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After Darkness Fell
By David Berardelli
Mountain Lake PressCopyright © 2014 David Berardelli
All rights reserved.
I felt rather than heard someone wandering around outside.
Under normal conditions, such a sensation didn't warrant immediate attention. However, since conditions hadn't been normal for some time, I knew I had to investigate.
The early hour of the day most likely contributed to the red flag that went off in my head. The clock on the kitchen wall said 8:42. I hadn't been sleeping soundly the last couple of months; knowing I had to be on my guard twenty-four hours a day made the natural process of sleeping a thing of the past. By the time I'd gotten up, showered and dressed, I was fully alert.
As I stood in front of the gas stove, the eggs simmering quietly in the skillet, the familiar tingling in the back of my head jolted me, and I abruptly put down the spatula, turned off the burner and placed a cover on the skillet.
I'd learned twenty years earlier to listen to my senses; they'd served me well during my three-year stint in the Army. They'd also served me well during my trip from Orlando three very long, arduous months ago. Using my instincts — and also aided by Reed McCallum and Brooke Fields, my two best friends — I managed to escape the underground Government facility run by a handful of psychos intent on creating a superior civilization by killing off most of the population.
The last three months had been unbearably grim. Living quietly with your partner in normal conditions can be a wonderful thing, but in a world where everyone is dead or dying, life becomes a nightmare. You're on constant alert, and fully aware that every move you make could be your last. When you stumble upon someone who doesn't appear to be doped, your defenses immediately go up. If this person seems okay and is armed for his own protection, he can accidentally kill you if he panics, or is unfamiliar with his weapon. If he is acting sick or doped, he can have an accomplice hiding close by, ready to kill you.
In the last three months, Fields and I had killed six people — four men and two women. The men ambushed us when Fields and I were at an abandoned filling station in Bakerstown, pushing containers of gas onto the bed of Uncle Joe's Silverado. Luckily, we managed to kill all four without blowing up the truck or the station.
The women we encountered had faked a breakdown on the Bakerstown–Culmerville Road, as we were coming home from the first of our two monthly shopping excursions. The older of the two distracted us by asking directions while her sister rushed at Fields with a machete when our backs were turned.
Surviving a holocaust is horrible. Its effects are so far-reaching, the survivor spends much of his time angry with himself for surviving and longing for a peaceful death. But the will to survive takes precedence, and feelings of guilt and self-pity quickly return to the back of the mind.
The will to survive manifests itself in many forms, often becoming paranoia in times of extreme stress. I kept loaded guns in each and every room in the house. I'd nailed certain windows and doors shut, locked others and rigged simple booby traps inside the front and back doors that would cause a string of empty tin cans to come crashing down onto the linoleum.
Although Fields was still sleeping when I'd slipped out of the bed, I heard the shower going only minutes after I'd gone downstairs to fix breakfast. It was still going, and I saw no reason to disturb her. I wasn't a hundred percent sure there was anything to worry about. For all I knew, a stray dog or coyote could be roaming the property, sniffing for food. Besides, I didn't want to waste time running up the stairs and telling her my intentions. She'd argue with me and tell me to wait until she put on some clothes so she could investigate with me. It would take too long. If someone was prowling around, I needed to find out as quickly as possible. And since I was over forty, the extra scrambling would tire me unnecessarily, giving a would-be trespasser a deadly edge.
I told myself that even if I was imagining things, it still wouldn't hurt to check the property. It would only take a minute, and I'd come right back and finish making breakfast. Anyway, I knew I couldn't concentrate on anything else until I'd gone outside and found out if my instincts were right.
Before leaving the house, I picked up the compact .380 Beretta Cheetah lying beneath the towel on the kitchen counter less than a foot from the rear door. It was small enough to keep hidden in my hand but quite capable of knocking someone down at forty or fifty yards. I'd used it before and was willing to use it again if the occasion arose.
I sincerely hoped my instincts were wrong. If they were right, and someone was indeed outside, Fields would never forgive me. But I knew that if the latter rang true, time was of the essence, and I had to find out as quickly as possible.
I pushed open the screen door an inch at a time and slipped outside, into the back yard, moving quietly up the walk leading to the stone steps that extended to the long, winding gravel drive. I stopped about ten feet from the door and stood there, listening. I heard a few birds singing from the trees and a distant barking dog.
So far, so good. I resumed my trip to the end of the walk.
As soon as I cleared the corner of the house, I saw a lone slender figure wandering up the drive.
It was Reed McCallum.
My heart stopped. I could only stand there numbly and watch as the apparition drew nearer. Was it Reed? No. It simply couldn't be.
Fields and I had buried Reed in the shade of the buckeye tree my mother had climbed as a child, up the hill at the end of the drive. Mom's body rested there as well, right beside Uncle Joe, whom Fields, Reed, and I had buried earlier. Shortly after Uncle Joe had died, one of my mother's Quarter Horse mares accidentally killed Reed when something spooked her in her stall, slamming Reed into the wall. Reed died shortly after, filling our dark, frightening world with an overwhelming sadness I'd never experienced before. I thought of him every day since, feeling his presence at odd moments and reminding myself that even though he'd gone, his spirit would remain with us.
Perhaps this was why I thought the stranger walking up our drive was Reed. The image of his slenderness, his unkempt reddish-brown hair, would forever remain fixed in my consciousness. The sight alarmed me, and it was then that I suddenly remembered the gun in my hand. When reality intervened, I knew I should pull myself together. The man coming up the drive was trespassing, and I needed to take full control of the situation immediately.
Once the morning sunlight poking between the trees that lined the driveway had settled on the stranger's features, I knew right then that this wasn't Reed at all, just someone resembling him.
I faced him at an angle, with my right side turned toward the right, my right arm hidden from his view. The .380 rested snugly in my hand, pressing comfortably against my thigh. As a precaution, I carefully pulled back the hammer while keeping my gaze steady on the stranger. I sincerely hoped this would turn out innocently. I hadn't yet been forced to kill anyone on my own property and hoped the trend would continue.
"Nice morning," he said, coming up the drive.
I nodded. As he drew nearer, his resemblance to Reed diminished totally, and I knew then that the only thing they had in common was their hair and slenderness. He wore a white tee shirt beneath a light-blue windbreaker, jeans a little large around the waist, and black tennis shoes.
I knew full well that I could be facing a psychopath. He moved normally, which told me he was obviously not doped. This, of course, made him even more dangerous. I stopped thinking of Reed altogether and concentrated on the here and now.
When he was about twenty feet away, I motioned for him to stop.
He took two more steps — which I didn't like. It was most likely a control thing, suggesting that he was playing a head game with me. He was trespassing and I wasn't in the mood for games.
"Where are you coming from and why are you here?" I asked.
"Don't get tense. I'm not here to cause any trouble."
"Then answer my question."
"I'm just down the road." He jabbed a thumb to his left, toward the intersection at the top of the hill. "I had a breakdown and was wonderin' if you could give me a jump."
This didn't feel right. Our house sat nearly a hundred yards off the road, hidden by pines and buckeyes. The pasture was just as secluded, the line of pines spanning the perimeter providing the farm with heavy camouflage. This stranger had either been watching the property with binoculars or had followed us from our shopping excursion last week.
Either way, this was not good. The idea of someone watching us intensified the tingling in my neck. The trees keeping the front yard of the house hidden from view could easily conceal others this man may have brought with him. For all I knew, there could be half a dozen others hiding in the woods, waiting for his signal. I didn't dare take my eyes off him.
I realized I could be dead very shortly. If I managed to survive, Fields was going to kill me. At the very least, I'd never hear the end of it. But her safety was my big concern. Hopefully she'd stay in the house and would be close enough to a gun when she heard gunshots. If there were only a couple of trespassers, I had no doubt she'd be able to get them all. I didn't want to consider the possibility that there could be a dozen or more.
I took a deep breath and forced myself not to show fear. I knew all about fear and how to handle it. In the military, we all learned that you ignored it and worked through it. You grabbed it and shoved it out of the way as quickly as possible. It was necessary. Once the enemy saw it, you were dead.
"How'd you know anyone lives here?"
He grinned. "Just took a wild guess. Car's just a quarter-mile up the road, near the intersection. That gas station didn't look occupied. Neither did the tire place across the road. Nothing in either place. Guess they've both been picked clean."
There were more than a dozen houses at the top of that hill. It didn't make sense for him to walk all the way back here when he could have just gone a little farther up the hill and checked any of the dwellings there.
"Sorry," I said. "I can't help you."
"You don't have something to jump me with?"
"You've got a barn."
"That doesn't mean anything."
"How 'bout that garage up that hill behind you?" He pointed.
I could tell he wanted me to turn around, but I didn't have to; I knew where it was. "What about it?"
"No battery charger? Cables?"
"I'm not exactly a car guy."
He laughed. "Nowadays? Everyone's gotta know a little about everything, fella."
I didn't reply. I'd managed to sneak a peek at the pine grove in front of the house. I didn't see anything move, didn't see glints of anything. But that didn't mean much. The growth ran pretty wild and thick in spots.
"Maybe you could give me directions."
He was obviously stalling, possibly making sure someone was getting into position for a clear shot. I relaxed the tension in my knees and gripped the .380 more tightly. I was now ready to move quickly. If I didn't get hit by someone in the grove, he'd get my first shot. "Where to?"
"I'm just headin' through, but I don't know where Route 8 is from here. I've got a friend — well; I used to have a buddy up near Butler, but who knows anymore? Anyway, I'm tryin' to look him up so maybe we can ..."
"West of here, two miles." I used my left hand to point to my right.
"West?" Without taking his eyes off me, he turned to his left. "And you say it's that way?" He extended his right arm across his chest. I couldn't see his left.
Then I saw the tip of his left elbow rising behind his back. This told me he was doing basically the same thing I was. The issue of his baggy jeans came into the equation. Baggy jeans meant more room to conceal a small firearm as well as more ease in getting it out in a hurry.
In that same instant, I heard the crunch of dead leaves about twenty feet to my left, near the hedges at the corner of the house in the front yard. Two loud, familiar clicks snapped in my ears — one from the hedges, another from the upstairs bedroom window. I knew instantly that they were the sounds of gun hammers being cocked.
The harsh bark of Fields' voice, about twenty feet above my head and forty feet to my left, chilled the marrow in my bones: "Duck!"
I put a .380 hollow-oint slug neatly into the center of the stranger's forehead and fell face-first to the hard gravel. Two loud shots exploded almost simultaneously. The first buzzed inches above my head. The second echoed down the drive, to the wall of the barn, coming back up again and reverberating. I heard a loud gasp, and something slammed into the hedges near the house.
I lay motionless on the gravel, but all I could hear was my heart hammering deafeningly in my chest. I didn't want to get up and show myself; these two might have brought along someone else. But once my heart finally settled down and I still heard nothing, I decided I might be in the clear. Besides, Fields was probably still watching.
I crawled over to the dead man. A quick search revealed that he was heavily armed. In addition to the compact .22 revolver he'd tried taking from his left side pocket, I found a tiny long-barreled .25 derringer in his right, a .45 snub-nosed automatic in a pancake holster in the small of his back, beneath his windbreaker, and a 9 millimeter automatic in an ankle holster. When I found the courage to look at his face, I realized that despite the hair color and build, he didn't remotely resemble Reed. He was much younger, probably no more than thirty, and I saw nothing warm or inviting in the gaping chestnut eyes.
I took the 9 millimeter and checked the mag for ammo. One was missing from the mag; one remained in the pipe. Ready to go, obviously, and a quick sniff of the barrel told me it had recently been fired. I tossed the others into the hedges near the stone walk.
Still wary, I crawled over to the long row of bushes lining the drive. I hoped Fields would stay in the house so I could concentrate on the yard. If someone tried sneaking in through the front or back, she'd nail them.
I moved over to the bushes. Pushing a jagged clump aside, I peered through the small opening and scanned the front yard.
No movement. No glints from glasses, binoculars, plastic or gunmetal. No rustling sounds from the bushes or the pine grove.
I crawled along the hedge line, toward the barn, and stopped at the break in the hedges leading to the sidewalk extending to the front of the house. I continued listening but heard nothing louder than the heavy beating of my own heart.
As far as I could tell, there were only two of them. But I knew better than leave anything to chance. I decided to continue to crawl to the end of the hedge line, where it stopped at the corner of the barn. I could then slip through the gap and, using the wild underbrush as cover, veer toward the pines.
I began crawling.
"There were only two of them."
The sound of her voice startled me. I pushed myself up and carefully snuck a peek over the top of the hedges. Fields stood on the front porch, a hunting rifle cradled in her arms. She wore a pink tank top and faded jeans. Her hair was loose and wet from her shower, and glistened in the morning sun. Less than ten feet from her, the body of the second intruder lay face-down in the bush. Fields didn't seem to care about him; she was much too busy glaring at me. I'd seen that expression before; each time I saw it, I felt my testicles quiver and knew I was in serious trouble.
I approached the house. Fields remained stock-still; her glare did not soften. Even though I was nearly a hundred feet from her, I could feel the dark vibes coming from her. For a moment I feared she might even raise the rifle and shoot me. But she merely watched me as I drew closer.
I knew that my most sensible option was to walk up the steps and apologize. If I was lucky, the matter would be closed and eventually forgotten. I'd been married before and had learned that an apology went a long way in a relationship. Hopefully, an apology would be all Fields wanted.
Still, I realized how stupid I'd been about handling this, and that a mere apology might not be enough. I'd done something we'd promised one another we'd never do: I'd taken an unnecessary, dangerous risk. And no matter how I explained my reasoning, I knew it wouldn't suffice. I'd crossed the line and had to face the consequences.
Excerpted from After Darkness Fell by David Berardelli. Copyright © 2014 David Berardelli. Excerpted by permission of Mountain Lake Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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