By Jason Lairamore
Jason Lairamore is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. He is a published finalist of the 2012 SQ Mag annual contest, the winner of the 2013 Planetary Stories flash fiction contest, and has recently won a place into the 2014 StoneThread SpecFic Short Story Contest III. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 25 publications to include Stupefying Stories, Third Flatiron publications, and Postscripts to Darkness, to name a few.
Ash lay behind, all over the world. Everything hurt. All of it. Ever since she died.
I lie at the tree line under a cover of dead leaves and scan the open plain for signs of life. It's midday, but the sky is overcast enough to make it look near dusk.
Uncle Ira came. I didn't hear him until he spoke. He is quiet, has gotten more so over the years.
"Got a couple hares," he says. "Saw another of their scouts. Not as sloppy as the last."
I roll out from under the dead leaves. Ira squats against a tree. His furs match the forest. So does his face. A pair of rabbit hangs from his belt.
"Think they suspect yet?" I ask.
"Everybody suspects nowadays, boy."
True enough. "Let's go try to make friends," I say.
There's food aplenty for thems who know their business. Problem is many don't. They'd never learned. The bombs did their evil quick. Ignorance, though, it can be a slow killer.
So meeting people got mixed up with food in one way or another, like a custom.
We make a lot of noise.
"We have food to share," Uncle calls.
"Why?" The eternal question floats back.
"To join," Strength in numbers and all that.
"Come." The man must be hungry to trust so fast. "I have a gun," he adds.
That's some risk, but we go.
The man did a fair job of hiding, better than the last anyway. After I see him I walk a little more and act surprised he's so close. He does have a gun, red with rust. He holds it wrong, like a club. I hold out the rabbits.
"Hungry?" Ira asks.
The scout stares hard at the rabbit. Ira smiles. I don't know how he smiles. I can't smile.
The man smiles back. His teeth are awful. He keeps his distance. I start a fire.
"Name?" Ira asks.
"Bark," he says. It's the right gang. We've had a Root, a Stem, A Leaf, some others, all similar names.
Ira gives his name. I don't. Bark eyes me, but I'm good at looking uninterested. He probably thinks I'm one of the shell shocked living on the inside in la-la land while my outside gets by on autopilot. He is partly right.
We eat rabbit. Bark smears the greasy meat all over his face like a toddler.
Afterward we travel together through some dead ruins, dead like everywhere. The buildings are in decent repair. Their paint is just a little faded from neglect.
Ira puts a thumb to the hollow under his cheekbone, like he does when he's thinking. It's about time.
"Good a place as any," Ira mutters. He spits to seal the deal. It is his way to mark the place. He remembers the places where he's spat.
My left hand shakes. The wind hits the dead thistle taking over the street. Ira gives me a quick glance. I meet his gaze and lift my hatchet an inch from its loop. Habit.
"Bark, you got people?" Ira asks.
"Yeah," Bark says. "Some of the chosen gets special names like mine. Glut does the naming."
"Chosen?" asks Ira.
"Those that do more, contribute more, they get more, get me?"
Bark had belly enough to hang over his belt. I've gotten unused to that. It looks uncomfortable.
"So how many are you?"
Enough talk. It didn't matter how many, not until there was none. "Hey Bark," I say.
I clear my hatchet as Bark turns his ugly grin in my direction. I swing. He doesn't reach for his gun. He grits those black teeth and smashes his eyes closed. He falls before my swing connects. My blade bites deep at his ear, continues through his eye, and wedges halfway through his nose.
Bark's convulsions wrench the axe from my hand. Ira steadies me and nods to his left where there's a low, broken stone wall and what looks like a gutted storage building behind. I go sit on the wall. There are some old broken casks lying about, enough to make a fire.
I break down a few casks and get my flint ready. Ira pulls Bark over the wall with a few grunts then tosses my hatchet down beside me. I get the dry boards lit.
Ira works on Bark. I pull our metal pot from one of our packs.
"No water," I say. "Cut some of that belly, gonna render some fat."
Ira hands me a bloody piece of yellow, red and white.
"It'd have been good to know how many are left," he says. I stir the flames with a stick and edge the pot close.
"It doesn't matter," says I. "You get the liver this time." I point to Bark's open gut with a smoldering stick. "Sounds like you need the extra."
"You think little Imogen would want us going this far?"
I bend over the pot. Grease pops in my face and I jerk back.
I rub at it with the back of my hand. "I don't care. I want to do this."
"Everybody's starving. Everything's dead," he says.
"And you want to go back home to the family compound, to forget they killed my eight year old sister, that they ate her. Go. I've told you to go before."
"Boy, you're only thirteen years old. If you're father were alive."
I laughed and move the belly fat with a stick to keep it from sticking.
"He's not though is he, Uncle. Hand me the liver."
Ira hands me the dark red tissue then looks down into the partially butchered body
"Comes around sometimes, is all," he says. "Sad it all ended this way. People eating people like mindless zombies from the movies just because they're too stupid to live any different."
"It's not the end for all," I say. "Just those that took my sister from me."