Skip wouldn’t let him go any further, so Michael leaned back against the tree and waited for the others. This part of Montana was basically untouched by civilization, which meant that whatever Skip had spotted didn’t belong here. Michael reached for the metal canteen and drank the last of his water, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Daniel was fast, and silent, and although Michael never asked him how he did it, he had a suspicion that moving through the world unseen was Daniel’s deepest desire.
“Skip saw something,” Michael said.
Daniel nodded. “There’s a group camped over near the river.”
Michael let a little whine slip into his tone; the cracking of puberty made it sound ridiculous, even to Michael, but sometimes he couldn’t help it. He wanted to be strong, like Sheila, but it was hard. “I’m thirsty.”
Daniel put his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “I know, buddy. We’ll figure it out. Come on back.”
Skip trotted back down the hill towards the others. Sheila was carrying the oversized pack, as usual, and her husband John had his omnipresent rifle, a heavy black thing with an oversized scope. It had just been the four of them for weeks, ever since Amanda and Josh had been scooped up by another group in Colorado.
John leaned over, wheezing, while Sheila looked on in disgust. She’d barely broken a sweat during their trek through the woods, and even though she looked like a frail little thing, Michael had seen her do…stuff. Sheila didn’t want to be weak, so now she wasn’t.
“What’s the hold up?” Sheila asked.
“Group camped ahead,” Daniel replied. Sheila fixed Daniel with a stare. “Three guys, two girls. Young. Healthy, but…”
Daniel didn’t need to say more. Most of the young girls had wanted frilly things, like ponies or to be Princesses, and those didn’t help much when it all went sideways. Most young boys had gotten similarly worthless things, but Michael was a rare case. Skip was a good dog; watchful, intelligent, and with an ability to steer Michael away from danger. It was Skip who’d found Daniel, and later Sheila and John. They hadn’t seen a kid his age in months at that point. Most of them had been killed, or worse. Now, having kids in a group was usually a bad sign. It was why Michael and Skip had to hide whenever they came across another group.
“What’s the plan?” John asked.
Sheila shrugged. “Same as always. Daniel scares ’em, you shoot ’em, I mop up. Michael and Skip on overwatch.”
It wasn’t the first time they’d come across a group like this. It’d become routine, almost. Daniel’d figure out what side of the fence they were on, try and suss out what they’d got in their box. If they seemed OK, Sheila made contact while John covered her, and they’d try and trade stuff. If they didn’t, Daniel’d flush them out like a fox hound and John’d take care of ’em. Sheila stuck close in case someone tried to run, while Michael and Skip made sure no one snuck up on the rest of the crew.
“Where do you want me?” Michael asked.
Sheila looked around and pointed at the hill he and Daniel had just climbed down from. “That works.”
Michael nodded and started his way back up the hill when Sheila grabbed him, motioning for everyone to gather around.
“Look, I know you’ve heard this before, but be careful. We don’t know what they got in their boxes. Could be someone wanted to be Bruce Lee really damn bad, you get me?”
Michael didn’t know who Bruce Lee was, but the other two nodded so he nodded as well.
Sheila looked at John. “How much?”
John shrugged. “Enough to get the job done.”
“And when you’re out?”
John’s face turned red. “We’ve talked about this…”
“Yeah, we have,” Sheila said, “But we never get to the point where we talk about what the fuck you’ll actually do once you run out. I’ve seen you shoot without that fucking gun, John.” Sheila sneered at him. “A fucking Steyr Sniper Rifle. You couldn’t even wish for something useful.”
“I’d say I’ve been pretty fucking useful, Sheils,” John said.
Sheila snorted. “Yeah, until we can’t find any more bullets for that fucking thing. Then you’re worse than useless. At least the kid has the dog.”
John’s face went an even deeper shade of red, but he didn’t say anything.
“You two done with the marital spat?” Daniel asked. Michael jumped a bit. He’d forgotten Daniel was even there. He knew what he could do, but it still spooked him every time. “Yeah? Then let’s go fuck these people up.”
It went just like the other times.
When Daniel appeared (From thin air, Michael thought) in the middle of their camp, the group ran off in different directions. The girls were chained to a heavy log, so they didn’t get far, but one ran towards the hill and the other two ran parallel to the river. Unfortunately for them, that’s where Sheila was.
Michael heard the flat crack of John’s rifle and saw the third man sprawl in the grass.
He heard a short sharp shriek of pain from one of the other two before they were silenced. Michael peered back down the hill, and down either side of the river, but couldn’t see anything. A few moments later, he heard the all-clear whistle and started making his way down towards the camp.
Skip let loose a low growl, and Michael turned around. There wasn’t anything there. He looked forward, and saw the man that John had shot.
“Help,” the man said.
“Oh, shit,” Michael said. “HEY! OVER HERE! THIS GUY’S STILL ALIVE!”
Michael walked closer, until Skip grabbed his pant leg with his teeth.
“OK, OK, I’m not going closer,” Michael said.
The man peered up at him, old and dirty, blood stained on the teeth of his smile.
“Why are you smiling?” Michael asked.
“Had a better run than I thought,” the man replied.
“I shouldn’t even be listening to you. You could’ve wanted to be a hypnotist or something,” Michael said.
The man let loose a laugh that devolved into a phlegmy cough.
“Yeah, I guess that’s true, but that’s not what I wanted,” the man said.
Michael waited, but the man fell silent, looking up at the sky.
“What did you want?” Michael asked.
“This,” the man replied.
“What, to be shot?” Michael asked.
“When I opened my box after the Flash, I thought it was just a trick played by my little brother,” the man said. Now that Michael got a good look at him, he realized he wasn’t as old as he thought. Maybe in his early 20’s. The dirt made him look older. “Little fucker was always playing tricks on me.”
The man stopped as another bout of coughing racked his frame.
“It wasn’t until we all figured out what the Flash was that I realized…” the man petered off.
“Realized what?” Michael asked.
“That I caused all of this,” the man said.
Daniel’s knife slid into the man’s neck easily, and the blood didn’t squirt as much as flow out of his throat. Michael was more spooked by Daniel’s reappearing act than the violence.
Daniel wiped the knife off in the grass, slid it back into it’s sheath, and beckoned Michael to come with him.
“Do you think he’s right?” Michael asked.
“Right about what?” Daniel said, “Right about causing this?”
Daniel took a moment before answering. “No. He didn’t cause this.” Daniel stopped. “You know, I thought I did, for a while.”
Michael stared at Daniel. “Why would you have caused it?”
Daniel looked over to where Sheila and John were taking care of the two girls, and then back to Michael.
“You ever wonder where the boxes came from?” Daniel asked.
“I mean, I guess so,” Michael said.
“Well, they came from me,” Daniel said. “I mean, not just from me, but I was one of the delivery guys. For months, all I did was drop off those boxes at houses. I remember this one guy, I’d dropped off a package at his house a week or so before the Flash, and I was dropping a box off at his neighbor’s house. The guy came out, real pissed, and had a go at me. Told me that he couldn’t open the box, and wanted to know what the hell was inside it. I told him that I just delivered the boxes, and didn’t know anything. He got tired of shouting at me after a while and went back inside. I knew right then that something was wrong, but I needed the job; my mom was always on my ass, and my dad…shit.”
Daniel stopped for a moment, absentmindedly playing with the hilt of his knife.
“Anyway, after the Flash, I felt responsible. In my neighborhood, everyone’s boxes came from me. At first, it was nice, you know? People came to thank me, the ones who knew I delivered the boxes. They were happy. Can you fucking believe that?”
Daniel looked at Michael.
“When it started going bad, I felt even worse. Until I realized something,” Daniel said.
“What?” Michael asked.
“We did this,” Daniel said. “Fucking people, man. They were smart, the people behind this. Aliens, who the fuck ever. They knew the one thing that would tear us all apart would be to give us exactly what we all wanted.”
Michael thought about it for a moment. “Good thing all I wanted was a dog.”
Daniel laughed and ruffled Michael’s hair. “Yeah, little man. Good thing.”