79 spread out before them, worn grey asphalt littered with rubble, marred by cracks and potholes, until it twisted and disappeared between mountains of rock and dust. Jonas stuck his head out of the car window, the glass itself having been knocked out long before he was born, and let the wind smack his face, inhaling air that always smelled vaguely of dirt and smoke, air that would kill him one day - if he wasn’t lucky enough to bite it before then.
Their rig had good shocks, the best they could find, but his brother swerved expertly to avoid every bump in the road, something to break up the monotony. Travis jerked hard left to avoid the remains of a lamppost, and the tires screeched in protest, cans and other supplies rattled in the back seat and some fell thumping to the floor. Jonas’ head smacked into the door frame hard – not hard enough to do any real damage, but it’d leave a nice bruise. He cursed as his brother laughed at him.
“You did that on purpose, you shit.” Jonas grumbled, rubbing his head and wincing – a bit exaggeratedly – as he moved his body back inside the car to prevent further injury.
“The space between your ears is already dead, Joey.” Travis chuckled again. It looked like he’d found a new way to break up their boring drive, back from the ruins of a little town they called Wayne. Wayne had always been good to them; when it came to general supplies – canned foods, batteries, spare parts – he’d always had what they needed. Other folks scavved there too, but not too many, and Wayne had yet to run out on them.
The needle on the dial behind the steering wheel hovered around 93. Travis had slowed down for a windy stretch of road, although Jonas still felt like his stomach was going one way and his body another. The ass of his jeans slid back and forth across the leather seat and the cans followed suit, rolling from one end of the back to the other. Maybe it was a stupid thing to enjoy, but he loved it, this feeling of being slightly out of control, living slightly on the edge. Life was too short not to enjoy stupid shit, and at 17 he had most likely lived over half of his lifespan already. If he could manage to avoid getting shot, then he could count on radiation and cancer to finish him off before 35. He’d heard that years ago, in the time of green grass and cities full of electricity and plastic money, people had lived as long as 70 or 80 years. 80 years! He couldn’t imagine all the shit he could pull in 80 years.
The road straightened out and Travis punched it, the needle jumping past 110, and Jonas was flattened against the back of his seat. The landscape flew by in a brown-gray blur, but they weren’t missing much. Dirt, rocks, dead trees, dead animals, dead people – he’d rather miss it, actually. Fighting against centrifugal force, he strained to push a few buttons on the “CD” player he’d wired into the car a couple years back. The two of them had developed a particular fondness for music called “Rock” and always helped themselves to something new every time they encountered a music store. Another relic of a past era, but these guys didn’t sing about easy living. They sang about girls, cars, drugs, and fast living. Jonas got them and they got Jonas. And it was a hell of a lot better than Doomsday radio.
“This is good shit, bro!” Travis pointed at the CD player, an unsightly mess of tangled, multi-color wires protruding from its back, as a guitar solo kicked in on the first track. The swift pounding of the bass drum and crashing symbols spurred him to redline it, accelerating the car to its limit, a breezy 156. Rocking with his brother…Jonas had long ago mentally added that to his list of treasured moments, the things in his life he would never forget, memories this shithole could never take from him. These times made him think that maybe, just maybe, there was a point to his existence, a reason for living in a world where staying alive was a hell of a lot harder than dying.
Their jam session was cut short by the acrid smell of gunfire, and they could see pillars of smoke, black and billowing, rising up ahead. Rising from the patch where they had left the family, safe and (relatively speaking) healthy, mere hours ago.
“What the fuck…” Travis craned his neck out the window, speeding off towards their adopted home. His speeding went from smooth and controlled to jerky and erratic, sending the now forgotten food and supplies and both boys bouncing all over the seats. Jonas managed to retrieve his shotgun from the floorboard without hitting his already sore head on the dash. Not that his head mattered right now. Nothing mattered right now, other than the safety of his family. His girl. Was Peach alright? Please let her be alright. Panic and adrenaline swelled inside of him, but he managed to stay in control. His brother had always told him to play it cool, and the lesson had stuck with him. He pumped the slide on his weapon, chambering a fresh slug that was ready to rip a 5 inch hole in the chest of anyone who dared to fuck with his family.
With an ear piercing shriek from the tires, Travis slammed on the breaks as they skidded into the center of the patch, the abrupt change in velocity causing the car to drift several feet to the side before coming to a complete stop - and nearly throwing Jonas out the window - but he hardly noticed. He was out before the car had even stopped moving. Travis hopped out beside him, his semi-automatic pistol cocked and at the ready. Both of them whipped themselves around in a circle, automatically covering the other’s back, ready to dust the cause of this trouble. Questions could wait for later.
Thick black smoke was pouring out of both the dilapidated farmhouse and barn that, as of this morning, they had called home. Flames of orange and red licked the sides of the buildings, and had already blackened most of the exteriors. The smoke made Jonas cough and wheeze and made his eyes water. He still managed to choke out the names of the family, desperately hoping they had managed to make it out before the buildings went up in flames. But there was no sign of anyone, friend or foe. Travis raced towards the house, pulling his t-shirt over his mouth, his sunglasses offering a small protection against the smoke. Jonas followed his lead, dashing to the left and behind the house to the burning barn.
The wide double doors were hanging open, swaying feebly, as if they were fanning the flames. Smoke poured from their gaping mouth. He took the deepest breath he could manage, kept his weapon at the ready, and darted in through the haze. The heat was unbearable, instantly coating his skin in a slick layer of sweat. The smoke was worse though, and he fought the nausea and gagging with every step. He couldn’t get enough breath to even attempt to call out, but if anyone was still conscious they wouldn’t have been able to hear him over the roar of the fire and the building’s dying groans anyway. The structure itself was near completely engulfed in flames, but the majority of the crap they had housed in the barn – the other car, spare parts, random scrap – had yet to ignite. There was gasoline though, several cans of it. Shit. He had to make his search quick, because when that went up, it was all over for anyone left inside. He quickly swept the dirt floor with his eyes and spotted two dark lumps about 10 feet in front of him, and another further away, half visible from behind the car.
As Jonas reached the first two, he knew his suspicions were correct, that these lumpy things were people. His people. Both were lying in a puddle of something thick and dark that reflected the flames. It could be oil...or blood. He crouched to examine the person closest to him; the eyes were open, staring at the ceiling, jaw slack with the dark substance dripping from the corners of his mouth. Definitely blood. It was Lyle, unmistakably, but it also wasn't. Whatever it was that had made this sack of meat Lyle was long gone, most likely due to the bullet holes that riddled his chest. If that was Lyle, then the smaller person next to him had to be Sandy. The two of them had gotten married only four months ago. She was gone too, her plain but soft features twisted in a final grimace of fear. She'd only been shot once, from what Jonas could tell, a damp, dark hole in the middle of her chest close to her heart.
Despite the extreme heat, he was trembling now, the barrel of his gun sliding around in his sweaty hands. He moved on to the last figure, very much doubting that this person was still alive, but he had to be sure. The Diamond boys didn’t leave anyone behind. Before he reached the car, however, it was obvious that there was no point. There was a hole nearly the size of Jonas' fist in the back of the person's head, blood and something lighter - brain - leaking out of it. Jonas felt his stomach clench as he recognized the irregular stripes tattooed on the dead man's wrists. It was Buzz. Buzz who always fixed their car and yelled at them for shredding the tires, who had taught Jonas everything he knew about the guts of an automobile, who had, just this morning, pleaded with them to pick up "a little pink" for him while they were in town. Buzz now resembled the human version of whack-a-mole.
Jonas stared dumbly for a few seconds, maybe a minute, at the gaping remains of his friend's skull before coming to his senses and realizing he was standing in a pressure cooker. Travis could still be in the house, and the house was too close to the barn to survive the impending explosion. Buzz is…was… like a brother, but Travis was his blood. Jonas sprinted out the way he came, ignoring the protesting of his oxygen-starved muscles and back to the house. The door was hanging open, but Travis was still inside.
He dashed in, screaming his brother's name before being cut off by the overwhelming smoke. Some of the furniture was broken or overturned and he saw bullet holes in the scorched walls. Whoever had shot the people in the barn had come in here too. To his right, the kitchen area was blocked by a solid wall of flames. The stairs looked like they could give at any moment, but he had to find him. And if anyone in the house was still alive, Travis was the kind of person who would stay with them, try to get them out, even if it was hopeless. What a guy. Jonas had gotten about halfway up the staircase when Travis appeared in front of him, his clothes blackened with soot, dark hair covered in gray ash. No one was with him. He half ran, half fell down the stairs, grabbing Jonas' arm and the two of them dragged each other out of the house, coughing and gasping all the way.
The shock of death and dense smoke finally overwhelmed him, and Jonas doubled over, vomiting up bile and the beans he had stuffed down his throat when they'd been in town. He wiped his mouth and scrubbed his watery, itching eyes and runny nose with the sleeve of his jacket.
"Gas...gas in the...barn." He managed to splutter out in between coughs. His throat was so raw that it rendered his own voice unrecognizable. It was hard to tell what went on behind Travis' mirrored glasses and fire blackened face, but he seemed to understand as he motioned towards their car with a trembling hand.
The two of them trotted over as quickly as they could manage and Jonas heard the purr of the engine, realizing that in his haste Travis had left the car running. They both piled in and Travis quickly threw it in reverse, the flaming remains of their former home quickly receding from view. In less than a minute, the barn exploded with a great booming burst of flame, sending bits of wood and metal flying everywhere, littering and cracking their windshield. As Jonas had predicted, the explosion took out the house too, leaving only the lopsided remains of the frame and the heavy ceramic toilet behind.
They sat there in stunned silence, in the car, staring dazedly at the flaming rubble, the incinerated corpse of their family for a long time. Gradually, his lungs began to function properly again, his eyes stopped watering, the loud ringing in his ears turning into a dull hum. The sick feeling in his gut was still there.
"You okay?" Travis finally broke the silence. At some point he had managed to wipe most of the soot from his face, and resembled himself once again, instead of some painted villain in a highway robbery.
"Yea." Jonas nodded slowly. "They're all...dead…now. I saw Lyle, Sandy...Buzz...in the barn....already gone. Jesus Christ. They’re gone." Each name caused his stomach to lurch violently, threatening to bring up another meal.
"The rest...were in the house. Gone...shot." Travis kept his voice steady, but Jonas knew his brother, and knew that losing people hurt him worse than anyone. He was just better at hiding it.
"Peach...ugh..."Jonas let out a groan. His Peach, so sweet, just like her name. He remembered the freckles on her nose, the sound of her laughter, like music, the way she felt inside...he was going to be sick all over again. More than sick. Something else started to shake inside of him, something hotter than the fire that had ravaged their homes, and it had his blood positively boiling. Rage.
"No...no! Peach...I didn't see her. Peach wasn't there. Joey, Peach wasn't there! She wasn't in the barn, right?!"
His anger receded slightly as hope grew. He thought hard about the barn. Had he looked everywhere? Had he missed something? No, he would've found his Peach. He couldn't have missed that hair, bleached so light it was almost white, or her long, shapely legs. He would have seen her.
"No." Jonas said firmly. "She must still be alive! Travis, she must have run off, she must be hiding off! Peach! PEACH!" Jonas was hollering her name, ignoring the pain from his raw throat and was already halfway out the window when Travis yanked him back in.
"She's probably alive. But she ain't here. I'm sorry Joey, but I think she woulda shown up by now if she's here."
"What?! Then where the fuck is she?"
"They were shot, Joey. Somebody came and shot 'em and...I bet they took her. She's young and healthy and...pretty. I...please, don't make me spell it out for ya, Joey." He didn't need to. The radiation seemed to affect females worse, so there were a lot less of them, and healthy, attractive young women were both rare and essential to continuing their collective existence. Well, at least, the young and healthy part. But procreation was a lot better when you had something nice to look at. The thought of his girl being kidnapped and...impregnated, most likely against her will, was nearly as loathsome as her being dead. It couldn't be true.
"No, she could be hurt, passed out somewhere. She's probably just scared and..." Jonas could think of a dozen different explanations, each one weaker than the last. Deep down, he knew Travis was right. He was always right. Peach wasn't dead, but someone was probably doing awful things to her. He couldn't bear it. He had to find her. Save her. He felt Travis’ hand on his arm, his grip so tight it was almost painful.
"We'll find 'em Joey. We'll find 'em and get her back and give those cocksuckers a taste of our own steel."