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The Prize. A Post Apocalyptic Fiction Tale... Chapter 1
Jeremiah pulled the rusted, red Radio Flyer wagon behind the bike. Blake, beside him on a bike meant for a ten year old, was happily doing wheelies like they had done in their early teens. The air was still warm but, off in the distance, Jeremiah could see a change coming.
“Slow down!” Jeremiah called, watching the too tall frame of Blake pass him at breakneck speed. “This wagon screws up my balance!” He whined but really his bike was too important to risk bending a wheel or getting a flat tire on the aggressive goatheads that were incessantly trying to overtake the roads. It was his only possession worth anything.
Halfway across the causeway between Richland and Kennewick, they stopped to look down at the Yakima River Delta. Two men stealthily creeped through the high grass and cattails. He’d done the same on occasion, as sometimes in the spring you could find eggs. This was fall already so he guessed they were looking for turtles or maybe an injured duck.
“Dumb shits! They’re wearing white which stands out to everyone.” Jeremiah stated. “If they get caught they’ll get beat.” The wildlife-rich area was often patrolled by the militia. It was signed with their dib and no one else could trespass, except many did, including the two boys.
“I’d like to wait out there in the reeds with a gun someday. I’d fix them bastards!” Blake spat in disgust.
“Yeah, me too. But where we gonna find a gun?” Jeremiah shrugged his bony shoulders, threw his long leg over the bike and began peddling. “Come on, it’s still forever to get to the warehouse.”
Jeremiah rode in the middle of the highway as did Blake. He remembered, only a couple of years past, how congested this causeway could be with vehicles. Now, two or three passed per week ; and those, those were the lucky guys who knew a bit about mechanical engines to make them work off grease or whatever it was that made the engines run.
“Did you tell your mah where you were going? Did you tell her about the flyer?” Jeremiah asked hoping his friend hadn’t gossiped about their endeavor.
“Nope! Gonna come home with silver jingling in my pocket and give half to her. She’ll be jumping so high that she’ll shake the house. Gonna be a surprise; gonna be a good surprise.” Blake smiled widely. “Imagine momma jumping up and down and all that loose skin just being like an umbrella!”
Jeremiah laughed at that thought. Blake’s mom had been fat, really fat before; now, well just like everyone, she’d gotten skinny but her skin hadn’t quite kept up and draped her like an oversized blanket.
Up ahead Jeremiah saw a car coming towards them. “Shit!” He exclaimed. “Can’t get off this road without losing the wagon!” Usually they would make a run for it and get away but this time they had a prize too valuable to chance losing.
Blake’s smile was gone too. The two watched the black SUV coming towards them. It was coming fast. They both stopped and hoped it would pass them, but, as it approached the two boys, it slowed down.
The vehicle sputtered a couple times as it came to a stop in front of them; a sign of the inferior quality of fuel being used, Jeremiah had been told. A man got out and waived. “What do you have there?” He asked, his accent sounding obviously Russian.
Jeremiah looked hard at him. He was only a couple years older than the two boys, not too tall but appeared much more solid than either of them—of course they were both tall and wiry. His clothes looked clean, but, most importantly, on his side he openly wore a gun; a black and silver semi-automatic. Jeremiah almost whistled at the sight.
The man, standing outside of his vehicle, sizing up the boys, had a smile on his face. Jeremiah suspected the waive and smile were lies; both boys tensed. “Just junk. Our mom wanted some buckets for her plants.” Jeremiah responded hoping the man would believe him and wouldn’t look under the heavy soiled blanket that concealed their prize.
“I best see!” His smile was gone. His hand was on the butt of the gun. He looked Jeremiah, then Blake, defiantly in the eyes, waiting to see if they would challenge his authority. He smiled again, in superiority, and ignoring the boys, walked to the wagon holding their potential silver and immediately started to undue the straps which held the crate and blanket to the wagon.
Jeremiah felt his hands begin to shake and knew he couldn’t wait any longer. He nodded, ever so slightly, to Blake. Both boys, no more than mid-teenagers, moved swiftly and threw themselves onto him, surprising him completely. The force of their impact knocked him down. Then, punches rained on him. Blake had picked up a stick, about as big around as his wrist and a foot long, and smacked it hard against the man head, over and over until blood began to trickle to the pavement.
The fight was over almost before it began as the man was stunned by the vicious blows dealt out by the two boys in protection of their prize. He curled into a ball for protection and moaned.
“Go!” Blake screamed. “There’s a path just up to the right that he can’t follow!”
Jeremiah couldn’t just get up and run. His friend might be overpowered by the man, and, the man had a gun. Jeremiah didn’t doubt that he would shoot them in the back.
The two boys continued to hit the man who was rolled up into a ball on his side with his arms over his head to protect his face. Jeremiah fists hurt from the blows, his arms feeling like they were made of lead. He stopped suddenly when he saw the gun. He had to take it; it would bring death to them if he didn’t. He grabbed the gun and tugged on it as hard as he could but it wouldn’t come out of the holster. Finally, with his full strength, he ripped the holster in half, freeing the gun.
Jeremiah jumped up with the bright silver and black semiautomatic in his hand, pointing at the pair on the ground.
Blake, who was still hitting the man with the stick, saw the gun pointing right at him and his eyes went wide. He pushed himself away from the man and scrambled behind his friend.
The man, realizing the beating had stopped, looked up. He saw the gun pointing at him and began to shake violently as if he were being electrocuted. “Grab the keys!” Jeremiah yelled at Blake.
“Just take the keys!” Jeremiah screamed again.
Blake did as he was told and pulled the keys out. “Now what?”
Jeremiah didn’t know what to do but backed away from the man still curled up in a ball and, suddenly had an idea. “Give me your knife.” He said to Blake.
“Nah, I don’t want see him die,” Blake replied.
“Give me your knife. I ain’t gonna kill him!”
Blake pulled out his special pocket knife that his father had given him when he turned thirteen. He kept the knife on him all the time. It came in handy at times and it reminded him of his father.
Jeremiah pulled open the small blade of the knife and, without turning away from the man, he jabbed the blade into the front tire. A squeal of air surprised them causing the boys to jump forward, but Jeremiah quickly regained his composure and shuffled to the back tire and did the same to it. “Let’s go!” He commanded Blake.
Both boys got on their bikes. Blake rode away quickly leaving Jeremiah behind, still pointing the gun at the man. “Don’t follow us!” Jeremiah yelled, still pointing the gun at the man, then turned and rode away as swiftly as he could.
Five minutes later they were on a back street near the Columbia River. “I hardly ever see a vehicle on the highway and we run into the Russian militia!” Jeremiah exclaimed as the two boys stopped in the concealment of heavy ivy plants on a cyclone fence that once protected an abandoned warehouse.
“If we get caught with the gun, it’s automatic lashings. Remember Taylor?” Blake asked
Taylor had snubbed the edict of ‘no weapons allowed’ and kept a couple of pistols for protection at his house. “What’s the chance they’ll find out?” Taylor had said to the boys.
Two days after making the comment, Taylor had been duct taped to a tree and whipped until his back was bloody. Someone had traded the information for a loaf of bread or maybe a chicken; someone had ratted him out.
“You think I should throw it in the river?” Jeremiah asked but knew it didn’t matter if he did or not because, if someone ratted him out, he would have to show them where he disposed of it.
“Nah. Let’s just don’t tell anyone. Not anyone, just our secret.” Blake replied.
“Best if we stay here till early morning. Then we’ll go the rest of the way.” Jeremiah said as he walked into the warehouse to see if it would be suitable for them to stay the night in.
“You think they’re looking for us?” Blake asked as the two sat on chair they had found in the small warehouse.
“Prolly. He’s gotta be important. A good car. And a gun. Prolly one of the resistance.” Jeremiah wondered who the man was but it really didn’t matter. He had stolen his gun, taken his keys and now, if they were ever caught, they’d be lucky to live through that encounter.
Both boys slept fitfully for only a few minutes at a time and, an hour before dawn, were up and ready. “We gotta get there quick. Then we’ll go back over the blue bridge. No cars use that. It’s longer but it’ll keep us outta trouble.” Jeremiah stated and Blake shook his head in agreement.
Just after dawn they made their way to the large warehouse that was mentioned on the flyer. Both boys had visited the fairgrounds years before but that had been in a different time and place. The warehouse they were searching for was supposed to be behind the fairgrounds.
“That’s a huge building!” Blake exclaimed as they waited in some overgrown bushes and watched the building for sign of life.
“It’s the right one. Has to be.” Jeremiah replied remembering the flyer’s description of the warehouse. On the front of the building, written in heavy black letters was the sign, “Benton-Franklin Humane Society.”
Soon a man came out and looked around. He had a long machete on his side and held a shotgun in his hands. He walked around the parking lot, looking for hidden enemies, then returned inside.
“Hope he doesn’t come after us with that knife!” Blake laughed nervously.
They waited until their nerves were built up and finally came out of the bushes, slowly pushing the bikes towards the warehouse door.
The same man came back out the door. He now held a crossbow in his hands.
“True that we can trade these for silver?” Jeremiah asked, pulling the blanket off of the crate.
“Yep. Bring them up here.” He didn’t smile but motioned for the boys to continue forward. Once they were close, he walked up and kneeled next to the crate. “Bring them in. We’ll have to look them over before we pay.” He motioned for the two boys to carry the crate into the interior of the warehouse.
Inside two older men and five women of all ages waited. Both of the men held shotguns as did one of the women. The boys looked around in awe. More surprising than their armed greeting party was that there were cats everywhere; some in cages and some free to roam the expansive warehouse. The room smelled strongly like cat urine, reminding Jeremiah of an old house he had visited with his mom where a lady kept lots of cats as pets. But that was before. Now the smell was almost pleasant. It was life and meant that possibly they would return with silver in their pockets.
One of the men had a set of heavy gloves on. He was even older than the man who met them outside with a bright red nose and heavy, almost purple blotches across his cheeks. He was dressed in overalls and tall rubber boots which looked funny to the boys for it seemed he should be in the swamp looking for eggs. “Bring the crate over here.” He ordered.
Jeremiah, with the help of Blake, hefted the heavy crate inside of a chain-link enclosure that had probably once been a dog kennel. The old man, having no patience with the boys, physically pushed them out of the enclosure and closed the gate behind him. He opened the crate from the top and pulled out a gray cat which struggled fiercely, clawing the man’s gloves in an attempt to escape. “Good! Female!” He yelled and then pulled out another which equally struggled, clawing and biting. “Good! Another female.”
Jeremiah looked over at Blake and saw he too was smiling at the man’s pleased comments.
The third cat was an orange male. “Ah! Male and intact!” He yelled to the group. One of the women had a pen and small pad and wrote something down.
“Nah, fixed!” His almost smile turned into a frown and he threw the cat out of the enclosure. “Damn, same on this one!” He threw the fifth and last cat over the fence to scurry off in the almost endless warehouse.
Jeremiah and Blake looked equally confused. The older man that had greeted them with the crossbow walked over to the two and said, “We breed them. Those that were fixed before are only good for the pot. Idiots thought they were helping by spaying them.” He shook his head in disgust at the thought of the spayed cats. “So two females, one good male and two for eating.”
The woman with the pen and pad walked over to the older man, she was young, no more than a couple years older than Jeremiah. She had deep brown hair and the same colored eyes. Jeremiah found himself automatically smiling at her. She smiled back shyly and then turned her attention to the older man, showing him the pad.
“Two at seven; one at five and two each for the stewers. Twenty-three silver total. That sound okay to you.” He asked raising his eyebrows at the offer.
Jeremiah breathed in deeply, held his breath and then allowed it to be released slowly. He wanted to say, “Twenty-three silver pieces for cats?” But he held the impulse at bay. He would have eleven and so would Blake. Their families hadn’t seen that much money in months.
“Okay.” Was all Jeremiah could muster as a response.
“What, why are they worth that much?” Blake couldn’t keep the question from escaping.
The old man, his heavy grey eyebrows still raised, replied, “Breeding. We get a dollar maybe two for kittens. Hard to catch our own breeders and we always need more.” He turned, walked behind a counter and pulled out a small bag. He counted out twenty three silver pieces and motioned for the boys to take the money.
Jeremiah looked at Blake for just a second and then, as if synchronized, both jogged to the counter and quickly divided up the money.
“Careful on your way home, boys.” An older lady with a bonnet and a sweet smile stated. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Bring whatever you can catch! We also pay a quarter for rats if they’re alive!” The older man stated as a farewell.
The boys, now with their pockets filled with solid silver coins, headed out of the building. The ride back would be long but it would be fast for they couldn’t wait to share their bounty with their families.
It would be a long ride back but they had silver which made the ride much easier...