The family just finished dinner and was sitting around the table talking. Tony, a man of fifteen-and-a-half years, had a question burning in his soul that he just had to ask. He already knew the answer, but he still had to press the point.
“Dad, I want to stand guard duty like the other men.” It was a simple request. Everyone had to take a turn standing guard at the gates. They skipped over Tony because they considered him a kid. He wasn’t. Like his dad, he could shoot better than any of the men in the group. He was just as tall, too. What made them so much better? The world had fallen apart weeks ago, and everyone had to do their bit to keep the compound safe from the monsters, both regular people and the mutants, that roamed the woods and streets.
“Look, Tony, I know you want to participate, but you don’t have to be on the front lines do it.” Tony’s father still treated him like a little boy. He never took anything he said or did seriously.
“Doing laundry and cooking is for the girls. I can do what the other men are doing. I’m just as much a man as anyone.” Tony felt humiliated being stuck doing woman’s work. In the time before the fall, there was no such thing as woman’s work, but now the duties were clearly defined. The men guarded the compound. The men went out on hunting and scavenging trips. The men built the barricades and kept the fences intact. The women did the other things like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. It was like the world had devolved into medieval times. At least back then, a man was a man when he could hold a spear or hunt. In this reality, he was still considered a boy.
“Son, it’s important work, and besides, you’re guarding the women by staying back.”
Lame-o. That was a totally lame answer.
“Dad, I know I can do the work the other men are doing. Why do you insist on humiliating me in front of everyone? Cara snickers at me constantly. She’s never going to consider me a man.” Cara was a bit older, nearly seventeen, and hot. Having his parents treat him like a child made him feel small and insignificant. Cara looked at him like he was a boy, too. If he could stand guard and maybe kill a mutant or two, Cara would notice him for sure, and the others in the group would consider him a contributing member instead of a boy hiding behind his mother’s apron.
“The topic is not up for discussion, young man. Now help your mother clean the dishes. That’s what you’re doing today.” Strike another humiliating blow for Tony.
Tony helped his mother as instructed, seething the entire time. His mother didn’t seem too sympathetic, either. Doing dishes was once a simple job but with water scarce and electricity gone, it was a major chore.
“Honey, don’t worry about growing up so fast. You have lots of time to do that. We’re safe here, and your place is near me, helping out around the compound and being a rear guard. We need you here.” His mother was condescending. Rear guard, what a joke. The only rear he was guarding was his own. Pathetic. No wonder Cara laughed at him.
“But my place is with the men, not the women and kids. Mom, can’t you understand how I feel?” Tony felt near to tears but sucked it up and held his composure.
“Sure, honey, I understand. Now just be good and help out with Mrs. Neely. She doesn’t have a husband to help her. You can be a real hero just by lending a hand.” Tony hated taking care of her children. It was so far beneath him. He pretended not to hate it and did help out when he had to.
“I’m not changing any diapers. That I will not do anymore. I hate diapers. They stink, and the kids are too old for them. Even Donny, the three-year-old, is still wearing diapers. He tells me how to fasten it. He can change his own damn diaper.” He was sick to death of diaper duty.
“Tony, drop that tone and watch your language. I’ll talk to Mrs. Neely about the diaper thing. I understand completely. I hated diaper changing myself. That’s why you were potty trained at such a young age.”
“Mom, do you have to bring that up?” Virtually everything since the fall of civilization was designed to humiliate Tony. He was sure of it. He decided to go over his father’s head and ask the group’s leader directly. He might say no. He might tell him to go away. He might even say yes. The only way he could get out of his current situation was to ask someone other than his father.
The next day, Tony was at his chores again. Nothing ever changed in this horrible world.
“Whatcha want, Donny?” The little boy had toddled up to Tony.
Donny just stood there. His face was getting redder and redder. Tony looked at Donny and instantly understood. Donny was taking a dump in his diaper. Tony’s good mood evaporated in an instant. His mom never talked to Mrs. Neely. His next task was going to be unpleasant. He noticed Cara was watching, and she knew what was happening.
“I see you’re having a good time,” snickered Cara. She was the woman of his dreams, sweet, beautiful, and always close by. She considered him just a kid since he had to work with the women and was denied the honor of man’s work. He blushed and couldn’t stop his face from becoming as red as Donny, the dumper. Cara turned back to her work, still chuckling, eyeing him knowingly. He could read her mind. She saw his face. She knew he was humiliated, and she still chuckled. She wasn’t mean. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. If she saw him as the man he was, she wouldn’t have seen any humor in the situation.
“Donny, why can’t you use the toilet like the rest of humanity?” Tony was frustrated and annoyed, not only because Donny was old enough to pick out his own diapers but because he had to do his performance right in front of Cara, demeaning and humiliating him in her eyes. How could she possibly respect him after seeing that?
During a break, Tony decided he had to do something. He found the leader in the RV up by the rear post. He was cleaning one of the guns, an AR-15 rifle. Tony knocked on the open door.
“Excuse me, Sir, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Tony, what’s on your mind?” The leader, Mr. Harmon, was a fair guy. He seemed to respect Tony and treated him with some dignity.
“I was interested in… well…I wanted to know if…” Tony had trouble spitting it out.
“Let me guess. You want to join the men instead of working with the ladies.” Wow. He hit the nail on the head with that one. Mr. Harmon was no dummy.
“Yes, that’s it. I want to stand guard duty and help with the other things. I’m sick to death of changing diapers.” That came out wrong.
Mr. Harmon laughed deeply. “I don’t blame you. I hate diapers, too. Surely you’re not just changing diapers. You’re doing other very important things. We don’t have enough women to do everything, and you can do the work of three of them.” He was being kind. Tony liked Mr. Harmon.
“Yes, I know I’m doing that kind of stuff, but really, I’d be better at guard duty. I’m twice the shot of anyone else you have. You know it.” Tony was a born shooter. He could hit just about anything he could see, moving or standing still.
“I know you’re a great shot, sure I do. That’s an important skill. Maybe we could start sending you out looking for supplies as long as you stay with the truck and keep an eye out for trouble. Do you think you could do that?”
“That would be great! When can I go?” Tony was ecstatic. At least he could contribute and show everyone he could keep his cool when things got rough.
“Well, it all depends on your father. I need to know it’s okay with him. You know how protective he is of you. You’re his only child.” Tony knew his father would screw that one up. He wouldn’t let him do anything other than the dirty work in the compound.
“He doesn’t think I can do anything useful.” Tony lamented.
“That’s not true. He’s very proud of you. The world is an extremely dangerous place. Maybe too dangerous for a youngster like you. How about I talk to him for you about going on runs? I think you can do it.” Mr. Harmon stood up and clapped Tony on the shoulders, just like one man would do to another. Tony stood proud and flexed his muscles so he wouldn’t feel like a bag of jelly.
“I would appreciate that if you could. I won’t let you down, that’s for sure. Thank you, Mr. Harmon. Thanks a lot!” Tony was actually jumping up and down now.
Tony spent the rest of the day doing the silly chores without complaint. His mother noticed his good mood and said, “Tony, you’re in an unusually good mood. What’s going on?” His mother didn’t miss much.
“Oh, nothing. Nothing really. Mr. Harmon asked that I go on a supply run and is going to talk to Dad about it.” He said it kind of nonchalant, like it meant nothing. He was bursting to tell someone. He’d rather be telling Cara.
“Honey, those can be dangerous. Remember the time they didn’t come back?” People still disputed why, and many thought the men who left simply did not want to come back and ran off with the truck.
“Mom, you know it’s not really dangerous. Nobody has ever seen anyone or anything bigger than one of those cowardly mutants, the ones who just run.” The cowards were good for target practice and nothing more.
“Still, unknown dangers lurk outside these walls.” His Mom was literate and often said stuff like that, probably from a book.
Tony rolled his eyes in annoyance. “Mom, don’t you think that’s a bit dramatic? Really? What book did you get that from?”
“Nothing, just made it up. Sounds spooky though…”
“What do you think Dad’s going to say?” He wanted to get back to the point.
“He’s going to say no. Of course he’ll say no.” His mom seemed certain of that.
“I have to do something other than this crap.”
“Now honey, please.”
“Please nothing. I can’t do this any longer.”
“Well, you’re going to have to. Just be patient. Your time will come.” She said that a lot. It meant nothing to Tony now.
During dinner, Tony’s father brought up the discussion he had with Mr. Harmon.
“Tony, I know you’ve been talking to Mr. Harmon about doing more of the men’s jobs. You went around me on that.” He was clearly unhappy about Tony’s impatience.
“I had to, Dad, otherwise, I’d be cleaning up baby crap for the rest of my life.” Tony was yelling.
“Son, keep your voice down and watch your language. You’ve been brought up better than that.” He had that tone.
“You treat me like I’m still five years old. You always have. You just can’t accept that I’m not a child. The world has gone to hell, and you can’t understand how I feel.” His father just looked at Tony like he felt ashamed.
“I understand. I do. I really do. But, hell. I mean, this is important. You’ve got to understand that we want you to be safe…” Tony interrupted his father mid-sentence.
“Safe? Safe? Are you insane? We’ll all probably die tomorrow and you’re talking about being safe? There is no safe.” Tony stood. He was so angry he could feel the veins on his neck popping out.
“Calm down, Tony. Just sit down and listen.” Tony sat down. He wasn’t going to fly completely off the handle. Not yet anyway.
“I tell you what, son, I’ll talk to Mr. Harmon about standing guard duty, during the day only, after he gets back from the run tomorrow. Would that suit you?” His father really did understand.
“I wanted to go on the run with Mr. Harmon. He asked that I go.” He said it in a quiet voice. He had won, but maybe just a bit more pushing.
“You know that’s not true. You asked him first, and he agreed to talk to me. Be truthful.” His father wasn’t born yesterday.
“Yes, of course, of course that’s true but still…”
“Come on, you’ve won the argument. Let’s finish dinner and have no more talk of this tonight.” His dad was really an okay guy, just too protective of his one and only son.
“Okay, you’re right. Thanks for understanding. Daytime only. I won’t let you down.” He felt better now.
“Until that happens, I want you to continue doing your chores, and no more diapers. Right honey?” He looked at Tony’s mom with a smile.
“Sure, dear, we’ll make sure someone else does the diapers, and not me either. How about you do them, dear? You always loved to change Tony’s diaper.” She was joking of course.
“Mom, don’t be sick. That’s gross.”
“Really, I didn’t mind. Well, except when you had diarrhea. Then it was Mom’s turn.”
“Oh, come on, it’s still dinner.” Tony laughed and threw a kernel of corn at his dad. They finished dinner, and all was finally well in the family. Tony dreamed of impressing Cara, dreamed like only a fifteen-year-old-boy can dream.
The next morning, Mr. Harmon and a few of the men left for a run. He said he’d be back by early afternoon at the latest. Tony set about his chores and hoped it would be the last time he did any of this lousy work. Cara was working nearby, and when he had a break, he decided to give her the details about his promotion.
“Cara, hi, just wanted to give you the news.” He felt his face getting red but fought it off.
“Oh? What’s that? Donny do his thing for you again?” She chuckled under her breath. Tony could see her face blush a bit. Maybe she regretted teasing him.
“I’m done with that. I’m moving up to guard duty tomorrow.” He said it with pride and confidence.
“I thought your father wanted to keep you in the safety of the women and children?” She looked at him with knowing eyes.
“Mr. Harmon and my father finally worked it out.” He still exuded confidence.
“Well, that’s impressive. I hear you’re good with a gun. Is that really true?” She was bending over slightly, taking care of some task lost to Tony. He could see the roundness of her bosom. His heart took a jump and he looked away before she caught him.
He choked a bit. “Yup, ah… yeah… my dad and I are, uh, the best here. He taught me everything. I’ve been hunting my whole life.” He finally regained his composure.
“Hunting? Ever get anything?” She stood up and looked him in the eye. He noticed for the first time that he was taller than her. He had always thought that wasn’t the case, but now that he was standing so close, he could tell.
“Oh, lots of things. Mostly deer. I can shoot the eyes out of a squirrel at a hundred yards.” Oops. That came out wrong. Cara frowned.
“Why would you shoot a squirrel? That’s mean.” She was an animal lover. Tony made a mental note. No talk about killing bunnies or Bambi.
“That’s just a figure of speech. I didn’t mean LITERALLY.” He had shot many squirrels, mostly for sport. They were tricky to hit, but nobody ate them, not unless they were starving.
“Oh, I thought you were serious. Being a hunter is a really useful skill now. The guys in the hunting party are kind of lame. They haven’t caught anything for over a week.” The group hadn’t been eating fresh meat lately, just canned stuff.
“My dad says they’re not all that experienced, but they can’t spare him from guard duty. He’s the sniper. Got to have one of them at the front gate.” He was so proud of his father, even though he treated him like a baby most of the time.
“Maybe you can go out with the hunters and show them how it’s done.” She poked him in the ribs and laughed.
“You can come with me, and we’ll show them together. Tarzan and Jane!” He let out his best Tarzan yell. His voice cracked and it sounded more like a wounded goat. They had a hearty laugh together. She still laughed, but this time, she was laughing with him and not at him.
“Cara? Cara?” A woman yelled off in the distance.
“I have to go. Nice talking to you, oh great Tarzan.” She looked at him differently. He felt a warm flush deep in his loins.
“You too, Jane.” He watched her walk away. She turned and winked at him after a few steps, catching him eyeing her. He didn’t care now. She liked it, or seemed to.
Noon came and went, then the sun started getting low in the sky. Mr. Harmon wasn’t back yet. The folks gathered in the center of compound and discussed it. Tony wasn’t included. His father told him to stay put with his mom and keep an eye out. After a while, Tony’s father came back home to discuss what had been said.
“They’re worried. Mr. Harmon should have been back by now.” His father looked scared.
“Maybe their truck broke down,” Tony’s mom said.
“They took two trucks, both of them good,” Tony added.
“Something else happened. They must have run into trouble,” Tony’s dad said it in a really serious way.
“Do we go out looking for them?” Tony was ready to volunteer.
“We know where they went and we’ll send out a search team tomorrow.”
“What do you think happened, Dad?”
“Well, I have no idea. They went toward town. Nobody has gone as far as they were planning to go. They may have run into people, or worse.”
“Worse, as in mutants?” Tony’s imagination started to run wild.
“Nobody said anything about mutants. We haven’t seen any of the violent ones since we cleared out that nest a few months ago.” They had killed at least a dozen of those monsters in a raid. Took them by surprise. They all got what they deserved. Tony’s Dad was in on it and got several himself. He was the best shot in the compound, and Tony learned from him.
“Still, it could be those bastards.”
“Tony, how many times do I have to tell you to watch your language!” His mother was very strict about those little things.
“Sorry, Mom. I mean those evil bastards.” He said it with a smile.
“That’s better.” She had a sense of humor too.
“Tonight, the plan is to double the guard on both gates and keep alert.”
“Can I stand guard tonight?” Tony was hopeful.
“Are you being a comedian?” Tony’s dad wasn’t amused.
“No, really, I want to help.”
“You can help by staying here with your mom and watching the compound. There won’t be many men left here. You can stand guard right.” He was serious.
“That’s not cool, Dad. I’ll hide under Mom’s skirt. Will that make you happy?” Tony was being sarcastic, and his father just let it slide. That meant he was scared.
The weather turned ugly toward the end of the day, and it was raining by the time it got dark. It was a steady, light rain, the kind that means the temperature is going to fall soon. Tony had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to stay behind, hiding under the bed. He was going to sneak out and watch the fence. Nobody did that, and if an attack was going to come, it could come from there. He could be the hero and sound the alarm, or spend the entire night in the cold rain and probably regret the hell out of it. Didn’t matter. It was the cold rain for him.
Tony slipped out after his mother fell asleep. His dad was watching the front gate. The rear post was pretty secure since the roads up that way were totally clogged. If people were going to attack from that direction, they would have to rip apart several horrible traffic jams and the barricade of chained and burned cars. Nobody knew what happened up there. Tony hadn’t seen it himself, but he heard stories that a huge pile of dead mutants had been burned. Someone had a big barbecue. No telling who, though. That was lost to history.
Tony knew of a place he could sit and watch the fence and the rear post without being seen. It was pretty safe, too, and would be dry even in the rain. Along the way, he picked up a piece of steel that was being used to mark a path. It was some sort of construction material, round, with a rough feel, about half an inch in diameter and four feet long. It left rust marks on his hands, but was heavy and would make a good weapon if he needed it.
Tony got comfortable and waited. He could make out the guards standing on top of the cars and hear them talking. He couldn’t make out what they said, but an occasional laugh or cough rang clear as a bell. It was pretty boring to just sit and watch, so he thought about how proud Cara would be. He saw her in his mind, smiling and touching his face. He saw her beautiful body and the shape of her as she undressed…he was asleep of course. Sound asleep.
Tony woke with a start. He’d fallen asleep on guard duty. What a turd! He was ashamed of himself. Luckily, nobody knew he was there, so nobody would know he violated the most important rule. He looked over at the rear gate and didn’t see anything. He listened intently and no sound. Did they fall asleep, too? Impossible. Then he saw a figure appear and stand on one of the cars that made up the barricade. He didn’t look right. He was way bigger than anyone in the group. There wasn’t any talking either. It wasn’t a guard. It had to be a mutant. What happened to the guards? He had to take a closer look.
Tony left his hiding place and crept ever so quietly toward the rear post. He heard what sounded like grunting or growling. Mutants for sure. They didn’t talk, but they did make some sort of subhuman sounds. He got closer and came across one of the guards. He had his face ripped off. He couldn’t tell who it was; he was dead. A panic welled up from deep within Tony. He wanted to run and scream, but he couldn’t move. After a moment, the panic subsided and he felt warm and strong. He thought of what might become of his mother and father if he couldn’t warn them. He couldn’t go back now as the mutants were between him and the houses. The only way was to go forward. Everyone knew the signal. Blow the car horn one second on, one second off. Keep that up and the entire world would know that the crap had hit the fan. That was his goal now, reach a car.
He kept going and saw a good car, one he knew had a battery and a functioning horn. He stood up and started toward it. He was about twenty feet from making it when a large figure stood in his path. It was a mutant for sure. Just enough light shown on his face to see that he was looking right at him. Those red, horrible eyes were filled with hate and anger. He would kill Tony for sure, and that would be it. No alarm would be sounded. The monster moved toward Tony slowly and with calculation. Tony marveled at what an excellent specimen he was. His muscles rippled like a god. Two more steps and Tony would be dead. The mutant kept his slow pace, and Tony held his ground, perhaps like a fool, but still, he wasn’t afraid. Another step and the mutant would have him.
Tony thrust the metal rod right into his chest. The monster howled a death cry and fell to his knees. The look of surprise was well worth the fear Tony had felt only moments earlier. He pulled the rod out from the mutant’s chest and blood flowed like a river. The bastard fell over, dead. Tony moved quickly to the car and saw another one coming around the side of the vehicle, not as big as the one he’d just killed but still, three times the size of puny Tony. He thrust the rod at the beast and caught him in the gut and went clear through him. The monster howled in anger and pain. Unfortunately, he wasn’t dead. The creature took a swing at Tony with those deadly claws and raked open his back with a deep wound. Tony nearly passed out in pain. Another slash opened up his leg, deeply. Arterial blood gushed from his wound. The monster keeled over, dead. Tony would likely perish now, but he still had his mission.
Tony made it to the car and slammed the door just as three more of the hellacious savages closed in on him. He laid on the horn and sent the signal. He kept it up for as long as he could. The monsters were surprised by the racket and left him. Gunshots could be heard off in the distance. They knew they were under attack. It was getting close to the end for Tony now. He started to lose consciousness and saw cars leaving the compound, a lot of them. They were making their escape. The only one left was Cara, and she was coming for him. Everything was light. He could clearly see her naked body as they embraced.