The animal kingdom has a way of knowing when trouble is afoot. Birds fall silent in the presence of danger; insects fail to make noise. City dwellers would not notice this so much, but in the woodlands which filled the uninhabited voids between Montana’s rural settlements the silence was deafening. What should have been a sunny summer afternoon had turned to night. The sky was clear, filled with flickering pinpricks of light from distant corners of the cosmos. It wasn’t so much the change that caused such widespread alarm though, but what was missing.
There was no moon on a night when it ought to have been full. The animals knew this was wrong. And so in silence Earth’s creatures waited for a dawn that would never come.
In a shadowy clearing of the woodland surrounding Highway 200, a mobile home was mounted on pillars of bricks, a testament to how long it had been since last it was out on the open road. Two strands of copper wiring were illegally strung over the power lines, providing electricity to a plethora of cheap, dull strip lights and lamps. Since their power was stolen, none of the occupying Johnsons ever shut off the lights at bed, a fact for which a lone, frightened man was deeply grateful as he carefully snuck out of the trailer’s front door. The pressure was immense; if he was caught, he had no doubt they would kill him.
Struggling to control ragged breathing, Cory Wilson licked dry, cracked lips, his mouth open wide. His wrists were sore and bruised from the rope used to tie him to the fridge, a discomfort he tried to ignore, squinting in the gloom. He desperately needed a vehicle to escape.
His choices were limited. Apart from a small electric dirt bike, there was only a dirty, beaten old pickup truck. Crouching, Wilson crept up to the truck and looked in through the driver’s window. The small, plastic smart key was carelessly tossed on the dashboard. He’d need that.
A noise made Wilson nervously glance over his shoulder, cursing under his breath as he’d forgotten to close one eye before staring back at the light. This would cost his night vision for several precious minutes.
He fumbled a moment before finding the door latch, which he was thankful to discover was unlocked. Wilson quickly climbed in and decided the Johnsons were as slovenly as they were twisted. He plugged the smart key into a slot on the dashboard and hit the red engine start button. A simple, idiot proof system, designed for idiots like those inside the trailer.
Everything was going as he’d hoped. The truck’s electric engine whirred to life, and a check of the rear view mirror revealed no signs of people. Freedom was a safe reversal down the dirt track and onto the highway. The thought felt good, and he temporarily forgot his fears, silently gloating at the people who thought they could use him as some kind of apocalyptic slave. He would have left them a note, but he doubted they could read.
Glancing down at the power readout, he assured himself there was enough battery left to get to Stanford. It couldn’t have been more than a dozen miles away. But those comforting thoughts faded as unease suddenly wept over him. He looked up toward the trailer…
And found his fears justified, for there in the open doorway stood a great hulk, with a pistol aimed at Wilson’s head.
12 Hours Earlier…
Kill me now, Wilson thought over and over, driving in the fast lane along the Highway 200 overpass. He just wanted to reach the downtown exit just a few minutes earlier than usual. His passenger, a chatty young work colleague named Chris Duigan, was so annoying. All he did was talk about things that, in all honesty, Wilson had no interest in.
“So there I was,” Duigan emphasised with wild hand movements, “having spent the last twenty minutes explaining to her what the Ra Mission is all about and she just sighs, smiles and says, ‘That’s nice sweetie’. Man, I couldn’t believe it. It’s like everything I said went in one ear and out the other, you know?”
“Not really.” Wilson sighed. Where was that damned exit?
“I mean,” Duigan went on, “she’s always yappin’ about her favourite celebrities and her friends and their stupid dramas, yet the second I want to talk about something that interests me she gets this smile and starts playing with her nails like she’s impatient or something. I bet half the time she wishes I would just shut up and let her do all the talkin’.”
“No kidding.” It was times like this that Wilson really hated their employer’s carpool policy.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No.” Wilson sighed again. “Not for a long time.”
Duigan chuckled, “With the amount of overtime you do, I’m sorry to say I’m not surprised.”
There followed an uncomfortable silence. For the first time that morning, the voice on the radio could be heard.
“August 14th 2082. Wow, what a day it promises to be. The Ra Probe – the International Community’s greatest achievement to date – has arrived at the Sun. Soon she’ll begin her descent into the burning corona, collecting samples and data, allowing our eggheads to unlock the secrets of the star which breathes life into this world. Exciting stuff folks, stay tuned for the official commentary here on GFDB Digital Radio…”
“That is so awesome!” Duigan couldn’t help himself. He could never stay silent for long. “Think of what this means for us as a species. Maybe we’ll unlock the secret to unlimited sustainable energy or learn how to break the Light Barrier! The possibilities are –”
“Hey,” Wilson cut him off, “I have a question for you.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
Taking a deep breath, a method he’d heard brought calm, Wilson tried to be patient and speak his mind rationally. “Do you want to be fired?”
Duigan did a double take. “Um…”
“Yes or no. Simple question.” So much for being calm and rational.
“Hell no! I’ve got bills to pay!”
“Then stop going on about this damned Ra thing. Start focusing on getting your sales up today.”
“Well, yeah,” Duigan stammered in protest, “but –”
“So what are you going to do differently?” Wilson forced himself not to glance at Duigan as he negotiated the tight turns of the exit. If only it had come sooner! “Come on. Tell me what you’re going to change today.”
They drove onto 51st Street which, as was typical on a weekday at 8am, was alive with commuters heading to work. From here Wilson saw the office block where he and Duigan worked, a monolith of glass and steel with a bright white ‘Dubrett Media Solutions’ sign on each face. The sales team was on the fourth floor, selling various commercial and personal entertainment products. Wilson had worked there since leaving college almost a decade ago. But Duigan was fairly new, and completely naïve in thinking he could stay employed despite his recent poor sales figures.
“I ask again: you wanna lose your job?”
Wilson glared at Duigan sternly.
“So keep thinking. I want an answer before we step into the office.”
Wilson was grateful for the second silence which followed. Duigan was easily distracted, a problem in the dog-eat-dog world of sales. Yet, Wilson reflected as the traffic lights turned green, the kid had potential. On a good day Duigan could easily match his own sales figures, by far the highest in the office. Hell, if he could pull his finger out of his backside, Duigan might be manager in a few years. Wilson himself had never really been interested in that.
“Dude,” Duigan piped up in response to a statement on the radio, “why is it there’s always someone who has to threaten or attack progress? Can’t those religious nuts take a day off?”
Moments like this made an exasperated Wilson wonder if he was too kind for his own good. Maybe it would be better if he just shut himself off from the others, leaving them to sink or swim on their own. With a heavy sigh he pulled into the parking lot close to the main entrance.
“So,” he asked Duigan as they got out and put on their ID clips, “did you come up with an answer to my question or not?”
The boy looked crestfallen, mumbling a reply but fooling no one.
Wilson grasped Duigan’s shoulder and steered him toward the door.
“Let me answer for you. You’re going to focus on the job today. No instant messaging to the other staff, no watching the TV. Just you and the customers and making those sales. Got it?”
“Yeah,” Duigan frowned. “But I thought they said we were going to watch the mission?”
Wilson shrugged it off. “Catch the highlights after work.”
A short ride in a simple elevator brought them to the sales office, a large open room filled with rows of small grey walled cubicles. A 72 inch TV hung on the far wall, where the entire sales team was currently gathered. Duigan joined them without another word, leaving Wilson to mutter darkly about wasting his time as he went to sit in his own cubicle. He sat with his back to the TV so he could ignore it while he worked.
Cory Wilson’s personal workspace was a neatly arranged affair. Each object had its place and was always carefully returned there at the end of the day. He liked things to be organised and felt deeply uncomfortable in places where order was not observed. Chaos scared him, made him worry about dying horribly at the hands of reasonless thugs. Sometimes he even lay awake at night, staring at the apartment door, ready to get up and run if there was a break in. Such sleepless nights were, unbeknownst to Duigan, half the reason why Wilson was so irritable in the mornings.
Wilson retrieved his notepad and pen from the cheap wood drawers, placing them exactly four inches away from the right side of his keypad. The pen was laid parallel to the top, exactly one inch distant. Much to his manager’s frustration, Wilson refused to use the thin tablet computers issued to every member of the staff. The devices had too many distractions for his liking. Instead he wrote the sales transactions on good old-fashioned lined paper, resisting the temptation to record the info into his tablet until the end of the day.
Ignoring eruptions of sporadic, excited chatter from across the room, Wilson turned on the computer and logged into the telephone system. A small blue light lit up on the top of the touch screen, telling him the high resolution camera had been activated. All calls were done by video chat unless the customer expressed otherwise.
Using the video feed as an ad-hoc mirror, Wilson took the last three minutes before his shift to straighten his suit and tie. Then he turned on the auto-dialler, adopted his business smile and work began.
A message appeared in a green window on screen: ‘Mrs R K Weidemayer – no sales history.’ Two electronic beeps later and Mrs Weidemayer’s aged face materialized, looking highly unimpressed.
“Ah damn,” she growled, “it’s just one of you god-damn sales callers.”
Wilson ignored her irritation and started his pitch, “Good morning Mrs Weidemayer, I’m Cory from Dubrett Media and I’d like to take a moment of your day t-”
“Have you seen what’s on the TV today?” the old lady snapped. “I don’t got time for this.”
With that the call was terminated. Wilson sat back and prepared himself for the next call – which strangely failed to come.
A collective gasp rose up from across the room, and a red text box appeared on Wilson’s screen telling him all communication lines were being re-prioritised. With a muttered curse he got out of his seat, looking for a manager. He cursed again when it was clear they were all staring wide- eyed at the TV.
For the first time, Wilson paid attention to his co-workers. They looked scared; some clutching at one another and whimpering like frightened puppies. Others closed their eyes or made the sign of the cross. He felt a lump form in his throat, urgently pushing through the crowd for a better view of the screen.
“We…uh…we have just received confirmation that the Ra probe has exploded,” an attractive newscaster announced, the tablet in her hands visibly shaking. “The Watcher, which is the module we’ve been watching Ra’s progress from, has sent back images of what appears to be the sun darkening. This is incredible, has anyone got an astronomer we can ta-”
The newscaster winked out of view, a message in bright white text taking her place. Trying to filter out the grating electronic screech designed to attract attention, Wilson read the message aloud:
EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM
EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION
UNITED STATES FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
ISSUED AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION
A long beep followed, silencing the room. Then an automated voiceover of the message was played. The toneless voice sounded much like a distorted recording from an automated telephone service, only this was far more chilling than any bank balance.
“We interrupt this program. The following message has been issued at the request of the President of the United States. NASA has confirmed the explosion of the Ra probe has caused a catastrophic disruption of the nuclear reactions which keep our sun burning. You will soon experience a state of permanent, moonless night. Immediately return to your homes and take action to preserve heat. Do not panic. Panic will not only endanger your own life, but those of others as well. Please stand by for the President…”
Wilson felt his gut twist in knots as they all turned to look out the window. It was a beautiful summer’s day. He wondered if he would ever see such a sight again. Could a person re-ignite the sun?
“It’ll take eight minutes for the last rays to reach us,” Ridley Stuart, the office know-it-all, announced. Nobody paid him any notice.
Darkness fell without fanfare or warning, looking for all the world like God had just flicked the off switch in heaven. Wilson could hear his pounding heart in the stillness, where a stunned world slowly processed what had just happened and – more importantly – what it meant.
Then came the first screams. Horns blared, followed by a cascade of metallic crunches as cars crashed, their drivers too intent on racing home to their loved ones to even switch on headlights. Wilson winced, beads of sweat forming on his brow as he thought of the chaos outside. The last thing he wanted was to go out in it, yet neither did he want to die as he had lived – at work.
“God help me,” he yelled at the top of his lungs, grabbing a protesting Duigan by the collar and dragging him away from the crowd.
“We’re going home,” he told the kid firmly, shoving him toward the elevator, “before things get really bad.”
Duigan didn’t argue; he was in a daze, his mouth slowly opening and closing like a fish. They left without a word, Wilson steering back toward the highway with his heart in his mouth. The street lighting had not come on yet, leaving only the light shone by his headlamps to see.
Cars barrelled down the roads with no regard for the law or others, swerving around all who got in their way. Wilson and Duigan watched in horror as one such car raced around them, only to lose control, rolling violently into an apartment building.
“It’s so dark.” Duigan looked around, avoiding the crash site. There was no sign of emergency services; no doubt they too had abandoned their posts in favour of family and friends.
Wilson ignored it all. He had to; his head was spinning from the insanity, threatening to knock him unconscious. He decided the highway was their best bet. They could get out of the city and figure out their next move.
“Where do you live?” Wilson asked, feeling embarrassed that he’d almost forgotten his passenger’s existence. “In town, right?”
“Not anymore,” Duigan croaked as they ascended the spiral ramp to Highway 200. “All gone.”
“Girlfriend left me last week,” the kid said in dismay. “Not working out, she said.”
Wilson cursed. “Got any family in town?”
“They live in New Jersey. Don’t speak to them much.”
“Great,” Wilson said under his breath. The damned kid had nowhere to go which meant he was stuck with him, at least for now. He could see fires in the rear view mirror and had to swerve to avoid a three-car pileup. Wilson reviewed his options. Home was out. There was nothing there but emptiness and the possibility of looters. His parents lived on a ranch outside of town, but that was two hours to the west.
“We should get away from the city,” Wilson said, feeling as though he’d made a decision simply by speaking. “Maybe we can get to my folk’s ranch out west.”
Duigan stared dumbly at him, his pale face expressionless.
“I’m going crazy,” Wilson grunted as he searched for the west-bound exit. “Whole damn world’s gone crazy.”
The radio finally fell silent. They never did hear the President. Duigan opened the passenger window and leaned out, spraying vomit at the cars behind them. With no real company, Wilson was glad when local DJ Andy Thompson’s voice came back on the air.
“Well, now that Uncle Sam has had his say,” Thompson said with heavy irony, “let’s talk about what all this means because – let’s face it – our fearless leaders are not very good at giving us the ugly truth, are they? You see, no one is really sure what happens next. Sure it’s gonna get colder – no brainer there. But the big question – how long it’ll be before the whole damn planet turns into one giant snowball? Nobody knows. One look out of my window tells me there’s enough time for one big end-of-the-world party though. Hey looters! Lemme ask you somethin’. Why? What good is the latest consumer gadget going to do you when you’re a giant icicle, huh?”
That made Wilson smile, easing the debilitating fear he fought inside. He was a big fan of Thompson’s politically incorrect commentary; it felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the bigger station’s anger no-one policies and dry, characterless shows.
Duigan finished voiding his belly and closed the window, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his jumper. “That’s pretty funny,” he said, breathing the stench of vomit in Wilson’s direction.
“He is good.” Wilson risked crashing so he could fan away the foul odour. “Jeez, what did you eat for breakfast?”
“Leftover pepperoni pizza.” Duigan sneezed. “So, is it nice at your folk’s place?”
Wilson shrugged. “It’s not bad. Like any other ranch I guess.”
Unsure what else to say, both men turned back to the chaos and Thompson was left to pick up the slack once more.
“Maybe all is not lost,” he announced. “I have with me a special guest who just popped in. Would you like to introduce yourself to my listeners?”
The newcomer had a smooth, refined voice that spoke of privilege. He replied, “Barry Castle, retired CEO of Castle Technical Solutions.”
“Now it is my understanding Mr Castle,” Thompson added, “that you have an announcement for us all. Is that right?”
Castle was clearly unaccustomed to speaking on the radio, clearing his throat too close to the mike. “Yes it is Andy. I figured something like this would happen when they announced Ra, so I hired a whole town to build what I like to call my Doomsday Dome. That’s right – Doomsday Dome. It’s specially designed to use geothermal energy to keep the whole place powered and warm. Now you’re all welcome to come and join me there, so long as you can figure out where it is.”
“Huh?” Thompson echoed his listener’s sentiments.
“Room is at a premium you see,” Castle explained, “so you’ll have to solve a little riddle I wrote in order to find the Dome. I’ll give one clue now to get you started and then, starting tomorrow, Andy here will play a recording of each new part once – and once only – every ninety minutes until it’s done, so keep your ears pinned back folks.”
Wilson and Duigan exchanged glances. Castle had a reputation for eccentricity. His involvement in the UFO movement and funding of paranormal research groups had led the papers to dub him ‘The Madman of Montana’.
“Thank you, Mr Castle.” Thompson cleared his own throat. “So I read this first part now and the next one we play at 9am tomorrow. Well, here it is:
Don’t sit around while the world dies, why not go for that absent sunrise?
Journey high on the way if you want to live some more,
Travel the sum of eighty six and one one four.”
“Nut job.” Wilson grunted, noticing the sign for the east-west fork junction. Only two miles to go. “Who in their right mind would listen to such stupidity?”
Duigan didn’t answer, his lips moving furiously as he tried to work it out in his head. Wilson tapped his passenger on the shoulder.
“Go for that absent sunrise,” Duigan said, the suddenness of it startling Wilson. “The sun rises in the east. So go east?”
Duigan ignored him. “High on the way sounds a lot like highway. Sum of eighty six and one one four? That’s…two hundred.”
“So Highway 200 eastbound,” Wilson finished for his companion as they passed under the sign announcing the upcoming fork junction. “Such a tough one.”
“It’s worth a try isn’t it?”
The junction was now 500 yards away. Wilson had a choice: his parents or a wild goose chase in the hope of surviving.
300 yards left…
So which one?
200 Yards left…
He bit his lip. Decisions were never really his strong suit.
“Dammit!” he yelled, swerving hard to avoid a stack of water barrels placed at the fork. “He’d better not be screwing with us or I’ll kill you.”
“We’ll be dead anyway right?” Duigan’s flippant response made Wilson want to punch the steering wheel. “What have we got to lose really?”
The road ahead was empty, save for endless rows of street lamps. Switching his lights to high-beam, Wilson calmed down and started to wonder if any cops were patrolling this lonely patch of highway. With Grand Forks self-destructing and the end of the world almost certain, he doubted he’d get busted for what he planned to do.
“He said ‘pedal to the metal’, right?”
A look of puzzlement flashed over Duigan. “Did he?”
“Oh I’m sure he did.” A smile spread across Wilson’s face. “And I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Feeling a sense of liberation from a dull, rule-bound life, Wilson floored the accelerator, laughing like an excited child as he watched the speedometer climb. Grand Forks, its skyline already smudged with the orange hue of fires raging, faded into the distance – allowing two men to forget in the thrill of speeding on the open road.
“Goddammit Pa!” Bobby Johnson rubbed his greasy, unshaven chin before spitting out brown tobacco juice. “How much longer we gonna sit around waitin’ for some fool to show up here?”
Bobby and his brother Jim sat shivering on the metal flat bed of their father’s pickup truck. Both heavy men had come outside wearing stained white vests and torn jeans. The air was beginning to cool and they were cold. Their discomfort frayed tempers, which Jim expressed by shoving his brother.
“This was your idea genius!” he snapped, envying his father for sitting inside the warm cabin. “Why don’t you tell me when they gonna show up!”
Dick Johnson shook his head, muttered an oft used curse. He often thought about how, if his idiot sons had been dogs, he’d have drowned them years ago. Maybe it would have done the world a favour. And that’s why he let them sit in the cold while he enjoyed the benefits of the cabin, hoping they would learn a lesson about dressing for a hunting trip.
Dick had carefully parked the truck on an emergency runway built off a sharp highway corner, which offered an excellent view of the road on both sides. It was, he admitted, the first decent move they’d made on this whole damn trip. The last hunt had ended in disaster, which he felt was a huge shame. The driver’s wife had been a pretty little thing – until a pair of bullets had ripped through the back window and blown her and her husband’s chests apart.
He was just about to knock his still bickering son’s thick skulls together when a spot of light appeared in the distance, steadily growing larger until he could make out two lights. A car, approaching at high speed.
“Cool it idjuts!” Dick banged on the rear window. “I see lights!”
Bobby and Jim scrambled to see where their father was pointing. Toothy grins appeared on their faces.
“Be more god-damned careful this time!” Dick snapped as he started the engine. “Aim for the tires, not the driver!”
Bobby pulled a MAG Pistol out, checking for the green LED that indicated the weapon’s powerful electromagnetic coils (which created hypersonic bullets) were fully charged.
“’Bout time,” Jim exclaimed, priming his own weapon. “Mebbe now we can live like them rich folk in the city!”
Bobby chuckled, clicking his finger. “Yo’ servant! Get me another beer, now!”
Their rich, maniacal laughter caused a flock of birds to flee. Neither brother cared much though, for animals were not their targets today.
The last thirty minutes had been surprisingly pleasant for Wilson and Duigan. With the ice now broken, they sat comfortably, just watching the shadowy world go by. They talked about anything and everything that came to mind. It shocked both men how little they actually knew about one another and how easy it was to spend so much time with another person and yet never really know them. For the first time in years, Wilson started to feel close to someone again. The more he got to know the kid in his passenger seat, the more he liked him. It was a good feeling.
Sometime in the last five minutes the conversation had turned towards women, a subject Wilson was never comfortable sharing with anyone. Still, with the world ending, he decided to open up a little. Egged on by his companion, he asked himself what harm there was in trusting now?
“Her name was Mandy Cooper.” A nostalgic smile flickered across Wilson’s lips as he thought of the blonde beauty. “She had this smile which I swear could light up a whole room full of people. I wanted her since the day I laid eyes on her in homeroom, but I never could work up the courage to talk to her, figured she was way out of my league.”
Duigan shifted his position so he could pay attention. “Did you ever talk to her?”
Wilson nodded. “We dated for two years. Even went to community college together,” the smile vanished, “almost ten years ago now.”
“She was big into church,” Wilson explained. “She wanted to go on a missions trip to some hell hole in Africa. I didn’t.”
“Ever thought of callin’ her?”
“Every day…” Wilson let his answer fade, squinting at the rear view mirror, “Every…day.”
Bemused by the sudden change in behaviour, Duigan checked over his shoulder. “It’s just another car, Cory.”
But Wilson wasn’t convinced. Until now they’d been alone on this highway, travelling as fast as his mid-range sedan would allow them to go. As far as he knew, the last route on or off this stretch of road before Stanford was over five miles behind. No car – or in this case perhaps a pickup truck – would have been able to catch up so quickly. Something was wrong.
Wilson’s instincts were confirmed when the truck flicked on high-beams, obscuring its approach.
“Put the beams down, jerk!” Duigan snapped, shielding his eyes against the glare. “God…”
The rear window shattered into a thousand tinkling pieces, the bullet responsible passing through Duigan’s head before punching a neat hole in the windscreen. A spray of blood, bone and brain matter fanned out across the passenger door and window, splattering everywhere as the kid’s lifeless body flopped into Wilson’s lap.
“Stop right now!” a voice called menacingly over a bullhorn. “Or we’ll keep shooting!”
Until now Wilson scrambled to move away from Duigan, retching as he felt warm blood soaking into his pants. Without his foot on the accelerator, the car had slowed to walking speed, allowing the truck to effortlessly catch up.
Hyperventilating and in shock, Wilson barely registered the two hulking men who strode up to the door, yanked it open and threw him viciously onto the asphalt.
“You’re ours now boy,” one of them said with a leering cackle before the butt of a shotgun made Wilson’s world go black.
Like a rabbit staring at an oncoming vehicle, Wilson gazed helplessly down the barrel of his assailant. In that moment, he felt foolish and wished he had thought to pick up one of the MAG guns. Now he sat, waiting for the other guy to end his life.
Jim Johnson picked up his pistol and snuck out the back door, careful not to go too quickly, lest his movement drew attention. Suddenly he felt grateful to his father for the years spent in these woods, hunting every known animal. He moved confidently through the darkness, staying close enough to keep sight of the trailer and keeping a hand in front of his face to avoid walking into a branch.
He aimed to get behind the truck and force their damned servant to give up before he realised Bobby wasn’t going to shoot. It didn’t take him long. Dropping to a crouch so he couldn’t be seen, he moved into position. Once he was sure he was safe, he pulled out his weapon and checked the coils were charged.
All he needed now was the green light to flicker to life and this guy’s escape was over.
Blood and adrenaline coursed through Wilson’s veins, sharpening his wits and dulling his fatigue. As he stared at his assailant, the realisation struck that this man should have killed him by now, and since he hadn’t, he probably wasn’t going to.
So they needed him, wanted to take him back alive, did they? He had a chance to escape after all.
Slowly he moved his left hand on the gear stick, setting it in reverse. He kept his gaze fixed on the man in the doorway. Wilson didn’t want to give him any reason to think the situation had changed. He carefully took the parking brake off, keeping one foot pressed firmly on the foot brake and murmured, “Screw you people.”
Gritting his teeth, Wilson released the brakes, jamming his foot hard down on the accelerator. The truck leapt back down the dirt path. Too nervous to breathe, he held the wheel steady and with no rear lights to see where he was going, prayed he didn’t drive into a tree. Then something struck the tailgate with a sickening thud, making the truck buck violently as it ran over the object.
Fearing he’d hit a log, Wilson applied more power and almost lost his grip on the wheel. Barely able to think straight, he kept going.
Bobby could scarcely believe the nightmare illuminated by the truck’s headlights. A crumpled body lay in the dirt, gasping helplessly for air. It dawned on him just who was lying there, and he forgot everything else as he dashed over to his brother’s side.
“Pa!” he yelled into the night, “help!”
Jim’s mouth was filled with blood, bubbling and choking him with every breath he tried to take. Blue eyes, once so full of hunter’s instinct and pride, now stared up at Bobby without focus.
As one brother cradled the other’s head in his lap, the truck screeched to a halt on the highway before turning east in a cloud of smoke.
“Son…” Jim vomited blood over his brother, “of a b-” His eyes went wide, his body heaving with all its remaining strength to draw air. And then Jim Johnson’s broken body gave one last, violent shudder before going limp.
As the rest of the family came stumbling out of the trailer towards him, Robert M Johnson threw back his head and howled at the moonless sky. It was a promise.
Before this world was through, he would kill the man who had taken his brother’s life.