Cigarettes and Owls

 

The following story takes before the main events in the novel, Disonia. 

 

Bash snuffed out the butt of a cigarette underneath his worn and scuffed brown loafers. Reaching into the pocket of his torn slacks, just above a deep cut of fabric and flesh, he pulled out a paper pack of smokes. The red and white logo was unreadable. The dry blood on his fingers flaked off as they fished for another stick. He brought the cigarette past his bloodied white t-shirt, past the dirt and sweat that clung to his neck, and up to his shaking lips. A brief moment of red illumination lit up his face, exposing his disheveled brown hair and the void of his eyes. He drew in deep and exhaled. “Fuck, I can’t do this anymore,” he muttered under his breath.

He looked around the clearing in the woods where the tree stump he was sitting on resided. Around the clearing lay six dead bodies, each one dressed in black. Bash counted with a trembling finger. “More this time,” he stated, while rising to his feet. His weight caused him to slump on the side with the gash. He screamed, pounding his fist against his good leg. He hobbled to one of the bodies, what used to be a young woman. Her turned her over then grimaced as her dead black eyes met his. Ripping the sleeve off her shirt, he made a quick tourniquet for his leg. He scanned around until he found a branch big enough to support him. He broke it to the right size, and after making use of more of the scavenged black fabric, he had a crutch.

Each step lit up nerves in a hot white flash of pain. “If you should take the A train, you’ll get to where you’re going to in a hurry,” he sang, trying to keep a steady pace. His melody was interrupted by the sound of cracking brush up ahead. He stopped dead and grabbed at his crutch, ready to use it as a weapon. A quick sigh of relief came across his lips when he saw it was Owen, a disheveled fifteen year old boy. His face was covered in dirt, his clothes tattered and worn.

“Jesus, Owen, you were suppose to be with the rest. How are things back at the base?

“Everything is fine. We hid just like you said,” Owen answered. “Did you, did you take care of them,” he asked, his eyes darting around the clearing.

“All of them, but barely,” Bash replied. He limped towards Owen.

“Do you need help?”

“I’ll manage. Thanks.”

The two walked from the clearing. The sun flickered through the branches with a slow frequency, matching their pace. Owen would get ahead of Bash for a moment, then realizing his un-injured state, would slow and match pace with his friend.

“Can I ask you something, Bash?”

“Sure. Whatcha need,” the man replied, wearing at every syllable.

“I’ve been here for what, six years. Six years and not a day older than fifteen. At least in body. Each day, the same. And I guess I like it. I think we all do… most of the time,” he said, staring down at his feet.

“Most of the time?”

“Well, I guess it beats the alternative. We leave here, go to town, well, I know they chase us out, or worse. I still have the scars from that time I spent a week there. Christ, almighty, they nearly took Eleanor’s head off. They wouldn’t stop, no matter…” Owen said before cutting himself off, clenching his trembling fist.

“Eleanor was a good kid,” Bash replied.

“She was the best. But when I was there, for a moment, I saw, well, I saw something I wanted. There were people just walking down the sidewalks. Talking to each other. There were no demon kids with pits for eyes. No witch guarding the border, ready to send you to the field if you get caught. I just wanted their life, any of it. Even just for a bit.”

“I know, Owen. I’ve tried to give you, all of you, something of a shadow of that life, but lately, well, it just hasn’t been enough. They keep coming, harder each time. And as long as you kids don’t age, well, there isn’t much chance on getting backup. I’m not sending kids to fight them,” Bash replied as their pace slowed even further.

Owen looked up at him and forced a grim smile. “If we could go back into town, if they would let us… Well, I would grow up. Get stronger. I’d learn to fight and as soon as I was ready, I would come back and kill all those bastards, and then I’d go for the witch.”

“Well, that would be welcome. And if someday that works out, I’d be happy to fight beside you.”

“Did anyone ever make it out, and grow up?”

Bash sighed and closed his eyes. “Her name was May. She made it and from what I understand, she is doing pretty well. She was smart like that, but she was also as manipulative and self-serving as anyone I had ever met. She use to call the black-eyed kids ‘foxes’.” His eyes drifted towards the distance. “She was the first like me to arrive here, but that’s enough about that.”

The pair walked for a half hour before coming up to another clearing. A cement block building stood in the middle. It was a filling station that had appeared a few years prior. Many of the newer kids in Bash’s care thought it used to be a part of the town at one point, but it was different than anything past the border where the edge of the forest met Tesout road. Sometimes things appeared that way, often heralding the arrival of a new kid that would join their crew of outcasts.

“Something’s wrong. There are too many voices. Owen? You said everyone was alright. Please, dear God tell me they are alright,” Bash said in a panic. Despite his injuries, he sped towards the structure. “Oh My God, NO. Please. No no no no.”

Owen was too frightened to move. He had never seen Bash lose his cool and now he was watching him collapse. Bash was behind a small cement wall that extended from the filling station next to a sign post.Owen’s heart skipped a hard beat, forcing him to cough out of reflex. Bash stood up with the weight of a body in his arms. Owen moved forward, towards the wall, towards his friend, and towards his friends who were laid out, motionless and mangled from the recent massacre. Owen tried to speak but all he could manage was a hard empty as he looked through the distortion of tears.

Bash remained silent and began to gather the small bodies. Owen followed suit. Over the course of two hours they buried eight kids in total. Their hands were black with dirt and drying blood. One by one, fresh mounds of dirt marked the lost future memories of their friends until all eight had been set to earth.

Bash moved over to the cement wall and sat down. He put a bent cigarette in his mouth and lit it.

“They, they must have been waiting until I left! Oh hell, oh hell, I gave away our position!  It’s all my fault, I did this,” Owen exclaimed.

“You didn’t do shit. They would have gotten to them sooner or later. They weren’t even prepared,” Bash stated coldy as he took another drag off his cigarette.

“The rest, do you think they’re safe?”

Bash looked towards the new mounds in the clearing. “I can’t do this anymore,” he whispered to himself.

Owen sat down on the ground and began to sob.

“Owen. Bash. You’re alive!” came a voice from the edge of the clearing. Owen snapped around to see Amy dart out of the woods, running towards them. He sprung up and ran to her. They embraced, both collapsing to the ground, crying into each other. Bash didn’t move other than to ash his cigarette.

“Are you okay? What happened? How did you get out?” Owen frantically asked.

“Just after you left, they came so fast. I could just hear,” Amy stalled for a moment then composed. “We all just started screaming. I saw the light where they broke in. We pushed through. I didn’t realize how many of us made it. I just kept running for the woods. We, the rest of us, met up afterwards and hid.”

“We buried eight. That means there’s you. There’s Jimmy, and the new kid, right?”

“I told them to hold back until I gave them the signal,” Amy replied. She proceeded to stand up, then whistled loudly into the thick of the forest. Two young men came from out of the dark. The first, Jimmy, was a tall boy with long black hair. The second was a younger boy, with dark hair. His clothes were covered in fresh and dry blood. He had one high top tennis shoe on his left foot. The imbalance caused a slight limp as he walked.

They gathered around Owen then turned to Bash, who was lighting a second cigarette. They slowly moved towards him. They were close, waiting for his word, something. He continued to stare past the frightened children and onto the unmarked graves.

“Hey, hey Bash. Come on, man. It’s me, Owen. We kind of need you right now.”

Bash looked up, his eyes steadied on the boy. “No. Owen is the name of someone I would take care of. When I fought in the war, we didn’t use the names given to us. There’s a reason for that. No, Owen is someone who wants to fight, but hasn’t been shown how to. Owen is the name a of a pissant coward who left his post too early. No, you’re no Owen. You’re, well… you’re an Owl. And owl isn’t afraid of the dark and kills its prey with precision and skill. So, what are you? Are you an Owen or a goddamn Owl?,” Bash asked.

The kid stared at him for a faux eternity then answered. “I’m a goddamn Owl, Sir.”

Bash smiled then turned his attention to the frightened kid with the black hair. “What’s your name?”

“Um… I guess…,” he frantically looked around and squeaked out, “Leaf”.

“Fantastic, son. Now, you. What’s your name?” he asked, turning his attention towards Amy.

“Lightning Bug, Sir,” Amy stated boldy despite her tears.

“Outstanding. New kid, come over here. Tell me your name.”

The kid looked around then looked up at the tall, now intimidating man above him. “Gene, my name’s Gene Winters. Can you help me get home?”

Bash stared at him for a moment then shook his head. “No, I can’t get you home and I can’t keep you alive. The good news, you can keep yourself alive and I’ll show you how. But you’re going to have to pull your weight. I don’t accept freeloaders. So, what’s your name going to be?” Bash asked.

“My  name is GENE and I want to go home. I want to see my sister,” he said defiantly.

Bash dropped to his knee, ignoring the exploding pain from his earlier injury. He looked the kid in the eyes and wrapped the hand holding the cigarette around his head. “I will make this really damn simple. You have two choices, son. You can either stay here, never age, learn to fight, learn to live. Or you can make your way to town and pray that the black-eyed kids don’t kill you or the witch doesn’t send you to die in the field. Then you can hope the townspeople don’t run you back to the us. Who knows, Gene-Bean, maybe they’ll accept you and you can grow old there. I really hope that works out for you. But if you don’t feel like taking an impossible chance and would like to see tomorrow, I’ll ask again, what is your name?”

Gene glared at Bash for a moment then said, “Gene. My name is Gene. It will always be Gene. I’ll stay and fight your war or whatever this is only until I find my way home, even if that means witches and towns or whatever the fuck you are talking about. Am I making myself clear, sir?”

Bash smiled then stood up. “Crystal. Have Owl show you to  where you’ll be sleeping.” He turned and made his way to the doorway of the filling station. “Oh, and another thing. I can’t guarantee anything except I’ll teach you how to best see the next morning. And maybe some fun here and there.”

Leaf laughed. “It’ll be a bash.”

Bash turned around and stared at him inquisitively. “What’s that, Leaf?”

“Well, fun. Like a party. Like a bash. When it’s a party, it’s a bash,” Leaf replied.

“Sure, why the hell not. Now get some sleep, everyone. It’s going to be a long day,” Bash said, making his way into the station as the sun went past the tree line, not to be seen until the next uncertain morning.

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