Book by: XCulletto
My knife sliced cleanly through the alien’s abdomen, spilling liquidy blue guts into the mud and across my shirt. I jumped back sideways to avoid the postmortem spasms these creatures always seemed to have.
Not quickly enough, though. The creature’s front appendage convulsed forward violently, and the razor-sharp claws tore through my bicep like it was icing on a cake.
“Arrgh!” I grunted angrily.
The alien landed with a slosh in the mud and even though the creature was dead, I took an irritable swipe at its back. Gloppy blue alien blood splattered up, mixing with the red blood that was now flowing freely down my arm and dripping from my fingertips.
Meg’s not going to be happy I ruined another shirt.
Grunting, I pulled the alien’s massive shoulder back and wrenched out the dart I’d shot into it. Being careful not to touch the poisonous tip, I replaced it, as well as my combat knife, back into the thick leather pouch I had strapped across my torso. I’d have to clean them later, since it would be pointless to try to wipe them on my blood-and-mud-splattered garb.
Wrinkling my nose in distaste at my own loathsome appearance (not to mention body odor), I began the short trek back through the woods to the cave.
Vanessa took one look at me and scowled.
“Can’t you at least try not to lose a pint of blood every time you go out? I’m running out of thread to stitch you up with.”
“Who’d you learn bedside manner from—Annie Wilkes?” I spat back. “Or did you not get to that class?”
I was used to her disapproval, but it wasn’t as though this was as bad as the stab wound I’d taken to the leg last fall. I still had a bit of a limp from that episode. And the scar… Well, it was a good thing I wouldn’t be wearing swimsuits anymore.
Vanessa was about to respond—fiercely, judging by the look on her face—when Meg intervened.
“Rhyan, come over here and let me clean you up.” At least she was sympathetic.
Giving her a wide berth, I walked past Vanessa to the back of the cave, where Meg was using a scrub board to wash the never-ending laundry. I looked guiltily at the neatly folded towels that she had probably spent her morning on. She plucked the top one, dipped it into a bin of water and gently began wiping the blood off my hands.
“Thanks,” I murmured.
“I don’t know why John can’t go out,” she murmured as she worked. “He’s much more suited to the disposing of those creatures than a teenage girl.”
“It’s fine,” I said. And really, it was. I liked heading out each day, weapons in hand. It gave me something to focus on. Somewhere to channel my vengeance.
It had to at least be better than sitting around the cave, which was all Vanessa seemed to do these days. She claimed she was “scouting for Toads”, which is what she called the aliens, (though I didn’t think they much resembled toads—more like fat, slimy praying mantises), but really she was just moping over Shawn. Still.
“Ow!” I yelped when Meg’s towel got too close to the cuts.
John, a thirty-something guy, turned from the ham radio he was messing with.
“You okay, kid?” he asked gruffly.
I looked sideways at his bearded face and nodded silently. Truth was, John scared the daylights out of me. His job was to “take care of” any human who might come around with an eye for our stuff. He hadn’t had to do much of that lately. There seemed to be fewer and fewer people every week. In fact, we hadn’t run into anyone outside our group in at least a month.
“You should take a pistol with you,” he said, for at least the third time. “Won’t have to get so close.”
I gave a small nod in response, but there was no way I would trade my darts for bullets. True, the darts couldn’t go as far, but they did make the aliens groggy, no matter where they hit. A missed pistol shot would only enrage the beast. And so far, my only advantage had been fighting a dazed alien as opposed to a riled up one.
Vanessa pulled out her first aid kit.
“All right, come here then,” she barked.
Meg had finished cleaning most of the blood off my arm and you could now see the three distinct slashes that could only have come from one thing. I had two other sets—one on my back and one on my side—that were now faded to scars. I was beginning to feel like a human patchwork quilt.
Reluctantly I went over to where Vanessa was threading her needle. Not for the first time I wished there was still some lidocaine left in her medical bag. This wasn’t going to be fun.
“Okay, just get it over with,” I sighed.
“You know,” she said, pressing the alcohol swab a little too firmly onto the cuts, “you really should consider how lucky you are that I’m here. Without me you’d be as good as dead.”
“Yeah, we should probably make you our chief or something.”
She stabbed the needle in and I winced.
“Don’t you know it’s not wise to insult someone who’s holding a needle?”
I didn’t reply—I was too busy focusing on not screaming.
Before the invasion, Vanessa had gone to medical school, though she’d never had the chance to finish. We were actually lucky to have her—I’d seen what happened to the injured who didn’t get medical treatment—though I’d never tell her that.
“Hey, hey,” a male voice called into the cave. Tristen’s voice.
“We’re here,” Meg called back.
A tan-faced sandy-haired boy appeared in the cave entrance, shadowed by a scrawny girl with big eyes.
“Tanya,” I said, smiling through the pain. “How are you?”
She set down the cardboard box she was carrying and took a seat beside me.
“What happened to you this time?” she asked, genuinely curious.
“Oh, you know,” I waved my free hand flippantly, “just a little mishap.”
“Your ‘little mishaps’ sure cause a lot of problems for people,” Vanessa muttered as she finished up the last stitch.
Ignoring her, I turned to Tanya.
“So what’d you find today?”
“A big can of fruit cocktail! And a box of graham crackers that only expired last month, and,” she added, deflating a little, “more canned beans.”
“We also grabbed a few t-shirts off the K-Mart shelf,” Tristen added as he passed by. Bulging sacks dripped from his arms and his hands were toting a big cardboard box filled to the brim. “Looks like you’re going to need them.”
I glanced down at the gruesome shirt I was wearing and blushed. It hadn’t escaped my notice that Tristen was the only guy my age around.
Somehow, though, it seemed to have escaped his.
“We’ll have those beans for dinner tonight,” Meg said, digging through the sacks.
“What about the fruit cocktail?” Tanya asked.
“I’m going to save that for a special occasion,” Meg replied. “Maybe your birthday.”
Instead of looking pleased, Tanya scowled.
Tristen helped Meg unload the rest of the supplies he and Tanya had found, then came and sat next to us. Vanessa had disappeared into a book and John was still playing with the radio.
“Look Tanya,” Tristen said. “I found this for you.”
He held out a box of colored pencils and a notebook.
“Thanks,” she replied. Her scowl lessened.
“Why don’t you go over where there’s more light and draw a picture?”
Tanya nodded and followed his suggestion. Tristen turned to me.
“I need to ask you a favor,” he said quietly.
I raised an eyebrow.
“I want you to tell Tanya how much help she could be, spending her time here with Meg. She listens to you the best.”
“She’s thirteen, Tristen. I think she knows what she wants.”
“I’ve told her a thousand times that it’s safer in the cave. She won’t listen. She—“ he took a sharp breath, then continued in a whisper.
“She had a close call today. She didn’t even know it. I got lucky—I was able to distract the Toad and get her out of trouble, but it was close. Way too close. I don’t want her out there anymore.”
“She won’t leave you,” I whispered back. “You’re her brother. Her last family. If I had any family left, I wouldn’t leave them either.”
Tristen’s handsome face twisted into a scowl.
“So you won’t help me.”
“I’m not saying that. I’ll do it. It’s just that it won’t work.”
“Just try,” he said tightly.
A little while later Meg announced that dinner was ready. Outside the cave, the forest trees cut long shadows through the orange sunlight. Tristen and I got up to push the heavy boulder over the cave entrance while everyone else clicked on their flashlights.
An echo resounded throughout the cave as the rock banged into place. For a moment, all was silent as the six of us looked at each other’s shadowed faces through thin flashlight beams.
“Well, we don’t want it getting cold,” Meg joked. No one laughed.
We each took a paper plate of cold baked beans and sat on our sleeping bags, eating halfheartedly with jagged spoons. The scent of cave mildew was everywhere.
John was the first to finish. He clicked the light off and rolled over without saying a word. The others soon followed suit, except that Tristen and Tanya exchanged “goodnights”. I turned my light off, but continued to gaze into the black.
During the daylight hours, I was able to summon some purpose, some sense of direction in this life. But when things got dark, finding that was much harder. That’s when the thoughts of what should be crept into my mind.
I should be sitting down at the dinner table with Zach right now—maybe having tacos. Dad would just be walking in the door, a little grumpy from a long day at work. He’d be telling me to get my homework done, and I’d be asking him if I could go to the football game on Friday.
Somewhere in the back of the cave, a dripping sound. Tanya coughed and Vanessa twisted in her sleeping bag.
Sleeping in a sealed cave means never knowing when morning arrives. I didn’t know how much sleep I was clocking these days, but I was sure it wasn’t much.
“You awake?” Tanya whispered when she heard me sit up.
“Yeah,” I whispered back.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Are there any granola bars left?”
“We can check.”
I tried to be silent, but the acoustics inside a rock make every sound deafening. The sleeping bag zipper alone woke Tristen and Vanessa.
The latter moaned. “It’s too early.”
“Sorry. Tanya’s hungry.”
She pulled her pillow over her head in response.
Tristen lit his flashlight and got up. Together we sifted through the food stash.
Tristen and Tanya brought things back every day to keep us stocked, but three adults and three teenagers can go through a lot of food. Especially when burning energy every day just to have water and clean clothes, not to mention hunting alien predators.
There were no granola bars so we settled for a nearly-full bag of pretzels.
It was no sizzling bacon and eggs, but as we began to eat, it was enough to rouse the adults from their beds.
After washing the pretzels down with some water, Tristen and I pushed the boulder away from the opening. The sun was up after all. Birds were chirping without a care in the world. (Easy for them; the aliens had left the animals alone.)
“I’m going out,” I told Tristen. “I’ll talk to Tanya this afternoon.”
“No, now,” he said.
“One more day isn’t going to hurt her,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”
“Rhyan. You said you’d help.”
“I said I’d try. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. Tanya’s not going to listen to me any better than she does you.”
Glowering at me he turned away to start his preparations the day. I did the same, gathering my knives, blow darts, trail mix, and water bottle.
Meg watched us, a guilty look on her face. I knew she hated sitting in the cave all day, letting other people do most of the grunt work. But, thanks to a particularly vicious alien, she could barely walk anymore, let alone run through the tangled woods.
John was different. He never seemed to care that Tristen, Tanya, and I took on the most risk every time we left the safety of the cave. But I didn’t mind. To my way of thinking, he carried his weight every time he’d kept desperate, hostile people away from our supplies.
I had no qualms about taking down aliens. Taking out people, though….
I slipped out of the cave without a word to anyone.
© Copyright 2017 XCulletto. All rights reserved.