A depraved blessing, p.17
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       A Depraved Blessing, p.17

           D.C. Clemens
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  Chapter Seventeen


  On the ensuing afternoon, Liz and I were enjoying a quiet moment watching Dayce play with some new playmates in the jungle gym. He was an outgoing boy and if we moved thirty different times he would gain thirty different best friends. The sound of children laughing was deposed by the echoes of remote gunfire. It could not have been too far away, originating beyond a thick passage of trees in the direction of the river about 150 yards away. Before I understood how exactly it came to be, I already had Dayce in my arms and hastily placed him in the van. Delphnia and my mother were already there preparing our lunches. Next to the van I saw Valssi standing on the lowered tailgate of her father’s truck. She was holding his hunting rifle, ready to meet any adversary. Bervin was conjointly holding a handgun of his own while standing alongside the truck. His confidence seemed unwavering; hopefully, he was as he looked.

  Siena ran toward her sibling, anxiously telling her when she reached us, “Dad went to the river with Neves a few minutes ago. There was some type of commotion and they went to check it out.”

  More shots rang out. I joined Valssi on the tailgate.

  “See anything?” I asked her as I scanned for the answer, cursing myself for not remembering to bring binoculars.

  “No, there are too many trees in the way,” she answered.

  I unconsciously headed for the roof of the truck for a better vantage point, though it didn’t make much of a difference. No one around us was panicking. Like us, they were mutely ogling at the tree line and hearing the intermittent barrage of shots. Sometimes I thought I could perceive the faint screams of the agonized in a way that reminded me of the cries emitted from the kites. Finally, a panicked crowd started to emerge from the woods. With them appeared a running Neves and Mr. Tillar.

  “Dad, what’s happening!?” Valssi yelled out to her father when she thought him close enough to hear her voice.

  “We have to go now!” Mr. Tillar barked back. He was out of breath, but that did not impede his running or his voice.

  “Infected are coming! Dozens of them!” added Neves with a strained voice.

  My heart accelerated its beats, my lungs needed air, and my skin began to feel damp. As soon as Neves and others like him spoke the words, supplies were getting cleared and vehicles were being filled. Packing was easy, as we were always careful not to leave many provisions out of our vehicles. Leaving turned out to be a bit more challenging to achieve at first. Word speedily spread about the incoming peril and not one second was being spared by the hundreds of refugees. Thanks to the numerous avenues the town had prepared for a possible evacuation, the early trial of maneuvering our way through the park and streets did not last long. With Talib several miles behind us, we were soon at a judicious pace. Our escape route traveled southeast.

  Disrupting our sighs of relief was Dayce excitedly exclaiming, “Daddy! Look! There’s Yitro!”

  I saw he was peering out the left window. Glancing at my left side mirror proved my child correct. Yitro was sitting in the passenger seat of a red jeep, which I could only tell was red by the exposed streaks of dry mud. Going by his hand dangling out the open window, I thought him pretty carefree. I began to wonder if he had no other temperament. I had not talked to him since the evening I met him, in fact, I had not seen him since then. In the driver seat was a girl I assumed was the friend he mentioned he had escaped with. She was just as young as he was and, while pretty, was the opposite I imagined Yitro’s girlfriend would dress like, since she couldn’t have been more modest in appearance.

  “Get his attention, Daddy!” Dayce begged me.

  “Who’s Yitro?” asked my mother from the backseat, who appeared surprised by Dayce’s reaction.

  “He’s the spirit warrior I told you about,” I made her recall.

  “Him? I imagined someone more civilized looking. I’m glad you didn’t turn out that way.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. I think Roym can pull of the bad boy look,” said Liz lightheartedly, glad to have something normal to talk about.

  My mother was about to respond, but Dayce, apparently not hearing any of the conversation, said, “Dad, he’s right next to us. Honk the horn!”

  I nonverbally thanked Dayce for interrupting my mother’s response by complying with his request. It only necessitated a single honk to detain Yitro’s attention. He returned Dayce’s ecstatic wave with a more tranquil one. We continued to stay in each other’s sights during much of the drive. The road was disciplined, persisting in the same direction with few turns or bends, which helped in keeping us together. We saw sixty more miles of the open road before it started becoming much less uncluttered. The ends of car lines jamming the highway forced us back into a crawl. Why we were ensnared stayed a mystery until we scuttled five miles more. A military blockade was redirecting traffic to a more northern course. Seeing as we were barely moving, I saw Siena and Valssi exit from their truck up ahead and walk toward a group of soldiers blockading a motorway, with certainly the purpose of searching for answers to fill in the blanks.

  “So, what is it?” I asked Siena when she visited my window after she spoke with the soldiers for a minute.

  “They said there has been a lot of Injector activity to the south in the last couple days. It doesn’t look like we can go southeast for a while.”

  “Great,” I said with an irritated exhale. Siena was about to turn around when I called her back. “Oh, by the way, do you mind going up to that red jeep and telling them what you heard?”

  “Sure,” she replied, taking a look their way. “Who are they?” She looked as if she was worried she should somehow already know them.

  “He’s the spirit warrior Dayce and I met.”

  “Oh, okay. Dad says to keep following him for now, not that there’s much choice with all this traffic.”

  I was starting to think I was a fixture in a scenic painting after some thirty miles staring at the same ginger fields of grain every which way. At some point, we found ourselves on top of a hundred foot high hill. It didn’t seem all that tall when I saw it from a distance, but the more we advanced, the higher up we went. I soon realized we were overlooking a city that was larger than most, smaller than some, several miles away to our right. Despite the streets being inundated with vehicles, I still sensed its desolation. The overcast sky did not help its disposition. The gray clouds were not afraid to take the throne from the sun and only seemed to become darker and all the more dismal with each scan I pilfered, waiting to conquer our ground with the downpour it was stubbornly holding on to.

  Looking back to check if I could still see everyone, I felt Liz pull on my arm and, at the same time, whispering, “Roym…”

  Her head was turned to the scenery on our right. Following her cue, I leered with her. Descending from the silver blanket of the sky, heading for the perimeter of the city, was a Tower. It landed gracefully and with a resounding thud that I was able to feel a few seconds after its entrenching. It all suddenly made perfect sense. The Tower, the assembly of people that were now bound together, the Injector attacks that blocked access to the south and the similar attack we had fled from in the west, we were all part of a sick design weaved for our ruin. We were being treated like livestock. They were using their attacks to force us to converge into a corner; all the easier to defile us with their venomous infection.

  Almost as quickly as the legs of the Tower met with the ground, and after ostensibly pausing to make sure all eyes were on its imposing frame, the toxic mist was seen merging with the city air. The sound of squawking horns started to ascend from the vehicles around us, as though the haste of our pace depended on the decibel level. I did not follow in their pursuit, as enduring on this road was the last thing I wished to do. It would only take us two miles closer to the city before we had the opportunity to turn east again, meaning we would surely be exposed to the infection at some point. We were trapped.

  With as much composure as possible,
I said, “Mom, make sure all the backpacks are filled with as much food and water as possible, along with anything else you might feel is important.”

  Liz stared at me uneasily, knowing how the wheels were turning in my mind. The first thing I wanted to do was to reach the nethermost of the hill. The minutes continued to lag and the clouds continued to become darker, but we managed only a few turn of the wheels before the line seemed to outright stall. The billows of clouds were intensifying their growling, but the tenacious rain was still not willing to heed to their appeal. The wind was howling, but, thankfully, if I was allowed to be thankful for anything, it was gusting to the north. With any luck, it would not change its mind for some time and help to keep the infection from reaching us. Some in the traffic jam had become so desperate to move that they tried to force the line forward by pushing the vehicle in front of them, but the only task they accomplished was to aggravate the people around them, raising the tension ever higher.

  After thirty minutes of vainly waiting for some sort of real progress and watching the darkness creep nearer, I saw people begin to start a new journey on foot. Every time I saw another person, another couple, or another family pass us, each carrying only the little of the person they used to be, I turned to see Liz’s eyes filling up with more tears. I held her hand as she struggled not to cry, or, more accurately, trying not to sob too loudly. Dayce was still foremost in her mind, not wanting to worry him with her lamentations. I gently pressed her hand in mine, hoping it would make her struggle easier to bear, to know she was not fighting her battle alone. I was beginning to feel her strength revive when I saw Neves and Orins exit their inoperative truck, still attached to Mr. Tillar’s vehicle three cars ahead of mine, and went to pay a visit to their guide. It wasn’t too long after that when Bervin walked by us to join them. He collected a quick glimpse at me as he went, confirming I was not the only one whose mental wheels had been turning.

  “I have to go for a minute,” I said, turning to Liz. “Will you be okay?”

  Her eyes were glistening from her tears, but she shut them with my closing words, wanting to prevent an outflow. She answered me by squeezing my hand tightly and then letting go. She might have also nodded, or she might have simply been lowering her head.

  “Stay inside, Dayce.” I ordered, watching him through the rearview mirror. “Don’t even open the window.” I looked at my mother for confirmation, which she gave. “I’ll be right back.”

  The deliberation wasn’t long, since there was only one clear choice to make. We had to evade our sightless pursuers on foot. We had to risk the wind altering its course and pray it would be sympathetic to our plight. Near the end of our conference, Yitro and his partner came to accompany us.

  “Hey, old-timer. Nice day, isn’t it?” Yitro greeted dryly.

  “You must be the spirit warrior Roym mentioned,” Mr. Tillar surmised. “You’re Yitro, correct?”

  “That’s right, sir,” he replied. I supposed he did deserve that title, but why was I stuck with mine? “This here is Eloram,” Yitro went on, patting the girl on the shoulder. She simply gave a shy wave for her salutation. The complete opposite of Yitro, I thought. “So, are you guys gonna leave?”

  A piercing clap of thunder quivered the black sky, making all of us shudder with it. After that short pause, we confirmed our unavoidable exodus.

  “That’s what we’re going to do,” said Yitro. “I’m assuming we’re heading east?”

  “Yes,” Mr. Tillar answered, which was his way of showing his approval for Yitro’s self-invite. “The first step is going down this hill and find shelter if it rains. Once we get to clearer streets, maybe we can find an abandoned car or someone willing to give us a ride.”

  It only took a few minutes to gather all we could for our outing, carrying most things in backpacks. Each step I strode farther from the Tower eased the pain of my distress, however, Kaya hindered our speed significantly. Her overexertion at the hospital still appeared to linger and her shock of the invasion must have had a greater effect than I had formerly thought. She rarely involved herself in conversations. When she did talk, it was sometimes in incoherent sentences. On the other end of the spectrum was Dayce, who was not as troubled as I felt he would normally be. His eyes were often on Yitro and his companion, regularly trying to follow his steps and emulate his movements. His excitement was noticeable, although, when Yitro would look directly at him, Dayce attempted to contain it, but he would restore his profound interest when Yitro turned away. Tiredness or fear did not exist in him for much of the night, and I felt I would be eternally indebted to our newest cohort for this.

  While the thunder continued to roll, the rain itself accumulated to little more than a sprinkling, allowing us to walk without stopping. Strange to say, but it was here when the realization that nothing was ever going to be the same hit me the hardest. It was not my first sight of the crashed ship, the Towers landing by the cities, the lights going out, or even the killing of the infected kite. No, it was seeing my family reverted to a nomadic tribe as they walked through the slowly forming mud, carrying what was left of their life on their backs, heading, quite literally, into the unknown.

  There were places we passed throughout the night that could have been used as shelter, but we never stopped, if anything, we walked a little quicker to not tempt our desires. Not many others opposed our sentiments, not seeing anyone stop for shelter. The threat was still too strong and no roving soul was ignorant of it. We trudged across derelict neighborhoods where families would never again make their memories, parks that would remain childless, abandoned vehicles that might never roll again, and fellow nomads. Sometimes, when the clouds paused from their thunderous tumult, I could hear the drone of helicopters and jets fly over us. When I looked up, I spotted the small dots of blinking lights to give evidence that they were there. They did not appear to have any intention of attacking the Tower. It almost felt as if the night itself was an extension of the Tower’s looming shadow insulting our desperate journey, and with every new shadow the night created, we marched a little faster to avoid it.

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