Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
Fox and her brother, John-bear, had been sleeping in a second-floor room of an old roadside motel when the owner of the gas station across the highway killed a man for his Volkswagen Jetta. The whiplash crack of bullet-on-glass grabbed Fox by the throat and she was awake, lying where she’d dropped a few hours before, boots unlaced but still on her feet.
“John-bear,” she whispered, and glanced up to her brother where, sitting upright, he’d fallen asleep at the head of the bed. He had his arms crossed in front of him, head lolled back, Fox’s shotgun laid over his legs. Ever the teenager. “John-bear,” she hissed and smacked the toe of his boot as another shot went off outside. It was dull, and wet. Bullet on flesh.
Fox grabbed her shotgun and her brother and all three were outside on the walkway before the man with the car had drawn his gun to return fire. They ran down the stairs, past a woman smoking a pipe of crushed tobacco, and crossed the motel marking lot while three additional men with guns spilled out of the gas station’s convenience store. None of their gunfire had crossed the highway, yet, but it would. It always did. And Fox had a rule about guns: when shots were fired, run.
The woman they’d paid for their room watched them dash across the parking lot from the motel’s front office, not apparently bothered by the post-apocalyptic pissing contest going on next door. A bunch of teenagers no older than Fox lounged near a pair of defunct vending machines, no doubt waiting for a room. When they saw Fox, one of them slipped inside the office. Another whistled. Fox cursed at them under her breath, but kept running.
They didn’t stop until they’d ditched the main highway for a country road heading approximately the direction they were going. “Well, that was forty bucks well spent,” Fox said and kicked at a hunk of pavement that had come dislodged from the road.
“Man, I’m tired,” John-bear whined, letting every one of his thirteen years show. “We should have stayed. I’m sure it would have been fine.”
“And I’m sure you were supposed to be the lookout.” She jabbed him in the side with the stock of her shotgun. “We’re just going to have to keep going.”
“How much farther to Indianapolis?”
Fox dug the folded state map out of her back pocket. “We’ll make it by dark,” she said, looping the strap of her shotgun around her shoulder to mess with the map, “but just barely.”
John-bear slung his arms back over his head and groaned, but kept walking.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she muttered, tracing their options from Indianapolis to Chicago. It had been a long time since they’d gone home. Years, even. But at that point, Fox didn’t know what else to do.
The wind kicked up behind them, pelting Fox’s bare arms with granules of dirt and pavement and carrying with it a buzzing sound that stirred against the highway. John-bear had already moved on to speculating about the canned goods he dreamed of lifting out of some decrepit Indianapolis grocery store. Fox stopped and looked back down the road.
Heat burned off the road on the horizon. Her fingertips itched against the map, sweat seeping into the edges. She folded it, slowly, and let a hand drift to the stock of her shotgun.
John-bear looked back at her. “Something out there?”
“I don’t know,” Fox said and then the buzzing washed over them like a thousand cicadas humming. She shoved the map into her pocket. “We gotta go,” she said, and forced her brother
They tumbled through a patch of brush and weeds overgrowing in a line of scraggly trees planted on the side of the highway. One step behind her brother, Fox snagged her foot on a branch. She wheeled forward and caught her balance, but not without a sharp twist to her ankle.
“Goddamnit,” she cursed, and kept running.
On the other side of the thicket was some old farmer’s field. It seemed to have been unattended for years; the grass grew long and slathered Fox’s skin with late summer pollen. John-bear sprinted through it. He threw his arms out at his sides and, in a surge of wild adrenaline, howled in delight.
“Would you shut it?” Fox shouted at him. She kept a careful eye behind them. Hazy blacktop bled through the trees behind them, and she couldn’t tell whether it was heat or bodies moving in the spaces in between. She blew air through the gap in her teeth where she’d lost a molar the year before. Her body ached. They’d been rationing and hunger burned at her joints.
“Speak for yourself.” John-bear flashed her a grin over his shoulder.
Fox ground her teeth. “In case you need a reminder,” She fixed the strap of her shotgun on her shoulder, “the aim is not to get shot at by a marauding stranger.” Then, her foot caught on the lip of something firm and metal. She tumbled forward into a full somersault that put her on her back in the grass. Clouds and blue sky swam in her eyes. “Oh,” she groaned, “god.”
“Shhh.” John-bear crouched over her, hidden in the grass that crested on a summer breeze over their heads. He stared ahead as if he could look straight through the blades back the way they’d come. Fox imagined that, overhead, anyone looking down could trace their serpentine path through the field. She breathed shakily, heart ricocheting around her ribcage, and closed her eyes. Fox didn’t believe in God or heaven or any afterlife that wasn’t the one she already lived in. There wasn’t anyone looking down on them.
“I think we’re in the clear,” John-bear said. He tipped from the balls of his feet and dropped onto his ass, one arm slung lazily over his knees. He prodded Fox’s forehead. “Come on,” he said. “You’re okay.”
Fox swatted his hand away and pushed herself up. “We should keep going,” she said and gasped in pain, doubling over. Her ribs ached. She reached underneath her t-shirt and felt along the more tender spots for anything that felt like a break. Then, she reached for her shotgun. “What even was that?” she asked.
John-bear kicked the rim of the metal thing hidden in the grass with the heel of his boot. “Whatever this is,” he said and kicked it again, harder. Metal groaned against metal and a plate of reinforced steel slid off of what looked to be a metal basin buried in the dirt.
Fox yanked at the grass that tangled over the basin, revealing a thickly-walled steel pit carved into the ground. It had a ladder bolted to one side, the metal dull and clouded. Light, filtered scattershot through the grass, danced on the concrete floor at the bottom.
“What is it?” John-bear helped her to her feet and stood half a step behind her, her body an unspoken shield. He peered over her shoulder and Fox wondered when her little brother had gotten so tall.
“Some kind of bunker.”
“No fucking way,” he said. “That’s so cool.” He edged her aside and dropped a foot onto the top rung of the ladder, testing its strength under his weight.
Fox crossed her arms over her chest. She eyed the pit with distrust. “I don’t know, John-bear,” she said. She pressed her foot against the rim of the basic, forcing stray blades of grass over the side like a shredded waterfall of green. “This is old world stuff.”
John-bear whined, like a puppy waiting for a treat held above his head. “But it looks so cool,” he pressed. “What if there’s something down there we can use.”
“What if there’s someone down there?”
“If someone’s down there, we’d be dead by now,” he said, and Fox couldn’t argue with the logic. They’d been standing there aboveground for at least ten minutes, talking loudly. If someone had heard them, they’d already know.
A breeze picked up across the field and ruffled the hair that grew long over John-bear’s forehead. His knife hung in a sheath from his belt – one of the last things they’d actually paid for, years ago – and he tapped the blade with the side of his thumb. Then, he dropped another foot onto the ladder and lowered himself into the pit.
“John-bear,” Fox warned, her tone turning harsh. Her skin pricked, goosebumps dancing up her arms in time with the spike in her heartrate. “You’re backing us into a corner here.” It was one of her rules: don’t put yourself in a position that only has one escape.
“Bring your gun,” he said. “Who’s around, anyway?”
Fox gestured emphatically toward the highway. “Excuse me?”
He stopped halfway down the ladder and squinted up at her. “Can you see them now?”
Grass brushed her elbows, making her skin itch, but nothing else stirred in the grass. Heat stirred behind the trees at the highway. It had to be heat, she swore to herself. All of it was just a trick of the sun. They’d know by now if it had been differently.
“Coming?” John-bear stood at the bottom of the pit now, some twelve feet beneath the surface. Tentatively, he pressed his palm against a door left ajar, and disappeared inside.