“It looks like a settlement,” Mike said, handing me the field glasses. I peered through them.
At the highway junction, there was a gas station, a farmers market, and an RV park, all separated from the forest by a broad asphalt parking lot. The fireproof buffer zone had kept the structures and recreational vehicles safe from the fires that had come through not long ago. From where Mike and I lay at the top of a rise near the treeline, we could see the people below had moved the RVs so they formed a ring around the two buildings. They had also packed the space beneath the vehicles with dirt and were using the wide trenches left behind as latrines.
Now that’s what I call multi-tasking.
I counted a couple of dozen people, some of them standing guard, others engaged in menial tasks, and still more doing nothing much at all. There seemed to be an even dispersion of men and women, even a few children here and there. I gauged the size of the small compound and the amount of work that must have gone into securing it, and decided something did not add up.
“There’s not enough people,” I said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Mike replied.
“All that dirt, the number of RVs, there must be others somewhere.”
“Or maybe there were, but they moved on.”
I put the field glasses down. “Could be.”
“Let’s give it a while. Keep an eye on them, see what we see.”
We settled in.
It was nostalgic, in a way, lying there among the torched foliage. During the years when Mike was imparting the lessons he had learned from his days at Quantico and on the battlefield, we had spent countless hours in the wilds, lying motionless, waiting, just like we were doing then.
In the early days, my targets had been javelina, deer, and coyotes. Those initial hunts were organized so Mike could teach me the basics. He figured since animals had better senses, better instincts, and are generally more perceptive than humans, if I could get close to them, I could get the drop on a man with no problem. Mike’s lessons took hold quickly, and it was not long before he decided I was ready for phase two.
Next, he began setting up targets in open fields and had me try to shoot them while he watched for me through a spotting scope. By the time I was fourteen, I could consistently fire two shots on target undetected from two-hundred yards.
When I could do it from eighty yards, Mike decided it was time to up the ante with mock sniper duels.
I took on all of them: Mike, Dad, Tyrel, and Blake. Even a few of their students who wanted to try their luck against me. We would start on opposite ends of various landscapes in the Texas hill country, make our way to one of three pre-established destinations, and try to spot the other guy in the distance. If we did, we fired at a steel target hung above and away from them to stop the match. If the shooter hit the right target, he then had to walk a spotter via radio to where the other sniper lay hidden. If he was successful, he won. If not, we reset and started over. The match went on until one of us was victorious, or it grew too late and we had to call it.
Mike was the only guy I never beat.
He taught me, after all, so he knew all my tricks.
The others, I had much better luck with. Which is not to say I bested them on a consistent basis—I didn’t—but I got them enough times to know my skills were well above average.
So despite the heat, and the smell of charred wood clogging my nose, and the slowly building pressure in my bladder, I lay still and watched. Mike did the same, but he was not as still as I. There was the occasional twitch and fidget and shift of torso, a surplus of unnecessary movement. The untrained eye would never have seen it, but to someone who had seen Mike lie still as a stone for hours on end, it was like watching him pace around wringing his hands. After a while, I grew tired of it.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Something’s bothering you. What is it?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
There was a rustle of fabric as he turned his head. “I’m fine.”
“Okay. You want to know what’s on my mind? I’ll tell you.” He leaned close so he was right next to my ear. “Did you fuck my daughter, Caleb?”
My face turned to ice. “Um …”
“I wouldn’t put it in those terms, exactly.”
“So you fucked her.”
“Mike, it wasn’t like that.” I met his gaze, and what I saw there made me want to back away slowly and avoid sudden movements. It hurt to see it; Mike was almost as much a father to me as my real one. I blurted out, “I love her, Mike.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Caleb, you’re only eighteen. You don’t know what love is.”
“Look, maybe I haven’t been around the block like you have, but I know how I feel. You talk about what’s between me and Sophia like it’s some sordid, tawdry thing. It’s not. We care about each other. I’ve had feelings for her a long time, and she told me she feels the same way. We just never said anything to each other about it.”
Mike looked at me again, much of the hardness gone from his gaze. “Do you really care about her, Caleb? You’re not just taking advantage of her?”
“What? No, Mike. I would never do that. You know that.”
“She’s been under a lot of stress lately. That kind of thing can make a girl vulnerable, make her do things she normally wouldn’t.”
“I told you, Mike. I would never do that to her, or any other girl for that matter.”
He sighed and turned his face back down the hill. “Sorry, son. I didn’t mean to … listen you have to understand what it’s been like for me all these years. Guys have been coming after Sophia since she was eleven years old. Fuckin’ hordes of them, an endless parade. All this time, it was all I could do to keep her from ending up like my mom—barefoot and pregnant with me by the time she was sixteen. I don’t want that to happen to Sophia.”
“You don’t think she’s smart enough to keep that from happening?”
“I think she’s a kid,” Mike said. “I think she’s made some bad decisions along the way. The partying, the drugs, the crowd she hangs out with … well, used to hang out with, anyway. For a while there, I thought I was gonna lose her.”
“But you didn’t, Mike. She did some crazy teenager shit like most teenagers do, and she got over it.”
“Do a bunch of crazy teenager shit.”
I gave a small shrug. “I’m not like most teenagers.”
Mike laughed slightly. “Yeah. I guess not.” He grabbed the field glasses and peered down the hill again, sweeping slowly from left to right. I lay next to him, chin on my hands, thinking about Sophia. Enough time passed that I thought he had dropped the subject, so when he spoke, it startled me.
“I guess if there’s any guy I would want her to end up with,” he said. “It’d be you, Caleb. Just make sure you take good care of her.”
I looked at him, surprised. There was a lump in my throat, and a blurry stinging touched the backs of my eyes. I had to swallow a few times before I could speak. “Thanks, Mike. That means a lot to me.”
He grunted and continued staring down the hill. We left it at that.
Nothing much happened in the settlement below as the sun stretched the shadows into afternoon. I was beginning to consider suggesting we head back and get the others when I heard the sound of a car approaching.
“Hand me the eyes,” Mike said. He had given me the field glasses so he could take a rest. I passed them back.
We watched a car pull up to the compound, a GMC pickup, loaded with supplies, two people seated in the cab. It stopped in front of a low-rider Cadillac that served as the settlement’s main gate. Two men climbed over the Caddy and approached the truck. There followed a brief conversation, then one of the people in the truck handed something to a man at the gate. He ran into the main enclosure, disappeared into an RV, and came back out with a small box in his hands. After handing the box to the man in the truck, there was a quick round of conversation—thank-you-and-goodbye by the look of it—and the truck was off.
“Huh,” Mike said.
“Looked friendly enough.”
“Sure did. I’m thinking I might have an idea.”
The big Marine glanced at me warily. “Caleb …”
“What? These people might be able to help us. And I’m a lot less scary looking than you. Besides, if anything goes wrong, you’ll be up here on overwatch.”
He thought it over. “All right. But approach from the road. If things turn bad, signal me by scratching your right ear with your left hand. Got it?”
“Right ear, left hand. Got it.”
I let them see me coming a long way off.
After backing down from the shallow hillside, I circled around in defilade and emerged at the base of another hill, standing on highway 281. The lookouts at the settlement didn’t see me until I topped the rise and skylined myself.
I could see them in the distance, eyes peering through binoculars, rifles hung over their shoulders, faint echoes reaching me as they called to one another. Their posture seemed neither aggressive nor overly relaxed. They wanted to make it clear they were aware of my approach, but had no plans to get in my way.
I stopped in front of the Cadillac—a purple one, lots of after-market modifications, barely four inches off the ground—and waved at a guard standing atop an RV.
The man nodded in my direction. He was a little shorter than me, heavyset, late thirties, big bushy moustache. He said, “Howdy.”
“Don’t suppose you have any water in there, do you?”
“Depends. What you got to trade?”
“What are you looking for?”
He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a list. As he did, a light wind kicked up, sending streamers of ash across the soot-stained parking lot. “Got any feminine hygiene products?”
I chuckled at that one. “No.”
He stuffed the list back in his pocket. “Well, I guess that just leaves ammo.”
I patted the mag pouches on my vest. “I can spare some five-five-six and nine-mil.”
“How many rounds?”
“That depends. How much water are we talking about?”
One corner of the man’s mouth twitched upward. “You’re pretty sharp for a young fella.” He made a motion over the Caddy. “Come on in. Just hop right over the car there.”
As I obeyed, the guard turned and shouted to someone I couldn’t see. My feet hit the opposite side of the gate just in time to see several men and two women emerge from RVs, all carrying weapons. My hand tightened on the grip of my rifle, but I stayed relaxed, letting it dangle from its tactical sling. If things went south, after I signaled Mike, the rifle would be a distraction. While all eyes were focused on it, I would quick-draw my pistol and start gunning people down. At this range, the sidearm would be easier to bring to bear.
“What’s your name?” one of the men said. Tall, about my height, salt-and-pepper hair, mid to late forties, strong build, moved and spoke like a cop. By the way the others gravitated toward him, I figured him for the leader.
“Caleb Hicks,” I said, seeing no harm in giving my real name.
“Who are you with?” The man said, coming to a halt a few feet in front of me. His tone was not entirely hostile, just authoritarian, like he was accustomed to being answered when he posed a question, and being answered quickly.
“Me, myself, and I,” I said, looking around casually. “What is this place?”
“I’ll ask the questions.” I returned my gaze to him. He had dark brown eyes, focused and intense.
“What are you doing here?”
“Passing through. I need some water.” I lowered a hand slowly to my canteen and gave it a shake. It made a light splashing sound, indicating it was almost empty. I had actually drank most of it earlier, planning to use the empty canteen as an excuse for approaching the settlement. “Came across a house a day ago that hadn’t burned down, found a few liters left in the hot water heater. But I’ve just about worked through it by now. If you have any to spare, I’m more than happy to trade for it. Can’t drink bullets, after all.”
“Where are you coming from?”
I hooked a thumb over my shoulder. “San Antonio. Or what’s left of it, anyway. When Houston went up like a road flare, I saw the writing on the wall. The highways were choked by then, so I left on foot. Had to hide out from the fires for a while, and now I’m trying to make my way to Colorado.”
The man looked from me to the guard standing on top of the RV. “We don’t normally let people inside the gate,” he said pointedly.
“Aw, come on, Travis,” the guard replied. “He’s just a kid. Stop being so damn paranoid and let him have some water. We got plenty, for Christ’s sake.”
The leader, Travis, glared a moment longer, then returned his attention to me. “I suppose Jerry’s right. Leave your rifle and your sidearm at the gate, then go with Mabel here.” He gestured to a frumpy, fiftyish woman behind him. “She’ll get you some water.”
Travis walked off and disappeared into his RV. The others with him cast me a final, curious glance and then did the same. Mabel stepped closer, offering a doughy hand. I shook it.
“Nice to meet you Caleb.”
“Same to you, ma’am.”
“You’ll have to forgive Travis. He’s a good man, but a bit overprotective.”
Jerry climbed down from the RV and took my carbine and pistol, but didn’t ask for my ammo. Mabel began walking toward the gas station in the center of the ring of campers. I followed a few feet behind.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Well, let’s see … it’s been a little over a month since what happened in Houston. Most everyone around these parts evacuated long before then. There were a bunch of us came up from San Antonio with the National Guard. Stopped here for gas, but while the soldiers were fueling up their trucks, they got orders to head back south. Commanding officer apologized, but said he had no choice.”
“So they just left you here?”
She nodded. “Sure did.”
“You don’t sound angry.”
“My husband was a soldier, God rest his soul. I know what orders are. Besides, we had Travis. He organized us, had us scavenge around for food, medicine, weapons, things like that. It was his idea to circle the campers and fill ‘em in with dirt. Does a good job of keeping the infected out.”
Mabel led me behind the gas station to an old-fashioned hand pump. She put a small metal bucket beneath it and began pumping out water. “Back about a week ago, some folks got together and decided they couldn’t stay in this place any longer. Said it was unsustainable. I believe that was the word the fella eggin’ ‘em on used. Name was Thornton, used to be a state senator. Slimy little snake of a man. Convinced all those folks to head west for Arizona. Said there was some kind of bunker out there he knew about, place where they were taking a bunch of folks part of some secret government project. Sounded like a bunch o’ hooey to me, and I told him as much. So did Travis, and those other folks you see here. But they wouldn’t listen. Lit out, and took most of our food with ‘em. God only knows if they made it or not.”
She finished pumping the water and held up the bucket. I tilted the mouth of my canteen beneath it and held it steady while she poured.
“Seen anyone else come through?” I asked. “Travelers, other survivors, the military, anything like that?”
“Had a few folks pass through, lookin’ to trade, most of ‘em wantin’ bullets or water or both. Offerin’ food or whatever else they had. Travis don’t normally allow folks inside the wall. I imagine him and Jerry will have words about it later.”
When my canteen was full, Mabel withdrew the water bucket. “How about ten rounds of rifle ammo?” she said.
I cocked an eyebrow at her. “How about four. Looks like you won’t be running out of water any time soon.”
She smiled. “Five?”
I pulled a mag from a carrier, counted out the cartridges, and handed them to her. “Thanks, Mabel. Best of luck to you.”
“Same to you, darlin’. Be careful out there.”
She stayed by the pumps as I walked back toward the gate. I looked around along the way, trying to get a sense of the place. There were almost as many campers forming the perimeter as people, a solid white wall dotted at regular intervals with shatterproof glass. The residents themselves milled about in various states of solemn dejection, dust in their hair, eyes squinting under the hot sun as they stared at me from under hat brims and outstretched hands, a few of them lucky enough to be sporting sunglasses. Glancing to my right, I saw the dirty faces of a few pre-teen children pressed against a window trying to get a better look at me. The closer I came to the center of the enclosure, the more acutely I felt the weight of all those staring eyes. The attention was disconcerting.
I had hoped the people here could offer us some measure of assistance, but from what I could see, they needed help more than we did. It would probably best for my group if we just bypassed this place altogether.
About ten feet from the gate, Travis’ voice stopped me. “Mr. Hicks,” he said. “Might I have a word with you for a moment?”
I turned and squinted. The sun was at his back, forcing me to shield my eyes to see him. “What about?”
“Please, it’ll only take a minute or two.”
I didn’t move. “So come out here and let’s talk.”
He stepped down from his RV and approached, hands held out to the sides. His gun was notably absent from its holster. A few steps brought him around so I didn’t have to squint to see him. “I just have a few questions for you, and I would prefer to ask them in private. It will only take a few minutes of your time. After that, you can be on your way.”
I read his face. He looked calm, radiating sincerity, but there was an intensity in his eyes I didn’t like, an unblinking steadiness that made the hair on my neck stand up. Falling back on my training, I did a quick assessment.
He wasn’t armed, but that didn’t mean anything. He still wielded the most dangerous weapon of all—authority. All he had to do was shout, and I was a dead man. I could decline and try to leave, but if he decided to press the issue, things would escalate. And out here in the open, with only my knife and hand-to-hand combat skills, I didn’t stand a chance. Not unless I got extraordinarily lucky, and I was not about to bet my life on luck.
My left hand twitched as I thought about reaching up and casually scratching my right ear. I could see where my rifle and pistol lay on the ground only a few feet away, Jerry standing next to them. He seemed oblivious to the tension between Travis and me, but he could be faking it for all I knew. If I gave the signal, it would be the end of Travis’ life, and the shock factor would very likely buy me the time I needed to cross the distance to Jerry, incapacitate him, and retrieve my weapons.
But what then?
My best bet would be to run for the southeast side of the encampment, staying low and hugging the wall of campers, and serpentine my way through the dead trees there, hoping none of the residents here were expert marksmen. I knew I could count on Mike to cover me and take out anyone who stuck their head up too far once I was outside the gate.
But did it really need to come to that? What if Travis sincerely just wanted to ask a few questions and send me on my way? Furthermore, if he tried to break bad on me, we would be in the confines of his camper at hand-to-hand range. Travis was strong looking, but I’m no weakling, and I sincerely doubted he could match my skill level in a strand-up fight. Few people I had ever met could.
I was also still at the point in my life I thought it was best to avoid bloodshed whenever possible. I have since become a far less sentimental person, but at the time, I conceded, thinking it was the sensible thing to do.
“Lead the way,” I said, holding a hand toward Travis’ RV.
He walked ahead of me a few feet and disappeared through the door. I followed him in, blinking at the sudden dimness of the camper’s interior. If the afternoon had been overcast instead of blindingly bright, I would have noticed him hurrying to the small table in the kitchenette sooner. But my eyes were still adjusting, and by the time I blinked away the sickly green film obscuring my vision, I found myself staring down the barrel of a .45 automatic.
“Where are the others?” he asked.
I blinked in confusion. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t bullshit me kid. We both know you didn’t come here alone.”
My hands came up to shoulder level, palms out. “Listen, I don’t-”
“Do you want to know what I did before all this happened?” he interrupted, tilting his head at the wasteland outside the window.
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
He frowned, shifting the gun so he held it at hip level. “I was a detective with the San Antonio Police Department.”
“Okay. So if you’re a cop, why are you threatening me with a gun right now?”
“Because a detective notices things. Take your boots, for example.”
I looked down and felt a twist in my stomach. I knew what he was about to say, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just that second what a gaping hole they put in my cover story.
“They’re too new,” he said. “They fit you perfectly, which means you bought them from a store, not found them along the way. There’s no way you crossed all those miles between here and San Antonio with no more wear and tear than that.” He gestured at my feet with the gun.
There was a moment of silence. I got the impression he was waiting for me to say something, an old cop trick. I didn’t take the bait. Finally, he said, “Then there’s your face. You’re not tan enough. If you had been out in the sun these past couple of weeks, you’d be brown as a strip of bacon. Not to mention you’re clean-shaven.”
He took a couple of steps closer, but stayed out of arm’s reach. “Now tell me, kid. Why does a man facing the prospect of dehydration waste precious water on something as unnecessary as shaving?”
My mind raced. The barrel of Travis’ gun was only forty-five hundredths of an inch wide, but from my perspective, it may as well have been the size of the moon. I kept my hands up and eased back a step.
“Don’t move again,” Travis growled.
“Okay, fine,” I said, playing for time. “Just take your finger off the trigger, okay?”
“No. I asked you some questions, boy. If you want to leave this place alive, you better start answering them.”
“Okay, I will, I’ll answer all your questions. All I ask is you take your finger off the trigger. Just so you don’t shoot me by accident.”
I was scared at this point, and didn’t have to fake the tremor of fear in my voice. Travis glared a moment longer, then eased his finger off the trigger, keeping his fingertip poised just above it. “There, happy now?”
“You’re very fucking welcome. Now talk.”
I took a deep breath. “When I left San Antonio, I had two pairs of boots,” I said. “One of them wore out. This is my second pair. That’s why they look so new.”
Travis seemed to consider this. He made a small motion with the gun. “What about your skin?”
“I had a hat, but I lost it a couple of days ago. There are a couple of bottles of SPF 70 in my backpack, the spray-on stuff. It only takes a little bit once or twice a day. I put it on my face and hands. My clothes protect the rest.”
It was true I had the sunblock, but I had only used a little of it. The part about the hat was a lie, but there was no way for him to verify that. My clothes did indeed cover most of my exposed skin, being that my shirt was long-sleeved, and I was glad I had not rolled the sleeves up.
I waited for Travis to say something, but he remained silent. His expression was stoic, but I thought I detected a hint of uncertainty in his posture. “As for my beard,” I went on, “I hardly ever have to shave. When it starts to grow out, I smear it with olive oil and shear it off with a straight razor. Doesn’t require water, just a cloth to wipe the razor on.”
“And I suppose if I search your backpack I’ll find a bottle of olive oil and a straight razor?” Travis asked.
“You will.” It was true. I carried the oil as part of my fire-starting kit, and the straight razor had been a gift from Blake when I turned fourteen. I kept it for sentimental reasons.
Travis’ expression softened, growing regretful. He lowered the .45 and took a few steps back until the kitchen table was between us. “Okay. Sounds plausible enough. If you would be so kind as to empty your backpack.”
I almost did it, then remembered the two grenades and the radio within and kicked myself for bringing them along. Should have left them behind, idiot. What the fuck did you think you would need them for?
If Travis searched my bag, the game was up. I lowered my hands. “What the hell for?”
“So I can verify you’re telling the truth.”
“Fuck you, cop.” I said, growing angry. “I'm not letting you search my shit.”
His eyes narrowed, his face darkening in anger. “What’s wrong, kid? Got something to hide?”
“Me? What about you, motherfucker? Why are we doing this bullshit in here and not out there?” I pointed out the window at the courtyard in the center of the compound. Something crossed Travis’ face, just a flicker, but it was all the confirmation I needed.
“What’s the matter, don’t want those people out there to know what you’re doing in here?” I started backing toward the doorway. “Why do I get the feeling they wouldn’t approve of you shaking me down for no good reason?”
Travis squared off with me, but kept the gun at his side. “Stop where you are, kid. Don’t take another step.”
“You know what,” I said, affecting a tone of indignation, “I already answered your questions. I’m done explaining myself to you. It’s time for me to go. You want to stop me? Shoot me.” And with that, I turned my back and began walking toward the exit.
“Stop!” Travis shouted. I ignored him and kept walking, not hurrying my pace. The kind of thing a man would do when he felt he had done nothing wrong. As the light through the doorway grew brighter, I felt a burning, itching sensation between my shoulder blades. I wondered what it would feel like if a .45 hollow point mushroomed against my spine before blowing my heart out through my sternum. Would there be pain, or would there just be an impact, a moment of breathlessness, and then darkness?
Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. The doorway came and went and there was no thunder of large-caliber death along the way. I stomped angrily toward the main gate, head down, stride determined. Behind me, I heard Travis scramble after me.
“I told you to stop!”
“I told you to go fuck yourself.”
“Jerry, don’t let him out of the gate.”
The guard who had been so kind to me earlier obeyed immediately and aimed his rifle at my chest. I stopped.
“What the fuck, Jerry?”
“Just doin’ my job, kid.”
Footsteps crunched behind me, then stopped. “Listen,” Travis said. “Just calm down, okay? There’s no need for this to go any further. Just let me search your pack. If you’re telling the truth, this whole thing will be over with and you’ll be free to go.”
I looked around and saw people begin to emerge from campers and stand up from seats in the shade. They wandered closer, eyes wide, no doubt wondering what all the excitement was about. Slowly, I turned and faced Travis, once again forced to squint against the sun’s glare. Shading my eyes with my right hand, I could see his pistol was holstered, but his fingers dangled close to the grip, the retaining strap unbuttoned.
Slimy son of a bitch.
“This is the last time I’m going to tell you, kid,” he said. “Drop the bag.”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
My right ear didn’t itch, but I reached up with my left hand and scratched it anyway.