Early on, Craig only had his big sister Sara. The plague claimed their parents not long after Craig's third birthday. Apparently, their immune systems were too weak to fight it off, but their kids could. Sara was twelve years older and very practical. She brought Craig to some friends who also survived, and they worked together to build their own “family”. Though she stayed focused on finding the essentials like food and first-aid supplies, Sara did grab a jewelry box from their former home and gave the adornments away to everyone in the family. Craig took a large heart-shaped locket simply because it was the biggest. Sara didn't dissuade him from taking it, even giving him a picture of her to put into it, but she did warn him to keep it hidden under his shirt as it would be too tempting for thieves.
Sara's friends came to be Craig's “family”. Though he didn't get to go on the foraging runs that often, he did get quite adept at gardening and hunting the varmints that tried to get his fresh crops of carrots. The house the “family” used was also well-isolated from the chaos outside. Working generators meant that the house still had electricity, albeit a somewhat limited supply. They may not have been able to host parties, but the refrigerator and lights worked. They could even have movie nights once in a while. The homestead became a slice of heaven in the middle of hell.
Unfortunately, as well as they tried, they couldn't keep raiders out forever, and those pests were far more dangerous than rabbits trying to steal carrots. At first, the defenses set up and the family's supply of weapons kept thieves at bay. However, the homestead's relative prosperity made it a target as tempting as a palace owned by pacifists. After ten years of reasonable peace, an army of raiders managed to overrun the barricades and wipe out most of the “family”. Sara managed to fend off the hordes long enough for Craig to escape with some emergency supplies, but, inevitably, she fell, too.
“Yes, I know all that.”
Craig snapped out of his reverie.
His newer traveling buddy Dennis groaned.
“You've told me the whole story about that place and your sister a couple dozen times in the last few months! I get it! You had a good place. It got raided. You got out. You met me after those raiders got my parents. I know the whole story!”
Craig sighed. “Sorry. I just miss that. It felt like a new home.”
“I know,” Dennis said, “but we can't go back. We were just lucky to stay out of trouble for the last few months.”
“I thought they just wanted to take whatever place they could for themselves,” Craig wondered. “They already got one of the best places left in the state. Why do they need to keep attacking everywhere?”
Dennis shrugged. “Maybe they want slaves. Maybe they just feed on fear. Maybe they're cannibals! Who knows? Who cares? We just need to stay away from them.”
Craig understood that to mean that Dennis wanted to drop it. Dennis was only a couple years older than Craig, but he was just as practical as Sara. However, he was also much gruffer. He got his point across quickly.
Although Dennis typically raided the increasingly rare homes and shops that hadn't already been ransacked by then for supplies, Craig took advantage of what he learned from tending the homestead's garden and foraged for usable plants and hunting small game, especially rabbits. Rather than staying in one place, Dennis insisted on staying mobile, sleeping in makeshift tents when abandoned houses weren't available, and never staying in one place for more than one night. While Craig protested, Dennis said that staying in one place was akin to painting bull's eyes on their backs for the raiders.
However, staying in one place soon became a necessity. During an attempt to loot an old antebellum manor house that was just too tempting to resist, Dennis ran afoul of a couple of rabid dogs that had already claimed the area. He tried to make a break for it, but one of the dogs managed to sink its jaws into his left leg. After swinging a fireplace poker that he got his hands on at the dogs to ward them off, Dennis managed to sprint out the door and hop the surrounding fence to break the dogs' pursuit. By the time he made it back to spot in the nearby woods where Craig was foraging for useful leaves, Dennis' leg was bleeding profusely and gave out. Craig dropped what he picked to rush to Dennis' aid.
“What happened?” Craig asked as he cut Dennis' pant leg off with his pocketknife.
“A couple of mutts at the house ran out of Kibbles N' Bits and thought I looked tasty,” Dennis groaned.
Fortunately, one of the things Dennis found in the manor before being chased out was a first-aid kit which included a small bottle of peroxide. Remembering some first-aid that Sara taught him, Craig dug out the bandages and gauze. He also grabbed a fallen tree branch off the ground and handed it to Dennis.
“Bite down on that,” Craig told him. “The peroxide's gonna sting like a bitch.”
Dennis did so, but it barely helped. When Craig poured the peroxide on to the wound, Dennis was screaming within a second. The branch hardly muffled it. Craig was so concerned with patching Dennis up, he gave little concern to whether anyone heard the screaming.
That night, Dennis was poking at the fire Craig built while Craig dug into a can of beans left over from one of Dennis' previous “shopping trips”.
“We really shouldn't stay here,” Dennis said. “Who knows how many people heard what happened earlier.”
Craig protested, “We have to. Your leg was ripped to shreds. You could've even contracted rabies from those dogs. If we try to move right now, the injuries could get worse to the point you may lose your leg. It'll be much harder to keep running that way.”
“But what if someone heard us?” Dennis countered.
“Just trust me,” Craig snapped. “I know what I'm talking about. Sara taught me this stuff.”
Dennis threw away the stick he was using to poke at the fire. “Dammit, Craig! I'm sick of you talking about your sister! Remind me; where is she now?”
Craig spit out a mouthful of beans. “Low blow, Dennis!”
“My point's still made,” Dennis smugly said.
Craig finished his meager dinner and tossed the can into the woods. He lied down in his tent before responding.
“Look... You can start running if you want to. You won't get two hundred yards before your leg will die on you. Adrenaline will only get you so far.”
Dennis groaned and slammed his fist down on the ground. “Fine. Have it your way.”
Dennis didn't return to his tent. He rolled over and fell asleep right next to the fire as Craig drifted off, as well.
A sudden clatter above his head woke Craig up. He rolled over to find his tent gone. In its place was an ugly, dirty face on a large male body which had a pistol aimed at him.
“Get up, and keep your hands where I can see 'em,” the face growled.
Craig did what he was told, stumbling a little due to not using his hands to get to his feet and keeping his eyes locked on the ogre in front of him. There was another bruiser holding Craig and Dennis' supply bags behind the one with the weapon. Out of the corner of his right eye, he saw another monster of a man with a weapon trained on Dennis who was clearly trying to keep his weight off his injured leg. Just past them was a group of additional brutes with rifles and shotguns at the ready.
“I told you we should've left,” Dennis grumbled.
“Quiet!” his captor shouted, hitting him across the face with his pistol's grip. Dennis lost his balance and tumbled to the ground, barely missing the fire pit.
The brute in front of Craig snarled, “Are all your food and weapons in these bags?”
“Yes, sir,” Craig responded, hoping that the stranger wouldn't frisk him and find the Clif bars in his pockets.
The raider flashed an evil grin and said, “Thank you,” before pulling the trigger. As Craig flew backward, he heard a second shot to his right.
After who knows how long, Craig gasped, his eyes popping open. He sat up, struggling somewhat. He looked down at his chest, finding a fresh hole burned into his jacket around his sternum. Shocked, he tore open his jacket, following an additional hole in his old, dirty t-shirt. He reached into the collar of his t-shirt, and his hand found hot metal on his chest but not in it. He pulled it out.
It was the locket that Sara gave him all those years ago. The bullet the brute fired became lodged in it. Shocked, Craig opened it. The picture of Sara she put in it was still intact, albeit slightly scratched.
Craig closed the locket and clutched it in his hand with his eyes closed.
“Sara,” Craig whispered. “Still looking out for me.”
After checking over Dennis' dead body for whatever he had left, Craig started off for (hopefully) a brighter future. He didn't know if he would find it, but he knew his sister would still be with him every step of the way.
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