Mesozoic

Part 1 - Dawn

MESOZOIC

Book 1 of 3

Written by Dan Black

Prelude: Intrusion

Quiet. That’s the first thing they noticed about this new world. It was quiet. They came from a different world where it was alive. Not that this world was not. It was alive. From the sounds of the trees groaning in the wind and the insects buzzing as they tried to steal a meal from these warm-blooded intruders, the world was very much alive. Even through the darkness of the night. But the intruders were used to the sounds of city traffic and horns blaring. The sights of millions of lights all around them on a consistent basis. This place. This world was not alive by any means to them. It was quiet.

The buzzing mosquito flew away from the warm bodied intruders and left the encompassing woods in a matter of minutes until it found things more familiar. The giants of the grasslands towered over the small flying insect as it landed on a blade of grass near the titans. They moved very little and most of them were already laying down as the moonlight creeping from behind a passing cloud revealed. The titans looked up at the millions of lights shining throughout the sky. The insect flapped its wings and began buzzing up to the titans. It desired more. It needed more. It crept closer to one of the younger titans and perched itself just above the back leg before stabbing it. Then something happened the insect was not expecting. There was a loud sound from back in the woods. Some sort of animal howling in pain. The titans looked in the direction of the sound and quickly became agitated. This interrupted the insect’s feeding and it buzzed away as quickly as it had shown up. The titans got to their feet and looked towards the cries of pain then began to head off away from the sounds in the forest. The titans knew the sound wasn’t of their kind or any kind they were familiar with. But the shouts and cries pointed towards predators and the titans knew that if predators were there, they would soon be here.

This wouldn’t be the last time titans would hear these cries. The titans were only the first to welcome the intruders.

I: DAWN

-1-

There was a world before that was much different than this one. One with lights and sounds that you could hardly imagine. Where the world is covered with millions more like us. Where kids go to school and learn about their world and make friends and play with toys and laugh. They learn about their history and how the world came to be. They learn about great men who led them through times of hardship and helped shaped the world. They learn about amazing creatures that live and the ones that no longer live. They get to grow up in a world with parents who make sure they are happy and safe. They don’t have to be on guard. They don’t have to keep watch. They get to live peacefully and safely until they are grown. Then, they too will go off into the world. Fall in love. Have children. And then they become the parents. That’s the world. That’s my world, John. A world where you would be reading great books like Tarzan and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and even The Cat in the Hat. But that’s not your world, baby. This world isn’t like that one. We live in this one. You won’t get to experience those things. The only thing you will ever know and learn…is survival.

That’s what my mother told me.

That’s what I grew up knowing.

And that’s what I accept as the truth.

That after everything…after surviving…I will die alone. I look back on it now and I wonder if it’s even worth going on another day. What for? There’s no future. There’s not even much of a past. The only thing that I know is here and now. Under the light of the moon, the cold wind in my hair…the sounds of distant animals calling my name. Calling my death.

There is no other world. Not one that I know of. I don’t even know what a hat is…let alone a cat. I try to ask but they never liked talking about the other world. It doesn’t matter anymore. That’s what they would tell me. It matters to me.

I’m seventeen now. Today’s my birthday. Guess how we celebrated? We ran from another monster that tried to kill us. We ate some disgusting bulbs and dirt tasting roots. Luckily, we found a dead fish on the shore that was half eaten but still edible. I didn’t get a bone in mine. And I got to keep the bones because as my uncle says everything’s got a use. And he means everything. Ever have to use your shit as a defense measure? Be glad you don’t have to. That’s what keeps some of the scavengers away.

So, here I am. Covered in my own feces. Sitting on the ground in the middle of the jungle. Just keeping watch.

Happy Birthday, John.

I was even playing with the bones from a fish because there’s nothing else I could do. I even spelled out my name with them. But I think what really makes this birthday ever so magical is that the hum of flies and other insects crawling all over my body and in my hair are not even bothering me. Honestly, I don’t give a crap. No pun intended. To me, they are my friends. Because a predator will think twice about going over and attacking something that smells so foul.

But my real birthday present? I get to live another day in hell. I get to live knowing that at any moment now, if my guard is down…if I begin to nod off…hell, if I fucking sneeze…that’s it.

Game over.

Something finds me and kills me. Probably eats me if it can get past the shit smell. If not, I bleed to death and become something for the scavengers. My uncle calls them aliens. I call them animals. Because that’s all I’ve ever known. But to him, the whole world is an alien world. My parents never talked much about the other world. At least, my father didn’t. My mother would tell me bed time stories of this other world. She’d talk about huge metal caves taller than any tree or animal I’ve ever known. She’d talk about giant iron birds that carried people all around the world in a day. She talked about my grandma and grandpa and how they would love to meet me and see me. My father…never wanted to talk about any of it. One more day is just another day he could add to his collection.

But what can you expect after living in a world like this for seventeen years?

That’s right. Do the math. I was an unexpected delight to my parents who were not much older than me when I came into this world. And then there was my uncle, half-blind and half-crazy, would often talk about the world too. He’d talk about weird things like rocks that you could ride on land. Pictures that moved across a glass. And sports. He liked one called foot. Foot was his favorite. Apparently, warriors would throw some sort of bladder or lung or some other gut at another and run away while the other warriors tried to kill him. I guess you would have to watch it. And apparently you could watch Foot on your magic glass. He would talk about how all the animals I’ve ever known don’t exist and that their decayed, old bones are hung in caves all over the world. And they didn’t kill them. No. They were just found in the ground. And people would come and see these dead animal bones strung up. And they would pay to see it. I laughed when he first told me this. He asked what was so funny. I said that between staring at glass and paying to see dead animal bones it was no surprise that they left. But then he told me something that haunts me to this day.

He told me in their world…my world died.

-2-

Died? What do you mean it died?

“It’s dead. Game over. Move on,” my uncle said. “I don’t know why we even bother talking about it.”

My father looked down at me and brushed my brown hair from my face. He smiled that painful smile. He looked over to my uncle.

“Do it,” he said. He pushed my head into his chest and…

SMASH!

I opened my eyes and saw the small music box in pieces on the rocky surface below.

“I’m sorry, John. There is nothing we can do. We don’t have-“

“You could’ve fixed it! You can fix anything!” I screamed at him. He looked away. The tears were streaming down my face. I looked from the pieces to my father’s face to my uncle who was salvaging the pieces for anything useful. Like a damn scavenger. Like one of the aliens.

“John…there are some things we just can’t fix. I would have given anything to fix it. I know how much it meant to you. But…we can’t fix it. Not here. And if we can use it in some other way…then…maybe-“

I couldn’t hear another word. I pushed my father away and ran into the jungle. Far away. As fast as I could. My eyes clouded with tears. I couldn’t believe it was done.

I was ten. Cut me some slack.

I stopped somewhere…somehow. Not sure why. Not sure how. But I did. And I remember where it was. It was under Mom’s tree. A tall tree, but dying. Everything was dying. My world. Mom’s tree. That little music box that meant the world to me at ten.

How high can you climb, John? Can you reach the top? Can you touch the sky? Can you see across the sea?

I looked up at the tree and began to climb the dead, grey limbs. The cracking under my weight scared me with even the slightest movement. I took a deep breath and hoisted myself to the next one and the next one. And once I reached near the top of the tree…I stopped. And I let the tears fall to the earth below.

The sun disappeared long after they found me. Their echoing, booming voices carried in the whispers of the wind blowing through the dead limbs of the tree. I pulled my legs closer to my chest. I was perched in my little tree. It was the only thing that made me feel like someday I would get to see the other world. I would get to see Mom’s world. The world I was meant to be in.

My father spotted me. Carrying a torch from the fire. I was the only thing in the tree and the only thing around that was crying. I saw him motion for my uncle to go back.

“Stay with the camp,” he said to my uncle. He nodded and took off. My father approached the base of the tree and looked up. “I remember when we found this tree.”

I looked away from his big, black beard and large green eyes. I knew there was a smile under that fur. I didn’t want to see it.

“Do you remember? God…you were just a little guy back then. And me?” My father chuckled. “Well, I was still in one piece.” He raised his left hand…or what was left of it. Even in the fire light, I could see his stump of an arm.

“We are going to lose everything, aren’t we?” I asked my father. My face still looking into the darkness.

“We never lost anything, son,” my father said to me.

“But the box-“

“-Is still with you. You know how it went, right?”

The torch crackled and he began whistling. He was my box. I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked down at my box. Standing on the ground looking up. I tried to stop the tears…but they wouldn’t stop. But I was sad for something else now. Not because of the box anymore. No. I waited until Dad was finished. Then I climbed down the tree and into his embrace.

“Dad?” I asked.

“What is it, son?” he said in that calm, gentle voice. The torch beginning to feel like a furnace on my back. But the tears began again.

“I…I miss Mom.”

He dropped the torch and just held me as I cried into his shoulder. I watched as the torch burned out and he began the tune once more.

-3-

The tune echoed throughout time as another memory appeared in my head. I woke early. My box was still going. The sun was now beginning to spear light into the world and into our shelter. A shadow appeared at the door and I pulled my blanket over my head.

“Well, are you going to get up?” a voice called to me. “We’ve got a lot to do today.” I removed the blanket and stared at the woman in the doorway. She smiled at me. I smiled back. I pulled the blanket back over my head. “Oh no you don’t, you little runt.” She jumped into my bed and grabbed me. That’s when the tickle fight began. I was screaming and laughing. Then she just held me.

“Good morning, mama,” I said.

“Happy birthday, my little five-year-old,” my mother said, kissing my forehead. She held me in her arms.

“Did you keep box going all night?” I asked.

“I did. You know I set it every year at the exact hour you were born. It was right here. Right in our house. Your daddy was out exploring as he usually did and you Uncle Ian was with me. And then I shouted to him that you were making your grand entrance and then you came into this world, my big boy.” My mother lifted me high into the air. And then put me down on the bed and pressed her face into my belly. And blew raspberries on my belly. Making me laugh uncontrollably. She finished and brushed her brown hair from her face.

“I love you, little monster,” she said. I smiled.

“I love you, big monster.”

The waves splashed over my feet and the sand sunk beneath them. I pulled them from the sinkhole forming as another wave struck my legs. I screamed and ran through the waves.

“Hey, stinker. I thought you were helping me,” my mother said, shoveling more sand. Building a trench. I looked over at my mother, sitting there in the sand with several shells to her right. I cocked my head and turned back to my hole.

“Why build a hole in front of the sand tower? Won’t it get weak?” I asked.

“Not if it’s deep enough. Sometimes you need to make sure your tower is well defended…because if it’s not-“

The relentless wave returned and flooded the hole, toppling the tower back to the ground. My mother sighed and threw the wet sand off her hands. Then looked at me.

“Then everything falls. And it’s hard to rebuild everything again. It’s frustrating. And it may take a long time. You might not be able to build right there again. But if you’re defenses are good, then you’re tower will stand tall when whatever hits it,” my mother said. “Now, help me look for one more.”

The black shell sat on the ground. I gingerly picked it up and placed it a little in front. My mother smiled and moved a white shell diagonally.

“Checkmate,” she said. I sighed and she laughed. I scowled at her. “What?”

“You cheated!” I said.

“I don’t cheat, John,” my mother said, smile gone.

“Then you forget what piece is which!” I said.

“Nope. Remember? We carved a letter on the bottom of each piece,” she picked up her winning shell and on the bottom was a tiny letter B. “I win.”

“No fair. You’re too good at this game,” I remarked.

“It’s so fair! I’m actually not that good. You wanna talk to someone who cheats, talk to your daddy. I can’t get a single one of his pieces.”

“So, daddy cheats?”

“I think so. But I watch him carefully. And he seems to play by the rules.”

“Then how does he cheat?” My mother wrinkled her nose and put a finger to her chin. She was thinking.

“Guess he doesn’t. Just like me. It takes time and practice. Like most things in this world. Don’t worry. Someday you’ll beat me.”

I looked down at the shells. I knew my mother didn’t cheat.

“Hey…what do we say?” my mother asked.

“Sorry I said you cheated,” I said. Looking innocent. “When’s daddy gonna be home?”

My mother looked out of the house window and towards the sea. The setting sun dancing on the waves.

“He’ll be home soon.”

The night soon approached and the light was gone. Just the moonlight is all that remained. My mother took the bones of the fish and threw them back into the water for the predators to eat. She walked over to the fire pit, threw wood onto it, and the room slowly became brighter. Shadows danced on the walls of the house. My mother walked over to me and tucked me in. Smiling while she was doing it.

“Comfy?” she asked. I nodded.

“Where’s daddy?” I asked. That smile faded again. She brushed her hair to the side again.

“I don’t know. They should’ve been back by now,” mother said. She was thinking it. I could tell. Even at five. I was thinking it too.

“Is daddy dead?” I asked.

“No,” my mother said. “No, baby. Daddy isn’t dead. Daddy went on an important mission today.”

“Like a secret mission?”

“Yeah. A super, secret, important mission across the sea to the Bad Lands,” said my mother. She hated every time he went to the Bad Lands. She wiped her runny nose and wiped away any tears.

“The monsters live in the Bad Lands, though,” I said. My mother nodded. Silence. The fire crackling was the only sound.

“Did…did I ever tell you the story of the Magic Wheel?” I shook my head. This wasn’t one of the stories I was familiar with. She gasped and mouthed I didn’t. I shook my head even more. I had to know this one. My mother’s stories were fascinating and amazing. All of them were about the other world.

“What’s the Magic Wheel?” I asked. She sat up straight.

“Well, it was many, many days and nights ago.”

“How many?”

“More than you’ve ever seen!”

“Like a hundred?”

“More like a thousand. Maybe even a hundred thousand.”

“Woah!”

“So, so long ago. I was just a tiny little girl not much older than you. And I was with my momma and daddy, just like you. And one day my momma came into our house and said, ‘Ellie! The carnival is back!’ Now, I had heard so much about the carnival and I had seen the magic glass tell us about it. It was the best thing ever. It would come every summer and everyone in the town came to the carnival. They’d come from all around. Even some people who weren’t from our town. That’s how much fun the carnival was. And the carnival had huge tents! And-“

“What are tents?”

“They are like houses, except you can take them wherever you go,” my mother said.

“Why can’t the carnival come in houses and stay in the town?”

“Because it wouldn’t be as magical if it was always in town. And they would bring some crazy looking things and amazing animals. There would be funny people covered in paint and big weird clothes called clowns. And they had big, roaring monsters that walked on four legs and kept low to the ground. These monsters had black and orange and white stripes and large teeth and claws. They called them tigers. And there were big animals with large tails on their face that could pick up almost anything. But they were pretty calm. And a man would walk in front of these animals and make them do tricks for us like stand on a ball or jump through fire rings or whatever he wanted. There was one man who stuck his whole head in the tiger monster’s mouth and at any moment. CHOMP!”

I jumped.

“His head would be gone forever. Lost in the stomach of the tiger. But what really made the carnival magically was the Magic Wheel.”

I adjusted myself in the bed.

“The line was always long for the Magic Wheel. There I was. Standing below the towering Magic Wheel. It was taller than any tree I’ve ever seen then or now. And it was spinning. So slowly but just enough to feel the wind in your hair and enjoy it. So, me, my mama and daddy were standing in front of the man who owned the Magic Wheel. He looked down at us and said…

“Who dares approach the man who keeps to the Magic Wheel? If you do not answer, then we’ll make you squeal!!” My mother’s voice went deeper as she mimicked the Wheel owner. She continued the story.

“’Please, sir. We desire to go on the Magic Wheel. We mean you no harm,’ I said to the man in front of the Wheel. The man stroked his forked beard and adjusted his little red hat on top of his head.

‘Very well. I will allow you a chance to enjoy some sweet relief. But, first, go and fetch me a brand new striped leaf!’

What was I to do? I didn’t know where any striped leaves where. But that big bad Wheel Man looked at me and told me the way.

‘If a striped leaf is what you seek, go to the top of Wooden Peak. There you will know the true meaning of thrill and if you wish to pass you must earn this skill.’”

“This guy talks a lot in rhymes,” I said to my mother, cutting her off. She smiled at me.

“I know, right? He was getting very annoying. But he gave me some warnings. He said, ‘Know this child or you will soon regret not taking heed. There are some things to come and my warnings you will need. Once past the first task and on towards your prize, you must avoid the sweet silk that will tantalize. Or if you should stay and eat, a grim fate you will most surely meet. If the sweet silk you should pass, you must then make it through the hall of glass. Your reflection and image will be twisted and turned but take my knowledge and use what you learned.’ So, I looked about and around but I couldn’t find anything that looked like a wooden peak. That’s when I looked up and saw the wooden peak! But as I approached the peak, another guard stood and waited. He was ugly and slimy and smelled really bad. He looked at me and growled.

‘You wish to pass?’ the guard squeaked. I twiddled my thumbs and twirled my hair. Then I calmly said that I wished to pass through the Wooden Peak. The guard laughed and laughed as slime oozed from his nose and mouth. He wiped his dirty hand across his slime covered mouth.

‘No little girls can pass through the Wooden Peak. It is too fast and goes way too high for such little ones to survive,’ the guard retorted. I begged and pleaded and sobbed on the floor. Then the guard looked down at me with some sort of remorse.”

“You made that rhyme on purpose!” I shouted to her, pointing at her face. My mother scoffed and grabbed my arm.

“So what if I did?” my mother smiled. I smiled back. That warmth now feels cold when I think about it too much. That happiness is now sadness when the thought entered my mind. Five years later, when I was sitting in that tree…I couldn’t get my mother’s voice and face out of my head and I wished more than anything that it would leave. At the same time…at the same time I wanted it to stay forever and never vanish.

Now.

Who fucking cares? Who cares about bedtime stories and dying trees? Who gives a shit about Magic Wheels and striped leaves and all the other bullshit she fed to me? None of it matters anymore. But, yet, there I was…eating up this story. This stupid fucking story. Stupid. Stupid.

“So, did it work?” my mind continued playing the scene. Even though I knew I didn’t want to relive this one. But I couldn’t stop it.

“Yes, baby. It worked!” Fuck this memory. “The guard looked down at me and tears began to form in his eyes. He looked down and said, ‘Alright. Alright. I’ll let you through. I just hate to see little ones cry. Here ya go!’ The guard pushed open the wooden door and allowed me to enter. And that’s when I saw it.

The Wooden Peak.

It was tall! And I knew I would have to reach the bottom. Then a roar came from behind as a giant wooden train showed up.”

“What’s a train?” What’s a train? Who cares? It doesn’t exist. Not in my world.

“A train is a magical beast that runs on rocks that burn. And when the rocks burn, the train’s wheels turn. And it makes a loud whistling noise as they burn. Then the people get on and they ride the train to wherever they need to go. Usually they are made from a different rock…but this one…this one was wooden. And it didn’t need any rocks to run! It was purely magic.”

“Just like box?”

“Just like box. Box is made of magic. And when box plays, it's proof that there is magic in the world.”

“Is there magic in the alien world?” Ha! Which alien world? Yours or there’s?

“A different kind of magic, but yes. You know when you look up at the sky when it gets all dark and stormy? And the thunder and lightning come? That’s a kind of magic. A different kind of magic.”

“So, the wooden train ran on magic?”

“Yes, and I got on the wooden train as it went up, up, up the Wooden Peak and then went down, down, down really fast. So fast that I was afraid that I would fall off the wooden train. But, sure enough, the train came to stop and I got off. I waved back up to the guard and he waved back to me. He was my friend. He pointed for me to continue straight. So, that is what I did. But not too long after making it through the Wooden Peak, I was stopped by a little old lady. She was wrinkly and her hair was as white as snow. She looked at me and stuck her hand inside a big, big bowl and when she pulled it out…there in her hand was some pink sweet silk. She smiled and handed me the sweet silk and I pulled off a piece and stuck it in my mouth. And my eyes got wide as I shoveled more pieces of the sweet silk into my mouth. It was sweeter than honey and stickier than it too. The old lady smiled and before you knew it, I had eaten all of the sweet silk she had given to me. She sat down in her chair and looked at me.

‘Do you mind watching over my sweet silk, child?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know what I would do if someone ate all my sweet silk.’

I promised the old lady that I would watch over her sweet silk. She smiled.

‘Thank you, dear, now you can eat some more, but be careful. That sweet silk will keep you coming back for more. The more you eat, the more you will crave and you’ll just keep eating and eating until you’re a little plump girl.’

So I assured her that I wouldn’t eat any of the sweet silk while she took a nap. Then the old lady fell back in her chair and was soon fast asleep. That’s when my tummy started to growl. I just realized that I hadn’t eaten since I got to the carnival. I looked over at the sweet silk and my mouth began to water. It was just so good…I had to have just one more bite.”

“Nu-uh. You didn’t.”

“Yep…I did. I shoved handful after handful of the sweet silk into my mouth and before you knew it…there was no more sweet silk left in the bowl. I tried to stop myself multiple times, but the sweet silk did not even fill me up. It just made me even hungrier. I turned as the old lady yawned and looked over at me covered in bits of sweet silk. She gasped.

‘Oh…no…no, no, no. You ate all the sweet silk!’ she roared. She raised her spoon and her smile was gone. ‘You will regret eating all my sweet silk, child! I ran from the old lady and I ran fast. I didn’t even look where I was going because soon everything went dark. Then the lights turned on and I saw me! But I was so very fat! I was the fattest little girl I had ever seen. I began to cry as I looked at myself. Then a friendly little boy walked up to me. He patted me on the shoulder and said,

‘Why are you crying?’ I looked up from my tears and pointed to the fat me.

‘I am so very fat from eating all the sweet silk,’ I said. The boy shook his head. And began to laugh.

‘No. You are not fat at all. Here. Come look over here. Look in this magic glass, you’ll see that you are far from fat.’ So, I walked over to the boy and he pointed at the magic glass. I looked and he was right! I was no longer fat. But I was very tall and very skinny. Skinnier than the skinniest tree I’ve ever seen. I began to cry again. The boy came to me again.

‘What now?’ the boy asked. I pointed to the magic glass.

‘Now I am too skinny and too tall. I’ll hit my head on the ceiling and snap in two.’ He wrinkled his nose. And then snapped his fingers.

‘I got it! There is one final magic glass. And I think it will fix your tallness.’ He pointed over to another magic glass and I walked over to it. I covered my eyes…too afraid to look. Then I slowly removed my hands…and…I was normal again. I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t skinny. I was just right. I smiled and thanked the boy and asked him where I could get the striped leaf.

‘Oh! It’s just out this door!’ He was right! I could see the light pouring into the house of glass. I thanked him and made my way out to the world again. I looked and there it was.

The striped leaf.

I ran towards it but a man stopped me and held me back. He told me he was the keeper of the striped leaf and he said that he needed a green leaf in order to give the striped leaf to me. But I didn’t have the green leaf. I began to think that this was all for nothing. That my journey had no purpose…that it was just a waste and I would never get to go on the Magic Wheel. But as I looked down…I saw something there right in front of my feet. It was a green leaf. I grabbed it and raised it to the sky. The man exclaimed with glee.

‘Oh splendid! Splendid! That’s the green leaf! Here you go, child!’ the man held out the striped leaf with a big smile. I gave him the green leaf and he gave me the striped leaf.

I raced back to the keeper of the Magic Wheel. He looked at me and noticed the striped leaf in my hand. And my parents were still standing there, looking for me. Then they too saw me. And smiled. I told them I got the striped leaf. I gave it to the man and all three of us got in a little cup and slowly the magic wheel turned and we flew high into the air. So high that I got scared!”

“You get scared, mommy?”

“Yes, sweetie, even mommies get scared. So, the Magic Wheel stopped and we got off. And then we went home. Later that night, I was getting tucked into bed by my mommy and I told her that next time I wouldn’t get scared. Next time I would be brave.”

“And were you? Were you brave the next time, mommy?” She looked down at the ground. Perhaps looking for that green leaf again, then looked back at me.

“The carnival never came back after that. I never got to ride the Magic Wheel ever again,” she said. But soon she was back up with a smile and kissed my forehead. “Goodnight, John.” Then my mother disappeared into the night and the silence was there. Well…except for box. Box was playing the tune.

And it played…

And it played…

And then I was gone. Away in another world. One of the worlds that mother created. I saw the Magic Wheel and the old lady crying over the sweet silk. And I explored this carnival and saw the striped monsters called tigers. Big and very hairy, but had claws and teeth and big eyes. It roared at me and began shouting. It was shouting my mother’s name.

And then I woke up.

“Ellie! Grab the leathers and whatever else we got! Get something hot now, goddamit! He’s gonna bleed out! He might already be gone!” my uncle’s voice pulled me from the carnival and I stared as he came rushing into the house holding my father in his arms. My mother took one look at him and then rushed around the house to get what my uncle asked for. But I didn’t watch her. My eyes were glued to my father’s arm.

Or what was left of it.

-4-

I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. All night I listened to the moans of my father and the yelling between my uncle and my mother. Something about a crocodile taking his arm off. Apparently, they were fishing and one was snagged on a branch and my father put his arm in the water to grab it when, what he thought was a log, grabbed his hand and tore it off. It was night and they couldn’t see very well to begin with. So, then they came back home to Sanctuary. Our own little island. Where my father was bleeding out and most likely going to die.

But that’s not what little five-year-olds are supposed to think about. So, I didn’t. I just sat up in my tree. Looking at the grey sky around me. Waiting for the rain that was long overdue.

Happy Birthday, John.

My present for my fifth birthday? Knowing that my father would probably die. And, guess what? At that age…all I could care about was some stupid story about a Magic Wheel. Hell, that’s what I was thinking about sitting up in that tree.

Nobody came to check on me. Nobody came by to wake me up. They knew. And there wasn’t any breakfast waiting for me. My mother was still working on my father’s arm. My uncle was out fishing again, against my mother’s pleas. And me…I was waiting for the rain to fall. My head turned sharply as I heard the snapping of twigs.

It was my mother.

I brushed the tears from my eyes and wiped my runny nose on my hand and looked away. But I already saw my mother’s face. Her eyes were puffy and her hands were covered in blood.

“Daddy’s sleeping right now, if you wanna go see him,” she said. I still didn’t look down at her. She began to climb the tree, her tree. Mom’s tree. Though it was much more alive back then. Back when she was alive. The branches were thicker and she had a place to sit. She reached out and touched my hand, ever so gently. I pulled my hand away and curled into a ball.

“Mommy…who’s God?” I asked. “You and Daddy talk about God sometimes. Who’s God?”

“God is a protector. Like a guardian. He makes sure nothing bad happens to people who trust him. And he’s an inventor. Like your daddy.”

“So, is Daddy God?”

“No, Daddy is Daddy. God lives far away from here. A place that we all go to when we’re asleep for a very long time.”

“God’s in our dreams?”

“Sometimes. But God doesn’t live there. God lives where all the people go to sleep and never wake up. Remember how the fish go to sleep and never wake up? And the flyers and the grazers? And even the big bad bugs? When they never wake up, they go with God but their bodies stay down here.” I looked at her with tears in my eyes.

“Is Daddy going to never wake up too?” I asked. “Is Daddy going to go live with God? She reached up and grabbed me softly, and pulled me into her arms. Shushing and comforting me, she held me.

“I want you to close your eyes. Can you do that for me?” she said. I did just that. She brushed a hand past my eyes. “No peeking, ok?” I nodded. “Now, I want you to imagine that you are in the tallest tree on the island, can you do that? Are you in the tree?” I nodded again, sniffling as I did so. “How high can you climb, John? Can you reach the top? Can you touch the sky? Can you see across the sea?”

And as I had my eyes closed, I saw it. I was in the tallest tree on the island and I was touching the sky and I could see all the way across the sea. To the shore of the Bad Lands and I could see their trees.

“What do you see, John?” my mother asked.

I didn't answer. Because the truth was...the truth was that I saw nothing. No future at all.

And I still don't.

-5-

I was still in the tree when mother returned. She was smiling this time, a painful grin. There was no hiding it.

“Daddy’s awake. And he wants to see you,” she said. Mere words could not describe how fast I leapt from the tree and began running to see my father. My mother scolded me about being careful. Typical. I raced along the side of our house and made my way to the door. I looked inside.

There was blood.

That’s the one thing that I remember. There was a lot of blood. And the smell was terrible. But my father sat up on his bed. I looked at his arm first. It was bandaged now but nothing could erase the images from the previous night. He smiled and I looked into his face.

“Bet you thought your old man was a goner, huh?” he joked. I raced over and embraced him. He did the same, but with only one arm. I turned and looked at his arm, ran my fingers over the bandaged stump at the end of my father’s wrist.

“What happened to your hand?” I asked. Like all five-year-olds do. Can’t not ask the inappropriate questions. But my father must’ve guessed that I would ask. Because he did not hesitate to bring out the theatrics of a good story. He told me about how he and Uncle Ian were catching fish and then a monstrous crocodile swam up and was coming for my uncle. But my father, brave and noble, got in its path and sliced one of its eyes. The creature became angry and then began towards my father. Hissing and thrashing, it charged through the water and missed my father. But the tail tripped him. It then grabbed my father’s arm and began chopping away. My father knew that his hand was gone but he would not lose this fight. He pulled his knife out and began stabbing the creature repeatedly in the eyes and the roof of its head. Eventually, the creature became still and my father walked away from the fight as the winner, but lost his hand.

It was an impressive tale…but looking back on it…I knew the real story. But sometimes I liked to believe that my father’s story was the only story and that it was the real one.

“Will it grow back?” I asked. My father chuckled and held me tighter.

“No, son, arms and legs and hands and fingers do not grow back. Hair grows back. And cuts we get will sometimes heal. But Daddy’s hand is never coming back,” he said. I was saddened to learn this.

“Then how will you protect us and hunt?”

“Hey, you don’t need two hands to kill things and I certainly don’t need any hands to protect you and your mother. Don’t you worry, you will always be protected as long as I’m around.”

But I looked down. As if I already knew that someday I would be where I am now…looking down at the ground and wondering how I was protected now. Now that he is no longer around. Is it wrong that I’m smelling the same smells that day? I mean, I’m covered in my own waste and the smells in that house were similar. But bearable.

My father’s hand, raising my chin to his face, brought me back to the past. He looked at me with his bright green eyes and messy brown hair. He was smiling. Everyone was always smiling. As if this world is worth smiling about. Even now it seems like my old man was reading my mind.

“You are my whole world, John. You and your mother and your uncle. I’m not going anywhere without you three again. Every time I look at you, I can’t help but smile, son. Because I didn’t believe that we could be blessed in a world like this. I didn’t believe that there were miracles left. And I never would have believed that you were going to li…to grow up before my eyes.” Trust me, dad. I never thought I was going to live this long either. And the odds were against us all.

“I’m only five, though,” I said. My father chuckled once more.

“Yes, and that’s a year older than you were before. You’re growing up, son. And I wish you were going to have the life that I had. The life that your mother had. But that isn’t the life you will have. But, someday, you will see a bigger world. You’ll know more and be bigger and stronger than you are now. You’ll see.” He fell into a coughing fit and raised himself to drink from the pouch of water by his side. I turned my head to the sound of cries coming from outside. They weren’t my mother’s or my uncle’s cries, no. They were the cries of animals. Screeching and almost screaming into the air. I found the cries somewhat hypnotic. And they lured me to the window. I looked high into the air and that’s when I saw them.

They were beautiful. Black and grey and yellow and white. A flurry of colors diving through the air and screeching.

“Ah, the Sirens are back, huh?” my father asked. “Hauntingly beautiful.”

“Where do they come from?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the acrobatic creatures.

“From the Bad Lands, many, many animals live over there. Some are friendly and beautiful. Some are dangerous and frightening. Some walk on the land. Some fly through the air. Some swim in the sea. The Sirens follow the storms.”

The creatures continued diving and one swooped down to the earth below and perched itself. And at that time, I observed the creature in its glory. It was breathing heavily. Its grey chest puffing in and out faster and faster. My gaze followed the chest to the arms that were folded nest to it and to the flaps of skin that seemed to trail and point up to the sky. They were a mix of black, white, and grey. The creature must have sensed that I was watching. It raised its arms and the flaps extended into the most marvelous wings I’ve ever seen. I moved my eyes up the wings to its head and the long pointed mouth that screeched once more as the wings rose. I then saw its head and the large crest that moved in the wind slightly. It almost resembled a third wing, but it was almost pointing straight up. It screeched once more and flapped its large wings, moving the branches below it with the wind it created. Lastly, I looked at its feet. Clawed, smaller than I was thinking. But the wings had claws too. That’s how it created arms from the wings. It folded them in. It screeched once more and kept its mouth slightly ajar before closing and taking off into the sky once more. The sky was grey and the clouds were forming. It rose higher and higher before it began its aerobatics once more as it dived and soared through the air. As if it were riding wave after wave.

“Storm’s coming, huh?” my father said. I hadn’t moved from the window in some time. My fascination with the marvelous creatures before me was beyond compare. They were magnificent. “The sirens spend their whole life following and chasing the storms. Diving and spiraling to the earth below, only to rise back up. They enjoy living within the storms because they enjoy feeling alive. Diving through the air and riding the currents and drifts. Do you know why they do this?” my father asked.

I shook my head no.

“Because they chase their storm. They don’t let it pass. They embrace it. And they don’t let go. Because that’s when they feel the most alive. If I could offer you some advice, it would be this. Don’t let your storm pass. Find something worth living for and then you live for it. Chase your storm”

Those are words I would never forget. My father cleared his throat and continued.

“Tomorrow, we are all going to the Bad Lands, because although there are monsters over there…there are beautiful creatures there too. And I believe we can begin to build a life here. A better life.”

I nodded and my father hugged me once more. I sat and looked out the window, watching the Sirens swirl in the air. Screeching and screaming. I wondered what they were saying. What they were shouting. What it was like to chase their storm and find that thing worth living for.

My father stayed true to his word and the next day, despite my mother's protests, we all went over to the Bad Lands. We took the small hollowed out log that my father made several years ago and crammed all of us into the boat. I remember it was peaceful. The waters were a deep blue and it was a strange feeling to be on the waters and leaving my home behind.

Goodbye, Sanctuary. Hello, Bad Lands.

I will admit. I was scared. This was a world that my father would often say was quite dangerous. It's where he lost his hand. It's where my uncle lost his eye. It's a dangerous world off the island. My mother grabbed my tiny hand and comforted me with her touch, giving me a reassuring smile. I smiled back. Can't remember if I was just copying her or if I truly was comforted.

Let's go with the former.

Soon, we reached the other shore. It didn't seem long at all. And after all the stories I had heard, I was expecting to see something on our trip. Perhaps another flying creature. Perhaps more Sirens. Or maybe something other than fish in the waters. But mostly I stared at my reflection on the water. My long brown hair matching my uncle's. My bright green eyes looking like little green rocks deep below the waters, shining up. It took me a moment to realize it was my eyes. My mother would often pull me back so I wouldn't fall into waters.

But, alas, we reached the shore without any excitement. My uncle teased me that most predators come out at night like sharks and other monsters. I believed him. He was telling the truth.

My father went first, knife in his only good hand. Then my uncle tailed after him. Bow at the ready with an arrow already loaded. I looked at my mother and she offered me her hand.

“Alan, you’re sure this is safe?” she asked my father. He didn’t break his gaze on the trees standing in front of us. His black mop of hair was all that we saw.

“Don’t worry, Ellie. Ian and I cleared this area not too long ago. And where we’re going, predators will think twice. But we can never be too careful. Just keep an eye out for things that move,” my father said. And my tiny head turned to look for the slightest movements. My ears twitched to listen for the slightest noise. My nose waited for a foreign smell. But there was nothing. Again, severely disappointed. But looking back on it, I’m glad I didn’t see half of what I’ve seen now.

“Here there be dragons,” my uncle joked. I then prompted to ask what dragons were. My uncle told me they were like the monsters in the Bad Lands except they breathe fire and fly.

I don’t know why…but they always fascinated me. Something that can breathe fire. Something that looked like the monsters I knew. Something strange and mysterious. I then asked if the dragon bones were hung in the buildings with my monsters. I was told that dragons never existed. Dragons were my monsters.

It was my father who brought us back to the world. The world that had dragons. He shushed us and raised his knife. He motioned for my uncle to follow him and mother and I remained at the shore. Looking back across the water to Sanctuary seemed very strange. As if a mist had been lifted and I now got to see the whole world for what it truly was.

It was beautiful and frightening.

I looked back at the trees now behind us. It was my mother who was staring at the trees around us.

“What are you thinking, momma?” I asked. She stared back at me. “You thinking this place is a bad place? You thinking that Bad Lands are too dangerous for me? You think it’s an ugly place?”

My mother looked back at the woods and then over to me. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning. There was no clear expression on her face. She was simply…unsure.

“Come here,” she instructed me. I did as she asked. Slowly, my feet sticking to the muddy shore. Though the leather coverings were enough, they still get wet. I ignored my wet coverings and reached my mother’s side and took her hand. “The Bad Lands are very dangerous. Monsters do live in these lands. Huge, terrifying monsters. And then there are smaller, cunning monsters that hunt and think. But there is a great beauty here as well. A land is not labeled by what crawls upon it. It’s how it speaks to you that it is defined.”

“And what is it telling you, momma?” She took a deep breath as the wind whipped around her.

“It tells me that this land will house many things. There will be joy and sadness. There will be life and there will be death. But most importantly, it tells me that someday, John…this land will be yours.”

So, I pondered that thought. I looked around my future kingdom. I mean, it made sense. Someday my parents would be dead. Someday my uncle as well. Someday…I would be the last human being on the planet. And at that moment, I couldn’t wait.

The foliage began to rustle and both of our heads turned. We crouched down. My mother making sure to place herself between me and whatever threat remained allusive in the bushes. Our fears were relieved when my uncle and father broke through and had huge smiles on their faces. But my father wasn’t looking at my mother. No. He was looking at me.

“John…come see the world,” he said to me. I looked at my mother. She pushed me forward, a smile spreading out. I was curious but cautious. I already knew the world. Sanctuary was my world. What more is there to see? The monsters? I didn’t want to see but yet I did. I saw the Sirens. And those were simply flying creatures. After slowly walking towards my father and my mother right behind me, I reached the foliage he came from. He pushed more ferns and branches aside as we continued through the jungle. All the while I was just going over in my head as to what we were going to see. Maybe we were going to see the other world. My mother’s world. My father’s world. The alien world.

But that’s not the world I was shown. As we broke through the woods and looked at the clearing, my heart stopped.

-6-

“Is it ready yet?”

“Patience, John. I said it would happen today, didn’t I?” my mother reminded me. I looked back at the white orb in front of me.

“But when will it happen today?” I whined. My mother could clearly see that I was excited about it. And why shouldn’t I be?

Today was the day it was going to hatch.

Ever since my father showed us the world and the beauty that was there, we made trips out every day. The clearing revealed many large creatures with long snouts that walked on four legs. They were harmless and very peaceful. But they proved to be very protective of their young. My father called them Mother Grazers. He said he encountered grazers all over in the Bad Lands, but never grazers such as these. They were peaceful. And their sounds almost sounded like a song. A very low to high cry that filled your soul with longing and sadness but then turned cheerful and enlightening at the end. My mother decided we would care for them and gain the trust of these creatures. My father suggested using them for meat, but mother was very clear that we only would eat the ones that die naturally. Something about Mother Grazers took her away from here.

So, for the last three months, we’ve been coming and seeing the Grazers and caring for them. Gathering food, collecting materials to keep their eggs warm, repelling larger lizards that came to feed on eggs and scavenge the newborns, and caring for the newborns. But it was far from easy. The Mothers were very cautious of us. As they should be of any new creature that entered their grounds, but they were also curious. My mother explained that they had never seen people before. And therefore had no reason to run or be scared. And we proved to be very kind and gentle. They would put up with us, but were still very cautious of their babies.

But, there I was. Fat little cheeks pushed up towards my eyes as I laid in front of the cluster of eggs. My hands resting under my little fat cheeks, keeping my head looking straight at the ball of life. I didn’t want to miss this for the world. Especially since there wasn’t much else to miss about the world.

“Come on, momma. You know when it will happen, right?” I asked once more. My mother was not amused. She sat a little farther away, working on more leathers. I was growing. Somebody had to make clothes for me. And my mother was a pro. She even made water shoes using animal guts.

I never said that they were stylish.

Occasionally, she would take a break from her clothes and check on the eggs. Feeling them, covering them if they felt cold or taking some of the grass and leaves off. The mother grazer wasn’t too far away. Always keeping an eye on her nest as she ate and filled herself up. My mother didn’t do this with just the nest that I was obsessed over, but with every nest in the vicinity. And there had to be over a dozen nests pretty close to one another. There was never any fighting between the mothers. Some would care for nests that weren’t theirs. I guess that’s why my mother loved them so much. Because they were selfless, caring, and all about survival.

I don’t know what spoke to me about them…but I loved them. More than the Sirens. This was my world. And I didn’t want to share it with anyone, well except for my family. And that’s how it was always going to be. I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone…ever.

Then the egg moved.

I looked over at my mother. She was caring for another nest.

“Momma! Come over here!” I yelled. She knew what I was yelling about. That smile came out again and she began running over to the nest. She got down next to me and stared at the egg in front of our faces.

It moved again.

This time we both gasped. It was unexpected but it was a jerk. It wanted to come out.

“Can we help it?” I asked my mother. She shook her head.

“The most difficult things in this world is entering it. That little one has to come into this world on its own,” my mother said. I wasn’t as patient. I wanted to see the little baby. I wanted to help it out of its prison. But I knew my mother would probably scold me and/or ban me from my world. At least for a little while. My hopes began to grow to excitement as the cracks began to appear along the egg. It was going to burst from the egg at any moment.

The Mothers began howling. I didn’t understand why, but it broke my concentration. They seemed agitated. It was in the way they moved. It was in their breathing. Their entire body spelled it out for me.

Monsters were coming.

I had never seen any monsters before. They were always just something that I was told and I accepted as truth. I didn’t know what they looked like, if there were different kinds, or if they could be killed. They were a mystery, but not after that day. After that day, I knew exactly what these monsters were…

Thieves.

My father broke through the line of foliage and my uncle shortly thereafter, though my uncle stayed closer to the vegetation. Clearly keeping watch. My father approached me and my mother.

“Field trip is over. We need to get back to Sanctuary now,” my father said. My mother looked at him.

“What’s out there?” she asked.

“Watchers.”

“Watchers?”

“They are ruthless, bird-like creatures that hunt in packs and are very, very intelligent.” My father chimed in.

“Basically smart raptors from the movies, Ellie,” my uncle said. I didn’t even want to know what a raptor was or movies. Eventually, I was told that movies are stories told with pictures and sounds. It was a kind of play that appeared on the magic glass.

And raptors?

Apparently, they were just the alien world name for Watchers. My uncle pulled an arrow out and pulled back, ready to fire.

“I need you and Johnathan on the boat now,” my father said.

“But, what about the Grazers?” I asked. He brushed me aside and my uncle steadied his aim. My mother put a hand on my shoulder and began nudging me away. There was another cry from the Grazers as we saw movement further out. My mother turned to my father and brushed a hand down his face.

“Make sure you come back this time…and don’t lose anything else,” she said. My father smiled.

“I’ll drive them off. Don’t worry. They’re smart, but they’re small. They can’t get to us unless we let them. We’re smarter. They’re here for the Grazers not us.”

“I don’t want to lose any Grazers either,” my mother said. I couldn’t agree more. This wasn’t negotiable. The Grazers were almost part of the family. They trusted us now and we would defend them. I almost wished we could take them back to Sanctuary.

Then it dawned on me. We couldn’t take the big Grazers, but the little ones could definitely be taken with us. Mother kissed Father and then the men went off to fight. Leaving me and mother alone once more. But my world wasn’t bright anymore. There was a threat. I tugged on my mother and she looked down at me.

“Can’t we bring the eggs?” I asked. She looked at me and then back to the nests.

“We can’t bring them, John. I’m sorry but if we move them, they could die,” she said. She motioned me away from the nests and together the two of us made it back to the boats. But my mind was far from easy. Some time passed and we began to worry. We rarely had to wait this long for confirmation. This wasn’t the first time predators were sighted. Monsters were rare but they would get close and my father would come running and then we would get in the boat. And we would wait. But it was never too long. But it was long this time. The sun was beginning to set. Very soon, it would be dark. And we were never in the Bad Lands at night.

But the foliage began to move. Something was coming and in no time at all. We saw what it was. It was a Watcher. My mother crouched down in the boat and tried to push me from view but I had to see it.

It was green. Like a bright green with brown stripes and red on its tail. But this monster was somewhat beautiful. Covered in soft feathers and it looked warm. Its long snout covered in blood. It scratched behind its head with its foot. And that’s when I saw that this was a monster. Its claws on its feet were also covered in blood. It was twitching its head from side to side with short jerking motions. Its eyes told more of the story. Bright yellow and alert. It made weird chips and clicks as it slowly moved about. I don’t know if it saw us yet…but it soon did. It looked straight at us and hissed. Showing off its many pointy teeth. But my father began to shout our names and this creature cocked its head in the direction of the calls before running off on its two hind legs. Something that I didn’t notice until now. It was walking on two legs like us. And it had two smaller limbs that looked like arms. And its long tail was kept straight out as it ran off back into the woods. The last thing I saw was that red end on the tail.

My father’s cries brought me back. He called out once more before breaking through the foliage. My uncle appeared behind him.

“Are they gone?” my mother asked.

“They are for now. We kicked their asses,” my uncle said.

“Language,” my father said.

“I’ll show you language,” my uncle retorted. I looked up at my father.

“What about the Grazers?” I asked. He looked to my mother. I knew it wasn’t good.

“You need to come see this,” my father said. He turned and we followed back to the nesting grounds. I don’t know what I was expecting to see. But I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw.

There had to be at least four dead Mothers lying near the nests. Large gouges in their backs and necks and bellies. Pools of blood surrounding them. I walked through this land of carnage…and over to my nest.

There, in the center of the nest I was looking at just moments before, was an empty, bloody egg shell.

I don't know what was more impactful.

The fact that my world had just ended or the fact that a new life didn't even get a chance to live in this world.

I just stood there. Looking at the nest covered in blood.

"Not even one of them survived. We tried to divert them away from the nests, but the Thinkers were smart. They caught on to what we were doing," my father said.

"The bastards turned tail and took out the male grazers. After that, females. Then the infants. It was so fast. There had to be at least a dozen Watchers. And they weren't after us. If they were, we'd be dead too," my uncle said. Their words seemed distant. Almost like echoes. I was still focused on the dead egg shell. Then the words appeared in front of me. The voices rang in my ears. We can't bring them, John. I'm sorry but if we move them, they could die. Anger filled every muscle in my body. I turned to my mother. Rage etched into my face, tears trying to cool the fire burning within, to no avail.

"You...you said to leave them," I spoke to my mother in a voice so angry and so quiet. I know I scared her. Then I exploded. "YOU SAID TO LEAVE THEM! YOU ABANDONED THEM! YOU SAID THEY MIGHT DIE IF WE MOVE THEM BUT YOU DIDN'T THINK ABOUT IF WE LEFT THEM! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!"

And my voice drowned in the tears as I fell to the earth, into the nest, into the blood. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to end it right there. These babies seemed like my babies. And they were now dead. But were they really? They never truly lived.

"John..." my mother began. But I covered my ears and didn't hear anything except my sobs.

Next thing I knew...I was alone. No, my parents didn't abandon me there. Hardly. They just kept their distance.

Not for long though.

It was my father who came to me and told me it was time to go. I didn't move at first. Then he picked me up. At first, I fought him, then I fell limp. I wasn't going to fight. But I had nothing left to fight for.

Soon I was back on the boat and I can't recall that journey home. All I know is that it was different. Everything was different. The sky was now a blood red and pink with orange.

As if the sky mocked me.

When we arrived back at Sanctuary, I ran to the tree and climbed it once more. I was away. I was safe. I was alone. The moon began to rise and i began to fall. It had just dawned on me how very tired I was. And my yawning was a constant reminder. But I wasn't going back to the house. I didn't want to even begin thinking of what my mother would say. I didn't want to hear it. Those creatures would still be alive if we saved them. If we did what I said to do. I saw a shadow emerge from the house and I tried to make myself invisible. To no avail. I could tell from the long hair and slender body that my mother knew exactly where to find me.

"John? Can you come down?" she called up to me as she walked closer to the tree. To her tree.

"No! Go away!" I shouted back.

"John, I know you're upset but you have to listen to me-"

"Shut up!"

"John, please!"

"Shut up!"

"John, I'm sorry!"

Silence. She didn't break eye contact with me nor me with her. Then she blinked and looked away. I guess I won the stare-off.

"Baby, I'm sorry. I really am. You were right. We should've saved the babies...that's why I did," my mother said. She pulled a round, white orb from her pack and placed it on the ground in front of the tree.

I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked down at the egg and suddenly...I had hope again. There...in this egg...was my hope.

-7-

Her name was Hope.

I didn't know many names but I had hope that my little grazer would survive and live. And that's how he got his name. Eventually, we sent Hope to live with the other Grazers. Another tough time for me, but we ensured that the Grazers would be safe.

How?

Well, over the next five years we continued bringing eggs across to Sanctuary and we soon had about fifteen Mother Grazers making nests completely safe. And when they died...we used what we could and then buried what was left. But some we returned to the main land. We only kept enough to care for. We couldn’t house a very large population of these creatures forever. And we never ate them. We buried them, kept the skin for making clothes and such. But never ate these creatures.

Five years had passed, I was now ten years old and everything was at peace.

Then the dry season came.

Most dry seasons were not bad at all. Hardly anything as bad as this one. In fact, most were so bland that I can hardly remember them. Other than nothing growing and father not going out as often as he did before, there wasn't much to tell.

But my 10th dry season has to be the worst that I can recall. And the warnings were there.

“Well, we're fucked," my uncle said, looking out at the regressed ocean. It was still there…just not as abundant or close as before. It was hot out there, damn near impossible to be out there long without keeling over.

"Language," my mother retorted back. My uncle stuck out his tongue at my mother. I giggled.

"The kid's seen worse, Ellie. He's gonna hear worse too," my uncle returned to the fire in the center of the house.

"Any sign of him?" my mother asked. My uncle sighed as he sat down next to me and my mother.

"No sign of him. But he'll be back. It's not like he's gone very far," my uncle said.

"Forgive my less than optimistic approach, Ian. But it is horrid out there and the sun is relentless. We’re having trouble keeping cool in here," my mother said. And what was I doing? Just watching the argument. It was always interesting when these two gods got in an argument. They were never nasty, at least not that I ever saw. But they were very entertaining.

"Hey. If I say that he'll be back, he'll be back. It's Alan we're talking about. He's a tough son-of-a-bitch, that one."

Again, I laughed.

"Language," my mother retorted again. As if she only ever said that to my uncle. Dad cursed occasionally. Mom never did. And my uncle? It was almost every other word. Funny. I don't think I ever asked why cursing was bad or why it was called cursing. I think I just accepted it. And eventually I started using those words...but never in front of my mother. She would be...less than thrilled to say the least.

"We're running low on water again," my uncle said, looking at our makeshift water container. We mainly were using seawater, since we couldn’t find fresh water. We boiled it and strained it as best we could using shells and leaves, but it still had a salty aftertaste. Our containers were usually skulls from dead animals and pouches made from their internal organs. We would have to go down to the ocean and fill the pouches again. In the heat…it was wonderful. Mother stirred and rose to her feet.

"I can get it,” my uncle continued.

"No, I want you to go out there and look for my husband. John and I will gather water and check on the Grazers," my mother said. I looked at my mother. Why me? Then I looked at my uncle. He chuckled and turned to go outside.

"Enjoy the shade while you can, kid. You've just been drafted."

God, it was hot. Bet you'd never think it would be so hot on an island but it was fucking miserable. Even with our outfits that mother created. Which were nothing more than old skin from dead Grazers and feathers from killed Watchers, stitched together with seaweed fibers and basically any other plants we could find that didn't cause rashes. We just layer up and head out. It was my mother who created clothes for us. It's not like we had a very large wardrobe to choose from but we had about three or four outfits. Two dry seasons and two wet seasons. Only difference? One has long sleeves and the other has shorter ones.

Honestly, they didn't look too bad. But they weren't meant to be stylish. They were meant to keep us covered. And they did.

Luckily the stable was still somewhat cool. It was father's idea for the oncoming season. He thought that it would help the Mother Grazers keep cool. We just had to feed them and give them fresh water. Which was practically bone dry at this point. I reminded Mom that we’d need to fill up their bowl again. We used a hole and the leathers to keep the water in. It seemed to work. It was usually an easy task.

But not in times like these. When the dry season hits on Sanctuary, there's no food to be found at all.

And this wasn't a constant thing. Yeah, it got hot during dry seasons but it rarely got this bad...this year, however...I guess the Earth decided to mix things up. Like seriously, what the actual hell? We haven’t had a dry season that bad before nor since.

“John, are you paying attention?” my mother asked, hands full of twigs.

“Yeah, you want to reinforce the water holes for the Grazers so they don’t dehydrate,” I said, not really caring too much. “Why do bad things happen? If God’s a protector…why does he let bad things happen? Why does he send a harsh dry season? Why did Dad lose his arm? Why can’t everything be at peace?”

My mother. She didn’t stop what she was doing. She didn’t miss a beat. Her nose was runny and she wiped snot on her sleeve. She did her typical hairbrush from her face and looked up at me.

“Because God doesn’t work like that. He has plans. Everything happens for a reason,” she told me.

“Even you and Dad and Uncle Ian getting trapped in the Alien World?” I asked.

“Of course,” my mother said, returning to her sticks but a smile grew across her face. Even in the furry of the heat, I saw it as radiant as ever. Almost as bright as the sun. “Because that’s how you entered into my life. I’m not sure if you would’ve been born if we were still in the other world. Your dad was getting ready to go off somewhere for school and I was going someplace else. There was a chance that…we would’ve grown apart and then…then you wouldn’t be here right now. None of us would.”

Apparently, I trended on a sensitive subject. My mother’s smile faded just as quickly as it had appeared. That once radiant, warm feeling was now cold but just as impactful. She paused once more and looked off towards the horizon. Off towards the Bad Lands. Though, everything looked like a white blur beyond the shores of Sanctuary. My mother looked out that way for a long time, until I noticed her shaking.

“Mom,” I called. She didn’t respond. I called once more. She jumped and turned to me. “Shouldn’t we finish with the Grazers?”

“Yes. Sorry, baby. I was just…thinking,” she said. She never did tell me what she was thinking about. Nor what she was seeing.

All I saw was white.

The stable was much cooler than I thought. The sun was setting and mother was getting worried about the men. She stood at the entrance to the stable, bundled up in a Watcher feather blanket and eyes once again glued to the horizon. She was beginning to complain that she was feeling cold. I thought she was nuts.

“Easy now, Hope! Geez, you’ll rip my arm off!” I scolded my Grazer. She was big, her head alone was bigger than my torso. Her body was longer than my bed. She was absolutely beautiful and I loved her dearly. Except when it came to meals. She was violent about her food. Almost tearing my hands off just to give her plants. And she would never wait for the plants to hit the ground. No. She was picky about that. She’d be eating them from my hand. I’m surprised she never bite me. I was smiling and laughing. Just a boy and his Grazer. The happiest I’d been in a long time. But mother didn’t turn. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t even looking at me. Her back was to me. The only thing I saw was her hair being whipped around behind her like smoke escaping a room. The winds were picking up.

“Storm’s coming,” she said. But I knew that there would be no Sirens chasing this one. The only cries we heard through the entire storm…were the cries of the wind.

Soon, it was dark. Mother had been standing at the entrance of the house for what seemed like forever. I tried everything I could think of to get her to come in. Her nose was like a faucet. Her snifflings were getting worse. And she was developing a cough.

“Mamma…come inside,” I called to her. She didn’t answer. The storm played with her hair once more. I looked away and down into the embers of our little fire. “Mom…It’s too hot in here. Can we kill the fire?”

She didn’t move.

“Momma?”

Then my mother did something I was not expecting…she began to cry. I watched her begin to breakdown and fall to the ground. Slowly, I began to go closer.

“Momma…what is it?” I said.

“It’s your grandma and grandpa, John. Today’s their birthday,” she said, wiping the tear streams from her face, her lip still shaking. I looked at her.

My strong protector.

My mother who never seemed effected by these things…has finally crumbled.

And now…now I saw my mother in a new light. As if she was as young as me and was as scared as I usually was. I knelt down beside her and embraced that young girl. She held me tight as if she was clinging on for dear life.

“What do grandma and grandpa look like?” I asked. Completely unaware of what I was doing. I wasn’t helping. My mother cleared her throat.

“She…your grandmother…she looks a lot like me. Just a little older. And she loves to make food. All kinds of goodies,” my mother said.

“Like fish and meat?” I asked.

“No, sweeter things. Like cookies and cakes,” my mother said, her mood getting slightly better. She sniffled again and wiped more tears from her eyes.

“What are those?” I asked. My curiosity rising.

“They’re like…well…they’re like the sweetest fish you’ve ever had. But it takes like honey. You remember honey, right? Remember from the bees?”

“Yeah, Dad came home with all those painful bumps,” I said.

“Well, it’s like honey but so good. And cakes are like cookies but bigger and people have them usually on birthdays,” my mother said. She didn’t smile. But she wasn’t really crying.

“Do you think I can have a cake someday?” I asked. My mother broke out a smile and wiped the last of the tears away.

“Sure, baby. We’ll do that for you someday.”

That’s when we heard the shouting from the shore. It was my father and uncle, this time both calling for my mother. She sniffled again, threw the blanket over her and looked out to the shore.

Sure enough, they were there. Slowly trudging up to greet us…with nothing to eat in their hands.

“Stay here, John. I’ll be back,” she said. I stayed but I watched the whole thing from my spot. My mother slowly walked down to my father and then he put his arms around her and hugged her. Next, they talked. My mother lowered her head several times. My father looked away and rubbed his head. I knew what they were saying.

There was no food.

Then my father said something and my mother got furious. She got right in his face and started yelling. My father calmed her down and said something that made her fall into his arms weeping. My father comforted her and then kissed her.

It wasn’t too long before they returned to the house. My father looked down at me.

“Hey, John. I heard you were being helpful today,” my father said.

“I helped gather things and feed the Grazers,” I said.

“Sounds like you did a lot. And in the heat too,” my father returned. He was smiling through his black fur and a fresh glaze of sweat. “I…uh…I want to talk to you about the Grazers, John.”

My mother gave him a look as cold as ice.

“Don’t you tell him, Alan. Don’t you fucking do that to our son?” my mother never cursed before then. Never used that word. This was serious.

“Ellie…if it happens, he needs to know that-“

“No! He doesn’t need to know! Because it won’t happen. You’ll find something to eat. You always do,” my mother said. “Don’t even suggest it.”

“Ellie…Alan and I were both out there sitting like ducks in a hailstorm. There ain’t dick out there nowadays. I’m telling ya…these fuckers went South or wherever you go when God shits on you,” my uncle said. “Point is…there wasn’t a damn nut to be found let alone anything that walks around. Here’s the thing…if we keep going down this road…then that will be our only option…or we start taking pages out of the Donner party.”

Ok, now I had to ask.

“What’s the Don-“

“Nothing, son. My best friend Buck Donner had a party and ate all the cake and didn’t leave me any,” my father said.

“Yep. That’s the fucking Donner Party,” my uncle said with some laughs and giggles. My mother remained stoic.

“It’s not gonna happen so I don’t want you mentioning it,” my mother said. I began to put two and two together though. It was all so clear.

“We’re going to have to kill the Grazers, aren’t we?” I asked. My mother lowered her head. I wasn’t stupid. She saw that. But she gave my father a look that scared me. But my father returned the look…and approached me. He knelt down next to me, his face inches from my own.

“Only if we have to…I care more about feeding my family and making sure that you are all healthy and safe more than I do about the Grazers. If their sacrifice means our survival…then I have to do it,” Father finished. Mother walked outside of the house. And Uncle Ian sat there unsure what to say or do for once. But as I looked around the room…something dawned on me.

“You won’t kill Hope, will you? Hope won’t have to die, right?” I asked.

Silence. Only the wind outside replied.

The days to follow became longer and more depressing than the ones that came before. It was as if the world was preparing me for something. Something that I was too blind to see.

Much to my mother’s relief, my father never planned on outright killing the Grazers. Every day he took his boat and Uncle Ian went with him and the two traveled across the sea in search of food…but always arrived with nothing but a dead fish or maybe two if we were lucky. Nothing much bigger. And a fish can only be cut and shared so much before stomachs start growling.

We started to run out of water as well. Well, at least enough for all of us and the Grazers…not to mention that food was also diminishing.

About a week after my father suggested the idea…the first Grazer died.

I won't forget the first time it happened and what happened next. I was the one who found her...dead in the back on the stable. She was warm to the touch, yet cold. And she was beginning to stink. Had to be dead for some time at that point. I called my father over to check on her. He informed me that she had been dead not too long as she was still fresh.

We were at that point three days with nothing more than bits of fish in our stomachs. My father told me to leave. I refused. He barked at me to leave, that he didn't want me to see this.

"No...I want to see this. I don't ever want to forget this moment," was my answer. That's when the knife came out.

"I'll be gentle," he said. "And you can't tell your mother that you were in here. It's bad enough that we have to eat them...for her to learn that you watched this...it would kill her."

So he began. He started by dragging the animal outside the stable and cutting her neck. The pool of red was unmissable in the sandy ground around her. It was almost beautiful.

Then my father began slicing off limbs. The sound...almost like the chopping of wood, the twisting of tree limbs and the eventual snap of a branch. All sounded familiar...but not in this light. No, I got sick several times. But I endured. After my father striped what meat he could from the bones on the limbs...he began disemboweling.

He sliced the animal from the incision at the neck to the anus and opened her up. One by one, heart, stomach, lungs, and liver were all removed. Then the intestines. He piled them off to the side and looked over at me.

"We use what we can, son. God gives and God takes. Don't ever forget that," my father said through a face of blood. "Best get inside and take the meat. We're going to eat well tonight."

I picked up the skin bundle of meat and began towards our house. But I looked back at my father. His hands and face covered with blood. Like one of the monsters I saw so long ago.

"Dad?"

"Yes, John."

"Will we have to do this again?"

"I hope not, son. But chances are...we will have to do this again...very soon," my father said in a low voice. He then returned to his work and I dragged our dinner into the house. Leaving a trail of red behind me.

Days passed. Unfortunately, my father was right. We lost more of them. Almost every other day after the first one. For the first couple days my mother didn't eat. But my father said that they would've died for nothing if we let the meat go to waste. Eventually, my mother caved. My father always said the same thing before we ate any of the Grazer meat.

"God gives and God takes."

My mother and I went on a walk on one of the cooler days, though it was still hot as hell. Assuming hell is hot. I never got a straight answer on what hell is. My mother's coughing and sniffling got worse over the days that followed. She told me that we were going to do our part while Dad and Uncle Ian were out hunting. So we were searching the island for any sort of bulbs or roots that we could eat. I knew we weren’t going to find anything. And she knew that too. But, at least she could say that we tried. That’s the thing about Mom. She never gives up.

“Momma?”

“Yes, baby.”

“Are you mad at me?”

My mother turned and looked at me with that look on her face like ‘What do you mean’. I’ve seen it about a hundred times. I always asked the stupid questions.

“Why on Earth would I be mad at you, John?” she asked. I looked back at my bare patch of ground surrounded by sand. I stared at it for a good long time. The Earth looking just as dead as everything else around me. My voice started getting choked up.

“Because I ate Grazer meat,” I said. The tears were forming in the corner of my eyes. “I didn’t want to. I mean, I was hungry. And Dad didn’t find anything else. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m really sorry. I just…I just don’t want you to be mad at me. Ok, Mom?”

Silence.

“Mom?” I asked again. I looked up from the patch of Earth and wiped the tears from my eyes. There was still silence. I looked to where my mother was just moments before.

My mother was lying face down in the sand.

“Mom!” The tears began again. This time there was no wiping them away. “Momma! Please wake up!” I ran to her side and lifted her face off the ground. She was breathing. But she was very weak. I grabbed her arms and began dragging her towards the house. I couldn’t stop crying.

Strangely all I could picture was that patch of dead Earth in my head.

My father placed his hand against her forehead. He sighed and looked at my uncle.

“It’s gotta be the flu,” he said, cursing under his breath.

“Didn’t Indians make flu remedies for years?” Uncle said. For once I didn’t even ask about something. I don’t care what Indians are. I don’t care about cars or bikes or Foot or movies or Magic Wheels or striped leaves or any other bullshit from the Alien World.

My whole world was dying and she was laying right in front of me.

“Natives used plants that they knew about and made remedies out of that. We’re not giving my wife strange plants that could possibly kill her,” my father said.

“Alan, listen. Either we take a chance and give her possible medicine or we don’t and this thing kills her. First thing we need to do is keep the kid away from her as much as possible. We’ve had flu shots before so it won’t be as detrimental to us. But if the kid gets it, that’s pretty much a death sentence,” my uncle said. I only half heard what he was saying. My father’s lip started to shake. He looked away.

“Fuck this…I can’t do that to him,” he said. Ian looked at him then down to me.

“Come on, John. Let’s let your mother rest,” he said. He picked me up and I rose to my feet, slowly. I took one more look at my unconscious mother and then made it out back into the humid world around me.

How do you describe your mother dying?

Here’s a better question…how do you live with it? People don’t die. At least they didn’t before. My whole life the only things that ever died were Grazers, fish, Thinkers and other animals. Not people. And Mom? She was going to live forever. She even told me she would live to be a hundred. I said I was going to live to be a hundred and one. She said a hundred and two. And we kept going up until we reached two hundred and fifty then we both decided we would die at that age.

“Momma, you won’t leave me early will you?” I asked once before.

“Early? What do you mean?”

“I mean when God takes you away to sleep forever… he’s not gonna take you early, will he?”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m gonna be sticking around here for a good long while, baby. Don’t you worry. Your momma ain’t going anywhere.”

The truth is…you just do. No matter what happens. No matter if you get a chance to say something to her one last time…or if you never do, you live on. But it doesn’t mean it won’t be easy. The one who brought me into this world…and I have to say goodbye. My uncle saw me staring at the ground once more.

“Hey,” my uncle called. I didn’t respond. I just stood there sobbing like a three-year-old. “Hey!” I looked up that time.

“She’s gonna die…isn’t she?” I asked my uncle. He rubbed his head and then looked at me.

“Your mother is a strong woman. I’ve seen her get through a lot of shit. Hell, I’ve seen all of us get through a lot of shit. And here’s the thing about shit, son. It always will be shitty. You gotta learn that shit happens and learn from it. Your mom…she’ll be just fine. Because we’re gonna help her. Your dad is going to stay behind to see that she’s ok. We’re going to go searching for plants to use to help your mother,” my uncle said. I was a little more skeptical.

“But it’s the middle of the dry season. There’s no plants to be found anywhere,” I said. My uncle smiled at me.

“Shit, son. There’s a whole bunch of creatures running around in the Bad Lands who have to eat or they die. Your dad was in Scouts back home, he’ll be able to make some remedies…hopefully,” Uncle Ian said.

“And if we can’t find anything?” I asked. My uncle sighed.

“Well, then we’ll make her sweat this one out. We’ll make the house really, really hot and cover it up. She’ll smell but she’ll live. You got nothing to worry about, John. Now let’s get out there and find some plants.”

We walked down to the shore and got in the boat. I looked once more back to the house and then looked towards the Bad Lands. I was actually feeling hopeful for once. I actually smiled. And soon we were off. I was going to save my mother. I knew I would.

I was a fool for believing I could.

When we got back to Sanctuary, it was already dark. We actually found some plants that might work, well according to my uncle at least. The boat stopped at the shore and I jumped out and ran towards the house with as many plants as I could carry with me. That’s when I saw my father sitting outside the house, head buried in his arms. Something screamed inside me that it was over.

“Dad?” I asked. He looked up at me. His eyes puffy and red.

“John…where were you?” my father said in a calm but depressing voice. He wasn’t mad. He sounded broken. “You shouldn’t be out here after dark.”

“Dad? What’s going on? Is Mom awake?”

“No, John-“

“We got some plants to help her.”

“John, please-“

“And if that doesn’t work, we can try making the house hot so she-“

“John, she’s gone!”

My smile vanished. I first thought that I misheard him.

“Where did she go?” I asked, not fully understanding him.

“John…your mother is dead. She died not too long ago. I’m sorry, John…I’m sorry,” my father said. I looked at him.

“No…no you’re lying. Mom told me she wasn’t going to leave me. Not for a very long time. She’s gotta be sleeping. That’s all. Maybe she’s just sleeping. She’s not dead. She’s strong. She’s gonna wake up any second now!” I said. Half yelling. Half trying to convince myself. I ran into the house, my father followed closely behind.

“No, John, no! Don’t go in there!” my father shouted to me, but I had to see. I had to know if Mom was just kidding around. She would often do that. She would joke and play games and tricks. Maybe she wasn’t sick at all. Maybe she was just playing a trick. I raced through the open area and past the fire pit to where my mother was curled over in the darkness of the house, in a fetal position. As if she was trying to get warm. Though when I put my hand on her, she was warm. She still felt alive.

I nudged her. And shook her gently. Then a little more violently.

“Wake up, Momma. Wake up! Wake up, Momma!” I yelled until my father grabbed my arms and pulled me away.

“John…don’t…she’s gone,” my father said. He held me and we both cried for the longest time. My uncle threw the plants that we gathered into the fire then went outside and didn’t come in for a very long time.

I didn’t sleep that night. I just played with my Music Box. Just to hear the song play over and over again. Uncle Ian threw rocks into the ocean. And my father was digging. Soon, dawn approached. And it was surprisingly cool that day. I walked out to my father.

“What are you digging for, Dad?” I asked. My voice filled with grief and mourning. His eyes were still puffy and red as he looked at me.

“We’re going to bury your mother here,” my father said. I shook my head.

“No,” I told my father.

“John…we have to-“

“I know we have to…just not here. I want to bury her in one of the Mother Grazer nests. She helped build those nests…it’s where she would want to be. She can look after all the Mother Grazers that way,” I said. My father smiled…a very painful smile as the tears began for me and him both.

“Ok, we’ll bury her there.”

The nest hardly looked like a nest after we finished digging Mother’s grave. More like a giant hole in the Earth. Still, it looked as dead as that patch of Earth not a few days before. We carried her and wrapped her in one of the Grazer skins…then we gently lowered her into the hole. In no time at all, the grave was covered and she was buried. My father said some words. Mostly about how much he loved her and how much he would miss her. And how he wished it was him in the hole not her. My uncle was serious for once. He said that she was a strong woman, the strongest he’d ever known. And she was a loving mother. They both looked at me. All I said was what my father had said before.

“God gives and God takes.”

I also said I loved her. Then I just stood there. Looking at the grave marked by a rock with the name ELLIE LAUREN RILEY etched into it by my uncle. The two men went off and left me there with my mother. I walked over to the stable to check on the remaining Grazers. But there were no Grazers standing in the stable. There were only a few left…and they were all lying dead on the ground. Almost skeletons. And then I saw Hope lying on the ground too.

“And she wasn’t moving either…but I told Dad that we weren’t going to eat Hope. We could do so with the others. So, we buried Hope and tore down the stable. It’s hard to believe that one dry season did this much damage to us. But, we’re going to rebuild. We’ll get stronger and learn so that if this happens again, we’ll be ready. I miss you, Mom.”

I was staring at the grave, talking to my deceased mother. Trying to get some response from her. And I believed I did. My mind created her voice.

I miss you too, baby.

“Were you mad at me, Momma?”

John…I could never be mad at you. You are my sweet baby boy. Your father was doing the right thing.

“But…we had to eat Mother Grazers.”

It was for the better. I’m not mad.

“Can…can you tell me another story?”

Maybe another time, sweetie. Momma needs to rest.

“Momma…there isn’t any God, is there? He was supposed to protect you…but he didn’t.”

Silence. My mother didn’t respond.

I love you, John.

I cried once more.

“I love you too, Momma.”

-8-

Silence. That's the key. You have to be silent. If they hear so much as a twig snapping under your boot, then it’s over. You've already lost. The moment they know that you are there...they'll run. That's what prey do. They try to live one more day. Just one more. Until that day comes and they ask for one more. It's a never ending cycle. So, it’s best to surprise them. That's why you have to be silent.

That is...until you become the prey. Then you have to run.

But not today. Nothing was going to ruin today's hunt. I looked over to my uncle. He nodded to me and began moving slowly towards the prey. I smirked. Our prey had no fucking clue what was about to happen. I looked to my left and my father was moving through the trees, keeping an eye on the herd. We only needed one...but they wouldn't come down easily. The herd will try to protect one another. And we all knew that they could take down Watchers easily. They could do it if they knew we were here. The trick is making them think that we aren't here at all. I looked down at the bow in my hand. I couldn't believe that I was there. I couldn't believe that I was actually somewhat good. I had a pouch of arrows on my back and I felt different. I wasn't that little kid anymore asking for bedtime stories or wishing I had my music box. I haven't talked to Mom in a few years now.

I'd grown up and this is my world now.

I was leaner, taller, faster, stronger, and smarter than I was before. Everything felt different. My voice even changed. My father gave my changes some weird, fancy name. My uncle joked about it. But here's the thing...I was different. At least by age. I was fifteen now. And this was my coming of age ritual. This was the time for me to prove that I was a man.

It was time to hunt.

The first great beast must've sensed that there was something out there. It raised its ornate head and looked around. From the battle scars on its face and the old look about it, it was pretty obvious who this was.

Alpha.

He was going to protect his herd no matter the cost. And the young ones in the center would be the most protected. But we're not after the young. We're after him. My father's words echoed through my mind.

"Stay low. As low as you can. Piercers are very nasty. If it finds you, it won't stop charging until you're dead. It will drive its horn through your chest."

And Alpha is the worse of the worse. He groaned loudly and the herd fell back slightly.

Damn. How did he see us?

That's when I saw the first arrow fly through the air and hit the Alpha Piercer in the front right shoulder. It yelled in pain and then grunted. The rest of the herd began talking to one another and began surrounding the younger members in a circle. Their frilled and pointed faces sticking out towards any predator. It was a way of saying back off.

Message received.

Trust me, you don't want to piss off a defensive Piercer. First off, they are taller than anyone in my family including me. Secondly, they are longer than our boat and it can hold over four people. And lastly, Piercers got their name because that's all they know how to do. They run into things with their heads, which have between one and three long horns on them, and don't stop until they are satisfied. Usually, that thing is no longer moving. They even fight amongst each other. Today, these Piercers had only one horn but their head frill had several smaller horns going around it. Only one large horn just over its beaked mouth. They were cool to look at. But my days of being awestruck at these creatures were over.

I still loved them. But I loved to eat them more. Is that wrong to say? I mean…it’s the truth though. Our menu wasn’t that extravagant, to be honest. We had bulbs…which were basically dirt bubbles that you chewed on. There were roots…see the bulbs for that one. Fish was good when you didn’t have to pick bones out of your teeth. Not much in the way of sweets. Except for honey. That was the shit. Nothing quite like honey. There were some other plants and things…but we just didn’t know what they are. So, we didn’t risk it. Better safe than sorry.

But the standout food that made everything else taste like shit…was meat. Just the smells of a fresh kill over a new fire makes my mouth water. Piercer, Grazers, hell…we even had Watcher once! They were all good! Better than anything else I’ve had. We literally were putting our lives on the line for the sake of some good food. Because…we all loved eating meat.

I saw my father motion for me and my uncle to regroup. We did just that. Slowly, I didn’t want to startle them. Even more so than they already were. Alpha was still pissed. He was walking all around looking for something to charge at. All he had to do was see one of us and then we’d be flatter than Grazer skin. I made it through the foliage, bow still in my hand and arrow still in place. You didn’t have to even look at me to know how pissed I was that I didn’t even get to fire. But, I knew it was for the best. My father motioned for me to get closer. I did.

“What the hell are you doing out there?” he asked.

“Wondering how the herd’s reacting to getting shot in the ass by an arrow for one,” my uncle whispered back to my father. “And keep your voice down or that Alpha will be down here and that’ll be the end of our story.” My father adjusted his tone and volume.

“Look, we have to play this one smart. We’re hungry. We’re tired. And these guys are dangerous. We fuck up and we’re dead. These aren’t Grazers. Piercers are fierce and they don’t take shit from anyone. Alpha’s all riled up, so we’re going to have to wait until he calms down…then we play it smart,” my father said. Uncle Ian shook his head.

“Fuck that, Alan. Look, that bastard busted up our camp the other day. Practically killed us too and you want us to surprise attack this son-of-a-bitch? Fuck that. We go in with our arrows and our spears and we kill this mother fucker until he’s lying there in a pool of his own blood. The herd will disperse when Alpha goes down,” my uncle said.

“And if they don’t?” my father crossed his arms. He got serious but calm. “Look, Ian. I care about you. I have to protect you and John. I’m not losing anyone else. And we both have enough battle scars. Last thing we need is one of us flattened like a pancake because we got careless. These things are smart and they battle predators every day they live. We just need to be smarter.”

“Well, why don’t we send in the kid?” my uncle asked. Actually, it wasn’t a bad idea, Dad. Why not let me prove myself?

“My son hasn’t hunted Grazers by himself let alone Piercers. He’s not ready yet. He’ll get a chance to prove himself but now is not the time,” he said. I guess I couldn’t be mad by that answer. He was right. I have never hunted any animal before. And he’s been talking to me for a few days about proving myself as a hunter and a man. A coming to age ceremony. I’m fifteen and I’ll be sixteen in a few days. This is how I prove myself that I’m ready. But, my father is right. First I need practice.

“So, what’s the plan, then?” my uncle asked, just waiting for a battle plan.

“We wait. Piercers are diurnal. They’ll fall asleep not too long after dark. Then we scare them and take out Alpha and whatever other males stay to fight. We do it smart and, yes, surprise attack them. Then they won’t know what hit them and we all walk away safe and in one piece. Until then, we’ll wait. We’re not starving. We’ll catch some fish and bring it back to camp,” my father said.

“We’re not going back home again?” I asked. My father sighed and looked away.

“Let’s get to it, gents. Might want to get some rest before tonight. It could be a long one.”

And this has been my life for the past five years. We are rarely back at Sanctuary. I don’t think Dad likes it there. Too much pain. But, it’s like Uncle said once. ‘Home is where the hurt is’.

I missed my bed. Instead, we just huddled around a fire covered in mud if we could find it, sometimes we just used our own feces. Ringing any bells yet? That’s right. We’re almost caught up.

It’s weird…looking back at the days from before. Looking back and seeing how I got where I am. How my memories fade and yet help shape who I am. I’m not the same man I was before today. And I’m not the same one before I started remembering all this shit.

So, my world died. Big whoop. It’s still alive to me. Everything’s thriving. I’m surviving. For all I know, my uncle just probably made that shit up. He probably made a lot of shit up.

The fire’s starting to die. Better stoke it while there’s something left to stoke. It’s weird. Out here all alone. No one left to protect me but me. No one here to talk to but myself. No company. No music boxes. No mothers. No fathers. No uncles. No Grazers. No Piercers. Maybe a Watcher is out there waiting and looking. But how the hell would I know? The moral of this whole inner dialogue thing is…Happy fucking Birthday, John.

Should I even tell you how my father died?

Well, I’ll keep it short, how’s that.

That night, we ate whatever fish we could find. Which wasn’t a lot but enough to hold us over. Uncle Ian watched over the herd while we waited until big Alpha fell asleep. But my father finished his fish and looked over at me. That big black fur of a beard hiding that smile.

“You’ve grown up, haven’t you?” my father said.

“I guess so. Dad, I’ve been growing my whole life,” I said.

“I haven’t really noticed,” my father said bashfully. Anger started to well up inside me again.

“Maybe you would’ve if you spent more time with me and Mom than you did hunting,” I said. I wasn’t ashamed of what I said.

Johnathan, you apologize to your father, my mother’s voice echoed through my head. I tried to convince myself that she wasn’t really there. That was disrespectful, John.

“Maybe I didn’t do everything I could to protect you both…but I’m trying now.”

“It’s a little late now. It’s kinda cheating when there’s only me and Uncle left, isn’t it.”

“John…I loved your mother more than you’ll ever know. She was the love of my life and I miss her every damn day. But then I look at you…you are my son. My only son. I look at you and I see your mother very much in you. And someday…I will be gone. Uncle Ian too. We’ll both be gone. And if there’s any chance that you’ll live…then I have to take it. Maybe someday we can all go home…I’d want that. Or…maybe someday only you will go home.”

“You mean Sanctuary?” I asked my father inquisitively. But he just shook his head.

“No, son. Not Sanctuary. Listen, there’s something you should know. When we arrived here, we came through a-“

“Alan! Over here, now!” my uncle said, half shouting, half whispering. My father sighed and got up. He threw his fish bones into the fish. He looked down at me.

“We’ll finish this talk later, son,” my father said. He then walked over to Ian. The two looked into the distance at the herd of Piercers down below. The two men huddled and looked out towards the darkness. My father whistled for me to join them. So, I brushed off whatever was on me and walked over to join the men.

“We’ve got trouble, John. Our target’s being a little paranoid and isn’t falling asleep. If he keeps this up, we’ll have waited for nothing,” my father said.

“Now, we should do what I said before. We’ll send the kid in. He’s good with a bow, Alan. He knows what he’s doing. And he’s small. He’ll be able to sneak in without a problem and take down the Alpha,” my uncle said. I was starting to agree with him. My father sighed.

“Fine. But we do this my way.”

So, there I was. Not too long after that. I had my bow in my hand and an arrow graced against the bowstring. I was ready. I still had very little faith that this would work. But, yet I was excited. I was ready to earn my title and place. I was ready for my father to see me as the man I was becoming.

I was ready. And I even talked to my mother.

“Do you think I have a chance?”

I think your father was foolish to send you out. But I believe you’re strong, John.

“Strong enough to kill an Alpha Piercer?”

Stronger than that, my sweet boy.

I knew it was all in my head…but I needed to hear her voice. To convince me that I could do it.

Even if it was just me convincing myself.

What am I saying…I know it was me just convincing myself. But it helps. You got any other suggestions, you let me know.

Speaking of things knowing about me, Alpha began to move a little more sporadic as I got closer. His head swept from side to side. He was nervous. He knew he was being hunted. His breathing became more rushed and heavy. He even roared out to the others. Making loud groans and honks.

He was warning the others.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. That’s not fair. How the hell did he see me? There’s absolutely no way that he saw me. I was quite. I was slow. I was almost nonexistent. And the damn thing saw me? I looked up at my father still perched with my uncle on the rocky ledge not too far away. I shrugged.

Now what?

But I saw him motion for me to move back. Or at least I thought that’s what he said. But how the hell could I have known? It wasn’t like he was shouting for me to fall back. He could be fanning himself.

Yeah…my father could be fanning himself. All I knew was that between me and my vision of safety, which didn’t look so safe regardless, was a monstrous horned Alpha male Piercer and about a dozen or so others that were freaking out. So, I did the only logical thing I could think of.

I ran.

I bolted straight up, bow still firmly in my hand, and I began running back towards the trees. I didn’t even look back up to my father and uncle. I couldn’t not until I was safe. My knees were sore from squatting not too long ago. My hand was going nub from holding my bow. My muscles ached but I kept going. Did I mention I was hungry too?

And then ol’ Alpha really roared.

It was the loudest I heard him groan. And that’s when I stopped and looked. Alpha wasn’t going crazy because of me. He was going crazy for the monster that was on its back now digging its claw deep.

Shit. We aren’t alone.

“JOHN! RUN!” my father yelled down to me.

This time I knew what he was saying. But I was too mesmerized by this creature to even move. It looked like a Watcher…but it was different. Darker. Bigger claws and…more claws? It had claws on its hands too? This wasn’t a Watcher. This was something different. But Alpha didn’t stop screaming and groaning. And the other Piercers were dispersing. And I began to see why. This new kind of Watcher…he didn’t come alone. He brought his friends…at least I think they were his friends. There had to be a total of eight of these feathered creatures, including the one on Alpha’s back. Five of them were the same color as the other one, jet black all over with red feathered crests and a red end on its tail. The other three were brown and white, dark brown like the barks of the trees and the white patterned throughout to make them nearly invisible through the foliage. But these guys were perched up in a tree. Cleaning their feet, it looked like. Or maybe they all were cleaning themselves. Licking their claws.

Guess we’ll call them Cleaners. No? Ok I’ll work on it. Then one of the black ones looked straight at me and made a clicking noise. That’s when the three that were in the trees swooped down…using their arms? Almost like wings…and were gliding down from the trees. These were two entirely different animals…yet the black ones seemed more dominant. They weren’t slow either. They were like the Sirens. Quick and coordinated. Acrobatic…not so much. But they were as fast as lightning and they were on the back of Alpha in a matter of seconds. Each stabbing and slashing the great giant. Until the Alpha fell. Too weak to move its head. Slowly, slowly dying as these new predators began to tear open its entrails and expose them to the world. The animal was still very much alive as these monsters began eating it.

The one black one that saw me…didn’t take its eyes off me. We just stood there. Almost like it was saying ‘Look at what I can do, human! Look what we can do! Next time…next time this will be you.’

An arrow whizzed by head and landed straight into the eye of the monster I was looking at. It howled in pain and tore the arrow from its pupil. A fresh red ooze running down its snout. It was pissed.

“Ian! You take John back to the boats at once, you hear me?” my father shouted, raising his knife.

“Come on! I don’t get a good job on the arrow or anything, Alan?” my uncle joked as he steadied another arrow onto his bow. “I mean, if that isn’t payback…I don’t know what is.”

My father ran into the herd of rampaging Piercers and deadly new foes…armed with only a knife.

“Alan! What the hell, bro? We need to find another way to do this!” my uncle yelled after him.

“Just get my son out of here, god damn it!” my father yelled. I ran to try and help. My uncle held me back. What the hell was he doing? A one armed man can’t fight these ugly things.

“What’s he doing?” I asked.

“Buying us time. Now let’s go!” my uncle yelled and grabbed my wrist. We began running. Running into the night. Running away from my father. Running from danger. I don’t know what it was we were running from or to…we were just running.

It wasn’t too long before we reached the shore. Our little make shift boat still tethered to the rock just like it was before. It felt like weeks. But it was probably no more than three days. Hardly as long as I thought it was. I can be a little dramatic sometimes.

My uncle cut the line and we made off. Of course I was waiting for my father to break through the foliage at any moment…

Any moment…

And that moment never came…

I turned to my uncle. Noticed that he was prepping the boat for departure.

“What are you doing? We have to wait for Dad. We can’t-“

“The only thing we’re waiting for is a good current to take us out. My brother knows what he is doing…and he knows those things all too well.”

“What were they? You said something about payback?” I asked. My uncle motioned to the leafy eye patch he had on since before I was born. I had never seen underneath it…until that night.

“We called them Pyros. Pyroraptor I believe was the actual term. We were young and the names are supposed to sound corny. You’d probably name them something like Burners. Those are the black ones. The brown ones…we didn’t see those before. So, you can call them Gliders or whatever. Harpies. Slashers. Biters. Feathered Freaks. Whatever the fuck you want, kid. But Pyros…those fuckers took my eye. Guess I’ve been waiting eighteen fucking years to repay the favor. Lucky shot honestly. Don’t even know if it was the same fucker or not…but the damage is done,” my uncle said. Soon, a current found us and took us out. My uncle grabbed one of our oars, which was basically a giant stick, and I grabbed the other. Together we began rowing back to our Sanctuary.

My eyes and mind were still focused on that bit of foliage that separated the beach from the jungle. And then I looked up. Our fire must’ve gone out. Because the skies were clear. Not a smoke trail at all.

We got back to Sanctuary a little before dawn and my uncle tied down the boat. I looked back towards the Bad Lands. I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for. But I just stared out into the dawn. A new day was coming. And I wasn’t ready for what it would bring. My uncle walked slowly up towards the house.

“When’s Dad getting back?” I asked. My uncle didn’t answer. He just kept walking. “What do we do when he gets back?”

“Kid…not now,” my uncle said.

“But we need to be ready-“

“Look, you can stay up and wait for him to come back. Me? I’m going to sleep. So, don’t bother me unless he’s walking up the shore. In fact, don’t bother me even then.”

So, I did as my uncle instructed. I waited.

I found a little dune on the beach and sat there…waiting for anything to come my way. I kept my eyes glued on the horizon. As the sun began to rise, my back began to burn. I decided it would be best to get out of the sun and head to some shade.

I decided to go to Mom’s tree…it was just about as bare as it was when my music box broke. It was dead and dying…and I was using the skeleton as shade. Still, I kept my eyes glued to the sea. Soon, the sun began to set and the day turned to twilight. The temperature was getting cooler. My uncle still didn’t stir. And my father was still nowhere to be seen. So, I went in after my uncle. We had to do something. We had to go find my father. I was getting worried. More than worried…I was afraid.

I pushed back the skin covering that was basically our door and made my way inside.

“Is he back?” I heard a disgruntled voice call to me.

“No…he’s not back yet,” I said. Sorrow heavy on my voice. “Maybe we should go back. It’s been almost an entire day. He should be making his way back by now. Or at the very least, made a fire to tell us he’s still out there. We could see a fire from here.”

“We’re not going after him, kid.”

“Why not?” My uncle sat up straight and looked me dead in the eyes.

“Because there’s nothing to go after for. We ain’t gonna find him. The poor bastard’s been ripped to shreds or something like that. Those Pyros…they’ll not just eat ya…they’ll fucking keep you alive to keep you tasting fresh. They’re smart little bastards. Not much bigger than dogs, though.”

“What’s a-“

“Save it. I’m not your fucking dictionary. I don’t need to tell you shit and I sure as shit don’t need to keep babying you. You’re my nephew but you ain’t my son. Or my brother. So, kindly leave me the fuck alone!” my uncle yelled. He kicked something, probably his weapons. I didn’t care. I just listened and got out of there.

I just…accepted the fact that I was alone. I began towards the door.

“And keep your wailing down. You wanna cry? Fine. But do it where I can’t hear it. Understand?”

I bolted from the door and walked into the darkness. I was crying. But I wasn’t going to let my dick of an uncle see that he won. I guess I ran to the only person I had left to count on.

My mother.

It was getting dark. Darker than I thought it would. But I made it to my mother’s gravesite. The stone was still there. Still with her name etched on it. We later added a few words.

BELOVED MOTHER, WIFE, AND SISTER. SHE WILL BE MISSED.

John…sweetie, is everything ok? My mother’s voice was stronger and louder than ever before. Yet, she was there. Waiting for my response.

“Everything’s fine…I guess,” I said.

I know when you are lying. I sighed.

“It’s about Dad…I think he’s gone, Mom. I think he’s gone for good this time.”

He’s never really gone, John.

“He’s dead…and he’s never coming back.

John, I want you to close your eyes.

I did.

Now, I want you to imagine that you are in the tallest tree on the island, can you do that? Are you in the tree?

Tears streaming down my face…I nodded.

How high can you climb, John? Can you reach the top? Can you touch the sky? Can you see across the sea?

I was in the tree again. I was looking out across the water. I was looking across to the Bad Lands. I had to. I had to open my eyes.

What do you see, John?

“Smoke…I see smoke, Mom,” I said. And sure enough, there across the Bad Lands, was a thin line of smoke rising from the tree line.

Go, John, chase your storm. This time it was my father’s voice calling to me. Echoing through time. I rose from the grave and looked once again towards the smoke. I then raced down the shore and into the boat. I managed to grab my bow and a few arrows and my knife didn’t leave my side. I cut the rope and pushed off. Away from Sanctuary. Away from all of it. And towards my future.

As for the rest of the story, I arrived on shore. Made it back to the Piercer herd. Found the carnage and the blood everywhere. No sign of any Pyros. But I made it back to our camp from the night before. A noise made me jump so I decided to try the mud trick again. Only there was no more mud to use.

Yep. You called it. It was perhaps the grossest thing I’ve ever done. Rubbing my crap all over my body was not fun. But I knew that the predators would think twice. I started a fire and stared into it.

And there we go! All caught up.

I was tired. Really tired. But I had to stay up. So, that’s when I relived my whole childhood and what led me to this moment.

And yeah…my world died.

Fuck my uncle. He probably made that shit up.

My world is very much alive and I don’t know or care for any other world. My world isn’t perfect. It’s pretty much a living hell.

But it was my world and I was happy to be alive in it.

-9-

I fell asleep. How the hell did I fall asleep?

Perhaps nearly missing two nights sleep would do it. But I fell asleep. I’m lucky I’m alive to see the sun blaring into my eyes.

It’s morning?

Well, I guess I survived the night on my own. With no incidents to report. Just another beautiful day in paradise.

It's hard to accept that I'm all alone. It's not something that I'm all too familiar with but what can I do?

Go back to my dick of an uncle and put up with his bullshit? I don't think so. My only goal is to find my father. I know he's alive out here somewhere.

Somewhere...

The foliage rustled beside me. I don't think I was ready. I groagingly grabbed my bow and pull an arrow from my pouch and loaded it. The bush rustled again.

Come on, fucker.

But it wasn't a Watcher that came through the foliage. And it wasn't that new monster...but it was a monster.

It was my uncle. I didn't lower the bow. I kept it trained right on his chest. I didn't want to see him. He knew that. He had his hands high into the air and he moved slowly from the surrounding greens.

"You wanna lower that so we can talk?" he asked. I didn't lower. I still kept the arrow pulled back and ready to fire. Try me.

"How did you find me?" I asked. He laughed.

"Kid, come on. I'm a lot of things but I ain't stupid. I woke up shortly after our little spat to come find you and talk...but I noticed you werent here. And the boat was gone. Good thing we have two, right?" my uncle laughed again. I was silent and stern. Not even a quiver of laughter.

"Too bad we didn't take two boats the first time out, huh?" I asked. My uncle nodded.

"Look, John. You have every right to be mad at me but some of the shit I said was actually spot on," my uncle said.

"Get out," I said. Like my uncle could get out. Like we were back in the house and he could escape at any moment. But I didn't care. "GET THE FUCK OUT! LEAVE!"

My uncle stayed where he was.

"John...listen-"

"NO! I LISTENED ENOUGH YESTERDAY! FUCK YOU! GO AWAY!"

"You think you can survive on your own out here? Shit...you're covered in shit!" my uncle started yelling. I pulled back on the arrow. One more word, jackass. One more.

Silence.

He lowered his hands. I still didn't lower my bow.

"I'm not leaving, John. You'll have to shoot me. I said some shit yesterday...some really stupid shit. But I'm here now. I traveled all the way here to bring you back home. I'm going to keep you safe. You're my blood. And I'm sorry...I'm really sorry. I love you, kid. You're the only family I have left. So, if you're not coming back...then you'll have to shoot me. Because I'm not leaving without you. And yeah...some of the shit I said was right. But listen to what I'm saying now. I'm here."

I lowered the bow slightly.

"You betrayed me. You told me that I was nothing. Basically you were saying that I didn't matter and i wasn't your problem," I said.

"Yeah. I also just lost my fucking brother...cut me some slack."

"And I just lost my father."

More silence. I raised my bow again.

"Yeah...I know that. I've never had a fucking kid before. I'm still learning how to deal with this shit." my uncle sighed. "Why are you out here anyway?"

"I saw smoke."

"You saw smoke?"

"Yeah. I thought...I thought it was Dad," I said. My uncle sat down on the ground.

"And the shit?"

"We're out of mud," I said, lowering the bow completely. He began laughing slightly. Then I joined in. We sounded like a bunch of hooligans laughing in the woods. Our laughter soon died down.

“Look, John…I’m really sorry about yesterday,” said my uncle. “I…I’m dealing with a lot of shit…no pun intended.”

My uncle chuckled. Then I chuckled. The land became silent again not too long after the sudden laughter. I looked up to the sky. It wasn’t even noon. Of course it wasn’t. So, I rubbed my head. It itched. Soon, the rubbing became scratching. When’s the last time I took a bath? God…I wish I knew. I looked back to my uncle.

“I get it. It’s a difficult time for both of us. But I can’t go back. I have to find what I came out here for,” I said.

“And what did you come out here for?” my uncle inquired. I guess he was looking to be convinced. Maybe he was trying to get me to convince myself too. Because after he asked that I began asking myself the same thing. Why the hell was I out here in the Bad Lands covered in my own crap? What’s the point? To follow a cloud of smoke? To find my father? Did I really want to find my father? Or what might be left of him?

“To chase my storm,” I said to my uncle. Tears welling in my eyes. He saw this and approached me. Arms extended. I halted him.

“You wanna hug this?” I said, gesturing to my shit covered clothes.

“You piss on them too?” he asked. I nodded. He hesitated but then rushed in and embraced me.

“That’s my nephew.”

Uncle and I found a stream nearby where we cleaned up and caught a few fish, because we were both starving. We went back to our camp and cooked up our meal. By this point, it was definitely high afternoon. Probably getting closer to late afternoon. I washed my clothes as best that I could. Tried not to think about Mom but…well what can I say? She did a damn good job at it.

I was chewing on the remnants of my fish when my uncle asked me another question.

“So, what’s the plan?” he said. I guess it caught me a little off guard.

“We follow that smoke cloud,” I said.

“What smoke cloud?” my uncle said. I scanned the skies. I turned my head all around. Looked for the slightest change in color. But…

There was no more smoke cloud.

“Shit!” I exclaimed.

“Now what, kid?” my uncle asked. I closed my eyes and tried to remember where it was. It was north. North of the camp. Not too far.

“We move forward. It was up north. Not too far from here,” I said.

“Could you smell the smoke?” my uncle asked.

“No.”

Could you see any flames or embers?”

“No.”

“Then it’s further than you thought. We might make it there before dark,” my uncle said.

“You’re ok with going?” I asked.

“I think it’s foolish. But I know why you want to go…and to tell you the truth…I want to know the answer too. So, in memory of my brother and your father, we’re going to follow the storm.”

We began to get ready almost immediately. We both grabbed our bows and our arrows. My knife never leaves my side, I reminded myself. That’s when I turned and looked down from the ledge where the herd was. Where they still were. The bodies, three in total, almost covered in red. Large gashes all over. Bones sticking out to the elements. And there was old Alpha, ribs to the sky, eyes as white as bone. There wasn’t much left of any of them. These Pyros, as uncle calls them, they did there damage. I knew one thing. I don’t want to encounter them again. These monsters are deadly.

But…why didn’t it kill me? It saw me. It knew right where I was and yet it didn’t attack. It just stood there and watched me. Then my uncle took its eye. I still can’t get over that.

Then my father charged in and…well…

Wait…

He wasn’t down there.

His body wasn’t down there at all.

“That proves it!” I exclaimed, turning to my uncle, who was polishing off the last of the fish.

“Proves what?” he asked through a mouthful of fish.

“That! Look! He’s not down there! His body isn’t there!” I was too excited to calm down or even make sense. But I think my uncle understood what I was talking about. I mean, there was only one other “he” in the world. At least there used to be. Now there’s only two “he”s in the entire world. And not even one she anymore. My uncle peered down the ledge.

“Look, kid. Just because his body isn’t down there…doesn’t mean shit. For all we know the Pyros took him back to their nest. Or maybe he died someplace else,” my uncle tried to qualm my claims. But it wasn’t going to work. “We can follow the trail back…but for what? To run in to the same bastards we encountered before? No. We just barely escaped and your dad…well…he wasn’t as lucky. What can you expect from a one-armed man against a pack of deadly fucks?”

He was right. I hate when my uncle is right. Because I’ll never hear the end of it. So, it’s best not to admit it.

“Then, we’ll head towards the smoke,” I said. Kinda depressed. I felt defeated.

“We just need to swing back to the boat. I need to grab a few things. Sounds like we’re gonna be out here a while again. I’m gonna need a few things.”

I can’t believe we were back at the boat and we were grabbing bulbs and roots. And leathers. What the actual hell?

“Do you realize that we’re going into the jungle? Not back to the house,” I said condescendingly. He gave me a weird look and continued putting things in an empty pouch.

“Hey, the further we go into the jungle, the less fish we’re going to find. It’s a whole different world, little man,” my uncle said, stuffing more roots into his pouch and slinging it over his shoulder.

“Little? You’re not even that much taller than me!” I exclaimed. He chuckled.

“And don’t you forget it, little man.”

My gaze turned towards the sea. It was then I saw something…alien. I couldn’t even begin to describe it. It kinda looked like a fin of some sort. But it wasn’t a fish.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing towards the strange, black and yellow colored fin.

“Dunno,” my uncle said as he craned to look at the object.

“You don’t know?” I asked, looking back at him.

“Hey, smart-ass. I don’t the name of every fucker that crawls, swims, and flies. This one is new to me. Kinda looks like a sailboat.”

“A sailboat?”

“Yeah. It’s kinda like our boat but back in my world they use a cloth or something to catch the wind to help propel it across the water.”

“So, it’s a sailboat?”

“Nah…this is something else. Some sort of creature. And it’s big. Almost as long as a Piercer. Best to stay clear of it.”

So, we finished with the boat and the mysterious living sailboat and headed back into the jungle just as the sailboat disappeared under the waves.

The other thing they don’t tell you about the jungle…is the bugs. Now the leathers didn’t seem so stupid. My uncle looked almost like a walking Grazer but at least the bugs couldn’t get to him. I was swatting and waving my hands around like crazy.

“You didn’t happen to bring extra leathers, did ya?” I asked. My uncle, who was walking in front of me, turned to face me, smiled, and shook his head. I rolled my eyes and swatted a mosquito biting my skin. Kinda felt sorry for it…but then another bit me and that pity turned to rage. I felt almost like a god smiting the rebellious minions that turned against me. Squishing them between my fingers, then wiping the bug and whatever blood off my arms. “How much farther?”

“You tell me! This was your little journey,” my uncle said.

“I know. But it seems like it’s taking longer than I thought it would. And it’s getting dark,” I said. My uncle nodded.

“Yeah. We’re pushing more west,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because we’re getting too close to the dome. And I’d rather not take us in that close.”

The dome?

What the hell is a dome?

-10-

I froze.

Then my uncle turned to face me. He knew he messed up. He knew he had some explaining to do.

“What dome?” I asked. Not a quiver in my voice. A little bit of threat in there.

“Nothing. I just misspoke.”

“No. You said dome.”

My uncle grew silent and just looked at me.

“No I didn’t,” he finally replied.

“Look! Don’t bullshit me! You said dome! What dome? You mean the doorway? The door from our world to the alien world?” I asked. He dropped his things. “Why are we going away from it?”

He began to approach me. I backed away. I felt like there was a secret that I didn’t know about and it was just beyond my sight. I felt betrayed.

“John! Don’t act like a fucking bitch! We didn’t tell you because you had no reason to know about it!” my uncle started getting loud and defensive.

“Bullshit! Clearly I do have a reason because we’re getting too close to it,” I said.

“We were going to tell you someday. But your parents and I just didn’t know how or when to tell you.”

“It sounds like you planned it out perfectly. ‘Hey, nephew. Let me just casually mention it while we’re trying to avoid it. And then let me lie about it some more.’ Yeah, great fucking plan!”

“Look! I forgot you didn’t know about it. Your dad and I. We would often keep tabs on where it is. And I forgot. Ok? I mean, it’s not a big deal,” my uncle said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Not for you! You haven’t been lied to your whole life!” I yelled, but then I stopped and took a deep breath. Questions began exploding from my head. I wanted to know it all. I wanted as much information that I could get from this.

“How big is it? Can I see it from the top of a tree? What is it?”

“It’s smaller than a Piercer but taller than your dad. So, only if you were in a tree close to it would you be able to see it. And…nobody really knows what exactly it is. It’s unlike anything else.”

I paused. My questions were done for now. Though I still had a million more. But I figured I could wait.

“Is it the doorway to the alien world?”

“Yes. But it’s closed. We can’t get back through.”

“Yeah. You guys never told me this thing existed, so forgive me for being skeptical. Last question, can we get to this thing before dark?”

My uncle nodded.

“Then lead the way.”

“So, you’re choosing to abandon our search for this fire for the sake of finding the dome? What are you gonna do once you get there? Touch it?”

“I going to see what there is to see,” I said. “And yeah. We are going to the dome. We’ll focus on the fire later.”

“Alright. If you say so,” my uncle said. We then turned east towards the dome. At least that’s where I hope we were going.

The trees stretched up farther than any I had seen before. Taller than any of my trees. They were like giants scraping the skies. And then…I saw something that threw me off.

It was covered in hair. Like human kind of hair. And it wasn’t a Grazer or a Watcher or anything that I had ever seen before. It was an alien.

“Uncle Ian?” I called out. He turned and looked at me. I pointed at the alien. “What the hell is that thing?”

He began laughing.

“I was wondering when we’d find one of them,” my uncle said, we stopped and just observed this little light brown haired creature. Its big eyes peering at us. My uncle got a little closer to it and it opened its mouth and hissed at us. “It’s kinda like a ferret from the other world but it’s a little different. Probably has some other fancy name.”

I began to block him out. I just stared at the alien and it stared at me. Its nose sniffing the air, its head jerking slightly back and forth between me and my uncle. It didn’t move. Then I began thinking about my mother.

She often talked about having pets when she was little. Though, to be fair I had no idea what any of these pets looked like or even what they were, but she said they were fluffy, friendly, and she loved them.

I guess the closest thing I had to a pet was Hope. But, when I think about it, she never was a true pet.

But I wanted this little thing.

“We call them Climbers. Again, we aren’t going crazy with names. They climb trees and run around on branches. So, they’re Climbers,” my uncle inserted. I told myself that I was going to have a Climber.

“Have you caught one before?” I asked.

“Not really. We basically just shot one down with an arrow. So, I guess in a way we caught it,” my uncle said. I was mortified.

“I meant did you catch one alive!”

“Well, you didn’t specify,” my uncle said. “But, no. We never caught one alive. The bastards are too slick to hold on to.”

“Well, we’re catching one of these guys today then.”

“Great, because I’m starving.”

“We’re not going to eat it!”

“Then why the hell are we capturing it?”

“Because…” I paused. Why were we capturing it? I looked at the ground. This was embarrassing. I began to mumble. “I want it as a pet.”

“What?” my uncle asked craning to understand my mumble.

“I want it as a pet,” I said. He began laughing.

“You want a fucking pet?” he said. I got mad. “Hey, hey, calm the fire. I think it’s funny, kid. You know, you act like a big shot sometimes. You sometimes act older than you truly are…and yet you have times like these where you revert back to being a kid. It’s adorable.” My uncle laughed some more. I turned back to the creature. But it was gone. Shit.

“Where did it go?” I asked.

“Maybe you should’ve put it on a leash?” my uncle said, through his laughter. I looked up and down the tree but the furry little Climber was long gone.

“Come on…let’s go find this dome,” I said, moving forward.

“Are you sure? Maybe it needs a treat or something? Here, little Climber!” my uncle’s mocking continued, but soon he began following me. Let’s just say I began to hate that little climber.

“How far?” I asked it was getting dark. The sun was gone and the last colors of sunset were fading from the sky.

“Not much further. It’s just up here in this clearing,” my uncle chimed back at me.

“I swear, if you are leading me away from this thing-“

“I’m not. Trust me. You’re already pissed at me and you’ve already proved that you can run away. You really think I’m going to lead you somewhere else after telling you about the dome? Come on, kid. I’m not that stupid. You’ll just go wandering off on your own. And these parts aren’t as safe as the shore. The monsters get bigger and badder the further in you go,” my uncle retorted. He got me there. So, I took his word.

Even though it was getting darker, it was also getting lighter.

Strange.

A weird white glow was covering the forest. My uncle stopped.

“It’s just through this clearing. I’m sorry…but I have to stop. I haven’t been this close to the thing in a while,” my uncle said.

“Wait? You mean you haven’t checked on it?”

“Not recently, no. It’s been a couple of years. After eighteen years, you think that it’s not opening up again. The last time we were over here was about the time your father lost his hand.”

“So, ten years? It’s been ten years and you haven’t checked on it?”

“We had no reason to. We still don’t.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to see it for myself. I plunged through the last line of trees, looking straight towards the glow. I saw glimpses of the source but it wasn’t until I stepped out from the trees that I actually saw it.

The dome. As white as bone and as big as a Grazer.

I just froze.

It was all true. There was another world. Just beyond this white orb. I approached it, arm extended. I closed my eyes as I slowly walked towards it. I could hear a hum in my ears coming from the dome. As if it were singing to me. As if it were my box. I opened my eyes and slowly moved my hand closer to it.

“No, kid! Don’t touch it!”

As soon as my skin made contact, a fiery pain burned up my hand and my arm. I removed my hand from the object as fast as I could. I shook it wildly around. As if it were still on fire.

My uncle came running over to me.

“God damn it, John! What did I say?” he yelled, grabbing my hand.

“Sorry! Next time warn me before I go near it!” I yelled back. He was examining it. I looked down at my hand. My hand was definitely red and my palm had bits of exposed wounds like a burn. “What the hell happened?”

“It’s like I said. The dome’s closed. Usually it glows blue instead of white and when it’s closed…it burns anything that touches it. Or maybe it just eats away at it. I don’t know. All I know is that you can’t get through it,” my uncle said, using water on my wound to make it feel better. He then wrapped it in one of the leaves nearby. It felt a little better.

“But…you made it through once. You, Mom, and Dad made it through,” I said.

“Yeah, but it was different then,” my uncle said, rising to look at the white orb in front of us. He turned and sat adjacent to it on a fallen log across from me. I turned to join him.

“Thanks for the bandage,” I said, not making eye contact.

“Don’t mention it,” he said.

“So, what happened that was different? What made you guys even go through it?” I asked. My uncle took a deep breath.

“Curiosity, mostly. But we also wanted answers. Our parents both worked for a company called ORION and your grandmother went missing one day. Well, not exactly missing. It was an accident that killed her. Your grandfather was distraught afterwards. He was tempted to stop his involvement with the company and leave it in more qualified hands,” my uncle said. “He became more of a researcher. But, he wanted nothing to do with the facility. Any of the facilities. So, we went in on New Year’s Eve, because we knew there wasn’t going to be anyone in there. And we found out exactly what the secret project was all about. Time travel.”

“Time travel?” I asked.

“Yeah, technically speaking…you are 65,000,016 years old. Your world is nothing more than a more ancient version of the one I came from. We’ve been living in my world all along. Just an older version of it,” my uncle said.

“So…the alien world is really the future?” I asked.

“More or less, yeah. Technically this is the past,” my uncle continued. “Anyway, back then…this dome was a big, bright blue ball and we decided to go in it. We being me, your mother, your father, and two of our friends; Owen and Luke. We brought a few things with us. Your mother brought that stupid music box she picked up from a shop before we got to the facility. And we had a few other supplies like knives and some food. Most of which we ate within the first few months of us being here. Hell, your parents were not much older than you are now. Probably eighteen or nineteen. We were all just kids. We walked through these very woods and observed where we were. We saw some grazers feeding in the fields not too far away. They couldn’t really see us, but we saw them. And that’s when we learned that we time traveled. See, back in our world we called these creatures dinosaurs. So, it was a big deal to finally see a living dinosaur. At least it was for a little while.

“Until…the Pyros arrived. They killed Luke, slicing his throat open and Owen ran back through the dome. A Pyro chased him through and then the thing turned white not long after that. Your father was the first to try and get back through, but it didn’t work. He just ended up with the same burns you got. I was fending off the Pyros with a stick until one got me in the face, taking my eye.” My uncle paused and showed me his eye once more.

“After that, we ran and by morning we made it to the shore. It wasn’t too long after that we made our first boat and made for Sanctuary. We soon established that as our new home. And we’ve been here ever since. Then you came on the scene about two years after we got here.”

I soaked in the entire story. It was a lot to take in. Even more to take in that I was pretty much standing on hallowed ground.

“It’s getting late, kid. We’ll camp here for the night then we’ll head back to your campfire in the morning,” my uncle said. I didn’t argue. I nodded and we both laid out some Grazer skins and Watcher blankets. It wasn’t a bed but it was better than what I slept on last night. And I was exhausted.

I used my remaining objects as a pillow and laid my head down. My head facing the bright white object in front of me, dancing lazily around in a fixed spot as I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

“John…John,” the whisper came from my right. I looked, it was my uncle. He was squatting with his bow trained on the foliage.

“What?” I whispered back, rubbing my eyes. I looked up to the sky. It wasn’t even dawn yet. The sky was just beginning to turn purple.

“Don’t…move…we’re being hunted,” he said. Slightly moving his bow in the direction of the threat. I looked around. I didn’t see anything and I didn’t hear anything. There was nothing but silence.

Silence.

That’s never a good sign. I grabbed my bow and loaded an arrow as well. There was something out there and it’s not friendly. Wait. Patience. Don’t rush. The key is silence.

BLAM!

A loud noise erupted from the foliage and my uncle fell to the ground. A fresh pool of blood forming underneath him. My heart began to race. What the hell was that explosion? Was it a fire? Why is my uncle dying?

I needed help.

I don’t know what to do!

“Drop your weapon!” a voice called to me as new monsters came from the foliage. They were aliens for sure. They walked like us and talked like us…but their faces were reflective and weird. And they made weird breathing sounds. It repeated its latest order. “Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head!”

I dropped my bow and raised my hands above my head. These monsters, only three, surrounded me and my dying uncle. Tears streamed down my face. One of the monsters began walking towards me.

“Now, who are you and what the hell are you doing here?”

End of Part 1

Part 2 - The Butterfly Effect July 2017

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