His long, wavy blonde hair and the straw hat he is always wearing give him an air of countryside insouciance, but My uncle Otto has always been a bit of a wild card. With him, especially in the heat of the moment, anything can happen. During an argument over my neighbor Roxanne’s decision to go and rescue a friend of hers from a scrounger attack, Uncle Otto threatened her with a rifle, and being the brave fool that I am, I decided to intervene. Now, depending on how slippery the trigger is, Roxanne and I may not see tomorrow.
Roxanne gets closer behind me, holding onto my arm. I can feel her short breaths on my left shoulder getting heavier each moment. I’m not sure if it helps to know that she is just as nervous as I am.
“Isn’t this magical! Well, if you want to be a hero, go ahead. But the only way anyone leaves is without a pulse, and I’d be more than happy to arrange that.”
Another gun is cocked. My mom is holding up a rifle and pointing it at Uncle Otto. Her sensitive nature and delicate appearance can have anyone fooled, but I can tell you from all the times I missed my curfew and didn’t clean my room, she’s can transform into a drill sergeant if you make the mistake of disrespecting her.
“Otto, stand down. I know the last month has had everyone on edge, but you need to cool it,” she says. I’m still not at ease. Uncle Otto may be crazy, but my mom still loves him like crazy too, and I don’t think she’ll want to pull the trigger.
“Stay out of this, Wendy!’ Uncle Otto snaps. “Your boy is the one who picked this fight, and he has been happy to sit out of everything else.” He then gives a menacing grin and says, “I say it’s about time he stepped up.” Okay, just need to mention this, I couldn’t do much else during the other attacks because I was sure I’d just get in the way. So it turns out that it appeared rather cowardly, but it wasn’t. Okay, maybe just a little, but still. It wasn’t.
My other sister Lauryn loses all patience, grabs a rifle from my dad and points it at Uncle Otto too.
“I’ve been dying for a chance to use this, and now I have an excuse.” Yup. She’s another feisty one. You wouldn’t believe that she’s from the same gene pool as I am. I feel Roxanne holding tighter onto my arm because it looks like it’s about to get real. But before things can escalate further, my dad steps in. He really should have been the first one to step in, but I’m not judging. Just happy to still be alive.
“Everyone calm down. Otto, you have to-”
“Don’t you ‘Otto’ me, I’m not playing around! No one, is leaving this base!” My gran starts uttering something I can’t understand. She’s Israeli, so that happens a lot, but it seems more animated this time. Add Franklin’s sobs to the mix and there is enough noise and tension down here for anyone to lose their mind.
“Uncle Otto,” I say, after taking a deep breath which failed to stop my heart climbing up my throat, “Imagine if it was Cleo out there. Wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for her too if you couldn’t save her?” He looks at me with anger, but also hurt and despondence. I knew I had to hit low to reach him, but I immediately regret that decision. That’s a part of his life that he sealed off and hasn’t talked about ever.
Though he doesn’t drop his stance, he says, “If you must leave, do it. But don’t you dare come back here!” So my plan only half worked. Still, if there’s another Scrounger attack happening now, it makes it the second one in just as many days. Either way, we were going to have to leave and never return eventually.
“Let’s go,” I say to Roxanne. I have no plan whatsoever as to how we’re going to save her friend Carrie Lynne, but I just know that I can’t stay here and do nothing. I’ll have my moment of valor yet, Uncle Otto. Just wait and you’ll see. I only just start making my way up the stairs when my mom stops me.
“I’m coming with you,” she says.
“No, mom. Gran and the girls; you have to stay here for them. I’ll be fine,” I say weakly. ‘I’ll be fine?’ Really? Tell me how, Bradley. Even my conscious isn’t with me on this one. I can tell she doesn’t like the idea at all, but we don’t have a second to spare if we’re gonna help Carrie Lynne.
“Okay, but you’ll need this,” she says, hands me the rifle, and then gives me a huge hug after that.
“And these,” my dad says, lifting up the keys to the Wrangler.
“But I don’t know how to drive,” I say.
“That’s why I’m coming with you. We have to go now,” he says, then turns to Uncle Otto; “But we’ll be right back once we’ve got the girl.” Yeah. He’s not about to take orders from anyone.
“Ah, screw it. I’m also coming,” Lauryn says. “Now, I think enough time has been wasted, we’ve got people to save.” She runs up the stairs and starts removing the things from the door. Roxanne thanks me for standing up for her, and then joins Lauryn. Before we leave, Uncle Otto pulls my dad back and says with stiffness in his neck, “If anything follows you back here, it’s all on you.”
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that it’s Lauryn heading the charge as we race across Roxanne’s weed infested yard back to our own weed infested yard (no one’s really had gardening on their schedules in these post-war times). My feet keep getting caught in the renegade growth, but I make it before I become an unsuspecting entrée to a mutant turnip. And I wouldn’t rule those out just yet, we’ve already seen enough weird things.
Roxanne has become more alive since learning that Carrie Lynne is still alive. She’s had to deal with a lot, but the thought of reuniting with her best friend certainly has her in high spirits. Maybe that’s why I jumped on this crusade like I did. It was very uncharacteristic of me, but it also hasn’t been easy seeing her so downcast the last month, and I did say I would do something to cheer her up. This will definitely cheer her up. If we make it, that is. Oh yeah, and we’ll be saving someone too.
My sister Lauryn is used to riding quad bikes, dirt bikes and just everything else fast and dangerous, so she has no problem insisting on driving us to Carrie Lynne’s place. You know she’ll have us there before we know we left.
“Do you know where her house is?” She asks Roxanne.
“It’s just down the road,” I reply without hesitation, and immediately realize that I have just subjected myself to unwanted scrutiny.
“How do you know that?” Lauryn asks as she starts the engine.
“I just know. Now step on it!” She hits the gas and the Jeep spins its tires for a second before it shoots out onto the road. My dad starts loading the shotgun with cartridges and then surprises everyone when he hands it back to me with a smile.
“You’ll do okay, kid. Just, don’t hold it up to your face when aiming.” He takes out a revolver and gives it to Roxanne. “It may not do as much, but it should slow anything down.”
“What will you use, dad?” I ask. He reaches to the bed and picks up an ax. “Can’t go wrong with one of these, son.” Mmmhmm. Just has to be the hero.
When we start approaching Carrie Lynne’s house, we are all astonished by what we see. What is by far the largest Scrounger we’ve ever encountered is still outside, but what it is doing is what really scares me. It is slowly breaking away the brick walls at one of the corners of the house with its shoulder, even though all the doors and the windows are already trashed.
“They must be somewhere it can’t reach, probably in the attic, so it’s trying to bring the whole house down,” my dad says. It makes sense, and the behemoth just might pull it off. Okay, it’s just about my height of five-seven, but it has an incredible body mass. It is literally the size of two Andre The Giants. It keeps charging into the walls shoulders first, taking out huge chunks each time.
“You guys distract it and lead it away. I’ll go in, get them out, and we’ll make to the house. After you shake it off, you’ll find us on our way back,” I say.
“It sounds like a plan to me,” Lauryn says, and before anyone can object, I take a leap of faith and jump off the Wrangler, rolling in the thick weeds off the shoulder of the road when I land. Once I’m up, I see the Jeep going towards the house, with my dad driving and Lauryn firing a warning shot to get the Scrounger angry. Wait, how come there are only two of-
“I think that’s going to get its attention. Stay low so that it doesn’t see us.”
“Roxanne?! What are you doing here?!” I exclaim.
“I wasn’t about to let you go alone. Get down! If it comes for us, were done.” The Scrounger isn’t taking the bait so easily, and my dad doesn’t want to go too close to it either. But at least it’s not going at the walls anymore. “So how did you know where Carrie Lynne lives?” Roxanne whispers, “Do you have a crush on her or something?” What?! Where is all of this candor coming from?
“This hardly seems like the time, Roxanne,” I whisper back.
“Come on, she’s my best friend. You can tell me, really. And with danger lurking at every corner, I’d say it’s as good a time as any, don’t you think?” She’s right. I certainly hope we make it, but in case, just in case we don’t, this might be the only chance I have to tell her.
“No, I don’t have a crush on her, I know where she lives because I kind of followed you there-”
“What?! You were stalking me?”
“No! I wasn’t….was-I mean……well since the internet crashed, one gets kind of short of options…..stalking is such a strong word, maybe…..no, not that’s not it…..ummm-” Okay, I think I could have found a better way to say it. The moment has been drenched with awkward now, but the good news is that she’s giggling.
“Are you trying to say you……..”
I just nod my head bashfully in response. She stays silent for a bit. I take a peep and I see my sister and my dad are still doing what they can to get the brute to follow them, but it seems bent on finishing what it started with the house. At least Roxanne isn’t too angry that I followed her. Some years ago, it wouldn’t have sounded so creepy. If I told her I followed her then, she would have simply said cool, I’ll follow you back.
“How come you didn’t say anything?” She asks. She is now looking straight into my eyes with her sapphire blue ones, and that’s making me feel very uncomfortable. Eye contact in general, makes me feel very uncomfortable.
“I-” I turn away again pretending to check if the coast is clear. Doggone eye contact. But that’s a good question she’s asked. One I’m not sure how to answer. I guess I was just happy with her being a pipe dream, and I didn’t want that to change. Didn’t want to risk sticking my neck out. “Look, it’s finally taking the bait. Let’s go!” That’s my only way out. I wasn’t expecting to have such a conversation at a time like this, and getting back to the mission takes a lot off pressure off me.
We run towards the emaciated house and we both take a moment to catch our breath when we get there.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” She asks again, still panting. She’s a persistent one, this.
“I don’t know……….what if-what if it all just blew in my face? Why if I did say something and it didn’t work out?”
“Well didn’t you ever wonder, what if it did work out?” She smiles, goes in the house and starts making her way up what’s left of the stairs. Well, of course, I never actually thought of that. It wouldn’t be wishful thinking if I did!
“Hey, wait up! Careful, those things will cave in at any moment.”
“Okay, I got it. Carrie Lynne! It’s safe for now, you can come out!” She shouts.
“Roxanne?” Carrie Lynne sounds like she’s already come down from the attic, and when we get to the next floor, we find that she’s not alone. Her mother is there with her. “I’m so glad to see you!” Carrie Lynn exclaims as she hugs Roxanne and then me afterward. “Bradley! I haven’t seen you since what, grade five? Thank you guys so very much for coming to help,” she says.
“You can thank us later, we’re not in the clear yet. Good to see you, Doctor Dlamini,” I say to her mom. “Now, we still need to make it home, no doubt that Scrounger will be mad as hell when it finds out it has been tricked.”
We all carefully go down the stairs as I let what Roxanne told me earlier sink in. Did she say she feels the same way or was it just hypothetical speak? I know I need to get my head in the game so we can make it out of this, but I also can’t help thinking about what waits on the other side. I might have a chance with Roxanne de Villiers! Okay, Bradley, so not the time for this. But at least now I have something more to spur me on.
“Wait!” Carrie Lynn’s mom shouts before we leave. “I need to get my router.”
“Leave it, doc. It won’t work; there’s been no internet for years,” I say.
“For you, maybe! That’s a special router; it’s on a closed network, only way I can stay in contact with my colleagues.” Nice! Now that’s more motivation. Wi-Fi, and chance with my crush? If that doesn’t get any nineteen-year-old running, nothing will. We wait as she rushes back upstairs, and she returns within a minute. “Got it, let’s go.”
“Ummm, Bradley?” Roxanne says when she steps outside ahead of everyone else, “Were there any of those behind us before?”
I don’t like the sound of that. When we join her, we find three Scroungers, each about a hundred feet away, and slowly closing in on us, all coming from different directions.
There is no escape.