Part 2 in a short story from the same world as The Darkest Hour. You can read Part 1 here. Look for the final part, coming soon.
The stranger continued to investigate the ruins, moving farther away from Johnny. Silence enveloped him, broken only by the creaking of the boards as the man moved around the destruction. Johnny willed himself to move. To run. At least then he had a chance. But no matter how much his brain screamed at his legs to move, they didn’t listen.
In the silence another sound emerged. Another motor. Faint, but even far away, Johnny could tell it was bigger than the stranger’s cycle. The stranger must have heard it too, because the stomping and creaking stopped for ten heart beats and then pounded back toward him faster.
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut again just as the light fell on him. A sob shook his body.
“I don’t see any wounds, but it’d be a lot easier to be sure if you’d talk to me.” The voice was gruff and foreign.
Johnny didn’t move.
A sigh. “I don’t want to rush you, but the people that scare you aren’t far away. We need to leave. I can take you to family or friends or someone who’ll help you.”
Johnny’s sobs took over, ripping out of his throat.
A hand fell onto his back, moving back and forth, not unlike the way his mom soothed him to sleep. He flinched and the hand pulled away. “We gotta get out of here, kid.” Urgency had built in the man’s voice and Johnny held his breath against the sobs to listen. The second motor had grown to a roar.
The stranger scooped Johnny into his arms and carried him through the remains of the house, grunting under his weight. “You’re a strong kid aren’t yo—Queen’s Crown!” The man stumbled, dropping his light and barely managing to keep both of them from tumbling to the ground.
He paused, then moved on without the light. They broke out of the house. Dawn was close enough to make the world grey instead of black. Cutting through the grey was not one vehicle, but three. A van and two trucks, backs covered in canvas. Their lights spotlighted the farm and the house and the stranger, holding Johnny in his arms.
Johnny pushed against the man’s chest and squirmed loose, scrambling away. The man didn’t stop him. His eyes were on the caravan. “Kid, come with me. You don’t want to mess with them.”
Johnny eyed the cycle, ten feet away. He didn’t need to be told not to mess with the caravan. He’d seen them before, but his father had always stood at the door with his rifle, keeping them safe. The van slowed and turned off the main road.
The stranger backed closer to Johnny. “I know you don’t have any reason to trust me, but you gotta come with me.”
Johnny stumbled back. He didn’t know what to do.
The trucks followed the van, stopping fifty feet away, blocking the road. A dozen men tumbled out and in three seconds both Johnny and the stranger had guns pointed at their chests.
A large man—a head taller than anyone else–stepped forward, eyeing Johnny as he addressed the stranger. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. This is our territory. Leave. I’ll let you go, just this once, because I’m having a good day.”
The stranger nodded once. “Come on kid, let’s go.” He grabbed Johnny’s arm and pulled him one step toward the cycle. Johnny stiffened.
“The kid’s ours.” The leader cocked his gun.
The stranger stopped. He dropped Johnny’s arm and turned slowly back to face the raiders. “Can’t leave my son.”
The lead raider barked out a laugh. Even Johnny scowled. The stranger’s pale skin made it impossible for them to be related. Why did he even say it?
“You’re going to have to do better than that.”
The stranger rolled onto his heels as he stared down the company of raiders. Then he did something stupid. He turned his back on them, and looked right into Johnny’s eyes. “It’s your choice, kid. You want to go with them? I’ll walk away and it’ll save me a lot of trouble. But if you want to come with me, you’re going to have to let me know. Right now.”
“Kid doesn’t have a choice.” The leader stomped closer. “And you’re about to lose yours. Get. Out. Now. Or you’ll be going to the same place as him.”
The stranger kept his eyes glue to Johnny. Once, Johnny’s mom had given him the choice between mucking out the goat pen or cleaning the chicken coop. Johnny had told her he chose neither.
“That’s not one of the options, Corncob,” she’d said. “Whatever power made us, gave us choices, but not usually the ones we want.”
“So what if I don’t choose any?” Johnny asked.
His mother clucked her tongue. “You’ll probably get stuck with the worst consequences of both.”
Johnny ducked out and hoped his mother would forget. She didn’t. He had ended up cleaning both.
The raiders would sell him, sure as a cow had to be milked twice a day. The stranger probably would too. But only probably. Johnny reached his fingers out and touched the stranger’s palm. The man nodded again. “Kid go get on the back of my bike.” He turned back to the raiders. “We’ll be out of your way in less than a minute.”
The leader shoved the gun towards the stranger’s chest. “You must really want to spend your days working for someone else.”
The stranger sneered. “I’m not going to make you any richer if I’m dead.”
“You’ll make us plenty if you’re wounded. Ever felt a bullet rip through your leg before?” He pointed the gun down at the stranger’s thigh.
Quick as a cat, the stranger whipped a bow from under his jacket, and slammed it into the raider’s stomach. The raider doubled over and got a kick to his hand. The gun dropped to the ground.
The raiders screamed, storming forward, but the stranger already had an arrow notched. His weapon was aimed at the leader’s neck.
“Don’t come closer.”
“You do that and you seal your death.” A woman called. “Better a slave than dead.”
The stranger didn’t move. “You’ve obviously never been a slave. The kid’s not worth the effort. He’ll fetch almost nothing. You can have anything in the house, no use fighting over the kid.”
The leader laughed nervously and took a step away from the arrow, but the stranger kept the tip aimed for the kill.
“Kid’s big. It may take a few years, but he’ll be a giant when he’s grown. We can get a decent return on him.”
“And you know it,” the woman screamed. “Or you wouldn’t be trying to steal him from us.”
Johnny whimpered. The other kids told stories about the slave nation. He thought the stranger was right. He’d rather die. A few eyes tracked over him, alerted by his crying. They looked greedy. Johnny shrunk from their gaze, and bumped into the cycle. A few of the raiders shuffled closer.
The net tightened around them. The leader knew it. “Just give it up now. No use—”
The stranger flicked his body, releasing the arrow. He missed. Johnny’s mouth gaped opened. A man screamed. The stranger sprinted for the cycle, shoving the bow back under his jacket. Raiders surged towards them.
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut again. Any second they’d shoot the stranger and probably Johnny too. The stranger snatched Johnny up and dropped him onto the back of the cycle. “Hold onto my waist. Now!”
Johnny grabbed the stranger’s jacket as the motor roared to life. He opened one eye. The raiders charged. The leader scrambled for the gun that had fallen to the ground. Where were the other guns?
The cycle jerked forward and Johnny almost fell, but the stranger pulled his arms tight. They swerved away from the mob, spraying dirt as the tires fought to gain purchase. Then the trucks were between them and the raiders.
The stranger reached down and pulled a knife from his boot. As they reached the last truck, he slowed, leaned over, and slashed the tire on the truck. Johnny looked back. The leader had a gun aimed right at them. He hugged the stranger tighter.
The motor growled and they jumped forward, gaining speed and skipping onto the highway, where they left the raiders and Johnny’s inside-out home behind.
Part 3 will be coming soon. Let me know what you think!