I was going to write an intro explaining how I wrote this story, the aches and pains of sitting down to write after a long hiatus (it’s terrible!), but decided to just post the story. I’d love to know your thoughts, and if you do have questions about it or the process, I’d love to hear those too.
The Other Foot
I owed Dax my life, yet I was the one who would ultimately kill him. Guilt the size of my pocket communicator burned a hole in my heart. I could barely look at him, and I couldn’t believe how calm he looked sitting beside the fire whittling a chunk of wood, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. Maybe that serenity in the face of danger was why my father had chosen the reformed convict as my protector and teacher. Regardless, I trusted Dax. My father may have been naïve about the Zees, but when it came to judging a person’s character he was as reliable as a compass. I went where Dax went. Except this time. This time was different.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, still whittling away. “I taught you everything you need to know to survive in the woods.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said.” My backpack was stuffed with gear: fire-making tools, blanket, pots for cooking and boiling water, maps, and a few other necessities. “I think I remember most of it.”
“You’d better. If you fail, or the Zees get you, this is all for nothing. Remember that.”
I shuddered. The Zees took adults and every young person on the verge of adulthood they could find. No one knew why or what was done to them. All we did know was that they were never seen again.
He set down the unfinished piece and stared at the sky. I looked up, too. Nothing stirred. There were few stars and no moon. How different to that night nine months ago when it had been aflame with alien lights, aroar with alien engines, the cacophony whipping humankind into a frenzy. The chaos had killed my father, along with millions of others.
“I’m sorry. I really am.”
He snorted and rolled onto his side, his back towards me. “I should have known it was just a matter of time. Teenagers are all the same: sneaky and unreliable. I just hope your excursion was worth it.”
My cheeks flamed red. Luckily, they weren’t visible in the dark. “It wasn’t, especially now. If I could take it back, I would.”
“Well, I guess there’s that.”
He rolled over to face me, firelight reflecting in the whites of his eyes. Then he shook his head, the angle of his down-turned face almost hiding a sad smile. “You still haven’t figured it out, have you? I promised your father I’d get you to the safe zone, remember? Everything I’ve done was to keep that promise. Was I tough on you? Yes. Were you allowed to do what you wanted? No. But, as we came to see, it was necessary because you never could see more than the step ahead.” He ran a hand through his tousled black hair. “Why couldn’t Sero have saddled me with a dog? At least you can train dogs.”
“I said I was sorry, okay?” It wasn’t enough, not nearly, but I had to say something. “Dax, I really didn’t think they’d trace the call or follow me. I did shake them though.”
“Well they did, and now our cover’s blown. Shaking them only gained us a few hours. We’ll be lucky if they wait until tomorrow to pay us a visit. You’d better be gone before then.” Dax lay back and sighed. I knew what that meant. He didn’t want me around when they came for him. Probably didn’t think I could handle it. “Look, Sid,” he went on, “what’s done is done. No point laboring the matter. Get some sleep.”
“How can you be so–?”
“I said, go to sleep. I’m done talking.” A minute later, he started to snore, definitively ending the discussion.
Typical! Adults never listen!
“Yes, dammit!” I threw back. “And you scared the hell out of me. I thought you were sleeping.”
“Nerves, I guess. What are you upset about?”
“Everyone’s making decisions for me! I should have a say in what’s going on, don’t you think?”
He laughed, but it was tired. “When I’m gone, you can do what you want. You’d just better make sure it includes getting to that safe zone in the mountains. That was the plan your father set in motion before the Zee’s got him, and that’s still the plan. Got that?”
I looked away. He talked big and complained, but he expected me to come through. My survival meant sticking it to the aliens. But more importantly to me, it meant honoring the two men who had risked everything for my sake. I had no choice but to live. Even if it was without them.
I curled into my blanket. The ground was cold, the sticks and tree roots making it impossible to find a comfortable position. Truth was, I also talked a big game. All that blathering about having a say, but honestly, what the hell did I know? The world was messed up and the rules had changed. Life was a jostled board game, humans the displaced pieces.
When I awoke the next morning, Dax was gone. At first, I thought the Zees had come for him during the night, but a quick look around revealed only his footsteps. And a gift left beside my pallet.
I packed slowly, picking up Dax’s gift last and placing it in my pocket.
Soon after, I heard the howls of the Zee’s dog-like tracking beasts in the woods. Just as Dax had taught me, I was on my feet in a flash, pouring water into the dirt and covering my shoes with mud. It would mask my scent for a while, at least until I got to the stream.
Once there, I jumped in and slogged through the current, heading north towards the mountains. The birds were awake and trilling their morning songs. I put a hand to my breast pocket. My palm curved over the bump of Dax’s souvenir: the completed carving of a mother bird shielding its young under its wing.
Upstream, I exited the water. The mountains loomed in the distance. It would be a long, difficult walk but Dax had prepared me for it. I listened for the Zees dogs, and when I heard nothing but the songs of birds in the trees, disappeared into the brush.
Copyright @2017 by Dyane Forde