By: Paul William Fassett
Randon knew he had to prepare for a well armed group of slavers, but he had work to do on Iggy. The boy was weak. Physically and mentally. Coddling would do nothing but harm the boy. Even as Randon watched him, the boy seemed to tremble, not just from the cold, but from the situation. Even interacting with another man. Random sounds in the night would make him flinch. He was like a cornered rabbit. There were feelings Randon had buried which seemed to flood back. He would smile whenever he’d look at the boy. More than that, he found himself wanting to speak to him. He searched his mind for something to say.
“You ever do anything with that knife?” Randon asked, a sly smile on his face.
The boy grimaced. His body curled up, and got smaller.
“What was your father like?”
Iggy stopped chewing, and stared into the fire.
Randon continued: “My father was one of those go getter types. A real fan of power. You know? Even though he never had any.” He watched the boys face. No change. “Worshiped the Prime Minister. He always wanted me to go into politics. I did him one better. I lobbied.”
“What’s a lobbied?” Iggy asked reluctantly.
“Well it’s like a…” Randon cocked his head back, and looked off trying to pull an answer from the air. “They’re like guys who get things done, for other people who get bigger things done. You know?” Nope. No signs of life. “We were nearest the top of a pyramid.” He raised his hand palm down just above his eyes. “Not the tip, but just below it.” He lowered his hand just below his eyes. “We bore the least weight, and had the best view.” Randon chuckled at his own joke, but the boy still didn’t get it. “Anyway, my dad didn’t like it. Said there was nothing honest about it.” Iggy’s face cracked a smile for just a moment, and then quickly turned sour. “I mean life’s not like a football game.”
“What about rules?” The boy asked innocently, with a strange intelligent knowing behind the words which caught Randon off guard.
“Rules are just things people put up in the way of the strong, to keep them from trampling all over the weak. All this…” Randon points at the world around him, right now consisting of a gutted Grocery store. “All of this shows you just how the real world works, when all the controls break down. It’s every one for themselves.” He could see the kid was still not convinced. “You think those slaver bastards care about morality, or any of that?”
The boy cringed, and seemed to move further from him. Rickard let the boy’s reactions sink in.
“If you obeyed the law, you’d have to turn the other cheek. Not me… You have to protect yourself, and the one’s you love.” Rickard added, watching for a change in the boy’s expression.
Iggy seemed to relax, and the light from the fire brought a smooth glow across his dune-like features.
“So anyway, my father… Well, he pretty much didn’t talk to me anymore.” Randon drifted off into thought. There was a moment in his life when he was packing a suit case, long ago, before the war, and he ran across a photo album. He tried to relive the memory because his father’s face was becoming a featureless thing. He turned the first page, and saw the letter his father wrote Randon’s mother during the war. He turned to the next page, and saw a photo of his father, young, holding Randon as a baby on his lap. He remembered that photo, because once upon a time he’d carried it in his breast pocket. His father’s face tight back then. Hair still jet black. His short trimmed mustache followed perfectly the contour of his smiling lips. Still in his uniform, two years after the war. A short lived memory of excitement, and happiness for a new life, and new possibilities. “What did he look like?” Randon asked.
“Oh… Average.” Iggy seemed disinterested.
“You don’t remember what he looks like?”
“Looked.” Iggy corrected.
“Why?” Iggy asked to the fire, throwing in a small stick he had been pulling the skin off of. Fiery ash rose, then evaporated into the darkness.
The silence ticked by.
“Do you miss him?” Randon asked breaking the tension.
The boy sighed, then answered: “No.” The notion seemed to annoy him. Rickard looked the boy over as Iggy watched the waves of fire tumble. His eyebrows arched. Lips thinned, and curled slightly inward. “He was a coward.” The boy put down his tray, and fork. “I don’t want to talk about him.”
“What did he do?”
“Can we please not talk about it?” He lay back on the floor, and gazed up at the roof.
“You should get some sleep.” Randon rose, and the boy sat up, and gathered his things.
“Now come on kid. I thought we we’re all done with that?” Randon watched him walk to the corner of the store room, and set his things down. “It isn’t safe to split up.”
The boy ignored him, and set himself up against the wall. Randon picked up a length of wood that he had fashioned into a club, and threw it to Iggy.
“If you’re gonna be afraid of me, then it’s best you have this to keep you safe.”
The boy’s eyes widened at the thought, and his body trembled.
“Pick up the stick.” Randon could see the fear in the boy’s eyes, so he moved to the door to block his retreat. “I’m not going to hurt you. I would have done it already.” Randon moved towards him until he noticed the darkness forming on the boy’s pants running in lines down his leg, and forming in a puddle at his feet. Randon dropped his stick…“I’m sorry.”
The boy slid with his back against the wall, inching away as Randon inched forward. When Randon took a large step the boy darted off like a deer. He pulled boxes from the shelves to block Randon’s path, then just as he’d have a hand on the boy’s collar he’d cut to the left.
“Okay.” Randon put his hands up. “Just let me talk to you. I pushed too hard I…” Before he could finish the boy turned to run, so Randon ran after him. The boy cut to the loading dock door. Youth, and anxiety had him far ahead of Randon, but when he reached the door, and tugged Randon was able to get behind him. Locked in a bear hug Iggy kicked, screamed, head butted, bit, scratched, but everything he tried was neutralized by Randon’s superior strength, and huge, weathered hands. Randon held him, and waited until he calmed. He whispered: “It’s okay.” As Iggy fell silent. They went to their knees, still in the forced embrace as the boy convulsed with deep sobs. Randon let go, but the boy turned to him, and buried his face in Randon’s chest, still crying, still bucking like an animal in its death throes.
“What did they do to you kid?” Randon asked as he put his arm around the boy’s back, and pulled him in tighter. He waited until the boy had spent all of his energy crying. Iggy fell asleep in his arms, so Randon made a bed for him to lie in made of a tarp, and some cardboard, and balled up the boys coat to make a pillow. He laid the boy out on the cot, and watched him from the fire.
When the boy woke, he found Randon up early, doing a strange dance with a stick. It was no dance though. These were moves. The stick acted as a knife, and cut patterns through the air in diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines. A carefully choreographed routine that had him walking towards, and dodging imaginary opponents. Iggy watched the tip of the stick. It made a whistling sound as it whipped across, and nestled itself into Randon’s under arm, only to come screaming back to the other side.
Randon turned to the boy who had become transfixed.
“What was that?”
“Are you going to ask me?” Randon waited for a reply, but never got one. “Okay fine, I’ll ask you. Do you want to learn how to do this?”
The boy hesitated. “What would I need it for?”
“No… Why a stick?”
Randon smiled. “Just imagine it’s a sword, or a knife. It’s a way of practicing in safety.” Randon turned to his duffel bag, and was digging around.
“Okay.” The boy stepped to the side to see what Randon was looking for.
“You like your knife right?” Randon held out not a stick, but a black rubber knife.
“Where did you get this?”
“I found it in an old store.”
The boy was fascinated with the new toy. A few wild swings with it brought a smile to the boy’s face. Randon watched as he swung. Made judgments. His eyes followed the pattern of the blade. The arc and speed.
“Okay. Are you ready?”
“What are we going to do?”
“Practice.” Randon smiled, but the boy wasn’t buying it. “I promise you won’t get hurt.” After a pause, he added: “No permanent damage that is.”
Iggy shifted his body, and looked down at his feet. “I don’t know.”
“Look kid, life is a series of painful experiences. The best thing is, at the end… We get to sleep. Are you afraid of sleep?”
“Then why be afraid of death?”
The boy didn’t have an answer.
“They’re the same thing. Unconsciousness.”
“Maybe I’m not ready for it to be over.” The boy shot back.
“And that’s why we fight. To ensure it’s over when we’re ready for it to be.”
Iggy turned the knife over in his hands, feeling the weight of it. Gripping, ungripping. “Okay. Just don’t go too hard, please?
“We’ll take it easy.” Randon promised.
Randon assumed a fighting stance. His stick was held in one hand tightly. The other hand floated behind him just above the belt line, his knees bent, and his body rocked up and down as he settled into confidence.
“Hold the knife so that it feels comfortable in your hands.”
Iggy tightened his hand around the blade, and then loosened his grip.
The skin around his knuckles smoothed, and his thumb tightened around the handle.
“I want you to attack.” Randon added.
“Okay.” Iggy replied as he inched forward. Apathetically he pushed the blade forward into Randon’s midsection, where it was parried to the side. He was pulled by the wrist forward, and just as Iggy was about to fall on his face, Randon cranked his head back using his chin as a fulcrum. Randon grabbed a handful of Iggy’s collar, and stood him upright.
Randon shook his head. “You have to take this seriously.”
“If this was a blade…” Randon cut himself off to keep from scolding the boy. “Maybe we need something more practical? Let’s go to the store.”
Randon took Ignacio into the store area. “If you are fighting someone with a long weapon, where do you want them to be?”
The boy shrugged, so Randon took him by the hand, and led him down one of the aisles. Old bread hardened on the shelving where spiders made their nests. “You limit their range of movement. In an open area, the longer weapon has an advantage. I can swing from any direction. Here…” Randon swung the blade, and it got caught on the shelving, and knocked the bread onto the floor. “My only option is to thrust, or overhand.” Randon lifted the stick above his head. “When I lift, I am vulnerable. Where would you stick me?”
Iggy stepped over cautiously, and stabbed for the gut.
“No. A wound like that can take hours to die from. Aim for the heart.” Randon guided the blade to his heart. “Or the neck.” Randon guided the blade across his neck. “Try again. This time, quickly.” Randon lifted the blade again, and this time Iggy stabbed at the heart quickly. Like a pro. Like he’d done it before. “Good. Now for the thrust.”
Randon slowly stabbed at the boy with the stick, and Iggy stood there dumbly waiting for instruction. “Don’t just stand there, move out of the way.”
Randon thrust again, and this time Iggy stepped to the right. A punch then came dangerously close to hitting the boy and Iggy stopped, stunned.
Another thrust came. Iggy went low, so Randon threw a knee. Iggy stood up, and without warning, Randon thrusted again, but Iggy dodged outside this time, exposing Randon’s rib cage. “Good, but you forgot something.” Randon lightly swung the stick backhanded, and smacked the kid in the back of the head.
“Ow.” Iggy complained as he rubbed the sore spot.
“I still have my weapon. If someone sticks out their blade, they are giving you their weapon. Slash at the hand, and they will drop it. Never dodge, and wait. Counter always.”
They drilled the thrust, and overhand techniques for hours, and retired only when Randon was worn out, and they repeated training throughout the week. Every day they would wake, and eat. Prepare, stretch, and train. As the food dwindled, and cold settled in, they stepped up the training. Never knowing when a group of savages would come looking for their property. When they sparred, Randon was the clear winner, but the kid was crafty. At times surprisingly so.
At the end of the week Iggy got up early, sat on the floor, and warmed himself by the dying embers of the fire. Randon was shaken awake abruptly, sitting up, gasping. His heart only slowed when he saw the boy, sitting by the fire.
“Sorry.” Randon rose from his cot to put on a shirt. “I thought you…” He considered his words. “Nevermind. Are you hungry?”
The boy nodded. “Are we training today?”
Randon went to boil some rice, but noticed the bag was almost empty. He let it plop back into the box, and sat down. “No…”
He said with a sigh. “I don’t suppose you know how to hunt?”
“Yeah…” He breathed out heavily, and rummaged through his goods. “Do you trust me?”
Randon took a moment to absorb the idea. “Get dressed, and meet me out back.”
Randon opened the loading dock doors. Sun light filled the room, and the cold of early morning waned. The long stretch of road, and dirt went flatly into the horizon. About five miles out was a tree line. Randon looked back to see if Iggy was ready, but he was taking his time getting dressed.
“Grab your knife, and one of my spears.” Iggy looked at Randon dumbly for half a second, and then did what he was told. Randon looked off, and smiled so hard it almost hurt. Iggy filed in beside him, and Randon took up his spear, and used it as a walking stick.
They walked on, and when Iggy fell back, Randon slowed. He was so used to walking on his own that he never thought to slow his pace. Wind blew dust around so they covered their faces with rags. In an hour they were upon the edge of what used to be a forest, but all the trees had since shriveled, and lost their leaves. The shade, and cover they created though was more than enough to cover them from the blistering, sandpaper like winds which had stripped the trees bare of their outer skin
“Walk where I walk.” Randon said.
Randon carefully avoided sticks, dried piles of dead leaves, anything that could make a sound, and alert any possible prey. Iggy watched, and waited, plotting his destination. His foot fit neatly into Randon’s foot prints.
“Why do you look up all the time?” Iggy whispered.
“You can use the sun to guide you.” He knelt down, and pointed to the horizon. “It’s morning, so the sun is in the east. So we need to head west on our way back.” Iggy nodded, and they continued on for what seemed like an hour until Randon signaled for Iggy to get down. They laid belly first into the dirt.
Iggy scanned the area. Randon watched something in the distance.
“What is it?” Iggy whispered.
Randon put his finger to his lips again, this time accompanied by a scowl. That’s when they appeared. In the distance… Four shapes. Dogs. Traveling through the woods no more than fifteen or so yards ahead. Randon crawled backwards to Iggy, and nestled in close to him.
“See the one in the back?”
Randon pointed at a black dot. A fifth dog, trailing far behind the others.
“That’s the one we want.” Randon said. The boy looked uneasy. “There’s something wrong with it. See the way it walks?”
Iggy nodded, but the fact the dog was lame didn’t seem to comfort him. Randon put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and Iggy looked up to him; waiting for something.
“This is the way it has to be Ignacio.” The boy nodded in agreement.
“What do I do?”
“Wait here.” Randon stood to a low crouch, and moved off to the far left.
Randon whistled, and the trailing dog watched as the pack corralled around, and sniffed at the air. Another whistle and they were off bounding into the woods leaving the injured dog behind. The dog raised its hind leg to clean itself, and Iggy watched, and waited in the dirt. A tingling sensation behind his eyes had worked its way into his nostrils, and an uncontrollable sneeze boomed loudly.
The dog smelled the air, and followed the scent. Every step closer made Ignacio slow his breathing, and tighten up. Iggy pulled his blade as the dog was almost on top of him. The dog stepped on Iggy’s face, and backed up, startled. It stood over him snarling. Its teeth rushed in open. Iggy closed his eyes, and covered his face until the sound of rustled leaves shocked his lids open. Randon wrestled the dog to the ground, grabbed its neck, and threw it to its belly.
Randon pinned the dog’s jaw to the ground before it could call out, and laid it out flat on its chest. Iggy watched as the dog skittered, and let out yelps that were squeezed out by Randon’s weight. “Don’t think about it.” Randon said. Iggy watched the dog’s eyes. “Don’t look there.” Randon said. “Just below the base of the skull.” Randon looked deep into the child’s eyes, never breaking contact. “It won’t even feel it. Just slam it down.” Iggy winced. “No no no. Do it right or you’ll only hurt it. Okay?” Iggy’s eye widened. A mixture of fear, and confusion. Survival instincts fought against morality. “Listen to me. Okay?” Randon’s voice was calm. A wise voice coming from a teacher. Iggy nodded his head, and allowed Randon to grab his wrist with slight hesitation as Randon moved the blade to the back of the skull.
Iggy’s eyes went from the dog, to the blade, and Randon moved in closer to him. He whispered.
“Put your other hand over the back of the handle, and push down with all your weight.” The dog whimpered as the cold blade touched its neck. It tried to wriggle away, but Randon had its joints pinned by his feet, and knees. “It won’t feel it.”
The boy nodded. Randon leaned away, and waited. The boy looked down at the target, and aimed the knife. Randon let go of Iggy’s wrist. He leaned down with all his weight, and nailed the dog’s neck to the ground. A cut off whimper signaled the deed as the dog fell still, and deflated beneath them. The brain went dark, and the limbs failed to receive commands. The dog beneath them was now simply an object. Still. Lifeless.
Iggy let the blade go, and backed away from the kill. Red covered his knees and hands like a blood filled balloon exploded. Frantically, he tried to wipe the blood from his hands onto his pants.
“Stop!” Randon put out a hand. “You need to stay clean! Animals can smell blood. They’ll come looking for this kill.” Iggy’s eyes flashed with fear as he looked around. A dog’s howl and the sound of rustling leaves grabbed his attention. “Stop. You got to kill them thoughts before they form an idea in your brain. Focus on the task. We need to get this meat to the store.” Randon grabbed the hind legs and tied a rope to them. He took off his jacket and laid the carcass on it. He tied another section of rope around the body, and wrapped the jacket around the kill.
They ran, taking turns dragging the body away from the sun. They exploded out of the woods and into the clearing, the meat dancing off the rocks, and mounds of dirt behind them. Footsteps, and open mouthed panting caused them to glance back. The pack of dogs was gaining quickly. The store was still far ahead of them, and Iggy was starting to slow so Randon readied his weapon, and turned on the pack. The dogs skittered to a stop, and howled.
Randon put a hand on the boy’s chest, and pushed him back. “Don’t let them surround us.” They continued moving back, and as one of the dogs circled to Randon’s side, he thrust his spear cutting open the dog’s snout, sending it reeling back. Stay close to me, and keep moving towards the store.” The boy hesitated, and that’s when a dog lunged forward at Iggy, knocking him down. Its jaws snapping at him as he held the dogs neck back. Randon turned, and pinned the dog to the ground with his spear. It twitched, and bucked violently, crying, so Randon stepped on its neck, and stifled it. The remaining pack hesitantly came forward, but when Iggy stood, brandishing the knife, in a low stance, they paused, and backed up. Randon pulled his spear loose with a burst of gore, and turned to the pack. A phalanx of sharp teeth formed in front of them. “Move forward together.” When Randon stepped forward, so did the boy. Randon took a swipe at the nearest dog, and caught it in the eye. It tumbled back, and ran off, leaving the pack behind. Randon and Iggy took another step forward, and the dogs seemed to back away. Randon took another step slamming down his foot, and the dogs scattered away.
The boy watched them run off as Randon gathered the second dog up in his shirt, and tied the rope around its legs. When he looked up at Iggy, he was smiling. The boy lunged in, and hugged Randon who was not quite ready for affection. Randon hugged him back, and held him tightly. The moment was quickly over when, in the distance he saw several small things, nothing more than dots swaying in the early morning heat. He pushed the boy away gently, and looked him in the eyes.