Corey didn’t want to leave, but, since his mother had already agreed, he was sure the General would leave him behind if he didn’t get in the ugly rusted out Hummer, so he did what he was told.
From the back seat, he watched as they passed the empty playground, the swings moving back and forth in the wind of the first morning light. For a moment, he thought about Gill and Christy. They used to swing so high he thought any moment they’d swing in a full circle and end up wrapped around the pole. They had spoken up, noticing the first signs, but no one had listened. He hadn’t seen them in six years.
“We’ll be safe soon,” his mother said in her mousy voice. Everything about her was mousy from her size and coloring to her skittishness.
The General gave a dismissive laugh. “Don’t worry. I take care of my people,” he said and then fell into a speech about how great things would be once they arrived at The Grove, repeating the same tales he’d told them at the office and over dinner in Corey and his mother’s one room apartment. They wouldn’t have to worry about food or a clean place to live, and no one was sick. He’d chosen them, special, out of everyone else in the city. As he spoke in his loud commanding tone, his presence and voice filled the car, almost drowning out the sound of the gates closing.
“So, you see, there’s no need to worry,” The General said.
Stan had come into town wearing a fur lined long woolen coat that was in better condition than any others in town. He walked tall and straight like he’d had military experience. Corey pictured him, once upon a time, in a general’s uniform. Given his good health and the ‘wisdom’ lines across his chiseled, cleanshaven face, people like Corey’s mother said he looked like someone you could trust. But to Corey, he saw a man bent on controlling what he could not control. And at that moment, the sound of locks banging back into place once the gate closed, mixed with the sight of the old city crumbling to ruins outside the wall, told more truth than the General ever could.
Two hours out of town the snow started, slowly at first, then the more north they went, the thicker it got, falling on top of existing snow until everything was white. The sky, the trees, the road, all blanked out like a brand-new sheet of paper. Nothing existed outside the Hummer.
But nothing stopped them. They kept going, slow but steady. The General driving by memory. Only the indents from the ditches told where the road was. The Hummer pushed the snow as they went threatening to slip off the road and plunge them into a ditch or a snow bank.
After every near miss, his mother looked back at him and smiled reassuringly. She frowned when he didn’t smile back. When she turned and looked out the window, he saw the sadness in her reflection. Her eyes had lost their shine, and the lines around her eyes and mouth deepened. He knew it was because she hadn’t been able to give him a childhood like she’d had. He’d never been on a basketball team, a hike or a picnic. At ten, he already knew the key to survival. And it wasn’t being a kid.
Survival was not being noticed, not being too good or too bad at anything, not going anywhere. Basements were good places for survival, not roads that didn’t look like roads. Maybe once he got to The Grove he’d find a safe spot to be alone. Maybe then his stomach wouldn’t be trying to crumple into a ball and disappear.
He stared harder out the window, looking for anything other than white. That’s when he saw the raven fly across the sky. It banked right, circled back, gliding in random circles in and out of sight.
The birds he knew back home had voracious appetites, stripping the flesh from the rotting corpses laying in the city street. They could devour a man within two days. The stench had brought them. The more bodies, the more birds. Then with a dwindling population, less bodies, that’s when the birds turned on each other. Corey shuddered.
His birds were larger than this raven. They had less shine and less elegance, growing scragglier every day. But this raven, circling them as if it were surveying their arrival, scared him. He’d read about them in the mildewed textbooks he’d found in the basement of his apartment building. A raven: a large black bird, bigger than a crow. The old poems called it a harbinger of death.
There were no rotting corpses here. No apartment buildings with old text books. No city streets to tiptoe down. No people other than the caravan they were going to meet. All he saw for miles, now that the snow had let up, was the snowy mountain range gray in the distance, a valley of snow drifts that threatened to swallow them, and this one bird that watched him. Beyond that, everything else felt like nothingness.
The raven circled them again and then flew towards a copse of trees off in the distance. When it landed on a tree branch Corey noticed a slight movement below. A slight tilt of a head. A nod towards the ground. A shadow. He wouldn’t have seen the still figure had it not been for the raven. There under the branch, blending in with the tree line, sat a wolf. Only its golden eyes giving it away.
The General saw it too.
He slammed the brakes sending packages and provisions in the back toppling as the Hummer slid across the snow threatening to jackknife with the trailer being pulled behind. When they finally came to a jerky stop, the General grabbed a Glock 17 from the consol and aimed it, across Corey’s mother, toward the passenger window.
“What are you doing?” asked Corey’s mother in an all too chipper tone. “The window’s up.” A nervous laugh escaped her lips before she pushed his arm away. “Really Stan.”
The wolf, completely still, watched them. Then after no shots fired, it slowly turned, and with one flick of the tail sauntered off, giving the impression it knew it was out of reach.
“I will kill that son of a bitch,” said the General.
Corey’s mother tried to give him a reassuring smile, but her eyes couldn’t mask the fear.
“Those things are rabid killers,” Stan said as he righted the Hummer and yanked it into drive, pushing it to its fullest speed possible in the snow. “It’s either us or them.”
Corey pictured the golden eyes, the way the wolf had watched them, almost as if it were taunting them. He thought about the saying, only the tough survive. Most of the tough people he knew had either died or were seriously sick. Corey decided he’d place his bet on the intelligent ones instead.
At dusk they entered the town of Dryers Creek, or rather, what was left of it. Heaps of rubble and charred wooden frames peeked out through the snow. Only a handful of brick buildings with their faded painted signs—Dryers Creek Hardware, Tim’s furniture, Goody’s Discounts, Jeans’ Fashions—stood as a reminder there was a town.
Derelict houses pocked the landscape surrounding the buildings. Three patched to the point of being habitable. The rest were gutted, windowless, roofless. All except the old Victorian sitting on the hill, looking as if it had stood sentry over the town since the Civil War. It’s regal bearing still intact.
The General parked near the hardware store where they met a haggard Santa Claus looking man eager to unload the supplies he was receiving. Corey remembered pictures from the books he’d found and wondered how anyone could have believed in such a person. Like the drawings, this man had rosy cheeks, a long white beard, and sparkly eyes, but unlike Santa he was gaunt, and his clothes weren’t shiny or red. This man had clearly done hard labor in a harsh world.
The old man handed the General a box. “It’s the last batch,” he said. “It’ll hold you until next year when I can make more.”
The General took the box and stepped into the trailer. As the General sorted through the supplies, Corey looked at the broken-down houses and imagined what it would have been like when they were burning. He hoped the families who had lived there hadn’t had to watch.
“The firemen burned the houses of the sick,” the old man said to Corey when he saw him staring at the ruins. Although unsaid, from his tone, Corey understood that the sick were still inside. “Some of them weren’t even sick yet, but rumors, and neighbors, and fears.” He sighed. “I tried to stop them, but when an idea gets into a person’s mind deep enough, they won’t listen to reason. They tore down everything. Thanks be to God, they spared my family. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t been a doctor.” He looked past Corey towards the ruins, his blue eyes taking in all the destruction, remembering the past. The sparkle momentarily gone.
“Don’t scare him,” said Corey’s mother. “We’re past all that.”
But Corey already knew this story. Dryers Creek wasn’t unique.
“Would you like to play while we unload?” Sonja, the old man’s daughter asked. She had come from the house to help unload supplies. She looked like a big marshmallow in her snow gear. The only thing visible was her face, wrinkled more than a woman in middle age should be.
“If we had known you were coming we would have cleared the playground. But there’s a tire swing out back.” She pointed to the Victorian. “It should still be useable even in this snow. Would you like that?” The smile on her face could be heard in her voice. Corey very much wanted to swing.
“No,” said the General standing over Corey like a prison guard. “There’s no time for playing. The boy will help unload.”
As they unpacked boxes from the trailer, moving them into the hardware building, Corey continued to scan the area. He saw lots of hiding places in the remnants of the old buildings, but also in the orchards adjacent to the Victorian. Despite the destruction, you could see the rebuilding; lean-tos filled with hay, chicken coops with live chickens, a greenhouse filled with vegetables, and a huge red barn that looked like a new construction. All open and inviting, the only fences were the ones keeping in the cattle, sheep and goats. Corey smiled; someone could run around here and not get cornered.
After they finished unloading, the General volunteered them to clear a snow path from the hardware store to the old man’s house, the Victorian, even though the old man said it wasn’t necessary.
“We’ve been in the car for hours. A lazy body invites sickness,” the General said in a tone that stopped any protests.
Corey shoveled snow until his arms ached. Now up close to the Victorian, he could see the paint peeling in spots along the wooden siding and the rotting boards on one corner of the porch. Even with its imperfections, this old place had seen much and survived, and would continue to survive. Tools and supplies nestled on the updated side of the porch said none of these damaged areas were forgotten.
By the time Corey finished, he was famished and would have eaten anything. Even the hardtack they had eaten for lunch sounded appealing. To his surprise, the General agreed to stay for dinner.
“We eat like kings when we get a new shipment,” the old man said with a wink to Corey as they entered the dining room.
The whole town had come for dinner. The old man and his daughter, the old man’s wife, who had been cooking dinner, the son-in-law who’d been working on the well, the old man’s niece and nephew, who had been taking care of the cows and chickens, and a cousin and a friend who’d been taking care of the sheep. And of course, the General, Corey and his mother.
“We eat family style,” the old man’s wife said passing a big bowl of mashed potatoes to Corey. She continued passing bowl after bowl; gravy, green beans, stewed apples, roast beef and bread.
It’d been a long time since he’d sat at the table with so many people and such good food. He had a hard time not attacking it, but that would have caused people to stare. Plus, he had to save room for the chocolate cake sitting on the buffet table.
“You should have seen Daisy,” said the niece. She chuckled before finishing the story. “She gave Phil a time. She doesn’t like cold hands. Every time I turned around, she’d knocked him in the snow.”
“Nah, I was just making snow angels.” He winked at her. “You want to join me after dinner?” he asked Corey.
“We have to be on our way,” said the General.
“It’s another three-hour drive or more in this snow. Why don’t you stay the night? We have space,” said the old man’s wife.
“I’ve got to get the medicine to my people. It’s been almost a week since their last dose.”
“Oh Stan,” she said, but the old man interrupted.
“I’ve told you before, I don’t know if it works. More than likely, it only appears to work because those of us left are immune.”
“It worked on me. How else do you think I was able to keep trading from city to city?”
“Either way, one night won’t matter. For the boy’s sake.”
“It’s not safe here,” the General said. “Anyone can come and go. Doc, you’ve got a family to take care of,” he gestured to the people in the room, “Instead of repairing this old place you should build a wall to protect them. Or come with us. We could use a doctor.”
The old man opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. The sadness Corey had seen earlier crept back into his eyes. “It’s been my experience that dangers come from those you know, as well as those you don’t. Not that I don’t fully trust my family, but too many times, we’ve been caught by the unexpected.”
“Exactly. That’s why we prepare for the unexpected. Don’t worry about me. All my people have passed an exam, physical and mental. They’re obedient and trustworthy.”
“Abel trusted Cain.”
The General set his fork down.
“I know you’ve worked hard for your people. I can see the weight of it on your shoulders. But you can’t prepare for everything.”
Corey watched the General clinch his jaw and waited for him to storm out, but he remained quiet.
“That fortress you built isn’t impenetrable.” The old man paused before continuing. “It can’t save you from yourself. It’s time to rebuild together, not hide.”
“Thank you for the hospitality.” The General stood. “We’ll be on our way.”
“I’m sorry,” the old man’s wife said. “He gets carried away.” She sent the old man a dirty look.
The old man sighed. “Yes, I’m sorry.”
The General nodded his acceptance, “I know you mean well. But you’re wrong. I am rebuilding. We’ve got a school teacher now.” He nodded towards Corey’s mother. “I think you’d approve if you came to visit.”
“Maybe in the spring,” the old man said. The mood lightened, but that was the end of dinner.
At the front door, the General shook the old man’s hand. The man’s wife hugged them. “You’re always welcome here,” she said.
As Corey stepped through the door, he looked back at the uncut chocolate cake still in view on the buffet. It didn’t look like any he’d seen in the rotting magazines, no swirls or rosettes, no cherries or strawberries, and honestly, he’d forgotten what chocolate tasted like, but he’d been so close. He stepped out into the cold, and for the first time in a long time, he felt disappointment. He had made the mistake of hoping for something.
By the time they reached The Grove, it was almost midnight. Corey couldn’t make out much of the camp other than what was illuminated by the headlamps on the four guards’ heads. Each man, carrying a rifle, walked across a platform running above a parapet of mobile homes parked in what used to be a resort campground. A modern-day Jamestown with solar panels. At least twenty motorhomes, ranging from camper vans to large motor coaches, some up to 45 feet long, faced the same direction, forming a circle just inside a fifteen-foot high perimeter wall, ready to make a quick getaway.
They were given one of the midsize mobile homes, a Thor Freedom Elite, that was no longer in use. The lady who welcomed them, but hadn’t bothered introducing herself, wouldn’t tell them what had happened to the previous owners. She said that talking about others was rude and wouldn’t answer any of his mother’s questions.
After the lady left, Corey’s mother looked through the cupboard, drawers and closets. Corey would have told her she wasn’t going to find anything, the disinfectant smell told him so, but she was the kind that had to find things out the hard way. In the end, instead of being disappointed she hadn’t found an answer, she clapped her hands and smiled.
“Our new home,” she said trying to be cheerful, but Corey had noticed the dark circles under her eyes and heard the resignation in her voice. They both crawled into the double bed with their clothes on. Tomorrow, they’d figure out how to convert the couch into a second bed.
Corey woke before first light at the sound of a wolf howling, then a gunshot. His mother sat up in bed beside him scanning the darkness for danger. There was only silence, not even the sound of the guards walking across the walkway above them, which had been hard to sleep through.
“We’re safe now,” she whispered. “Go back to sleep.” She kissed the top of his head and rolled over. But Corey couldn’t get comfortable enough to find rest.
He lay there, looking at the shadows, until daybreak. Soon after, he heard doors of nearby campers opening and shutting, pots and pans rattling, water running, someone digging. It happened so fast, it was like someone had turned on a radio. No sound, then lots of it, like bees swarming in a hive. He wasn’t quite sure how his mother didn’t hear it. She was deep in sleep, oblivious, like a child.
Though the bed was warm and his pillow soft, Corey eased his way out from under the thick pile of covers and furs. He crept three feet away to the closet where his snowsuit, coat and boots were. Still wearing his clothes from yesterday, he pulled on his winter gear.
The door burst open, swinging hard enough for the door handle to dent the cupboard wall. The General stomped up the stairs into the living room area.
“Boy,” he bellowed, “we don’t tolerate laziness. Your shift started at dawn.”
Corey’s mother sat up, her hair wildly disarrayed. “Stan, we just got here. Let him have a little rest.”
The General’s face turned bright red, but before he could speak, Corey stood up and finished zipping up his coat. There was no use postponing, it’s not like he could sleep anyways.
“It’s imperative for you to be on time. The chickens won’t feed themselves. If you’re late it could throw someone else off schedule.” He pointed to his clipboard. “We don’t get off schedule. That’s the first rule. This is a wilderness. If we get off schedule something could be missed, and gaps could lead to someone’s death. Second rule, if you wake up late, you miss breakfast.”
There were lots of rules. Each there to prevent someone’s death. Everything was timed down to the minute, even when you could take a shower. Solar panels powered the campers, and most had full water and sewer hookup, but for anyone who needed it, they could use the bathhouse across from the dining hall. The General was clear; luxuries like these come at a cost. Long showers use a lot of water. If they ran out of water, they’d have none to drink or cook with; someone could perish of hunger or thirst. Always, someone could die.
Corey worked in the chicken coop, just beyond the bathhouse, for two hours feeding the birds, cleaning the floor and taking the eggs to the kitchen where he saw his mother starting her shift washing dishes. The General barked orders for shift rotations through a bullhorn. Like silent robots, the people put down what they were working on and made their way to their next workstations where each picked up from where the person before had just left.
His mother waved to him. “Hi Corey,” she yelled across the room. Everyone in the kitchen turned to look at her and then at him. Speaking hadn’t been against the rules, but so far no one had been chatty.
“It’s not time for your break,” the lady in charge told his mother. She scowled at Corey, and he hurried from the room.
He had a half hour before his next chore, cleaning the men’s bathhouse. It wasn’t much time, but it was enough to tour the grounds in search of a special spot. He counted twenty-seven people in the first shift. The animal keepers, the cooks, the kitchen cleaners, the launderers, fence workers, gardeners, grounds keepers and, of course, guards. The guards were there, always patrolling. From what he’d put together, based on the schedule the General kept on his clipboard, they worked most of the time. When they weren’t working they went back to their campers. They ate meals together in the old bingo pavilion, now the dining hall, but that was just for convenience of clean up and keeping track of rations.
A wolf howled in the distance, a long, lonely cry. The guards readied their rifles. The people glanced at the guards then continued what they were doing. They had to keep to the schedule.
“Stan says only a rabid wolf howls in the daytime,” a girl said from behind Corey. He jumped. He hadn’t heard her until she spoke. “They talk to each other, the wolves. Calling out to the pack members for their location.”
She was smaller than Corey, but the way she stood with her back upright with assurance and her eyes alert, she looked older than ten. Her skin had the pale look of someone who didn’t get enough to eat. Her blond hair had the same pale dullness, but it was brushed and tied in a neat braid. Corey shivered for her. She should have been wearing a hat and a warmer coat.
“They talk to other packs too. They howl like that to let the others know when someone new is on their land. That’s how I knew you were coming. I live there.” She pointed to the smallest camper in the group, three down from his, a Winnebago Travato. It looked like a large van.
The General bellowed the next shift change.
“You get free time after lunch. Meet me here.” She ran off before he could reply.
Cleaning the bathroom was better than working with the chickens if only because it was totally inside, and he didn’t have to work around chickens squawking about. Corey did his duty, making sure no one could complain about his efforts, something he felt these people were likely to do.
At lunch, he sat at a table with his mother and ate carrot soup and hard brown bread, slipping half of the bread into his pocket even though it was against the rules. Safe also meant having food.
“You have two hours free time. Do you want to help me with the textbooks?”
He shook his head. He needed to find a safe spot.
“Maybe you’ll make a friend.” She nodded as she spoke to emphasize the possibility. “I’ll see you at dinner.” She smiled, a smile that reached her eyes.
He left his mother at the building where the school was to be set up and went back to his camper. He was supposed to meet the girl, but friends could wait. He needed to explore, starting with his new living quarters. The girl must have suspected he would skip out. Irritatingly, she sat on the camper step waiting for him. At least this time she wore a weather-appropriate coat.
“Hey,” she said. “Come on.” She beckoned him with a nod of her head towards her camper.
Although the General hadn’t mentioned a rule about going to other people’s campers, Corey wasn’t sure he should. He looked around to see if anyone else was watching. When he didn’t see anyone, he still hesitated. It was one thing to not show up for their meeting, he could have said he’d forgotten. It was another to turn around and leave her without an excuse. He remembered his mother’s excitement about the possibility of his making a friend. He figured he could spare a moment.
He followed the girl to her camper, or rather pig-pen. Stepping over clothes and old food.
“Where’s your mom?” he asked, wondering why the place was so dirty.
“It’s not polite to ask questions.”
In the back of the camper, she climbed across her bed, which resembled a nest, and out a side window. He waited a minute, thinking this was a trick. When she didn’t come back, he poked his head out to see where she’d gone.
“Come on slow-poke.”
He shook his head no. This was the opposite of safe. It could get one noticed.
“Don’t back out now,” she said. “I heard your mom say you needed a friend, and I’m the only other kid here. We’ll probably have to get married one day.”
He gagged at the thought. This was a bad idea, and he should go back now, but her sharp laughter flew in the window and held him there. Was she laughing at what she’d said or laughing at him? He frowned.
“Don’t be a coward.” She stopped laughing, but mischief was still in her eyes. “You’re basically stuck with me.”
This was dumb. He wished he’d never seen this girl.
“My name is Sam, by the way.”
He was going back to his camper. He needed to be alone.
“I’ll tell Stan you brought food to my camper. I saw you take the bread. It’s in your pocket.”
His stomach wanted to disappear again.
“It’s beautiful out there.”
He didn’t want to go, but she’d piqued his interest. It might be good to know his surroundings, both inside and outside the camp. He could go with her, have a look around, and hope nothing happened, or let her tell Stan and risk upsetting his mother. One was absolute, the other wasn’t.
“I’ve done this a dozen times. It’s no big deal.”
His mother wanted him to make a friend. It looked like Sam was his only option. With a look of disgust on his face, he climbed out the window.
Instead of wood posts, this area of the fence was corrugated metal. Sam pulled back a corner and slid her way through the narrow opening. Corey followed.
“They took the dogs hunting earlier, they ran by here. Walk in their tracks so the guards won’t be suspicious by a second set.”
Lucky for them the dogs had rampaged through a large area of snow.
The tracks took them in a winding route by the wall and then into the trees. The dogs had doubled back towards the campground, but Sam insisted they keep going. She walked ahead of him scouting the way, taking them into dense woods. Neither of them spoke. Setting a fast pace, she seemed to be on a mission. Every so often, she stopped and looked intently at their surroundings, like she was making a mental map.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“Just looking around,” she said.
He tried not to stumble on the uneven ground as he followed. His eyes searching the trees, trying to remember their names from his books. He collected what he thought were aspen, birch, pine and maple leaves, shoving them in his pockets.
She’d been right. It was beautiful out here. But not in the typical sense of beauty. The trees muted the light, letting the occasional sunbeam shine through. The snow muffled any sounds, so unlike the noisy camp. Out here, it felt like both freedom and shelter.
But he couldn’t stay out here. Corey looked over his shoulder, ready to go back. He’d done his chores for the day, but he wasn’t sure what the General had mapped out for him after free time. They hadn’t been gone long, maybe a half hour, but what if someone noticed he was gone?
Sam laughed that piercing laugh she had. “I told you, I’ve done this a dozen times,” she said.
He didn’t doubt her, but that didn’t mean it made him feel better. He’d give her ten more minutes and then head back with or without her.
By the time her ten minutes were up, they had entered a bowl-shaped clearing. Standing at the top of a steep slope, one that in the summer wouldn’t have been too bad to climb down, but in this snow, he couldn’t tell what was at the bottom. For all he knew, there could be a pond under the snow. Corey had enough. He turned back towards the trees.
“Where are you going? I haven’t explored this area yet.”
A gun fired in the distance.
“Shit.” Sam said. “They’re sending a search party.”
In her haste to get home, she pushed Corey aside sending him sliding over the edge. On his descent, he fell into a small opening burrowed into the steepest section of the slope where he came face to face with a wolf and two pups. His heart beat too loud to know if Sam had called out to him or not. In that moment, his first thought was that she’d left him there to be eaten, but neither the wolf nor the pups charged at him. Instead, they watched him with a mix of curiosity and fear.
The wolf could have covered the five-foot distance between them in one leap. A ravenous beast would have done so. An intelligent one waited.
Corey remembered the bread in his pocket. Slowly, he took it out, broke it into chunks and threw it near the wolves’ feet. It took them a moment to decide to take the offering, sniffing first, then pawing at it, finally eating it. While they were preoccupied, he backed out of the den.
Once outside, he scrambled up the slope thankful that it was rocky under the snow, allowing him to climb his way back to the top. He ran until he couldn’t breathe, but he wasn’t fast enough. The General and four guards were just about to enter the trees when he came running through.
“Leaving camp without permission is prohibited,” said the General. “It puts everyone’s lives in danger. I cannot have that. It’s unacceptable.”
The General didn’t say anything else, didn’t ask him where he’d gone or why. None of them spoke. They didn’t have to. The look on the General’s face, steely eyed and stone smooth, said it all. Anger, control, and cold determination. They all followed his lead.
The General nodded to two of the guards who continued into the woods. The other two guards grabbed Corey by the arm and dragged him back to the caravan. They took him through the front gate, parading him past the dining hall, to a big white post in the center of the campground. The people had already gathered, including his mother who cowered in the back of the crowd, tears in her eyes, and Sam, who looked pitifully small, hiding behind another adult refusing to look at him.
“He’s to be paddled ten times, and he will stay here until lights out to think about how he put us all in danger,” the General declared for everyone to hear.
“But Stan,” said Corey’s mother, stepping forward.
“Anyone interfering will get the same punishment,” the General said, pointedly looking at her.
She nodded and bowed her head. With tears streaming down her face, she stepped back into the crowd.
The guard tied Corey’s hands around the post, which was a minor blessing. Without hugging the pole for support, Corey wouldn’t have been able to stand upright during the paddling. He promised himself he wouldn’t cry, but failed miserably after the third swat from the thick wooden paddle. When the show was over, everyone went back to their chores. All alone, sore and tied to a post, Corey didn’t think about himself. His thoughts were far away with the wolf and her pups. Had the guards found them?
Tears froze on Corey’s face, but the post kept the wind from doing more damage. Minor miracles. The people came and went, all ignoring Corey. He didn’t know where the General took his mother, but he assumed he kept her somewhere she wouldn’t be able to come help him. And Sam, for her part, every time she went past, she glanced at him and then quickly looked away. He thought she might have felt guilty.
An hour later, a commotion was heard at the front gate, and the people gathered once again in the center of the camp. This time, instead of watching a punishment in silence, they cheered as the guards tied up the wolf and her pups from a tree less than forty yards from where Corey was tied. Some even threw rocks at the poor dead creatures. Corey turned his head away, fearing he’d throw up what little food was in his stomach.
He was still tied to the post when dusk came. For hours, he’d replayed every scenario of the guards coming upon the den. Had they snuck up on them and taken them unawares? A mother and her babies? Did the wolves have a chance to defend themselves?
By this time, the people were in the dining hall eating dinner, which was fine by Corey. He wasn’t hungry anyway. In all his time in the city, he’d never gone without a meal. In one day at The Grove, he’d missed two.
The wind picked up, turning the leaves on the trees upside down, blowing the last snow still left on the branches so that it looked like it was snowing again. A pair of ravens canvased the camp, circling until one found a resting spot on top of the bathhouse and one landed on the pole above Corey’s head.
A deep rumbling reverberated around the camp, shaking the ground. At first, Corey thought it was the wind rolling through the trees. It sounded like a tidal wave. Then it turned to thunder, like tympani in an orchestra. It wasn’t until he saw the first dark shadow creep across the lot that he realized the sound had come from the corrugated metal behind Sam’s camper. The area he and Sam had snuck out of earlier. The wolves had followed their scent.
They moved in the shadows until stepping out into the center of camp, slinking past where Corey was tied. His stomach churned as he watched two wolves circle the dead wolf and her pups—still hanging from the tree—emitting a low growl as they inspected.
A scream caught in Corey’s throat, but it didn’t matter, it was already too late. When the dining hall doors opened, the first person out was the General, with a group of people right behind him. The larger of the two wolves leapt, grabbing the General by his throat, dragging him away from the crowd.
Some of the people ran, others turned to go back into the dining hall, but the second wolf had come up behind them blocking their way. They took off running, the wolf snapping at their heels.
Fighting for his life, the General beat and kicked at the first wolf, but it kept tearing at his head, throat, arms and legs, anywhere it could get a bite in, shaking him until all Corey could hear was gurgling. One of the guards rushed forward with a 2 by 4. A solid hit across the wolf’s hind quarters sent it rolling. It quickly righted itself, joining the chase with the other wolf.
People darted around the campground preventing the guards from getting a clear shot at the wolves. One guard shot a few rounds into the air, but that just added to the chaos. Corey couldn’t see it all, but he heard it all. Guns popping, wolves growling, people screaming, glass breaking. People banging on the doors trying to get back into the dining hall.
For the first time all afternoon, he fought with the rope. Twisting his hands back and forth to loosen it enough to squeeze his hands out. Rubbing it up and down the post, trying to fray at least one area enough to break and fall off. Nothing worked.
He pressed his face to the post waiting his turn. He’d seen plenty of death, starting with his father. He had people waiting for him on the other side, but still, he didn’t want to die this way.
Just as a whimper escaped him, he felt two icy hands at his wrist trying to untie the rope.
“I can’t get it,” Sam cried.
“Here,” his mother said, coming out of the darkness behind him.
She had a knife she’d taken from the dining hall. She cut the ropes and they ran like crazy toward their camper, but Sam veered to the right.
“Wait,” Corey’s mother called. “We’re safer together.” When she didn’t stop, they followed her to her camper.
“Please let him still be here,” Sam screamed.
“Shhh.” Corey’s mother tried to calm her, but Sam pushed her away and ran inside the camper to the closet near the back.
“It’s okay boy,” she said, pulling a wolf pup out and hugging it to her chest.
Corey and his mother stared in shock. The limp pup looked lifeless in her arms.
“I love you baby. I’m always going to take care of you. I’ll never leave you.” She cooed.
Before his mother found words, a cold breeze hit them from behind. Corey froze.
“Stay still,” he commanded in a whisper.
He slowly turned his head. The two wolves stood just inside the camper door, inches away from Corey and his mother. A low growl filled the camper. At the sound, the pup made a slight movement.
“You can’t have him.” Sam yelled. “He’s the only family I have.”
“Give it to them.” Corey said.
“No.” She squeezed the pup tighter.
Thinking about the wolf in the den, Corey pleaded with her. “He’ll die if you don’t give him back. He needs his mother.”
At that last part, she hesitated, just for a second, but it was enough time for Corey to spring forward and grab the pup from her arms. Faster than he thought he could move, he turned to the wolves, offering it up with outstretched arms. The smaller of the two wolves grabbed the pup by the scruff of the neck.
“No!” Sam lunged forward towards the pup. The larger wolf met her in the air, grabbing her neck and snapping it.
The larger wolf gave one last warning growl before both wolves turned and left, leaving behind a silence Corey had never known. It was as if both movement and thought had stopped. Frozen in time, he and his mother waited, holding hands, until someone knocked on the door and instructed them to meet in the dining hall.
Somehow the General survived. All in all, the attack lasted less than ten minutes resulting in fifteen injuries, most of which were from people panicking; broken arms from falls, cuts from breaking windows, bruises from people running into each other, one person was shot in the leg. The wolves attacked only two people. Sam’s was the only death.
Corey refused to help in the rebuilding process. He barely left his bed, incapacitated by the thought of the wolf pups’ innocence when he fell into their den and the sight of them hanging in the square. The people left him alone, too busy thinking about the fortification than to worry about one boy.
It took six days for the General to join the people, giving his first command, in an angry, raspy voice, to increase the guards from three to eight per shift. The new school was canceled. Free time was canceled. The walls needed to be mended and made higher. The hunters needed to hunt.
When the General heard that Corey wasn’t doing his share, he came to the camper. He didn’t enter, instead he loomed in the doorway. Lacerations evident on his face, bandages on his hands and probably under most of his clothing. His voice still raspy.
“Boy, this is not summer camp. This is life. We need every abled body to do their share. You will do your duties or face a jail cell.”
Corey stared at the ceiling. To him, this was already a jail cell.
“And your mother will join you.”
“Stan,” Corey’s mother said hesitatingly. “What if instead, you let us leave?”
“No one leaves,” he said firmly. “Besides, there is no place for you to go. The city won’t take you back.”
“Maybe that doctor.”
The General laughed. “Be at work at daybreak, or I’ll add another beating before locking you up.” He turned and then paused. “Oh, and if you try to leave, the guards will shoot.”
Corey listened to his mother cry until she fell asleep sometime after midnight. Then, like the wolves, he crept silently across the yard keeping to the shadows. First to the infirmary, then to the General’s camper, a Marchi Mobile, the nicest one in camp.
“You should lock your doors,” he said after entering in through the sleek door.
The General turned around, his arms on his hips and face so red with anger most people would have backed out of the camper. But Corey had been watching him in the mirror before he turned around. He had seen the shock, the second of vulnerability.
“Boy,” he said, stomping forward, but then stopped suddenly when he saw Corey held the box of vials in his hand. “What are you doing with that?”
“We’re supposed to take this weekly, right? To prevent an outbreak.”
“Put that down.”
“I could drop the whole box.”
“I’m warning you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll give them back after someone drops us off at the doctor’s house.”
“You will give them back right now, or I will beat you until you can’t walk.”
Corey took out a vial and dropped it on the floor.
Stan’s hands shook, but he didn’t move. He stood staring at Corey, nostrils flaring, for what seemed like an hour.
“It’s your choice, Stan.”
Abruptly, the General went to the window, opened it, and yelled, “Guard.”
Almost instantly, a young guard named Jason appeared. “Yes sir?” He said as he entered the camper.
“Get the boy and his mother off the premises, immediately. Give them the keys to the Hummer.”
“But that’s our only vehicle.”
The General struck Jason, knocking him to the floor, his nose gushing blood.
“My orders are not to be questioned. Now, get up,” he yelled. “Go with them and drive the Hummer back.”
The General then turned with one last thing to say to Corey. “If anything happens to those vials, I will personally shoot you in the head and feed you to the wolves.”
Corey ran as fast as he could back to the camper. He didn’t want the General to change his mind. Along the way, he noticed the people whispering. It spread as he ran.
“We have to go mom,” he said, taking the bags he’d already packed from the closet and nudging her out the door. She followed him to the he Hummer without asking any questions. The people were there at the gate, scowls clear on their faces. One woman threw a rock at them. Corey thought they might try to stop them from leaving, instead they lined up and in unison turned their backs on them, making a barrier to the inner camp. The gate opened, and they left The Grove.
Corey’s mother drove, trusting Corey’s directions, while Jason slept in the backseat. They made it to the doctor’s house before daybreak.
The old doctor and his family came out to the porch as they parked. They welcomed them, offering food and rest, but Jason declined, he had to get the Hummer and medicine back. After unloading their bags, Jason left for The Grove.
The doctor’s wife set Corey and his mother up in the guest room. “We’ll get better sleeping arrangements sorted out in the morning. This should work for now,” she said.
Corey lay in bed but couldn’t sleep. He crept down the stairs to the porch where he watched the sun come up.
A wolf howled in the distance. Another returned the call.
“They can roam more than twenty miles around their home territory. Sounds like they’ve moved further off,” said the doc, joining Corey on the porch. “Do they scare you?”
Corey shook his head. “They’re beautiful.”
The doc nodded agreement.
He thought about the innocence he had seen in the mother wolf and her pups.
“They’re not too different than us, are they? Just trying to survive.” Corey didn’t wait for an answer. “Goodnight,” he said.
He’d gone from the crumbling city, to the stifling rule filled camp, to this town, to this home. He understood the world would never be safe.
He walked up the creaky stairs that had survived centuries and envisioned what this place would look like come spring. Apples growing in the orchards. Grass growing in the fields. Building and laughing, and a tire swing out back.
He crawled into bed next to his mother. Her soft breathing told him she was barely asleep.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he whispered. A little louder he told her, “We’re safe now,” because he knew she needed to hear it.
He listened for her breathing to deepen. Then he fell asleep.