From the author: Trapped within a quarantine shield, in a town where a biological weapon kills all but the children, a young man struggles to protect his unexpected--and unwanted--family of orphans.
Hunter ducked out the door of the Road's End Motel. He wanted to slam it shut behind him, but held himself back. No matter how much the refugee kids got on his nerves, he tried not scare them by showing them the anger simmering under his confident mask.
The late summer night was humid, tinged with the stench of corpses, but outdoors a breath of wind stirred the thick air. Hunter wrinkled his nose and rubbed his stubbled chin. No matter how many bodies he buried, the kids still found more on their scouting rounds. It couldn't last forever. Soon there'd be nothing left to bury but bones.
His fingers tapped restlessly on his thigh. He needed a cigarette. The pack was in his back pocket, along with a lighter, but he resisted the nicotine's whispered temptation. There was no telling if he'd ever find another one.
His gaze flashed skyward. The stars were blurred blotches through the shimmering quarantine shield. A gibbous moon illuminated the empty street. The corner store sat dark, the panes of its smashed-in windows glinting on their sharp edges. The pack in Hunter's pocket had been the last one in the store, and he didn't want to leave the kids alone long enough to trek to the grocery closer to the town center. The next food run would be soon enough.
If he didn't tear his hair out first.
Hunter's head hurt, a persistent dull throb that radiated down through his neck and into his arms. He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the ache.
The door squealed open and Asha stuck her head out, the candle in her hand casting dancing shadows over her face. Fifteen-years old, just seven years younger than himself, and her eyes were already sunken, her cheeks hollow. She looked like she hadn't slept in months, and it was close enough to true to make no never-mind. Her long blonde hair hung lank and lifeless.
"Hunter?" She peered into the darkness, her shoulders hunched towards her ears. "Maggie's got the night terrors again. I tried to get her back to bed, but she won't close her eyes until she sees you."
Hunter folded his arms across his chest, the worn fabric of his fitted undershirt catching in the hairs on the back of his forearms. Ten minutes he'd asked for. Ten minutes of peace.
He glared down at Asha until she ducked her head and looked away.
"I'm sorry," she said, a tremor in her voice, "but she was crying so loud I thought she'd wake up the rest. Wasn't 'til I told her I'd get you that she quieted."
An owl hooted in the distance and the first few fallen leaves blew down the street with a brittle swish. Hunter's chest tightened and he felt the back of his neck flush. He'd frightened Asha again. It was hard to remember that she was a child just as much as the little ones.
The oldest girl, she'd slipped into the role of foster mother to the patchwork brood without complaint. Steady, quiet, uncomplaining Asha, so different from his own mother. He'd have traded them in a second when he was a boy. It wasn't Asha's fault he was left alone to guard this fragile remnant of Myrtle Creek.
He forced the corners of his lips to smile, although he knew it didn't reach his eyes. "It's fine," he said. "I was done out here. Tell Maggie I'll be right there."
Asha nodded and vanished, leaving him in the dark again.
Hunter took three long, slow breaths. With each exhalation he tried to visualize his vices leaving his body. Anger, guilt, fear. The clenched muscles at the base of his neck softened until he thought he could face Maggie without frightening her worse than the night terrors.
Before closing the motel door behind him, Hunter swept one last glance down the street. Nothing moving. No sounds out of place.
He shut the door, flipped the deadbolt, and slid the chain lock into place. Hunter checked to be sure his gun was secure in its holster, then headed down the hall to find Maggie.
The next morning at breakfast, Hunter surveyed his charges. A baker's dozen of them, ranging in age from little Maggie, just shy of three years old, up to Michael, a few months older than Asha.
Despite being oldest, and almost as tall as Hunter, Michael still looked like a kid. The pale hint of a mustache bloomed on his upper lip beneath his bright mop of red hair, but his body was still thin, his shoulders narrow. He walked around the tables in the motel's continental breakfast room distributing granola bars to the little ones, his gaze seeking out Hunter, like he was checking to make sure Hunter was noticing him.
Catching Michael's eyes, Hunter inclined his head. The boy pulled his shoulders back and puffed out his chest. Hunter's bite of granola bar tasted like chalk. He forced it down, past the constriction in his throat.
How long could he keep up this charade of a family? Just because he was apparently the only person over sixteen left alive in this thrice-damned city didn't make him a leader, a mentor, a father.
Hunter's headache flared.
He pushed away from the table, startling little Maggie who dropped her bar on the floor. He had to get away, and he needed a smoke. "Asha, how're the supplies holding up?"
Asha glanced over from the sink in the attached kitchenette where she was scrubbing yesterday's plastic glasses. She'd still been awake when Hunter had finally gotten Maggie back into her bed, and turned in for the night himself. He wasn't sure how she was still standing.
"Granola bars are almost gone," she said. "There's still jerky and tuna cans, but the dried fruit won't last two more days."
Hunter nodded. Good. "I'm going to walk into town today, then," he said. "Michael, get the pack for me."
"Can I make the food run this time?"
A flush slid up Michael's face, highlighting his freckles. A muscle twitched on the side of his jaw.
"I need you to stay and guard the kids," Hunter said. "You have the gun I gave you? Remember how it works?"
Michael muttered and vanished down the hallway, ratty sneakers scuffing over the rust-colored industrial carpet.
Hunter scanned the rest of the room. The kids stared up at him. Maggie nibbled on her index finger.
"The rest of you stay inside today," he said. "Listen to Michael and Asha. They're in charge."
Asha wiped the last glass and set it down with a hollow thunk.
Michael reappeared with the pack and the extra gun. He handed the pack to Hunter without looking at him.
"Anybody you don't know comes here, you keep them out until I get back," Hunter said. "If they try to get inside, shoot them."
It sounded harsh, he knew, but in the months since the quarantine, the survivors had grown desperate and dangerous.
"I know what do, Hunter." Michael's gaze could have bored a hole in the floor. "I'm not a kid anymore."
It wasn't worth the breath to argue. Hunter had to get out. Away from all those trusting eyes. "I should be back in three hours, but if I don't come back, don't come looking for me."
Hunter left them to their meal and headed for the door, but the sound of padding feet following him brought him up short at the door. "I told you no, Michael," he said. "You're not going."
"I'm not Michael." Asha.
Hunter turned around and leaned up against the door. She still held a dishrag in one hand. At some point, she'd tried to braid her hair, but with no hair ties, it had disintegrated into a loose mess of strands. Her skin was even paler than usual and her hands trembled.
"You look like hell," Hunter said.
Asha nibbled on her lower lip and wrapped her fingers tighter around the dishrag. "Maggie's not the only one with night terrors."
Her eyes looked bluer than Hunter had seen them before. Maybe the dark shadows under them accentuated the color. His lips twitched. "Why didn't you say something before?"
A sad laugh escaped her lips. "What's the point? Nothing you can do, is there?" She looked down at her hands. "It helps, though, knowing you're here."
Her jaw snapped shut and she looked back up, catching and holding his gaze. She'd never done that before. "Come back to us, Hunter. I can't do this alone."
Of course he was coming back, wasn't he? He just had to get out for a little while. No responsibilities. No playing a part that made him a fraud. Just himself and his gun and his pack of cigarettes in a world the size of a quarantine shield. No thought of setting out on his own. Of choosing his own path. Of starting fresh. Alone. Unfettered. Free.
Hunter's chest constricted with a wave of longing. He tightened his grip on the pack handles. "Get some sleep," he said, "before you keel over in front of the kids."
He turned away before he could see Asha's expression. He'd dodged the question, and she was smart enough to know it. He couldn't stand to see fear--or worse, disappointment--in her eyes.
He shut the door and waited until he heard the locks slide into place, then turned west towards town.
The walk to the grocery only took Hunter an hour. He pulled out his gun before peering into the dim interior. The quarantine shield had shut down the power grid when it deployed, and he'd finally started getting used to shadows.
Hunter slipped inside. A strong, sickly smell of rot overwhelmed him. He choked and switched to breathing through his mouth. It helped, but he could swear he still tasted the residual reek on his tongue.
He waited, unmoving, and listened for any sound. After a minute of nothing, he crept into the aisles.
The place had already been raided. Strewn packages peppered the linoleum. A shelf lay on its side in a puddle of dried ketchup, mustard, and a molding sludge Hunter couldn't identify.
A few packs of breakfast bars, some soup cans--chicken broth and beef consommé--and three canisters of raisins were all he could find that wasn't rotten. He shoved them into the pack and headed towards the front. There had to be cigarettes, at least. One more pack. Then he'd let himself smoke one. One long drag of peace.
The locked glass doors of the cigarette display lay in shards. Nothing. Not one damn pack. Not even those girly, filtered, menthol travesties.
Hunter kicked the shelf, knocking loose the last fragments of glass. They crashed to the ground and shattered.
A match hissed to life behind him, and someone sucked in a puff. "Looking for these?"
Hunter spun in a low crouch, gun cocked and ready, his heart thudding. How had he missed the sound of someone breathing nearby? The smoke seeped into his lungs and his gut twisted with longing. "Get into the light where I can see you," he said.
The footsteps moved towards the pool of light seeping in through the broken windows and Hunter kept the weapon trained towards their source until a familiar red mop of hair came into clarity.
Michael inhaled a long draw and blew it out the corner of his mouth.
Hunter's vision went a hazy red. He lunged forward and knocked the cigarette away. It fell to the linoleum, smoldering lazily. It was all he could do not to smash his fist into Michael's freckled face. "What the . . ."
He bit down on the curse word before it could leave his lips. He didn't dare speak. His limbs trembled with repressed rage.
If Michael was here with the extra gun hanging at his waist, who was watching out for the children? Asha? Alone and unarmed?
"I told you I'm not a kid," Michael said. "And see? I got here before you. Watched you searching for food I already nabbed."
Michael pulled a second knapsack from his shoulders and held it out. The sides bulged. "I got the last cigarettes." He took a step closer. "You want one? Ask me nicely."
Hunter lunged forward and caught Michael by his shirt collar, yanking him close, their noses almost touching. He pressed the gun to the boy's temple. "You want to be a big man, do you? Yeah, you're a big man leaving a bunch of kids unprotected so you can play macho games. Think you can handle life on your own? Fine. You're such a man, you don't need me, do you? You don't need anybody."
Michael blanched and licked his lips. "Hey, man, you're hurting me."
Months of fear pent up behind a facade of confidence threatened to tear away Hunter's control. His knuckles whitened around the gun's handle.
Maybe Asha was right. Maybe he had been planning to bolt. To take a shot at his freedom. But thinking of the twelve kids back at the Road's End, he knew he couldn't do it. Despite his frustration at being forced into the protector role for a herd of wide-eyed kids, they were his frustrations now.
"Give me your weapon," Hunter said through gritted teeth.
Michael reached slowly for the holster's buckle, fumbled with it.
Hunter's jaw throbbed.
At last, Michael managed to undo the holster. He took it off and offered it in an outstretched hand.
Hunter grabbed the holster, then shoved Michael backwards.
The boy staggered, but caught his balance before landing in the pile of broken glass.
"The pack, too," Hunter said.
Michael tossed it at Hunter's feet. Hunter bent to retrieve it without looking away from Michael or letting his weapon waver. The pack's weight told him it held much more than his own did.
"Get out of my sight," Hunter said, "until you learn what it really means to be a man."
"You gonna leave me to starve?" Michael's voice rose towards panic.
With a dismissive shrug, Hunter tossed his own pack at Michael. "I've got more mouths to feed, so I'm taking yours. You can make do with the rest." He gestured with the gun. "Out."
After a few hesitating steps, Michael turned tail and bolted, disappearing between the abandoned cars. Hunter belted on the second holster, shouldered the pack, and turned back towards the Road's End.
His lungs itched and a nervous tickle fluttered in his heart. The survivors were wily, and it wouldn't surprise him if they'd been watching the motel, waiting for an opportune moment. He'd gotten his kids set up real good. They were a tempting target.
The perpetual headache intensified.
Hunter lengthened his stride, trotting down the street. The late morning sun beat down and a sheen of perspiration coated his skin.
He kept himself in shape, doing push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, any kind of -ups a soul could think of, so his muscles were strong and he'd have thought this run would be easy, even weighted down by the supplies, but his lungs quickly began to burn.
An unusual flash of color up ahead caught his attention. Someone hiding in the shrubs, their blue T-shirt a poor excuse for camouflage.
Hunter slowed and pulled out one of the guns. He walked down the center of the street. There was no use hiding. By the time he spotted the person in the bushes, they'd have seen him long ago.
When he neared, a small body burst out and ran towards him, shouting his name.
He lowered the gun. Bryce. One of his own, about ten years old, if Hunter remembered right. Something dark stained the blue shirt. Hunter's eyes narrowed. Blood. He loped towards the boy and dropped to his knees in front of him. "What happened, Bryce? Are you hurt?"
Tears ran down the boy's face, soaking into the neck of his shirt. "I'm fine, Hunter," he gasped, "but they shot Maggie. She was crying too much. I tried to stop the blood. I tried..."
Hunter shoved the gun back into its holster and took the boy by the shoulders. "What about the others? How did you get away?"
Bryce shook his head and wiped at the trail of tears. "I don't know about the rest. They were still okay when I left. I said I had to clean up, then I jumped out the restroom window and came to find you. But I didn't know the way, so I hid and waited."
Hunter squeezed his shoulders. "You did real good, Bryce. Real good."
The boy sniffled and tried to stifle his sobs. "Maggie's dead."
Hunter nodded, but he couldn't think about it now. That little rag-doll girl who couldn't sleep without him near. Who trusted him to keep her safe. If he let himself dwell on it, he'd freeze, locked up in guilt. "Let's get back there before anything happens to the rest," he said.
Bryce trailed Hunter wordlessly off the road into the back alleys.
Hunter kept to a walk, to allow the boy to keep up, but despite the slower pace, his lungs still burned. He coughed. Something warm and wet hit the back of his teeth. The taste of blood coated his tongue and for an instant he was a boy again, cowering beneath his father's fists while his mother turned a blind eye, focusing on Jerry Springer, or her soaps, or People's Court.
Hunter brought his fingers to his lips and wiped them. They came away red. Like all the others. Every last adult, and most of the kids.
The plague snuck up quietly--headaches, body aches--then ambushed its victims with the bloody coughs, fever, delirium, and agony, in a headlong rush towards the final release of death.
Another cough threatened. Hunter smothered it. His heart raced. Numbness shot down his fingers. After so long, he'd thought he escaped. That he was somehow immune.
Not now. Lord, not now. Not when he finally had a purpose.
"You okay, Hunter?" Bryce asked in his high-pitched little boy voice.
Hunter forced a smile. "Just breathed some dust, kid."
They came up on the Road's End from the rear. Hunter brought them to a halt behind a laurel bush and he peered out. He couldn't see anyone on lookout, but he wouldn't risk bringing Bryce any closer. "How many were there?" he whispered.
"Four. I think the oldest was maybe fourteen. The others were just a little bigger than me. They had two guns that I saw."
"Good job keeping your head enough to look. Now, I want you to stay here." He slipped out of the backpack and set it on the ground. "If I can, I'm going to send the kids out the back. You gather them and keep them out of sight and quiet. Can you do that?"
"You don't need to call me sir."
"That's what I called my daddy, and you're my daddy now, aren't you?"
Hunter didn't trust himself to speak. He just clapped the boy on the shoulder and blinked away something suspiciously close to tears.
"Be careful," Bryce whispered.
Crouching low, Hunter dashed across the alleyway into the shade at the back of the motel. He crept along the paneled wall until he reached the restroom and its open window. It was a long way up. A big drop for a little boy.
Hunter heard muffled voices, but nothing just inside the window. He stretched up and curled his hands over the window frame. All those chin-ups hadn't been for nothing. He levered himself up and over easily, dropping down on flexed legs.
Where would they be? He tried to put himself into their place. A pack of feral kids willing to kill a toddler for crying. What drove them? Starvation, probably. The kitchen, then. They'd secure the food.
Where were his kids? Where was Asha?
His thoughts turned again to Michael, who'd left them alone. Defenseless. Michael had brought them to this. His fault Maggie was dead.
But a small voice Hunter couldn't quite silence hounded him. He'd been a thought away from leaving himself. From taking his chances with the shield. Was he any better? He couldn't honestly say he was.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Young. Strong. The tight shirt accentuated his muscles. He looked like he had it together, but his lungs itched like all the guilt and fear he'd buried under his hard exterior wanted to burn through from the inside out.
An uncontrollable cough spasmed through him and he caught the edge of the sink, holding himself upright until it was over. He spat out the bloody sputum. So much for stealth. He turned the spigot and watched the water rinse away the evidence of his weakness.
The disease moved fast. He'd watched it take so many, unable to do a thing to so much as ease their passing. A containment breach at the government laboratory at the edge of town. Biological warfare unleashed on its own country. Ground zero.
The quarantine shield protected the outside world, but what about the people inside? Did the government even care about them, or were they an acceptable price in the development of their new weaponry?
It didn't matter. All that mattered was the kids.
Hunter straightened and ran his hands through his short brown hair. He had to act now, before the disease left him unable to. Before any more children died.
He pulled out a gun and opened the restroom door. In the hallway, the voices were clearer. Several down towards the kitchen and breakfast room and a few down the wing of motel rooms the kids slept in.
A shriek from the bedrooms sent him running that direction. Doors stood ajar, the rooms empty, save for the last room on the right. He smashed it open with a sharp side kick and barreled through, gun leveled.
Asha stood in the corner, the three little girls cowering behind her while one strange boy pointed a weapon at them.
The boy spun at the crash of the door, swinging his gun around. He was hardly bigger than Bryce, his face still rounded with youth, with wide blue eyes.
Hunter hesitated. He'd shot others since the shield, but they'd been older, almost men. This felt wrong, despite the gun trained on him.
Asha grabbed the remote control off a nearby shelf and smashed it onto the boy's head with all her strength.
The blue-eyed boy crumpled.
Asha swayed and grabbed the wall.
Hunter crossed the room in a few strides, catching her by the upper arm. Her eyes were glazed, and she trembled like a reed in the wind. "Asha." When she didn't respond, he shook her roughly. "Asha!"
She blinked up at him, and recognition slipped into her gaze. "You came back."
"I came back," he agreed. "Can you stand?"
Hunter let go of her arm. "Get his weapon. Help the girls tie him up, then stay here, and if anyone besides me comes through that door, point the gun and pull the trigger."
"I don't know if I can."
Hunter speared her with a glance. "I do." He did a quick count. "Where are the boys?"
"They kept them in the breakfast room. Except Bryce. I don't know what happened to him."
Asha squeezed her eyes shut. "Thank God."
The boy on the floor moaned. "Hurry and tie him up," Hunter said. "I'm going for the boys."
Hunter didn't wait to be sure she followed his directions. He trusted Asha more than he trusted himself.
On silent feet, he slipped down the hallway. Where there had been voices before, now there was nothing. That wasn't normal for his boys. Hunter's heart beat faster.
The burning in his lungs flared. He swallowed hard and tried not to think about the desperate need to cough. Sweat soaked into his shirt. A buzzing filled his ears and his legs felt like hot tar.
Hunter swayed on his feet, catching himself against the wall. He rested there for a moment, trying to catch his breath, but he couldn't wait.
A hard lump formed in his throat, but it wasn't from fear. It hurt to swallow. Hurt to draw air past the swollen glands.
He forced himself upright and down the hallway until he stood outside the closed breakfast room door. His vision swam and there were two doorknobs, then three, then five.
Shaking his head brought the knob back into focus and Hunter grasped it before it could multiply again.
He yanked the door open.
His boys stood in a cluster on the far side of the room by the stack of tuna cans. Hunter took a step inside.
"Look out!" one of the boys shouted.
Too late. Something hard hit the back of Hunter's knees and he fell sprawling onto the floor. He tried to rise, but someone had a foot on his back. Two someones.
The sound of a gun being cocked echoed through his head, far louder than it had any right to be.
"Well now, look what we bagged," said a voice Hunter didn't recognize. "A grown-up. Didn't think there were any of you left."
"Let him go," called one of his boys.
The gun cracked, so loud Hunter thought his skull would explode.
"You keep your mouth shut, or next time that'll be your head," said the boy with the gun.
Hunter's face was pressed into something cool and sticky. It smelled like iron. Blood, he realized. His vision swam, then focused on a small form lying just in front of him. Short, blonde curls. Pink sundress with strawberries on it. "Maggie," he groaned.
"I killed her because she was annoying me." There was a sneer in the voice. "You're starting to annoy me, too, big man."
A dark shadow lunged past Hunter, slamming into the boy with the gun. Two bodies hit the ground beside him, just missing Maggie.
"You think a gun makes you a man?" came a new voice. It sounded like Michael, but that was impossible. Hunter had sent him away. He wouldn't have come back. Would he?
"You think killing babies makes you a man? Well, you're wrong."
Red hair. Freckles. He had control of the gun now. Had it pointed at the strange boy's face. Where were the other two?
"Let me go," said the pinned boy. "C'mon, let me up."
"You don't deserve to live." Michael's voice was as cold and relentless as glacier ice. "Beg for mercy, punk."
Hunter tried to speak, to intervene, but only managed a wheezing croak. His vision tunneled. Blackness crept in on all sides.
Not now. Lord, not now.
His heart stuttered.
A paroxysm of coughing racked Hunter, jolting him into consciousness. His knees curled towards his chest and he clung to the ground until it passed.
Sweat drenched his clothes. His joints throbbed and the lump in his throat felt like someone was stabbing him. Something cold and wet pressed against the back of his neck.
"Hunter?" Asha's voice. So quiet. "Hunter, can you hear me?"
With a groan he rolled to his back.
She knelt over him, worrying her lower lip with her perfect white teeth. Her brows knit close over eyes shining with unshed tears.
"The kids?" he asked, forcing the words past his constricted throat.
Asha wiped her wet dishrag over his forehead. "They're safe. Michael shot the boy who killed Maggie, but not the other three. Just sent them back out into the city. He went all cold and shaky for a while after, but I think he's all right now."
Hunter nodded. The motion sent shooting pains through his skull. "You shouldn't be touching me."
"I sent the others away," Asha said, "although if we're going to catch this thing, it's probably too late already. But I'm not leaving you to die alone. You came back. You didn't have to, and I know you didn't want to, but you did."
Hunter's tongue darted over his lips. "At first I didn't want to, but I learned better. You kids finally gave me something to live for." He chuckled, a rasping, painful sound. "Just in time before I die."
"Some people survive," Asha said, running her fingers through his hair. It kindled a memory he'd long forgotten, of when his mother used to do the same, before his father broke her spirit.
He closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the sensation.
"Only kids lived," he said after a moment. "Nobody as old as me."
"You're strong. Fight it."
Asha's voice hitched, and when Hunter opened his eyes, he found tears sliding down her face, her chin trembling.
He wanted to wipe the tears away, but there was no strength left in him. He couldn't even lift his hand. "Don't think I can."
"Please, Hunter. I can't do this alone."
When did Asha's pale skin and sunken cheeks become beautiful?
He blinked up at her. Shivers lanced through him. "You're not alone now. Michael's with you. He won't abandon you again."
"He's not you. He can never be you."
Her face swam and blurred. Hunter's breath seared his lungs. Each gasp took all his strength.
His pulse raced, faltered, raced again. Tremors shook his body.
He stared up at Asha. All that was left was her blue, blue eyes. "I'm scared."
Hunter felt his torso being lifted, although where she found the strength he couldn't say, then her thin arms wrapped him close against her chest.
Her fingers slid through his hair and she rocked him like a baby. "It's okay, Hunter," she crooned. "I've got you. I won't let go."
And she didn't.
Not even when his sight vanished, when sounds dimmed until all that was left was her voice, when nothing remained but her arms and her soft, soft fingers.
A mother's fingers.
The best mother in the world.
This story originally appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction.
"Life Out of Harmony and Other Tales of Wonder," the debut collection from two-time Writers of the Future finalist Rebecca Birch, features a wide variety of sci-fi and fantasy stories. Misadventures aboard a prototype flying machine, crystals that can transfer a human soul, predatory sky-snakes, time travel gone wrong, a guardian spirit contained within jade lion, and the healing power of miracles. Stories of adventure, loss, faith, and hope--there's something here for everyone.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.