This story is by L.J. Newlin and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Well, the sun can’t shine on one dog’s ass forever,” Pops said without looking up from the campfire as he rubbed his chafed hands, trying to warm them.
Tom threw some small twigs on the pitiful fire and fanned the smoking embers.
“I’m not sure what you mean Pops. Going by my life’s history, you’re dead wrong. Look at where your life has taken you,” he replied.
Tom stared at the fire. “They took everything, you know. Food, water, the bike…everything. Now there’s nothing to eat.”
“Don’t worry about the food. I put out a rabbit trap. We’ve gone longer than this without food. You got your ticket, yes? It’s a winner, isn’t it? Told ya it was your time! Wait, they didn’t get that too, did they?” His voice quivered with fear.
“No Pops, they didn’t get my ticket and yes, you were right.” The expression on Tom’s face remained dour. The one thing the thugs didn’t get was his lottery ticket. He checked it shortly before the strong-armed robbery and it was the much-coveted seat on the Atlas Omega Z88, the last spaceship out of Edwards Airforce Base.
“Well, what are we waiting for. Let’s pack up and get going!” Pop’s toothless smile lit up his dirty wrinkled face.
“A couple of things: the ticket is for one person, we don’t have any food or water, our mode of transportation was literally ripped out from under me and I don’t think these shoes will make it.”
“Excuses boy. Those are all just excuses. I have some duct tape for those shoes and about six empty plastic bottles with caps. We’ve got a stream here. Maybe not the best water but it’ll keep us alive. I know you think I’ll slow you down but I’d rather die trying to get you off this God forsaken planet than stay here. Anyway, I hear they have a bunker there with food and water to last in case that volcano blows.”
“Yeah, that one in Yellowstone. The supervolcano that’s supposed to cause a volcanic winter.” Pops started to laugh.
“What the hell is so funny?”
“All my life I heard how we’re doomed due to man-made global warming an here, nature at her finest says, ‘look what I can do!’ Don’t that beat everything?” Pop’s laugh turned into a coughing fit. Tom knew if Pops didn’t get that looked at, he wasn’t long for this world.
“How long we got to get there, Tommy?”
“Seven days, well, six and a half now. By the time we get on the road, six.” He hesitated. “Pops, what if they won’t let you into the bunker? I don’t know if I could go knowing you were left to die in the desert.”
Pop spit into a filthy handkerchief. Noticing blood, he quickly stuffed it into his pant pocket. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get there. Even though this world has gone to Hell, I still have faith in mankind and the good Lord. He didn’t bring us this far to drop kick us.”
“Forever the optimist.” Tom’s tone was full of love for this man. A man he would give his life for.
They made good time that first day, avoiding towns and cities where possible. Traveling started about an hour before sunrise. They rested during the heat of the day and continued at dusk until they could walk no more. Pop killed a lizard scurrying across the desert while Tom set up camp near some Joshua trees.
“Tomorrow’s not going to be so easy,” Tom said as he pulled a piece of meat from the fire burnt lizard.
“Ain’t no way we can go around this next town?”
“Not if we want to make it on time, we can’t. It’d sure be nice if we had a car and a gun. Then I would feel better about it,” Tom said wistfully.
“We haven’t seen a working car in years and only the gangs have guns anymore. We’ll just have to hang near the ruins where they ain’t.”
The war-torn town was nothing but rubble with a few stray dogs during the day and coyotes at night. It was the same for the next few days. Not a human in site. They took turns sleeping at night to ward off any predators.
It was on the fifth day they ran into trouble. There were only a few roads that led to the air force base and the gangs had set up their own perimeter. Pop said it reminded him of a scene from Mad Max. The reference eluded Tom as he studied an old map they found, looking for an alternate path but Pops had other ideas. He located a foundation of a destroyed house that offered a place to hide, as long as they stayed low.
“Pops, this doesn’t seem like a very good idea. I’m sure they patrol this area. Who knows what they will do if they catch us.”
“I’m counting on it, Sonny,” Pops said as he squinted through a pair of damaged binoculars. “Even from here, I can tell they have food, water and, working vehicles. Start digging in the sand here and we’ll lay still under it, ’til it gets dark.”
“Crazy ol’coot, you’ll get us killed.”
“Damn it, boy, I’m hungry, thirsty and desperate as hell to get out of here. Ain’t no one more dangerous than a man who is desperate. Don’t care how old he is. Those boys over there are well-fed and cocky. This is just a game to them.”
At mid-afternoon, a lone motorcyclist rode up to the rubble, stopped and smoked a cigarette. Tom and Pops laid still under the sand. The sun had dried up all evidence of the fresh digging and the punk on patrol was none the wiser. Later that evening, after the sunset, they could hear the sound of a lone motorcycle again. This time, just before the punk made his turn to stop at the ruin, Pops climbed up and sat on the corner of the foundation.
“What the hell are you doing here old man? This is our turf!” The punk yelled.
“You got a smoke, jackass?” Pops taunted.
The punk drove up right next to him to give him a kick but Tom was on him before he even knew what happened. He took a piece of concrete and smashed him in the head and the punk went down. Looking at his handy work he said, “Desperate times.”
Tom jumped on the running motorcycle and Pops straddled the back after he had checked the punk’s body for weapons and supplies. He found both. Tom smashed out the headlamp with his concrete and they sped away. It wasn’t long before they heard the gang’s vehicles in hot pursuit but the sound faded away after twenty minutes or so. It appeared their decoy path had worked.
Day six, the motorcycle died and they dropped it in the desert. At first, Pops tried to cover up their footprints as they walked away but the hot Santa Ana winds kicked up and did the work for them. Soon the perimeter fence loomed in front of them. It warned trespassers of arrest or death if breached.
Pops remarked, “I could deal with arrest. The death part, not so much.”
They finally found the front gate but no one was there. The place looked deserted. A camera, up above on the gate, blinked its red light. Tom held his ticket to the camera, hoping someone was watching. Then dune buggies appeared over the horizon, heading directly for them. Pops took out the guns he found and tossed one to Tom.
“I ain’t going down without a fight, Sonny.”
Sirens blared from behind them, along with the low rumble of military vehicles heading in their direction. Now it was just a matter of time of who arrived first. The fence screeched as the gears turned to open the gate. It froze, leaving a four-inch gap. Not wide enough for them to squeeze through. An armored personnel carrier slammed its brakes on the other side and four GI’s flew out and pulled at the gate, opening it just enough to let them through. A gunner, topside, unloaded his 50 caliber at the incoming dune buggies and they rallied back with automatic gunfire. Somewhere from behind the carrier, rocket launchers fired. Now all they could see was black smoke billowing in the distance.
Once inside the carrier an officer handed them some water and asked, “You both okay?”
Pop’s face dripping with water tried to yell over the roar of the engine, “Much better now.”
“Out of the eight tickets that won a seat, you’re the only ones who made it. You’re some lucky son of a bitches!”
Tom smiled at the old man, “Well Pops, I guess the sun ain’t shining on these dog’s asses anymore.”