A/N: I feel inclined to point out that I was heavily influenced by a certain literary genius: Paulo Coelho. If you haven't read any of his work, do. It's amazing. I tried to adopt his style here—the simplicity (less description, more action), the lack of commas for the sake of flow. I tried to fuse it with my own.
The house is dilapidated: the roof is bent sideways, a few of the windows are busted out, and several of the boards that had made up the structure are now broken and jutting in every direction. It's a pitiful image, but it'll have to do for shelter. Nightfall is fast approaching and the father and his sons need a place to stay. Here is as good as anywhere.
They wrench themselves through the slanted front door. The inside is just as unwelcoming as the out. Everything is grimy and faded. And sad. The remnants of what was once a home look betrayed and hopeless.
The oldest son, Isaac, wanders into a nearby bedroom and finds a fallen-over bookshelf. The books it once held are scattered across the floor, sopping and ruined from the rain that had come through the hole in the ceiling directly above. He picks them up, one by one, and inspects them. The covers and pages are soggy, the print faded beyond legibility. He almost wants to cry. It's been so long since he's read a book. He puts the last one back down and then stands. Walks over to the dresser that has managed to stay standing, and looks at the things on the surface: a jewelry box, hairspray, a comb, lotion. He opens one of the drawers—the middle one—and inside finds… a book.
He picks it up. Looks it over. It's in good shape—the pages are dry, the print readable. He stuffs it into his backpack. It occurs to him that his father may not approve, but he hardly cares. Finally, he has something to read.
"Isaac!" his father calls. "Isaac, come look at this!"
Isaac goes back into the front room to see his father and little brother sitting next to a radio. The father is fiddling with it, trying to get a signal. All that comes through is static. He keeps trying and trying. "It's not going to work," Isaac says. "It's damaged."
The father tries a bit more, and then just like that, there's a voice—a distant male voice emanating over the static. "Is anyone out there? This is a message from Caswell, Wisconsin. We're building a sanctuary here. We have food, water, shelter… we're civilized. You're not alone. You're not alone."
The father shifts his gaze back and forth between each of his sons.
None of them say anything.
They stay the night. In the morning the father takes a pear out of his knapsack and slices it into three pieces with his hunting knife. While they eat there's a density in the air, thick like condensation, suffocating them, and both boys know even before their father speaks what he's going to say: "We're going North. To Wisconsin."
"There are more raiders up North," Isaac states. "We'd be risking everything."
"We're risking everything now," the father says. "There's almost no food. And we can't keep wandering around like this."
Isaac takes a bite out of his pear piece. Chews it slowly. He's been eating slowly for a while now, savoring every piece as long as possible. "What if that sanctuary doesn't exist?"
The father sucks in a deep breath. "Then we're no worse off than we are now."
They set out later that day for North.
They've walked hours by the time Jacob starts to wheeze.
The father reaches into his knapsack and takes out Jacob's inhaler. Isaac watches as he gives Jacob his usual three hits and then pats him on the shoulder.
Then the inhaler goes back into the knapsack and they walk on.
By nightfall the father and his sons have found a still-standing shed, its sliding door open enough for them to fit through, and they take refuge inside. They eat bread that the father provides from his knapsack.
Before lying down to go to sleep, the father sees Isaac reading the Bible by flashlight. "Where did you get that?" he asks.
"The house," Isaac says.
The father considers that for a moment. Then says, "You shouldn't waste the batteries in that flashlight" and lies down.
That night, Isaac dreams he's swimming in a vast and deep expanse of water, his arms stroking, his legs kicking, no land in sight. His whole body is sore—oh so sore—and he wants to give up. He looks to the sky as if he'll find solace there, and finally stops trying altogether as the clouds turn black, and allows himself to be swept away by the current.
The last thing he remembers before waking up is the sensation of cold water closing over his head, embracing him in its blue clutches, whispering "There there, rest now."
And when his eyes open and he realizes that he's still in the house, he turns on his side, scrunches into a ball and cries silently against his arm.
The next morning, the father and his sons leave the shed. The sky is overcast. "Daddy, is it going to rain again?" Jacob asks.
"I don't know," the father replies.
"Will the sun ever come out?"
"I don't know, Jacob."
By midday, they come across an old playground and stop there to eat. The father has been carrying Jacob, and he sets him down to get food out of his knapsack. Half a bag of beef jerky, shared between them, as well as a canteen of water. After they eat, the father sits on the merry-go-round to rest and watches as Jacob explores the area and Isaac finds a still-standing swing set where he sits and reads his Bible.
For a moment there is peaceful silence. Then Jacob screams.
The father and Isaac both take off running in the direction where the scream has come. Jacob's wandered to the bottom of a hill and they can see, even from the distance, what has upset him: he's found a dead body.
The father turns Jacob around, presses his crying face to his chest, and tries to comfort him as he and Isaac inspect the corpse. It's not very old. A recent kill, it looks like. It's bloated and pale with open, ghoulish eyes and a heavily fractured arm. The hair is matted with dried blood; it's easy to tell that the cause of death was a blow to the head.
It emits a fowl stench—so potent they can taste it—and they quickly walk away.
Jacob is still crying by the time they make it back up the hill.
"Jeez Jacob, it was just a dead body," Isaac grumbles.
His father turns to him, angered, and says, "What is wrong with you, Isaac?"
Nothing else is said after that. They leave the playground and press on.
"Do you think things happen for a reason?" Isaac asks. It's a few nights after the playground incident and he, his father, and his brother have found another deserted house to stay in for the night. He's lying back-down on a stained pillow, staring up at the ceiling. His father can barely see him in the dark, but the moonlight spilling into the windows outlines his profile.
His father doesn't answer but glances at Jacob's sleeping form and then back at him with a questioning expression, as if to say "What the hell are you talking about?"
"That dead guy Jacob saw... he didn't survive," Isaac goes on. "But we did. Jacob did, and I did, and you did. Do you think there's a reason for it?"
The father thinks for a moment, and then shakes his head. "I think you've been reading that book of yours a little too much."
"It was the only dry one in the house," Isaac states, his eyes still firmly on the ceiling. "Just sitting there like it was waiting to be found."
During the night, the father takes the book from Isaac's sleeping hands and lights a match from the matchbox he keeps in his knapsack.
He's about to set the book alight before he hears Jacob's voice ask, "Why are you burning Isaac's book, Daddy?"
He turns to meet the boy's tired and curious gaze, and doesn't answer.
"Won't he be mad?"
He can't help but smile. The innocence, the purity—if he doesn't smile he'll break down and cry. "Yeah," he finally says, bringing the match to his lips to blow it out, "I guess he would."
He tells Jacob to go back to sleep, and then puts the book back where he found it.
When Isaac and Jacob awaken the following morning, their father is still asleep. Usually their father awakens before them because he feels better when he does that, but this morning is different.
The boys try to entertain themselves while they wait. Isaac starts reading his Bible and Jacob picks splinters from the damaged hardwood floor. Eventually Jacob says "I'm hungry" and Isaac helps himself to their father's knapsack and retrieves the last of the bread. There's one slice left. He breaks it in half, gives Jacob one and eats the other.
There's a low creak—the sound of feet stepping across wood—and the boys jolt. Someone's outside on the porch! Jacob looks to Isaac for reassurance and Isaac gestures for him to be quiet. The boys scoot over to where their father lays and gently shake him awake. The father squirms, opens his eyes, grunts. "Daddy, there's someone outside," Jacob whispers, and the father bolts up.
His pistol is in his knapsack. He digs it out, tells his boys to stay behind him, and hides behind the wall that separates the kitchen from the front room.
The knob twists. The door squeals open. Footsteps thud on the floor. And then she's there at the kitchen doorway—an adolescent girl dressed in tattered, dirty jeans and an old jacket, her face flushed from the cold wind, her eyes glassy, and her hair a tangled mess. She sees the father, sees his gun, and her hands immediately go up.
Isaac starts praying silently.
"I mean you no harm," the girl says. "I was just looking for a place to stay."
"Well this one's ours right now," the father tells her. "You're welcome to it once we leave, but in the meantime I want you gone."
"I have nowhere to go," the girl says. "It's gonna storm soon. There aren't any other houses for miles. Please, if you would…"
"No." The answer is simple. Definite.
There's a pause. The girl takes a deep breath. "Do you really want to shoot me?" she asks.
"What matters is that I will if you don't get out."
The girl stares directly into his eyes and raises her hands higher, her face stoic and defiant as she says, "Then do it."
The father just has time to thumb the hammer back on his gun before Jacob rushes up to him, wraps his arms around his waist, and begs, "Daddy, please don't do it."
"Get behind me, Jacob," the father says.
Face still pressed into his shirt, Jacob shakes his head no. "I don't wanna see anymore death," he whimpers. "Please, Daddy, please…"
Placing his free hand on Jacob's little back, the father thumbs the hammer back up and lowers his gun. "You aren't getting any food," he tells the girl. "And stay away from my boys."
The girl nods and puts her hands down.
Thank you, God, Isaac thinks.
Because there won't be any shelter for miles, and because a storm is on its way, the father decides to take refuge within the house for one more night. He and his boys claim one half and allow the girl the other. After the father and Jacob have dozed off, Isaac sneaks over to where the girl sits, in what was once the house's laundry room, and sees that she's still awake. Quietly he approaches her. When she catches him she scoots away. "Your father told me to stay away from you," she says. "He is your father, right?"
"That's right," Isaac responds, with the hint of a smile. It's so nice to finally talk to someone other than his dad and brother.
"He looks young," the girl muses.
"How old are you?"
"Twelve." At the girl's astonished expression, "He was eighteen when I was born."
The girl nods, accepting it, although it's easy to tell that she has questions.
"So how old are you?" he asks her, trying to maintain the conversation.
"Fourteen," she replies.
"Where are your parents?"
"I'm sorry." Isaac glances down at his hands, unsure of what to say. When he looks back up he's still unsure but decides to say the first thing that comes to mind: "My mom's dead."
"Sorry," the girl reiterates.
There's a pause. "How did you find this place?"
"I've been traveling," the girl says.
"Us too. We're headed North. Up to Wisconsin. We think there's a sanctuary up there."
The girl is interested. "Who told you about that?"
"We heard about it on the radio, in this old broken-down house."
"That's all you have to go on? That's not a lot."
Isaac shrugs. "What do we have to lose?"
The girl gives a crooked smile.
"When my dad pointed his gun at you," Isaac says, "you didn't look scared."
"Dying is the least of my fears at this point," she tells him. She sees that he is staring off blankly, in a thoughtful stupor. "No hard feelings towards your dad," she adds. "Seems like a good man."
"My dad hates me." It's not the first time Isaac has said this. He waits, expecting the typical incredulous response, but instead gets a simple "Why?"
"My mom cheated on him," he explains. It's been years since he's told this story. "She, uh, she dumped me on him and then took off. I think he blames me for ruining his life—for keeping him from going to college and shit. I'm one of his regrets." He bites his bottom lip, once again awkwardly glancing down. "My little brother Jacob, he's from another woman. She took me in and all, but I reminded my dad of my real mom too much. He can barely look at me."
"Does Jacob mind?" the girl interjects.
Isaac meets her eye. "Jacob doesn't know. My dad never told him. I think… I think he tried to put my mom in the back of his mind."
"So what happened to Jacob's mom?"
"She died too."
There's a long moment of silence and Isaac decides to change the subject. "So I'm reading this book… the Bible."
The girl laughs. "Are you serious?"
"Where'd you get it?"
"I found it, in the same house where we heard the radio signal. It was the only book not destroyed. There's this story in it where God tells this father to kill his son. And the son's name is Isaac… like mine."
"I know that story," the girl remarks.
"I was kinda hoping the father would go through with it."
He doesn't have to explain what he really means. The girl knows. "Do you think your dad could do it?"
"I think he wants to."
The girl grimaces. "That's terrible."
"Why's that terrible?" Isaac looks at her matter-of-factly. "Even God himself killed his own son."
The next morning, at daybreak, while the girl is still asleep, Isaac and his father and brother leave the house. They're halfway across the soaking lawn when Isaac says, "Dad, I want the girl to come with us."
The father stops, gives him a disbelieving look, and says, "Out of the question."
But Isaac is resolute. "Either she comes with us or I'm going with her."
The father is now angry. "Isaac, I won't have this," he says, his voice stern. "You're my son, you're coming with me." He takes a step towards him.
Isaac backs up, crossing his arms over his chest. "You'll have to kill me," he says. He hopes his father will take him up on that. Even more so, he hopes he'll be like the girl—bold and strong and unafraid—when he does.
The father sighs, exasperated, and bends down to pick up Jacob who's begun to cry again. "Why are you doing this?" he asks, puzzled. "You don't even know her. How could you choose her over us?"
Isaac wants to say "You're one to talk" but instead says, "If you let her come with us, I won't have to choose."
The father sighs again.
"Can she come with us, Daddy?" Jacob asks. "Please?"
When the father doesn't answer Jacob asks again, "Daddy, can she come with us? Daddy, can she?"
"Be quiet, Jacob," the father snaps. Then, as he puts Jacob back down, "I'll ask her."
Before reentering the house, he turns to Isaac one last time. "She'll have to take care of herself. I won't be feeding her or keeping her safe."
The girl's name is Michaela and she likes to talk. She talks more than the father and the sons combined. She tells stories from her past, and jokes, and talks about things she misses like music and movies and ice cream.
The father decides within the first day of her company that he hates her.
Isaac decides within that same day that he loves her. She makes him almost not want to die.
Later, the wind picks up. It's blistering cold. Jacob stops walking and Isaac goes back for him; he opens his coat and tells Jacob to shove his arms inside, and then closes it around them both. A moment later, the father comes back. Picking Jacob up, he tells Isaac to keep moving.
They trudge on.
Once the wind settles a bit Isaac takes out his Bible and reads it, periodically making passes at Michaela.
The travelers come across a man lying in the road. Not far from him, in a ditch, is a sideways truck. The man has clearly been beaten: his left eye is swollen shut, some of his teeth are missing, there are rivulets of blood on his chin, he's deathly pale from the cold and only partially conscious.
Michaela asks the father if he's going to do anything, to which he replies that there's nothing he can do. He hugs Jacob to him tightly and walks on.
Isaac prays for the man as he walks past him, and then leaves him behind.
It's well into the night, after a full day of walking, when they reach civilization: a small country town, mostly demolished. They manage to find a grocery store and enter it. It's been looted. There are little pieces of lettuce that have been left behind in the lettuce bin; Isaac picks them up and eats them, even though they are soggy and bitter.
While his father and brother search for any food that may have been left over, he wanders over to Michaela, who's looking at a small rack of Hallmark cards that no one cared to take. "I used to hate getting these," she says. "I felt like people only gave them when they couldn't be bothered to give something better." Her expression turns sad. "Now I kinda miss them."
"Wanna take one?" Isaac asks.
"No," Michaela says, putting the one she was holding back. "It wouldn't mean the same."
Jacob starts wheezing and the father digs out the inhaler. Gives him three hits. "Better?" he asks.
The boy nods, and then the father puts the inhaler back, slings the knapsack back over his shoulder, and continues to lead his younger son around the store.
"Let's check the back," he eventually suggests, calling over his shoulder to Isaac and Michaela.
But just as they're about to reach the doors to where the store's merchandise had been stocked, the doors open and a man walks out. He appears middle-aged; bearded and unkempt. He's dressed in grubby overalls and aims a double-barreled shotgun straight at the father. Following him comes another man, much younger, dressed in a plaid shirt that's so filthy it almost looks solid brown and ripped jeans. His face is covered with scars. "Well, well, whaddya we got here?" he sneers. "Couple'a thieves?"
"We weren't trying to steal anything," the father explains. "We didn't know anyone was here." He glances around him. "And what is there to steal?"
"You best be on your way," the middle-aged man says. His voice is brusque. Almost hoarse. It's clear that he means business.
"I think we outta teach 'em a lesson before we let 'em go." The younger man is smiling a twisted smile, standing with his arms crossed, eyeing the father. "Let's shoot one of 'em."
The middle-aged man doesn't move—just keeps aiming his gun at the father's chest. The younger man seems pleased. "That one'll do."
And then Isaac steps forward and shields his father's body with his own. "Wait," he says. "If anyone should die it's me."
His father grabs him from behind and wheels him around to the side. Then holds out his arm to keep him from springing forward as he returns to the line of fire. "No, no, you wanted me," he tells the two strangers. "Shoot me."
The middle-aged man looks from the father to Isaac, and then from Isaac to the father, and says, "He's your son, ain't he?"
"Yes," the father answers. If he'd denied it, they'd know he was lying.
The middle-age man lowers his gun and tells them, once again, to leave.
Once they're outside the store the father scolds Isaac, asking him what the hell he'd been thinking and if he's crazy. "You could have been killed, do you realize that?" he screams. "Do you want to die?"
There's a long pause. The father is struck by a revelation—something he can't believe he didn't see before. And then he is embracing Isaac, sobbing into his shoulder, "You think I'd just let you do it? You think I wouldn't save you?"
They settle inside a gas station with a few cracked windows and toppled-over pumps. The wind whistles outside and both Jacob and the father fall asleep to it.
Michaela comes over to Isaac, who's crouched in a corner, reading his Bible by flashlight, and sits down next to him. "I thought what you did today was very brave."
Isaac scoffs. "Tell my dad that."
Michaela glances over at the sleeping man—his face serene, his body relaxed, his youngest son curled up in his arms, snoozing also. "He really does love you," she says. "He regrets many things, but not you." She places her hand on his shoulder. Gives it a gentle squeeze. "He could never hurt you."
"I don't want him to hurt me," Isaac tells her. "I want him to set me free."
"Why do you have to die to be free?"
Isaac flicks off his flashlight. "What's so freeing about being forced to live? No one asks for life, and yet we're expected to treat it like we did. We're required to love it, and God forbid we don't. Even if the world we live in isn't a world at all, we still gotta live in it. Fight the good fight, right? Persevere. We can't choose to opt out because… because why? Oh yeah, other people might miss you. We gotta be selfless and suffer to the end because death is some terrible thing to be avoided and this shithole of a life is somehow better. It's bullshit!"
Michaela thinks before responding. "Do you believe in God?" she asks, nodding towards the Bible in his hands.
"Maybe," Isaac says. Then he sighs. "Yeah… I guess so."
"Do you think he might have a plan for you?"
"Why can't his plan for me be death? He's killed just about everyone else on this planet. Why not me? I fucking want to die." The wind outside screeches. There's the clunk of a rock hitting a wall. "And hell, maybe he wants me to also. I mean, there's got to be a reason why I feel this way. Who's to say it's not God speaking to me?"
Michaela bites her lower lip, clearly unsure of how to reply. "Look," she finally says, "I'm not going to pretend I believe in God, or pretend to know the God of the Bible. All I know is, if you die you'll break your dad and your brother's hearts. And if you could do that to them… then I guess you're already dead."
The father stirs to the howling of the wind. Moans in his sleep. Briefly Isaac turns to look at him.
"And what about this place you're going to—the sanctuary?" Michaela adds.
Isaac shrugs. "What about it?"
"Don't you want to know what it really is? If it really exists?"
"Why does it matter so much? You said so yourself, what we have isn't much to go on. Even if it does exist, things'll never be like they were before." Nodding towards his father, "This journey… it's my dad's, not mine. It's his dream. I don't have one."
Michaela looks away for a moment, her eyes gazing into the darkness of the station. "Then share it with him," she says. "For his sake, if not for yours."
Isaac sighs. "We should get some sleep."
It storms the next day. The father, his sons, and Michaela decide to stay at the station until it clears. In the late morning, while exploring behind the cash registers, the father finds an unused deck of cards. "Hey boys," he says, a smile on his face, "how about some card games?"
Jacob has never even played card games before. The father was going to teach him but didn't get the chance. It's been years since Isaac's played.
Both sons are ecstatic.
While they sit in a circle and the father shuffles the cards, Isaac says "Dad?" and looks at Michaela, who's watching them from a few feet away. The father knows what his son is asking. Glancing from the girl to his son, he nods.
Michaela joins them in the card games.
The storm takes nearly two day to pass. When the four travelers leave the station it is no longer raining but everything is drenched and the wind is howling. They walk and walk and walk, their heads bent down, their hands tucked into pockets and elbow crevices, the wind pounding against their bodies. They only stop to eat, rest their legs, and relieve themselves. Michaela tries to keep their spirits lifted by telling jokes and singing songs, but what she really wants to do—what all of them want to do—is cry. Cry and scream and sleep away this nightmare.
It's days later, in the afternoon, when they reach the Illinois border. There's a welcome sign. It's been spray-painted and stands cockeyed at the side of the road.
The road itself is barricaded by dead bodies—a line of them, heaped on top of each other, higher than the father is tall. Most are decayed beyond recognition; others are bloated and green, with gaping wounds and dried blood. They're all naked, exposed, their clothes undoubtedly stolen by the raiders. Some of them are children. The image reminds Isaac of Holocaust photos his history teacher used to show, back when he went to school.
The father reels around and grabs Jacob. Picks him up. Turns his face the other way. "Don't look," he says. But it's too late. Jacob is crying.
The reek is too much. The wind is thick with it. It has a life of its own, surrounding the travelers like moths to a light.
"What should we do?" Isaac asks, covering his nose and mouth with his arm.
The father gazes at the bodies for a long time in silence. When he speaks his voice is composed but on the verge of breaking. "We'll backtrack. Find another road that crosses over."
"Are you sure crossing over is wise?" Michaela asks.
The father has already started walking in the opposite direction. "We've come too far to quit now."
It's well into the night when the travelers finally cross. They're starving and about to keel over from exhaustion. The father doesn't like the idea of stopping just inside state borders but he knows he, his sons, and Michaela desperately need rest, so he finds a secluded spot among some trees for them to sit and eat.
They've been sitting a few minutes when Michaela gets up to pee. As she's walking away, there's a loud crack. She screams and falls over. Uses her hand to cover the gunshot wound in her thigh. The father and his sons scramble to their feet. Isaac starts running towards Michaela but is grabbed by his father and pulled away. "They'll shoot you too," he says. Clutching Isaac's arm in one hand and carrying Jacob in the other, he runs further into the trees. There's another loud crack, and they all know even without looking back that Michaela is dead.
It's after they've ran so far into the woods that there's no point in turning back that the father realizes he's no longer got his knapsack. He had set it down at the resting spot and had forgotten to grab it in all the commotion. He curses himself under his breath. Paces in distress.
Isaac imagines Michaela naked, rotting on top of that barricade of dead bodies, and throws up.
There's nothing either of them can do, but press on.
Isaac cries the next night. Silently—he always does it silently. He cries for Michaela, for his father, for Jacob, and for himself. Hugging himself in the dark, scrunched over onto his side, he cries until his eyes are swollen and he can no longer breathe out of his nose.
He jolts and stiffens when he feels Jacob's arm drape over his shoulder. He doesn't know what to do. "It's okay," Jacob whispers, and that makes it worse because it means Jacob knows he's been crying. He always tries to keep his crying hidden. His body flares with embarrassment and he considers telling Jacob to get off of him and go back to sleep, but he doesn't.
Instead he rubs Jacob's arm and dozes off.
The next morning, the father arises extra early to look for food. He wakes both his sons up and tells them they're coming with him. "More eyes means better chances," he says, but the real reason is that he no longer feels safe leaving them alone. Not here.
The father knows a bit about edible plants. He manages to find a pond with a few Cattail roots growing around it and pulls them out. They look nasty—almost insect-like—and they're covered in mud, but the father washes them off in the water, peels back their outer rough layers and then divides them between himself and his sons.
After they eat, Isaac takes his Bible out of his backpack and starts reading. His father yells at him for carrying a book when he could have been carrying food, but then apologizes and lets him read.
Later Isaac digs up more Cattail roots, washes them off, and stuffs them in his backpack. He tells his father he'll carry the food from now on.
They walk until it starts to drizzle, and then find shelter beneath a few trees. The branches and leaves don't offer as much protection as a roof, but they make do. Jacob asks if he can have another root. Isaac tells him they should save what little they have.
It rains into the afternoon and then stops. The father and his sons stick to the trees. They avoid the roads for fear that they'll run into the raiders.
They walk until they can barely see before finding another resting spot.
As Isaac is opening his backpack to retrieve Cattail roots for dinner, Jacob starts to wheeze. The father rushes over to him. Places his hand on his chest. "Breathe, Jacob," he says. "Just breathe. It's okay. Just breathe."
Jacob falls into the father's arms, wheezing terribly.
The father no longer has his inhaler, so he just pleads. "Breathe, Jacob! Breathe!"
Jacob tries to speak but barely any sound comes out. The father takes Jacob's hand and puts it to his own chest. "Feel this?" he says. "It's my lungs. They're going in and out. Feel that? You can do it. Breathe with me. Breathe with Daddy, Jacob." The father demonstrates. He sucks in a deep breath and then releases it.
But Jacob just gasps and coughs and wheezes.
Isaac prays, a single thought going through his head over and over again, like a mantra: Please God, don't let Jacob die. Please God, don't let Jacob die. Please God, don't let Jacob die. He starts to cry, not caring this time to hide it.
Jacob's breaths become shorter and shorter.
The father starts to cry too. "Don't leave me, Jacob!" he shouts. "Don't you dare leave me! I've already lost too much. Don't make me lose you too." He cups Jacob's face in his hands. "Please, Jacob…"
Jacob's eyes close. The father shakes him—"Open your eyes!"—but they don't reopen. His wheezing dulls and dulls.
"Jacob, look at me! Breathe for me!"
But Jacob has gone silent.
The father feels for a nonexistent pulse, sobbing against the rustle of the wind through the tree leaves.
He holds Jacob's body all night long. At times he's crying. At other times he's silent, his eyes fixed on Jacob's face. He doesn't sleep.
Isaac tries to sleep but tosses and turns, so he gets up, takes out his Bible and flashlight, and reads. He has to force himself to concentrate—sometimes he stops to cry—but he manages to finish it before morning.
He then takes from his backpack a lighter; he found it months ago and has been carrying it without his father knowing. He flicks it until a flame ignites and then sets the book on fire.
It burns slowly against the wet ground, the pages blackening and crinkling to ash, the cover turning up and caving in at the corners. Isaac watches.
So does his father.
"Want any breakfast?" Isaac asks the next morning. He takes his father's silence as a no. "We still going up North?"
"Why should we?" The father's voice is hoarse from crying and laced with bitterness. He runs his fingers through Jacob's hair. "What good has it done us?"
Isaac feels a razor in his throat. He remembers what he said to Michaela that night in the gas station after the incident in the store—about the journey North being his father's dream, not his. Now his father has no dream. Now his father is empty. Isaac thinks of this, as well as how he'd said his father wanted to kill him, and feels so ashamed.
"We have to," he finally says. "If we don't, Jacob and Michaela died for nothing. We owe it to them to find this place." Stealing a glance at what was once his Bible and then meeting his father's grief-stricken face, "And if you won't go, I'll go alone."
His father looks at him as if to say "Not this again," and Isaac understands why. He's giving him another ultimatum, like he did with Michaela. Only this time there is no Jacob to intervene.
There is only his memory, real and intangible as the wind, and it's enough to bring the father to his feet.
The father carries Jacob's body as he walks. Isaac considers telling him to leave it but decides not to. The raiders might find him. They might throw him on the barricade pile. And neither Isaac nor the father can bear chancing that.
At noon Isaac digs two Cattail roots out of his backpack. He peels the outer layers on both and hands one to his father.
His father stares at it, almost with distain, and tightens his grip around Jacob.
"You need to eat. You won't make it to Caswell if you starve to death."
The father makes no attempt to take it.
"Don't you think Jacob would want you to eat?"
Gradually, as if with great effort, one hand releases Jacob and takes the root.
After they eat they start walking again. They walk clear until nightfall and then stop for the night. This time they both sleep.
Isaac is aroused the next morning by the sensation of something jabbing him in the ribs. At first he thinks it's Jacob trying to wake him up to tell him he has to go pee, but then remembers that Jacob's dead and bolts awake.
The something that had been jabbing him in the ribs is the tip of a rifle. It's held by a woman in a dirt-stained, ankle-length dress with a thick overcoat. "Rise and shine," she says.
She's now pointing the barrel of her rifle at Isaac's face. He stares at it and thinks, Not like this. Not now.
"Don't hurt him!"
He snaps his head to the side to see his father lying a few feet away, reaching for him across the grass. A gun is shoved into his face as well—by an old man with white, grime-streaked hair—but his eyes are firmly on Isaac. "Please," he adds. His face contorts into a horrible grimace. "I've already lost one son. If you're gonna take my other one, at least have the decency to shoot me first."
There's a pause. Isaac shuts his eyes tight, waiting for that familiar loud crack.
All that comes is the voice of the woman, speaking to her partner. "You think they're raiders, Rick? Should we shoot 'em?"
The old man, Rick, looks them over. Shakes his head. "Nah, they ain't raiders. Too skinny. And they don't got no weapons. Probl'y travelers."
"We are travelers," the father says. "We're headed North to Wisconsin."
The woman's and old man's eyes go wide. "You heard about the sanctuary, didn't you?" the woman says.
"What do you know about it?" asks the father.
"Not much," Rick cuts in. "We heard about it on the radio a few days back. Didn't know what the hell to think. Finally we decided to give it a go. Gathered our stuff and headed North. We're on our way there now."
"Us too," the father tells him. "I was going there with my two boys…"
"This the other one, I take it?" Rick gestures at Jacob's body, which is lying next to the father and is starting to stink.
The father nods, a pained expression taking over his face. "Yeah. He died of an asthma attack. I didn't want to raiders to get him. We had a girl with us too." He glances over at Isaac. "But the raiders got her."
"Those bastards are heartless," Rick says. "Did you see their corpse barricade?"
Again, the father nods.
"Sick fucks. And to think they were once upstanding citizens. Hard times, they show a person's true colors." There's a dullness to Rick's eyes—an emptiness. They're the eyes of someone who has been numbed. "Guess it don't matter. We're all just animals in the end. Survival of the fittest—it's the law of the world." He looks to Jacob once again. "Lost a young'un myself. Worst pain I ever experienced. Made me lose my mind. Lily here"—nodding towards the woman—"kept me sane. And then I woke up one morning and realized, ain't nothing to life except death. Ain't nothing but killing time 'til time kills you."
"Then… then why are you doing this?" Isaac asks, his voice meek, his head tilted back from the barrel of the woman's rifle. "Why are you trying to find this sanctuary?"
Rick almost smiles. "'Cause if it exists, I wanna see it. I wanna take my last breath in a place that resembles what I used to know. Sort of a 'no place like home' thing, ya know?"
"Do you believe it does exist?"
"I have my doubts." Now Rick does smile, his rotted teeth visible between his lips, and shoulders his rifle. The woman, Lily, does the same. "But what do I got to lose?"
Isaac and his father sit up, rise to their feet. Isaac bends down to pick up his backpack.
"All your survival stuff in that one little bag?" Lily asks.
"We had another one but we lost it," the father replies. "We'll manage."
"Lily, let's leave these folks alone and head on back to the truck," Rick says.
"You have a truck?" Isaac asks. He hasn't seen a functioning truck in weeks.
"Found one down in West Virginia. It's beat up but it gets the job done. Have to drive slow or I'll use up too much gas."
"How have you avoided the raiders with it?" the father wonders.
"Keeping to back roads. Only driving in the early morning and late evening, and sometimes into the night. We haven't always avoided those fuckers. Had to take down two not long ago."
"Bet you pissed off a few others," Isaac says.
Rick nods. "We gotta be real careful."
There's a long silent moment. Isaac looks to his father, then to Rick and Lily—all tired, worn, and sullen, but holding onto something—and says, "Let us come with you. We'll help you find food. We'll look out for raiders. You won't have to protect us."
Rick measures him up. Glances at the father. Then back at him. "Best head on to the truck," he says. "If you wanna come, come. But we gotta be on our way."
The father picks up Jacob, and he and Isaac follow the two other travelers to their truck.
It's rusted and bent at the front fender. One of the headlights is out. But it's a truck and it's standing. "You two'll ride in back," Rick tells Isaac and his father, lifting his rifle off his shoulder and opening the driver's door.
"We can't take the dead body," Lily adds, eyeing the father. "We can't have it stinking up the truck and dragging us down. Leave it."
The father hugs his youngest son's body to his chest and shakes his head.
"Leave him, Dad," Isaac says.
The father gives him a disbelieving look, to which he replies, "You've got no choice," and the father knows—without having to ask—what he really means by that. In order to keep going, what has been lost has to be let go.
The father takes one last look at Jacob's face, kisses his forehead, and then walks over to a tree and gently lays him against it. He says nothing as he rises and walks back over to the truck.
Rick revs up the motor. Lily sits next to him in the passenger's seat. Their windows are down so they can shoot at raiders as they drive. Isaac and his father sit in the bed, their backs against the cab. The father wraps his arm around Isaac's shoulder.
The sun rises as the truck carries them North.