[Cam swallowed and stretched out his hand. The nightmare flickered at the edges of his vision and pressure filled his chest.
She held his eyes, her scarred mark hidden on the shadowed side of her face, like it had been when she stood in Mama Lucy’s basement stealing fruit and canned goods. The others waited, hushed.
Slowly, Tara pooled the chain and the tags in Cam’s palm. “That’s where you went, isn’t it? When you ran away from the Stalls?”
Smoke curled out of the windows like vining ghosts.
Dom. Cam’s heart raced and he ignored the heat that singed his fingertips as he gripped the frame and peered through the doorway, holding his breath against the smoke. The brown brick had been licked black by flames. His brother had been sick with the plague, and the law stated that the body had to be burned. But not alive, Cam swallowed and peered into the shadows. They could have waited until he was dead before they burned him and the house.
But that’s not how it worked in this world. In this world, the crickets chirped and the wind rustled the long grass and nothing in the twilight cared that Dom had ever been sick or was dead or had just burned alive. The plague only killed people, mothers and fathers and brothers, but not crickets or mice or birds.
And not me, Cam’s eyes stung and watered from the heat and the smoke. The plague took my family but hasn’t killed me. Why did it leave me? Alone?
He coughed and backed away from the house, clearing his lungs with cool autumn air. How did they know Dom was sick? That we were even here? He sunk to his knees and fought tears. How?
A horse neighed and hooved at the rungs of its corral. Looking up, Cam let a tear trail his cheek. Crix. The horse bobbed its head and snorted at Cam.
Come here, child, the horse seemed to say to him. You are not alone. Come to me.
Pushing himself off of the gravel, Cam stumbled to the corral and wrapped his arms around the strong, thick neck. The other horse nudged his arm with her nose and huffed.
Sparta. Her hot breath curled across his cheek and her lips tickled his hair. Cam reached his hand up to her ear and held on to both mares, the smell of horse interrupted by wafts of smoke and burning and loneliness.
Voices interrupted Cam’s grief, riding on the same tendrils of wind that played with the ash out of the windows. He glanced down the gravel path that led to the road, and his heart froze as flashlights flickered through the overgrown landscape.
Be invisible, Cam scolded himself. The Regulators had tracked him here from the Stalls, their boots echoing through the scrub. Cam wasn’t sure how they had found him that morning, but they had broken down the front door and hauled him in shackles to the orphanage for Outpost 216. But I had promised Dom I wouldn’t leave him, and now his brother and his home were smoke and ashes.
The Regulators approached slowly, not cautious as much as they were purposeful. Their confidence scared Cam, telling him that they were certain they would find him, no matter how far he ran. Invisible, Cam slipped off his boots and tiptoed toward the back of the house. The voices were closing in on him quickly, men’s voices punctuated by their even steps and the swish of their uniforms pushing through tall stalks of grass.
He ran his fingers along the brick, feeling his way toward a covered cellar access that might buy him a night or even a few hours to figure out where he would go now that Dom was gone. Don’t get caught, Cam warned himself as his foot bumped something and knocked it onto some rocks behind the house. Cam snatched it to silence it, but it was too late. The voices had heard it. They knew he was there.
His heartbeat drowning out their bootsteps, Cam looked at what he had knocked over.
Crowley. He swung the tines over his shoulder as he had watched Crowley do when the old man had chased Cam out of his chickens. Damn mutant will slice your head off with that pitchfork and eat it, Dom had warned Cam, but by then it was too late. I wish he had sliced my head off. Then I would be dead instead of Dom.
The voices approached the house. Cam tightened his grip on the wooden handle and ran out screaming, waving the pitchfork at the Regulators. Three of them, Cam figured based on the flashlight beams, probably the same three who had broken down the door and taken him that morning. The three who had set the house on fire. The three who had killed Dom.
One of them dropped their flashlight and it rolled on the gravel to Cam’s bare feet. He glanced at the beam, swinging the pitchfork back over his shoulder like a club, and something bit into his back. He screamed and dropped the pitchfork next to the flashlight, his arms curling into his chest as electric teeth seared the muscle below his shoulder blade and razed through his body.
He didn’t clearly know when it ended, just that the pain was gone and he was being dragged across the gravel by two pairs of strong hands.
“Got quite a fighter, haven’t we?” a young man’s voice chuckled through Cam’s hazy awareness.
A deeper, gruffer voice answered, “Old mutant was right, kid’s a stray or we would’ve had him before it got dark. Wonder how he got to be this old without being chipped.”
Their fingers pinched his arms as they lifted Cam and laid him out onto a metal surface. Even through his waning consciousness, he could smell old paint and rust.
The gruff voice spoke again, “Have Barnes haul the horses to the old hag at the Stalls tomorrow. Maybe that’ll get her to shut her trap about needing more pigs and chickens. Hitch that tailgate, don’t need him sliding out before we get him coded.”
Vibrations pounded through the metal surface when the tailgate slammed shut, hammering Cam’s skull. As the truck crawled beneath him, he gave in to the darkness.
This is another scene that follows “Caught” from Cam’s back story. Cam is the main character in my young adult dystopian fantasy The Plague Legacy: Acquisitions due out from Fox Hollow Publications on December 6, 2013. Buy it on Amazon.