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The Shadows of Boys at Dawn
By Michael A. Michel
       Beth held Will's head in her lap and stroked his greasy, unkempt hair as his eyelids grew heavy with sleep.
       She sighed. Overhead, clouds drifted past a rusted halo of light around the moon and crickets hummed their gentle tunes into the darkness beneath a night-sky tainted brown with pollution.
       "Everything is not okay, Will," she told him. "Not now, not ever. Monsters are real now, and they will get us if we let them."
       He nodded then closed leaden eyes.
       Beth cursed whoever had caused this global tragedy. She remembered more promising times--safer times. But life had that effect: things are always okay up until the moment they change. And then nothing is.
       Dreams came and went. Beth only ever fell half asleep anymore, all things fogged and unclear between the world that had once been and the new, horrible one that would never end.
       #
       Beth knelt and drew Will into her arms. It was his first day of elementary school. Her shoulder muffled his cries and absorbed tears from his cheeks. All around them, parents hugged their children goodbye, or escorted them into school, a squat, beige tissue box of a building. A copse of trees covered a small hill to one side.
        "I thought you were excited for your first day," Beth said.
        Will shook his head then pulled away and looked into her eyes. "Can't you come with me? I don't know anyone." He frowned, and then the tears returned all at once. "I'm scared, Mommy."
        Moisture gathered in Beth's eyes. She smiled at how brave he was trying to be. "Everything is going to be okay, sweetie. There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing bad is going to happen and you're going to learn so much."
       She gave him a kiss on the forehead. "I bet there are a lot of kids like you who are a little scared, too. You could be a brave friend who helps them through their first day."
        Will stopped crying and stared at her with red rimmed eyes. Every few seconds, a sniffle shook him.
        "Could you be brave for someone else?" she asked.
        He nodded. "Of course, Momma."
        "Good." Beth ran a hand through his hair. "Then do it."
        Nearby, a little girl close to Will's age turned away from her mother, stomping the ground.
        "Hi," Will said and stepped in front of the angry girl. "Do you want to hold my hand?" He put out his hand. "It's my first day, too."
        The girl smiled. She didn't pull away when Will reached for her hand. They walked into school and the unknown, together, smiles on their faces.
       Beth remained kneeling, tears at the corners of her eyes finally releasing, and then sliding down her cheeks.
       Everything would be okay.
       #
        Everything would be okay...
        The words tore through her. She jolted awake at the contrary concept, her hand already instinctively gripping a hatchet's handle in her belt. No, she told herself, that was seven years ago. Will was in kindergarten seven years ago. Kindergartens no longer exist.
       Will stirred to wakefulness in her lap.
        "Do you have your knife?" she asked him as she brought her breath to calm.
        "Of course," he said sleepily. "What's wrong?"
        "Good. You need to have it on you always, even when you sleep," she said, ignoring his question.
        So much had changed. Mere thousands had received the right antibody strain in time. Not before the poisoned skies stretched across the world. Not before they'd infected so many.
       Beth and Will had been lucky.
       Will might have been the only living child who had gone to the nearby elementary school--at least, the only one still human. She wanted to remind him one last time before he drifted off again. He must always remember....
       "Everything is not okay," Beth said. She placed a hand on her knee. Pain contracted the joint, forcing a grunt. The knee wouldn't last long; any future step could be its last. Every movement was a gift.
       "Nothing is okay." Her ability to protect Will would soon be gone. "The monsters are always there. They are real. Going to sleep won't make them go away. And I won't always be around."
        "I know, Momma," he whispered. He sounded hollow, his face plastic as the words formed on his lips. The last year had been rough and she worried if her son was breaking like some of the other survivors they'd seen.
        She leaned forward and kissed him then spoke softly into his ear, "You are strong. You won't ever give up."
       "I know," he said unconvincingly.
       Beth continued. "Whether you are with me or alone, if they find you, they'll kill you and nothing you say or do will stop them. They will talk like us, but they are not us."
        "I don't think I can stop one without you," he said.
        She hushed him. "You can," she said. "You'll have to." Then she stroked his hair until he drifted off to sleep again. His fingers and toes twitched. Beth remembered a time when such a moment would have made her smile. Now, it fed the rock in her gut like a cancer.
       Beth wondered if Will was disconnecting, accepting his fate, weary of the brown skies, the acrid air, and the days spent listening for rasping voices and scuffing footfalls. Maybe her tactic of forced learning had worn him down.
       No. Beth shook her head. She wouldn't let him give up, and he hadn't. He was more than she saw. She knew that.
       Twigs buckled under some unseen weight nearby--not too close, but near--possibly a small animal.
       Will was getting bigger. She had been his sole teacher in life and the lessons were bleak. Live. Survive. Bring reality close. Take the nightmare sights of the past and chain them up in the cellar of your mind and never let them in.
       God no. Never let the nightmares in.
       A branch snapped. Definitely not a small animal. Bigger, and closer now.
       A rasp cut the night air.
       Beth's heart beat faster. Sweat formed in the creases of her palms. She closed her mouth and directed her breath through her nose.
       Scooping Will's head up with her arm, she uncrossed her legs, and then slid her hips out to the side while levering her back against the tree. She placed a rolled up sweatshirt under his head. Then she pulled the hatchet from her belt.
       Beth dipped her head slightly to avoid their tarp which was tied between three trees to act as a makeshift roof; it allowed for visibility in all directions while still protecting them from rain which could cause rashes and infection.
       In the dark, where the nightmare-thing roamed, she relied on her ears to guide her, first circling wide of the rasping voice, then pausing at the sight of movement in a small clearing.
       Moonlight knifed through a break in the tree cover. The creature was shorter than her and had been a young male close to Will's age. Its face even looked like Will's, thick eyebrows and dark hair. It was naked, and a metal bracelet flashed on its wrist marking it as one of those from the nearby quarantine camp which was now abandoned. She wondered if it had once been a boy in Will's class.... She pushed the useless thought away.
       She took a breath, slow and steady, attempting to calm her shaking body.
       "Help," the nightmare-thing rasped. Its teeth clacked together and it rubbed papery lips together. Moonlight shone off its hungry, distant eyes as it searched the surrounding trees. Its nose lifted, sniffing the air.
       "Help," it said again, and then moved off in Will's direction.
       Beth followed.
       Will came into view, soundly asleep. Her chest tightened. Her throat went dry and she tried to swallow but couldn't until her third attempt.
        It knelt, and then bowed forward as if in prayer over Will. Satisfied that no others lurked nearby, she moved in behind it for the kill. A half dozen paces away, uneven ground caused her to step awkwardly. Her injured knee buckled and she stifled a scream with a sharp intake of breath.
        The creature's head momentarily turned away from her son. "Help," it said in the same susurrus, dead leaves rubbing against dry bark.
        Every fiber of her wanted to lash out, to wedge her hatchet blade in its skull. Instead, she ducked under their tarp and stepped closer, her bad leg dragging behind her. She raised her weapon but made no further move. Please wake up, Will.
       Please.
        She licked her lips, arms quaking. It's time, she told herself. It will be okay. Everything will be okay. Will knows what to do. She taught him well. He hasn't given up. He will respond. He is awake. Right now, he is awake.
       He might die. She would let him die...
        The thing leaned down, its mouth open over Will's arm. Her legs trembled. She couldn't. Her heart moved into her throat.
       "Will!" she shouted.
        A flash of activity, quick and intense in the darkness. Shadows bled into one another in a rush. Even before her cautioning shout, there had been movement.
       Tension melted and the entire forest seemed to sigh. She no longer heard the heavy breaths of Will's slumber. The creature that was once a boy like Will was silent.
        Her chest heaved in silent rhythm. She lowered her hatchet and side-stepped. Will's face greeted her. He nodded. The hilt of his knife protruded from the temple of the nightmare thing.
        "Thank you," he said, and then kicked the corpse away.
        Beth dropped to her knees then brought both hands to cover her face. She stopped breathing as she sent up a silent prayer. With the help of Will, she dragged the creature's body into a dried out creek bed a short distance away. Up close, she found that it looked a lot less like her son than she originally thought.
        Cool air seemed to touch Beth's skin for the first time, chilling her. She placed her hatchet back in her belt, surveyed the forest, and then settled in beside Will beneath their tarp at the base of the tree.
        Her hand fluttered over her face as she attempted to hide her shame. Her face contorted. She sucked in, but tears never came. She had almost let Will be killed. What kind of lesson would that have been? One for herself, probably.
        "Thank you," Will said then sat upright beside her. "I love you, Mom."
        Not Mommy, or Momma.
        She nodded, took a breath, and then relaxed against the tree.
        "It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. Killing one, I mean," he said.
       "There will be others." Her knee burned, bringing tears to her eyes. "I think my knee is done."
        "Don't worry, Mom. Everything's okay now." He took her hand. "I'll be the watch tonight."
        "You've always been brave," she said, and then for the first time in seven years, Beth fell asleep fully and without worry.
       She dreamed of Will, smiling and laughing on the playground at his old school. The shadows of the play structures reached toward him like demon hands and the sun melted away along the clear skies of the horizon and his breath and sweat were vibrant and alive as night bled the shadows into fleeting memories.
       ###
       
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