The U.S. of After Chapter 19
The sky was falling.
I remember as a kid my Dad used to read that story to me about Chicken Little, but now it was real. Whatever smashed into the planet over the western horizon was sending up a plume of black stuff into the atmosphere that was blotting out the sun. Everything was blanketed in a weird darkness. It reminded me of that time I experienced that solar eclipse but was so busy with selling cars and my stupid life that I didn’t hear the news for a few days. It was kind of a permanent dusk, but I thought it was just bad weather.
We had been walking for the entire day, but the water was still in good supply. Ralph had found a child’s wagon in one of the trucks back in that dead car traffic jam and was dragging it behind us. We hadn’t seen anyone at all.
“At least it’s a little cooler,” said Clayton. “I guess that’s a blessin’.”
I looked back at them, Ralph and Amy walking side by side, Clayton bringing up the rear. I was leading these kids, but didn’t know where. I figured I’d just wing it like always. They were looking to me for help. So trusting. I didn’t think I would let on about the truth because the lie was working so well. That was when that Indian kid Ralph threw me a curve.
“So what got you in the army, Ethan?” he asked, his voice raspy, methodical.
I paused for a second, my mind whirling. Now would start the dog and pony show. I told him a long story about not having any direction after high school which was partly true until I told him about joining up and going to war, drawing on the war movies my Dad had made me watch as a kid.
I didn’t tell him about Dad drinking too much to do anything with me that mattered. I also didn’t tell him about Dad disappearing all day to watch the horses. When he was home it was watch what Dad watched on television or get beat for asking to watch something else. Pretty much the extent of my old man’s method of parenting.
I tried not to play it too heavy, not to tell too much of a story, just enough to keep them guessing about me. Ralph wouldn’t let it go.
“What’s it like to kill a man?” he asked, his dark eyes squinting, biting his bottom lip.
I hesitated. Something started to roll inside my head, a hopper full of lotto numbers, except my number wasn’t coming up. Think fast, Ethan. This kid has you by the back of the neck.
“You never get over it, kid,” I said, using my best Han Solo voice. “It follows you, and you always remember their faces. Let’s hope you don’t never have to find out.”
That seemed to satisfy Ralph and he shut his mouth for a while, but not the smirk he’d always shoot my way. It was easy lying, but keeping it going was tough. Always had to remember what I said to them, or I would just avoid the subject all together.
As it started getting darker, I led them off toward a wooded area where Clayton made quick work of building a fire for us. It cooled off a little more than normal at night now and I figured it was all that debris in the atmosphere from that meteor that went down. Amy and Ralph were talking to each other a lot, flirting mostly, and I thought about what it would have been like to be younger. They started making me feel a little uncomfortable, so I thought up a quick plan to leave them.
“Let me see the gun,” I said, calmly. “I’ll go out and shoot some squirrels, since there are a lot of them around, and I’ll cook us up some food.”
Amy winced, but Ralph’s eyebrows furrowed. I wasn’t really serious about the squirrels. I was really going to just take the gun and dump these kids.
“You aren’t taking my gun,” Ralph said, standing up. “I’ll go do it. You stay here and tend the fire.”
He walked off in the woods with my only chance at getting away from these people. I then started thinking about how I could sneak off in the night with some water at least. I could really use that gun, though. I was getting desperate. I didn’t care about these kids any more than that lady I had to leave in that building. It was every man for himself, as they say.
“Let me go with you, Ralph,” I told him. “I can—“
“Squirrels?!” Amy winced, interrupting. “Really?”
“They’re not bad at all if you cook them through,” Ralph chuckled. “Just eat it and think about KFC.”
Amy looked at Clayton for help, but Clayton only shrugged and smiled shyly.
“You, too?” she said, her eyes wide, mouth open.
“Boy’s gotta eat,” said Clayton, his bottom lip protruding a bit and his eyes darting around everywhere but at her. He patted his skinny belly for emphasis.
They chatted on about it, which made me forget about splitting for a while. Ralph wandered off into the dusky forest, ignoring my offer to help, and I didn’t follow him. Clayton reached in his backpack and pulled out a worn old Bible. I grinned at him and didn’t really say anything. The guy was pretty simple, and saying something about his worn out old dogma would just complicate things so I kept my mouth shut… for once.
It didn’t stop Amy.
She sidled up to him and started asking him what he was reading, and he responded by telling her about how much this one passage or whatever made him have hope. I couldn’t figure that out. How could a book give anyone hope? Especially a book that was so full of rules and guidelines that not even it’s own followers could follow. Dad was Catholic, so I guess that made me Catholic, but that was just more mythology. I got tired of him telling me to live by his code but then turning around and doing whatever he pleased. That was what sent me out into the world in the first place. Stupid, unrealistic rules.
About an hour and two distant, echoey gunshots later, Ralph returned with two little scrawny squirrels, his dark brown hands stained with their blood. It was the one animal there was plenty of, I suppose. We watched as he produced a knife I didn’t know about and proceeded to skin and gut the two forest rats while Amy at first tried to hold down her stomach acid and then walked to the edge of the camp to stare out into the darkness. I had never eaten squirrel or even thought about it.
It didn’t taste that bad. Kind of like gamey KFC.