My Name Is Jackson Birch
A novel by Jabril Faraj, Draft 2
After a few months at the farm, the sun had fully set on our previous lives and we found ourselves in the midst of darkness. Many of us were relatively handy but this, this was an entirely different plane of existence; we had to learn how to survive all over again.
When you have nothing you start from whatever you have and try to make the best of it – that’s exactly what we did. We’d brought some small items with us and a few more had awaited our arrival. In all, we had in our possession a few older weapons, some tracking gear, other simple tech and the farm, complete with a few cows, a dozen or so chickens and a field or two of corn and wheat. It wasn’t much – it wasn’t what we were used to – but it was more than we could have asked for. We were thankful.
In the first week, we divided labor as best we could and set to work. Most of the band had the task of tending the farm. If we were to survive, we had to maintain it well – but I knew we wouldn’t be able to live on milk, eggs and bread alone. To that end, Simon was set, with a few of the others, to clean, ready and account for the small amount of weapons and ammo we had. They also found a way to fashion, as best they could, crude bows and arrows from metal ties and rods to aid in our efforts.
Before leaving our stronghold, however, we set to fortifying it. David and Ruth, with their engineering and environmental backgrounds, found the responsibility passed to them. With the small amount of technology we had, they constructed a makeshift monitoring system with which we lined the border of our fortress. Though there were some weak spots and coverage was often spotty it would have to do. If anyone came for us, we would know.
With the farm secured as best we could, a hunting party was finally organized. We’d survived, so far on the bits of what had already been there but we were running low and, since neither slaughtering the cows and chickens nor starvation was an option, we chose to do what we must. You could say we had no choice but that would have been a lie – we chose survival over death, though, at times, to some, death might have been more enticing.
It became clear, over time, that Simon, Ruth and David had emerged as dogs among sheep. Their drive, determination and ingenuity intrigued and impressed me – they were all fighting for something that they weren’t yet ready to give up. So, when it came time to choose who would accompany me in the search for food, the choice was clear.
We set out on a gloomy morning, armed each with a pistol, skinning knife and a bow and quiver. We left the house after a paltry first meal and made our way over the fields separating us from our destination, the tree line. None of us had ventured in yet except for a few trips to scavenge for firewood, and those parties had not gone far. We didn’t know what we would find and the walk invited speculation, increasing the anticipation we already felt.
“So, what do you think we’ll find, out there?” David broke the silence halfway to the trees.
“You’ve heard the stories, Dave.” Ruth wasn’t one for small talk. “What do you think?”
We’d had a few refugees come through the farm in the months since The Purge. Infected as well, they were now fugitives in a strange land – one that used to be theirs, but no longer. They told stories of the country they had traversed. The infected who hadn’t been rounded up fled to the wild, forced to fend for themselves, in an attempt to survive. They talked of some like them and us, “normal” by most standards, and then they spoke of the others – humans on the far end of the spectrum – who were, perhaps no longer that human.
According to some that had come from the northern end of the city, Protectors had been sent to the mental health facility northwest of the city limits. Some of those housed there were dangerous, others not so much. Some were infected, others not. But the Protectors did not discriminate. They surrounded the grounds and a team traveled room to room, with the simple task of unselective execution.
One of the passersby recounted the beginning of his journey on that first night as he passed the facility. “I can still remember the screams – the pain, the hurt.”
He’d stopped and watched at the edge of the trees. Once the patients figured out what was happening they went wild, attacking Protectors in the same way they had been attacked – indiscriminately, without questioning or respect for their humanity. Both sides had become animals. A battle ensued and the casualties stacked on top of one another. Some of the Protectors were killed and others wounded. But those who didn’t make it were only overcome by sheer volume – they still held the advantage of weapons and, in open space, they decimated the inmates. Some escaped that day with nothing but their lives. The spilled blood seeped into their hearts. Though they were still alive, they were civilized no more, if ever they had been, stripped of any last thread of their humanity.
But I knew it wouldn’t help us to be anxious. “Just keep your wits about you…”
“That’s about all I have.” David cut me off. He wasn’t particularly skilled with either the pistol or bow.
Simon, who was at the front of the company, turned his head and smiling. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you if that’s what you’re asking.” David scowled, un-amused.
I stepped over the low border of shrubbery lining the forest. “Whatever we find, we’ll deal with it, then.”
I turned my head, beckoning the others to follow, and continued on. As the trees swallowed us, my mind raced against my better judgment and in spite of my recent warning, wondering what we would find. We hadn’t had much, if any, contact with the outside world since The Purge and all of us feared what the world we’d known had so quickly become.
We walked for at least an hour with nothing in sight but trees as far as we could see. The miles came quickly, as the first months at the farm had served to kick our bodies into shape if they hadn’t been before. The lack of food and work had done its job, hardening us for the struggles we had yet to face. Our forging wasn’t over, though – there was much more we would have to see, do and endure before this was done.
Eventually, we reached a break in the trees. The clearing was covered in long grass and a small pond of transparent blue peeked through the blades on the edge to our right. We sat still, surveying the open space for any trace of movement. My eyes moved, left to right, over the entire glade, settling at last on the water. As my gaze lingered, a large doe stepped out from the trees and gracefully covered the grass and dirt between her and the pond. She reached the edge and, with one more cautious glance about her, lowered her head to drink.
This was our chance. Motioning for David, Ruth and Simon to hold their positions, I crept through the brush. I reached behind me for an arrow and placed it in the bow without taking my eyes off the prize. She drank still, unaware of the impending danger that awaited her. After a minute or so, I stopped, crouching no more than thirty yards away. I raised the bow with care, pulling the arrow to my ear. I felt the cold touch of steel on my cheek. I held my breath and let go. The cool metal sung through the air straight into her left shoulder and she staggered, falling at the water’s edge.
I turned to the others and motioned for them to follow. Rising out of my stance, I approached the body. It was still, a mirror of the doe’s last moment. Her tongue lay limp from her mouth. I wondered whether it was beauty or irony that shielded her from the knowledge that this drink, the last lap before my arrow hit her hide, would be the last she would ever taste. Her blood spilled into the water, polluting the pureness it had once known – but no more. Though the red would wash out, indistinguishable to the eye, part of the doe would always lay on the bed of the watering hole, changing it forever.
I approached the deer to claim its body. Crouching again, I surveyed the prize that would feed us for a few days. Drawing my knife, I plunged the blade under her ribs to ensure the kill. After closing her eyes with my hand I reached for my rope to bind the two pairs of legs. It was then that I heard Simon’s voice.
“Jackson, look up but don’t move.”
“Oh shit… what is that?” Ruth whispered.
I raised my head to see what they had already witnessed. Engrossed in the deer, I’d missed what I could only describe as a semi-human being a quarter way around the pond in front of me coming my way. The person – the thing – had eyes that burned with the fire of the wild mind, the mind that could not be contained by reason or logic, the mind that followed its urges in order to survive. It still wore clothing but that, as well, was beginning to tatter. The mouth bore the color of blood and a small mammal lay discarded where it had been crouching only seconds before.
“Why is it coming still coming toward us?” David’s voice wavered with uneasiness.
It either wanted us or the deer and I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be around when it came time to make the decision. I rose slowly into a crouched position and began backing up.
“That’s it, just come back slowly,” Simon said, “back up slowly.”
I took one step at a time, feeling the way with my feet, as my eyes stayed trained on its every move. It seemed to look at me with desperate sorrow and somehow I found myself wondering if it would hesitate to kill me if it had to. That thought, however, didn’t make me feel any better and I hastened my retreat. Just as I was a comfortable fifteen feet behind the doe and starting to feel safe, a duck took off from the pond as the “semi” burst out of its curious, meandering walk and into a full sprint. Halfway through my step, I tried to turn as the creature hurtled toward me. I tripped, falling on my back. It reached the deer hide, jumped over the doe and into the air as I felt the hiss of an arrow past my face. The metal found its home as I heard someone let out a sigh from behind. Turning, I saw Ruth kneeling with her left arm extended, bow in hand, and her right lingering by her cheek. Simon had drawn his weapon too but him and David were frozen, staring at the creature. It had crumpled to the ground and now lay, limbs sprawled in all directions, with Ruth’s arrow buried between its eyes.
David heaved a large sigh before bending over, hands resting on his knees. “Let’s get out of here. For some reason, I don’t feel like sticking around.” His breathing was quicker and more labored.
Simon’s body resumed a relaxed posture and Ruth stood. As suddenly as it had begun, the danger was over. I was still sitting up, arms supporting me from behind, as Ruth crossed the ten or so feet between us and extended her hand. With her help, I too stood and tried to shake off the adrenaline I felt pumping through my veins. I had stood only a few feet from my mortality but the company of my companions brought a sense of security unattainable by other means.
“You alright?” Simon followed Ruth’s lead and was by my side in seconds.
“Yeah.” I brushed myself off and set back to binding the legs of our prize. “We’ll have to be more careful now that we know what’s out here.”
“Yeah, let’s keep moving.” David rejoined the group. “For some reason, I don’t feel like being around here when its friends come, if it has any.”
I looked up as I tied the last knot and studied the face that lay frozen not far away. Did it – he or she – have friends once? The wild, animalistic brutality I had witnessed only moments before was gone and, from beneath it, humanity had returned. Would death be the only way to bring these prodigals back to humankind? There had to be another way – no one, or thing, deserved such a tortured existence. As we made our way back, wary of another attack, I pondered these thoughts.