The night conjured up strong winds. They came from the northeast and carried the scent of the ocean- a real ocean- up to the lips of the shore. The moon, a rotund will-o-wisp, was obscured by a fog that would settle down in a few hours. She called in the tide and the tide answered the moon with the scent of the sea washing across the sands. Across the beach ghost crabs scuttled in the ivory dark and somewhere amidst the rolling dunes the cackle of coyotes echoed back to the crashing of waves.
Nestled between an assortment of washed up driftwood a lone tent trembled in the cold wind. The driftwood provided the vulnerable tent a small bit of sanctuary against the oceanic gusts which would have easily ripped it from the ground on the open beach. The people inside could have set it up in the dunes, but from there they'd lose sight of the distant lights blinking out across the water.
Whatever happened they could not lose the lights.
A boy sat outside the tent and peered quietly over a log out to the mysterious lights that sat on the horizon. No wave was big enough to drown out their glow and even with the fog coming in they shone with haunting brilliance. There were over two dozen of them. The boy didn't know this. He couldn't count. He simply observed them with fascination as he tried to ease his unsteady soul. To his back, from the opening in the flap of the tent, a pair of eyes kept vigil over him. Unlike the number of lights, this he knew.
Of course he knew. How many days had he traveled with predators glaring at him from the shadows of ruined places? Hungry things. Desperate things. Fearful things. After spending so much time among watchful gazes he could never forget the feeling. A sepharic caress, lighter than air, that tingled the flesh so it bumped and crawled. It was a laser of gossamer, focused moonlight. He knew he was being observed but he ignored it and kept his own watch on the sea lights.
Who are you? The owner of those eyes, a woman named Neda Sahni, asked. What had the boy seen before they found him out here, half starved and on the brink of death. His body was emaciated. Skin clung so tightly to his flesh he appeared skeletal and spectral. Lesions and bruises covered his body telling a story of the harsh conditions he had endured. Would he ever tell those stories? He barely spoke and he moved with a dreadful cunning a child of his age couldn't have possibly mastered. The boy was a wraith. Sometimes one would wonder if he was even real. How could he be? How could someone so small survive on their own? How long had he been alone?
Neda kept silent. She didn't want to scare him away. He was always on edge, ready to flee if danger presented itself. It was a miracle he hadn't run off into the night. As Neda wondered over the small boy, the boy in turn contemplated about the strange people that had found him.
The two adults were familiar to him. In his journeys he crossed plenty of Big People. Most had been as mysterious and great as the ones that raised him. His mother. His father. These were new feelings. The words for them had not yet been introduced to him, but he knew by the tone in their voices. They were his family, not his owners. He was one of them, not a pet. And the only reason he knew this to be true was because of the two little girls now sleeping between their own mother and father.
It was strange how powerful the link had been. Like waking from a dream. He had seen Big People time and time again. The first time he spied only their boots as they raided his home for supplies leaving him a means to escape the house that would have become his tomb. They saved him. Then there was the old man who took his life with a lonely shot of his pistol and the cannibals who flayed other Big People in their basement. There was no link with these people even if they carried the same number of fingers on their hands. He crawled. They walked. How could he ever be like them?
But the sight of two little girls dressed in tattered clothes holding their parents hands pulled it all together. For the first time in a long time...hell in probably all of his short life, he felt something greater than primal instincts. It was genuine sorrow. A sadness that went deep into the soil of his very being. You see he could never hold the hands of his mother and father like they did. Their hands were dust and bone by now, clung only to one another and the bottle of pills they used to escape the madness of their dying world.
He should've been with them, but he wasn't. He lived. They died. Seeing a father, a mother, and sisters all together, battered but alive, crushed him inside. As Neda wondered what the boy was, Scout wondered who he was as well. One of them perhaps? But not really. Not whole like they were. He was something broken. Savage and cracked like a beast made of glass.
A single tear rolled down his cheek.
Neda couldn't see it and Scout knew this. He cried into the arms of the night and the wind mourned with him. At some point Neda drifted off while Scout lingered on in the company of faraway brilliance. Then he too was taken by sleep. His cheeks, salted by his heartache, kissed the beach goodnight. The ghost crabs scuttled on as if nothing in the world had changed. That's the way things go.
The snap of a popping ember woke Scout from his sleep. The man, Mohinder Sahni, poked a small fire just outside the tent. He didn't seem to really notice Scout. He just quietly stirred the coals of the fire. Two cans of beans jutted up from their center. Steam rose up from their circular mouths. Bodies moved in the tent.
The morning was less cruel than the night, but winter was on its way. Scout edged closer to the fire to keep warm. Mohinder didn't move. He could see Scout's slow cautious creep. Even in the day he had a supernatural quality. If Mohinder hadn't been facing him directly he would have likely never noticed the boy crouched there on the sand. His wife worried for the boy, but Mohinder was a little afraid of him. What made it worse was the feeling that the boy could sense it.
But Scout couldn't. The stoic presence of Mohinder only made him more wary. Everything nowadays moved too fast. Animals. People. Fire. Water. It all had a deliberate and sometimes fatal quickness. All of it had a deadly awareness. Mohinder was a stone.
The beans in the cans hissed. Mohinder pulled out a rag to guard his hands and removed the beans. He left them on the ground to cool before whispering into the tent and handing the cans to two small hands. A third remained on the cinders.
Mohinder kept his gaze lowered when he got up, went around the fire, and set down the can of beans in front of Scout. Scout's eyes, however, skittered all over Mohinder studying him as any wild animal would. The man wasn't physically intimidating. He was too short and frail. Even wearing his tattered once-white button up Scout could make out the angles of his bones. There was hardly any muscle on him.
But of course there wouldn't be. Mohinder was a man of finance. All his strengths were in his ability to manipulate numbers. Not just any numbers. He could never be a physicist or chemist. Mohinder knew money. Numbers alone meant little to nothing, but adding a dollar sign changed the game.
Of course living in a dead world made his skills obsolete. Money was nothing but paper once again. All of its worth, the rat race humanity had put itself on, turned to ash. The madness of wealth that seemed to logical at the time was now looked down at as a true psychosis it was. Survival was the new drug, a natural one every living thing on the planet was addicted to. Food and supplies were the new currency, and Mohinder was starting to understand this. It would be a harsh transition, but so far the frail man had managed to keep his family safe. Though scars on his face and arms told Scout he had not survived unscathed.
“Go ahead and eat Scout,” Mohinder said softly. His Indian accent had long vanished. He had become Americanized, something his parents feared.
The only words Scout understood was his name. It was the parting gift his dead mother and father left him. The only thing keeping him from becoming truly feral. Sure he looked as they did, as Mohinder, Neda, and his children, but they were not the same. They were people. Scout was a shred of one. His name was the shred.
Scout studied Mohinder then noticed the girls watching from inside the tent. Everyone was waiting to see what he would do. Neda wondered if the child had ever tasted a cooked meal.
The aroma was tantalizing. The invisible draw of the beans pulled Scout to the spoon jutting from the can. Inside they bubbled and hissed, brown beads of deliciousness. Scout took the spoon, examined it as well, then following the example of the girls carried the beans into his mouth.
The taste was even more savory than the smell. The beans were nothing to Mohinder and his family, who once dined on expensive fish and steak in the most illustrious restaurants in the city. For them beans were the scraps of the new world and sign of how far they had fallen. For Scout they were a feast. Every bite exploded with flavor even though it scalded his mouth. In fact the burning sensation of hot food was also new to him. How long had he survived on cold dead rat and other filth, including the kind from his own body when times had been desperate.
In no time the beans were gone. Scout burped in satisfaction.
“Enjoyed that did you?” asked Mohinder.
For the first time ever Mohinder saw the boy and not the eerie ghostly figure they had found lost on the beach. He was just a boy. One who had endured hardship without anyone to care for him.
The girls gave their father their leftovers, as they always did- to conserve their rations Mohinder only ever ate what was leftover. He took one spoonful for himself then passed both cans to Scout. His dirty little hands reached over the embers and greedily snatched them up. They too were gone in seconds. Afterwards he smiled again. Mohinder smiled back.
When the family was done dismantling their camp Mohinder reached into his ruck and pulled out a black handheld transceiver. He removed the battery from the bottom and replaced it with a new one. The old one was put back into the pack. He climbed up onto the driftwood and surveyed the area. The morning gray was still low, resting just above the ocean surface, but the sea-lights still shined true and bright.
Neda went up to her husband and sat on the wood by his feet. “They're still there. How long do you think they'll stay around?”
Without looking down at her he answered, “They'll stay for as long as it takes. We're almost there anyways.”
Mohinder's skills with money were useless in a dead world, but it had proved its greatest use just before. Just before civilization collapsed, there were those few who noticed the cracks in its foundations. People knew what was coming. The signs were there. These people pooled their resources so they could survive it, and not just survive but continue the legacy of the human race.
Of course to do something like this it would take a good deal of money. And this is where Mohinder Sahni proved his worth. Before everything went to hell he managed the group's accounts and finances, an accountant for the encroaching apocalypse. A doomsday banker. Using his banking skills he helped secure a place with them. By the time it happened and money became worthless he had already invested in his future. And now that investment was waiting for him.
The lights on the sea were his investment.
Mohinder switched on his radio and changed it to the channel he had been using since his family escaped downtown. It beeped with the press of his thumb.
“Foxybury this is Mohinder do you read me?”
“Foxbury this is Mohinder am I coming in? Do you read?”
This part always made Mohinder sick. Hoping to hear something from the people who would save the Sahni family. In city the silence on the radio was torturous. Were they dead? Had they left him? The worse days were the ones when he couldn't get through. He'd stay up on bed tossing and turning wondering what he would do if the worse had happened and they couldn't reach his lifeline. Unbeknownst to him, Neda would be at his side, awake as well, equally apprehensive of an unsure tomorrow. Yet sooner or later he'd get through and all his worries would be expelled until the next day. And so this ritual carried on like this as they journeyed from the deep city downtown to the country beach. Each day a dreadful uncertainty. His investment always in danger of slipping away.
The feeling was worse in the city where ruined skyscrapers and towers blocked the radio signal and their hope of escape was in invisible promise. On the beach they were able to breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of the lights on the water. It was real. The end was just out of reach. But soon all the suffering and the many miles of traversing dangerous territory would pay off.
After a few seconds life came through the phantom static of the radio.
“Mohinder this is Foxbury we read you, over.”
Mohinder and Neda sighed.
“I'm about two miles from pickup point. I'll radio in when we're twenty minutes out.”
“Confirmed Mohinder. Be safe.”
Mohinder nodded then stepped down from the log. Neda stood up. All three children gave then pensive stares. The youngest, Brena, a girl not much older than Scout, grabbed her plain yellow pack and slung it onto her back.
“Let's go then guys!” she said excitedly. “We're wasting time!”
Neda and Mohinder exchanged looks then broke out in laughter. Scout continued to observe. He had never heard such a noise. Not in a long time, and by now it was lost in the fog of his memory. He liked it, like the tickle of the sound. There was something infectious about it, and even though he wanted to join in he held back. Afraid.
“Brena's right everyone let's get going. We're wasting sunlight.”
“Let's go to the boat!” Brena shouted.
There was an electrified liveliness in them. An explosive joy itching to burst from their skins. Brena had already embraced it and let it explode as she started skipping around in circles with impatience. Even somber Mohinder gave in to the feeling as he whistled a tune while getting the supplies and gear onto his back.
Neda, however, was more anxious than thrilled. While Mohinder was the more practical of the two, when it came to being realistic, Neda was a 'glass is half empty' sort of person. To anyone who knew the couple it would be strange that the dreamy artist was the more practical minded in comparison to her husband.
Neda wasn't raised with a silver spoon like her counterpart. She had been raised in the Balswa slums of Dehli. From six to eleven she worked all day hauling bricks to and fro in the hot abusive sun. Every step was made in either dirt or garbage and the stench of it permeated for miles around, a rancid desolate miasma. Neda never believed in hell. For her the toxic wastes of Balswa was the real thing.
So she grew up knowing the ugliness of the world. Unlike Mohinder she hadn't relinquished her roots. Oh sure she had become more big city socialite as the years went by but she never forgot her times in Balswa. Her paintings- Neda was a prominent artist- were hung in white immaculate galleries surrounded by people with fat wallets and fat egos. Her canvases told the tales of Balswa in vibrant oil colors while scrutinized by those who would never know the reality behind the art.
Neda knew the last leg of their journey could be the most perilous. How many times had she heard of someone dying two minutes from reaching their home? They need to be focused. We aren't out of the clear. Not yet. They need to stay aware and prepared for anything. She wanted to shake their shoulders and tell them to keep their composure. They weren't out of the woods just yet.
Sori, the eldest daughter, ten years old, steered her parent's attention to a new direction.
“What about him?” she asked pointing to Scout. “Is he coming with us?”
The Sahni family went quiet. Scout knew they were speaking of him even if she hadn't said his name. He knew. They looked at the ghostly child. His body was powdered in dirt and beach sand. Bits of shell peppered his shaggy uncut light brown hair. His eyes were sunken and rimmed with a purple sickliness.
It was a no brainer for little Brena and her mother Neda. Of course Scout would come. And although he was still reluctant, Mohinder knew he couldn't abandon the child. But Sori didn't want him to come. She hated the idea. He chilled her with his withered dying form. It was like being around a corpse, but more so, deep inside where even she didn't fully grasp, she hated him because he reminded her that the world was no more. There was no going back. Her friends, her teachers, her soccer team were all things of the past. Dead things. Scout was the embodiment of everything she lost.
“Of course he's coming. Right mama?” Brena asked with her big sweet eyes and innocent tone.
“He can't!” yelped Sori.
“Why not Sori?” asked Mohinder.
She said nothing. Her sight stayed fixed on the sand shamefully. Her feet plowed up a small divot.
Neda took a knee. “What's wrong 'Ri? Why don't you want Scout to come with us?”
She whispered something under her breath.
“What did you say?” Neda asked.
“He scares me!” she shouted. “And he's creepy. I mean, look at him.”
They turned to the boy who was ignorant to the girl's complaints. He wore maroon sweats that belonged to Brena and a white shirt that read 'Ives Green Academy' the private school both girls attended. The shirt belonged to Sori. If the world had continued she would have gone on to Warner Poole Preparatory and her entire future would have been determined halfway through her freshman year. The road would have taken her to Harvard in the steps of her father and she would have taken up his trade not only out of dutiful respect to the man but because her mind was also wired to understand the complexity of numbers. She was without a doubt her father's daughter, stoic, focused, driven, organized, and sometimes callous.
“We can't leave him Sori. It's not right,” argued Brena. “Tell her mama.”
Scout crouched on the beach unaware. Neda's slender fingers wrapped around Sori's chin and lifted her face up to her own. Their brown eyes locked. Wisps of Sori's straight jet black hair blew gently across her forehead. Neda moved the strands aside with the same softness of the wind.
“Your sister is right. We can't leave him. It would be murder and we aren't those people Sori. We aren't murderers.”
However smart the ten year old girl was, she was too literal to get the meaning of her mother's words. Her mind as well as her father's- in his youth- was a simple machine. Sure it could calculate but when it came to the subtle lessons of morals and ethics, these problems lacked the rigidity that numbers provided.
“We wouldn't be killing him. We'd just be leaving. He was fine without us. And what if they don't let us get on the boat if we have him?”
This was something Mohinder had considered but knew he could negotiate. There were some essential things the world needed in these hard and uncertain times. Food, supplies, bullets, and a future. Sori, Brena, and the enigmatic boy who could only bark his name were the future. It was bigger than the rats battling for scraps in the heap of a lost civilization. The children would save the human race, and in a land of the dead and dying a child was too valuable to just toss to the wasteland.
“Sori if we leave him he will die. Maybe not now or tomorrow, but eventually he will die. Soon. And any person who turns away a life in need of being saved is a killer. You don't have to stab him or shoot him to be a killer. Sometimes doing nothing is just as wrong.”
Sori shook her head. It didn't make sense.
“Let me talk to her,” Mohinder said.
Mohinder reached out to his daughter's hand and led her out of earshot from the others. Neda gave a sympathetic glance at Scout who looked confused at the whole ordeal.
As if sensing his unease Brena went over to him and held his hand. Neda couldn't believe it. It was the most heartfelt human contact any of them had shown him.
Scout looked down at his hand wrapped around Brena's own and said one thing. It was the only word he seemed to know. It was what his mother and father called him.
“It's okay Scout. You're coming with us. I promise,” Brena said.
“Scout,” he answered.
He never seemed so much like an ordinary boy than at that moment, and Neda imagined what he was like as a baby cradled in his mother's arms. It was hard to forget, looking at him and seeing an animal, that someone once loved him. But Brena saw in him what they couldn't.
Sori and Mohinder were equally struck to see Scout and Brena standing side by side with the backdrop of the grey ocean emerging from the lips of the fog.
“He comes with us,” Mohinder said.
Brena squeezed Scout's hand then did another thing that left everyone astonished. She hugged him.
Her small arms, covered in the blue cotton sleeves of a hoodie, coiled his neck. Her cheeks pressed against his. The warmth in Brena's cheeks was more fulfilling than the fire. He recalled the cats and the winter when they enveloped their bodies around his to keep warm. And even as he longed to embrace her back he could not. Like her language he did not know it.
“You're coming with us Scout. We're gonna take care of you for now on, okay?”
He answered back, “Scout.”
“Let's go everyone,” Mohinder said bringing everyone back to reality. “We have a walk ahead of us.”
The first half of the walk was uneventful. It wasn't until the outline of a pier manifested itself that the family became more cautious. Neda's apprehension seeped into the rest of the family and even the feral boy was beginning to show unease.
Mohinder, in the meantime, turned on his radio and updated the Foxbury.
“We're sending the retrieval boat now,” the voice on the other side answered assuredly.
“We need to get off the beach and out of sight. We'll to through the dunes,” directed Neda.
Mohinder didn't question his wife and neither did the kids. Scout had already moved closer to the dunes the moment he saw the pier, even releasing the sweet clutch of his companion, Brena, choosing survival over her. A kind hand couldn't shield him from something hungry.
What they didn't know was that earlier the dunes were no place to hide. They missed the danger by minutes. Predatory things left their dens for a their daytime hunt.
Scout picked up the scent of their urine and droppings. He spied their holes hidden in the beach grasses and the network of paths emerging from them. Their prints were still fresh in the sand. They were gone, but not far. He tugged at Neda and tried to explain, but his babble and the fractured repetition of his name could not clue her in to the danger they were heading for.
The Sahni family weaved through the dunes oblivious and wondering what had gotten into Scout. He getting more and more restless. He was the skittish type, always scanning around for something or someone, but this was worse. He'd climb a dune stopping short of its top then crawl the rest of the way and search.
“Why is he doing that mama?” asked Sori. It only made her distrust the child even more so, but after speaking with her father she wouldn't bring it up again.
“I'm...not sure,” she admitted. “I think he's looking out for something? Maybe he's been here before I guess?”
“You think he knows this place?” Mohinder asked Neda.
“I don't know.”
The loose sand of the dunes slowed their movement by half its speed compared to the open beach. But eventually the dunes gave way to an empty parking lot. Wisps swept over its gray surface and already explosions of beach grass were erupting through.
A few small buildings stood across the lot. Their pastel blue paint was chipped away by storms and the absence of human upkeep. Mounds of sand that had been brought up from the dunes and beach piled against the sides of the buildings. In they past they had been part of a state park, offering bathrooms, showers, concessions, and tourist gifts like seashells. The pier extended from these shops out over the water. A crust of barnacles coated the pier's wooden supports.
“Should we check to see if anything useful is inside?” Mohinder suggested nodding to the shops.
“No. The boat'll be here soon so we won't be needing supplies anymore,” Neda answered.
They contemplated this. It was hard to believe the days of scavenging for food would soon be over. No more competing with vagrants, brigands, marauders, and animals for survival. There was a place where the old way of life was still alive, a promised land of sorts, and the Foxbury was going to take them there.
Brena tugged at her mother's shirt.
He was gone. No one had noticed the boy slip away.
Mohinder, “Did we lose him in the dunes?”
Mohinder scanned the dunes for a sign.
“Look,” said Sori pointing across the lot to a sign at the entrance.
Three large dog-like things loomed there watching the family with ravenous bloodshot eyes under a heavy wrinkled brow. Whatever domestic breed they had once been was polluted by some ghastly mutation, touched by the demonic presence haunting the land. Their stocky bodies were packed with tight wads of muscles and meat under pewter skin. Their canines had become cruel tusks gouging through their sagging black lips.
Everyone froze in place hoping the beasts had not yet noticed them. But when the largest of the three leaned his square head up and let out a deep booming howl that towered over the din of the ocean, they knew it was too late to skulk back to the dunes for refuge.
The three hellhounds broke out in a sprint that was faster than expected from their hulking bodies.
“Run!” Neda and Mohinder yelled in unison.
Neda took Brena up into her arms while Mohinder grabbed Sori's hand. The Sahni family bolted towards the pier with the hellhounds hot on their tails growling and biting at them.
Neda unholstered the one gun the family owned. In its cylinder were four bullets. Despite what one would imagine, ammunition was just as scarce as food in the new world. Stockpiles of bullets and guns were not strewn about as television had made it seem before the apocalypse.
With Brena in her arms it was hard to unholster and by the time she had freed the small .38 special the dogs were only a few yards from their heels. She couldn't pivot around and get a clear shot while on the move and balancing Brena in the other arm. This forced her to fire over her shoulder nearly blind, solely reliant on her limited periphery.
A single shot snapped and missed its target. It popped against the wall of the smaller building closest to the pier, the concession stand that once served nachos covered in syrupy yellow cheese.
The air in Neda's lungs exploded forth with the force of dynamite shattering a mountain. Her body was twisted into a C shape with her shoulders thrust back with her hips ands legs which had failed to yet catch up to her midsection. She went sprawling along with Brena and the .38 special. They violently thudded onto the wooden floor.
She knew what happened but her mind was still in a daze. The gun! The gun! This one phrase desperately repeated itself over in over as her hands clawed about reaching for it. But all she raked in was emptiness.
The hellhound didn't waste a moment with its merciless onslaught. Its ragged maw shut down on her calf shearing flesh with each savage swing of its head. She tried to pivot around and free herself despite the raging agony flushing through her body, but a second dog pounced on her back. She cringed and waiting for its massive jaws to clench down and finish her off.
A shot snapped. There was a wet rapid sucking sound, almost inaudible, above her head. A searing bullet pierced the second beast in the neck slicing into its artery. Its yellow blood flowed out unrelentingly and cascading onto Neda's head. The creature dropped onto her.
Sori fired again. One bullet left. This one dropped the hellhound cutting into her calf. Where one of its bloodshot eyes had been was now only a grotesque hole. Two heavy monsters now covered Sori's mother. Tears streamed down the girl's dirty cheeks.
“Sori!” cried out Mohinder.
Her father and sister were pressed up against the railings cornered by the last of the hellhounds. The snaps and growls were their death knell. With the gun trembling in her small hands Sori closed one eye and aimed.
Scout watched this unfold. He emerged from the dunes when the hounds passed and pursued them quietly, using the derelict buildings for cover. He watched Sori down two of them...
...and miss the last one.
The bullet flew too short and impacted the boards of the pier casting up splinters. Sori gasped. The first two shots had been guided by pure luck and nothing else. Of course she had no skill. Despite the harshness of the wastes she never once fired a gun.
In fact her father was the last to use the old .38 special and the two bullets it had at the start. He slew a man who desperately needed to be killed. For the sake of the family. And since then he handed it back to his wife, who was always the stronger one.
The retort of the .38 special drew the attention of the hellhound to the ten year old daughter of Neda and Mohinder Sahni. It's muscles flexed and twitched with each small confident step towards the terrified girl. Sori kept the gun pointed at it praying for some miraculous fifth bullet to cycle around the cylinder and release itself into the mutated hulk of the creature. But all it offered were feeble clicks.
None of them heard the thumping of feet rushing across the pier. Any other person, even a child like Sori and Brena, would have rattled the weathered pier at that speed. But there was only silence until he was four feet away from the hound. Brena and Mohinder, both yelling at the monster to pull it away from the attention of the monster, didn't see him coming until he was in the air.
Scout charged then leapt up onto the monstrous hellhound. Despite his frail appearance and meager stature the boy struck the beast with incredible force. They tumbled nearly four feet back in a tangled knot of human child and demon cur.
The hellhound contorted and scrambled psychotically trying to wrestle the boy off. At first its noises were angry barks and snarls but eventually these turned into yelps and plaintive whining. It had become desperate to escape Scout's python-grip. It was scared. Never in its life had its prey put up such a fight.
Opposite of the monster Scout was nearly silent, save for his labored breathing and an occasional grunt. His head swayed about looking, seeking, for the warmth of his weak spot, the place where the most blood would be. The first bullet to down the first hound was successful in finding it, the carotid artery, and eventually so was Scout.
It bulged, offering blood from an enlarged heart to its enlarged head, and worked overtime as it struggled with the boy. With all the power he could muster Scout plunged his tiny teeth into the ashen flesh of the thrashing hellhound.
His mouth was too small, not evolved to dive into prey, but the gods, who had left mankind to its dismal fate, had at least gifted them with hands. When his teeth failed to dig any deeper into the creature's tough meat he used his fingers and began to peel back its skin. At first it refused to give, but once he uplifted enough of it it came off with ease.
Scout flayed the aberrant dog alive. Sticky blood and gory tissue splattered onto the pallid boy and the deck of the pier. A lone gull answered the horrid wails of the dying monster. Mohinder and Brena went to Sori then excavated Neda from the two toppled hounds. Mohinder wrapped a spare shirt from his pack around his wife's shorn leg. They huddled around waiting for the bloodletting to end, overcome with equal terror and awe.
Scout released his grip from the beast when it shuddered at the loss of its life force. The organic gear-work within its mutant form was grinding to a halt. He scampered to his feet, still keeping a slightly crouched stance and prepared for any wild retaliation.
The hellhound staggered in circles before it came to a rest on the ground. It whimpered a sound echoing back to the pup it had been...once. And so it joined its pack and all the other dead things blanketing the Earth.
In the past the pier had been filled with laughing families and romancing couples escaping the clamor of the city. But those times were gone. A boy, the feral Mowgli of the apocalypse, stood on the pier painted in yellow blood. Strips of skin hung from his hands.
In the short life Scout knew he was always running. He ran from dogs before they had become these degenerate demons. He ran from a poisonous gas flooding the city filled with screeching men in bizarre hazmat suits. He ran from cannibals and their hellish charnel house. He ran from the fire that burned down the one place he ever felt safe.
No more running. With the death of the hellhound Scout had crossed over a line. You see people like the Sahnis were born in an age of reason and civility. Scout had been born at the very cusp of that time and had no memory of it, except the tender whisper of his name from the lips of his mother and father. He was the child of Armageddon, forged in the twisted detritus of the apocalypse. He was an organism changed, mutated, to survive the harsh new planet which rejected the symmetry of the old. He was the future. And the future held only death.
The sight of such a being chilled the Sahnis. Even Brena, with her tender heart, was disquieted by Scout's brutality.
Neda swallowed her fear and was thankful he had saved them.
“You to wash him off, change his clothes. We can't take him on the boat like this. We don't even know if they'll agree to take him and this won't make it any easier convincing them to do otherwise.”
Mohinder gave a slow nod, still shaken and bewildered by what transpired.
Neda took some clothes from Brena's pack. Brena was also mute.
“Go,” Neda said shaking Mohinder out of his stupor. “I'll take the girls to the end of the pier and wait for the boat. I'll meet you there. I don't want to miss the boat.”
Mohinder nodded again, this time with more awareness and took out the radio.
“Foxbury this is Mohinder. Update on the retrieval boat?”
“Ten minutes,” the Foxybury answered.
Neda kissed her husband. “Don't be late darling.”
The girls helped carry their mother as she limped down the pier passing Scout on the left. The boy did nothing until he heard his name.
“Scout,” Mohinder whispered.
He flinched when he touched his shoulder. Mohinder half expected him to rip his throat out as well. But he was careful not to flinch. He didn't want the boy to know he was scared.
“Scout I need to wash this stuff off of you. Come with me.”
He lifted Scout's hand into his own and pulled him away from the mutant corpse. At first he resisted, but for only a second. As they walked back down to the beach Scout stared at the planks under his bare feet. He would have counted them if he could.
Mohinder and Scout returned to the others who had already climbed inside the Coast Guard response boat (RB-M). Mohinder didn't wait to ask questions like whether or not they were going to let Scout onboard.
He went forward and dropped the boy down into the hands of four men dressed in solid navy blue uniforms. They superficially resembled typical military uniforms, but these were different and lacked the camouflage pattern used on most. The only thing on them were the letters EHSE which had also been painted over the insignias and colors of the on the Coast Guard boat. The organization Mohinder worked for, the mysterious EHSE, had purchased and repurposed many military vessels and vehicles to suit their needs.
Mohinder came down after Scout and was placed gently on the boat. Once everyone was seated and secured the boat cruised away from that horrid pier.
Scout stared curiously at the water then at the land. All of this was new to him and soon the killing of the hellhounds was pushed to the back of his head. He was fascinated by the experience of the boat and how such a marvelous machine could exist. In fact he had never seen a machine, a working one, in all of his life. There were only their husks peppered throughout the ruined wastes. It left him in wonder.
Yet when he cast a final eye to the mainland he felt a strange sadness tinged with joy. He was leaving behind a terrible place filled with all manner of nightmares. Somewhere far away, beyond the corroded skeletons of skyscrapers and towers, out in the suburbs, was his home. In a room upstairs his mother and father were locked in their eternal embrace. Scout was suppose to die with them, but the callous volition of destiny, kismet, whatever one calls it, had decided something else. So there he was miles from the place that would have become his tomb crossing the ocean to an uncertain future. He was sad to leave it as much as he was happy it was gone.
Neda kept a close eye on Scout as the onboard medic wrapped her leg in gauze and bandages. The pain was so immense it had become numb. Fortunately it was localized so aside from her throbbing injury she was fine. She'd get a few stitches once they reached the Foxbury. Neda only prayed the dogs had not been infected with anything serious or possibly fatal.
“They said they'll have to see if he'll be able to stay onboard the Foxbury. Evaluations and so on,” Mohinder said sitting next to his wife after talking with the man in charge of the RB-M.
Neda said nothing back to her husband.
“I didn't tell them what happened back there,” he said. He figured it was an issue she was worried about.
“Can they put him on another boat?”
Mohinder sighed, “I honestly have no idea. That'll be up to the committee. I can try to pull some weight but I'm an accountant. I just handle money so it's not like I have much pull with them.”
Neda gave a deep loving glance at Mohinder. She cupped his hands. “My love. Just an accountant? If not for you our girls would be dead. I would be dead. You saved us. You're more than just an accountant. Don't forget that.”
She kissed him on the cheek.
“I promise I'll see what I can do.”
Neda, “Thank you.”
“Are you sure though?” he asked a moment later.
She knew what his question meant. It was something she kept thinking.
“I hope so. I hope he's not too far gone. What he did back there...was...” he said struggling to put definition in what Scout had done.
Neda nodded. “Yeah. I know.” She knew what he meant, but it was hard to explain in words.
She replayed the sight of a boy no more than five years in age, likely less, ripping apart the creature's neck, pulling up wads of viscera. She thought of its plaintive cries as Scout butchered it. Never in her life had Neda witnessed something so spectacular and horrendous. Had their lives not been in danger she might have run from the boy, mistaking him as one of the horrors that roamed the wastes. His ghoulish appearance didn't help dispel the thought. Yet, there he was, smiling, in awe of ocean and the boat. How much did he know about such things? Machines? The world? People?
He knows his name she thought.
Did he? Or was the merely a scrap artifact of his humanity? Did it have any meaning to him? She wrestled with these conflicting emotions. Pity and fear. That smile, the innocence in his wonder, hiding a deadly potential inside. She found her heart skipping a beat each time Brena spoke to him. She wasn't proud of it, but there was no ignoring the fact that he could easily kill one of them. The question was would he? He was like animal in the guise of a little boy and she knew well enough that some animals, given the proper motive, could bite.