Joe replied and just as the boys got into a discussion about comics, which I didn’t read, Daniel entered the room again.
He came over to me and held out a blue cotton t-shirt, much like the material of the one I was wearing, except not as filthy.
“Thank you,” I said whole-heartedly, and a sudden itch to change clothes overcame me.
“No problem. If you walk down that hallway by the couch, theres a lamp-lit room with a desk in it.
You can change there, if you like. Breakfast starts in a few minutes.”