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       Eldnium, p.10

           Enoch Pyle, Jr

  Jackson continued through the woods with the sun peeking over the horizon and the road a half mile or so to his right. He kept the road in view as confirmation that he was headed in the right direction. If he remembered correctly, his foster parents lived just off the road, about three or four miles out of town. But Jackson hadn't paid much attention when Thorpe had driven him out to visit the first time, and Jackson definitely hadn't kept any kind of tab on the distance. Why would he have? What kid counts the number of feet between city limits and some stranger's house?

  Hindsight. Jackson wished he'd been exceptional. Like Pierce Gunner, a spy from one of the novels his dad used to read. Besides the occasional football game, Jackson's father wouldn't watch much television. He'd opt for a book instead. And Jackson would sit and watch him read it every night, fascinated by the way his dad's lips would move with no words coming out. Patiently, Jackson would watch the remainder of the book thin out, night after night, waiting for his father to finish. Because when the book was finally through, his dad would sit with him and tell him about Pierce Gunner's latest adventure.

  Jackson wished he'd had more moments like that…more memories with his father. But wishes…

  Butt wishes… Jackson somehow found the strength to grin.

  He took another step and heard a bird chirping just above them.

  "Do it."

  Jackson looked at Stevie, challenged, but not convinced. "No way. You do it."

  "I've done it before with my cousin."

  "I've done it, too," Jackson answered.

  "That’s bull." Stevie gave Jackson a glare. "I bet you've never even killed a ant."

  It was true. Jackson had never killed anything, and didn't plan on starting anytime soon. "I don't believe you've done it, either," Jackson said. "And I don't think we should anyway."

  "Wuss." Stevie snatched the pellet gun from Jackson's hands, sighted down the barrel and pulled the trigger. The rifle popped, and sent a pellet whizzing through the air and into the neck of a baby sparrow. A spot of blood blurted out, and the sparrow began to squeal. It thrashed about on the ground, wings flapping, body contorting.

  Stevie dropped the gun and ran, not looking back. Jackson watched him run for a moment, not realizing that this moment would end their friendship.

  He picked up the gun and walked somberly toward the sparrow, which was still polluting the air with its horrid screams. He watched it flip over, convulsing like a fish out of water as he gave the air rifle three or four good pumps. His mouth went dry as he touched the gun to the body of the bird. He swallowed hard. His finger eased against the trigger, his eyes winced.


  More squeals, louder now, larger convulsions. He pumped the gun again. Faster this time. He could feel the screams shooting through his spine as he pressed the gun into the bird's head, pinning it to the ground. It squawked louder, flopped harder.

  He tugged the trigger, and the squealing stopped.

  Jackson relaxed for a moment, taking a deep breath. The bird twitched against the ground, its life seeping into the dirt. Jackson gave the gun two more pumps, aimed it—again at the bird's head—and fired.

  The low rumble of a motor crawled its way through the trees. Jackson crouched low to the ground, careful not to soak his jeans in the snow, watching the road. His leg ached now…severely. With their leaves gone for the winter, the trees allowed the sun to warm the air enough to be fairly comfortable, even at this early hour, and while it didn't do much to clear the snow, it left his nerves to thaw.

  He scurried against a tree and watched as an old pickup truck sauntered toward the city Jackson had left behind. He couldn't see inside, and that left him unable to help planting a seed of hope. There may be people unaffected. There may be help out there somewhere. The entire incident could be isolated, contained within his own city.

  But if that was the case, Jackson wondered, why hadn't his foster parents come looking for him?

  Maybe they did. Maybe they're at your house right now, using their teeth to rip electrical wires from the walls.

  Jackson shook the thought away and pulled his pant leg up. The wound looked black, swollen, festering. He touched the lump of it, and the pinprick hole squirted a dollop of puss out and onto his leg. He smeared it away with the back of his hand, and the pressure forced out more bloody goo. His veins bulged, wrapped around his leg like tentacles. One wormed its way up to his inner thigh, and he thought for a moment about a pending infection of his private parts.

  His leg was rotting away, and he started to regret leaving the hospital without some kind of medicine. But Jackson knew there was no going back. If he didn't keep moving, he'd be dead for sure, one way or another.

  He pulled his pant leg back into place, stood, and continued through the woods.

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