Chapters:

Chapter One, Two, and Three


Tribe of Children


ONE

The volume on Mel’s world was always too high; lights too bright, sounds too loud, fabric too scratchy, people crowding too close. Sensation and noise drowned out her thoughts and emotions. Every day was a struggle, but today was the worst of her thirteen years.

The scraping of metal outside Mel’s window had gone on the entire morning. Grunts preceded each scrape or thud. It was Benji, her live-wire of a twin, shoveling the clay laden soil in the backyard.

Mel bent lower to her desk and concentrated on the quality of the lines she sketched across her page. She planned to draw her free hand, a simple task she mastered when she was seven. Drawing quieted her mind helping her control the sensations washing over her. But the scraping, it clawed at her and demanded her attention. She gave up on her original plan and drew lines, row after row of lines. They were pitiful, broken and uneven.

The slap of the shovel paused, and Mel prayed it was over. It wasn’t; the sound changed from the high pitched scraping of the shovel to a hollowed out thud. Benji switched to the mattock and pounded it into the dense clay. Hard impacts slapped into the ground and reverberated through Mel.

She scrunched her eyes tight and covered her ears. The strikes of the mattock ricocheted in her brain bouncing around striking her nerve endings. Her mind rebelled and her hands shook. There was no escape. The cacophony stripped away her calm.

Mel opened her eyes, and the lines she drew were angry and jagged. She crumpled the page in her fist and threw it across the room.

Outside, Benji pounded out a rhythm that pulsed in her mind, a driving beat kicking her heart into overdrive. A slight breeze wafted a stench of rot and decay through her open window. It punched her in the nose, and she recoiled trying to find fresh air. The stink hung in the dead air fouling her room. She hyperventilated, panicked and pushed to the brink.

Mel leapt from her chair and rushed to the open window. She slammed it shut, but not fast enough. Not before a snapshot seared into her brain. Benji stood in a yawning red pit swallowing him up; his arm frozen over his head before he struck the ground with the mattock. A buzzard perched on a tree drawn by the stench; its massive wings wrapped around its misshapen body. She didn’t want to see anymore, but the image was a red hot brand refusing to go away. Next to the hole rested the shrouded body of her father, and behind him the matching grave of her mother still fresh and raw.

Benji banged on the side of the house, yelling for her. “Mel! Hey, Mel! I saw you!” He banged his fists under her window.

Mel sunk to the floor below her window clutching her head in her hands. Sweat soaked her body and pooled in the folds of her skin. Shut up Benji, go away.

“Dad deserves more from you! I know you hear me!” His fists rained punches on the wall. The floor shook beneath her.

The barrage of pounding ceased, and Benji added in a calmer voice, “Mel, please. Come say goodbye. One day you’ll wish you had. You won’t have another chance.”

Silence, blessed silence. Mel removed her hands and opened her eyes. Benji was right; she should say goodbye. She should help to bury their father, but it was all wrong. The ugly grave in the backyard wasn’t good enough. No words would be good enough. He shouldn’t be dead. Tears leaked out of her eyes and she scrubbed at her face trying to erase them. She wouldn’t cry because she would never stop.

Even through the closed window, the scrape and slap of the shovel reached her ear. Mel grabbed her pillow and wrapped it over her head burying her face in the carpet. She accepted a new life, one without her father; but she wouldn’t say goodbye. Benji could have his burial, but she refused to be part of it.

After the disaster of his father’s funeral, Benji resolved to avoid Mel as much as possible. Benji had tiptoed around his sister ever since he could remember, careful not to upset or provoke her, so this arrangement was nothing new. They formed a tense truce only coming together for meals. Benji always ate fast, so this concession seemed minor. Mel spent her time managing and maintaining their dwindling supplies or locked away in her room. Benji went where she wasn’t, the rest of the house became his playground. It was fun at first, but he grew lonely and bored.

Benji wandered into the living room and fell onto the couch. He swiveled around and draped his legs over the arm letting his head dangle off the cushions inches above the faded brown carpet. Normally his mom would have given him a hard time for abusing the sofa. It wasn’t much fun when she wasn’t around to scold him.

Under the coffee table a foot away from his face was his PlayStation controller. He snagged it and dragged it closer. The controller was made to fit his hand, a comfort. Benji craned his neck and stared at the TV hovering on the wall. It taunted him, a pointless silent statue. Benji’s fingers caressed the smooth plastic of the controller coming to rest over the buttons he knew intimately. A thought wormed its way into his head.

Benji loved gaming, and he spent countless hours every week online with his friends. His name never appeared at the top of the leader board, but even so he created the strongest teams. Benji excelled at matching players to their strengths, and his teams crushed many of the opponents they came up against. He’d lost all contact with his friends when the phone and data lines failed, many were from school and others were scattered around the country. Their fates remained unknown to him. Were they dead? Were their parents gone too, like his own? Were they struggling and bored like him?

Benji righted himself placing his feet on the carpet. His eyes strayed to the ceiling, and he wondered about Mel. Would she stay there long enough? He reasoned with himself; the generator hadn’t been run in a week, and they needed to start it anyway. He would only use a little gas, not much just enough for one game, maybe two. Benji sprang off the couch and tossed his controller on the table. He needed to find enough extensions cords to reach the generator in the backyard.

Benji cobbled together three mismatched power cords scavenged from a box of Christmas stuff. They snaked across the living room, around the kitchen, and out the back door, a trail straight to him. If Mel popped her head out, then she’d see them for sure. Benji shook off his concerns and plugged the last cord into the generator. He primed the generator and yanked the cord. It shook and sputtered for a moment, then died. Sweat stung his eyes, and he dashed it away so he could see. He pulled again and again. Nothing. He let the cord snap back into place. It was too loud, Benji glanced over his shoulder expecting Mel to be there.

Sweat soaked through Benji’s shirt and shorts; he could wring them out. Hands on his knees and bent at the waist, Benji collected his breath. He kicked out at the generator. The fuel gauge caught his eye; the needle was in the red. He blew out a heavy sigh; he needed gas.

Benji hurried across the yard to the shed where they stored the gas. He fixed his eyes on his shoes, so he wouldn’t see the two graves to the right of the path. When he drew up next to them, Benji sprinted until he smacked into the door of the shed. The door rattled on its hinges, and Benji quieted the door with his hand as he unlatched it.

The sudden darkness inside the shed rendered his eyes useless. He opened them wide waiting for them to adjust. Gas cans covered the floor, and he tripped almost falling as he worked his way into the shed. Gas was scarce after everything fell apart, and the collection his father accumulated came at a high price. He traded half their food for the extra cans of gas. The trade resulted in a huge argument between his parents, and it was their last. His mother died three days later, and his father used the gas to keep her cool in her final days. The twins returned the favor to their father and did the same for him as he lay dying. Benji shook his head clearing the image of his dead father out of his mind.

The cans were setup in a complex array of Mel’s creation. He didn’t understand her system and wasn’t about to ask her, so Benji shook them searching for a full one. The eighth one sloshed, full of gas; it shocked Benji that so many were empty. He reassured himself it didn’t matter; they could find more. Benji pushed his nagging concerns and growing guilt from his mind; he raced back to the generator.

Benji sucked at his lower lip concentrating as he funneled the gas into the fuel tank, careful not to spill a drop. The needle on the fuel gauge bobbed up to the quarter mark, and Benji halted the flow tipping the can upright. He retraced his steps to the shed and returned the can back to its proper spot. It had faced the door turned a little to the left, and Benji rotated the can back to its original position. If he was careful, then perhaps Mel wouldn’t notice the theft. He wouldn’t be surprised if she had some elaborate system to weigh the cans; her obsession with their supplies knew no bounds.

Guilt harried Benji as he returned to the generator and fired it up. Fortunately for Benji, the generator was a quieter model; his father had been choosy when he purchased it three years ago after a nasty ice storm. The fickle Georgia winters never prompted them to test it until the power failed for good two months ago. The generator hummed as it idled at his feet, and Benji cast a glance at Mel’s window. She would hear it for sure, but he hoped she would mistake it for one of the neighbors’ butting up against them. He gambled and followed the extension cords back to the living room.

Excitement flooded Benji pumping him full of adrenaline. He pushed the coffee table up against the sofa clearing space for his gaming chair. The only thing missing, an afternoon snack prepared by his mom. He swallowed a lump of grief caught in his throat and settled in his chair. His finger hovered for a moment over the power button on the TV remote, and he gazed up expectant and hopeful. Benji’s thumb mashed the button, and deafening static rang in his ears.

He yanked his hands over his ears, and the remote fell from his hands. Benji clawed at the floor in his haste to retrieve the remote. His eyes and brain couldn’t make sense of the buttons, and he struggled to find the mute button. The tiny script squeezed under each button was unreadable. Benji mashed the buttons at random, desperate to silence the noise. He found it, but the damage was done.

Mel’s door banged into the wall as she threw it open; Benji cringed. The stairs groaned as she descended. Her feet appeared first; her scuffed up sneakers dropped one step at a time. Benji cast his eyes down at his hands dreading what was to come. Her shoes wandered into the periphery of his vision and came to a halt in front of him. They pirouetted in a slow circle as she spun around looking at the TV, and Benji stole a glance while her back was to him. She held her back stiff and rigid with her hands on her hips. Her curly brown hair frizzed in the humidity forming a chestnut halo around her head, but she was no angel.

The remote weighed down his arm, and he worked against gravity as he raised it aloft. His finger found the power button and returned the TV to its former monolithic state. When Mel turned, it was her eyes that struck Benji. Her pupils dilated and the brown irises framing them grew as she fixed him to his chair. Red flush crept up her neck spreading to her cheeks; she opened her mouth to speak and closed it in the same breath.

Benji returned his eyes to his hands as Mel headed for the back door. She yelled over her shoulder, “Don’t move!”

The drone of the generator died away. Benji muttered to himself, “Well that was a bust.” Benji tried to form an apology while he waited for her return. He sifted through them, but none were adequate. None of them could make her go away or calm her down. Benji struggled to his feet, and his face contorted with guilt and embarrassment. He knew better; his father told them over and over to use the generator for emergencies. That did not include games.

Mel pushed back into the room fists clenched tight by her sides. Benji paled, she was angrier than he’d imagined possible. Maybe it was the heat ramping up the tension between them; the living room was the hottest in the house.

She asked, “What were you thinking?” He opened his mouth to answer, and she shouted, “Are you stupid? Is there something wrong with you?”

Benji stepped back. The space between them hummed with tension and anger. He tried again to think of an apology, anything to calm her. With his friends, even strangers, he knew how to fix conflicts. His mother said it was a gift, but it didn’t extend to his sister. She was the enigma, unreadable, an immovable obstacle.

In a quiet voice, Mel added, “Benji, stop being a child. Grow up! Stop playing around.”

“I know. I know. Sorry.” Benji paused and gathered his courage. “I just wanted to feel normal for a few minutes. I… I know you don’t get it, but sometimes I need that. I get bored.” His words stammered out making him sound weak.

Mel yelled, “Bored? You are so stupid.”

Benji’s face went red, “I’m not stupid. I need things you don’t understand. You’re like living with a ghost. You never talk to me, and when you do it’s something stupid.” He mimicked her, “Don’t eat so much. Don’t touch that. That doesn’t go there. Don’t be so loud.” His voice returned to normal, “I’m sick of it.”

She motioned to the TV, and added, “All this is done. No more video games. No more TV. It’s finished. Move on! I can’t believe you wasted gas on this crap!” She added, “Mom and dad would be so disappointed in you.”

Benji nosed towards her and stared her dead in the eyes. “Disappointed… Don’t talk to me about mom and dad. You lost that right last week. I know I did something stupid. But, don’t throw mom and dad at me. You’re the disappointment.”

Her eyes went wide, and she ducked her head hiding her eyes. She wasn’t fast enough; Benji saw the hurt she was trying to hide. He grabbed her arm as she rushed passed him headed for her room, “This is the first time you’ve spoken since dad died, and I had to do all this to make you do it. That says more about you than me. I’m not stupid.”

She yanked her arm free and sprinted up the stairs taking them two at a time. Benji ran his hands through his hair tugging until it hurt. Rage boiled inside him, and hot tears poured down his face. He thought of his friends and parents, all gone. His sole companion was Mel; his pigheaded sister who lorded over him. He peeked up at the TV, and his reflection stared back at him. Benji hurled his beloved controller and shattered the image of himself. He screamed as loud as possible, but the frustration and anger would not let go. Benji hefted his gaming chair in his arms and rammed the picture window behind the couch until it broke apart. The chair slipped from his grasp and landed in the bushes under the window.

Benji couldn’t stop his tears or their accompanying sobs. Mel didn’t come down to check on him; she stayed in her room. He sunk to the floor and hugged his knees to his chest. He rocked back and forth and sobbed for all of his loses piling them up, clutching them close. The remnants of his childhood were his consolation; it should have been Mel.

Mel woke up in her room confused and disoriented. It was the middle of the night, and she lay on top of her bed sweating in the dead air. She collected her wits and wondered what disturbed her sleep. Quieting her breath, she tuned her ears listening for unfamiliar sounds.

She grew accustomed to the staccato clicking of cicadas or the occasional bark of a dog. Sometimes a generator would hum in the distance, lately that had been less frequent. Tonight she was sure she heard something else, fear prickled at her scalp.

Again, the sound came, a muffled crash. It sounded close, maybe from the neighbor’s house. It was a harsh sound jarring her sleepy body into action. She ran for her brother’s room through their adjoining bathroom.

Benji had heard the noise too, and she found him sitting upright in bed. His shaggy brown hair stuck up at odd angles and his mouth opened in surprise. His blue eyes shone even in the dim light. She would have laughed at Benji’s comical appearance, if it weren’t for her overwhelming fear. She climbed into bed next to Benji, and they listened together.

Boom. Boom. The neighbor’s door splintered and yielded to the assault shattering the peaceful night.

Mel grabbed Benji’s hand pulling him off the bed, and they retreated to the bathroom. They closed both doors and locked themselves inside. Benji sat in the middle of the tiled floor wrapping his arms around himself. Mel joined him back to back, so they each faced a door.

Benji whispered to Mel, “Should we help them? I think it’s coming from Mark and Casey’s house. They’re all alone and scared. They’re so little.”

Mel shushed Benji. “No. What could we do? Just be quiet.”

“But, we can’t just sit here. It isn’t right. Come on, Mel.”

She cut him off, “We don’t even know if they’re still there. I haven’t seen them in a while. No, be quiet.” She softened her tone before adding, “If they are there, I’m sure they’re hiding like us.”

She stared hard at the door willing it to stay shut. It seemed even the insects listened as their chorus faded away. Glass breaking and a loud crash came from the other house causing the twins to jump. The plunder continued for many minutes unnerving them further.

Benji’s unease spread through Mel’s back pressed tight against his. The muscles along his spine coiled tight like a spring. She reached for his hand hoping to reassure him.

“Mel, I can’t sit here and do nothing.”

She squeezed his hand. “We can’t risk it.”

Mel turned around and wrapped her arms around Benji holding him in place. He relaxed for a moment, and she whispered into his ear. “We have to stay safe like mom and dad told us.”

“Ok."

Bang, the sound of a gun firing rang in their ears. Bang, the echo reverberated around them. Mel cushioned her ears muffling the sound with her hands.

The gun shots stunned her into silence. Her heart hammered beating a fast rhythm in her chest. Mel leaned her head on Benji’s back hugging tighter, fearful he might bolt. He raised his arms breaking her grasp and scrambled for the door.

“Benji! Stop. We have to hide. What if they come here next?”

Benji turned and faced Mel. “We should help them.”

“No. We have to hide. Run, the crawl space behind the dresser in mom and dad’s closet. We can hide there.”

Mel lunged for Benji snagging his arm, and she pulled him down the hall to their parents’ room. She hadn’t been in here since they died, and grief threatened to roll over her. She pushed the sadness back down into its cage and ran for the closet.

Her father’s dresser blocked the crawl space, and Mel shoved and pulled at it; the dresser barely moved an inch refusing to allow them entry. “Benji, help!”

They pulled it free and crammed themselves into the black opening. Benji and Mel settled the dresser back into place barring themselves inside the cramped space. The heat was stifling and panic enveloped Mel along with the darkness. They squeezed together pressed up against one another, pretzeled into the small space. Benji pressed against the trap door while Mel’s hip and shoulder butted up against an exposed support beam.

Sound reverberated in the crawl space, and their ragged breathing echoed off the unfinished wood. Boom. The house rattled from the shock of the ramming. Someone was at the front door, bashing it to pieces. Benji hugged Mel close. Boom. She tightened her grip on him. Boom.

Wood splintered and popped from below as the door gave way. Mel whispered to Benji, “I don’t think they’ll find us here. We just need to be quiet. Ok?”

The only response from Benji was his grip tightening, and he leaned a little harder on the small door. Below them came crashes and thuds. The stairs creaked under the weight of the intruder, and they tracked him by the noise of his progress as he moved from one room to the next. They huddled in silence as the noises grew closer and closer to the closet they hid themselves.

The little door rattled and shook as the robber searched the dresser pulled up against it. He yanked the drawers out, and they banged together crashing into each other. Mel offered a silent plea, praying he wouldn’t discover them. The robber moved across the closet to the other dresser tossing it about the room. The destruction ceased and the intruder’s foot falls echoed in the bathroom as he left.

Mel and Benji relaxed a fraction. The house settled and fell silent. The sudden stillness rattled her, and Mel struggled to calm herself. She placed her hand on her heart waiting for the rhythm to slow back to normal.

Benji broke the silence first, “I think it’s over.”

“Me, too. I’m scared. I don’t want to go out there.”

He turned to face her, and she could just make out his profile in the dim light. His face pinched tight. “Me either. We can stay here.”

The itchy insulation poked and scratched Mel’s legs and arms. Sweat beaded on her forehead and slicked her palms. She didn’t care about any of the discomfort. She was grateful they survived. Her gratitude shifted and coalesced into anger. She wondered what they could salvage.

She leaned into Benji trying to get comfortable. The unyielding support beam made her hip and shoulder throb, and she didn’t think sleep would be possible. She resigned herself to the long wait for dawn.

Benji seemed to read her thoughts. “I don’t think I can sleep. I’m too crammed in here, and it’s too hot.” He paused, “I hope we still have some food.”

“Benji?” He looked towards her. “We have to leave. We can’t stay here. Not now.”

“Dad said it was safest to stay put. Said it would be dangerous out in the open.”

“It’s not safer now. We have to go.”

He looked away and slumped beside her.

Benji dozed off just before dawn, and he woke to Mel poking him in the side. “Benji. Wake up. I think it’s morning.” She poked him again, harder. “Benji!”

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, rousing himself. A soft pale light filtered through the cracks around the door. Benji’s body protested as he moved his arms and legs. “Ok. Give me a second. Stop poking me.” Benji shifted and backed up into Mel so he could get the little door open. They grumbled at each other, sore and tired.

With a huge effort, they shoved the dresser out of the way. The room was in a shocking state; clothes littered the floor and heaped on top were the drawers. Shards from a shattered full length mirror glittered in the morning sun.

Benji scanned the room noting the missing items. His mother’s jewelry no longer sat atop her dresser. He glanced at the pile on the floor hoping to see them mixed in the mess. His mother had been so beautiful, and she treasured her things. It was as if he lost her again. He swallowed around the lump forming in his throat. He didn’t want to cry, not in front of Mel. She would think he was weak, a cry baby.

Mel hurried toward the bathroom. “Come on. Let’s see what’s left. None of this matters.” She waved her hand dismissing the disarray of their parents’ things.

Benji lingered in the closet and inhaled deep filling his lungs. His mother’s perfume saturated the room. She was all around him. Benji inhaled pushing the pregnant air in and out like an addict, coating his nose and throat. The lump in his throat worked its way free, and a soft sob hiccupped out of his mouth.

He ran from the closet and stumbled into his parents’ room, desperate to get away. The thief made a mess of this room too. The mattress leaned against the wall, and the contents of the bedside tables lay strewn about the floor. Both of his parents died in that bed. It hurt to see the ruin of this room. Benji closed his eyes erasing the image.

When he opened them, he spied his father’s desk in the corner. It was pulled away from the window. Broken glass and dented metal were all that remained of his father’s laptop and family pictures. They lay shattered on the floor.

Benji retrieved a small picture of all four them, pulling it from the broken frame. They took it a year ago, and they were all smiling, posing in front of a waterfall. The hike took two long hours. Benji and Mel fought the entire way; but when the trail opened onto the waterfall, they fell silent awed by the beauty in front of them. It was a bittersweet memory.

Benji couldn’t bear to look any longer. It hurt too much. He stuffed the picture in the back pocket of his shorts and fled down the stairs.

Mel called to him, “Benji? You coming?”

“Coming.” He followed the sound of her voice to the closet under the stairs where they stored food. He picked his way through the jumble of the living room. The couches lay on their side surrounded by cushions as if they were derelict ships tossed about after a storm.

Benji jumped from cushion to cushion. It reminded him of a game they used to play. Mel and Benji pretended the floor was lava, and they jumped from couch to couch avoiding the floor. The game lasted hours before they tired. He attempted to make it all the way to Mel without falling in the lava, but the cushions ran out before he got there.

Mel poked her head out the door frowning at him. “What are you doing?”

Benji blushed caught at play, and he ignored her question. “Anything left?”

Mel shook her head, “Nope, it’s all gone.” She let out a sigh of frustration. “We have to leave, and soon. Today, would be best.”

“Today? We can’t! I’m not ready. We don’t have to go.” He paused for a second. “Where would we go? You don’t even have a plan.”

“I know you aren’t ready, but we leave today. Tomorrow morning at the latest. What if more people come? We might not be so lucky next time. We need food. There’s none here, not anymore.”

Benji gained hope. “If it’s just about the food, then I know where some is.” He looked away, worried she would be angry.

Mel asked, “What do you mean? Show me.”

Benji didn’t wait to see if she followed. He yelled back at her as he sprinted for the garage. “Remember when mom drove the car in too fast and dented the wall. Dad cut out the bad spot and covered it in a piece of plywood. He never finished the repair. I’ve been hiding food there for a while.”

He edged his way around the front of his dad’s car. It hadn’t moved in a couple of months, and a heavy layer of dust coated the hood. Benji smeared it as he dragged his hand skimming the hood.

He didn’t glance back; Mel’s face would be clouded with rage and disappointment. Excitement and hope fueled him. The food would mean they could stay in their home a little longer.

He shoved his bike out of the way and pulled the plywood off the hole. Benji exposed the rough opening hacked into the dry wall. A fine film of white dust coated all the packages of food, and he blew them off one at a time.

Benji piled up a few boxes of crackers, a handful of protein bars, and a half eaten jar of peanut butter. On top of the pile, he added the best part, a box of Hershey’s bars. He figured there were at least four left, and his mouth watered at the thought of the melted and gooey chocolate. After displaying his treasure for her, Benji met Mel’s eyes wary of her reaction.

Mel surprised him; she didn’t look angry. She stammered, lost for words. Optimism bloomed in Benji, maybe she wouldn’t lecture him.

Mel’s face broke into a rare smile, and she rushed forward sweeping Benji into a hug. “You saved us. I can’t believe you were hoarding all this.” She gave him another squeeze and then let go.

She added, “It doesn’t matter if you stole it. It’ll save us for a little while.”

Mel folded up the front of her shirt creating a pouch and piled the food inside, cradling it against her. Benji added in a bright voice, “We can stay now, right?”

Mel paused for a second and looked into Benji’s hopeful blue eyes. “No. This just means we have supplies for the road. We need to find a place where we can be safe, and that isn’t here. Not anymore. We need to leave. Maybe a farm or something, we can’t be in a neighborhood like this.”

Benji rocked back onto his heels. He pleaded, “Mel, please, we can’t leave. This is our home. We can fix it back the way it was. We can make it safe.” Even as he spoke the words, Benji felt the lie in what he said.

She was right. He couldn’t look at her. Benji hated her for being right, and he hated his parents for leaving them. “I’ll get my things. I’ll be ready in an hour.” Mel reached for him, and he brushed her aside. Mel’s cold comfort meant nothing to him.

Benji spent the next hour picking through the remains of his room. He salvaged a few clothes stuffing them in his pack. He searched through the mess on the floor until he found a couple of keepsakes. Small things he could carry: a baseball game ticket and a snow globe his mom gave him when she returned from a trip.

That was it. All that remained of his former life. It didn’t even fill his old book bag. When he was in school the bag overflowed, unable to hold his school books and folders; but now it hung limp. He would be homeless like one of those sad guys they tried not notice sleeping downtown on the front stoops of buildings.

Benji slung the pack over his shoulder, and he went to the kitchen to wait for Mel. She joined him there and divided up the food and water putting it in both packs. Mel’s face settled into grim hard lines, and she made Benji uneasy.

She asked, “Ready? We still have almost a full day of light. I want to be clear of the golf course and the surrounding neighborhoods before nightfall. I’m not sure where to go, but we need to find someplace where we can hide.”

Dread filled Benji. He didn’t want to let go of his home. He didn’t want anyone to spoil or disturb it. Benji replied, “I’m ready, but I need to do one thing first.” He paused and looked around the room. He added, “I want to burn it down. All of it.”

Mel watched Benji for a second. She laughed, “Be serious. That’s stupid. It’ll draw too much attention. Besides it’s all gone anyway. There’s nothing left here. We need to go.”

Benji searched the kitchen, drawer by drawer. He slammed them shut, furious at Mel’s dismissal.

Mel folded her arms across her chest. “What are you looking for?”

“Matches.”

“I’ve packed them in my bag already. You aren’t wasting them on your childish plan. I’m going.” She disappeared out the back door.

Benji stood alone in his house. The sign next to the kitchen door caught his eye, hand painted by his mom. It read, ‘Family is the heart of the home.’ He ripped it off the wall and threw it to the floor. He fled out the back door, hounded by ghosts.


TWO


Mel crested a small rise in the road and waited for Benji to catch up. The road entered the main artery of her dense neighborhood. Homes lined the street flowing in neat lines on either side, spray painted on the houses and mailboxes were red X’s. The garish marks unnerved Mel. She glanced behind her; many of the homes had them up and down the main road.

Benji drew up alongside Mel and stopped short when he noticed the graffiti. “What is that?”

Mel shrugged her shoulders. A window in the house to the right of them closed, a soft thud; audible because the street was so quiet. It came from the Peterson’s house, an older couple who shouldn’t be there. None of the adults should still be here. In one of the upper windows a curtain swayed catching her eye.

“Benji, there’s someone in there.” She pointed at the two story yellow house to their right. Mel spun around checking the houses hemming them in. Her skin crawled, and she had the sensation of eyes following them. “No one should be in that house. What if it’s the person from last night? We need to get away from here.”

“We could take the shortcut and walk out through the golf course.”

Mel squinted her eyes trying to see into the distance. The front door of the house half way down the street was missing. “Yeah, sounds like a good idea.”

Benji’s shoes scuffed on the pavement behind her, “Come on. It’s this way.” He tugged her towards the two houses to their left. They entered the crowded backyard of a red bricked house. Shrubs and trees framed the small yard giving its previous occupants privacy. Weeds choked the flower beds growing taller than their colorful counterparts. Mel paused glancing behind them worried someone might follow.

“Mel? Hey, you coming?” Benji waited ahead of her towards the back fence. It was an older part of the original housing development built to keep people away from the retaining pond behind it. Rot and time had not been kind to the structure; it sagged and bowed under its own weight.

Benji pressed on the base of the planks looking for weak spots. In the middle of the second section four boards popped loose from the fence. Benji dropped to all fours and wriggled through the gap. Mel tossed Benji their backpacks before following him through the opening. Her arms scraped on the planks catching on the unfinished edges. She scrambled to her feet on the other-side and picked a few splinters out of her arms.

They stood on the edge of a slope; it dropped away to an algae filled pond backing up into a storm drain. Trash cascaded down the hill running into the pond all along the fence. The stench of rot saturated the air. Trash collection no longer existed after the pandemic, and the people along the pond threw it over the fence. She sucked in a sharp breath and covered her nose.

“Oh man! This is so gross. We just have to get over there to the back side of the pond. Those trees open onto the golf course.” Benji pointed in the direction they had to go.

Mel’s face fell, and she counted the piles of garbage between them and their goal. There were eight, getting around them would be difficult.

Benji smirked at her. “What are you scared of getting a little dirty? Come on. It’s just trash.” Benji scraped along the fence in front of her using it for support, and Mel followed in his wake. Flies flew up in thick clouds when they disturbed the garbage, choking the air and swarming about their heads. Mel swatted them away and followed Benji.

Trash bags, some split open, lay scattered against the fence and down the slope. Mel stepped on the bags avoiding the loose trash. She miscalculated her next step and sunk to her shin when a bag ripped open underneath her weight. The garbage sucked at her foot as she lifted it out, almost removing her shoe.

Mel blew a stray curl out of her eyes. Her scalp and shoulders burned under the spotlight of the sun. Her jeans grew heavier, weighed down with her sweat.

The fence provided Mel anchor points, and she used them to swing over larger piles blocking her path. This method worked well until a rotted picket gave way breaking off in her hand. She fell backwards landing on her backside. Benji laughed at her expense, ten feet away.

She pulled herself up and brushed off her jeans. Mel scowled at Benji, “Shut up. Stop laughing at me.”

He doubled over laughing harder, guffawing.

Mel yelled at him, “It’s not funny! Cut it out!” Green and black scum coated her hands. She wiped them on the fence before following Benji. Her fingers stuck together, sticky and discolored. She focused on her feet and hurried to catch Benji ignoring the unpleasant sensation. He waited for her by a clump of trees enjoying the shade.

Benji ribbed her, “Took you long enough slow poke. You smell horrible.” He leaned away from her waving his hand to clear the air. “I think you brought some of the trash with you.”

She tried to ignore him, but he kept up the taunts drawing her ire. “Enough! Shut up Benji. I’m hot and tired, just shut up!” She marched past him ducking under a low branch as they emerged onto the edge of the golf course.

Mel wandered into the middle of the fairway. The caretakers were long gone, and the shabby, worn-down course was a shadow of its former perfection. Yellow dandelions sprouted like chicken pox marring the beautiful greens. Red ant hills lay in wait creating hazards. Brown patches ate at the greens, withered and parched waiting for the sprinklers to come back to life.

The sun reached its zenith, and the twins withered under its glare. Benji fell silent, much to Mel’s relief, tired from the constant oppression of the heat. Their pace slowed to a shamble, and Mel’s eyes kept wandering to the shade of nearby trees.

Mel’s mind drifted making her clumsy; she tripped over a large ant pile disturbing its occupants. They swarmed around her shoe climbing up the laces and onto her sock. She stamped her foot knocking them off. Sweat dripped off her nose and trickled into her mouth. She sucked at the salty water as it ran over her lips. It made her thirstier, and she eyed the trees to her left again.

Mel suggested, “Let’s take a break. It’s too hot out here.”

Benji nodded in agreement, relief apparent in his eyes. Mel detoured to the nearest clump of trees. She settled under a large oak casting a wide shadow dappling the ground in lights and darks. A light breeze dried the sweat running down to her hands. Lifting her pony tail, she let the air whisper across the back of her neck.

Benji rummaged through his pack and removed two sleeves of crackers. He ripped one open and offered some to Mel. She took a few crackers, conscious of their meager supplies. Benji didn’t seem worried about how little remained; he ate like someone possessed, placing three crackers in his mouth at once. He went back for more repeating the process until he crammed his mouth full.

“Slow down, at least chew them.” She averted her eyes as crumbs rained down his shirt. “You’re disgusting.”

Benji shrugged his shoulders unable to talk with his mouth so full.

Mel admonished him, “Those have to last us for a while. You can’t eat so many.”

Benji grabbed another handful and stuffed his mouth again, puffing his cheeks in exaggeration. Mel closed her eyes and leaned against the trunk of the oak, refusing to acknowledge him when he was being so childish. Benji continued to make disgusting crunching and smacking noises while he devoured the rest of crackers.

Engines revved in the distance, and Mel startled upright shocked by the loud noise after the quiet of the morning. She hadn’t heard an engine for at least a month. Her mind absorbed the danger, and she grabbed her pack retreating further into the trees. Benji followed her lead, and they hid behind the trees.

A group of teenagers passed by on four wheelers. They swerved from left to right moving in wide arcs, just missing one another. They laughed and called to each other. Mel pressed her hands to her ears as the buzz of the engines grew louder the closer they got. They never altered course; after a few minutes, they passed from her sight. The deafening noise faded away to a soft buzz.

Mel gathered her pack and rose from her crouch. “Let’s get going. That was close. We got lucky.”

Benji replied, “They looked like they were just having fun. I don’t think they would have bothered us. You worry too much.”

She interrupted him, “And, you don’t worry enough. We need to get going before it gets too late. Hurry and get your stuff.”

They left the golf course and entered one of the main roads running parallel. Benji walked down the center of the lane kicking sticks and debris out of his way. Mel glanced back at the golf course, concern and worry building inside her. The road felt vulnerable and too exposed.

Mel called to him, “I’m not sure it’s safe to be on the road. Maybe we should stay in the trees out of sight.”

Benji replied, “The road is faster, and we heard the four wheelers before they saw us. We’ll be fine. Besides, it’s easier to figure out where we’re going from the road. We’ll just waste time getting lost in the woods.”

Mel weighed his logic rooted in place. She greedily eyed the tree line, and the cover it provided. Benji reached a curve in the road, and he would soon drop out of her line of sight. Panic seized control of her limbs. She hurried unwilling to lose him. The anxiety eased its grip when she took up her spot on Benji’s right.

...

Mel balked when they reached an interstate overpass. Benji retraced his steps, and asked, “What now?”

She replied, “It doesn’t feel right. I don’t like it.”

Benji glanced across the bridge; it appeared innocuous enough. The overpass was long and narrow, just wide enough for two lanes of traffic. He peered over the edge of the bridge; down below stretched I-85, four lanes separated by a wide median overgrown with weeds. Purple headed thistles dwarfed everything surrounding them. They looked beautiful and soft from a distance, but Benji knew better. He’d once ran through them in a pasture. They were sharp and painful if you made the mistake of brushing up against them.

Mel interrupted Benji’s inspection, “We could get caught in the open with nowhere to go.” She pointed down the steep slope to the interstate. “We should cross there. We stand a chance down there. We could run if we had to.” She hitched her pack higher and headed for the slope.

“Hey! Mel, stop!”

She paused on the lip of the embankment, “This is best. Let’s get going.”

Benji argued his case. “It’s too steep. We’d be slower. Let’s just cross here. Save time and energy.”

Mel hesitated before answering, and Benji added, “Come on Mel. We’d probably just fall, twist an ankle, or at best we would exhaust ourselves climbing back up the other side. Those thistles are everywhere. They hurt. It looks like a big waste of time, just like this argument. Let’s just cross, here!” He pointed to the waiting bridge.

She added, “Maybe we could find another crossing. Double back to the last crossroad and go further down.”

Benji pounced; he could hear the indecision in her voice. He challenged the idea. “You know a better place? Where? How long will it take?” She didn’t answer right away, and Benji called her bluff. “Thought so. You have no idea. Let’s just get this done. We’re melting in this heat. Come on already.”

Mel’s eyes were wide and apprehensive. He told her, “It’ll be ok. You’ll see. We’ll be across before you know it. Then, we can be on our way. I know you want us to hurry. This is faster.”

He won the argument, but the victory rang hollow. Her rigid shoulders gave away her anxiety. She swept her eyes from one side of the bridge to the other and then lifted them to the far side. She repeated the process many times. Her paranoia began to rub off on Benji.

Heat radiated off the road wavering and blurring the black top. Benji kicked at a branch blocking his path. On impulse, he threw it over the railing. It collided with the median wall. The limb broke apart and scattered across the south bound lanes.

Mel admonished him, “Benji, stop it. Don’t be so…”

She stopped mid-sentence, blood draining from her face. Benji followed Mel’s gaze. In front of them, a much older and larger teen blocked the bridge. He towered over the twins by more than a foot. He stood in the middle of the road straddling the double yellow line. His hands hung by his sides at the ready as he clenched and unclenched his fists. The sun glinted off his hair shining like copper.

Benji grabbed Mel’s arm drawing her close, and they spun away intending to run the way they had come. The other side of the bridge was also blocked. Two boys, younger than the red head but larger than the twins advanced towards them. The net drew tight, pushing them towards the original aggressor.

With both exits blocked, Benji became desperate for an escape. The jump to the interstate below would be suicide. He thought of the branch breaking up on the pavement, and then he pictured his head doing the same. Running was not an option, so he tried negotiation.

The two younger boys intimidated him less than the red head behind him. Benji thought maybe they were just as scared as he was. He waited until they were within talking range before striking up a conversation. Maybe, he could reason with them.

Benji waved at them as if they were friends from school. “Hey.” They paused in their advance, and courage surged through him. “We don’t want any trouble, just passing through. Ok?” Benji’s voice sounded weak even to himself. The words rushed out an octave higher than normal.

The boys restarted their march snickering to each other. Benji flushed, red heat spreading up his face to his ears. Shoes scuffed directly behind him.

“Drop your packs!”

The twins spun around facing the real threat, the red-headed boy. Benji pleaded with him, his earlier courage evaporating. “Please, this is all we have. Don’t do this.”

“Drop your packs, or we’ll do it for you.” There was no broaching the demand. Benji withdrew one arm from his pack. He was too slow, and one of the other boys yanked it free from behind. They were rough, knocking him off balance; Benji righted himself before he fell.

Mel wasn’t so lucky. Benji watched in horror as she fought with the other one. He shoved her to the ground ripping the pack from her arms. She landed hard, yelping when she hit the rough tarmac.

Mel sprang up, red faced. She lashed out at the dark headed boy who pushed her down, and she connected with his lower lip. He stumbled back, dropping the prized pack, and his hand came away bloody.

The other boy needled his friend, laughing at him. “I can’t believe you let a girl pop you.” The round, doughy boy laughed even harder.

“Shut up!” the other boy yelled. He pushed his friend knocking him off balance. “Shut up! I’ll show her.” He yanked Mel closer cocking his fist ready to deliver payback.

“Mike, stop!” The older boy stepped around Mel grabbing Mike’s fist before he connected.

The fat boy snickered again, and Mike punched him in the ribs. “I told you to shut up.” He popped him again. “Want to add anymore, Davey?”

Davey moved out of arm’s length, rubbing his side. “Come on man. I was just joking. You gotta admit, she popped you good.”

Mike lunged at Davey again, and the red-headed boy nabbed him. “I said to stop it.” He snatched up the pack at Mel’s feet and threw it at Mike. “Search it and shut your stupid mouth.”

Mel clamped onto Benji’s arm, and she pulled him after her as she broke into a sprint. Benji crossed the bridge pumping hard trying to keep up. They were almost home free when his legs were knocked out from underneath him.

He broke his fall with his hands smacking them into the pavement. Benji rolled to his back facing his attacker. It was Mike, his face twisted and enraged. He pounced on Benji, landing a punch square to Benji’s jaw. Pain exploded up his face, and Benji scooted away.

Beside him, Mel gasped, desperate to refill her lungs with precious air. It had whooshed out of her as she slammed into the pavement. Making matters worse, Jason pinned her down, and it was harder for her to draw in air. She fought hard, elbowing the large boy and catching him in the ribs. He grunted absorbing the pain and yanked Mel’s arms behind her back, restraining her.

Benji lost sight of Mel when Mike, joined by Davey, kicked him in the ribs. Benji balled up protecting the softer parts of his body.

The older boy cut through the chaos, yelling. “Enough! Stop it. Mike, Davey, stop!”

Mike landed another swift kick for good measure. He added, “Davey, I think Jason’s going soft. What do you think?”

“Yeah, man. Look at him. I think he’s going to let her go. Even after she popped you both.”

Jason retorted, “Shut up, both of you! Get the packs. We don’t have time for your shit, Mike.” Jason allowed Mel enough room to stand, and she regained her feet, swaying. The side of her face swelled turning red where her cheek struck the pavement. She blinked back tears cradling her damaged face in her hands.

Benji, holding his bruised ribs, stumbled to his feet. Mike shoved him back down. “I didn’t say you could get up.”

Davey snickered and stepped closer to Mel. “Look at her Jason. She bested you both. Are you going to show her what kind of man you are?”

Mike tittered with excitement. “I’m not sure he is a man.” He looked Mel up and down. “If you don’t want to show her. I can.”

Benji took advantage of their banter and stood again. The turn of events horrified him. He rushed Mike punching him in the side of the head, desperate to shut him up. Before he could land another, Davey tackled Benji. Davey pinned Benji’s arm behind his back, rendering him defenseless. Mike punched Benji in the gut, doubling him over.

Mike edged over to Mel, and he shoved at Jason trying to move him out of the way. Jason wouldn’t budge, and he held his ground looking down his nose at Mike.

Mike didn’t relent. He added, “If you don’t want a go, then I do.”

Mel begged. “Please, just let us go.” She paused, looking from Mike to Jason. “Please.”

Mike egged on Jason. “See, she’s begging for it. She’s too sweet to let go. Come on, Jason. Aren’t you man enough?”

Jason wrenched Mel’s arm, pulling her to him. Benji pleaded for his sister. “Please, stop. Leave her alone. Please!” Benji broke the grasp of Davey and lunged for Jason. Mike rounded on Benji, pummeling him with blows to the abdomen. Benji reeled backwards in shock. Blinded by pain, he lost sight of Mel. She called to him. Her voice grew more desperate. The bitter taste of bile flooded Benji’s mouth. He choked on his impotence and rage; he couldn’t help her.

As Jason led her away, Mel glued her eyes on Benji straining to see behind her. The other boys took turns beating him. She screamed for him, over and over. He didn’t answer. She reasoned with Jason, “Make them stop. I’ll go with you. Make them stop. Please.”

Jason didn’t answer. He pushed her forward, and she lost sight of Benji as they crossed into the woods. She begged again. “Stop, please. I can’t see him. Stop! Benji!” Tears rolled down Mel’s cheeks.

Fear made her desperate, and she exploded in Jason’s arms catching him by surprise. She turned, beating him in the chest and kicking him in the shins; but she was no match for his size and strength. He bashed Mel across the face with his forearm and fist, catching her in the same cheek she fell on earlier. For a moment, there was only pain, muting all of her senses and disorienting her.

When Mel collected her wits, she found herself locked in an awkward embrace. Jason’s forearm encircled her midsection securing her to him, her back to his front. He forced her forward deeper into the woods. She gave up yelling to Benji, her throat raw and voice hoarse.

Jason inclined his head forward, so his mouth was next to her ear. “If you hadn’t run, then none of this would have happened. I could have controlled them.” Mel leaned forward straining against him. His rank breath hot on her face. He tightened his grip across her chest until she stopped straining. He spoke again, lips at her ear, “You two would have walked away. Without your packs, but you would have walked away. Now I have to prove myself to the boys.”

She rammed the back of her head into his mouth, shutting him up. In reply, she took another blow, this time to the back of the head. Jason cleared his mouth, spitting out the blood. “You don’t know when to stop, do you? You don’t know when you’re beaten.” He paused and spat again. “There’s no one to help you. No rules. No laws, not anymore. The strong have the power.” He paused for effect. “You’re too weak to stop me, but keep it up. I like the fight.” He slammed his forearm into the back of her head, all the while shoving her forward, pushing her further from Benji. “You’re weak. Just a helpless, little girl.”

Tears blurred Mel’s vision making it impossible to see where she was going. Branches smacked her in the face, and she flailed her arms trying to knock them out of the way before she ran into them. The ground was uneven littered with roots and rocks tripping her up. She caught a toe on an exposed root and fell to the ground stunned by the impact.

Jason kicked her, and she rolled into a tight ball tucking her head into her arms. He commanded, “Get up!” She made no move to get to her feet. He kicked her again in the ribs. “Get up!”

Mel attempted to focus on what he wanted. Anything to make him stop kicking her, but she couldn’t understand him. She was deaf. Her fear and rushing blood rang in her ears. She tasted blood and dirt. The pine needles littering the trail poked into her exposed arms. A rock dug into her side. She shifted away from it. Her hands felt for the edge of the rock, and it filled her hand, heavy and pointed. She clutched it underneath her, waiting for a chance.

Jason stopped kicking her and knelt beside her. She curled into a tighter ball, clutching her weapon. He rolled her onto her back looming over her, blocking the sun filtering through the tree canopy above him. “I told you to get up. You won’t walk away from this, and neither will the boy.” He grabbed a fistful of her shirt, hauling her to her feet.

He yanked her close, their faces inches apart. “You won’t survive the day. When I finish with you, I will go back and take care of your friend. The both of you are pathetic. Weak. You deserve what you get.”

Mel fumbled at his hand trying to pry it loose, but she had no effect. He pulled her closer ripping the front of her shirt. She spat in his face and landed a blow with the rock in her hand. The rock smashed into his right temple with all the force she could muster.

He staggered back clutching his head. Mel didn’t hesitate; she rushed forward and hit him again, harder than the first time. Rage flooded her body, adrenaline fueling her. He fell to the ground covering his face with his arms. She didn’t relent. She continued beating him with her crude weapon, and she shouted over and over. “I am not weak!”

Blood trickled from his head, staining his tattered blue shirt. His body fell slack, arms drooping to his sides. After another blow, he shook violently, convulsing. She yelled again as she delivered another fatal blow. “You won’t hurt Benji!” She paused and rocked back on her heels. Jason wasn’t moving anymore. His face drained of all color, and blood seeped from his ear. The side of his head was a riot of blood and brains. She looked down at her shirt shocked to discover bits of bone and blood.

She screamed in horror and backed away from the body. Mel glanced in Benji’s direction, fearing what she would find. She took a last look at her attacker. Blood soaked the right side of his shirt, and her eyes traveled up to his malformed skull. The gory sight was too much, and she spun away swallowing the vomit welling in her mouth.

Mel sprinted back to Benji, and she made it half way before stopping. She heaved the contents of her stomach and caught her breath for a few seconds. Dirt and filth covered her mouth leaving an acidic sour taste; she wiped it off with the back of her hand before continuing.

Mel hid behind low scrubby bushes that bordered the road. She spotted Benji lying face down in the road. Mike held him in place with a foot planted in the middle of his back. Davey was a few feet away absorbed in searching their packs. Davey and Mike hadn’t noticed her, and she seized the opportunity.

They wouldn’t expect her to attack. She gripped her rock tighter and rushed Mike from behind. The rock smashed into his temple knocking him off balance. Mike reeled backwards falling next to Benji as he clutched his head.

Mike’s eyes darted from her to the trees. Mel yelled at him. “He’s not coming. I dealt with him, and I can deal with you, too.” She drew her arm back threatening to hit him again, and he scuttled backwards until he was out of her reach.

Davey dropped back with a pack draped over one arm. He failed to notice Benji charging him, and Benji rammed into his midsection knocking Davey to the asphalt. He hammered Davey’s head into the ground.

Mike rushed to Davey’s aid, putting more distance between himself and Mel. He shoved Benji off of Davey. Mel charged Mike smashing her rock into his skull for a second time. She yelled, “Get off of him! Get off!”

Mike stumbled back pulling Davey with him. He kept an eye on Mel as they backed away. When they were half way across the bridge, they turned dashing for the other side. Davey trailed the pack behind him, hanging from his limp right arm. Mike grabbed the pack before he dropped it, and they disappeared on the far side into the nearby trees.

Mel stood in the center of the road watching them flee. Her vision tunneled to the end of the bridge. Everything blurred and disappeared.

She didn’t hear Benji approach her, and she didn’t recognize him. Her eyes were slow to refocus. He pried at the rock in her hands. She backed away cocking her arm, ready to strike.

He approached again, talking in a soft voice. “Mel, it’s me. It’s Benji. Are you hurt?”

He pried her fingers from the rock releasing it from her hand. Blood soaked the rock, and he flung it away. He felt her arm for wounds, slicked and covered in blood and sweat. “Mel, is this your blood? Are you hurt?”

Shock rendered her mute. She latched onto Benji’s hand and closed her eyes. For a moment she imagined it was her father holding her hand. His long fingers dwarfed her own, comforting and warm. Her father led her like she was two, and he shepherded her way. He would keep her safe.

Tears rolled down her cheeks obscuring her vision. She looked at the hand holding hers again, but it was a boy’s hand. She choked on a sob, and Benji tugged her along the road trailing her behind him.


THREE


Benji glanced over his shoulder every few minutes to check on Mel. She hadn’t let go of his hand since the attack. Each time he looked back, her appearance unsettled him more and more. Blood covered her arm to the elbow, and red gore stained her torn shirt. She stared vacantly ahead seeing nothing. She often tripped and stumbled, and Benji struggled to keep her on her feet. When they first began walking, she cried and sobbed. But now, even worse, she was silent. Crying he understood, but her extended silence terrified him.

The ordeal at the bridge wasted the afternoon. Their bruises and lacerations slowed their progress even more. Benji limped along holding his ribs, at least his nose stopped bleeding. Even so, it pulsed and throbbed keeping time with his footsteps. Benji worried about Mel. Her face was puffy, and bruises darkened the side of her jaw and arms.

After the attack, he led them away from the road; and they trekked across fields, thickets, and small stands of trees. The neighborhoods thinned and gave way to a more rural landscape. He kept Mel moving as fast as possible, only stopping once by a stream. He washed the dirt from her face, but the blood covering her arms and clothes was stubborn, refusing to wash away.

Small cuts crisscrossed her arms, and her skinned knees were raw and red. He did his best to clean out the scrapes, and she didn’t protest, even though he knew some of them were painful. Mel looked so small, much younger than her thirteen years, sitting cross-legged next to the stream. She slumped her shoulders forward collapsing in on herself, a balloon losing all of its air.

He wanted to protect her, prevent this from ever happening again. Rage and guilt fought a war in his mind. Benji blamed himself for choosing the bridge and for his inability to stop the attack. Mel had bested a much larger foe, but he wanted to know the rest. His imagination ran wild, and the images assaulting his mind fueled his rage.

Benji shielded his eyes from the setting sun. Even though it was late in the day, the heat refused to abate. Sweat trickled down his face running into his eyes, and he blinked into the glare of the sun. He wouldn’t bother asking Mel where to go. She was out of it. He had to do this for them, take charge and find them shelter. Benji pushed his guilt out of his mind. He needed to think clearly, be more like Mel.

They crossed a cleared field walking in the furrowed rows and stepping over clumps of weeds growing unbidden. Half-way across, he spotted a small house in the distance. It was an outdated ranch with an attached carport, a relic from the 1960s. He never would have noticed it before today. His eyes would have slid right past it. They kept to the back and climbed a small red brick terrace ringed with flower pots. The flowers had long since browned and desiccated.

Benji released Mel’s hand, so he could look inside. He pulled a yellow and red striped patio chair over to a high window, and he climbed up raising his head over the ledge. He worried someone might still be inside, so he peeked into the kitchen. It was tidy and dusty, like no one had entered it for a while. Benji hoped, maybe they could stay for the night.

He dropped off the chair and scooted it to another window. It was lower and looked into the family room. An olive green couch and matching recliner faced a boxy TV set.

A pair of shoes protruded from the recliner pointing at odd angles to one another. Benji cupped his hands around his eyes, blocking out the glare from the setting sun. He noticed a head slumped to the side leaning over the armrest, the stringy hair draping over the arm. Benji gasped and almost fell out of the chair. He jumped down ready to move on to another house. There was no way he would enter a house with a dead person inside.

He turned to get Mel, but she wasn’t there. He looked around frantic, hoping she had sat in one of the lawn chairs scattered about the terrace. She wasn’t there. Benji ran to the edge and hopped over the low hedge. He sprinted to the front of the house and searched the carport.

He called to her, “Mel.”

Benji winced, worried someone might hear him. He pitched his voice lower, “Mel. Where are you?” The far side of the carport was empty. Benji scanned the front yard, again nothing.

Dusk advanced to night, and the light was fading fast. He sprinted around to the back of the house where he last saw her. There was no sign of her, and Benji paused doubling over panting and exhausted. This day would never end.

He was more worried about losing Mel than someone else hearing him. This time he yelled as loud as possible. “Mel! Where are you? Answer me!” Again, no one replied.

Trees dotted the edge of the backyard, and he checked them one at a time. Benji found her huddled against a large sprawling magnolia in the far corner of the backyard. The branches of the giant tree extended out hanging low. Mel rested against the trunk tucked underneath the dense canopy. She was fighting a losing battle to stay awake.

Benji was furious, growing even angrier after he bumped his head on a low branch. “Mel, didn’t you hear me? Why did you run off?” He shook her. “Mel.”

She forced her eyes open and mumbled back. “Sorry. Sorry.” Her eyelids grew heavy and closed again.

Benji needed to find them shelter, now. Glancing back at the house, he shivered at the thought of spending the night with a dead body. They needed another solution. Mel couldn’t travel much further. Benji spotted a garden shed wedged between a group of shrubs nestled against the back of the property.

Mel was too tired to search for another house. The shed would have to do, and Benji secured Mel to him locking onto her hand. Benji unlatched the door and knocked before opening it. He received no reply, and he prayed it would be empty.

The door creaked and groaned in protest as he pulled it open. A musty dank smell ripe with mold pushed out at them. Out of the gloom materialized the vague outlines of tools piled along the back wall. Pots and bags of soil lined another, stacked in neat rows. A translucent piece of corrugated plastic covered the shed. Light filtered through the plastic, even with the door closed they would get a little light. They could shove the pots out of the way and sleep against the side wall.

The shed was like an oven, heat building throughout the day. He propped the door open letting it escape. Sweat soaked the front and back of his shirt. Benji let out a sigh of relief. They could make this work. Benji pulled Mel inside, and he sat her by the door. “Stay put this time.”

Benji got to work clearing a space for them. Mel revived a little, and she joined him setting the shed in order. She found a musty blanket folded on a workbench. It was full of holes and smelled of the earth, but it would cushion them.

Mel concentrated on spreading out the blanket. She matched each corner to the other as she folded the blanket in half. Next, she smoothed the blanket out along the wall of the shed. Mel worked from the center of the blanket outward pushing the wrinkles out. Benji smiled to himself. She was still in there somewhere.

The shed sweltered even with the door propped open with a pot. In the confining space, the odor from their bodies overpowered the other smells. Benji covered his nose and leaned away from Mel. Benji valued security over comfort, so he closed the door of the shed. Mel propped her arm on the door stopping him. “Please, don’t close it. It’ll be too dark. Please.”

Benji was overjoyed, she was talking again. The dark had always been one of Mel’s biggest fears, ever since they were little. Benji and Mel shared a room for the first years of their lives until Mel got up every night and turned on all the lights in their room. Benji couldn’t sleep, so his parents moved him to his own room. It was their first separation, and it began a gradual distancing between them.

Benji couldn’t refuse her. He worried someone might see them, but he also wanted her to relax. “Ok, we can leave it open. But, if I hear anything I’m closing it. Deal?”

Mel nodded her head in acceptance. She stumbled over to the blanket and collapsed against the wall. Benji joined her resting by her side. He took her hand in his own. “Hey, you ok?”

She offered no reply. Instead, she leaned her head towards Benji, so their foreheads touched. Tension rolled off her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. He wished he could see inside her mind, read her thoughts. Then she wouldn’t have to speak when she didn’t want to. She whispered, “I’ll be ok. I promise. Don’t worry. I just need a little time.”

Benji jumped at the chance to talk to her. “It’s just. Mel, there was so much blood on you. Most of it washed off. But… there was so much.” He paused and placed his hands on her face. “Mel, did he hurt you? I hated that I couldn’t help you. I hated him. How did you get away? What happened?”

She pulled away from him breaking their precious contact. She was emphatic. “No.”

Her withdrawal cut deep, more than Benji would admit. “No? Please, tell me what happened.” Frustration crept into his voice. “I’m going crazy imagining what he did. Please, tell me.”

Mel banged her head into the wall behind her. “No!”

Benji grabbed her hand stopping her from doing it again. “He was so big, just tell me how you got away.”

She yanked her hand from his and slammed it on the plywood floor. The sound echoed in the small space. “No!”

Benji placated her. “Ok, ok. Not so loud. I get it.” He waited a moment and added. “It’s just… never mind. Tell me one day, ok?”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, and Benji chewed on his guilt. He was starving, and it did nothing to satisfy him. He worked up enough courage to confess. “I’m sorry we crossed the bridge. I should have listened to you. You were right. I’m so sorry.”

Mel pressed herself closer to Benji, and she placed her hand on top of his. She added, “Benji, I love you. It wasn’t your fault. There’s plenty of blame to go around.” She placed her other hand on his cheek turning his face to hers. “Maybe, you were right, and we shouldn’t have left home.”

Benji held her hand in place with his own. A tear slid down his cheek moistening her fingers. “I love you, too.” She wiped away his tear and lowered her head to his chest. Benji shifted, so he could put his arms around her.

She whispered into his chest, “I’m so scared.”

Benji squeezed her in reply. “Me, too. We’ll be ok. We’re together.”

Mel hid her face in his shirt. “I don’t want it to get dark. I hate it.”

Benji searched his memory for a way to soothe her. He thought of the game they used to play with their mom when she tucked them in at night. They would think of a word for each letter of their name. The three of them would lay in bed together giggling. He started them off, “B is for brave. E is for eager.”

She lifted her head, and interrupted. “You always say E is for eager. I have one for you. M is for murderer. Enough tonight, Benji. Please, enough.”

Benji slept fitfully all night. He kept waking to check on Mel. The slightest noise jolted him awake, and it would take him forever to fall back to sleep. He gave up before dawn and lowered Mel to the floor, pillowing an edge of the blanket under her head.

He searched through the remaining pack. Davey and Mike stole Mel’s, and they transferred all the food to it before they fled. Benji’s clothes were all there and his keepsakes. He pulled out the snow globe giving it a shake, the snow settled back onto the shoulders of Mount Rainier. The two water bottles stuck in the mesh pouches on the side of his pack were long empty. They drank all the water on their trek to the house. Benji’s throat burned as he looked at them.

They needed food and water, or they wouldn’t last long. Benji also worried Mel would require something for her cuts and bruises. She would be very sore the next day. He thought of the house, and the dead body awaiting him inside. Dead bodies scared him, burying his own parents had tested his resolve. He didn’t see another option.

Benji crept from the shed careful not to wake Mel. He hoped she would stay put, he didn’t want a repeat of the evening before. The yard lengthened and narrowed in the dim glow of dawn. The bushes around the terrace looked alien, unfamiliar. He hurried unsettled by the low light.

The terrace was the same, just as he left it. The chair leaned against the wall under the living room window. Benji didn’t want to tumble into a room with a dead body, so he dragged the chair back to the kitchen window. It was higher and smaller, but the kitchen was empty. He glanced in the window again just to be sure before he climbed inside.

The window wouldn’t budge on his first attempt to push it open. He pushed harder the second time, and the window sprang free. The chair jostled beneath him, and Benji began to tumble backwards. His fingers snagged the edge of the window sill keeping him upright.

Benji pulled his body up to the window and stuck his head through the opening. He wedged himself there while he used his arms to pull him the rest of the way. For a moment, he teetered with his body half in and half out. He worried something might grab his legs, spooking him; so he rushed pulling himself inside. He fell onto the counter next to the sink, and his torso slipped over the edge. Gravity did the rest, and he landed on the hard linoleum floor.

Benji’s right shoulder and head took the brunt of the fall. He rested a few seconds to regroup. His shoulder felt like a swarm of angry bees had taken up residence. As the pain diminished, the smell coming from the living room filled his nose. It was pungent, ripe with decay and a sickly sweet cloying undertone. His nose burned, and Benji pulled his t-shirt up over his mouth and nose. It did little to improve the air. He could taste it.

Haste seemed important now. He didn’t want to be in here any longer than necessary. Benji scrambled to his feet, massaging his sore shoulder. A thick layer of dust coated all the surfaces in the kitchen, whoever had lived here had been gone for quite some time.

He opened all the drawers and cabinets searching for useful items. He pocketed a few things: a can opener, a handful of silverware, a small sharp kitchen knife in a plastic sheath, and a half-used book of matches.

A framed photograph resting on the counter caught his eye. A mother and father surrounded by three children stood in front of a primitive cabin smiling for the camera. He pulled the frame closer and ran his hand across the glass. This family no longer existed anymore, none of them did. His thoughts turned to his mother and father and grief crowded his mind, distracting him. He put the frame back in its spot and dropped the rest of the items in his pack.

He turned his attention to the pantry, but to his disappointment it was almost empty. There was a box of saltines, some cans of beans and soup, and a plastic bag of little chocolate chip cookies. It wouldn’t last them long, but it was better than nothing.

Benji passed the refrigerator on his way to the living room. He opened it as an afterthought, not expecting to find anything. Inside, there were two cans of coke, amongst some food that looked more like a science experiment than anything edible. He grabbed the two cans and made room for them in his bag, careful not to jostle them too much. He hoped the coke would lift Mel’s spirits.

Benji didn’t find any medicine in the kitchen, so he tried his luck in the living room. The smell grew exponentially worse the closer he got as he passed through the small hallway connecting the kitchen to the living room. Acid churned in his stomach and worked its way up his esophagus. Benji paused and lowered his shirt spitting out the saliva pooling in his mouth. He gagged on the stench and replaced his shirt.

Benji crept closer to the chair where the body rested. The body transfixed him. An old man with brittle white hair rested in the recliner. The eyes were open as if they still stared at the TV. An old afghan, crocheted in a zigzagged red and blue pattern, covered the shriveled legs of the corpse. The skin melted from the bone, and the face sagged off the skull.

He tore his eyes from the mask-like face when he noticed vials of medicine on the side table. Benji gulped a large breath of air and reached for the three vials. His eyes watered, and he regretted taking such a big breath.

Benji tripped over one of the corpse’s feet in his urgency to reach the table. He toppled forward catching himself on the edge of the low table; the motion jarred it into the chair. The body jolted to the side knocking the head close to Benji’s arm. He shrieked and jumped back falling in the process.

The medicine bottles lay scattered around him on the carpet; Benji scooped them into his pack. He struggled to his feet and ran for the back door. The deadbolt was set home with no key in sight. Next to the door was the window he peeked through the night before. His trembling fingers clawed at the latch on the window. He shoved the window up and spilled out landing on his knees. Benji slammed the window home, sealing in the horrific odor.

He took three huge breaths filling his lungs with precious clean air. Saliva continued to pool in his mouth, and his stomach roiled and rolled. He ran to the bushes racked by dry heaves. Benji waited for his empty stomach to stop convulsing, his guts cramping and contorting.

Benji collapsed on the terrace clutching his belly covered in sweat. Levering himself upright, he stumbled to the edge of the lawn; where he stretched out on the grass. Arms and legs spread wide, he soaked up the morning dew and the clean smells of the grass and soil. It was relatively cool this time of day before the sun roasted everything. His stomach calmed, and he thought of the coke burning a hole in his pack.

Benji sat up sitting cross-legged, and he pulled out a can of coke. He popped the tab, relishing the anticipation he felt when the can let out a loud hiss. He took a small sip unsure if his stomach would welcome the fizz and sugar. To his delight, his stomach offered no protest, and he tipped the can back drinking it down in three long gulps. He meant to savor it and take his time, but once he started he couldn’t stop. The fizz moved through him, exciting his limbs. His head cleared and his stomach cramps ceased. He collected his pack and hurried back to Mel eager to share the other with her.

The gentle light of dawn filtered through the plastic above Mel’s head. She winced as she sat up; the movement started a cascade of pain throughout her bruised body. Her hand explored the side of her face while her tongue worried the cut inside her cheek. It was swollen, crowding her eye.

Benji sat across from Mel watching her. “You look awful, Mel. The side of your face is purple.”

“Thanks. You don’t look so hot either.” She winced again, speaking hurt, at least she would have an excuse for her silence.

Benji offered Mel the cookies. She took a few from the bag. “Found them in the house. There wasn’t much. It’ll have to do for a while.”

Mel took a cautious bite mindful of her sore face. To her relief, the pain was bearable. Her hunger won out, and she devoured the cookies. She offered Benji a lopsided smile as thanks. Benji handed the bag of cookies back to her, but she refused to eat anymore.

“You need more food than that. I don’t know how far we’ll walk today. You need your strength.” He shook the bag tempting her.

Mel took another handful of cookies and cradled them in her lap. She ate them one at a time chewing each bite until nothing was left, making them last. The cookies were a little stale, but she thought they tasted delicious. Benji threw another handful into his mouth, and he went back for more.

“What else did you find?”

Benji’s face paled. “Not much. Just a few crackers, cans of soup. There isn’t anything worth going back inside for.”

“Can we stay?”

“No!”

“Sure?”

“Yes, we need to get moving.”

She looked up at Benji wondering what he found in the house, but she didn’t press him. Instead, she nodded her head in agreement and prepared her mind to go back outside. Her fears resurfaced, and her appetite vanished. She felt a wave of nausea, but she refused to lose her small breakfast.

“Which way do you think we should go?” Benji asked.

Mel shrugged her shoulders. Her midsection hurt with every movement. “I don’t know. You choose. My choices weren’t so great yesterday.” She shifted trying to ease her discomfort.

Benji blurted out. “I forgot. I found some meds. I didn’t take the time to see what they were, but I got ‘em. Maybe, one of them will help with your pain.”

“I’ll be alright.” Mel waved him off, but stopped short when another jolt of pain shot through her. She relented, “Thanks, let me see what you found.”

Benji retrieved the bottles from his pack and passed them to Mel. They were prescribed for someone named Norman Hallard. The names were difficult to pronounce, and she stumbled over them. “Norpramin, Tegretol, and Glucophage.” She held them up one at a time examining each, shaking the little pills in their containers.

Mel didn’t recognize any of the names. None of these were safe to try. She handed the pills back to Benji. “Thanks, but I don’t know what these are. We can’t use any of this stuff.”

He shoved the pills inside his pack and muttered to himself, “All that trouble for nothing.”

“Sorry, Benji. I just don’t know what they are.”

“Don’t worry about it. We need to get going. Let’s head towards the park and then figure out our next step. We should be safer away from the houses.” He flung his pack over one shoulder. The metal cans clanged together as the pack collided with his injured side. “Dang that is sore.” He rubbed his ribs and shifted the pack.

“We’re quite the pair. Here, let me take a look at your side.” Mel said.

“I’m fine.” He shrugged her off. “Besides, it’s not as bad as your face.” He laughed, but she looked down avoiding his eyes. Her shoulders slumped, and she deflated.

Mel rose, and the little shed spun for a second. She closed her eyes waiting for her world to right itself. The side of the shed offered an anchor point, and she held on tight. The pain in her body flared each time she moved, but she did her best to ignore it.

“I have a little surprise for you. Here.” Benji handed Mel the Coke.

Her eyes widened in surprise, and a look of pure joy crossed her face. Even before the sickness, cokes were a rarity for them. Their parents had limited them to one a day. They always reminded the twins they were bad for them, full of sugar. She didn’t think they would mind today.

The can was warm, but Mel didn’t care. She popped the top and took a large gulp. It tasted like honey burning her throat, and she went back for more. Nothing had tasted so good in all her life; she forced herself to stop. She wanted to leave some for Benji. Mel offered the can back to him, but he refused.

“I already had one. I found two. It’s all yours.” He pushed it back towards her.

Tears threatened at the corners of her eyes.

“Hey. It’s only a coke. Enjoy it.”

Benji exited the shed blazing a trail for Mel to follow. She fell into step behind him missing the weight of her pack.