I often watch him from my hiding place. He always wears a long aviator’s scarf that flows out behind him when he walks, and one of those old leather bomber jackets.
Maybe he was a pilot in his old life — back before the Order.
He wanders late at night when the streets are empty and quiet. That time of night when you can pretend you don’t live in a society run by a group of brutal monsters.
The Order of the Void is in power now. Traditional governments were disbanded after the Order won the War of Annihilation. Chaos followed, and most of the population fled to the outer regions known as the Unknown Territories. The rest of us are captives within these borders, and at the mercy of madmen.
People laughed at Daddy when he told them the dangers of the Order. I wonder what they think now.
Daddy would hold secret meetings, trying to organize a group of men and women to rise up and defeat the Order. But they took Daddy away when I was six. Then it was just me, Mama, and my big brother, Esau.
Mama died two years ago, and Esau left soon after. “I need to see if I can find a place for us outside the zones,” he told me. “Because we can’t live like this forever.”
I haven’t seen him since. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. I’ve just accepted the fact that at fifteen, I’m on my own.
I come out of my hiding place in order to find food and other supplies. My provisions are pretty low because the Order had forbidden anyone to leave their homes for a whole week. It was the annual Cleansing, as they call it, when the Order’s army of soldiers, the Apostles, do their sweeps of the Zones, gathering up those believed to be enemies of the state.
The citizens had to remain inside, all fearful that it would be their door the Apostles kick in. But me, I felt safe in my hiding place — for now, at least.
The sirens rang out early this morning: we are allowed to go out again.
I like the quiet of the nights; that’s the best time to forage for food. The Order does feed the citizens of the Zone, but what the soldiers eat, then casually toss away, is much better than anything they give us.
On my way home, my pack loaded with goods, I see the man in the pilot’s jacket, feeding the stray animals that live in the alley behind the old Union Bank Building. Imagine, feeding animals in this day and age. Most people just kill them outright, either for sport or nourishment. He does neither, and that’s why I follow him, because he seems … different.
You must understand that this is a very stupid and very dangerous thing to do. It also goes against my usually cautious nature.
Mama used to say, “Careful when you go out, Henry. Watch out for the clans.”
These clans are groups of rogue citizens who are known for snatching kids and using them as slave labor, or worse, as a food source.
The Order does nothing to protect us from them. In fact, they’re often as brutal as the clans, coming into the Zones to take workers to their factories, and those people are never seen again.
The Order keeps peace through the brutality of the Apostles. They allow the clans to exist, and even encourage the violence, as long as no one tries to usurp the authority of the Order.
I follow the man, past the Union Bank building, then down alongside what was once a small amusement park near the Beach. The previously blue waters are now bleak and murky, and most of the sea life died out long ago.
The man sits on the short wall where beachgoers of the past sat, laughed, and ate hot dogs they bought from Frank’s Hot Franks on the boardwalk. I’ve seen pictures that my mother showed me from some old newspaper clippings.
I watch him feed a sickly dog that has limped in his direction. It has been shot and one of its legs drags uselessly behind it.
The man is humming a song that sounds familiar to me. It reminds me of a tune that Mama used to play.
I listen to his voice. Music is rarely heard these days. I get lost in it; lost in the memories of Mama, and Esau. Without even knowing it, I begin to cry, an almost imperceptible sound, but in the quiet of the night, the man hears. He turns, and sees me as I try to move back into the shadows.
I curse myself for being so careless, and try to retreat back into the darkness. But he cuts me off near the old Cinnabon stand and grabs me by the arm. I squirm and hit and bite him, just to try to get away, but his grip is strong and firm.
He turns me toward him, and I piss myself when I see the insignia on his jacket. The man is a member of the Apostles.
“Why are you following me?” he asks.
I don’t dare say a thing. He will kill me for sure if he knows what I was doing, so I just shake my head.
“You’re lying to me.” Yet there is no malice in his voice; in fact, a small smile spreads across his face. “It was your crying that gave you away.”
“I wasn’t crying!” I yell, surprised by my boldness, but I feel I have to defend my honor.
The man laughs. “Okay, fine,” he says, “just don’t be so careless next time.”
He releases me and sits back down on the wall. “So, why were you crying?” he asks.
This is why I followed him: he intrigues me. What Apostle would even care why I was crying? Still, I have to be careful.
“Look,” he says, “If I wanted you dead, or wanted to turn you in, you’d be in the back of the van already, so come on, tell me why you were crying.”
I shrug, then I tell him, “That song you were humming, it reminded me of a song my mother used to play.”
He nods as he absentmindedly feeds the crippled dog at his feet.
“My wife used to sing it,” he says finally. Then he asks, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Vincent,” he says, sticking out his hand to shake mine. It’s a silly old custom that no one does anymore, and I think it is some kind of trick. I’ll shake his hand and he’ll cut mine off just for the hell of it — that’s what an Apostle would do.
Sensing my hesitancy, Vincent says, “I’m not going to hurt you. Besides, it’s rude not to shake another man’s hand.” He smiles again. It is a real smile, no villainy in it at all.
So I shake his hand. Mine is trembling of course, so he puts both of his around it and says, “It’s nice to meet you, Henry.”
Vincent turns back to the dark ocean. “Sit with me,” he says. “I could use the company.”
I don’t want to sit. I want to run, and I could too. I am fast; even an Apostle can’t catch me if I have a head start.
But for some strange reason I stay, and we sit in a comfortable silence looking out at that dead ocean.
Finally Vincent says, “I used to sit here with my wife. The water was so blue back then.”
I wait for him to continue, and when he doesn’t I ask, “Why did you become an Apostle?” I instantly regret asking it.
But Vincent answers very thoughtfully. “I thought it would keep us safe, me and my wife Anna.”
We both stare off into the dark night, and I feel very comfortable with him. If it were a different time, maybe Vincent and I could be friends.
“Anna left me after I became an Apostle,” he says suddenly. “She couldn’t bear the things I had to do, and now, I can’t bear them anymore either.” He pauses. “I thought I did this for her, but in reality, I did it to feel powerful in a world that had gone batshit crazy. And because of it, I lost her.”
“Did she get taken by the Order?” I ask.
“No,” Vincent says, “She left with a group who decided to take a chance in the Unknown territories. I can’t blame them.”
“I thought no one could live outside the zones.”
“Ah yes, that’s what we’ve been told, Henry. But really, how safe are we here?”
“But you’re an Apostle, it is safe for you isn’t it?”
Vincent lets out a bitter laugh. “There is no safety, when there is no freedom,” he says.
I don’t know why, but all this talk makes me want to cry. I am tired, tired of being alone, tired of just existing. I feel more hopeless than ever.
“Mama died two years ago,” I tell him. “Then my brother Esau went to the outer territories after that to find a safe place for us, but I haven’t seen him since. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.”
“So you are alone, then,” Vincent says.
“Just like me.”
Then the sound of a car approaching brings us both out of our contemplative moods.
“Go!” Vincent says. “It isn’t safe; they’re patrolling and you would be easy prey for them.”
I learned long ago that when danger arises, you retreat, and Vincent didn’t have to warn me twice. I rush around the south end of the boardwalk and slip through the long ago abandoned shops. Then I feel a hand grab my pack and yank me to the ground.
A very large man is standing over me. The Apostle insignia is on his black trench coat. He lifts me up as if I weigh nothing, puts his face close to mine and says, “What’re you doing sneaking around, you little maggot?”
Then for the second time tonight, I piss my pants, and the large man looks at me with disgust. “You filthy pig! Did your mama forget to put your diapers on?”
I can hear Vincent rounding the corner. I hope he’s coming to my rescue. “Oh, hey, Sam. Good, you found him. The little bastard managed to squirm away from me. Thanks; I’ll take it from here.”
Sam smiles and launches me in the direction of Vincent.
“What’d he do?”
“Sneaking around the old amusement park, up to no good I’m sure.”
“Yeah, these little fuckers are always up to no good.”
“You know it.”
“Hey Vince,” Sam says conspiratorially, “let’s take him to the Pits and toss him in. I always love hearing them scream on the way down.”
“Maybe another time Sam, I’m taking this one in.”
“But I wanna have some fun. You against fun, Vince?”
“Yeah Sam, I’m against fun,” Vincent says sarcastically.
Vincent attempts to walk away, but Sam steps in front of him, “What’s your problem, Vince?”
“Sam, I’m just doing my job.”
Vincent turns to leave, and the other man grabs his shoulder. “Let me have him, Vince. I’m not askin’.”
Sam reaches for me but Vincent turns and strikes him, knocking him backward. Before Sam can recover, Vincent pounds his head into the cement walkway, over and over, until the big man stops moving. Blood begins to ooze from the back of his head.
It’s so quiet, as if every sound has just been swallowed up. Vincent and I look at each other for what seems like hours.
“Stay here,” he says.
Vincent leaves and comes back with a van, “Help me, Henry.”
We put Sam into the van, and that is no easy feat; the man is at least 275 pounds. Vincent looks at me and nods, and I know exactly what we’re going to do.
The Pit Sam spoke of before is the aptly named location where the bodies of the dead are thrown. There aren’t funerals anymore, and most people die of some kind of disease or are tortured and killed by the Order. The bodies are simply cast into the deep pit, where they’re left to rot.
We drive for miles, and I have to ride in back with the corpse as Vincent drives through checkpoints on our way to the Pit.
Vincent stops at the third checkpoint and talks to two other men. I panic. He’s going to turn me in, I just know it, and I desperately look for a way of escape.
But the van moves on, and we ride for another hour at least. Finally we stop, and the back of the van opens. Vincent’s standing there, and for a long while he says nothing. He doesn’t move; he just has this blank expression on his face that I can’t read.
The smell of the Pit is horrible, and I swallow hard so I don’t vomit. Vincent drags Sam’s body to the edge and kicks him in. We listen as it hits the pile of other dead bodies.
“He was your friend,” I say to Vince on our way back to the van.
“In our life before, yes, but as an Apostle, you have no friends,” Vincent says flatly.
“Why did you save me?”
Vincent glances down at me. “Well, guess I do have at least one friend.”
We are on the outskirts of the Zones, in between the world of the Order and the Unknown Territories. I have never been this far from home — ever. Vincent hands me a sandwich. It tastes like ham. We eat in that comfortable silence and watch the sunrise. Even now, the sight of it is still so beautiful.
“The Order will soon figure out Sam is missing. They’ll search for him and when they can’t find him, or me for that matter, the Zones will have hell to pay for it,” Vincent says.
“What’re you going to do?”
“A few miles west are the Unknown Territories. That’s where my wife Anna went. I don’t know what’s out there, but I’m going to try and find her,” Vincent says.
The thought of going out there scares me, but it excites me too, and I want to go with him. I mean, there’s nothing back in the city for me, and I should at least try to find out what happened to Esau.
“Can I go?” I ask tentatively.
Vincent looks at me, but says nothing.
“I know, you don’t want to be dragged down by some kid, but I can pull my own weight.”
Still he says nothing.
“I know that the only way out is through pretty rough terrain, but I’m willing to take a chance if you are.”
Just then, we see a large herd of horses burst through a forest of trees — it’s breathtaking. I thought horses had all been killed or taken by the Order. But this wild bunch, led by a large black mare, are untamed. To me it’s a sign from heaven, an omen that our own freedom from the Order is at hand.
Vincent and I watch them until they are completely out of sight. Then he looks down at me and smiles. It’s as if he feels the same sense of hopefulness that I do.
“Well, let’s go then,” he says.
We fill a bag with food that was in the van. Both of us know we’re headed toward an uncertain future, but at this point it doesn’t matter to either of us.
We look in the direction of where the horses ran. “That way,” Vincent says.
Then he takes my hand as we cross the forest of trees and into the Unknown Territories.