Beyond The Walls by Maira Dawn
Chapter 1 with audio
Wolf sighed and flipped his long black hair back over his shoulder. He’d been out here for two days. That was a day too long, and he still had nothing to show for it.
He scanned the overgrown fields around him. It was lonesome out here beyond the community’s walls, and the feeling didn’t sit well with him. In addition, the dry summer had made the grass crunchy and the path dusty, and it was so quiet he heard every step his moccasin-encased feet made.
And something was tracking him. It moved through the tall golden grasses on his right.
Wolf’s heart gave a couple of hard thumps. Now that there were fewer people, animals were more brazen. He put a hand to his crossbow and rose to his tiptoes, but couldn’t see anything.
Whatever it was had stopped.
After waiting a few moments, he chuckled. It was probably just some little bunny half paralyzed with fright.
“It’s your lucky day, rabbit. I ain’t hunting.”
The fourteen-year-old set his shoulders and continued. The little ones needed medicine. Someone had to get it, no matter what it was like out here. He could do this. He would make his little town of parentless kids proud.
Wolf stared at the intersection a few yards in front of him and trudged toward it. At the crossroads, he turned and stared off in each direction.
This is where it got tricky, because this was as far as he’d wandered since The Fall. From here on out, the landscape and buildings were a mystery.
Oh, he knew what had been there, but what was there now? So here he stood, playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe to decide which direction to take.
Wolf shrugged and decided to go south. A tiny smudge on the horizon gave him the slight hope of still-standing buildings—maybe even an intact town.
After taking a few swigs from his canteen, Wolf started down the dusty road at a jog and passed a few houses with extensive fields in between. Most seemed damaged and deserted, except for one.
The beige ranch sat close to the country road. To the side of the house, a man about fifty was digging a hole and loading the dirt into a red wheelbarrow with peeling paint.
Wolf slowed and stopped. He’d hardly come across people around here. And there was no way around the man now. He eyed the rifle propped against the side of the wheelbarrow. Should he say something or skedaddle?
Before he could decide, the man glanced up. “I don’t want any trouble,” he warned, reaching for the gun.
Wolf raised his hands to show he didn’t have any weapons besides the Bowie knife at his side and the crossbow on his back. “Neither do I, sir”.
The man looked him over. “What’s a boy your age doing out here?”
“I ain’t that young. The way the world is now, I’m fully grown.”
The corner of the man’s mouth jerked up as he started to smile, then his expression saddened. “I suppose that’s true.”
Wolf asked the question that troubled him every time he left his safe little community. “Where’s everyone at?”
“You mean since the sky fell?” The man scoffed. “Well, plenty were burned out of their places. A lot got sick from all that stuff—wasn’t made to be in close quarters with humans, it seems. Others moved off to where more people are. I heard tell there are some setting themselves up as kings. People flock to them like sheep—as if they can’t figure out this new life on their own.”
The man eyed Wolf’s buckskin shirt and pants. “Looks like you got it figured out.”
The boy looked down and brushed his pant leg. “I’m trying. They’re still a little stiff though.”
“Keep trying. You’ll get it. You seem like a determined kid.” The man tapped the shovel a few times on the hard ground in front of him. “So, whatcha doing out here?”
“I need medicine. Is there a drugstore up ahead?”
The man nodded. “Yeah, there is. I haven’t been that way for a while so I don’t know what’s left up there. There’s some kind of weird . . . hound that way. You’d do better to turn around and search somewhere else.”
Hound? “Is it rabid or something? I need to get those meds.”
“I’m not sure.” The man pursed his lips, then said, “Stay right there,” and disappeared behind his house. After a couple of minutes, he came back walking a bicycle, and waved Wolf over. “Here, take this. It’s a spare, so keep it. Maybe it'll keep you ahead of that little monster.”
Wolf grinned. Why hadn’t he thought about this before? “Thank you, mister. I really appreciate this.”
The man glanced from the town to Wolf. “You get hurt or anything, you can come back here. Ya hear?”
The boy nodded his goodbye. “I do, sir. Thanks again.”
* * *
Elated, Wolf pedaled down the road, feeling as if he soared with the birds now instead of creeping along like a limping turtle. He kept his eyes on the town ahead and could soon make out buildings.
Several yards to Wolf’s right, the long grasses again rustled and bent as something forced its way through them.
The boy sent darting glances that way. Was it the same animal that followed him before? Could it be the hound the man had warned him about?
Wolf pedaled faster, ready to grab his bow. He had confidence in his abilities. He’d taken down several deer and even a wild boar—all on his own. And boars were quick as all get out. If he could take out that boar, this dog was nothing. It sounded like it would be a favor to the neighborhood to get rid of the thing.
As the houses along the road got closer, the rustling in the grass ceased. Soon after that, Wolf passed a dirty sign welcoming him to Juniper Valley. Below that was a decorative sign proclaiming, “Home of the largest berry festival in Arkansas.”
Wolf examined what seemed to be a ghost town. “Sorry to tell you, but not anymore, folks.”
He rolled into the middle of the small downtown area. At the crossroads, gas stations sat at two of the corners and a hair salon on a third. Across from that was a mom-and-pop grocer called Tucker’s, which advertised a pharmacy.
“Bingo!” Relieved, Wolf propped the bike against the nearest light pole and rushed to the front door.
The glass doors of the small building were still shut and intact—which was a good sign. People tended to smash places they looted.
As Wolf reached out to grab the door handle, a faint cough and groan came from his left.
He flattened himself against the wall beside the door, head swinging one way then another as he searched for the source of the noise. When he saw no one, he inched his way to the side wall and slipped around the corner.
Now standing between Tucker’s grocery and a clothing boutique, he felt more secure. Against the store walls were two large, green dumpsters. Wolf crouched behind the closest one.
When an unpleasant aroma wafted through the alleyway, the boy held a finger to his nose. Something besides garbage was rank.
Another cough and a loud troubled moan came from beyond the alley.
Someone needed help.
Or maybe they wanted to draw him out.
Wolf stood and continued toward the back of the buildings, careful not to rustle any garbage strewn about the path.
The further down the alleyway he went, the stronger the smell. On reaching the next dumpster, he found a partially eaten wild piglet behind it. Something had gnawed on it in the last twenty-four hours.
It wasn’t the first time the predator had used the gruesome makeshift den. There was a pile of broken, discolored bones beside the uneaten meat. Was it the hound? If so, it might come back soon.
A few more steps and he peeked around the back of the building. To his right was the grocery’s parking lot, and beyond that, the road.
Wolf went left, creeping along the back wall of the clothing store. At the corner, he stopped and peeked around the side of it. The lot beside the store had at one time ended the commercial part of town and started a row of houses. Now the house there was no more than a pile of blackened timber, except for a front door that was leaned up against one side.
In the middle of that uncomfortable mess lay a boy around Wolf’s age.