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So, It Begins...

Novel By: Jennifer Brighton

Unlikely companions wander through a post-apocalyptic wasteland seeking refuge. View table of contents...


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Submitted:Jul 19, 2013    Reads: 8    Comments: 0    Likes: 1   

Chapter 6
A Somber Confession
After Bootsie took off again, I realized that I had neither heard nor seen Nero since he ran off during the last attack. I asked James about Nero's whereabouts, and he pointed behind me. Nero was curled up in the trunk, asleep.
He looked dead… But, I learned that he was actually under heavy sedation. I wanted to ask more questions, but James really didn't want to talk within earshot of the others. So, he urged me to save my inquiries until later.
Eventually, James fell asleep leaning his head against the seat. Arthur was still quietly bickering with Bootsie about their past experiences together, and I was stuck between being half awake and half asleep--and leaning more towards neither.
Soon, the car came to a halt. I lifted my sleepy head and looked up front. Arthur was smirking, and Bootsie mirrored an identical grin.
"I told ya I'd think of a good place," Bootsie said, hopping out of the car.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"We're home!" Bootsie answered while looking back over her shoulder. Arthur followed after her, jumping out of the car and slamming the door.
"Home?" I said to myself, turning to look out of the window.
Bootsie had stopped in what looked like a parking lot. We were about 100ft away from the building in the distance. Was it--a rodeo arena?
"James? James, wake up."
I grabbed James' arm and shook him a little. He didn't stir at first; so, I grabbed a fist full of his hair and tugged as hard as I could.
James, roused from his slumber, swung a heavy forearm in my direction. I leaned away to dodge his arm and, instead, caught an elbow in my chest.
"Whaaaaat?" he whined.
"Ouch! Damn it, James!"
"What, what, what, what, what?" he said, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
"You elbowed me in the boob, you sleepy bastard!"
James tittered. "Well, you did yank my hair. How was I supposed to know exactly what was going on in my sleep?"
"Hmph!" I grabbed the tender breast with one hand and pushed open the door with the other.
I stepped out and walked around to the front of the car. It was a rodeo arena, alright. I could see the bull-pens from the parking lot. The place looked like it might've been abandoned even before the current plague had taken over the country.
The grass--dry, brown, and jagged--boldly jutted up through the cracked concrete. The far reaches of the lot were littered with fragments of black gravel and vast deposits of soot and ash blotted out the faded, white lines of what once seemed to be parking spaces.
From where I was standing, the outside of the arena looked heavily reinforced with bars. And on top of that, there was a thick-metal roof that sat atop the holding pens and extended over to the stands.
There was a building adjacent to the arena, presumably connected to it. Even it resembled a prison. Its cage-like exterior made it appear ominous and brooding; but, there was no doubt in my mind that the building would serve for great protection against the harsh elements and the impending danger of future attacks.
James walked up beside me and rested his sharp elbow on my shoulder. Jessica, still slightly sleepy, lagged just behind him.
"Looks like those two are enjoying themselves," James said, pointing straight ahead.
Bootsie and Arthur were running, quite enthusiastically, towards the building. And once they had reached the arena entrance, both had stopped.
"What are they doing?" I asked softly.
"I don't know…" James answered.
"Maybe they're arguing again," Jessica sleepily added.
"Perhaps so…"
James stopped talking and was now focused on the two up ahead. Arthur was now making wild hand gestures at Bootsie, who appeared rather nonchalant. And soon, she too exploded and began hopping up and down and waving her hands in Arthur's face.
"Maybe we should go--see what that's all about…" I suggested in a hushed voice.
James nodded and took the first few steps in Bootsie's and Arthur's direction. I followed immediately, and Jessica--after a moment's hesitation--decided to come along too.
At the halfway point, Bootsie put an abrupt end to the argument. She shoved an opened palm in front of Arthur's face and pushed as hard as she could--which turned out to be harder than any of us expected.
Arthur, startled and caught off guard, went tumbling backwards and landed on the ground. Bootsie, noticeably pleased, walked into the building without so much as flinching.
"Damn gypsy," Arthur grumbled as we walked closer towards him.
"Looks like you got your ass handed to you," James teased. But, Arthur was not amused in the least.
"I'd like to see you stay on your feet after someone catches you off guard and mushes you in the face--" Arthur grunted.
"I'm sorry… mushed?" I said curiously.
"Mushing is a mix between mashing and pushing," James said grinning.
"Anyway, you said she caught you off guard?" Jessica crudely interjected. "You were staring right at her hand when she did it, and you still fell on your ass."
The three of us shared a second of wild laughter at Arthur's expense.
"Hell… She hits like a man…" he mumbled, getting up off of the ground and dusting himself off.
"What was that even about?" I inquired.
Arthur stood silently and gaped--for only a moment--but it was long enough for me to feel uncomfortable.
"What do you think it was about?" he answered condescendingly, flirtatiously running his hand along the side of my face.
"Okay, that's enough fun for one day," James intervened. "I need you to come with me back to the car for a bit."
"Well, what about me?" Jessica asked, noticeably anxious.
"Stay here with Arthur or go in after Bootsie and help her check the place out--we have to move some things out of the car," James said.
Jessica bit her bottom lip. She was glad to avoid work, but she wasn't particularly satisfied with being left behind.
"Alright--fine," she answered tersely and went into the building. After a moment's time, Arthur followed behind her.
James put his arm around my shoulder, and we turned our backs to the building and headed towards the car.
"So, what do we need to get out first?"
"The camping tents," James said.
When we reached the car, James opened the door and pulled the two tents out of the backseat. I quickly grabbed up one, and headed for the building again.
"No, wait a minute," James said.
"What? I can carry one by myself, and you can get the other one. Simple."
"No. It's not so simple," he insisted.
"Why not?"
James tittered nervously, and then that laugh quickly subsided and became a sigh. He walked around to the back of the little, green car and opened the trunk.
"We need to get Nero inside."
"How are we gonna do that with these two, big circus tents?" I jested.
"Well, I kind of already figured that out," he said.
"We need to wrap Nero up in either one or both of these tents and carry him inside."
"Why are we hiding him?"
"You'll see…" James answered.
"But, don't the others already know that he's back here?"
"Yes, and they know he's gonna be around here somewhere. They just won't know where. As far as they know, he's wandering around the property as I speak. I mean, he's a dog…"
"But if they know he's here, then why--"
"Shh--you said you would help me," James interrupted. "Remember?"
I grew silent and then nodded my head. "Right. What is it that you need me to do?"
* * *
I opened one of the tents and spread it at James' feet. James then put his arms around the sickly dog and pulled him out of the trunk. For a few seconds, he held Nero like a child then almost regrettably put him down.
We covered Nero in the folds of the tent and wrapped the second tent around him for extra security.
"Okay. You take this end right here," James said, grabbing my hand. "Don't let this piece slip. It's holding the two tents together."
I nodded solemnly and took hold of it. James went around to the other side. And on the count of three, we picked up the two tents and walked towards the building.
Well, James walked. I wobbled. He was so tall and Nero was so heavy… I lagged behind, holding on to the tents and tried my best to keep up.
We walked around the arena and found an alternate ingress shadily located on the side of the building. The entrance was crude and resembled two flaps or barn doors poorly carved into the side of the building. The door was half latched; whomever was last at the arena had left in such a hurry that they did not--or could not--lock the doors properly.
James sat down his half of the tent and opened both doors, catapulting specks of dust and dander into the dry air. Broken rays of sunlight cut through the haze and dimly lit the entrance. Had it not been for small cracks in the rickety, wooden walls, the inside would have been pitch black.
"Okay, let's go," he said, retrieving his end of the tent.
"Wai-wait-wait," I managed to squeak out. "We're going in there?"
"Do you see any other entrance?"
"Uh, yea, the one on the front seemed to be working just fine," I responded snippily.
"Come on, Cay," James began, "don't do that cute shit now. I already explained why we can't go in that way."
"I know, it's just--" I hesitated a bit and looked around James' shoulder. "Are you sure about this way?"
"No, but it looks like no one has been around here in a long time."
I sighed and nodded in James' direction. "Alright, I'm right behind you."
James began to walk backward into the unrefined space, and I followed. After pulling Nero inside completely, James faced forward and led the way through the darkness.
The further we skulked through the dark tunnel, the more and more uneasy I became. I could feel my pupils expanding, attempting to latch onto whatever bit of light that was left in the small space. Before long, even the dimmest speck of light had petered out, and we were forced to go forward into complete darkness.
Soon, we reached a dead end and a decision had to be made. Left or right…? James, after a moment's hesitation, decided to turn left.
Just before reaching the end of the tunnel, James slowed his walking pace. He stopped completely and motioned for me to release my portion of the tent. He sat his end down as well.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Shhh! Not too loud," he responded in a hushed voice. "I'm gonna go check things out first. Stay here."
"But, what if--"
"--Stay here," he said in a rasp whisper.
James sauntered listlessly up to the exit point; a dim spot of sunlight feebly lighted his face. Then, after deciding that he was pleased with where we were, he waved me over. Reluctantly, I left Nero there in the tunnel and hurried towards James.
It was amazing… It looked as though we were standing in the middle of a giant ring. We were surrounded by what seemed to be hundreds of bleachers and one white fence, encircling the small patch of dirt that we were standing on.
The ceiling was filled with holes. Tiny particles of unsettled dust swirled around in the nonexistent wind--alight with yellowish rays of cool light trickling down through the tattered ceiling. By the looks of it, it was high-noon. And, we needed to hide Nero quickly--before the others began to wonder where we had gotten off to.
James pulled Nero out into the open space and surveyed the outer edges of the ring for a place to put him.
"There," he said, pointing to the far, right end of the arena.
In the dim light, there seemed to be an indentation in the bleachers which was filled with bars and extra fencing.
I picked up my end of the tent and helped James carry Nero towards the hollowed out space, which James later identified as a holding pen.
Once we put the tent inside of the pen, James carefully uncovered Nero and examined him. Noticeably aghast, I stood behind James and stared at the dog.
His mouth was widely agape, and his dry tongue lolled out onto the tent. Though his eyes were half opened and filled with pus, I could detect an enlarged pupil sluggishly shifting back and forth, hiding behind his thick eyelashes.
"Is he going to die?" I asked, placing a hand over my mouth and nose.
"I don't know," James answered solemnly.
He reached inside of the tent folds and pulled out a leather leash. After placing the leash on Nero, James tied the free half to the fence.
"Are you sure he needs that? He doesn't look like he can move at all."
"I'm sure."
"That's it?" I asked, waiting for his reasoning. "You're not gonna explain to me why?"
James stood up and walked out of the holding pen. I followed behind him, anxiously awaiting an answer. He locked the gate and continued walking--not towards the clearly visible exit that would undoubtedly lead us into the building where the others were--towards the pit in the wall from which we had just emerged.
Once again, I felt my pupils expanding and searching the small space for fragments of murky light to compensate for my lack of sight. I stopped in the door of the tunnel and stared intently into the darkness, trying find James' willowy body scurrying through the obscure shadows.
"You coming?" James said, sticking his hand out of the tunnel.
My heart leapt into my throat and my nerves were shot, but outside, I succeeded at keeping my calm composure.
"So, you want to know how I know?"
I squinted my eyes and peered into the blackness.
"Yes," I said in a whisper, slowly reaching for James' gaunt hand.
He grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the tunnel after him. He dragged me through the passageway--stumbling over my own two feet-- and quickly began rambling on about his father getting infected.
"At first, I thought that it was just a stomach bug," he began. "But, I was wrong."
When his father became unbearably ill, James ran a series of home experiments--he had always been fascinated with potions and animals and the human body--and came to one grim conclusion. His father had to die.
"Oh, my God… I can't imagine how that feels--to have seen your father dying right in front of you."
James nodded. It was clear that he didn't want to continue with the conversation, but I tried to empathize anyhow.
"When I was twelve, my parents--they…" I grimaced. It was hard to include them and "death" in the same sentence. In some way, I never really accepted that they were gone. "My parents--perished in a freak accident."
"Freak accident?"
"Yea, and it was sorta my fault."
"How?" James inquired, noticeably perking up.
I guessed that I was finally getting through to him--finally making him see that I understood the pain of losing someone.
"Well, my parents were sleeping and I was hungry… So, I went to the kitchen to find something to eat. But, I didn't find anything. I tried to wake them; I thought that they'd make me something to eat but--"
I looked over at James and his stare was an intense one. He had stopped in his tracks and was now staring blankly at the side of my face. I hesitated and choked on a memory. I could see the exit point just up ahead, and in an act of compassion, I touched his shoulder and encouraged him to keep walking.
Then, I skipped through my morbid story right down to the gruesome end.
"To make a long story short, there was a fire. Started by me. They didn't make it."
"So--you killed them?"
"Well… yes."
"On purpose?"
I was taken aback.
"No, I--um, not on purpose… it was mainly smoke inhalation."
James sighed. "Stop…--"
"--you see, my father had just shown me how to use the stove that day… So, I thought it'd be okay if--"
"--Just stop it."
I bit my bottom lip and crossed my arms. We had reached the exit point, and it seemed like the wind had picked up since we had gone inside. James had quickened his cadence, and I was now--at least--four whole steps behind him. He was upset with me, and I didn't understand why.
"Are you mad at me?"
Silence danced between us. Foreign traces of slight moans in the wind answered me while James remained quiet.
"I don't understand why you're mad… All I tried to do was empathize, but--"
"But you couldn't," he said harshly. I could hear the backlash of bitter spite clinging onto his sharp tongue.
I couldn't see his face, and for once… I was glad that I couldn't. I imagined his brow frowning upon me and his lips twisted, bent to form curses.
We reached the dusty, green car. And James, with a burst of solemn enthusiasm, slammed the trunk down. It was clear that he was furious, but--against my better judgment, I prepared to ask why.
"But I don't understand--"
"Listen, Cay. I appreciate what you were trying to do--"
James' face was angrily contorted and his mouth was a tad askew, but after a few moments of looking down at me, his anger quickly subsided. His intense glower morphed into a blank stare. A trace of melancholic nostalgia flickered in his dark eyes.
"It's obvious that you understand what it's like to lose someone you love…" James began, "but our stories have no similarities…"
"What do you mean?"
"I killed my father. That was no mistake."
"-only because you had to kill him. I'm sure you loved your father just as I loved mine--"
"--No. I wanted to kill him," James said somberly. "And, I enjoyed it."
* * *


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