The boy in the cage watched as the old man reached two grimy fingers into his mouth and pulled out a molar. It made a crunch as it left his jaw. The old man examined it for a moment, then tossed it into the dying fire. It landed with a hiss and set off a tiny shower of embers.
“You don’t look too comfortable in there,” the old man said.
The sound of his voice startled the boy. The old man had said little since he stumbled into the camp and found the boy huddled in the corner of the rusted steel pen.
When the boy said nothing, the old man turned away again. He worked his grizzled chin, running his tongue over the sore spot where his molar had been. He seemed more dead than alive, slumping next to the faltering flames, squinting into the acrid smoke, eyes barely open.
He might have been 34, maybe even 35. He couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter anymore. Whatever it was, he was ancient. Nearly twice what anyone could realistically hope to live to in these days, what with things as they were. He was certainly more than twice as old as anyone young Dorian had ever met.
Dorian didn’t know his own age, either. Or how long he’d spent his nights in the cage. He’d tell you he remembered five or six winters, but he knew there had to be more before. Three, maybe? Four? Whatever the number, Dorian was still a boy. But he was a boy smart enough to know he’d be lucky if he saw five or six winters more.
“What’s your name, boy?” the old man asked.
Dorian studied him, wondering how someone so withered and decrepit could survive the barren, broiling land. Water existed only in muddy puddles in dusty river beds, food in precious morsels. But would he be any better off in the fetid muck of the Edge, swallowed by snake-infested swamp? Or wandering the shell-pocked roadways dodging Wreakers? Those loathsome bands of cannibals reveled in the sounds of suffering as they peeled the skin from their screaming victims, then skewered them on spits to roast alive.
The boy sometimes heard their agonized wails in the distance and curled tighter into his sleep-hole. On those long nights, even the gnarled bars of his cage seemed too flimsy to protect him. He’d shiver until morning, and feel oddly relieved as he was yanked gruffly out of the enclosure and sent out — usually with a kick or a fist to the head — to scrounge, scavenge, or steal whatever scattered scraps he could find to fill his pouch. And he knew better than to return if it wasn’t full.
No, in this world only the strongest or most cunning survived. Them and the ones who served them.
As the half-formed thoughts chased each other around in the boy’s mind, the man’s hand shot out, blindingly fast. It came back with the head of a rattlesnake clasped firmly in its grasp. The snake’s fat body writhed angrily below the old man’s fist. Until the man snagged its tail with his other hand and snapped the snake like a whip. The serpent’s head hit a flat stone. It sagged instantly. Lifeless.
The old man drew it back through his hand, cupping its fat mass in his palm. He clasped the head tight. Then he ripped it off with a quick, vicious twist.
He kept the head clenched in his fist, tossed the body to the boy. It landed with a plop in the dirt next to Dorian’s cage.
“Cook that,” the old man said. “It’ll make good eatin’.”
A deep voice boomed out of the darkness just beyond the fire’s light.
“Who you tellin’ what to do, old man?”
It was Zeke. Big and dumb and mean. In equal parts. A mountain of muscle and malevolence, with just enough brains to remember to breathe. Zeke served as the leader of the group, mostly because no one dared, or cared enough, to challenge him. If he wanted to think of himself as their leader, so be it. Someone, the boy figured, had to be. Heading the group may have earned Zeke special privileges with the women, but it also meant he wore a large target on his chest.
“I’m talking to you, old man.”
“I don’t want any trouble,” the old man said.
“Too late for that.” Zeke stepped close enough to tower over the old man.
The old man raised his eyes to meet Zeke’s.
“There used to be a lake here,” he said.
Zeke’s eyebrows knotted up in confusion.
“A lake,” the old man continued. “Before the flash. Before the call-up.”
Zeke’s mouth dropped open. He huffed, as if sucking in more air would help clear the clouds in his brain. Then he burst into a guffaw.
“This?” he hooted. He kicked the dirt in front of the old man, scattering rough-hewn shards of rock and sending up a plume of gray dust. He whirled to face the scraggly band of onlookers clinging to the shadows just beyond the fire’s light.
“The old man’s crazy,” he howled.
“I had a boy,” the old man said. “A toddler, just. He took his first steps the day before I left.”
He glanced toward Dorian.
“He’d be about your age now, I’d guess.”
“What happened to him?” Dorian asked.
“He stayed with his mother. Like most, we figured I’d be back soon enough. That the troubles were a distant thing. That it would all be over quick.”
He looked away, into the darkness beyond the fire, at something only he could see. Then his eyes squeezed tight, like he was trying to shut out the vision.
“We didn’t know.”
Zeke spun back to face him, the smile gone.
“You were with the Force?” Zeke swept a giant hand in a wide arc. “Then I guess we have you to thank for all of this.”
The old man said nothing. He lowered his eyes again, fixed them on the space between him and Zeke.
“By the time I got back, she was …,” the old man said, to no one in particular. His voice trailed off, lost in that place only he could see. “I don’t know how long. I buried … what was left.”
“And the boy?” Dorian asked.
“He wasn’t there.”
“Maybe. She had a necklace. A locket. heart-shaped. With a picture of him cut to fit inside. His first birthday. Chubby cheeks and a head full of curls. She showed it to him all the time. ‘This is you,’ she’d say. ‘And this is where mommy keeps you, locked in her heart.’"
Dorian’s hand shot to his chest. His fingers traced the shape of the thing that hung there, hidden beneath his ragged shirt.
“She wasn’t wearing it when I found her. He was gone,” the old man said. He turned to face the boy. “I swore I would never stop looking.”
Dorian grabbed the bars of his cage, shook them violently. Zeke slammed a fist against the rusty rails, sending the boy cowering back into a corner.
“Don’t even think it,” Zeke said, his voice a low growl. He gave the old man his most menacing stare. “He’s mine. I found him. I fed him. I trained him.”
“You keep him in a cage.”
“No. He isn’t.”
The old man sprang to his feet. Fast.
But Zeke was fast, too. A bone blade he’d fashioned from a dead man’s rib appeared out of nowhere. He slashed across the old man’s middle.
Dorian saw the man’s shirt slice open. A red stain spread.
The old man, though, kept moving. His hand flew at Zeke’s neck. Then Dorian saw what it held — the snake’s head, mouth wide, curved fangs extended. They shone brilliant and white, until they disappeared, sinking quickly into the fat carotid pulsing in Zeke’s neck.
Zeke clutched instinctively at his throat, clawing desperately at the old man’s hand, trying to pry it, and the rattlesnake’s head it held, away. Then his eyes glazed. His frantic pawing grew weaker. His hands dropped to his sides and Zeke, now nothing but a mountain of meat, flopped unceremoniously face-first into the fire.
The boy and the old man walked for days. Until the boy’s calloused feet were raw and bleeding. The old man cleaned them with what was left of the water in his canteen. Then he wrapped them carefully in cloth he pulled from his pack.
“Almost there,” the old man said.
He helped Dorian to his feet again and they kept walking. To where the ground rose and the desert gave way to scrub. They wound their way between ever-taller hills, and came upon a valley.
The old man put his arm around Dorian’s shoulders.
“We’re here,” he said.
Dorian looked up at him.
“I …,” the boy began. He swallowed hard, looked at the ground. He took a deep, shuddering breath and looked back up into the old man’s eyes. “I’m not him. I’m sorry. I don’t have a heart-shaped locket.”
The old man smiled softly.
“I know,” he said. He fished a chain from his pocket. He held it up for the boy to see. A silver locket, heart-shaped, dangled from it. It glittered in the slanting afternoon sun.
“I found my son,” the old man continued. “He’s with his mother now.”
The boy looked at him, bewildered.
“But you said you’d never stop looking.”
The old man gave a long, low whistle.
Dorian heard a rustling. A boy about his own age popped out from a gap in the valley wall. Then another, a little younger, farther ahead. Then more — boys, girls; older, younger. Maybe a dozen in all.
“I couldn’t save my son. But I swore I’d never stop looking. For ones I could.”