AND THEY ENTERED THE ARK
by JAMES RANEY
riggs found the pamphlet in the soldier’s pocket as he was policing bodies in the field. Kneeling in the snow, pants turning icy wet and toes going numb, he read the bright yellow page. Then he read it again. Could it be?
He looked over his shoulder at the group, panning from face to face as they worked, building up a sweat even in the cold, tossing corpses into a pile for burning. His gaze lingered only once, on Sherrie. She never looked his way.
A frosty swirl of wind caught Briggs by surprise, stinging his face and threatening to rip the pamphlet from his grasp. He hastily crumpled it into a ball and shoved it into his pocket. He thought about what it said – about what it meant. There was a safe haven, an ark set adrift in the bloody tidal wave that had washed over the world. Yes, just like the old story. That was the good news. The bad news was that one way or the other, before the group reached this place – before they could get in - one of them had to die.
“Boss…Briggs! You alright, man?” Jeremiah called from the steadily growing pile of bodies. Some of the crawlers were still twitching.
“All good,” Briggs said, waving back. “This one wasn’t quite gone yet. Talked him over to the other side.” That was a stretch; half the man’s face had been eaten away. “But he’s gone now.”
“Some of these things are still kicking, man. Let’s light em up and get the hell out of here.”
Briggs gave the thumbs up before grabbing the dead man by his shirt collar and dragging him to the pyre. Of late, they’d burned the dead people as well as the dead crawlers. The bodies and the blood of the former eventually called the latter. Of course, they’d only been burning the crawlers for a few weeks. Just outside of the city, almost a month gone by, they’d turned their backs on one of those things. How many times had it been shot? It lay there, twitching. The group had gone only a few steps before the crawler caught them from behind, falling on Susan’s little boy, biting him with those black pinchers, draining him dry in front his mother’s eyes. Susan had killed herself the next day. Now they burned them all, just to be sure.
Briggs nodded to Todd and Carol Ann Carter as he shouldered through, tossing his addition onto the gory mound. He produced his zippo and began lighting the kindling shoved between the bodies. As the flames took, he knelt down behind the pyre and snatched the wadded pamphlet from his pocket. He stuffed it in a crack between a soldier’s stiff arm and a crawler’s hairy leg. The yellow paper caught, blackening and folding as it turned to ash.
“What was that?” said a voice behind Briggs, a lisp at the corners of the words. Briggs spun to find Katie, Todd and Carol Ann’s daughter, watching him with those wide blue eyes.
“Nothing,” said Briggs. “Just more kindling.” Katie smiled and walked around the fire to stand by her parents. Briggs followed after her. Together the group watched the fire grow. It was a long time they stood there, the nine of them, even in the stink. Even to the sickening pop of the crawlers’ carapaces bursting in the heat. Part of it was for the warmth. Part of it was to watch a little more of the world turn to smoke and drift away, thinking about what once was, and what might never be again.
Yet it could be again, thought Briggs, losing himself in the flames. He thought about the pamphlet. He thought about its message of hope. But like any good thing, it was going to cost. It was going to cost a great deal.
“Where do you think those soldiers came from?” Craig asked. “They weren’t carrying much gear, were they? They didn’t have any vehicles. I figure that means they came from a base somewhere near here, wouldn’t you all agree?”
Craig was squinting again. It was how he made sure everyone knew he was using that six-figure-a-year brain of his. Briggs hated it. He hated it more when Sherrie would nod right along with him. She was starting to squint when she spoke too. Briggs hated that the most. Craig was changing her. It was even worse when the prick was right.
“Maybe they were part of a unit that got lost or something,” said Carol Ann. “Maybe they were just lost and wandering around like us.”
Gunfire had echoed over the hills earlier that morning. Briggs still couldn’t figure out for the life of him why the group looked to him for decisions in times like those, but they did. All of them except for Craig. Briggs had made the call. Finding another group – joining with another group - was worth the risk of whatever fight they might stumble into. It hadn’t mattered in the end.
It was all over by the time they reached the clearing. The soldiers were dead or dying. They’d managed to kill most of the pack that had done them in, at least. It had been a big pack, too; enough crawlers to wade through machinegun fire, reach the soldiers, and tear them bloody apart. Briggs and the group killed the stragglers, but there were no people left to bring into the fold. The only speaking the soldiers had done had been through the pamphlet.
The pamphlet, Briggs thought. Bright, warm, yellow, with its double-edged promise written in bold, official black.
“I’m more worried about what it means when even soldiers can’t protect themselves,” said Jeremiah, motioning with the M-16 he had taken off one of the dead men. Loren, his wife, gave a furtive glance to Jeremiah, and then to the boy walking between them, their son, Tremain. “But I bet they just got caught by surprise, you know?” he course corrected. “We wouldn’t let that happen to us, right little man?”
“Right,” said Tremain, smiling at his father. It was the smile of a boy quickly growing old enough to see through the lies and half-truths told by adults.
“Craig’s right,” said Briggs after a moment. He brought the group to a halt in a small circle, warily looking over their shoulders through the winter-dead woods. “It was hard to make out what he was saying, but before he died, one of the soldiers told me they were a patrol from a base…a base not far from here. He said we could go there. He said it was safe.”
Eight faces stared back at Briggs, noses and cheeks red from the cold, eyes alight with something Briggs hadn’t seen for weeks and months – hope. Briggs quashed the rising, guilty coil in his gut. He had been right to burn the pamphlet, to hide the other half of its message. But he couldn’t keep that hidden forever, could he? At some point it would have to happen. At some point he would have to choose. Which of these eight faces would it be?
“Will they take us in?” asked Sherrie. She was squeezing Craig’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Is it the government? Can anybody stay there?”
“They gotta have limits of some kind, I’d think,” said Jeremiah. “Food, space, supplies. And let’s not forget the last place we came across. They had more than limits, remember?”
Briggs remembered. There had been twelve of them then. The last “community” they had stumbled upon had not taken so well to “trespassers.”
“From what the soldier said, I think this is something different. Something official.”
“He said all that?” Craig was squinting again. He was squinting at Briggs. Briggs squeezed his rifle tighter, keeping his face still. Craig was smart. Craig didn’t like Briggs. He didn’t trust him.
“It didn’t come out that smoothly. Broken sentences. I mean, Jesus, half his face was eaten off. But I filled in the gaps with what I saw.”
“They were well armed,” said Jeremiah.
“And in uniforms,” said Todd.
“Clean uniforms,” added Loren. “I mean, they were all bloody and covered in guts, I know, but the parts that weren’t, they were newer and cleaner than anything we’ve seen in a while, that’s for sure.”
“Did he also manage to tell you where this place was?” Craig squinted even harder, as though he could squeeze the guts out of Briggs with his narrowed eyes and read the truth in his blood like tea leaves.
“Man, why you gotta question everything all the time? Damn!” Jeremiah shook his head. Briggs imagined the big man hadn’t meant to rattle his newly acquired rifle. But he had. Briggs was glad for the support. He hated Craig’s squint. Truthfully, he feared it. Craig saw a lot with that squint.
“Questions keep mistakes from happening,” said Craig. “They keep people from dying.”
“Well then you can stay here and keep on asking questions until you freeze your ass off or the crawlers find you and chew it off, but I say any place that’ll take us in is worth the stretch.”
“The kids are cold, Craig,” said Carol Ann. Briggs kept his mouth shut. It’s what the group wants, he told himself.
“Weren’t you saying yourself these soldiers came from a base?” asked Sherrie. It was the first time she’d spoken in a while. Briggs had missed the sound of her voice. Whether or not it was because it came from Sherrie, or that it had come in his preferred form of observation, a question, it did the trick for Craig.
“Okay. Let’s give it a shot. So, did the soldier say where it was, Briggs?”
“He did,” said Briggs. It’s what the group wants, he thought. And seven of them would get to enjoy it.
Briggs took first watch that night. It was colder than hell. Well, colder than Dante’s hell anyway. Over the last few months Briggs had come to believe in hell again. Hell could look like lots of different things. Hell could look like sinkholes in Siberia, the ones that started opening up all over the world. Only, this hell didn’t drag you down. It spewed them out.
Briggs bundled up tight in his sleeping bag, back against an unforgiving tree, an M-16 cradled in his arms. The nylon and fleece did little to ease the winter wind gnawing at his bones, especially without a fire. Fire drew the crawlers.
From the tent closest to Briggs, the sound of Jeremiah’s animated voice, retelling yet another sports story to Tremain, mumbled in the dark. The boy refused to close his eyes without his father’s stories. About every other night, Tremain woke up screaming that they were coming for him. The monsters. Briggs cringed every time it happened. One day it would draw the crawlers. The boy was a liability, but Briggs had a hard time blaming the kid. The night it all went to shit, the night Briggs learned to believe in hell again, Tremain woke up in his bed with one of the smaller crawlers climbing up toward his face. Yes, little Tremain, there are such things as monsters. Nightmares are real now. Jeremiah had caved the thing’s head in with a baseball bat. But the creature still lived in Tremain’s mind. And the monster’s millions of big brothers and sisters still overran the world.
No storytelling, chit chat, or talk of any kind came from Todd and Carol Ann’s tent. Briggs couldn’t remember what Todd did before the madness. He was a soft-spoken guy. Carol Ann was the leader of that family. She’d been a real estate agent for seven or eight years, and a damn good one, too. She used to make big bucks. She was tough. Carol Ann was precise and determined.
Their daughter, Katie, on the other hand - that one was royally fucked up. The little girl never had nightmares. She slept soundly every night. How was that possible? Having nightmares like Tremain’s was normal. The world was a nightmare. Katie had seen that nightmare day after day with those wide blue eyes of hers. But she never cried. She never screamed. Briggs wondered what demented machinations were at work behind those eyes.
A rustle of fabric caught Briggs’s attention. He clenched his teeth and squeezed his rifle. The sound had come from inside the third tent. That was the tent Sherrie shared with Craig. It was the rustle of fleece and nylon, the thin hum of zippers. The tent trembled, and the rustle gained a rhythm, slow and steady. Briggs strained his ears. Breathing, urgent and needy, kept pace with the whisper of sliding fabric. Briggs knew that breathing, from a long time ago.
The winter sting felt colder than ever on his nose and his cheeks. It crawled inside his sleeping bag with him, clawing at his skin, tearing into his body. But at the same time, a heat blossomed between Brigg’s legs at the memory of that rhythm and that breathing. When they had been his.
Briggs had been a mechanic once, before. Was it really only a few months ago? God he’d loved cars. A car was how he had met Sherrie. But you couldn’t fix people the way you fixed cars, could you? You couldn’t take out one engine and put in a new one. That was what Sherrie had said to him. That was before Craig.
The heat blooming in Brigg’s center spread to his stomach, then to his chest, where the cold had settled in a dark hollow. A seed of something dark was taking hold in that heat.
What was it his old boss, McSweeny, had said to him that time some idiot had dragged in a beautiful ’67 Chevelle, smashed to pieces? Looks like a wreck, don’t it, Briggsy? Like chaos? But you know what that old book, Art of War, says don’t ya? McSweeny had a shelf full of weird books in his office, all covered in greasy fingerprints. It says, “Out of chaos, there is also opportunity.” We can take this wreck and make it something beautiful again.
The yellow pamphlet glowed to life in Briggs’s mind, like a flame off a match head. It unfolded and unblackened as it leapt from that pyre of crisping bodies and into Briggs’s thoughts. The words were like pulsating blackness off that yellow page, which was flashing bright like a blinking turn signal.
Out of chaos, there is opportunity.
They had been walking all morning, the group and Briggs, tromping through the powder-laden forest, a thin dusting from a light snowfall collecting on their shoulders. Briggs had been leading the way, taking point, M-16 in hand, but not quite at the ready. Briggs’s thoughts had been wandering.
“Briggs, you want me to take a turn?” asked Jeremiah. The question never made it past the fog of turning gears between Brigg’s ears. “Briggs, you alright, man?”
“What?” Briggs finally answered, coming back.
“You need a break, man? You been up front all morning. I’m good for a go.”
“No, no, I’m fine. It’s not far. I know the place. We’ll be there in a few hours.”
Briggs turned back around before he could catch Craig squinting at him again. He had mostly told the truth. He did know the place, the place written on the pamphlet (glowing so bright yellow now. Not a flame on a match or a blinker. Now it was blazing like a safety light on a forklift – bright and spinning and flashing!) The place was close, almost too close. In truth, the group could be there in two hours if they hoofed it, which is why Briggs was heading only in the general direction of the place. He needed a little time to think.
Behind him the group went back to talking about happy things and asking happy questions. Would there be hot showers? Do you think they have beds? What about walls to keep out the crawlers?
This is what they want, thought Briggs. They want to go there. This is what the group wants. There had been so much talk, on TV and radio, at bars and office coolers, when the sinkholes had opened in other countries and the crawlers had poured out. Was this natural selection? Was this the earth sending a message? Briggs hated that talk. Nature didn’t really choose anything, did it? It was all fate and luck and accidents. But animals – animals chose. They had done it for millions of years. They chose who to keep and who to cast out. For millions of years.
Do you think they have eggs there? And toast? How about meat? Oh, I’d kill for a steak right now.
Would you? Thought Briggs. Would you really? The pamphlet was so bright now, even in the darkness of his mind, so bright it was beginning to hurt his head. Only eight of them could enter - but here was the trick - it couldn’t be just any eight, not if the pamphlet spoke true (and it did! It must!) It had to be a very specific eight. And after all those millions of years of animals choosing animals, it would come down to Briggs.
He was thinking so hard about it, and the pamphlet was so bright, bright as a nuclear blast, that Briggs almost missed the answer. The falling snow had nearly hidden it from him, but he caught it; caught it while the others had not.
Prints. Little round indentations in the snow. Several of them.
They must have just come through here, Briggs realized. It was a pack. It was a manageable pack. They were just up ahead, moving slow.
Briggs’s head hurt so badly now. The pamphlet was like a burning cinder of a splinter wedged into his brain. But those pulsing black letters were changing, rearranging themselves into a new message. You don’t have to choose, said the letters. Don’t carry that burden alone. You can let the pack choose for you…if you’re careful.
I don’t have to choose, Briggs almost said aloud. The group wants to go this place. To go to the place, we must be what the pamphlet says. To be what the pamphlet says, one of us must die. But the pack can choose. The pack can choose for you, if you’re careful.
“This way,” Briggs said over his shoulder. He veered the party ever so slightly to the west. “If we pick up the pace, we can be there sooner than I thought.”
“Let’s go!” said the group.
Yes, thought Briggs. Let’s go!
They came upon the pack almost an hour later, only five or six crawlers strong. It was perfect. Briggs spotted them up ahead, minutes before Jeremiah did, ambling up a hill and off to the left through the trees. Had this been the day before yesterday, the day before the pamphlet gave him its message of salvation, Briggs would have called a silent halt with an upraised fist.
But today the pack had to choose.
Briggs led the group as close to the crawlers as he dared before Jeremiah loosed a surprised hiss. Briggs felt the seven future survivors and one sacrificial lamb freeze behind him. He all but heard the breath sucked from their lungs. The group was well practiced. They dropped down as one. The two mothers clamped their hands over the children’s mouths. Jeremiah and Craig ran swiftly to the front, just behind Briggs, kneeling with rifles raised.
There was a moment when instinct almost stole the golden opportunity from Briggs. He hesitated, nearly falling to one knee himself, as he had done hundreds of times, first with his dad’s old shotgun, and now with a dead soldier’s M-16. The pamphlet’s searing gleam faltered.
But Briggs would not let it die. There was hope. The hope was in the message on the pamphlet. The pamphlet said the pack would choose. Briggs took another step, a step onto a brittle branch in the snow. It cracked like a gunshot beneath his boot.
The pack ceased their lumbering. They went rigid, quivering like hunting dogs. They spun back toward the group. Then they poured down the hill.
The stench of decay proceeded the scrambling monstrosities, long, jointed legs, ranging from eight to twelve on each crawler, spearing the ground or pushing off the trees as they came. Four pinchers clapped over each maw, dark red like open wounds, salivating beneath purple clusters of eyes in the center of their small heads. Their armored abdomens were raised in excitement, still quivering at the promise of fresh meat.
Now Briggs let instinct take over. He dropped to a knee and unloaded a short burst into the lead crawler, right into the raspberry patch of eyes. It tumbled to the ground, flopping on its back and writhing with every one of its legs. He whistled over the pop-pop-pop of Jeremiah and Craig, blasting away beside him. As Briggs expected, most of his two companions’ bullets pinged off the thick fence of trees between them and their targets, or glanced off the hard exoskeletons, missing the sweet spot on the face.
Briggs whistled again, motioning for Craig and Jeremiah to move forward, one to each side, to create a kill box, as they had so many times before.
Briggs had grown up hunting and shooting. He could hit a squirrel in the eye, keeping the meat unspoiled, from twenty-five yards by the time he was ten years old. He was the quarterback in these situations. Maybe that was how he’d ended up as the leader, for possessing a quality as simple as point and shoot. With only five crawlers left in the pack, it should have been an easy touchdown. But Briggs was calling an audible.
He let off two more bursts, purposefully aiming high. Jeremiah and Craig had finally managed to drop two themselves, one each. But they had used far more ammo than should have been necessary. They needed to reload – and they weren’t used to the M-16s.
Briggs pivoted and took out the crawler bearing down on Jeremiah, and then went back up the middle to kill the crawler furthest back before rotating all the way back to cover Craig. Adding that single stop in the middle did what Briggs thought it might.
The last crawler fell on Craig as he fumbled with his magazine. He dropped both his extra cartridge and his rifle in the scramble to escape. He tumbled over backwards, the creature scrambling on top of him, spindly legs pinning Craig down and pincers gnashing for his throat. Craig managed to get his forearm, wrapped in a heavy coat, under the pincers, pushing them away from his face. He wriggled under the body, twisting back and forth in a vain effort to escape.
Jeremiah fired from the side. At his angle, all he could hit was the armored exoskeleton.
“Briggs, help!” Craig screamed.
“Craig!” Sherrie cried out from behind. “Charlie, help Craig!”
Charlie. She called him Charlie. She remembered. It was a sign, Briggs told himself. The pack would choose, but the pamphlet never said he couldn’t help.
Briggs set his sites on the grappling monster and man in the snow. They were so close together. He was a good shot, but who was perfect? No one would be able to blame him. The pack had chosen, not him.
Craig, squirming under the snapping pincers, managed to look back. Briggs was squinting at him, right over his sights. Craig’s eyes went wide. Briggs almost smiled. His finger touched the trigger, ready to squeeze.
Screams rose up behind him. They weren’t screaming for Craig or Briggs. They were just screaming. Briggs whirled around. The pamphlet’s vibrant heat went cold as the barren earth.
The manageable pack of six crawlers had only been frontrunners. The full pack was almost thirty strong, merely broken in two. The gunfire and shouting had been so loud to the front that Todd and the others never heard the second wave behind.
Todd had been standing furthest back. The newly arrived pack caught him and yanked him up into the air, crawling all over each other to vie for the warm flesh. Carol Ann wailed. She took her hand from Katie’s mouth and ran to pull Todd back from the creatures. It made no difference. Katie wasn’t screaming. She was just watching, like she always did, with those wide blue eyes, as her father was torn to pieces.
Briggs jumped from his knees and ran back in the other direction. The pamphlet’s yellow light was now a dull, sickly oppression filtering through his scattered thoughts. The pack had chosen – by god they had chosen. But they had chosen differently than Briggs thought.
Carol Ann was a good woman. Strong. Tough. And now she would need a good man. When Briggs became that man, Sherrie would remember what she gave away. She would remember what she could have had. But Carol Ann was about to be swept under a tide of demon beasts. She had Todd by the leg, tugging to get him back, until it ripped away and she tumbled into the snow.
Briggs fired four bursts into the pack, dropping two crawlers. Jeremiah was suddenly at his side, unloading everything in his clip. The giant freakish bugs were falling, but not fast enough.
One of them caught Carol Ann by the ankle. She shrieked, trying to swat it away with the leftover stump of Todd’s leg. Briggs fired again, but his rifle only responded with a mocking, hollow click. He was empty.
He sprung forward, diving for Carol Ann’s outstretched hand. He caught her by the fingernails. They clawed the calloused underside of his palm as she was ripped away, dragged beneath the pack.
Immediately Briggs crawled back on his hands and knees, reaching blindly for his M-16. He was searching his cargo pocket for a fresh clip at the same time. The crawlers were almost done feasting on Todd and Carol Ann. He would be next unless he could get his…
The M-16 was gone. Briggs spun around. He found himself looking into the black barrel of what had been his rifle. It was in Craig’s hand, reloaded and trained on Briggs’s head. Craig wasn’t squinting. His eyes were round, unblinking, animal.
“Craig, what are you doing?” Sherrie shouted – but she did not come between them.
“He was going to kill me.” Craig was talking to Sherrie, but he was looking at Briggs. “He was going to kill me.”
“Craig!” Jeremiah roared over the steady barrage of his machine gun. “Shoot the things, man! Shoot!”
The crawlers were surging again, clattering forward, snow spurting at the strikes of their needling legs. The pack had chosen, thought Briggs. But it had chosen greedily. Each and every member of the group was going to die.
The crawlers crowded into Brigg’s periphery, reaching for him, Sherrie, Craig, Jeremiah, Loren, and the two kids. Yet Briggs was sure he would never feel their bites. The bullet from Craig’s M-16 was going close his eyes first.
Briggs was taking his last breath when the crawlers around him began to explode. The rattle of gunfire echoed through the trees, accompanied by shouting men and rumbling armor. Bullets by the hundreds whistled through the forest, popping into the soft eyes like exploding fruit. The heavy, metallic thud of a Humvee-mounted 50 cal hammered above it all, piercing even the hard exoskeletons, shredding the crawlers, mowing them down.
Briggs turned to see another patrol, this one alive and with the element of surprise on their side, breaking through the trees. When the crawlers turned on the soldiers, they waded close enough to make the men nervous. But the troops were lucky. This was a small pack. There were other packs out there, armies really, tens of thousands of crawlers strong.
The Humvee skidded to a stop and four soldiers popped out to join the clutch already on foot. Like a well-oiled machine they went to work at once, gathering the scattered parts and remains, piling them on the snow. With a douse of gasoline from a red canister and a lighter’s flick, a morbid bonfire sprang to life.
A soldier with a lieutenant’s bar in the center of his helmet strode to the group. His steady eyes flicked across the stunned faces. His gaze lingered on Briggs and Craig, the M-16 still leveled between them.
“Look, Mr. Briggs,” said Katie. Her parents were dead and her blue eyes were wide and unblinking. But of all things, she was pointing to the pocket on the lieutenant’s flak vest. “He has some of your yellow kindling.”
Jutting out from the zippered pocket, flagging in the cold wind, a bright yellow fold flapped at the lieutenant’s chest. The officer’s cold eyes went hard. His hand floated up to his sidearm, fingers wrapping around the grip. “What do you mean, kindling, little lady?”
“We came across one of your patrols yesterday,” said Craig. “They were all dead.” Craig lowered the rifle. He was squinting again, first at the pamphlet, then at Briggs. Craig held out his hand. The lieutenant gave him the pamphlet. Slowly, Craig unfolded the page, scanning the black words. At the bottom of the page his eyes shifted to Briggs. “You knew about this. You knew.”
Briggs got to his feet, dusting the snow from his pants. He took a look around the group, faces full of questions, and behind the questions, answers already forming. The group didn’t know it, Briggs thought, but they were the pack now, and they were choosing.
“Yeah, I knew,” said Briggs. He looked to the officer. “Sir, I believe you can take these six to the safe haven. I believe they meet the requirements.”
“The requirements?” asked Sherrie. “What requirements?”
“We only take couples of childbearing age and children, one male and one female. No exceptions, ma’am. Resources are limited, and once all this is over, we need to have a population conducive to rebuilding the species. We’re in an enclosed, underground military facility. In such a situation, single men tend to…cause trouble.” The lieutenant glanced back and forth between Briggs and Craig.
Briggs almost laughed. He almost reared back his head and howled. Why, you’re right on the button, aren’t you, lieutenant? Single males do cause trouble. That’s why the pack chooses them. That’s why the lone wolves howl at the moon, all by themselves.
The pamphlet’s yellow light glowed again inside Briggs’s head. It was warm once more; warm enough to beat back the cold kiss on his skin. The headache punishing the inside of Briggs’s skull faded away. His thoughts cleared.
“Well, here they are lieutenant,” he said. “They’re good people. They’re good families. Who knows, maybe there are more out there.”
A dull shriek scraped over the hills. Another pack had been alerted by the firefight. The soldiers leapt back into the Humvee or fell in line beside it.
“Alright then, let’s go folks,” the officer said to the six. He waved his hands with a soldier’s impatience for civilian inefficiency. “These hills will be swarming in the next few minutes.”
None of the group protested. None of them spoke up or begged for an exception. Jeremiah and Loren took Tremain between them. Jeremiah walked with his head down. His eyes were forced to the snow so they would not meet Briggs’s. He followed Craig, who never looked back. Sherrie took Katie by the hand, Katie who was not crying or whimpering. But Sherrie did pause, paused to look back at Charlie Briggs one last time. It might have been a look of hate and accusation, if Briggs had been analyzing it. But it was a look, and Briggs took it for what he wanted it to be.
At the end, it was only Briggs and the lieutenant. “We can’t spare any weapons or ammo for you sir. Against, regs,” said the soldier. By the practiced rhythm of the words and the downward tilt of his gaze, Briggs knew this was not the first time the man had delivered that message. It would not be the last.
“I understand.” Briggs had lost his M-16 to Craig, and his father’s shotgun was empty. But he did have a handgun at his hip. He pulled it out, popping the clip to show the officer that it was dry. How about a spare?”
The officer hesitated. Those hard eyes softened for a moment. He withdrew his sidearm, pulling back the slide, popping free one cylinder of cold metal. With a gloved fist he passed it to Briggs. Briggs took it. The two men shared a nod and then the officer walked away, barking orders to his men. The convoy pulled out. Briggs was alone.
It was minutes later that Briggs heard the stampeding steps on the hill, over a hundred strong. But it was okay. The pack had chosen. Two by two the others had entered the Ark, to be spared the flood. But at least Briggs would not drown. He’d been offered salvation of a kind once again, and he loaded that mercy into his clip.
James Raney grew up all over the world, in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He now lives in Los Angeles, writing short stories and novels, chasing after his literary dreams.
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