Happy Trails

Well, just got the email saying that my final story has been received and is under review over at NYCMidnight’s #flashfictionchallenge. Down to 40 writers with the following prompt; open genre, and animal sanctuary, and a bulletproof vest. I laughed when I saw the final object, given my history of wearing them. Gave it half a day of kicking around ideas and then a dark vision of my daughter crept into my mind.  Anyway, here is where it ended up. I hope you like it.

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Happy Trails

Stepping into the bullet-ridden stables, Val stops and lets out a whistle of birdsong. The chirps echo in the darkness, and red, white, and blue graffiti preaches propaganda. Is this the America you wanted? She walks the empty corridor and steps into the last stall on the right, moving quietly to the corner. She slips the rifle off of her shoulder and sets it gingerly against the wall next to a tattered blanket and backpack. In the opposite corner, a frail-looking, older man in mud-stained fatigues rests against a military rucksack, wheezing with every intake of breath.

“You couldn’t sneak up on a dead dog, you know that, Chooch?” Beck says without opening his eyes.

“We can always stop whistling,” she says, crossing to place the back of her hand on his forehead. “Best you stay quiet, Pop.”

“You’d like that,” he says, breaking into a fit of coughing.

Val pulls a canteen from her belt and hands it to him. “Drink some.”

He opens his eyes, sees the initials RD56 etched in the plastic, and shakes his head. “Where’s mine?”

“Ripped off your pack when you fell.”

“I fell?”

“Two miles back. Ranger carried you as far as he could before it got to be too much. I backtracked this morning when you were asleep, but I couldn’t find it.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Beck says, taking the canteen. “There are kill cells everywhere.”

“Lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my,” she says, raising her eyebrows.

Beck shakes his head, concealing a smile. He holds the canteen over his open mouth, careful not to touch it to his lips, and lets the water trickle out. “Where are we?”

“According to the half-burnt sign outside, appy Trails Animal Sanctu,” she says, pulling her dirty blonde hair into a ponytail. Beck tries to stand but she puts her hand on his shoulder. “Rest, Pop. It’s the best way to get better.”

“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he croaks back.

Val reaches into her pack and pulls out a small orange bottle of pills and shakes two into her hand. “Take these.”

Beck pops them into his mouth, dry swallows, and starts coughing again, holding his fist to his mouth.

“The Government was here,” she says as his hacking subsides. “Spreading the gospel against Radical Dissention. They got propaganda posters stuck on everything from chicken coops to trees.”

“Chicken coops? That sounds foul,” he says smiling. She ignores him and rolls up her blanket. “People?”

“Thought I saw something in the woods, but it turned out to be nothing.”

“You sure?”

“There’s a grave behind the house.”

“There’s a house?”

“Burned down.”

“Figures,” Beck mumbles. “Listen, about this fever.”

“Stop,” Val says, with a lump in her throat.

“If you add my rations to yours, you’ll have a better chance—”

“You have a cold,” Val interrupts. “That’s it.”

“Hon,” Beck says softly.

“What?” Val yells, staring at him. Beck lowers his head, defeated. Val pulls the pistol from the holster on her belt and checks it.

“Still loaded?” Beck says, smiling. She ignores him, wipes the back of her hand on her cheek, and holsters the weapon. “Where’s Ranger?” He asks.

“Heading South with the rest. To St. Augustine. We’ll catch up.”

“You should have left me—”

“Ranger gave me a few extra cans of beans.” She reaches into her pack, and tosses them to him. “I’m going to get some wood for a fire.” She stands up and pats the dust from her pants. “Try to rest. I’ll be back.”

Beck watches her disappear down the corridor. He opens his fist and stares at the pills she gave him. He reaches around to a pocket of his rucksack and pulls out a plastic baggie. He drops the pills in, seals it, and stuffs it back in the pocket.

As she reaches for a last stick of kindling, Val registers a movement coming from the wood-line over by the empty kennels. She casually lays the wood on the ground and pretends to tie her shoes. Sunlight glints on glass from somewhere under the scrub brush. Binoculars? Rifle scope? She picks up the wood and heads for the stable, whistling as she draws near.

“We got a scout,” she says, dropping the bundle at Beck’s feet.

“How many?” Beck coughs.

“Just one.” Val grabs the rifle and checks the load. She reaches into her backpack, pulls out a bulletproof vest, and slips it over her shoulders.

“I’m going with you,” he says, reaching for his own vest.

Val shakes her head. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“You mind your elders, Chooch.”

In a flash, Val grabs her father’s vest, throws it over his shoulders, and pulls the Velcro straps to tighten it up. “I do mind,” she says. “I mind your cough. I mind your ragged breathing when you sleep. And I mind how you think it would be easier for me to survive this civil war without you.” Her voice tightens as she chokes back the pressure building in her throat. “I’m not going to let you get yourself shot to make it easier to leave.” Val pulls a sheathed knife from her pack and connects it to her vest. “I’m going to flank his position, and do what you’ve been teaching me to do ever since the world imploded. Okay?”

Beck stares at her face, sees the blue of her mother’s eyes, and his fear mixes with pride. “You can do this,” he says, wiping his cheek.

“I know,” she says standing. “You good?”

Beck pulls a heavy revolver from his belt. “I’m good,” he says.

“I’m better,” she responds, smiling and kissing him on the forehead. “Fever’s going down,” she says. “Good thing I been crushing those pills in your beans.”

Beck smiles sheepishly. “How did you know?”

“I’ve seen five-year-olds with better palming skills, Pop.” She grabs the rifle, ready to fight, and steps into the corridor. “Love you,” she says, “and remember, unless it whistles, shoot it.”

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