Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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They -- It's Always They

by Damian Delao

December 12, 2016

We're on the run again, going on two days. I've pushed Daniel pretty hard, but I've had no other option. They are everywhere. I think we're somewhere near Chico, now, traveling along I-5. We had to ditch our last spot and that scares me. We thought we were safe there -- well, safe enough to wait it out until the government gets things under control -- but I learned that we'll never be safe. It's a shame, too, Daniel was just getting used to the farm and sadly, even that basement. Though the basement was depressing, it still provided us with the shelter we needed during the day; but we couldn't stay there anymore. Two days ago it all changed, everything changed. Not just our circumstances or the way I view our survival chances, but I find that my view on life has changed and that's what scares me the most.

We were bunkered down in the basement for the day, the same way we had been for nearly a month. The air was heavy and thick. Particles of mold and dust lined the walls of my throat, almost as if they were part of the phlegm that kept the inner muscles in working order, and the heat was hellish. I can still feel the way my t-shirt stuck to my back, glued flush with my sweat. I thought the basement would provide some form of refuge from the California summer, but I was wrong. There were four of us in that basement two days ago: two stragglers we later came to know as Mark and Jayce -- brothers, though they looked nothing alike; me and my boy, Daniel. Just the one boy, now, and no matter how much I cry or curse inside of my heart and ask the man upstairs for a reason for the madness, it will always just be the one boy. They got Brandon, my oldest, but I'll be damned if I let them take Daniel as well.

They, it's always they. There isn't even a name or them. It's always just they. They got my little girl or they got my boys. Even if they didn't travel in a pack, which they normally did, it was always just they. They took Brandon from me, ripped him right out of my tired arms, and they would have killed me and taken Daniel as well if it wasn't for Mark and Jayce.

They didn't want me. They may have even let me live if I hadn't put up a fight, though you should already know this by now, they only want our children. I don't know what they do with our young, nobody does, but they always take our children from us, alive. What I do know is if it wasn't for those two brothers coming along when they did, they would have taken Daniel just the same. No, that's a lie. As much as it pains my weak heart to say it, I would have killed Daniel myself before I let them take my youngest boy the way they took Brandon. I'll be God damned -- if I'm not already -- if I let them take Daniel as well.

They came out of the depths of nothing, that's the only way I can describe it, and took us all by surprise. Nobody knew what they were, though it didn't take long before we knew what they wanted; our children. They didn't just stick to California either, I hear they were spotted as far east as Arkansas, hell they've probably stretched the entire United States, maybe the world. But I don't give a damn about the world, all I care about now is Daniel; all I care about is keeping him safe.

They don't travel at night from what I've seen. I hear they're blind in the dark and I know for a fact they can't hear very well, either, I learned that three days after the four of us came across the farm and the basement.

Jayce and Mark were sleeping the day away and Daniel and I were just sitting around talking about nothing. We'd already been hiding out in that basement for about two days before a pack of them must have come to scope out the farm. I didn't know then if they could open doors or not -- they came crashing through the windows on that day -- but that didn't cross my mind. All that mattered to me was keeping Daniel quiet and safe. We sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity. Mark and Jayce were still sleeping and I thought about waking them, but I couldn't imagine making a sound. I could hear their heavy breathing from directly above us. I could hear claws scratching at the hardwood floor, dragging and scraping like a cat sharpening its claws on the side of a sofa. I slowly began making my way to the axe that I kept near, when suddenly Daniel let out a flurry of sneezes. My heart sank and I knew, just knew that they would hear it. But they didn't; they vanished just as fast as they'd appeared.

We went on living in that basement after that day almost happily ever after up until just two days ago. At first it was nice having two other human beings to share our time with, to communicate and tell stories with; to remind us of what it was like before the world went to hell. We'd talk all night if we weren't out searching for food, and we'd sleep most of the days. Mark would show Daniel basic magic tricks with an old bicycle deck we found in a sheet covered end table, but to Daniel they were more than just basic, they were stunning. Jayce and I would talk about our Army days, but it didn't take long before the novelty of it all wore off and we became sick of each other. We were planning on leaving the basement sooner or later and maybe going our separate ways, but two days ago, the decision was made for us.

Two days ago. It was hotter than normal, I honestly can't remember a June being hotter and it seemed as if there was a dust storm raging in that old and dank basement. It felt like my throat withered and died with every breath. It felt like I was breathing in fire. The basement kept us out of sight, but it didn't protect us from the heat, poor insulation or something, I don't know. It was a relatively good day for the four of us; we were all getting along real well.

Mark, Jayce and Daniel were playing Go Fish and it looked as if Mark was helping Daniel cheat. I can still hear Daniel giggle every time he asked Jayce for a number, and Jayce had it. I can still see the way his beautiful face lit up. If Jayce knew Mark and Daniel were cheating, he didn't show it, though, I suspect that he did.

I was reading a romance novel, The Heat of the Moment by Rebecca Gordon -- while it wouldn't have normally been my choice of read, you take what you can get these days -- and my eyes began to hurt. Reading in a room that was only lit by the sunlight that managed to seep through a sheet covering the only window in the room is no way to read. I set the book down as Daniel asked Jayce if he had any threes and pinched at my eyes when I suddenly heard the most God awful noise, breathing; the only breathing that warrants any mention, their breathing. They were there, in our house somewhere, searching. I almost didn't hear it over Daniel's giggling as Jayce handed over two cards.

Daniel looked up at me with a smile on his face after I managed to get his attention with a series of snaps from my fingers. But the smile quickly faded after he'd seen the dread and terror in my eyes. I wish now that I could see him smile at me like that again. It was genuine and innocent; it was a smile that I hadn't seen since they took over. It was the last smile I imagine I'll get for a long time to come.

Mark and Jayce heard the breathing as well and suddenly threw their cards down to the floor and were reaching for their weapons. Jayce had a three foot mallet made of steel, quality craftsmanship, and Mark had an aluminum baseball bat with nails duct taped to the sides. I reached for my axe and squeezed it with all my might.

Something was wrong. There was no crashing noise this time; they snuck in.

Daniel was already crying as he ran to my side and clung on to me for dear life. He held on to my leg as if he thought I would abandon him then and there, and that, too, breaks my heart.

I was standing guard next to the window, which really wasn't the biggest area of concern -- the window was only big enough for a small boy to fit through, a boy the size of Daniel. Mark and Jacye were standing at the bottom of the steps that led up to the door and our only exit. There was no sound for what seemed like years, and we all let out a collective sigh of relief. But it was short lived; the breathing was back and it had brought friends.

I grabbed Daniel and I shoved him underneath a mold-spotted table that looked as if it were used for backyard barbeques. I knew it wouldn't do him any good though; they'd sniff him out if they got in. I just didn't want Daniel seeing anything that happened in that room. If they wanted Daniel, they'd have to go through the three of us to get to him.

A slam at the door confirmed my fear. They knew we were there and they wanted in.

I didn't know how long it would take them to break the oak door down, but I knew I didn't like our situation. More pounding and furious scratches at the door sent us all jumping and the breathing and grunting was extreme and suffocating. I wanted to scream out in rage, to cry out in fear, anything to drown out that noise.

Finally, after only minutes of the assault on the door, fear did to a man what fear has always done and always will do. It consumed all rational thought.

Jayce spun around, crazed in the eyes, with his dust-covered cheeks streaked with tears, and he whispered something to Mark. I couldn't hear what was being said with all the noise coming from the door, but I didn't like the look in Jayce's eyes. Mark stared at Jayce in confusion and began groping at Jayce's shirt and I finally had enough of the secrets.

"What's going on over there?" I finally managed to shout out. There was no sense in being discreet anymore, they knew we were there. The door would either hold them off and they'd get bored, or they'd break through and a fight to the death would ensue.

"They want your boy, Jim. Just your boy," Jayce said as he took a step forward.

"What's your point?" I calmly asked. At least I tried to sound calm. But I knew what the point was. They wanted my boy, not us, so why not just give him to them? A sacrifice so the three of us could spend the rest of our lives telling ourselves that we're survivalists instead of cowards.

"You know what the point is, dammit. They don't want us, man, and as much as it sucks, I just can't see a reason to die for him," Jayce said almost pleadingly.

"Come on, bro," Mark said as he grabbed Jayce by the wrist, "you know that's not right. That boy needs us."

"I don't give a damn what that boy needs. They want him, only him. If they get him we can get out of this alive." Jayce was frantic, holding on to his mallet the way I would hold on to my boy, like it was his world.

"That's a big God damn if, Jayce!" I shouted. "You don't know that they'll just ignore us, and you're out of your mind if you think I'm just going to stand aside while you throw my boy out to die." I could hear Daniel crying now, behind me, and it angered me something fierce. Fear was gone. Rational thought was just a fairy tale. Behind that door, they wanted my boy, and I was prepared to deal with them, but in front of me was a coward willing to let them have him. Jayce was one of us, a human being! He was a human and he was willing to just turn on me and mine because he was too scared to stand and fight them? They destroyed our lives, our world along everything we've ever loved and he wanted to just give them my boy? Damn that.

"Listen, Jim, I don't like it any more than you do, but --"

"There aren't any buts here, bud. He's my boy, mine. The only thing I have left in this world worth a damn. If you want to try your luck at taking him from me, you go ahead and give it a shot, but I promise, one of us won't live through the ordeal to see tomorrow." I stared at Jayce with fury lit eyes, eyes that I hoped would burn some sense in to him. Anger was burning deep inside of my chest and adrenaline oozed through the pores of my skin.

The pounding at the door became angrier and more frantic. I knew then that the door wouldn't be able to keep them out for much longer, but at that moment I had Jayce to worry about. He was my immediate threat, but we only had maybe a half hour tops before nightfall. If that door could have held out until then, I might have had a chance to keep Jayce at bay just long enough to get Daniel through the window. But I couldn't shove Daniel through the window until it was dark; it would only be safe for him alone outside in the dark.

More thrashing and frantic scratches erupted from the only thing keeping them and the four of us separated.

"I'm sorry, Jim, it has to be done," Jayce said with a legitimately sad look on his face.

I immediately began planning how to fight the both of them at once when Mark cut in.

"Count me out, Jay," Mark said as he took a step away from his brother.

Jayce spun around to face Mark. "Are you insane? You're gonna choose him over me, your own flesh and blood?" The mallet in Jayce's hand lowered slightly and I thought about lashing out at him to catch him off guard, but I held off in hopes that Mark could talk some sense into his brother. Regardless of what Jayce's intentions were towards Daniel, I didn't want to kill him. There was already too much death in the days following our hell to just kill him outright.

"Being your brother doesn't mean I've got to kill that boy, Jay," Mark argued as he took a step back.

"If you don't, they'll kill you -- kill us all!" Jayce shouted as he tossed his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the door. "When they get through."

"If I'm going to die today, then I'm going to do it without Daniel's blood on my hands."

I admired Mark at that moment. He didn't owe anything to Daniel. He had no emotional connection to him. It wasn't like Mark was his father, I was.

I had watched Daniel grow up. I watched him smile in his sleep because he was dreaming something sweet. He was my Daniel, the same Daniel that still believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny; the same Daniel that ate all of his vegetables because he wanted to grow up big and strong, like me. Mark didn't owe us anything, but he took a stand against his brother for us.

"Fine, Mark, have it your way and side with him then. But if you do this you and I are done. If we make it out of here alive, you and I go our separate ways, got it?" Jayce screamed.

"Jayce --" Mark began to plead, but he was cut off before he could say another word. The door keeping us safe suddenly splintered and slammed open. They broke through with the last of the sunlight fading out of existence.

Now I'll say this, while it's true that they want our children -- I know this first hand -- they won't hesitate to attack us adults, either. In most cases it's just to get past an obstacle that's keeping them from what they want, but in some cases, pure primal rage and hatred fuels the attack. When they broke that door down, their soulless black eyes didn't scan the dank darkness of that basement for Daniel, they went straight to Jayce and Mark. I knew then that we were all in serious trouble.

The first one through the door immediately leapt down the length of stairs and dove at Jayce with its jaws snapping like a rabid fox, its tentacles flailing this way and that. Jayce strafed to his left in time to dodge the attack and Mark brought his bat down onto the back of its head. Purple pus sprayed everywhere as it collapsed in a heap. It regained its feet and spun its head around at Mark and began to leap when Jayce stomped down on its tail and simultaneously brought his steel mallet down, shattering its skull. The other four at the top of the stairs were already scrambling down the steps, seeking revenge.

Another one lunged ahead of the pack at Jayce and again Jayce dodged the attack gracefully only to slip on the tail of the one he and Mark had just killed. A second one had already begun closing in on Jayce. It slammed Jayce to the ground and mounted him and began ripping and tearing at Jayces clothes. Mark managed to slam his bat into the one on top of Jayce before he too had the other two lunging after him.

All four were occupied with Jayce and Mark. I could have tried to run, just pick up Daniel and throw him over my shoulder and run. But I knew that if I pulled Daniel out from under that table and made a run for the stairs, I would become the center of attention. I couldn't risk it. I had to help Jayce and Mark.

Just in front of me was Jayce. He still had one on top of him ripping and tearing, with one circling, waiting for its chance to have a go. To my right was Mark; his back was against the wall and he was keeping his two at bay as he swung his bat back and forth as if he were swatting fireflies out of the sky. I would help Jayce first.

I jumped forward and dug the edge of my axe into the back of the neck of the one that was circling Jayce and it immediately crumpled to the ground. Jayce was screaming with all of his might and suddenly the screams stopped. They stopped because the one that had Jayce pinned down, suddenly arched its back upwards as he tore Jayce's head from his body. It made a series of guttural clicking noises with its throat and then turned towards me just in time to watch my axe hit home in the center of its face.

Two down, two to go.

I turned to face Mark and noticed he was screaming. He must have seen what happened to Jayce. He began swinging his bat with more purpose and managed to hit one of them in the shoulder and it began dancing around in a fit of rage as the other one darted in. Mark tried to bring his bat down onto its back, but it was too fast and managed to get under Marks's high, arching swing. Mark screamed out in pain as claws dug into Mark's rib cage. The one that had been hit in the shoulder sprang forward with fury burning deep in its eyes to join its partner with its jaws wide open and going for the throat.

I threw my weapon with all of my might and managed to hit the thing in the head with the blunt side of the axe. It stumbled around momentarily and then collapsed the way a drunk would after one too many either dead or unconscious.

There was only one left, the one with its claws hooked into Marks flesh. I could have tried to grab my axe and help, but something in Mark's eyes stopped me cold.

"Run!" Mark shouted as he dropped his bat and wrapped his arms around the thing between us. "Get your boy and run!" Mark's attacker must have been surprised by the act because for a moment it looked stunned and violated. Its beady, empty eyes shifted from Mark to me and back again before it remembered that it was the predator and sank its teeth into Mark's cheek, ripping the fatty flesh from bone.

I didn't act like a hero, not then. I had an opening and I took it. I acted like a father. A father who's already lost one boy to them. I wasn't going to lose another.

I ran to the table and yanked Daniel out from under it. He was screaming and crying, which is perfectly understandable for a seven year old, as I tossed him over my shoulder and bolted for the stairs. I could hear screams just behind me as I scaled the steps, screams of rage, fury and pain; screams that I'll hear for the rest of my life.

We were incredibly lucky that there weren't any more of them in the house. They usually didn't travel in more than one pack, but there have been exceptions. The purple light that was shining through the kitchen window told me that the sun had set. It was going to be a long night of traveling and hiding.

That was two days ago, and we haven't stopped since, except to hide during the day that is.

Times like these can do things to people, crazy things. They aren't the only thing I need to be wary of anymore, I learned that little lesson two days ago, when fear created a new enemy from a common friend.

I don't know exactly where we're going, but we're headed north. Mark said something about a refuge being set up somewhere in Canada. It's a place where we can sleep safely; a place where those that can still fight, will fight from. It's a place where our children will be safe. I hope Mark was right and that it's still there. Not just for Daniel's sake, but for mine as well.

Fear can do crazy things to the most rational mind. If the worst happens, I hope someone finds this journal. If the worst happens I need someone to know that I tried, if not for me then for Brandon and Daniel.

The End


© 2011 Damian Delao

Bio: Damian Delao resides in Paraparaumu Beach, New Zealand. Two of his stories have appeared in Congruent Spaces (including "Paid the Price", a slightly different, pre-Aphelion editor version of Paying The Price, in the July 2012 edition of Aphelion).

E-mail: Damian Delao

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