The boys stood staring at each other in the dim dry-foods warehouse, their guns still half raised. For a long moment neither was quite sure what to do next.
Craig had learned how to deal with wild dogs, the coyotes that were increasingly wandering through town, and twice now more recently some very unhappy moose. He had learned to deal with complex machines, how to move heavy things single-handedly, and a really stunning amount of self-administered first-aid. He had learned how to find resources, solve problems, and to drive almost anything that moved.
He had still never learned, however, how to comfortably deal with people. And he was eight months out of practice.
Finally, the other boy spoke. “Umm...” He coughed slightly, unused to using his voice, and started again, “Umm, I heard the noise. Your shots. I figured it was just another sign falling or something but I wanted to check. Took me a while to get here. I was over by the highway. Then I saw the dog....are you....are you real?”
Craig just kept looking at him. His eyes sweeping up and down the figure, asking himself the same question he had just been asked. Was he real?
The boy continued, “I'm...uh, my name is Joel.”
Craig thumbed the safety back on and re-holstered his gun, relieved when he saw the other boy, Joel, do the same. He opened his mouth to speak then suddenly felt drained of energy and sank down to sit cross-legged on the cold concrete floor before he could answer.
“Yes, I'm real. I'm Craig. And I...I...” he started crying. Very suddenly. It came from nowhere. Big wet heavy tears pouring out of his eyes.
He had pretty much stopped crying, these last couple of months. He figured maybe he was over that kid stuff. Being forced to deal with everything like this. Being by himself. He was almost developing a quiet sense of pride for how he had coped. Lonely pride, hollow pride, but pride nonetheless. Now, he felt like he was eight years old again. Worse. Like he had no control. He couldn't say anything between the sobs and the tears, just looked at Joel while tears streamed down his face.
Joel tentatively moved towards him, then suddenly much more quickly, and he knelt down beside Craig. Tears were flowing down his own face now. A hand reached out onto Craig's shoulder. That was all it took for both boys. The first human contact in eight months. The first touch for a lifetime for two boys who were used to bedtime hugs from parents, at the very least, every day before that for their entire lives.
They suddenly found themselves in a tight hug, arms encircled around each other, hands pulling the other closer, then closer again, both of them wailing loudly and unintelligibly. More like preschoolers than young teenagers.
Nobody can cry forever, not even two boys who hadn't seen another soul for close to a year, and eventually they were just sniffing and catching their breath. They pulled apart, hands still touching each other's shoulders, as if to ensure they were still there. They both started talking at once.
Joel said, “I can't believe...”
Craig said, “This is unbelievable...”
And then they both stopped, realized the other had stopped, and tried again. The same thing happened. This time they smiled at each other, the first time either had done that in a long, long time.
Craig said, “When you walked around that corner I couldn't believe it.” Maybe not the most poetic opening, but it was honest.
Joel nodded. “I saw the dog, then ran to the building and saw the open door, then had to stop for, like, two minutes until I could get up the nerve to come in.”
And so they talked. Oh boy did they talk. An hour later they were still at it, still sitting on the concrete floor of a dry foods warehouse, while the sun started getting lower as the afternoon wore on. Craig learned that Joel's last name was Bellings, that he was fourteen years old too, that he had lived with his family in Elm Grove, a tiny town about 50 miles from here, and that he had managed to survive, much like Craig had, by raiding non-perishable supplies and taking advantage of people's gardens and fruit trees. His town was tiny though, with no industry to speak of. After cleaning out the town's two small stores and raiding the homes the animals hadn't got to, he was forced to leave, to try and find something somewhere else. And, of course, and most importantly, to try and find out if there was anybody left. Craig admitted to Joel that he was well into the planning stages of just such a trip himself. He could only stay here by himself for so long.
Joel finished up his part of his story. "I drove up here this morning. I've been looking for packaged food, or fruit trees or, if I was really lucky, somewhere with a working backup generator and a stocked freezer."
Craig responded in kind with his story, nodding at Joel's explanation of looking for food. He had reached the point of telling Joel, more than a little boastfully, how he had managed to keep the hospital's emergency generators going and about the hospital kitchen's huge walk-in freezer. “So then I figured it out. I looked at how the generator was hooked up, and read through the manual, which was sitting right there, in a compartment, and did the same thing at home. I needed a way smaller one, good thing too, so I trucked it over from the farming warehouse, along with a 500 gallon diesel tank, and figured out how to isolate the house's power and hook up the generator and a shed full of batteries so it wouldn't have to run all the time...”
Another noise from the doorway interrupted Craig's story. This one decidedly more unfriendly.
Dogs these days came in three categories. The first category, and increasingly rare as time flowed on, were the dogs that tried to hang around, looking for food, or leadership, or companionship. Craig had “adopted” one of these, early after the Disappearance. Then she had been killed, fighting with a wild dog. The pain of losing her, along with everything else, proved to be too much. Maybe someday, but for now he avoided these dogs. The largest category was the second one. Most of those dogs still avoided Craig if they saw him, foraging for themselves as best they could. A lot of them had joined loose packs for protection, and were slowly reverting back to wild behavior. Those ones Craig had learned he could mostly safely ignore. The other dogs though, the last category, they were considerably more dangerous. They were the aggressive dogs. The ones who had learned to hunt and to take what they wanted from other animals and to kill. Strangely, breed didn't seem to matter that much, though the smaller dogs weren't usually a problem, simply because they mostly hunted rodents.
These two, however, were most definitely a problem. One was some kind of a hound and the other one a large shepherd. Their body language and the growls told the boys they had smelled the food, and that they intended to get it.
Craig and Joel didn't even look at each other. Months of survival skills came to the fore. Two shots exploded in the quiet of the warehouse, then a half second of silence, then two more. Both dogs were down, still twitching, one yelping pitifully. Craig and Joel remained at the ready, focusing hard, waiting to see if they were down for good. When it was obvious that they were, both boys relaxed, re-holstering their guns, and then turned to look at each other.
Craig found himself grinning, despite the adrenaline and fear of a moment ago. “Nice shooting, Rambo.”
Joel was grinning back, the tension gone. “You too, McLane.”
Something shifted in that moment.
The past hour or so had been incredible. Life changing. The chance to talk to someone, to touch someone. But this was something new, and suddenly very real, and raw. Now, suddenly, each had someone else. To help. To rely upon. To work with.
It was overwhelming.
Craig saw in Joel's eyes that he was thinking the same thoughts. They were silent for a moment. Nothing really needed to be said. Then another realization struck. Well, two more really.
The first one was this: The dogs had been approaching the boys roughly beside each other and about six feet apart, obviously working together and each intending to attack one of the boys. No surprise there. Craig had seen enough dog packs these days to realize they were very quickly reverting to wolf-like behavior and figuring out how to work in packs. Why they chose to attack two large mammals was a mystery. Dogs, like wolves, usually preferred to gang up on something. These ones must've been desperate. None of this was Craig's realization though. What he realized, what suddenly occurred to him, was that despite eight months of the hardest lessons possible, he had shot at the furthest dog first. The one closer to Joel. And Joel had done the same, shooting at the dog closest to Craig first, before each of them adjusted their aim and shot at their respective closest dog second. That's why the four shots.
That was incredible. Craig was still looking into Joel's eyes. He saw the same realization flicker there. The same emotions. To know, to really know that somebody would do that. Would protect someone else before themselves. It was....well, he couldn't really figure out any words. Oh sure, he knew, in a theoretical kind of way, that his mom, and, before he died, his dad, would've done the same. But this was different. He had known Joel for just over an hour. And here he had visual proof.
The second realization was this: Four shots. Four hits. From handguns. At moving—albeit slowly—targets. Oh sure, they were fairly close, but even so...
Most people don't get it, if they haven't shot guns before. If their only experience of guns is from TV and movies. On TV, the badass good guy waves his gun in the general direction of the bad guy, while running hard the opposite direction, with sweat in his eyes, while the other guy is running too, and weaving back and forth and, hits the guy in the heart or through the forehead. Every time. It wasn't like that. Hitting something the size of a dog, with a handgun, when you're nervous, and while it's moving, even slowly, well, it's not quite as easy as it looks on the cop shows. Not even close. That's why Craig had to spend so much time practicing.
Eight months ago he couldn't throw a basketball in the vague direction he intended. Now he just hit two small targets in a row. And so did Joel.
The boys smiled at each other and together walked out into the afternoon sunshine.