April 29, 103 PN
I hated traveling through the wastes at night.
The sound of my motorbike echoed through the eerie silence of the land, my flickering headlight offering little help of showing the path before me. I did my best to stray from the roads; they were a deathtrap for motorists, especially if one was traveling via highway overpass. People have done what they could to repair the roads, but it was mostly a waste of time.
It didn't matter to me; I hated heights. Anything higher than two stories found me huddling in a corner from fear and nausea, and my home in New York was no different. A few months after my father took in a young boy named Jacob, my biological brother, Harper, took he and I up to the roof of our building. My father found me clutching the crumbled chimney near a pile of that morning's breakfast. I can still remember the terrified look on Jacob's face; he thought he was the one responsible.
Jacob came into our family about three years ago, right after I graduated training. He was on a mission in Illinois when he came across a little boy huddled in a stripped car, beaten to a pulp; we were all surprised he was still breathing. My father spent a month with him in the hospital, hoping to get some information on who or what attacked him. Whatever happened, he refused to talk about it. Before we knew it, my father had brought Jacob to our new home on the Crosser base in Pennsylvania and became a part of the family with time.
A small depression in the road brought me back to the present and barely avoiding a collision with an over-turned truck. That was a common sight. Hell, anything out here wasn't uncommon, especially murder. Houses bearing the still silhouettes of those that once lived there, charred remains of skeletons, trees stripped of all leaves and bark, and not to mention the deadly pools of water. Sure, there were purifying plants around the country, but they weren't exactly the best at making deliveries on time. I can vaguely remember a day back in training where three trainees nearly died from dehydration because the caravan was late by four days. Commander Lancelot looked ready to tear someone's head off.
I smacked my headlight for the hundredth time as I entered Hagerstown, Maryland. We had recently vacated the place of the Iron Brigade, but it felt as if a monster had taken their place. There was nothing more frightening than going through an empty town, nothing. I'd much rather have it filled up to the brim with the Iron Brigade or even Ghost Soldiers.
I slowed my bike and surveyed the buildings around me in hopes of finding a good DFP, Defensive Fighting Position, if the need came to that. Most of the buildings were nothing more than memories in ruin, none of them would offer any help. It was a little sad, really. When I was younger, Harper and I would imagine the people back then, carrying on with their lives, imagining them if the bombs hadn't came. It soon became quite depressing.
My watch read 2305 (11:05 PM). I soon came to a stop at a place near an old family-owned deli, its sign lying flat on its back near the welcome mat. I pushed the bike into the alley and turned the motor off. At the moment, I didn't know what was worse: the lack of a DFP, or the lack of danger. I hopped off my bike and opened one of the saddlebags, pulling out a canteen of now cold coffee, six magnum rounds that I stuffed in my pocket, a black tarp, and a small lantern. I didn't bother with packing too much for any mission, not unless the mission called for it. Not once did my eyes stop searching the area, my right hand hovering inches from my holster. Better to shoot first than ask questions later, my dad always said.
Of course, no one really answered his questions after he shot.
Once I covered my bike with the tarp, I made my way into the shop, carefully shutting what was left of the door, and surveyed the area. The glass counter was shattered, there were holes in the walls and roof, most of the seats and tables were looted off, including the metal door near the back of the room. Well, the back door was more of an effort; only the top hinge was unscrewed. I walked over and pulled the door open, revealing a surprisingly in-tact room with a small folding table, two medium-sized crates, and metal shelves. It was small, most likely used for storing food or supplies. I inched in, hand now clasped around the grip, thumb glued to the hammer.
After setting my supplies near the wall, I carefully dragged the table next to the crates, then flipped it onto its side. I crouched down to see if I was able to be shielded by the table while still able to maneuver properly. Shy by only a few inches. I sighed in frustration and sat down, leaning against the wall, revolver hanging loose in my hand. My mind was repeating the same two scenarios: one, that bandits would be barging in and shooting up the place, and I would be lucky to get only hit by three bullets. Two, that a sniper had managed to lock me in his sights and was ready to pull the trigger. I scooched over behind the crates and pulled my blanket and lantern close.
The silence was starting to get to me. I barely turned on the lantern and used the blanket as a back cushion, then grabbed the canteen. I sloshed the coffee around for a minute before unscrewing the lid and taking a sip. Cold, just as I expected. I sighed again and took another sip before setting it aside and rubbing my eyes. Staying awake late was not one of my strong points; there were days when I envied Gerald's insomnia, as odd as that sounded.
It was now 2335. I would give myself about... twenty minutes before passing out. Twenty-five if I tried hard enough. After another few sips, my eyes began to grow heavy. I held in a yawn and arched my back, then rubbed my eyes harder. I pulled at my eyelids, took another drink, even poked at my eye, anything to keep me awake. The last one hurt a bit, but it didn't do the trick. It did just the opposite.
My eyes shut for only a minute, then snapped open as the sound of clicking boots entered the deli. Revolver firmly in my grasp, I crawled on my knees to behind the table and peeked out. I saw nothing, but the boots sounded as if they were coming closer. I rushed to the door and slowly got behind it, my free hand holding the door knob. Slamming a door into someone wasn't as good as a gun to the face, but it often did the trick.
The footsteps were near, crunching glass, kicking bones to the side. I held my breath. Fellow Crosser sent as back-up? No, they would have announced themselves by now. Bandits would have fired by now, Iron Brigade would use some intelligence, and Ghost Soldiers... well, they're as cunning as they come. I was glad they were somewhat on our side.
My index finger was barely hovering above the trigger. A hot breeze struck me from the back and I stumbled away from the door in surprise. I looked outside and let out a small gasp. The sky was a dark red, and there was a horrible stench in the air. It smelled like -- sulfur? It was everywhere, I covered my mouth to stop gagging and dropped my weapon in the process. There was a loud shatter and I looked down, seeing my revolver in countless pieces. That's... that's not possible. The smell became worse, and I fell to my knees. My throat was burning, my eyes were scalding with tears.
The world began to turn dim and cold, yet I could feel myself burning. There was a loud screech, then a bang. For some reason, I couldn't place the sound. It was so familiar, I heard it everyday! Why couldn't I name it? What was wrong with me? The bang came again, this time closer. I gagged and reached for my boot knife, but it was gone. My coat was missing, too, my boots were covered in something sticky and warm. Blood! I quickly padded myself down for any wounds; none. I scrambled out of the room, panicking. I found myself back in the streets, the sulfurous stench and footsteps not far behind. Vomit erupted from my mouth and nostrils, splashing onto my clothes and onto the pavement. I held in a scream and staggered up. I rushed into an alley and pinned myself into a corner, doing what I could to fit myself deeper into the small space.
The clicking boots stopped. I froze, hesitating to turn. My breathing and heartbeat turned rapid; I yelled and frantically dug my fingers into the building like a wild animal. I had no idea why I was so scared; half of me didn't want to know, in all honesty.
"Sweetheart, are you alright?"
My head shot up and I pulled myself from the corner, the fear pushed into the back of my mind. I saw my father standing in the entrance of the alley, his arms spread open. A smile crept onto my face and I rushed over before him, pressing my face into his shirt, sobbing. His arms gently wrapped around my body and he whispered that everything would be alright.
"Everything is going to be a..."
Then came the bang.
My father's body jerked forward and we crashed to the ground. I looked to see what was wrong, my face instantly cemented with shock. A bullet had torn through his head, his eyes misted over and wide. I couldn't scream; I could only stare, my mouth quivering. No words came out. No sobs. Just... little gasps.
His body was pulled away and thrown aside. I reached for him, but a bloody boot stomped down on my arm. A hand grabbed the top of my head and pulled it back, my neck exposed. I could barely gather the will to fight back.
"Everything is going to be alright, my dear." The Hangman tilted to the side and smiled at me. "I promise."
My head lurched forward and jerked me awake, panting. I wrapped a hand around my neck, to make sure it was still in one piece. I looked around, finding myself back in the supplies room. Just another nightmare, I thought, slowly rising, leaning against the wall for support. My father was still alive... and so was that monster.
Holstering my revolver, I quickly gathered up whatever I brought in with me and made my way to my bike, finding the tarp pulled off, and one of my saddlebags open and empty. I looked in, finding my map, binoculars, compass, and first-aid kit gone. My compass! I scowled and shoved my blanket and other belongings into the empty bag and bent to grab my tarp.
That was when the cold barrel of a rifle pressed into my back.