**********

 

4. INTERSTATE 25, PART 2

 

**********

 

 

I didn't know what it meant
I put my palms to his withered hands
Tried to get me wet
I drip thick blood on the linens
I took a pill to forget
It was all coming back in dreams
Matches in my hands
Got my hands on kerosene
He went out to bet
I got an hour to fulfil my plan
Never will the man
Put his fists to my body...

 

-     Anna Wise

 

**********

 

Looking back on that day, on how we first met Dodge, I'm stunned that my thoughts were so small minded. It didn't occur to me then that we were still in the heart of 55er territory, or that Dodge beating a scout to death might lure more of them to LaSalle. It didn't occur to me how big of a risk we took in trusting him or how big of a mistake that could've been. Back then all I kept thinking about were two things.

 

One of them was Octavia Wilkes.

 

From the moment we drove through the broken southern gate of Polk's car wall and went outside into the corpse of the American heartland, I'd only had one thing in mind, to follow Parker anywhere he went. If that meant Mexico, fuck it, we were going to Mexico. But I didn't really believe Wilkes was real. I thought her messages were a trap or a hoax. I wanted to share Parker's belief in her, but I couldn't not until Dodge and Silver. Octavia's existence became real for me the second he mentioned her name. That there were others out there (`pilgrims', Dodge called them) making the trek south to Mexico as well; that gave me something I didn't realize I needed hope. Hope that it wasn't all for nothing, that this road trip wasn't going to end with me and Parker dead in a ditch somewhere. It didn't mean that I believed in what she preached yet, nor did it make it any less dangerous getting to the border, but finding Dodge and Silver made me believe for the first time that there was a future in Mexico for me and Parker. That was my first thought.

 

The second, and probably the dumbest, was that Dodge and Silver were together.

 

Why did that matter so much to me?

 

I still remember that weird twinge in my gut when I watched Silver curl up in Dodge's arms. Were they faggots? Didn't they care if Parker and I thought they were faggots? It was so strange to me. I grew up in a town were acting like that in front of others could get you killed... and there they were, all cuddled up on the sofa like a couple of sweethearts. When Parker asked Dodge what he wanted from them, Dodge said a trade. "We'll find a chainsaw and help you get your car out of that garage," he'd said. "In exchange for some food and ammo." Parker wasn't dumb like me. He kept his wits about him, said "no" to the ammo but "yes" to the food, and he kept his shooting hand none too far from his gun. Me? I couldn't stop staring at Dodge and Silver. I'd never seen two boys act that way before.

 

It was dark out when we finally finished talking. Dodge asked for Parker's help in disposing of the body in the driveway, and together they hauled the corpse into a ditch out back in the yard. Silver (who I realized was mute) foraged through the hidden larder that the house's owners stocked up probably thinking they might come back some day. He found and opened three cans of Spam, cut them into slices, then fried them on an old battery-powered hot plate that (remarkably) still worked. While they were doing that I spent my time scrubbing blood from the cobblestones. "Get it clean, Jay," asked Dodge, reasoning that the 55ers chasing them had hunting dogs in their pick-ups.

 

Supper was tense but peaceful. Parker was tight-lipped as he woofed down slab after slab of fried Spam. Dodge, on the other hand, was keen to talk and share what he'd learned about the state of the world (which wasn't much more than what we knew). "I think the 55ers control most of the mid-west. Some of the slaves we met came from as far north as Montana. They've definitely got Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado though."

 

He seemed to think that the old US government still existed somewhere, reasoning that they couldn't have just vanished after the Occupation. When Dodge asked us if we knew anything more, I explained to him that our hometown was very secretive and closed off, so we didn't really know much about what was going on out there. Then, when all the Spam and beers were gone, Dodge asked us where we were headed.

 

"Pueblo," Parker said, sharply. "Some travellers up in Fort Collins said there was a safe town there."

 

When I glared at him he frowned back with a look screaming, "keep quiet". Dodge didn't seem to grasp the lie and wished us good luck.

 

Maybe an hour later Dodge and Silver decided to turn in for the night. Wisely, they brought their sleeping bags into lounge where we'd already rolled out ours. They had their baseball bat and Glock at hand, I had my Beretta and Parker had his Luger. "Let's sleep two at a time," suggested Dodge. "Jay and Silver sleep first while Parker and me take the first watch, then in four hours' time we wake you guys up and do vice versa. Sound good, spud?"

 

I tried not to get the impression that he didn't trust us. He knew we weren't going anywhere without our car but there was always a risk that we'd try something. Dodge was wary of Parker (less so of me) and I figured that if he was any judge of character then he knew that I went where Parker led. We weren't friends and we couldn't pretend to be.

 

We followed his plan. Parker and Dodge sat on opposite sides of the lounge with their weapons close by as Silver and I got some sleep. It wasn't a particularly good one, if I recall, and when Parker woke me up a few hours later I was only half asleep. He tucked his Luger away. "Don't take your eyes off him for a second," he whispered, climbing inside his sleeping mat and puffing up the pillow we took from Mill Spring. He settled into a nervous sleep as Dodge and Silver kissed each other good night (for the second time). I felt my cheeks getting red. Then the Nebraskan boy turned in. When the two of them eventually started snoring, it left Silver and I to keep watch for 55ers (and each other). It was a dull, boring watch. At one point we heard what sounded like a woman's scream but when we rushed out to the yard we found a dying fox, yelping by the back fence. When I put a kitchen knife through its neck to end its pain, Silver looked at me like I was crazy. "It was making too much noise," I said. And I haven't come this far just to be a slave.

 

After that it was just a boring night. Post-storm LaSalle was silent and empty save for the chirps of the cicadas nestled in the weeds and shrubbery growing up through the cracked stone sidewalks and stoops and driveways. I spent most of my time thumbing through a dog-eared paperback copy of The Silmarillion that I found underneath a coffee table (and took a leak maybe two times) as Silver busied himself sewing up a tear in Dodge's bloodstained shirt.

 

I don't know when I dozed off. Maybe two hours into my watch, maybe less. I don't know. I didn't realize that I'd fallen asleep on the sofa until I'd woken up halfway. My eyes were blurry and crusted. Tired and groggy, everything was shapes and mumbles at first, and then I managed to make out some whispers in the fog.

 

"I get it," it was Dodge's voice. "Babe, you don't have to trust them. They're gone tomorrow and so are we. I promised to take you to Mexico and that's exactly what I'm gonna do."

 

When my eyes opened, I saw Silver mounting the middle part of Dodge's sleeping bag, right where his crotch would have been. He had his palms flat on the ground and his pale lips hovered an inch over the older boy's. He smiled sadly. "We're gonna be fine," said Dodge. "Kiss me."

 

And Silver kissed Dodge with a tenderness I'd only ever seen between the married old folks. It was such a small thing, to kiss, but it was a sweet thing too and when I looked at them I felt... well... jealous. I'd given more blowjobs than I could count at that point, but I'd never been kissed before. Parker hated it, and the last time I tried to kiss him he got mad. But what was so terrible about it? Why couldn't he kiss me? He'd had my throat, my hands and my ass (even my feet once) so why couldn't I have that?

 

**********

 

The following morning was cold but bright. There were some packets of instant coffee in the larder. Dodge boiled some water in a banged up old pot and made four cups before they got to work at sun up. They split into two pairs (Dodge and Jay in one, Parker and Silver in the other) and went from one house to the next, kicking in each door to rummage around for a hacksaw. Aside from some broken furniture and old electrical appliances, televisions and microwaves and the like, every townhouse was empty, all looted from top to bottom years ago. Eventually though, Parker and Silver found a panel hacksaw in relatively good condition. They spent the rest of the morning taking turns sawing through the massive tree trunk that the storm brought down over the garage. Though it took some time they cut the tree in half and rolled the trunk out of the way.

 

Parker brought the Escort out of the garage. Honouring his half of the bargain, Jay popped the trunk and gave Dodge and Silver some of their rations; three cans of beef and beans and two cans of Spam, four bottles of water, one of their six baggies of rice, and some of the potatoes from Polk's last harvest. They also split one of the last loaves of bread Sister Magda baked before the 55ers' attack. There was a silver-painted, slightly banged up '91 Buick Roadmaster parked in the driveway across the street. Silver packed the food into its trunk. Dodge sat on its hood, arms folded and smiling. He'd replaced his bloodied shirt with a white hockey jersey, and a brown leather strap across his back with a holster big enough to fit his bat. "You sure you don't want to come with us, spud?"

 

"Thanks," said Jay. "But... we need to go this our own way."

 

Parker stuck his head out of the driver's side window. "Pee Wee, lets go, we've waisted enough fucking time here," He started the engine.

 

Dodge patted Jay's shoulder. "Good luck. Avoid Denver if you can, I've heard some fucked up stories about what's going on down there. I hope Pueblo works out. And..." the older boy leaned in closer as he whispered it, "...keep your guard up with that guy."

 

He meant Parker.

 

Dodge exchanged a glance with the Pastor's son then went over to the Roadmaster as Silver climbed into the passenger side and buckled up. Sighing, Jay lumbered into the Escort and slammed the door shut. Parker looked over at him as he waited for the Roadmaster to go first, hands at the wheel. "...What did that cocksucker say to you?"

 

"Nothing," said Jay. "He just wished us good luck."

 

Parker sneered. He watched the Dodge and Silver's Buick reverse and drive off down the street. Only once they were gone did Parker twist the keys in the ignition and get the engine humming. It was midday now, with a hot sun bearing down on them. They only had another six or seven hours to drive before it got dark again.

 

"Hey, Parker?"

 

He turned the wheel, pulling them out of the driveway and onto the road. "What?"

 

"Why did we lie to them?" Asked Jay. "They're going to Mexico too, we could've helped each other out."

 

Parker scratched his curly hair. "You still don't get it, do you? You can't trust anyone out here. Yeah, maybe they're two random kids on their way to Mexico for the same reason we are. Or maybe they're bullshitting robbers who gave up when we didn't give them a chance. The point is... I don't know. And I ain't taking any risks. We gotta look out for ourselves, Jay. Until we get to Mexico, we're on our own."

 

*********

 

"Until we get to Mexico, we're on our own," he said.

 

Tch.

 

Back then I really believed him. Part of it, if I'm honest, was that I didn't have a choice. I couldn't survive without a father or a safe town to call home not unless I had Parker. But the better part of it, the most important part of it, was that I wanted to believe him. I wanted this to be just about us.

 

More fool me, huh?

 

When Dodge said "Keep your guard up with that guy" it didn't really register with me at the time. I thought he meant that Parker might hurt or cheat me, which was bullshit, and if he knew how long we'd known each other he'd know it was bullshit. But that wasn't it. What Dodge really meant was: you can't trust him.

 

Whoever you are, if you're listening to this, understand that I now I wished I'd listened.

 

Betrayal has a bigger appetite than cancer. It just eats and eats and eats away at you until there's nothing left at your core except raw, naked anger. But it's a hell of a motivator too. See where anger can take you when there's nothing left and all those secrets you hid from yourself about who you really are and what you're truly capable of suddenly spill out. See what it leaves of you. Betrayal is the only thing that can kill love.

 

And I never saw it coming.

 

**********

 

The sun was terribly hot that day. Far too hot for springtime. Considering yesterday's terrible storm and the icy cold nights not a week earlier, when Danny Mixon was still alive, and Polk still thrived and 55ers were throwing the severed heads of dead blacks over its walls; the sudden turn in heat was odd. Jay rolled down the passenger side window of the Ford Escort and popped the first button of his shirt, then loosened his collar. There was a carton of menthols in the glovebox (something Parker found in one of the LaSalle townhouses when he and Silver turned them upside down for a hacksaw). Jay lit two, gave one to Parker and kept the other from himself. He inhaled deep then exhaled out the window then watched the smoke trail away on the winds as the Escort cut a path across the beaten gravel rolling through the Coloradan fields. He saw a derelict high school and old truck stops blown to pieces by past explosions; abandoned dairy farms scattered with cow bones, water towers rusted into collapse, broken satellite dishes hanging by their wires or rusting off inert radio towers, their purpose long served and ended. He watched, piece by piece, the long unused infrastructure of an entire world gradually decomposing along his way.

 

My father was right, thought Jay. This country is a graveyard.

 

"Hey," said Parker, "They're no lakes or streams nearby so we'll have to forage for more food."

 

Jay took another puff. "You said have we have enough food to last us until Raton."

 

"Not anymore," said Parker as he pulled the Escort over. The wheels beneath them crunched to a halt. Parker shut off the engine and climbed out. When Jay asked him what he was doing, Parker told him to "look at the dashboard" they were almost out of gas. We've been on the road for days, thought the younger boy as he lit up a new cigarette with another struck match. But we're not even past Denver yet...

 

"SHIT!" Screamed Parker.

 

Jay poked his head out the window. "What's wrong?"

 

"We're out of gas!"

 

That's not possible, Jay tossed his cigarette and climbed out of the Escort. "You took two extra gas cans from the Black Bandana barracks, right?"

 

"Yeah and they're gone!" Parker tore through the remaining supplies inside the trunk, the food, the water, tools, spare clothes, the hunting rifles, but the gas cans weren't there. "FUCK!" He screamed, slamming the trunk shut. "It was that fucking cunt Dodge, he played us! HE FUCKING PLAYED US! He didn't want our food, he wanted out fucking fuel and he stole it from right underneath our fucking noses!"

 

"Are you sure he-"

 

"I told you!" Yelled Parker. "I TOLD you we can't trust anyone out here! Damnit! Damnit! DAMNIT!"

 

Jay didn't want to believe it, but it did make sense. Dodge and Silver's commandeered Roadmaster ran on gas just like any other car but like the Black Bandanas used to say, fuel is rarer than mercy on the outside. When they took shelter from the storm with that captured 55er, no doubt one of them would have spotted the Escort pulling up into the garage and hatched their plan when that oak tree crashed into the townhouse. Who knows, maybe they even risked those crazy winds and helped bring it down? Either way they took their chance and it paid off for them. Parker was, in every way, infuriated. He slammed his hands down hard and repeatedly on the trunk, screaming Dodge's name and threatening to choke or crush or slit or slash his throat if they ever ran into each other in Mexico.

 

Jay took his eyes to the road. Abandoned vehicles sat up and down the 85, upturned trucks and Fords and Chryslers and the like, deflated at the wheel and browning over with rust like old apples left to bake and decay beneath the sun. None looked like they had any gas left to siphon.

 

"There has to be a gas station nearby," said Jay. "Lets just take our bikes and go find one."

 

They had the Schwinn and Litespeed strapped tight to the roof of the Escort by a spool of nylon climbing rope and spring lock carabiners. Parker banged his fist down one last time. "...What about the Escort? We can't just leave it here, we're still in 55er territory. All our fucking supplies are in this car."

 

Jay pointed northeast to that old high school that they passed by earlier. The land was flat enough that you could still make it out in the distance if you squinted hard. "There," he said. "We hide it there then head back out."

 

There was a look of scepticism Parker sometimes had that frightened Jay the kind of look that objected to his ideas out of hunches and suspicions instead of reason. It was a look he tended to get when they argued. Strangely enough, not this time though. The Pastor's son growled angrily. "Fine," he said. "Let's go."

 

The high school was about half a mile back up the road. It took nearly three hours for Parker and Jay (who dusted their hands with broken gravel) to push the Escort back there. Gritting and groaning, they struggled with it for around 50 yards, took a break, pushed for another 50 yards, took another break, and so on and so forth, until they made it to the high school.

 

The campus grounds were far bigger than Polk High's. Built up out of three four-storey high buildings shaped together like a `U', it had a schoolyard in the centre and a computer lab/library behind that, alongside an old gym nestled next to a huge football field, which had transformed over the years into a densely weeded thicket. Jay and Parked pushed the Escort up the gravel track off Route 85 into the car park at the campus' east-facing entrance, where around thirty or forty other parked cars sat derelict. Catching his breath, Jay suggested covering it up with their roll of tarp in the backseat. Parker refused. "It just makes it stand out more," he said. Then he pulled out his Luger.

 

"What's wrong?" Asked Jay, watching Parker's eyes tick from sight to sight as he studied his surroundings.

 

"I don't like this place," he flicked off the pistol's safety. "Look at it. High walls, isolated, it's probably got an old generator somewhere in there... perfect place for bandits to hole up. But it looks empty."

 

Jay studied the campus over and saw that he wasn't wrong. Aside from some broken windows and ledges and drain pipes, its white-painted walls were sturdy. The roofs (and upper floors) provided clear vantage points for both surveillance and sniper fire. There were no other buildings nearby to set up raids from, and there were only a few entrances; one at the front and the footpaths into the campus by the football field (likely fenced in). This place was perfect for a large group of men, bandits or 55ers, to make a base out of.

 

"We can't leave the Escort here until we know its safe," said Parker. "Let's go check it out."

 

It was the biggest building Jay had ever seen. And the more he thought about it, the more he worried about what might be waiting for them in there. But I can't back out now, thought Jay. And I can't let Parker go in there on his own. There was no choice. He had to go. The younger boy sighed, cocked his 9mm, then went and got their torches out of the Escort as Parker led the way up the car park to the high school's front entrance.

 

Dusty beams of daylight lit the lobby through its smashed in front windows, the glass shards still littered a wide floor of cream and maroon-coloured tiles. There was an entrance desk broken in half by an old air conditioning unit that had broken loose from the low-hanging ceiling. Jay and Parker passed it by, flicking their torches on as the path ahead grew darker where the light couldn't reach. They entered a dark corridor. Dented lockers lined the brick and pillar walls. Some still had old knapsacks and book bags crammed inside them. Most were empty. There were trophy cases nearby, too, filled with silver and gold commemorating forgotten victories of past championships, and old bulletin boards with faded paper flyers about afterschool clubs and the science fair and cheerleader try outs and a canned food drive for the homeless and so on, still pinned to them. There was a big blue banner that said, "Go Cougars!" in white lettering that swung limply from hooks in the ceiling tiles. The windowed doors into each classroom were all sealed shut.

 

Jay and Parker silently followed the corridor to the end of the hallway. To the left was a porticoed walkway towards the west wing, to the right another porticoed walkway to the east wing. Directly ahead were two push bar doors beneath a large black sign that said AUDITORIUM. A pool of chains and an open padlock sat at the threshold before it. Parker flashed his torchlight over them.

 

"Someone chained these doors," He said. "Then someone else came by and unlocked them."

 

And you want to find out why, thought Jay with a sigh. There was no stopping him now. The younger boy tucked his pistol away and pressed his palm flat against the door to open it, whilst his torch hand guided his way in. It was so dark inside the auditorium that it was almost impossible to tell its purpose, back before the collapse. It was only when Jay and Parker flashed their torches around the room that they saw its uglier, newer purpose.

 

Corpses.

 

Hundreds of them.

 

A nine-foot high pile of human remains thrown on top of one and other between the stage and the first row of seats, an obelisk heaped tight with protrusions of cracked limbs and limp cocks and rotting tits and clawed fingers and toes and noses and heads. Jay nearly threw up. Parker, stone-faced, flashed his torch across the room to a nearby blackened pile, smaller and shorter than the mountain of corpses. It was difficult to tell what the slag-like substance was (or it would have been for someone other than Parker) until he noticed first the singe marks on the moulding carpet around the pile, then after that, hundreds of little coin-shaped black fragments dotting the carpet more widely burnt buttons.

 

"I don't get it," said Parker. "They burnt the clothes but not the bodies?"

 

"What the fuck...!" Blubbered Jay. "Oh God, what the fuck!"

 

Parker flashed his light on the corpse pile again. "Quiet," he said. He inspected the skins, which were taut and marbled and browning. The air there was also cold, there were no flies or maggots, and there was no stench. "It ain't fresh," explained Parker. "They did this years ago... just after the Occupation, I'd guess. No more soldiers, no more rules."

 

Jay composed himself, spitting the taste of bile out of his mouth. "For what...?" He said. "Why the fuck would anyone want to do that?"

 

"Beats me," Parker turned heel. "Let's keep moving."

 

They carefully shut the doors behind them. On either side of the hallway, where the porticoed walkways led to the two wings of the campus, there were stairwells leading up. Parker picked the one on the right and led Jay up the dusty steps to the second floor, then the third, and finally the forth. Here, the east-facing building was much more dilapidated, with sections of the ceiling frame crumbling out and loose wiring hanging out of the gaps like ropes of liana. The walls were black with damp. Moss and mushrooms and fungus grew out of patches of carpet where the roof had simply caved in on itself, letting light and rain fall from the skies above. The windows along the uppermost corridor were dirty black and pockmarked with bird shit but unbroken. The light they provided was minimal but just enough for them to see with. Jay and Parker turned off their torches and followed the path all the way down and around to the front building's rearmost wall where they found the Principal's office.

 

"What are we doing here?" Asked Jay.

 

"Looking for keys, Pee Wee," said Parker. "During the Occupation they would've shut the school down and locked everything up tight. If this place ain't been used recently then we're gonna need them to get around."

 

He gripped the door handle, but it wouldn't turn. "Shit, it's locked."

 

"Tell me we're not camping out here tonight?" Said Jay.

 

Parker shrugged. "If its all clear and we can't find any gas before sun down then yeah. Grow some fucking fuzz on your balls, Jay."

 

The older boy kicked the door in. The crash reverberated down the corridor as the door swung off its hinge, back and forth. Inside, the office reminded Jay of his father's room back home the mahogany desk and three cushioned chairs, aluminium filing cabinets, and wooden bookcases. There were watercolour paintings and plaques of excellence mounting the walls. The window behind the Principle's desk gave them a good view of the internal campus grounds. Down below the weedy schoolyard had more marbled old corpses scattered over its turf. Some of them wore military fatigues.

 

"See those soldiers?" Parker pointed them out to Jay. "We better check their gear before we go. They might have some ammo or weapons on them."

 

Someone behind them clapped, mockingly.

 

"Clever boys," he said. "Real fucking clever."

 

Before Jay even turned around a thick hand clamped around his mouth and yanked him into a tight grip, dragging him off his feet like a doll. Jay screamed between the man's fingers and looked to a stunned Parker, who dropped his torch and went behind his belt for his Luger, until a cold hard gun barrel pressed up against Jay's right temple. "Don't you fucking do it, kid! Don't you reach for that piece or I swear to God I'll blow your friend's motherfucking brains out! You hear me? Now put your hands on your head and kneel down!"

 

He was serious.

 

Parker, for the first time in Jay's life, backed down from a fight. He slowly put his hands on his head and went to his knees. A second man, a shaggy-haired cunt in slacks and a string vest, came up behind Parker, took his Luger, then yanked his hands behind his back and cuffed them. Jay's attacker did the same, shoving the boy down to his knees (taking his Beretta) and cuffing him. They both had AK-47s strapped to their backs. And then, a third and final man walked into the Principle's office. Tall and thin, with closely cropped blonde hair and an eggshell-coloured leather shearling, the leader of the posse approached the two boys with a victorious smirk. He knelt to meet them at eye level. Beneath the folds of his jacket poked the wooden grip of a holstered .357 Smith and Wesson revolver.

 

"I don't know who trained you," he said, "but he did a good job. It took me three days to catch you little bastards."

 

Parker, sneering, somehow kept his cool. "...Who are you?"

 

"I'm Hunter," he spoke with a syrupy Southern drawl. "My pals over there are Clive and Wil. Now. I believe y'all two boys may have pilfered some merchandise which by rights belongs to my daddy, a none-too-pleasant man by the name of Wuhrer. You may have heard of him?"

 

55ers, Jay shivered. They found us...!?

 

"A frightful bastard, that one. It never did pay to piss off my daddy, you hear me tell ya," Hunter eyed Parker. "Shame your father, the dear old pastor, didn't pay that wisdom much heed. I don't know which one of ours killed him, but they spared no quarter..."

 

Parker didn't flinch. "What do you want?"

 

Smiling, Hunter stood up. "Oh, come on now, you're a bright young spark, you know very well what we want," and then his eyes ticked towards Jay, "Before the untimely demise of your town there was a deal in place. A boy by the name of James Mixon was to be offered up to us as cattle in recompense for your failure to pay your monthly tithes. Well, unfortunately for y'all... said deal still happens to be in place."

 

The 55er pulled one of the principle's chairs from the desk and sat down before the kneeling Jay and Parker, slinging one leg over the other and threading his fingers together. "My father ordered me to collect on what's due and that I have. Now, I've cleaned out your Ford. All that food, clothing, tools and weapons? They're mine now. My boys are driving it all back to my camp as we speak. Polk is dead. Y'all got nowhere to run to and nothing to run with. So, understand it plain when I say that from this moment on your lives are no longer your own. Y'all two are property. Y'all are mine and my daddy's to do with what we please, you hear?"

 

Jay and Parker kept silent.

 

Smirking, Hunter took a red apple out of his coat and cut a slice out of it with a pocket knife. Jay recognized it from the stash of food he and Parker escaped from Polk with. This man wasn't bluffing. "Now," his cheek bounced up and down as he chewed. "Before we take y'all two back to Cheyenne with us I have me a couple questions I wanna ask, if you don't mind. Where in the world were y'all headed for?"

 

Jay and Parker kept silent.

 

Hunter cut another slice. "What about those two cattle y'all met over in LaSalle. Where were they headed?"

 

Jay and Parker kept silent.

 

"Don't wanna talk? And here I was thinking we had us an understanding. Okeydokey, Smokey." He threw away the apple core and pulled out his revolver. His eyes fell on Parker but aimed the barrel at Jay. "Grease your lips or I'll put a cap in your friend's knee."

 

Parker smirked. "...Do it."

 

WHAT?! Jay's head spun around. He looked at Parker. And Parker looked serious. And Parker didn't even blink as he and Hunter Wuhrer locked eyes (and traded smiles) like it was just a pissing contest between the two of them. For the first time since the Black Bandanas shot his father dead in Polk, Jay Mixon felt his blood run cold. Parker, how could you...?

 

Hunter smirked. "Clever, clever, clever boy. You are your daddy's son, ain't ya?" He lowered the revolver. "Okay then. There's more'n one way to make a canary sing. We all are gonna do this a different way. Clive? Wil? Would y'all two be so kind as to escort this plucky young buck down to our pick-up? I'd like to share a few private words with Mr Mixon here."

 

Just like that, Hunter's two henchmen grabbed Parker by both his forearms and dragged him up to his feet. He tried to make eye contact with Jay, but Jay couldn't bring himself to look back at him. He looked away. Then as Clive and Wil marched him out, Hunter whispered something into Parker's ear. Jay didn't hear it. But whatever it was it sent Parker into a fury. He started screaming and shouting and kicking until Wil gave him a pacifying slug him in the gut. Then they dragged him away and shut the door.

 

"Your friend doesn't think too much of ya, does he?" Taunted Hunter.

 

He said he'd kill anyone who hurt me... thought Jay, bemused. Dodge warned me... he warned me...

 

Jay lost himself in his own thoughts until he felt a sharp pain at the back of his head. It was Hunter, grabbing himself a fistful of Jay's wavy brown hair and using it to yank him up to his feet. Hunter span Jay around by his shoulders and made him face the desk. "Hear me well, boy. It's just you and me now. You hear? Ain't no one else out here who can help you. Now you've come far, I'll grant you that, but this is a fucking fork in the road. Hey! You hear me? This is a fucking fork in the motherfucking road. One ends with me gouging out your eye with a spoon and the other ends with your two beautiful baby blues intact. So, what's it gonna be? You wanna be dumbass like your friend or do you wanna walk outta here with two eyes? Huh? You gonna be a moron or are you gonna listen?"

 

"...I-I-I'll listen," whispered Jay. "I'll listen..."

 

"Good," said Hunter.

 

Jay, trembling, heard Hunter tinkering with his cuffs. Seconds later, he felt a sudden sense of relief as they fell off his wrists. He didn't realize how tight they were. But before he got even remotely comfortable Hunter grabbed him by the throat from behind. Jay froze. "I was watching you two," he said softly. "I watched you spread your legs open in Fort Collins, moaning in the dirt like a whore... I know what you are, you goddamn sodomite. How many cocks have you sucked? Huh? How many men have been inside you...?"

 

Just one... "Please don't hurt me... I'm begging you..."

 

Hunter smirked, audibly, then let him go. He stepped backwards and slumped into his prior chair, spreading his legs wide. "...Turn around."

 

The boy turned to face him.

 

"Take off those clothes."

 

A cold sinking fear oozed down Jay's spine. It was a fear borne of hopelessness, and the knowledge that you were powerless to prevent what was coming. As the boy stood shivering in his shoes he saw the grip of Hunter's .357 lulling out from the folds of his coat. It was the kind of calibre that could stop a bear in its tracks. One shot, depending on the spot, could turn his guts out or liquify his brain or blow off his legs. Just one shot. It didn't matter that he was uncuffed. He had no weapons. He was helpless.

 

Jay suppressed a sob and unbuttoned his shirt.

 

"Slowly," Hunter breathed deep and heavy. He slipped his hand into his jeans. "Slowly..."

 

One by one, and slowly, Jay popped his shirt buttons until he could pull it off his left arm as Hunter began stroking himself. The bump in his denims went up and down and he commanded Jay to take off his own jeans next. The boy reluctantly kicked off his shoes, unbuckled his belt, then pulled them down to his ankles and stepped out of them.

 

"Give me ya briefs."

 

Jay hesitated, then hooked his thumbs beneath the elastic and pulled them down the thin hair around his legs. His flaccid cock, surrounded by a thin bush of ginger fuzz, wobbled at his crotch as he gave his briefs to Hunter. It still had cum stains from the day Parker fucked him on the banks of the Poudre. "Come closer."

 

Shivering from cold and fear, Jay complied.

 

"Kneel."

 

He did that too.

 

Now on his knees, and between Hunter's denimed legs, he found himself a helpless spectator as the southern militiaman peeled back the fold on his jeans and pulled down his zipper. He wasn't wearing anything below. His cock, six inches of thick, veiny flesh, slung out of the hole. It was already dripping with pre-cum. From the smell alone Jay could tell Hunter hadn't had sex in months. The 55er sighed deep and heavy.

 

"Suck it," he groaned.

 

Jay froze again.

 

Hunter snatched his hair, again. "What did I say, son? About a fork in the road? Open ya goddamn mouth."

 

He didn't know what possessed him. He didn't know where it came from. He didn't even know he was saying it until he was, but said it he did "No," and then, "I can't..." and then came the fury. Hunter's fist was like a thunderclap. And suddenly Jay saw lights as a horrifying, fiery pain exploded on the left side of his face and threw him onto his back. He cried out, grabbing his face, tears streaming, but Hunter, now furious, grabbed another fistful of his hair and hauled him up to his feet, spinning him around, and then slamming him down over the Principal's desk, belly first. When Jay tried to buck free Hunter pinned him back down by the neck and violently shucked his denim's down his legs.

 

"Oh God please!" Screamed Jay, "Don't! Don't! Don't!"

 

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Roared Hunter, spitting a phlegmy wad down the crack of Jay's ass. "Get used to pain if ya ain't gonna follow orders, ya little faggot!"

 

A patter of semi-automatic gunfire ripped through the outer corridor.

 

Hunter froze where he stood, listening out, his black jeans around his boots, his engorged cock jutting an inch off his father's slave's wrinkled pink hole. Jay was so scared he didn't even hear it. He didn't stop crying until Hunter let him go and yanked his pants back up. The 55er flattered his back against the wall beside the door and pulled out his .357 magnum. A second burst of fire, and a death cry, followed by silence. Jay, misty-eyed, rolled off the desk. Hunter peeked through the glass window to see what was going on. A third burst of gunshots ripped through that glass and took half of Hunter's shoulder with it. He screamed. Blood and bone fragments splattered the office wall as his tall body flopped to the ground, bleeding out through his mangled shearling.

 

The office door swung open. It was Parker, awkwardly carrying one of the 55ers' banana clipped AKs in his cuffed hands. "You okay, Pee Wee?"

 

**********

 

It took me a few minutes to put my clothes back on. Parker asked me if I was alright. I told him I was fine. He asked me if Hunter touched me. I said I was lucky, that he never got the chance. The office stank of blood. I remember hearing Hunter scream when the blood in my ears stopped thumping. When the AK floored him he almost bled out, seething through his yellow teeth. He was lucky. Parker didn't hit any vitals. But then, for some crazy reason, Parker put an old coat from the Principal's chair around the bastard's shoulder and tied it there by the arms. I asked him why.

 

"We're keeping him alive," he said. "For now."

 

Hunter was in too much pain to complain, I think. I don't even remember what I was thinking when he told me that, that's how loopy my mind was, all I remember doing was what Parker told me to do. After I uncuffed him with the keys in Hunter's pocket, Parker and I took him by the arms and half-walked/half-dragged his ass past his dead buddies Clive and Wil, down the stairwells, through the lobby and out to a parked pick-up truck. We threw him groaning into the back. The Ford Escort was where we left it but the 55ers picked it clean, just like he'd said. There was nothing left in the trunk except an oily blanket. Parker, with the AK-47 still slung from his shoulder, climbed into the driver's seat of the pick-up. I joined him on the passenger seat, wishing to a God I didn't believe in that I never again set eyes on that high school for as long as I lived.

 

**********

 

"We were about halfway down to the second floor when I came too," said Parker. He had a hand on the wheel and a foot on the gas. He spoke as if recalling a stick ball game back in Polk, "I had fucking blood in my teeth. First thing I tasted! Then I hear these two guys talking to each other, "these young boys fetch a good price on the market, shame we won't get our share," the fucking retards. But as soon as I came to I see my 9mm in the guy's belt, right? So, I KICK the other dude in the balls and he starts fucking howling the motherfucking school down! But he's down! Then I reach over and grab my Luger from the first guy's belt as he's trying like a scared bitch to get that AK-47 off so I pepper him with five fucking shots to the chest!" Parker made a little gun sign with his free hand as he drove, "BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! He goes flying. But the other guy has his AK ready, so I roll out the way and grab the first guy's AK, and I run upstairs so I can get the fucking high ground, right? Like an IDIOT the guy follows me. As soon as he turns the corner I let loose on him with that thing like it's Christmas at the shooting range. Shit! I ain't never seen so much blood."

 

It was dark out. The road ahead was rough and potholed, it bumped the pick-up hard. They heard Hunter groan laboriously in the back. Parker glanced over his shoulder quick to make sure the bastard hadn't slipped his ropes -- sure enough he still bounced around in the back, helpless as a stuck hog. Blood had completely soaked through the jacket that Parker tied around his shoulder wound. It was a miracle he hadn't passed out yet. Jay didn't even pay him a glance. Half his whole face was swollen purple where Hunter punched him. It throbbed like a sore tooth and with all their meds gone (the paracetamol worst of all) he had to sit and suffer with it. The bumpy ride didn't help matters either. And it got worse when Parker pulled a hard right and took the pick-up off road. With the earth beneath the wheels so dry and parched, it was like riding over a pebble beach. The truck rocked to-and-fro until on unsettled ground until they were about a quarter mile out from Route 85. Parker shut off the engine.

 

Jay felt numb. "What are we doing out here?"

 

"He's Wuhrer's son. We can't let him live and we can't let his pops find the corpse," said Parker. "Plus, he needs to pay for what he's done and for what he tried to do. Come on."

 

Parker climbed out of the pick up and landed rocky soil. Jay paused, took a deep breath, then followed the older boy out. They walked around and opened the rear wagon for their prisoner. Hunter shivered in his own blood smears, dripping with sweat from brow to chest. His eyelids lulled heavy over glassy eyes and his shoulder wound was starting to stink. If they abandoned him he wouldn't survive the night.

 

"Help me move him," said Parker.

 

Together, they hauled his ass out and dragged him further into the darkness. Without torches it was difficult to see where they were going but they weren't too far from the pickup truck when they found a ditch big enough to throw him in, which they did. Hunter tumbled into the dirt. He landed face down but didn't get up, his wound was too severe. He groaned and mumbled and muttered nonsense to himself as ropes of thick black blood dripped from his mangled shoulder.

 

Parker wore one of the shearling jackets Hunter left behind in his truck. In the pocket was a glass Coca Cola bottle filled with a thick, transparent liquid. Jay didn't know what it was, but it wasn't water. He watched silently as Parker tipped it over the delirious Hunter's head, jacket and trousers. Then he tossed the empty bottle into the ditch with him.

 

Then Parker lit a match.

 

And then Jay knew what that stuff was.

 

It was gas, siphoned out of the pickup truck's tank, probably when he'd asked Parker to pull the truck over to pee earlier. The burning match lit up a fiendish grin in the darkness. There would be no hymns for Hunter Wuhrer. Jay paused a moment, wondering if this was the right thing, and then the memory of what that bastard tried to do to him flashed through his mind, how he screamed and begged for Hunter to stop and how he wouldn't; how Hunter punched him, name-called him ("whore", "sodomite", "faggot"), threatened him, humiliated him and made him strip.

 

He tried to rape me, thought Jay. He nearly sold me into slavery...

 

Parker threw the match at Hunter's body.

 

The scream that ensued was less a scream than an agonized, frantic shriek that rung out across the beaten prairie land. His whole body went up in flames. It became a thrashing black silhouette in a curtain of raging red flames that sundered his flesh and sinew. He howled and clawed at phantom shapes as if that could save him, but nothing could. Jay and Parker watched as the immolated Hunter screamed himself hoarse until he dropped to his knees as his body finally gave in and succumbed to the fire. His limp head slumped into a collapsing thorax as the savage heat peeled the lips from his skull and a bitter black smoke borne of charred flesh and cloth drifted up into a starry sky. They watched him burn until he burned black. His crisped right arm snapped loose from the blackened husk of his wounded shoulder and landed next to his carbonizing leg bones.

 

Jay threw up over his shoes.

 

**********

 

We left his remains out there to roast.

 

We went back to the pickup truck and drove back onto Route 85 southbound, following the highway in search of a safe place to see out the night. When we couldn't find one we decided to park next to a train of abandoned cars and trucks and sleep in our seats. I didn't sleep much that night. Every time I closed my eyes I either saw Hunter stroking himself off or burning to a crisp. My head ached. I spent more time keeping a look out. Nobody passed us by that night. No one caught up to us.

 

It was then, as I sat there watching the stars above me, that I realized that Parker was right to burn that asshole's body. The minute Wuhrer found out we'd wounded his son, it would stop being a hunt for lost merchandise and start being a hunt for vengeance. That was a war we couldn't win, even if we wanted to fight it. Worst still our supplies were all gone. The food, spare clothes, rope, tools, hunting rifles, all of it. When Parker and I first took off from the ruins of Polk and set out on Interstate 25, we were on a road trip to Mexico. And he'd prepped us well. The second we ran out of gas our road trip became a desperate struggle for survival.

 

When we woke up the following morning we pressed on, not realizing how deadly efficient Wuhrer's militia was. They were cunning enough to fuel their rides with just enough gas to complete whatever mission they had and return to their camp for re-fuel. It was smart. It meant that if an enemy ever commandeered one of their vehicles they wouldn't get very far. We realized that tactic ourselves when less than an hour later Hunter's ran low on fuel.

 

"We gotta kill the trail," Parker said. He drove it off road again, this time eastward, and going about 400 yards clear of Route 85 before the fuel tank ran dry. It didn't have many supplies, no food, no water, no spare clothes; but what it did have was ammo. We filled two mouldy old backpacks that we took from an open locker in that high school and filled them with banana clips, 9mm cartridges and rope. A quick search through the glove compartment found us a spare torch, five packs of American Spirits and a combat knife. We took everything we could from the pickup before Parker torched it. We kept on after that, another smoke cloud behind our backs.

 

It would be a long walk to Denver.

 

**********

 

Jay and Parker followed Route 85 southbound on foot. They walked until their feet were tired, stopped for a half-hour's rest, then kept on going. Driving was quiet and boring. Walking was both but also hard. The heat made it worse. For May, it was unusually warm. Looking up ahead Jay saw the chokingly hot air ripple in waves and all the rusty water towers and severed telephone poles looked like reflections of themselves in pools of water distorted by a thrown pebble. His throat was dry and there was nothing to drink. Hunter's crew didn't have any water on them. The wind was dead.

 

TAKE THOSE CLOTHES OFF. As they walked the road Parker checked each abandoned car they found for supplies. SLOWLY... SLOWLY. Most had nothing in them, but one or two still had something useful stashed away. KNEEL. Over the course of that afternoon they smashed a few windows and found a pocket knife, SUCK IT, a pack of needles and thread, a useable thermos (full of a rancid old kelp smoothie long since hardened into crust, which they tipped out), a hammer, an X-Men comic book (for Parker), and a tin of corn. SHUT THE FUCK UP!

 

Jay grabbed his skull. What used to be a headache was now a full-blown migraine. Parker said something to him, but he couldn't make it out, it was all just white noise. Between the throbbing purple bruise swallowing up half his face and the pounding at his temple, pounding like gunshots and drumbeats and explosions and fuzzy lights flashing through his eyes, he felt faint. He stopped where he was. He couldn't walk another step. The world went white, and then black.

 

When Jay next opened his eyes, some six hours later, it was dark again. He looked up for a moment at a starry sky and its full moon, until a bug tried to crawl into his ear. Jay slapped it away and leaned upright from the tall grass. He found Parker there, just a yard away, with ten scraps of white meat skewered on whittled twigs cooking over an open fire. He'd skinned a hare with the pocket knife. Its bony carcass and skinned fur laid next to his feet. And the meat was ready. Parker pulled one of his twig skewers off the ground and nibbled at the hot white flesh. His eyes never strayed too far from the fire, until Jay woke up.

 

"Hey," he said. "You okay, Pee Wee?"

 

Jay nodded "yes" and looked around. Parker had camped out on a grassy knoll overlooking a dirty brown river. Just ahead of them by about half a hundred yards was a tall stone overpass traversing it from bank to bank. Before he passed out they were half a mile shy of Fort Lupton, so if Jay remembered right then he was looking at the Platte River.

 

"You spooked me the fuck out," Parker handed Jay one of skewers. Although more thirsty than hungry, he didn't turn it down. "Had to carry you across a field on my fucking shoulders."

 

Jay gobbled the white hare meat. It was unseasoned and chewy, but it was food. "Sorry."

 

"Don't worry about it," Parker pulled his shirt off. His bruises were gone. There was a bucket near the fire full of river water and he rinsed himself off with it, scrubbing the dirt and hare's blood from his hands and nails. "We're not too far from Fort Lupton. I thought we could look for supplies there but I scoped it out when you were sleeping. It's a 55er town. We gotta keep moving."

 

"Okay," said Jay. He ate another white hare skewer.

 

Parker looked at him, blankly. "...What's the matter with you?"

 

He wasn't going to answer. Jay was Jay because he always thought better of speaking his mind. When all was in his soul to scream, he was silent. And so, he stayed quiet for a while and hoped that Parker would get bored and do something else read his comic or clean his gun or something. But the older boy wouldn't let it go. He grinned fiendishly and crawled towards Jay by his haunches like a tribesman stalking game through the woods -- then suddenly grabbed the younger boy's wrists and wrestled him into the grass.

 

"What are you doing?!" yelled Jay, his head still woozy from the migraine attack earlier. Parker either didn't realize or didn't care because he climbed on top of Jay's legs to pin him down. "Parker, stop!"

 

The older boy frowned. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

 

Jay looked up into his coal-hot eyes. He really didn't get it. "I'm not in the mood."

 

Scowling, Parker let him go. He went back to the fire and ate another of his skewers. Jay watched him sulk. He looked like a caveman crouching over the fire, shirtless and ignorant. He gnawed at the hare meat with sallow teeth. Jay pulled himself out of the grass again.

 

"Why did you tell him to shoot me?" Asked Jay.

 

Parker blinked. "What?"

 

"Back at the high school," he explained, "when Hunter had the drop on us. He said he was gonna shoot me in the knee and you told him to do it. Why did you tell him that?"

 

"Jesus Christ, Jay, is that what you're mad about? It was a bluff, I knew he wasn't gonna shoot you and he knew it too how much can you get in trade off a handicapped slave? I called his bluff and it worked."

 

Jay looked away. "Okay."

 

"Don't do that," he spat. "Don't act like a fucking girl about it. I'm trying to keep us alive out here. I said I wasn't gonna let anyone hurt you and I meant it."

 

There was nothing Jay felt like saying. He didn't want to argue. He didn't want to talk about it anymore. A breeze chilled his skin as he resolved not to bring it up anymore. It was cold out, so Jay brought himself closer to the fire and huddled down. As hot at the days were the nights were always colder. He and Parker ate the last of the white hare meat. Jay cleaned himself up with the water bucket. Parker stared at the flames. Silence.

 

"I killed my Dad," said Parker.

 

Jay paused. "...What?"

 

"It was when the 55ers were shooting up the town hall. I spent days stealing the shit we needed to drive to Mexico and by then the Escort was all set, I just needed more meds. I don't know why I left my Dad's stash to the last minute, but I knew I needed it. So, when the 55ers attacked us, I left the watch duty and I ran home, figuring that Dad was out there with the Black Bandanas trying to save what he could. But no. He was getting ready to run too. He and my step-mom were loading a van with everything he could find; food, water, clothes, ammo and meds. I remember her saying, "What about Parker?" and you know what he told her? He said, "We have to go." That's all. "We have to go" ...my Dad's whore cared more about me than he did. Can you believe that? And there was me hiding in the bushes like a little kid. I watched them jump in the van... and rev up the engine... and get ready to leave me behind, so I snuck back into the house. I thought fuck him, fuck him, fuck him just get the meds. The Escort was ready, I just needed more meds. I didn't realize his van wouldn't start, I didn't even hear him come back into the house. He used to hide his med stash beneath some floorboards in our basement but of course he'd cleaned it all out. That was when found me. "It was you!" he said. "You're the one who stole the tithe!" It wasn't me, but... do you think he would've cared if I'd told him elsewise? Nah. He wasn't gonna listen. I said something to him, I don't remember what, and then the next thing I knew he had his hands around my neck. He blamed me for everything. For the town, for the fires, for my mom. Everything. And I couldn't breathe," said Parker. "So, I shot him."

 

Jay kept silent.

 

"I wanted to burn him," said Parker. "I wanted to watch the skin peel off his bones. I hated him so fucking much, Jay. But I just left him there. And then I went to get you."

"...I had no idea," said Jay. "I-I-I don't know what to say..."

 

Parker focused on the flames. "Don't say anything. Lets just sleep."

 

**********

 

      Thanks for reading! Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome, feel free to e-mail me at stephenwormwood@yahoo.com.

      Please see my other story on Nifty, Wulf's Blut (gay/sf-fantasy).