For a Few Chips: A Short Story

From my vantage point in the abandoned garage across the street, the single-story ranch house looked almost mundane. The faded green paint, chipped siding, and one broken shutter belonged to the suburban landscape. If it wasn’t for the three charred corpses impaled on fencing posts along the front yard, I can almost imagine it before the fall.

Light poked through the cracks in the boarded windows — soft and flickering. A good sign for me. I didn’t want to mess with anyone who had electricity, no matter how much I was being paid. The bad news, no one left candles going. It meant someone was still inside, and not just a prisoner. You don’t leave light for chattel.

Over the past three days, I counted no less than 20 different people coming and going. 11 men, nine women. Not a bad mix, considering. According to my notes, all 20 left during the day. I had no way of knowing how many were left inside or the package was even still there. I don’t like going into any situation blind but it was obvious I wasn’t going to get a better opportunity.

I folded up my notebook and slid my stub of a pencil into the wire bindings. I was going to have to go scavenging for new pencils again soon. It wouldn’t be hard. This town had both at Walmart and Target. Medicine, food, and clothes would be picked clean, but office supplies always lasted.

I shoved the notebook into my backpack with the rest of my possessions and hid it behind a broken piece of drywall. A dented canteen, multi-tool, and well-used copy of Maxim magazine might not be much to some, but they were my treasures and I was getting keep them safe. After three years in the wastes, I’d learned a thing or two about leaving anything out for the scavengers.

I checked the Lugger piston in the holster on my waist, making sure it was clearly visible. I didn’t have any bullets and didn’t know what type it took even if I found some, but out here just carrying a gun made you someone to be afraid of. No one wanted to be another survivor’s last bullet.

Happy that it was secure, I pulled out my real weapon — a hand-forged blade hammered from a single bar of good spring steel. It was fat and heavy, little more than an oversized machete, but it held a sharp edge and I’d learned to swing it. Besides, it didn’t take much skill. Blade or not, no one did well when you hit them with 7 pounds of steel.

I worked the edge on my whetstone one last time. The three days of waiting gave me plenty of time. I’d already honed it down good enough to shave, but a sharp edge always made life easier and taking the time to work the stone let me sharpen my mind, too.

Killing is never easy. No matter how many lives you take. If you’ve got a soul, killing is something you have to work yourself up to. Even in this place.

I’m glad you took the time to do it. As soon as I finish putting away my whetstone, light movement, and I from across the street. Two men I have never seen before — one tall and lean, the other short and built like a box truck — came out through the front door. The tall guy carried a rifle. I don’t know what type. Something small, like you would use to hunt rabbits. The big guy carried a baseball bat with half a stop sign bolted to the end.

Raiders sure can get creative out in the wastes.

I leaned against the garage and watched them through the slats. I got lucky. If I’d skipped my little ritual, they would’ve been coming out as I was making my way across the yard. I still didn’t know how many were inside the house, but if I played this right, that number would be to less.

The only real risk here was whether or not Tall had bullets for that rifle. Normally I wouldn’t risk it. I’m as big a coward as any raider when it comes to guns. But there was a time limit on this job. The caravan was leaving the day after tomorrow and the old man’s blue chips would buy me a seat all the way to Cincinnati. I let the thought of hoofing it roll around in my mind. I made it this far on my own, but I didn’t know if there would be any settlements out there in the desert and I couldn’t carry enough water to make it that far alone. I had to do this if I was ever going to see Ezi again.

“God, give my arm strength, guide my blade, and forgive me for what I do,” I prayed and ducked out through the side door.

Narrow streets, once bright enough for kids to ride their bikes under the streetlights are black alleys perfect for an ambush now. I kept my distance from Big and Tall, cutting through the knee-high grass for several houses before I darted across the street.

I stopped behind it dead elm to get a better look at the two guards. They were too busy passing something back and forth to pay any attention to me. Silently, I thanked God and made a cross over my chest. There isn’t much in the way of booze left in the wastes, but what did exist was strong enough to melt rust off a car.

As I watched, Big tilted back the bottle then smashed it on the street. From the sound and the shards of glass, it wasn’t a small one.

“Why’d you do that?” Tall asked. His nasal voice was three octaves higher than I would have guessed. The kind of voice that makes you wonder if he’s wearing the wrong size underwear. “If you trade the bottles back into Sparch, he’ll give you the next one for half-price.”

It really was my lucky day. As strong as most waste wine is, Sam Sparch’s swill was the strongest I’d ever encountered. More than one would-be surgeon used it as both anesthesia and antiseptic. One trader even claimed it was worth more than water out east where real doctors still existed.

“I shouldn’t have to pay for it at all,” Big shouted. “Sparch should be paying me! I let both him and that hot piece-of-his live in my city. I let him sell his swill without paying the taxes. So far, he’s brought in more business that is worth the trouble. So I let them be. But, I’ve heard rumors that I don’t like.”

Big slurred his words and paced up and down the street. Every so often, he would swing his makeshift axe to emphasize this point.

“We’ve been too soft on them. I’ve been to good to them,” Big said, thrusting the end of his axe toward Tall. “That’s why I’ve got to show them I’m still the boss.”

Lucky day indeed. Big was Lord Holiday.

I moved closer, walking in a squat to stay beneath the top of the overgrown yards. The old man was willing to pay a pretty price for the package, but the town would pay much more for Lord Holiday’s head. Rumors said Holiday and managed a hotel before the collapse. When the first wave hit, he gathered up all of the guests stranded in his care and promised them food and shelter in exchange for becoming his own private army. He’d been terrorizing this small piece of the country ever since.

And he was 10 feet away with his back to me.

I slid my blade free from the leather jacket sleeve I used as a scabbard and moved his close to the edge of the tall grass as I could. My heart thumped in my chest. I waited, frozen just a few feet away. I knew they would see me any second. Tall wouldn’t even have to be a good shot. This close to him and this far from a real doctor, any bullet wound would be fatal.

But, Holiday was too busy ranting about booze and benevolence to pay any attention to me. I would never get a better payday than this. I waited until his pacing brought to his closest point. Then, when he turned around to wave his axe at Tall again, I swung my blade as hard as I could with both hands at his meaty neck.

Blind splayed across Tall’s face as my blade lodged in Holiday’s spine. He froze, mouth wide open and eyes glassed over like his mind had decided it had better things to do.

I jerked on my blade, trying to free it from Holiday’s neck before Tall decided to start paying attention to reality again but it was wedged in too tight and my grip was too slick with blood to pull it free.

Holiday’s body reacted by flailing around wildly. The makeshift axe swinging through the air faster than the big man had probably ever swung it when his brain was still calling all the shots.

I let go of my blade and jerked Holiday’s arm back toward me. Tall was starting to come to and I needed to end this before he got a shot off. Or worse, Holiday’s gurgling brought another raider or two outside. I managed to pull the axe free and drop Holiday’s body to the ground in time for Tall to bring the rifle up and point it straight at my face.

Three heartbeats and a full breath passed as I stared him down over the barrel of his rifle. I bounced the axe in my hand and let the grin spread across my face. If Tall had bullets, he’d have used them by now.

The axe was lighter than my blade and I swung it hard. The thin, light aluminum sign had no trouble sinking through flesh and muscle but it buckled against the bones in his chest. The bent edge did more damage when I tore it back out than it did going in. I almost felt bad for Tall.

His rifle dropped to the ground. He followed it a second later. I could see his lungs struggling for air behind the exposed ribs and he tried to say something, but the only things coming out of his mouth were thick black and red bubbles.

I dropped the bent axe beside his body and, using my boot against his head as leverage, pulled my blade free from Holiday’s spine. There was a new nick halfway down the edge, but the heavy steel held together a lot better than the aluminum.

I took it as a good omen no other raiders had come from the house, so I wiped my blade off on Holiday’s dingy slacks – the only part of him not covered in blood. Once it was as clean as I could get it, I slid it back into my sheath and drug his body up onto the grass. It took two more chops for the blade to sever the head completely from the body and I got covered in gore. I was going to have to use some fo those blue chips to get clean. It was a good thing I was making extra.

I wrapped the head in what was left of Holiday’s shirt and tied it around my back like a sling. I added Tall’s rifle to the bounty, too. Bullets or not, guns were still valuable in the wastes. There was only one thing left to do.

Retrieve the package.

Inside, the house smelled like rancid meat and human feces. If I lived like this, I’d need strong swill to keep going, too.

The living room was just inside the door. A smokey fire burned in the fireplace, some kind of meat roasting above it. The only furniture was several heavily stained mattresses. A woman was passed out on one, naked except for a leash and collar. Crusted bile lined the edges of her mouth, but she was still breathing.

I stopped long enough to remove the collar and turn her on her side. I didn’t know if she was willing or not, but raider or slave, no one should drown in their own vomit.

I searched the rest of the house. It was mostly empty. Nothing worth scavenging. Anything I could use or trade was too heavy to be caught carrying if the rest of the raiders came back.

That left only the basement.

I stole one of the candles from the kitchen and pushed open the old door. The smell from below was worse. My stomach told me to run, but, I’d already come this far. There was no turning back now.

I took the stairs slowly, candle in one hand, blade in the other. The basement had never been finished and the cinderblock walls absorbed the light more than reflecting it. Each step I took left me expecting someone to grab my ankles from behind.

The basement was all one room, pitch black outside of the few feet of light my candle gave off.

I caught the glint of metal in the far corner and headed in that direction. As I got closer, I could see the steel cage door on an old dog carrier and movement inside.

“Shannon?” I asked, kneeling down to peer inside. “My name is Dent. Your grandfather sent me to bring you home.”

A pair of big, brown eyes in a grimy face appeared behind the mesh. “Granpa?”

I nodded. “Yes. Your grandpa. Hang on.” I sat the candle on the carrier and twisted open the latch. Shannon pushed against it and pulled herself free by her hands, dragging her legs behind her. They were twisted and bent at unnatural angles. I’d seen it something like it in an old movie from before the fall. Holiday broke her legs to keep her from escaping.

I slid my blade back into the sheath and squatted down to pick her up. She wasn’t heavy, but it would take both arms to carry her. There was no way I would be able to fight if I needed to.

“God, please,” I muttered as I headed back toward the stairs.

Shannon’s eyes shone in the fading candlelight as she looked up at my face. Her fingers traced the scars then fell to the patch on my shirt, a pair of wings behind a shield. Her voice was small and dry when she finally asked, “Are you an angel?”

I didn’t say anything. How do you explain to a child who’s been through this that her savior is a man as bad as the one’s he’d rescued her from. I just clenched my jaw and pushed her face into my chest as I carried her out of the house.

Author’s Note

Dent is a character that has been floating around in my head for a while now. At some point, I got it in my brain to write a post-apocalyptic epic and I wanted my hero to be a guy who does horrible things for selfish, horrible reasons, but still can’t help but bring more good to the world.

I have no idea how the world ended. That’s probably one of the reasons I haven’t written anything in Dent’s world before now. I think knowing what caused the apocalypse is one of those things you’re supposed to figure out before you begin writing a book.

The only thing I know about Dent’s apocalypse is it wasn’t zombies.

Really, that’s good enough for me. I’m not sure I’d agree that zombies are overdone, but poorly written zombies are overdone. I don’t think I want to be contributing to that.

But, who knows. Maybe I’ll write a zombie story someday. I’ve still got a whole lot of Bradbury challenge left to do.