With a frizzle and jolt the lights burst on. Dazzling bright, they cause the demon to twitch and miss its aim. And Instead of my throat in its teeth it finds my blade crunching through the roof of its mouth.
“Back to hell with da lot of ya’! When you get t’ere say hello to my husband!” Bertha’s gravely voice reverberates through the store followed quickly by dancing lead and burning powder. Multiple guns go off at once, and I remember my .44-40 and 12-gauge, sawed off to fit beneath the arm rests of my chair.
I draw them both and join the party. In the searing light the twitchers seize and pitch erratically, and soon the room is filled with blood foam and smoke. With only two ways in or out, Bertie’s quickly becomes a twitcher mass grave. By the time the gunfire stops I’m buried three bodies deep.
After Mykola and Pyotr pull me from the tangle of twitcher bodies, I comprehend the extent of the slaughter. Bertie’s will never be the same. Flies buzz around our heads, entering and exiting at will through the countless bullet holes puncturing the tin siding. The end of the store closest my position, completely ripped open by fleeing twitchers, floods with waining afternoon sun.
And the bodies—more twitchers than I’ve seen alive all my days in the dust zone—bleed out in heaps.
“This twas only a puncheon of ‘em. Da main column be headed north and west a here more dan tirty beats ago.” In the road Bertha updates the lot of us as Leonid jumps down from the crow’s nest. “I t’ought I was a goner for sure, specially after you guys came along. The twitchers just staked da place out.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bertha.” Using rags torn from a twitcher’s body, I wipe the stickiest blotches of blood from my chair’s arm rests.
“Oh, I gots a bit more confidence in ya’ now. I ain’t never seen nothing like dat before.” The old, ample lady gives Leonid a squeeze around the shoulder that makes him blush. “Chur boys are something special.” She scowls at me, a look I recognize well from an earlier life. “And you ain’t so bad yourself.” Delivering the nicest words she’s spoken to me since the outbreak, she winks. “Of course I gots to charge ‘ya for the damage you done to my store.”
Leonid cuts to the chase, “Bertie says Frank and her spotted a group of refugees heading their direction from the northeast about the same time she picked up on signs of the hunt. Frank got off in time to give them warning—”
“Told ‘em to turn around and take der worthless butts back to Oklihomie, was what I told Frank to tell ‘em. For dey git us all kilt.”
Leonid nods. “The hunt overtook Bertie’s before she could be sure Frank reached the refugees.”
I interrupt. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Leonid and Bertha both nod their heads before Leonid sums it up, “the twitchers are after the refugees, but they seem to be herding them rather than hunting them, just yet anyway.”
I look around at my sons faces. Leonid’s use of the word, “herding” chills us all, but I know he’s right. “The helium plant.”
Leonid nods. “That only leaves why. Why are the twitchers herding a group of refugees toward the most secure spot in the dust zone?”
“Because they want in.” The truth hits me.
Pyotr speaks for the first time. “I’ve seen enough.”
Leonid judges the remaining daylight. “We’ve got time to help Bertie clean up some first.”
“No.” The blinders fall from my eyes. I see my sons for who they are, what they have become—men, battle torn and bleeding. And I know why. I know what will hold us together, the force calling us to something beyond our own survival.
Confusion on their faces, only Bertha knows what’s coming, but even she doesn’t understand it. They all think they know me, and maybe they do. But I remember the me from before, from before the color red.