He couldn’t be sure how long it had been or how far they had gone, but Nate knew that, as he and the little girl had been before, they had to keep moving because they, the roaches that had otherwise taken over what what a collapsed world left behind, wouldn’t stop; and, as usual, the law of large numbers applied. There were more of them, more means of repopulating and reproducing, than there was of Nate and his family, and if he had any hope of keeping them alive, they had to keep vigilant and they had to keep moving. There was little time in between for anything else.
It was what made the small moments special.Tantrums overfood food had been replaced by silence under necessity. Overripened fruit and canned rations that somehow survived not only the elements, but anyone else who might have been scavenging for something to eat that wasn’t human flesh, weren’t the most appealing of meals, but there were sustenance; they would keep everyone going and make sure that they kept their pursuers off their backs; and joy wasn’t found so readily in jumping on the bed to wake them up in a jolt of weight and laughter. It was found in the lighter of moments that maybe weren’t so urgent, weren’t so abnormal despite the ways and means, like attempting to get a smooth shave with nothing but a field knife. It brought to mind the first time he had put on his uniform again, throwing on the mantle of soldier when he had been something far softer for so long: “You look handsome, Nathan.”
It didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, appearances, but from the lips of a child he had gone through hell and would go back for, ensuring her obscure upbringing wouldn’t be one made in vain in the survival of an entire population of individuals that only ever seemed to be hacked apart and dwindling in numbers, it meant everything.
But moments like that could be interrupted just as readily as they could be enjoyed, and he’d blame it on everything - lack of good sustenance because nothing made a man happier than watching his family eat, even going so far as to sacrifice his own share to make sure they had enough, or not getting enough sleep, sleep not so much something enjoyed or embraced as was a quick rest of his eyelids while the rest of his senses remained focused on the present, or the fact those things combined with old age and ill-practice had made him slow - that she had to see her die. He’d blame everything, including the one wielding a weapon, that he couldn’t save her from the bullet that ultimately ended her life.
He’d blame everything, especially himself.
And after laying her to rest, after a moment of rest, he’d do it all over again.
Nate woke up with a start to the sudden rush of weight that had landed on the bed, tossing blankets around every which way with the loud cadence of a child’s voice screaming through the air and the softer spoken words of a woman much older filtering between the deep breaths taken only to raise the child’s voice louder. Gentle ushering to keep quiet, to let him get more sleep, were eventually sidelined not by a groan escaping his lips as he roused himself from under the covers, but a quick bolt upward into familiar surroundings - surroundings that he had thought they couldn’t return to again.
They were back in New Liberty - again - as if they had never left; as if the roaches hadn’t come; as if there wasn’t danger on the horizon and the last two years had only ever been quiet and in the last handful of months, he had been able to do all those things he had set out to do: secure his would-be life in New Liberty, line the tree line with explosives in the event of intrusion, bury his belongings underground in a moisture-safe box that would protect his uniform and weaponry should he had to return to it, and fall in love; but while it might have been a welcome sight, to see everything in its place as if only waking up from a bad dream, Nate knew it was nothing of the sort.
In a day’s time, two soldiers would come through the barrier, one dead and one on the verge of it, and in the dark of night, the so-called government would filter through, revealing themselves to be nothing more than wolves - roaches, rather - in the sheep’s clothing of a non-existent government that surely didn’t care for the well being of New Liberty’s residents as much as they did their own hive.
He knew this, preemptively and time and time again, and he could do something about it.
“We have to go,” Nate said without warning, ignoring the gentle assurances of his wife that everything was fine, that everything was okay, that his daughter who really wasn’t his daughter was outside, scribbling away on that pavement porch that he all but stomped out onto. She had been quick to follow him, stepping into the doorway without bothering to call either in for a meal that had only ever caused temper tantrums in the red-haired girl seated on the ground, outlining a scene of destruction that two figures - one much larger father and a small girl of her own size - only ever walked away from; and her look spoke of more concern for him, perhaps about him, than making sure they were well-fed.
He was a stranger after all. For all that they did share, he had come under suspicious circumstances, had somehow found his niche in New Liberty even if only because of the little girl he had carried with him, and there was still so much that she didn’t know about Nate that had a knack for rearing its ugly head at numerous times throughout their slow and unusual relationship. This sense of urgency - it had been something not yet seen, carrying over his voice even without certainty there was anything going on that called for it.
“Little girl, go inside,” Nate said, taking a few short paces across the pavement to line up with where he knew his cache of armaments had been stored; but, of course, she struck back with fire and fury, the jovial delight found in waking them up early replaced with attitude, with push back, that was a tantrum in the works. They had the time - in some measure, they did - but as far as Nate saw it, the deck was in his favor for now and it would stay that way if she would only listen..
“Little girl,” he said, “go inside now.”
No such luck that she would listen like she might have when danger was at their doorstep; much like she did before, feeling nothing but safe in such surroundings and ready to revolt against what was a draining and tiring life of being constantly on the run, she ran off; and Nate couldn’t be sure when they had caught up with her in this timeline he had suddenly changed or when they had caught up with his wife, but as he found himself surrounded again after that distraction with the diaper bag in tow, he knew they had and he knew just what he had to do.
Nothing could survive that amount of semtex, but then again, it wouldn’t have been the first time he had woken up from what had been sure death.
An explosive evening led to an explosive morning, and same as he had before, Nate was quick to action as he went through the motions: the jump, the laughter, the groaning and the shuffle out of bed to put his clothes on while his wife prepared breakfast and the little girl went out to play, drawing fiery buildings on the concrete porch. In any scenario, there had been a tantrum: she didn’t want to eat and she didn’t want to go inside. She wanted to play, but where Nate ultimately failed, his wife had been that gentle voice of reasoning that she needed; that maternal entity that didn’t treat everything like a matter of life and death, and who was genuinely nurturing aside from making a simple doll out of what scrap he had been able to find in the rubble.
So while they ate, Nate worked, a single fist slamming down hard against the concrete that had separated him from the box beneath to break it apart before he let a shovel do the rest of the lifting, digging as far as he could until getting on his hands and knees was the only option; and just as he thought, it was all still there.
All he had to do was wait.
The first ‘boom’ went without worry, two soldiers - one barely there while the other would never see New Liberty with his own two eyes - save for the concerned and curious residents who gathered en masse to spray down the bodies, disinfecting them of anything that might have brought harm to their town, and provide medical attention while whispering their suspicions. Same as it ever was, same as it had been, but perhaps with a few more questions about why Nate had been in the clothes he arrived at New Liberty in so many months ago, armed to the teeth as if expecting something they didn’t know about. He could deal with that, not at all the first time nor the last that he would rouse suspicion.
It was the second explosive sound that ripped through the air as the one portal in and out of New Liberty opened up, not a word out before there was a hail of gunfire to welcome the would-be soldiers as they breached; but they weren’t normal, they didn’t die like humans and they didn’t lose limbs like humans and they didn’t run from the sound of gunfire like humans did and now they didn’t have to keep up a charade of well-being as they stormed the town, helmets cast aside and helmets stripped away for what was an all out siege on the residents of New Liberty - something that a limited supply of bullets and lack of power couldn’t stop.
Slow and steady had to be the name of the game now.
He had to embrace the tantrum for what it was, reclaiming his weapons in the process, and for reasonable suspicion that something suspicious might have been afoot, he had to wait for the first soldiers - thing one and dead two - to pass through the barrier, but there were hours until the second opening; hours that could have been used to convince them to leave.
She was stubborn though and leaving, even under such dire circumstances as the ones that they would inevitably be found in, wasn’t in the cards. His wife wouldn’t leave and, had she any say in it, neither would she, and Nate could hear her voice in his head again, casting all those same suspicions about him and about the little girl, about where they had come from and how they had gotten into New Liberty, into the present from the shadowy dredges they had ultimately been left in over the months they had spent together. He could feel it, that reaffirmation that there was something about him, this man that she had hated everything about until some sort of switch had clicked and a slow relationship made out of the smallest things had been formed, and all at once it had come back to him.
Was this happening because of him?
“The people that are going to come through this gate aren’t people at all, so you have to trust me.”
It didn’t surprise him when she called him a coward, when she said he was running away, but it didn’t matter. Even if the decision had been made to leave her behind, even if they left and continued running just as they had before, the enemy was at the gates and it would only be due time, maybe even a sharp blow to the head as he was kicked headlong into the solid plateau New Liberty seemed to be on or under, before he woke up again.
Nate was sure his lack of response was simply resignation: New Liberty would always be attacked. There would always be that ‘boom’, one followed by another, there would always be two soldiers, and there would always be roaches that seemed to come out of the woodwork of the tree line to round up the citizens of New Liberty. There would always be that moment where they attempted to stage a resistance, where they wanted to fight back against their oppressors even if it meant certain death, and there would always be a diaper bag with a trigger for a series of explosives that surrounded the grounds of his home just as there would always be a tantrum first thing in the morning.
But there was time.
While he let the little girl play, continuing to draw the destructive scene he was sure she saw in a dream when the rest of the world was already in ruin, Nate took the shovel in hand to start digging - not in the concrete that held his weaponry, but the grounds around it, hoisting up layers of dirt to dig out the plastic explosives that were stuffed away in the little girl’s diaper bag. No, it wouldn’t fit enough to destroy an army of tanks, but he didn’t need it to as he secured it before the first ‘boom’, paying no mind to the curious and cautious citizens of New Liberty as they brought in the surviving soldier.
He took the rest of the time to secure his weapons and uniform and, much like before, simply waited for the roaches to storm the gates. There was no firing as they announced themselves as soldiers from the U.S. government, nothing seemingly to worry about when they started piling in, but there was a quick toss of the diaper bag into the mass that had ultimately gathered and with the quick press of a button, bright red in its declaration against the intrusion from little hands up on the water tower that were waiting for the signal, an explosion even a bunch of roaches couldn’t survive.
Good on the little girl to listen when she knew it was right to and to pay attention when it was needed otherwise New Liberty might have gone to the roaches and their safe haven, destroyed.
Now maybe he could rest easy.
“Son of a--!” Nate shouted when he was woken up again by the sound of laughter following the plop of a small body on the bed, no bone in his body angry about the little girl who found such a wake up call fun, but from the fact that this wasn’t over yet.
They were coming. No matter what he did, no matter how he tried to address the situation, be it leading them away or meeting them at the gate, they were coming; and there was only so much that he could do about it.
Not if they were all to survive.