The New World
The town of Ross, North Dakota, is like any other small town, a farming community where everyone knows your name, your business and your intimate secrets. thirty-nine people in twelve households are all that resides in Ross. One would think a community so small was based on religious beliefs, or self-segregation because of their own bigotry. But that wasn’t the case for the citizens of Ross; they lived there because they knew nothing different. Born and raised into a lifestyle about 50 years behind the times, only those brave enough to escape the acres of fields that engulfed the small town understood where the world was going. For those that stayed in Ross, they appreciated the simple life and hard work that enabled the town to survive on its own. Once in a while a defected citizen would send home a letter with some details of the great cities of the beyond; the letters reading like a page torn out of an Isaac Asimov novel. Children would gather around to hear of the advancing technology – dreaming about telephones and televisions, while those with wrinkled pale skin and cracked hands would turn their noses up.
“We got everything we need to survive right here in Ross.” Old man Kramer would say. Self-sufficiency was the theme of Ross. Every family had a part to play; Jim Kramer’s land produced crops, Eugene Olsen herded cattle, John Fred Johnson and his wife Mabel Ruth Johnson mended the sick and delivered the next generation, and Clara Walker Jones taught the kids in the one-room school, her husband Sam was the town’s carpenter; their children would all grow up to do the same. This cycle ran since the settlers of Ross squatted on the land what could have been a millennia ago, and it will continue for the next millennia if Jim Kramer has anything to say about it.
The mid-day sun beckoned the sweat from John Johnson’s forehead. He would have liked to split firewood in the early morning hours but an unfortunate accident over at Eugene Olsen’s farm stole that time away from him. DJ stood nearby watching his father lift the axe high into the air and dropping it down upon the wood with a precise thunk. DJ, short for David Johnson, was the only child of John and Mabel, which was an anomaly in Ross. Most families had multiple children. I guess one could say John and Mabel were too busy birthing and tending to the town’s children they had little time to procreate their own.
John’s muscles flexed as he raised the axe once more. He looked back at DJ and slowly lowered the axe.
“You know I was about your age when my Pa taught me how to raise an axe… you wanna give it a try?” DJ curious and thrilled jumped forward before his words could escape him.
“Sure do.” DJ stood next to his father listening to every word as if he was telling him of the great secret behind splitting wood. The axe was obviously too heavy for DJ to lift so they started with a smaller hand axe. John explained the principles behind velocity and weight, and how it’s not the strength of the man that splits the wood but the force and angle of the drop. DJ lifted the smaller hand axe above his head. It was heavy but not too heavy to endanger himself. John knew the exercise would help build DJ’s muscles and eventually, after years of hardened labor would show, would turn his eight year old son into a man. The first drop missed the wood completely.
“What did you do wrong?” John asked.
“I missed the firewood.” DJ responded.
“No. You concentrated on the strength of the swing, causing your back right foot to slide, losing the momentum and balance of your shifting weight. Remember the drop will bring the power; your whole job is to guide the axe to the target. Keep your eyes on the top of the firewood where you wish to strike.” John instructed.
“Okay Pa.” DJ planted his feet again, raising the small hand axe above his head. John grabbed a rock and carved an “X” in the top of the firewood.
“Concentrate on the X.” DJ dug his feet into the soft sand and tightened his grip on the hand axe. His eyes focused on the X. He snapped his wrists forward starting the hand axe’s momentum, the shadow sprinting across the ground. His eyes focused, his forearms feeling weightless. The edge of the hand axe struck the top of the firewood, not a perfect strike but efficient nonetheless. The wood split diving to the sides as the hand axe chewed its way into the larger oak-tree stump that had acted like a table of sorts for splitting firewood.
DJ turned to see his father’s smile. John’s expression did not disappoint, his grin lifted DJ’s spirit higher than his arms ever could. He picked up DJ and spun with him.
“You did it!” John announced, DJ raising his arms victoriously in the air. It was the small things that motivated the people of Ross. Mabel watched them dance in the yard from the porch. She yearned for a daughter but would never tell John. For the past year DJ had been growing up and becoming a daddy’s boy, no longer wanting to hang out with Mabel. It was bound to happen; a son’s place is in the yard working, not the kitchen playing house. But still, Mabel couldn’t help but feel saddened. The small family was awkward for Mabel; she was one of ten children. Her father Jim Kramer used her mother’s womb as a labor factory for his hundreds of acres of farmland that needed to be tended. Jim made it no secret often announcing to his children that they were born to tend the land. When the kids came of age they had two choices, work the farm or leave for another trade. Of course all the daughters (Mabel, Ina, and Olive) all were married off before their 18th birthday. That was typical of all the families in Ross; families started early, lands passed down, trades taught to the next generation. They prided themselves on not needing any help from the big city and did everything they could to keep their distance. Even the letters that would come back to town from those who left would be mindful of not polluting children’s minds to the fantastic advances of technology; ask a kid in Ross what an iPod is and they will think you are speaking French.
Wayne Olsen was the last one to correspond from the outside world. Wayne was the oldest of the Olsen boys, four boys in all: Wayne, Walter, Wallace, and William. On his 18th birthday he left the small town to join the United States Navy. Wane never liked small-town life and wanted to see the world. Eugene would say that Doc Jones poisoned Wayne’s head with fantastic stories of adventure in the Navy; Doc left town when he was 18 to serve his country in the Vietnam War.
Doc was sent home after a buried land mine blew off both his legs. But not before Doc had time to experience all that Vietnam had to offer. So naturally he came back to the only thing he knew, simple life in Ross, North Dakota. There he would tell stories of his life abroad, and there, little Wayne would sit in the front row capturing every word into his imagination for replay later that night.
It had been five years since Wayne’s last letter. The letter was short and to the point… “They are sending me to Iraq. I’ll write when I can.” Most assumed he had died; others wanted to believe he was on the front line servicing his country, protecting us all from evil.
One could hear the scamper of feet as a mob of children tried to outrun the dust storm they kicked up behind them. They turned off of Central and headed down West Second Street towards the Johnson house. DJ turned to see the commotion. It was Wallace and William Olson, Jimmy Kramer Jr., Pete Howland and Eli Lee. The pack of kids all ranged in ages seven to thirteen years old. But in Ross age didn’t matter, if you were a kid and wanted to play kick ball you played. John knew the question before it even left DJ’s lips.
“Dad can I play with the boys?”
“Sure son, but be back at dusk for supper.”
“I will.” As soon as DJ’s feet hit the soft sand, he joined the dust storm heading down West Second Street. There was no second thought of safety, or danger. A town like Ross had no evil to warn about. The kids stuck together and whichever family was nearby watched them. It was a community in the true sense of the word.
John grabbed the split wood from the ground and turned back towards the house. There his eyes met Mabel’s.
“What?” John asked with a smirk.
“Oh nothing, just watching you and DJ; our little boy is growing up so fast.” John stacked the split wood on the pile that leaned up against the house carefully puzzling the pieces together so they wouldn’t fall down. He turned back to comment and Mabel was gone. He didn’t give another thought about it; there was work to finish before supper. Mabel was back in the kitchen trying to hide her tears, both of joy and sadness.
The boys slowed after a couple of blocks down Railroad Avenue. The turned left down Main Street, crossing the railroad tracks and onto Jim Kramer’s land. Jim had reserved a nice little space on his property in the shape of a diamond, complete with a fenced backstop. Not your fancy, covered dugouts backstops. But rather a rudimentary chain link fence that served one purpose; stop a wild pitch. There were four more kids already gathered kicking the soccer ball back and forth; Sally Lee, Edna Bero, Garrett Howland, and Fred Jones. Seemed everyone got away from their chores in time for some afternoon kickball, five on five, before supper started. They wasted no time, calling out captains. Wallace and Jimmy were selected this time. DJ never got the chance to be a captain; he was still too young. Even though most boys were only a couple years older, it meant a lifetime in the hierarchy of children. But his age didn’t stop him from being picked early. Even though he was younger, he had equal athletic skills to some of the older boys. Since he had been helping his father in the yard more and more, he was beginning to grow into his body, even build some muscle; and the older boys knew it.
With the teams divided into two groups, Edna flipped a shinny coin end over end that landed and placed DJs team up to bat first. Just as everyone got situated in place a shot was heard, it rang out and echoed through the houses, bouncing off the plaster until the sound reached the dirt lot. Guns didn’t fear the kids, most of them had learned to shot and hunt as early as they could lift and fire a rifle. What surprised them was the time of day and closeness of the blast. They huddled together.
“What was that?” Sally asked.
“A gunshot stupid.” William chastised.
“I know it was a gun shot. I meant why is someone shooting in town?” Sally retorted.
“Maybe someone is practicing?” DJ offered.
“Yeah or maybe Peter’s dad is drunk again scaring off dangerous raccoons.” Eli said.
“Or the aliens.” Fred added causing everyone to laugh.
Another gunshot was heard followed by another. The kids quieted, focused on the direction of the gunfire. So focused they couldn’t here Jim Kramer running up behind them.
“Wallace what’s going on?” Jim asked, directing the question to the oldest boy. Wallace turned to see a shotgun pinned up underneath Jim’s right armpit.
“We don’t know sir, just staying clear for now.” More gunshots rattled through the houses.
“There’s more than one person out there shooting.” Wallace suggested.
“What the fuck…” Jim Kramer questioned under his breath. He stepped forward in front the children, squinting his eyes through the heat waves that danced off the train tracks. Someone was running toward them along the train tracks. It was female he could tell that much from her dress that she had to lift off the dirt so that it wouldn’t trip her up. It was Clara.
“Jim! Get the kids in the basement!” Clara screamed, as she got closer to the group.
“Take a breath Clara, what the hell is going on?” Jim questioned.
“No time.” Clara said as she round up the kids, pushing them towards Jim’s house. Jim pulled at Clara’s shoulder stopping her.
“Nobody is going anywhere until you tell me what the hell is going on!” Jim exclaimed.
“Animals, they killed Eugene and Wayne, we have to move, and we have to hide the children.”
“Animals, what kind of animals?” Clara pulled herself away from Jim. A moan could be heard through the houses. The gunshots had stopped. Jim looked back down the train tracks at a pack of slowly moving humans all hunched over, some dragging their feet, some limping.
“I don’t have room in my basement for all of you.” Jim said as he readied his shotgun aiming it at the mob.
“We can all fit in my parent’s basement.” DJ offered. Clara grabbed the kids and took flight back towards West Second Street. Jim walked forward slowly. He couldn’t believe his eyes; these weren’t animals, they were humans’… diseased, mangled humans. The closest thing his mind could register was rabies he had seen in dogs; they to were frothing at the mouth with a crazy look in their eyes. And the moaning; Jim couldn’t tell if the moaning was caused by the pain these people were in or some code they spoke to each other with.
One of the crazies fell to the side as another gunshot echoed. The mob turned their focus from Jim toward someone standing around the corner of one of the homes. It was Jackson Howland. Jim started running toward him to assist. As he got closer he could see that these intruders were covered in soars and torn skin, some with tracks of dried blood running down their arms and legs. Their clothes ripped and dirty from what could have been years of usage. But all of that was nothing compared to their stench. Once Jim got within 30 feet of the mob his eyes watered as if smoke just blew into his face. He felt himself gag but that wasn’t enough to stop him. His friend was pinned in the corner shooting and reloading. The mob pushed forward. Once in a while Jackson would hit one in the leg or the arm and limb would go flying backward, but they kept pushing forward. Jim raised his own shotgun and fired hitting one in the shoulder. The force pushed over a couple like bowling pins. Those who fell to the floor dragged themselves. Jackson stood up and was ready to retreat when he stopped dead in his tracks. As Jim got closer he could finally see in between the houses. Jackson was surrounded by two mobs of these creatures. There was no way out. They fell onto Jackson pushing him to the ground. Then the unthinkable happened. Jim stopped running and watched the twenty or so creatures chew into Jackson. Jackson screamed, and continued to scream until his heart finally gave out.
Jim turned and ran as fast as he could to the Johnson house where Clara was taking the children.
“Mabel!” Jim yelled as he busted through the door into the house.
“I’m in the kitchen.” Mabel responded. Jim ran into the kitchen just as the last of the children were making their way down into the basement. The Johnson house was built with the basement entrance in the floor of the kitchen; it acted more like a pantry and less like a fall out shelter.
“What the hell is going on out there Jim?” John asked.
“Something unnatural, I saw 20 maybe 30 people, animals really. They attacked Jackson and began eating him alive. I shot a couple; they didn’t stop. Whatever these things are they aren’t human, well at least they are no longer human.” Jim said trying to catch his breath.
“We need to see if anyone is still out there.” John suggested. Jim nodded in agreement.
“I want to go.” Clara demanded. “I need to find my Henry”. John ran into the other room and brought back two shotguns and a case of shells. He gave one to Clara and filled the pockets of her dress with shells.
“Mabel stay in the basement and do not leave, no matter what.” John commanded.
“What if you don’t come back?” Mabel asked.
“We’ll come back. Clara was able to out run them earlier. We will keep our distance and if things get bad we will run. Just stay down there and stay quiet.” John grabbed Mabel and kissed her on the lips. “Don’t worry I will be back for you.” Mabel walked down the stairs into the basement. John closed the trap door behind her and pulled the floor rug over the opening to try and conceal it as best he could. Mabel listened as the footsteps of Jim, Clara, and John faded away.
It was hours before anyone said anything, the night had come but nobody could sleep. Their restlessness and delirium provide irrational thoughts.
“How long are we going to stay down here?”
“If only we can get more guns, we might be able to fight them off.”
“Will they come back for us?”
“Who… Jim, John and Clara or those creatures?”
More silence filled the empty space of the basement. They tried to be still and quiet listening for signs like gunshots or screams. Anything to tell them what was going on up above, what their world was turning in to. Just as the youngest, Sally Lee, began to fall asleep banging was heard. The sound of the front door flying open, striking the wall behind it, startled everyone. Glass shattered and the moaning intensified. The sniffing was noticeable; deep inhales and short bursts like a child had been crying all night. Then the stairs… one, two, three, there must have been at least six of them. Mabel looked at the kids and then to her boy DJ.
“They aren’t going to leave until they find us?”
“What are you saying Mrs. Johnson?” Mabel looked around the room; there were coffee grinds stacked on the floor, three big burlap bags of them. John kept them for the harvest to help fertilize the crops.
“Kids this is what you are going to do. You are going to rub those coffee grinds all over you. Sit huddled together and surround yourself in them. Pour them all over you, but stay close and in the corner.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Wallace now you keep quiet. These creatures hunt like animals. They can smell us. You have to mask your scent; the coffee beans will help do that. I will leave and make a run for it. If I can get to my dad’s farm hopefully there is a horse still alive. Once on horseback I can lure them out of town. I will take them as far as I can then I will head back and look for the others. The further these creatures are away from here the bigger the chance they keep going. I really don’t think they are intelligent enough to come back and if they are far enough away then they won’t be able to smell you.
“What if you don’t make it?” Mabel looked scared. She didn’t know how to answer.
“I will come back for you.” Mabel said. She climbed the basement stairs to the kitchen floor, holding her ear to the trap door. It was silent. She pushed up the trap door raising the rug ever so slightly no feet could be seen. The light from the kitchen cut into the dark basement onto the group of children huddled in the corner. In moments she was gone and the basement once again fell into darkness.
The morning was brisk; snow covered the ground, icicles hanging from the edge of the rooftop glistened with the rising sun. It was the thick of winter and the wind was as usual… silent. Plumes of light grey smoke rose from the chimney reaching towards the clouds. Surrounding the two-story farmhouse were a series thick tree stumps, each protruding from the ground about eight feet high and sharpened to a point. They were driven into the ground another five feet and locked into place bark-to-bark with ropes and a concrete mixture of dried mud. The outer wall as it were was about thirty feet from the house and formed a rectangle around the entire domicile with a very small opening doorway about five feet wide to get in and out. The house itself looked like it had when Jim Kraemer, the grouchy old man who tended Ross’s farmlands, owned it so long ago, save for a couple of reinforcement modifications.
Although the ground was covered in snow you could see the outline of various garden plots within the perimeter of the barricade. At least five plots were farmed. To the right of the home was an unusual section of spiked trees coming off the house and encircling a well. A window had been removed to create a makeshift doorway that had it’s own reinforcements. The doorway was a direct line to the well and back to the house.
The house itself started to take on the shape of a hillbilly’s castle. It started off like any other two-story home but after years of redesign and reinforcement it was beginning to look more like a makeshift fortress of used parts then an actual home. There were platforms on the second story for people to step out onto and survey the lands above the tree-lined barricade. There were spotlights on all sides of the house mounted on the platforms to illuminate the surrounding areas of the fortress at night. What was once wood siding was replaced with metal sheets at an angle so that if anything was thrown at the house it would simply slide down and away from the house.
From up above one could see the snow covered ground reach out like a welcome mat. From the front doorway were a series of boards tied to one another like a drawbridge over the snow that extended out about ten feet. One couldn’t see the ditch that was now buried in snow, which was dug about ten feet deep along the entire facing side of the tree-lined barricade. The moat and eight foot wall of trees provided eighteen feet of protection from any opposing force.
In the distance a thud was heard, followed by another. Across the railroad tracks back at the Johnson house the sounds were prefaced with a woosh. There a man stood pulling two throwing axes from tree stubs that were stacked up against the house. He was about five fee five inches tall and lean like a Greek God. One would think he was but a child if it wasn’t for his callused hands and battle scars that ran up and down his arms. He wore his blonde hair back in a ponytail pulled tightly and clasped with a band.
With his throwing axes in each hand he paced away from the house ten, twelve, fifteen feet away then spun launching one then another; left-right.
Woosh… thud, thud.
Direct hits about six feet high off the ground. The axes cut into tree at the precise place they had many times before. He pulled them out and walked to the side where his sharpening kit sat in a leather saddlebag. He threw the saddlebag over his shoulder, sheathed the axes and walked inside the house.
The house was cold and un-kept. The windows were boarded up on the inside. He paused at a coat rack letting his grasp slide down the sleeve of a women’s purple sweater. He looked into the kitchen, the rug still covering the trap door where he once spent three weeks locked away in isolation. He walked back to the Den where his father set up an office to see patients. There was a bookcase nailed to the wall and lined with books and some magazines. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a thick library bounded book title “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”. He slid it back onto the shelf in the empty space where it last rested and removed “Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer. This would be his seventh reading. He placed the book in his saddlebag and swung it onto the chair glancing about the room. His eyes fixated on a poster print of Norman Rockwell’s Tough Call (Bottom of the Sixth, Game Called Because of Rain). Farming towns lived and died by the rain, the message was simple in the painting, but meant so much more to the people of Ross, North Dakota. For DJ it was inspiration. He had plans, a vision, to get his family to a better place, a safer place where they could grow old and not live in fear.
“DJ you in here?” A voice cried out. It startled DJ.
“Yeah I’m back here in the Den.” An older looking Pete Howland came into the room.
“Come on they’re back.”
“Did they find anything?” DJ asked.
“I don’t know, Jimmy spotted them from the lookout and told me to come get you.” The boys hurried out of the house. DJ closed the front door and slid four boards into separate slots that he had attached to the outside of the front door frame. It was a basic blockade and enough to keep out any of the infected.
The boys ran back to the Kraemer fortress. Just as they got within site of the main gate they saw Wallace and Fred trotting up on horses. The horses each pulled a skinny wagon behind them that barely fit across the narrow drawbridge and tight opening of the barricade. DJ and Pete followed them over the small drawbridge and inside the encampment.
William Olsen was already there ready to help his brother Wallace and Fred off their horses. William handed the resigns of the two horses to Garrett who was busy unhooking the horses from the wagons they had pulled. Edna and Sally came out of the house and over to the group.
“So did you find anything?” William asked. Wallace pulled a tarp off the top of one of the wagons revealing various survivalist products ranging from oil for lamps, batteries, new pots and pans, some canned goods that seemed to never expire, rope and other various gardening tools. Wallace reached in and pushed some stuff aside until he found a brand new pair of binoculars.
“Hey Jimmy, I found you some better eyes. You can see for miles with these.” Wallace shouted as Jimmy remained on his perch at the top of the house.
“We got through about two miles of homes, no survivors. Found a couple sick bastards frozen stiff, we chopped them up just to be safe.” Fred added.
“Hey Pete got you a present.” Fred said excitingly as he threw the tarp off the second wagon. He reached in and pulled out a hunting bow and bushel of arrows.” Pete’s eyes widened as Fred handed him a Hoyt AlphaMax Compound Hunting Bow and a long box that contained about fifty Easton Axis HIT carbon arrows with Blazer Vanes all toped with a Broadhead Blade. “That should replace the one you snapped in half this past summer.”
Once the wagons were unpacked Wallace, Fred, and William took the supplies inside the house while Garrett and Pete stored the wagons in the garage along side the horse stables. Edna and Sally headed back into the kitchen to finish preparing supper and DJ walked upstairs carrying the new binoculars for Jimmy.
DJ entered a bedroom that he shared with Jimmy. The room was colder than the rest of the house because the window was cracked open about an inch, held up by a piece of wood. All the windows were rigged to close down by gravity and lock. They were designed this way so that someone could run back through them and not have to worry about closing and locking them. Every measure was taken to keep each person safe and their hands on their weapons in the event of an attack.
Attacks were almost non-existent in the wintertime, everyone was thankful for that. The infected seemed to die off in winter climates typically freezing to death. The winter months gave the children of Ross the opportunity to scavenge in nearby towns like Stanley. They had been sending teams of two to rummage through Stanley the better part of four years. Every trip was successful bringing back items that were either needed or would be needed some time in the future.
Once in a while they would come under attack by other survivors roaming the world. These people were cut from a veil of such evil that they had no compassion for their fellow man. They roamed by the motto survival of the fittest and lived like land pirates. It was in the second year of Ross being attacked by the infected that the children suffered the greatest emotional scaring they could even imagine.
A group of three men stumbled upon the town out of blind luck. The children had tried to rebuild and fortify as best they could but it was not enough to stop intelligent men. The three men easily got through the defenses and overpowered the children. In a weekend they raped Edna, killed Eli and beat Wallace mercilessly. When Fred tried to intervene they cut him from his right temple to his jawbone, leaving him a thick scar to wear for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t until the men fell asleep on the third night that DJ snapped. All the children were tied up in a room upstairs. One man sat outside their door passed out from gluttony. DJ could hear snoring from behind the door as he wiggled himself free from his restraints. Slowly DJ opened the door and using the man’s knife DJ slit his throat from ear to ear. The blood shot across the hall onto the facing wall. DJ had never seen blood-spatter like that or the gargling sounds someone makes as they drown swallowing their own blood. DJ then reached over and pulled out the man’s gun from the holster. He came back into the room, with Wallace and Fred both incapacitated with injuries DJ turned to the next in line, William to help him carry out his murderous spree. He untied William and handed him the gun. DJ knew William was a better shot with a gun and trusted he would have the courage to pull the trigger when the time came, especially after watching his brother get beaten towards certain death. They crept down the stairs and saw the remaining two men past out on the couches with bottles of whiskey by their hands. William stood back by the stairs to keep from adding any more noisy footsteps as DJ leaned into the second man, the one who had raped Edna. DJ held the knife under the man’s throat and paused. Visions of Edna screaming pulsated through his mind. He couldn’t unsee her young naked flesh being ripped apart but this disgusting old man. She starred back at him and cried pleading with her eyes to be taken from that moment. He pulled the knife away and plunged it into the throat of the third man. He came back again resting the knife on the throat of the second man and yelled “Wake up you motherfucker!” as loud as he could. The children upstairs all woke and noticed that the door was open and DJ and William were gone. The man was startled and in the act of flinching he caused the knife to cut slightly into his neck. The pain burst his eyes open faster than any black coffee could. He looked over and saw his partner dead still bleeding out from the neck wound. He heard the scamper of the children come running down the stairs. DJ wanted to feel his blade end the life of another disgusting soul but knew what had to be done. “William give the gun to Edna.” William was in shock, Jimmy reached over grabbed the gun from William and handed it to Edna. “Come here Edna, he can’t hurt you anymore.” Edna limped toward them still in too much pain to walk straight. Edna was only eleven years old and never thought she would be holding a loaded gun to her rapists’ forehead. DJ positioned the barrel right between the man’s eyes and slowly pulled the knife away. “Look at him Edna. He’s week, you have the power to take back what he stole from you. Kill this piece of shit.” Without hesitation Edna pulled the trigger. The force of the blast caused the gun to recoil back flying out of her hand; it was the first time Edna had ever fired a gun. DJ was twelve when he killed his first living human.
DJ walked to the window and opened it enough so that he could climb out on the platform where Jimmy was keeping watch. He was careful to place the wooden block back in the windowsill to prevent the window from locking them out. Locking yourself outside often came with the ridicule of spending an extra shift on the platform.
“Let me get a look at the new specs.” Jimmy asked reaching for the new binoculars. Handing his old binoculars over to DJ, he lifted the new set to his eyes. “Wow, now these are bad ass.” Jimmy started fiddling with all the knobs and sliders adjusting and readjusting the different zoom and focus features. “Wallace was right, you can see for miles. This should help us spot those bastards a lot sooner than normal.” DJ didn’t respond his mind was on something else. “Hey DJ you alright buddy?” Jimmy asked.
“Yeah just been thinking a lot.”
“You’re worried about the vote aren’t you?” Jimmy surmised.
“You know I just don’t understand why it’s anybody’s decision to vote on. This is my life if I want to leave I should be able to walk out that door, they can’t keep me prisoner.” DJ said hot-tempered.
“They’re scared. Can’t you see that? You’re our best shot. How many roamers you take out that one-day? Fifteen… twenty. Wallace is afraid that if you leave nobody will be able to fill your shoes.”
“So it’s my fault that I’m a better bowman than everyone else?”
“It’s not just that, listen, your fourteen years old DJ. You have never been out on your own.”
“I’ve gone to Stanley for supplies.” DJ interjected.
“Right but with a group. You are talking about leaving town for months, maybe a year, by yourself. Who knows what you will find out there. Wallace is thinking of both the family and your well being. We’ve been on our own for almost seven years now, what’s wrong waiting another two or three?”
“We can’t just sit here and wait for more attacks. This house is not a town. The girls want to grow up, get married, have kids… There has to be places out there that have actual communities.” DJ argued with frustration.
“DJ I’m on your side, I’m just trying to give you Wallace’s perspective. He loves you like a brother, heck we all love you like a brother, and the last thing we want to do is send you out to your death.” DJ sighed and sat on a wooden bench nailed to the platform. “Whatever the vote is be patient. Wallace isn’t going to keep you here forever. Besides do you even have a plan?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where are you going to go? All we know is Ross, hell our grandparents never even set foot outside North Dakota. Where are you going to go?”
“Van what… you’re not talking about Canada?”
“That’s the one.”
“What’s in Canada?”
“Are you making this shit up DJ?”
“No the Palace is a stadium, a massive stadium, said to be the biggest stadium ever built.”
“What better fortress is there than a stadium? Look.” DJ reached into his back pocket and pulled out a piece of glossy magazine paper. It was worn down from years of being folded and unfolded and the edges were all tattered. DJ opened it and pointed to an advertisement of the Palace Stadium. It was an artist’s rendering of the project. “Do you know how many people you can fit in there… thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Look right in the middle is a giant soil lot, perfect for growing crops, the walls are high enough and with the right barricaded structure it would be impossible to breech. Get a couple of archers on lookout and low and behold you have yourself a fortified castle. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is a good idea, I bet there’s people living in it now.”
“So your grand plan is to find this stadium, knock on the front door and say hey can me and my eight buddies live here?”
“Well basically yes.”
“DJ people in this world aren’t like us, all they care about is themselves. Nobody is going to help nine kids from a small town in the middle of nowhere.” Jimmy said frustrated. DJ folded the piece of paper and put it back in his pocket.
“You say these things because you have lost hope. I understand Jimmy, sometimes even I think it’s impossible, but I would rather die trying to find this place and a better life then rot away here searching for scraps every winter in Stanely.” The sun was setting casting a mysterious orange hue through the clouds. A light knock rattled on the window. DJ and Jimmy turned to see Fred standing inside the room.
“Dinner’s ready, why don’t you too head down I got evening platform duty.” Jimmy placed the binoculars on the bench turned silently, lifted up the window and headed downstairs. Fred came through the window being helped by DJ.
“I’m sure you caught some of that?” DJ responded.
“Listen I know you and Wallace are close, I didn’t mean…”
“Hey, you don’t have to explain yourself to me DJ. This place gets to us all at times. Go get some food while it’s hot.” Fred insisted. DJ climbed back into his room placing the window back down onto of the wooden block.
The kids rustled about the living room pulling chairs in from the Dinning room, dragging them across the floor. Edna and Sally sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch holding each other’s hand almost in a sign of unity. Nobody knew or even bothered to ask, but Sally was scared. She hated meetings; watching the boys fight and argue over trivial matters brought out the worst in them, Wallace especially. He would never realize it though, and even if he did notice something he ignored it. Being the oldest warped his perspective of all the other children. They were no longer friends that he played kickball with, they were underlings and he was in charge.
“Okay everyone take a seat, let’s not prolong this any longer than we have to.” Wallace announced as he walked to the front of the group, turning his back against the boarded up window of the living room. “We all know why we are here… DJ has asked to leave home. He wants to go in search of some mythical palace like one of his storybooks.
“You see Wallace that’s the problem!” Jimmy interjected. “Stick to the facts and stop talking down to him; he’s not even here to defend himself.”
“Wallace’s point needs to be said. DJ is talking about a place he found in a book printed God knows how long ago. We don’t know if it is anymore real than fairytale. Is that enough to warrant him to abandon us?” William argued.
“It doesn’t matter where he wants to go. Everyone here should be afforded the same right to leave. It’s almost comical seeing as how DJ could just walk out the door and there isn’t anything you can do about it!” Peter said glaring directly at Wallace. Even though Wallace was older and taller, he lacked the strength and fighting skills of DJ and could not handle him physically. “The fact that DJ is allowing this to go to a vote is purpose enough that he believes in this home and the well being of us all.”
“As I was saying.” Wallace tried to regain control of the conversation. “DJ wants to leave. You each have a vote to either allow him to leave or ask him to stay and help protect this family.” Wallace said this time glaring back at Peter. “But let’s not loose sight; we aren’t loosing just a warrior on the platform. We are loosing a laborer, and our strongest. He does more than his share all season long. If he goes, everyone, including you Edna and Sally will be required to do extra chores even if it’s getting dirty.”
“Oh don’t you worry Wallace I know how to get dirty.” Edna exclaimed with a snicker. “Just try cleaning your own drawers once in a while.” Edna said under her breath. Everyone chuckled except Wallace and William.
DJ sat upon the hard wooden bench atop the platform outside his window. DJ held his throwing axe over his lap with his left hand while his right hand continued to sharpen the blade with his sharpening stone. Even though the blade could easily cut threw human flesh, DJ continued to massage it with the stone. The long singing sounds from the stone sliding across the blades edge calmed DJ. Every now and again he would take a break and stare through the binoculars, surveying the lands around the old Kramer Farm. The nice part of the Kramer land was that it was flat; there was no way anyone could sneak up on them. He looked out past the flatlands of the farm in each direction, stretching the mechanical eyes as far as they could reach.
As it were nothing was out there.
DJ laid the binoculars back against his chest letting their weight dangle by the strap around his neck. He picked up his bow, a simple hunting compound bow his father owned so long ago. He pulled the string back aiming it across the top of the fence line. Keenly he searched for the best shots, where the pointed tops of the fence had the most separation. He remembered the conversation Jimmy had with him two days ago: “How many did you take out fifteen… twenty?” DJ knew the count, it was thirty-two. Thirty headshots and two necks, all of which he captured from the very perch he now stood on outside his bedroom window. He imagined their fortress being swarmed again, there was fifty-five infected all moaning their chaos, banging on the tree-line barricade. This was before they decided to dig the ditch around the parameter. The original design was quite ineffective. Sure the infected couldn’t get threw the barricade but the fence was so high they couldn’t fire arrows at them because the angle was too great. It wasn’t until Fred grabbed the roasted pig that was meant for supper that they got the advantage. DJ could still see Fred twirling the pig over his head like a shot put until finally he launched it over the wall and into the clearing. Then it was chaos. The infected snapped their heads back concentrating on nothing more than the prize at hand… food. They were too stupid to realize that they were giving up their best defense and walking right out into the open. DJ planted his feet and one after another he picked off thirty-two infected.
“Hey DJ.” Jimmy said raising the window off the wood block. They are ready to vote. Jimmy climbed out onto the platform and held out his hand to shake DJ’s. “I want you to know personally I voted yes. Wallace knows my vote and will voice it when all the others are read. I’ll keep watch while you join the meeting.”
“Thanks Jimmy.” DJ shook his hand and pulled him to his chest for a hug. He then climbed back through the window turned around and handed the binoculars to Jimmy.
Downstairs the group sat quietly as if they each held a secret that no one knew about. Wallace stood at the front pushing his chest out as far as he could as to not seem so weak compared to DJ.
“Hey DJ.” Wallace acknowledged.
“Wallace.” DJ responded.
“So we have had our debate, regarding your request to leave and we are ready to put it to a vote.” DJ tried not to roll his eyes and just opted to shake his head at the thought of the ridiculous notion of being allowed to leave.
“Alright.” DJ said reluctantly.
“I voted no and I have Jimmy’s vote of yes.” Wallace started. “Fred”
“Yes.” Fred responded. Wallace seemed to flinch a little. He was surprised that Fred didn’t side with him. They had gone on many scavenger hunts into town and Wallace was sure that Fred shared the same perspective as he.
“No.” William was almost guaranteed to answer however his older brother voted.
“That brings us to two yeses and two nos. Pete what’s your vote?”
“Alright that makes 3 yeses. Edna?” Edna turned from the couch and looked up at DJ. He was her savior. She felt protected around him, a sense of protection that Wallace did not and will never convey. But deep down she wanted what was best for DJ.
“I love you brother.” Edna told DJ. She turned back around and responded, “Yes.”
“Garrett what say you?”
“Yes.” DJ’s heart sank. It was now real. He would be leaving Ross.
“That’s all you needed DJ. The group has granted you permission to leave home in search for a better community for those interested in leaving.” Wallace said the last part with contentment. Wallace was old school and still believed in the ways of the settlers of Ross. Even though the world had changed he had no intentions of changing with it. DJ walked into the center of the room and looked around at everyone’s faces.
“Thank you.” DJ turned and extended his had to Wallace. “I have always looked up to you Wallace, you did as best a job as anyone could do these last six years, I, nor anyone will ever forget that. I will find someplace new for us to settle down; hopefully by my return you will have a change of heart.” Wallace paused, carefully thinking of his next move. Despite his unease of losing his best soldier he shook DJ’s hand.
“Seeing you grow up DJ has been an honor. I would say good luck, but I’ve seen you fight and I think the infected are the ones who are going to need the luck with you out there roaming the world.” The others laughed. DJ squeezed Wallace’s hand in his and then retired to his room.
Jimmy heard DJ enter the room. He had been sitting closer to the window to try and hear what was being said downstairs but he could only hear mumbling.
“So what happened?” Jimmy asked.
“I got the votes… I’m leaving Ross.”
“Wow that’s great news.”
“Sure it is.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I’ve never left Ross, except for the scavenger mission in winter, and we never ran in to anyone in winter. The reality of what’s to come is settling in, and to be honest it’s a little unnerving.”
“You’ve been thinking about this for some time DJ. I’m sure you will be just fine.” Jimmy supported. There was a knock on the bedroom door. Sally was standing in the doorway.
“Hey Sally?” DJ asked. She ran up to DJ and wrapped her slender arms around him. DJ returned the grasp. He squeezed her tightly against his chest, he could feel her heart racing.
“You knew my vote was going to be yes.” Sally began struggling to hold back her tears. “Promise me you won’t die? Promise me you will find a better place and come back for us?”
“You have my word Sally.” Sally stood on her toes and kissed DJ on the cheek. It was Sally that made DJ’s decision final. She had no desire to grow up with small town beliefs. DJ knew early on she would be one of those who would leave Ross when the time came, and that keeping her there under Wallace’s control would only lead to the inevitable.
“I will miss you dearly.” With that said Sally turned out of the room and walked down the hall to her bedroom that she shared with Edna.
“What was that all about?” Jimmy asked.
“Nothing.” DJ turned back and started packing.
“Nothing… looked a whole lot more than nothing. What’s going DJ?” DJ continued to pack ignoring the question. “Jesus Christ DJ at least tell me if you are leaving tonight.”
“I’ll leave tomorrow at first light.” Jimmy understood that DJ had a lot on his mind and turned back out to the platform.
DJ had most of what was needed for a daylong journey already set aside. Wallace made it a point that everyone had at least one day’s worth of supplies in a bag next to their bed in case they had to leave abruptly. DJ unrolled his sleeping back and added a couple extra blankets and then rolled it up again. He opened a bag that was just the right size to fit inside a saddlebag and began filling it with extra clothes; socks and underwear being the necessity. In another bag he filled with some basic hygiene supplies; a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some soap. Things like cooking utensils were already down in the garage ready to be packed in the other half of the saddlebag. Jimmy was right, DJ had been planning this for a while and knew just what to bring, where it would get packed and how much he needed without hindering his horse, Xanthos.
He sat the bags off the foot of the bed and lined up his weapons on top of the bed. There was his two throwing hand axes, a hunting knife about thirteen inches long, and his father’s composite bow with eight arrows. He imagined what those weapons had been threw and what they are about to go through.
Another knock rattled against his bedroom door.
“DJ you busy?” Pete said entering the room.
“Nope, just getting things packed and organized.” Pete was holding the new bow and bushel of arrows that Wallace had found in Stanley the other day.
“I want you to take this with you.”
“That’s not necessary Pete, I have my own bow.”
“Let’s be honest with one another DJ. Your father’s bow is old and you have what like ten arrows left? I fired this today and it packs one hell of a punch, not to mention I have fifty arrows with these bladed tips.” Pete steps closer to DJ and turns the bow on its side showing DJ the scope. “You know what this is… this is a scope, like on a sniper’s rifle. If anyone can hit something outside of a hundred yards using this thing it’s going to be you. In all honesty you need the best gear for this journey.” DJ looked down at his bed; his father’s bow was the single most important item that he held onto to remember his parents. John had painted it jet-black and in white he scribed a saying: It’s not the Arrow it’s the Indian; the message was plain and simple. “Leave your dad’s bow here; I’ll take care of it while you are gone. Beside it will give you a reason to come back for us.” DJ chuckled. Pete was right and the new bow would give him an advantage on his journey.
“I’m holding you responsible if anything happens to my father’s bow. And when I get back… if I find out you broke it like your last bow there will be hell to pay.”
“You got it DJ.” The two boys shook hands and switched bows.
“No problem DJ.” Pete left the room. DJ opened the window and climbed out on the platform. He held the bow up pulling back on its string. It was tight but manageable. It operates like his composite with a few extra bells and whistles. DJ looked through the scope. It wasn’t until he spotted a rabbit that was outside the vision of his naked eye that he realized he had made the right decision accepting Pete’s gift.
“Listen Jimmy, I’m sorry. I’ve just got a lot going on in my head right now. I love you like a brother and I would never purposefully keep anything from you unless it was necessary.” DJ tried to explain.
“I know. It’s just… it’s like you have a secret and you’re not telling me, and I don’t know why. You can trust me with anything you do know that right?”
“There’s just stuff going on that, for now, you are better off not knowing. Just trust me on this one. After I leave it will be your responsibility to take care of the girls. At all costs you have to keep them safe. Can you do that for me?”
“Of course DJ.” DJ hugged Jimmy and then climbed back into the room.
“Do you think we made the right decision?” Sally asked nervously as she sat across from Edna in their bedroom.
“It’s a risk, but isn’t our whole life a risk?” Edna responded. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the rest of my life in this house under Wallace.”
“But what if it takes DJ a year to find this place… or longer.”
“That’s still a shorter time frame than the rest of our lives here.”
“What if we sneak out and leave with DJ?” Sally suggested. Edna got up, shut their bedroom door and sat next to Sally on her bed.
“What are you talking about?”
“Why wait a year or more? Let’s go now, with DJ. There are four horses down there.”
“Yeah that would really piss off Wallace if we go and steal the horses they need for hunting and scavenging.”
“We could go back to my parent’s house. They have that wagon. Then we would only need one horse instead of two.” Sally’s ideas started to sprout in Edna’s mind.
“Let’s keep this between us for now. We need to get downstairs and finish supper.” Edna advised. Sally nodded in agreement and they left their room.
DJ was down in the garage packing cooking supplies into his saddlebag. Xanthos was notably excited, whinnying and stepping back and forth. DJ hugged the horse’s head combing his mane.
“There, there Xanthos. All is well. Tomorrow we will leave home. Don’t be scared, I will spend my last dying breath protecting you. But you have to listen to me.” DJ pulled Xanothos head down to his and rested his forehead on Xanthos’ starring into his eyes. “When I say run, you run like you have never run before.”
DJ began to cry. He remembered the day they decided to leave the basement. It was three weeks after his mother left the basement to draw away the creatures. Three weeks living in their own piss and shit, eating dried goods, and thirsting for cool fresh water, not the stale water kept in the basement for washing fruits and vegetables. DJ remembered Wallace pushing the trap door up just enough for a beam of light to stab through the blackness and into the floor below. It was silent. DJ reached forward running his fingers through the sun’s rays, his skin pale white glowed. He felt warmth that he had forgotten. The silence labored on as each child’s heart began to sink. They’re gone, each one of them thought in one way or another. But what was gone; their parents, the creatures, their innocent lives from a small town? DJ couldn’t help but wonder. Wallace again uttered in his malnourished voice, they’re gone. Sally was the first to cry. Edna grabbed her tightly as William spun around to shush them.
It took about thirty minutes for all the children to finally make it into the kitchen of the Johnson house, blinking their eyes as if birthed into a new world. They looked through the windows, listening for anything. The front door squeaked as the wind pushed it open. Slowly the kids walked out the front door onto the porch. There were no monsters, no parents, no animals running amuck, just dead silence. The sound of a trotting horse rose in the distance. DJ quickly identified it as Xanthos with its fawn coat and black stripe down the front of his nose. DJ pushed Wallace aside and whistled, one long swirl whistle followed by two shorter burst whistles. Xanthos picked up his pace and strode over to the children. There was blood splatter along one side of him. It was then that DJ knew the worst had happened.
DJ finished loading his saddle bags and set them next to Xanthos’ saddle just outside the makeshift corral.
“Psst.” DJ turned towards the noise. It came from the hay stacked in the corner of the garage. DJ looked outside of the garage, no one was around. He walked backwards looking for any of the other children and then disappeared behind the hay. Sally was there. His eyes met hers. He gently held the sides of her face with his hands. Her heart sank in the comfort of his grasp.
“Take me with you.”
“Sally we talked about this.”
“I don’t care; you know who wants to leave. We could load up my parent’s wagon… it would only take two horses and we can all leave together.”
“Then what? I’ve told you this already… a large party will be more difficult to maneuver through strange lands. I can map out the best trail, the safest trail… why risk anyone’s life to leave now?” Sally grabbed a hold of DJ and began kissing him. DJ returned her kiss feeling the curvatures in her back.
“I can’t bear to be away from you.” Sally said stealing as many kisses as she could in this brief second.
“I love you Sally, I’m doing this for you, for us. But you have to trust me. This is the right way. Don’t go doing anything foolish. Just stick to your chores, keep your head down and not cause a scene. Before you know it I’ll be back and we can start our life together.” DJ and Sally froze at the sound of Xanthos whinnying. Wallace and William walked past the garage talking in a low murmur.
“I hate hiding our feelings for each other.” Sally said.
“We have to. This is the only way to keep everyone safe from Wallace. If he found out what we have been planning all this time things could get dangerous. Just as long as I’m the bad guy everyone else can pretend that Wallace is in charge.”
“Somebody in there?” Garrett said entering the garage. Garrett was in charge of the stables and care of the horses which explained why Xanthos saw no threat.
“Yeah Garrett, just me.” DJ said coming out from behind the hay. “Just getting some supplies for my trip.”
“What are you doing back there?” Garrett asked. DJ pulled out a handful of hay, “Xanthos likes the driest hay the best. Hey since you’re here can you help me with something.” DJ asked as he walked over and held up the dried hay to Xanthos.
“Grab a couple of those canteens and help me fill them up with water.” Garrett turned around and collected the three canteens from the work bench and headed out of the garage. DJ turned around to see Sally but she had already slipped out through the back door.