The child daydreams a lot these days, Jessica thought. He may as well die. He’s useless here. He weighs us down. Slows us. Does nothing but stare off into the distance and mumble nonsense.
“Eat your food, Worley,” Jessica shouted at the child. She spoke through her teeth, jaded toward the young one.
Their feast tonight was dried, salted beef with Tabasco. The kid wouldn’t touch it. She had fought off three of those son-of-a-bitch monsters to get this and she wasn’t going to let it go to waste.
“If you won’t, I’m going to eat it.”
He didn’t move or even flinch when she grabbed the thin slice of the hardened meat and began to chew on it. Stupid kid, she thought. Was that a tear in his eye? Should she offer it to him again? She paused for a moment. No. Keep eating. Help yourself before you help those around you, the good Samaritan airline passenger motto.
She gnawed on the beef and watched this dead weight of a kid. This suck on her life. He had found her in the middle of the night. She was off track, lost from her group while scavenging for food. He was crying loudly. Drawing attention. She considered killing him just to shut him up but then felt sorry for him long enough that she let him stay with her.
Now the two were trying to find their way back to Jessica’s group. They’d probably kill him. What was he, ten? Twelve? She didn’t know. Hadn’t asked. Didn’t care. She thought of him as bait. In a pinch, she could outrun him or throw him to the monsters and give herself time to get away.
This was survival. She wasn’t proud of her thoughts in a way that would make her espouse them as doctrine, but she also wasn’t afraid to admit they were her reality now. Everyone’s reality. She had to be this hard, she told herself. They all had to be. This kid, this orphan, this child; he too would either harden or die. She was certain it would be the latter.
It was hot. Ungodly hot. Humidity that made skin stick to itself. Everything was damp and smelled of death and fear. The smell of hamster cage, urine soaked wood chips. Hot. Yet, the kid appeared to be shivering. Was he sick? Perfect, she thought. Another issue. They had been together for only a couple weeks and now he’s gonna be sick? Medicine was impossible to find. That’s how she had lost Maddy. She looked away from the kid. She couldn’t stand to see him. She didn’t want to remember her through him. She hated Worley. Maddy was superior in every way. Maddy was her little fighter. Maddy never cried. Always helped out. Scavenged like a pro. Until she got sick.
“Mm, mm,” Worley croaked.
Muttering fool. What a waste, Jessica thought. He couldn’t even talk well. Useless. She felt the ridged stiffness of the knife blade at her side. This was it, she decided. She was going to kill him. Here and now. Slit his threat and be done with it. Then she could move faster. Find her group and…
“Ma, Maw, mmm,” Worley mumbled again. His body arched backwards.
Jessica reached to her side and easily unclicked the strap holding the knife in place. She unsheathed it and examined it for damage. For blood. For stains. For answers.
This wasn’t going to be pretty. When this knife had killed Maddy, it was for good reasons. It was for great reasons, in fact. This kid wasn’t good or great. He was a nuisance. He was a cinder block on a chain tied to her leg. She was drowning. And now, in this moment, she would cut him free. Besides, he shouldn’t even be in this shitty world, she told herself. She was doing him a favor.
“Mon, maw, mon,” Worley said louder. Agitated.
Jessica looked up, ready to do her deed. Steel her heart. Bind her mind. She was ready. The kid was still shivering. Pointing. He was pointing out the window. Her eyes tracked his line of sight to a pack of fifty, maybe more. Monsters. Some large. Some small. All of them torn and ravaged by the weather. All looking hungry. Angry. Damaged.
Jessica quickly surmised that Worley wasn’t big enough to be bait for a pack this size. Maybe he would slow them and give her enough time to run. No. Pointless. Even if it stopped ten of them, she wouldn’t get past three dozen more.
Many of the supplies they had just found would need left behind. Shit! This was bad. Very bad. The space was small. Only one exit. A door. Facing the oncoming hoard. And this window. The window into her future. A future of pain and death and longing. A future of never seeing anyone she loved again. Though Maddy; Maddy may be waiting for her on the other side. In the after. The ether. The new Jacobian cult. This was the culling.
“Get down you stupid little shit,” Jessica whispered. “If they see you through the window we’re done.”
The boy instead stood. The opposite of her command. Her eyes widened and anger boiled in her veins. She should have killed him when they first met. Slit his stupid throat open and been done with him. He would be her end. She ducked and reached for him, hoping to pull him down below the view of the window.
At the glass, three disfigured faces appeared. Growling. Fingers and bone clawing. The small shack suddenly shook as the remaining bodies pushed and collided with each other into the outside wall and door. The cabin strained and creaked. The staccato growls and screams were deafening. These were demons. This is how she would die? Or would she slit her own throat to spare herself the torture? She had seen too many others be torn apart in her life. She would not submit to this. Jessica gripped the knife and brought it to her neck, hand shaking. Terror coursed through her. Tears blurred her vision. She hesitated, unsure if she could drag the blade.
Worley was still standing, hand extended and mumbling incoherence. He continued even when the glass broke. Her grip tightened on the blade. He didn’t move or cease his chant when the door cracked open either. Jessica’s screams we’re loud but Worley’s voice rose to the occasion. And the monsters abruptly stopped. They all stared at Worley. Then, as a group, they began motions as if speaking. Hand gestures. Facial ticks. Some sat and continued the charade. This went on for several minutes. The hoard eventually began to wander off. Worley didn’t move.
Jessica watched the procession in awe as blood ran from her neck. She weakened and darkness crept in around her view. Sounds were all fading from her though she could still see, and the view was so unbelievable to her, she knew she must be dead already.
The last of the monsters finished this odd puppetry and exited in a slow plodding stumble. One even did an awkward bowing motion and then parted. The door remained open. The window destroyed. The boy collapsed, panting, sweating.
“Mo, mon, monsters t, t, t, t, ta, talk,” Worley stammered and then turned to see a pool of blood.
The darkness closed in more tightly and a moment later, Jessica escaped the treacherous world with this newfound knowledge. Worley would be on his own, but he would be safe. He was a listener. He had a gift and would be safe from the monsters. And, from her.