Not Good Enough
by Milo James Fowler

EVER SINCE THAT GODAWFUL day them Horrors sucked ol' Joe up into their mothership to have their way with him, poking and prodding and twisting his damn DNA into too many shapes like a freakish clown with balloons at a kid's birthday party, he's suffered through all manner of difficulty. Some from the Horrors themselves. Most from regular folks like you and me.

All it takes is a mean apocalypse, and people they change. Ain't so normal anymore. Not so human. Sure, they might look alright on the outside. Two arms, two legs, two eyes. Maybe a little dirty, ragged around the edges like a pair of frayed blue jeans. No tentacles or slimy skin or claws. But their souls are different. The light inside has gone dim.

They don't listen to the voice of their better selves no more. Their conscience is hoarse. It's the animals inside they hear now. Hunger and thirst. Desire. Survival. Nothing else much matters.

"Think they've got real food?" Little Barry he does his best to keep up with Joe's long strides.

"Might have." Joe he keeps on moving. Flamethrower rig clunking over one shoulder, big ol' backpack stuffed with provisions over the other. His boots strike the cracked asphalt in a steady rhythm with no sign of slowing down.

On either side of this road lay the ruins of blown-out buildings burned to cinders. Frozen in their lanes sit the rusted hulks of abandoned automobiles long-since picked over by scavengers. Skeletons now. Nothing left worth taking. Down the middle, along the faded white dashes with weeds springing up between breaks in the pavement, that's where Joe walks, heading due east.

Toward the Q. The Murph. A last bastion of civilization, such as it is. He's heard tell they take in strays there. That they have food, and plenty of it. The real stuff.

Barry squints up at the hellish sun and drags a bare forearm across his dark brow, collecting warm beads of sweat. He adjusts the satchel slung across his back, heavy with scavenged canned goods. Some human food. Mostly dog and cat, from when there used to be lots of both running around. Before they got themselves hunted to near-extinction. Folks can't afford to be too picky these days. You eat what you can catch. Or what you can find. Ain't nobody selling drive-through.

"Think they've got crops? You know, growing inside?" Barry licks his chapped lips and remembers corn fresh off the cob. Tearing into it with all his teeth, warm butter drooling down his chin, sweet corn bursting open with each bite.

"Possible." Joe he keeps his answers short. Hopes the kid will shut up eventually. Hasn't worked yet, and they've been hoofing it together for about a week now.

There will come a day when the kid will grow too tired to talk. Too thirsty. Too weak. Joe knows it to be true. And he plans to make it to the Q long before then.

"The Horrors leave 'em alone cuz they've got gun turrets up in the stands, the nosebleeds where people used to watch the big games on Sundays. And the Horrors don't want to get their aircars damaged, so they steer clear, just fly on over to other parts of town where it's easier to grab folks. General Jack Murphy, he says, 'Keep on flyin', you mother—"

"Language," Joe says.

He ain't the boy's father. Not even close. But the kid's mother got herself slaughtered by them Horrors right before his young eyes. Least Joe can do is guide the rascals' squirrely tongue in the right direction.

"—don't you even think about it," Barry goes on, reciting his litany. Or his catechism. He repeats it religiously either way, seems to bolster his courage. Puts a little spring in his step, thinking things might get better again someday. "That's what General Jack Murphy says, and the Horrors they fly on by cuz they've got prey elsewhere to be had."

"Ain't no Jack Murphy."

Not for years and years. Since long before the days when Joe had a family to call his own. Wonderful wife. Two amazing daughters. When tears sting his eyes from time to time, those three girls are the reason why. Because they're gone, sure. Mostly because he's afraid he'll never see them again.

Barry looks up at Joe, but Joe he keeps his gaze set on the path ahead and any dangers that might spring up along the way. Never can be too careful. Scavengers. Eggheads. Not to mention the Horrors themselves.

"That's what folks said about you," the kid says. Sports a big ol' grin, bright as sunshine. "That you were made-up. They even had a song. 'Roadkill Joe is a very old soul, can't die cuz he's a freak!'" Drawing out that last word in two syllables.

Apt description. Joe knows full-well he's freakish. How else would you describe a man who's been run over, shot, stabbed, skewered, burned, and blown up more times than he can remember? Some of it he's done to his own self.

Suicidal? Maybe. Experimental is more like. Them Horrors mangled his DNA something fierce, making him...not-human. As far as he can tell, his body refuses to die. No matter how much he'd like it to, after all these years roaming the wasted earth. By all indications, there will never be any eternal rest for ol' Joe.

Why'd they do it? Select him special only to drop him into the middle of a highway where he got himself run over by a big rig and a couple other midsize vehicles? Maybe that was their experiment. To see if what they'd done to him would stick.

Always strikes him as odd, thinking of them Horrors as able to manage equipment necessary to screw around with his insides. The monsters he's seen are mindless brutes with only one thing on their minds: grabbing folks and laying eggs inside their skulls. Procreation and feeding themselves on human flesh, that's all the Horrors are ever interested in. Nothing requiring fine motor skills.

Which sort of begs the question: Is there more than one type of alien creature? Do the brains keep themselves up in the mothership while the brawn keep to the planet's surface, terrorizing the natives?



"Don't you think it might be so?"

"Maybe." Joe shrugs his shoulders non-committal like.

Truth is, he lost track of the one-sided conversation. The boy can prattle on like nobody's business. For his own sanity, Joe's got to tune out from time to time.

Don't need no boy wonder. That's what he said when the kid wanted to tag along. He meant it. But the boy wasn't shook off so easy.

"There's gotta be. Kids, I mean," Barry says now, kicking at a self-important milkweed as he passes by. "There were some on my street, y'know. Back before the Horrors got Momma. Most were taken. And we ain't seen any since we been hiking, have we?"

That's what he calls this. Hiking. The desolation does nothing to dampen his enthusiasm. He's on an adventure. When the buzz of an aircar rips through the sky in the distance and Joe has to drag him to the ground and duck under the blanket he carries, the one that hides their heat signatures, the kid holds his breath, curled up tight like a mole in his hidey hole. He doesn't get scared. He doesn't get sad. Not even when he mentions his dear departed Momma. He takes everything as it comes.

Kids are resilient, folks used to say. Joe never believed that hogwash. But this Barry, he's something else. He just might prove them right. Or suffer from some mean post-traumatic stress once the shock wears off. Joe hopes not. Wouldn't wish that on anybody.

Except maybe them Horrors. What he wouldn't give to stress them out some.

His flamethrower's a good start. But it only works on close contact. One on one. He hasn't figured how to knock their vehicles out of the air. Or hell, why not dream big? Maybe someday he'll figure a way to knock their mothership out of orbit. That gleaming hunk of metal that competes with the moon's reflected light some nights. If he lives long enough, anything is possible, right? A hundred years from now, who knows what arsenal he'll have at his disposal.

"...maybe even a school," Barry goes on. No stopping him. "Wouldn't that be something?" He chuckles dryly to himself. Self-deprecating. "Never thought I woulda talked about school like it's a good thing. But heck, if they've got one, I think I'd be okay with it."

"Wait and see," Joe says. Cautioning the kid. Warning him against hope. The boy seems high on the stuff right now, and when his hopes get dashed, as they most surely will in this broken-up world, he'll plummet to the paralyzing depths of despair. A dangerous place for anybody.

"Think the stories are true? That it's packed full of folks living together like a city, looking out for each other and fighting back the best they know how? Just by living and making things better in one place, proving we don't have to run and hide?"
"We'll find out."
"How much farther, you think? Shouldn't take us too long, should it?"
If they keep up a good pace, don't sight no aircars heading their way, don't have to waste time hiding out, they'll reach the Q by morning.
"How come you never been there, Joe?"
"Long time ago, I was."
"Before the Horrors?"
Joe nods. "Saw the Chargers beat the 49ers."
Barry squints up at Joe. "Were they any good?"
"They had their days."
"How come you don't live there, Joe? Why're you out on your own instead of living with safety in numbers?"
"Ain't like other folk."
Barry thinks that over. Lets the rhythm of their foot-beats hold the moment. Joe's glad of the break in conversating. Wears him out it does, all this talk. But it won't be for much longer. He just needs to be patient. Get to the Q, drop off the kid, get back to the way things should be.
On his own. Alone in the world.
"I bet they've heard of you," the boy says at last. "Bet they'll be awful glad to have you around. How many of them Horrors have you killed so far, anyway?"
"Lost count."
"You been around so long, I'll bet it's been hundreds. Maybe thousands! How long you been alive, Joe?"
"Longer than you."
Barry chuckles at that. "You told me, but I forget. Like a hundred years, right?"
Joe shrugs. Truth is, he has lost count. One day tends to blend in real well with the next when you're on a planet that ain't yours anymore.
"I'm glad you heard me," Barry says, and his smile is nowhere to be seen. He looks older now, too old for his scrawny frame to carry. Too burdened. "When Momma died...I'm glad you were in town."
Joe keeps his attention on a shape they're closing in on. His boots slow to a stop, and he holds out a hand to halt the boy's forward momentum.
"See something?" Barry whispers.
"Yeah." Joe slips the pack off his left shoulder and shoves it at the kid. Barry takes it in a big hug. "Stay here."
The boy nods, holding onto the pack that's almost as big as him. Joe slides his left arm into the other shoulder strap of the flamethrower's harness and adjusts the 10-gallon canisters so they're balanced against his back. He detaches the hose and points the nozzle ahead of him as he takes a step forward.
"I see it." Barry sucks in his breath, backs up a step. "It's moving."
"Yeah." He motions for the kid to stay put, and Barry nods without blinking, gaze fixed on that shape sticking out from behind the charred skeleton of a big rig. Two shapes, really. The legs of a human being. Real still. Until they twitch all of a sudden with a weird spasm. Then lie still again.
Joe approaches, wondering if this was one of the rigs that ran him over after the Horrors changed him and dumped him. Would that be coincidence or irony? Doesn't matter, either way.
The legs are wrapped in faded blue jeans, torn and bloody at the knees. The bare feet look like a woman's or a teen's. Dark with grime. Scavengers have already crawled all over this rig, cleared out the trailer, set it ablaze. After helping themselves to whatever they found inside.
The legs they twitch again, and Joe doesn't hang back. He's seen this sort of thing before. Won't make it any easier on the eyes, though. Never is.
He gives the bare feet a wide berth as he rounds the soot-blackened grill of the semi's cab. Aims the flamethrower's nozzle, prepares to squeeze the trigger. A single burst should do the trick.
The body sits bolt upright and stares at Joe. A woman, once. Maybe even pretty. Hard to tell now with her head swollen bigger than a beehive. Not really a head anymore. A pulsating sac of alien eggs waiting to hatch. From the looks of things, could be any day now.
Her right arm jerks like she's trying to make it move upward. To wave? Point at him? Her mouth sags open like a stroke victim's. Her eyes stare without comprehension. Does she know what them Horrors did to her?
"Rotten sludge monkeys," Joe mutters.
The stream of liquid fire strikes her smack dab in the middle of the forehead and knocks her back. But she ain't a her no more, ain't a person. Just a nest. The oversized head bursts and the eggs pop under all that heat, and Joe he makes sure nothing comes wriggling out once the flames die out.
The charred sac settles like a deflated beach ball. The smells are stomach-turning. Burnt meat that used to be human. Roasted eggs that held slimy things too close to entering the world. Joe can't bring himself to think of them as babies. Alien spawn is better. Monstrous things they are.
He steps close to make sure the flames have done their job. His own concoction of fuel, his own recipe, reverse-engineered from a military formula. The only thing he's found that will end these creatures. Unborn or full-size, makes no difference. Joe's flamethrower does what nothing else can. It's special that way. Like him. The secret ingredient—
Hey now. Can't tell you that. Then it wouldn't be secret no more, would it?
"Aw, that's nasty," Barry says, standing at the body's feet and scrunching up his face. Can't cover his nose or mouth, hugging Joe's bag the way he is. So he buries his face in it for just a moment.
"Told you to stay back." Joe attaches the flamethrower's hose to the side of one canister and shrugs an arm out of the leather harness. He beckons for the boy to toss him his bag.
Barry grimaces and gives the sack of provisions a mighty heave, sending it with all his might. Sails toward Joe, who catches it in one hand. Slings it over his shoulder and starts walking without another word.
"First egghead we've seen on this stretch of road," the boy says, scurrying to keep up. He's learned good enough about this awful world. That was no person. Not for some time. "And not one aircar for the past day or so."
"What you think it means?" The boy's sounding hopeful again. "Think the Horrors are done with this part of town? Maybe they've moved on to greener pastures or something?"
"They'll be back." Joe knows it full well. They always come back.
"But maybe not, right? Could be the stories are true about General Jack Murphy scarin' them off!"
"Ain't scared of nothin'." No reason to be.
"Not even you?"
"They made me."
Barry chews on that one for a while. "Right..." he says at last, thinking it over. "You ever wonder why?"
"Every damn day."
Are there others like him somewhere on this planet? Immortals doomed to inherit these post-apocalyptic badlands? If so, could be the Horrors have themselves a fifth column, one that wants to see them fail at subjugating the earth. One that made Joe the way he is and plans to create an army of Joe's to take down the other Horrors, once and for all.
He almost laughs out loud. Wouldn't that be something?
Only it ain't. More than a hundred years now, he's been hoofing it across this cursed earth. Seen everything you could imagine, mostly what you'd never want to. Far as he can tell, there's nobody out here like Joe but Joe.
"They made you so nobody can kill you. So even they can't kill you."
"Not yet," Joe says.
"Have they tried laying eggs in your head?"
"Haven't let 'em get that close."
Barry likes that answer. He grins and chuckles and shakes a fist. "That's right! Roadkill Joe is a very old soul, can't die cuz he' Superman," he sings. Then he frowns. "What's your Kryponite?"
"The only thing that can stop you. Make you weak. Kill you, even."
Joe shrugs. "Haven't found it yet."
But he's looked. Oh God, has he looked.
"Maybe because you don't got any. You're completely unkillable!"
"Ain't a word."
"Think General Jack Murphy's like you? Immortal?"
Joe makes no reply.
"I'll bet he is, and that's why the Horrors leave the Q alone," Barry says. "Hell, maybe the whole place is full of unkillable superheroes getting ready to take down those ugly mother—"
Darkness falls after the sun goes down in a blood-orange blaze of glory, but that doesn't quench the kid's tongue any. It keeps on flapping and noise keeps on spilling out of his face as Joe pries open a couple cans of cat food and they have at it. No beggars can ever be choosers. Neither can them scavengers these days with so much of the world already picked clean. Rumor has it some clans have started chewing on each other. Nasty stuff, that.
Is it possible Joe can die of hunger? Nope. He's tried. And he decided a while back not to spend his days with his insides all twisted up, gnawing on themselves. Makes a man awful ornery to starve.
"You think maybe they've got burgers at the Q?" Barry says around a slimy grey mouthful. Tuna, it might be.
"Need cows for that."
"Yeah, well, maybe they've got crops and they've got cows too. You said the field is like a hundred yards long, right? Maybe they raise 'em right there in the stadium, on the grass? And—"
"Turning in." Joe he wipes his mouth across his sleeve and pitches over onto one side. The flamethrower is right beside him, and he uses one of the softer patches of his pack as a makeshift pillow. His back turned on the boy.
Same routine every night. The kid knows it's time to turn off the chatter. He's welcome to stay awake as long as he wants, long as he's quiet. Joe he stares into the night for a long while as he waits for sleep to take him. There's no keeping watch. No need for it. Any sound at all will wake him, and he ain't met a single creature on God's wasted earth able to sneak up on him without making a noise.
So dark, so quiet out there, it's sometimes easy at night to imagine things haven't changed any. This could be some untamed wilderness, untouched by human hands. But no, this was an interstate once upon a time, and it ran from the Pacific straight out to the desert. Still does, only nobody uses it that way anymore. This stretch in particular, running through what used to be Mission Valley. Too out in the open, too easy for them Horrors to swing overhead in their buzzing aircars and snatch you with their freakish harpoon guns.
The kid was right. No too many sightings over the past few days. Not like them Horrors to lay low, so more likely they've moved on to other pastures for the time being. Seems to be their modus operandi. Terrorize an area then move on, let the survivors lull themselves into a false sense of security. And right when they start to venture out again, climbing into sunshine from whatever underground bunker they've hid themselves in, the Horrors they swoop in for the kill.
No buzzing tonight. No sign or sound of aircars on approach. No lights, no traffic. Plenty of abandoned vehicles around. Plenty of burned-out buildings lining the sides of the freeway. Some were offices once, others restaurants, hotels. A couple malls. So many dark corners for folks to hide out. Other eggheads waiting to crack and spill their alien spawn all over the place? Joe hopes not. One today was plenty.
You'd think sleep would be a rare commodity in this world. But Joe he's sawing logs in three minutes flat. Barry, on the other hand, he watches the unkillable man for a bit. The kid's already finished his sorry tuna and has his knees pulled up to his chest, sitting beside Joe like he's keeping watch.
No wonder Joe can sleep. What's he got to be scared of? Every night, Barry thinks of more reasons to stay awake. The Horrors looking for fresh prey. The eggheads and what comes out of them, looking for fresh meat. Scavengers looking to take all what Joe and Barry call their own. The usual suspects. But what if there's more out there that nobody knows about—not even Joe?
Them Horrors experimented on him, turned him into something unnatural. Who's to say they didn't do the same to some other creatures? Unkillable rattlesnakes would be bad. Unkillable mountain lions. Maybe some kind of mutant creature, or a hybrid of animals. Unkillable coyote-skunk. Unkillable pitbull-raccoon.
"That's just dumb," he says under his breath, shaking his head.
Time to sleep. He rests back against his pack, makes himself comfortable by shifting around against all the provisions inside. He's half sitting up, half lying down, facing the sky's overwhelming dark. Too many clouds for stargazing tonight. Can't see the moon. Can't even see the mothership, but he knows it's still up there reflecting moonlight for just the angels to see. Angels like Momma.
He doesn't pray to her. That wouldn't be right, theologically. So he prays to Jesus to keep an eye on her, to make sure she's okay without him. He doesn't pray that he'll see her soon. She wouldn't want him to wish his life away. He prays that when they see each other again, it'll seem like no time has passed at all. Because the Good Book says a day with the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. Barry thinks he understands that.
Heaven's clocks must be awful wonky.
His eyes start blinking until he can't keep them open, and before he knows it, he drifts off again like does every night, into the silent dark. He sleeps. He must. And when he opens his eyes again, daylight is creeping over the hills way out east.
"Let's go." Joe's already up on his feet, with his pack over one shoulder and his flamethrower over the other.
They're off, weaving their way around the rusted, scorched hulks of vehicles they've seen all along this hike. Joe in the lead, Barry scurrying to keep up. Ain't long before a massive shape looms in the distance, less than a mile away. Looks like a bowl upside-down, only the bowl has big gaps around the sides for light to shine through, and there's no bottom on this bowl. Kind of like a castle. No, that ain't right. More like an arena.
"Is that—?" Barry says.
"Yeah," Joe says.
"No idea we were so close. We coulda walked it last night, slept in a real bed."
"Best to approach the Q by daylight."
"So they can see us?"
Joe shakes his head. "So we can see them."
As they approach the parking lot—a real waste of space when you think about it—four quad ATVs race their way across the asphalt expanse like the devil's chasing them out of the gigantic stadium. Joe halts and holds out a hand to stop the boy.
"Scavengers?" Barry says, but he knows that's wrong. They don't look like scavengers. Too clean.
"Sentries," Joe says.
Barry nods, even though he's not sure what that word means. He watches the sentries approach, two riders to a vehicle. The one in front driving the quad, the one in back carrying a machine gun. An automatic rifle, like they used to have in the military. Barry saw a picture once of his grandfather carrying one, dressed in fatigues, not smiling. Almost like he knew he'd be giving his life to fight the Horrors. Back when there were marines and armies and navies to try such a thing.
"They don't look friendly," Barry says.
"Not part of their job." Joe holds both arms up over his head, hands empty. He nudges the kid to do the same.
The quads skid to a stop, one by one burning rubber across the cracked asphalt with their chunky tires. The drivers stay put while the armed men and women climb off and keep their weapons trained on Joe. These people are well-clothed, and their equipment looks factory fresh. They wear black masks that cover their eyes and mouths, goggles with breathers attached. Like they think the air's contaminated or something.
"State your business here," one of the armed women barks, her voice both tinny and muffled at the same time.
"Bringing the kid to the Q." Joe says. "Along with a full bag of provisions."

"Yours?" Her head nods toward Barry.
He gives a short shake of his head. "Orphan."
A cold pain knifes through Barry, there and then gone. Just like that, he feels numb again inside. Easier not to think about losing Momma. So he tries awful hard.
"What's with the flamethrower?" She sounds amused.
"He's Roadkill Joe!" Barry cheers. Then he frowns. Because none of them react. "Haven't you heard of him? He's un—"
Joe nudges him to shut up. "Don't want any trouble. Just a safe place for the boy."
"Roadkill Joe, huh?" She lowers her rifle and motions for the others to do likewise. They do. So she's the one in charge. "Filling his head with stories. That's one way, I suppose." She pauses like she expects folk to hang on her every word. "To face the day."
Real slow, Joe lowers his arms, keeping his hands at his sides. Barry mimics his every move.
"How long since you last seen 'em?" Joe says.
Her head tilts a little over to one side. "Two weeks."
"Turned 'em back?"
"Of course." She pauses again, real dramatic like. "You?"
He nods. "About the same."
"We found an egghead, about a mile that way," Barry pipes up, pointing. "Joe got rid of it. With his flamethrower."
"Egghead. Huh. Good name for them." She holds the rifle at rest. The others keep their muzzles aimed at the asphalt. "But fire doesn't do squat. Not against the eggs. Not against those aliens in any shape or size."
"Joe's does," Barry says.
"That so?" She faces him briefly before turning her goggles on Joe again. "You're pulling out all the stops for this kid. Careful, you might make him a true believer."
The other seven snicker and glance at each other.
Joe he cringes a little. He's never wanted anybody to believe in him. Folks have, in the past. He's left them there. Dead. Nothing he could do about it. Because he's real good at staying alive and real bad at keeping others that way.
Which is why he's here.
"You got room for one more?" Joe says.
Barry frowns again. "Two more, Joe," he whispers, tugging at Joe's denim shirt.
"Might have. If he checks out. No bugs or nothing. And if he's a hard worker." She bends over a little so the mask's insect-eyes stare at the boy. "You a hard worker, kid?"
"He'll earn his keep," Joe says. Doesn't look at Barry.
She keeps on staring, making Barry feel like she's trying to read his mind. So he makes it easy for her.
"No," he says and shakes his head. "I'm not going without Joe."
She stands up straight and faces Joe. "We'll take him. And both your bags."
Joe narrows his gaze. "You sound like a scavenger."
"Fair trade, Roadkill Joe. You get something you want, we get something we want. Barter system, see? We're bringing civilization back to these wild wastelands."
"You don't even know what's in our packs," Joe says. "Might just be cat food."
Silence. Nobody moves.
"How're your crops?" Joe says. And he places his hand on Barry's shoulder. Gives it a squeeze. Their own secret language.
"Corn's coming in nicely, soybeans, potatoes, citrus orchards too, you name it. As good as you've probably heard," she says. "Better than you can imagine."
But Joe's not watching her. He's busy noting the reactions of the other seven. The way they mutely glance at each other. Like what she's saying is news to them.
That's when Joe lets go of Barry's shoulder, and the kid runs as fast as his stick legs can carry him, backpack bouncing with clanking canned goods. At the same time, Joe tosses his own pack at the woman in charge and slips his arm into the flamethrower harness, whipping the nozzle free and pointing it in her general direction.
"What's this?" she says, his pack in one arm, her rifle still at rest. The others have got their weapons trained on Joe now, all of them crouched in that military ready-to-fire stance.
That's fine. Long as they leave the kid alone. He'll find cover. Maybe behind that ruined school bus they passed a little ways back.
"Fair trade," Joe says. "Let us go, you can keep the food."
"Let you go?" She shakes her head. "Paranoid much?" She chucks his bag back at him, and he lets it fall at his feet. "You don't want to do business, fine. Turn around, and don't come back until you're serious. We're not scavengers. We're General Jack Murphy's Home Guard."
"Real mouthful." He smirks. "You've got pride. That's one way—to face the day. But if what's inside your walls is so great, what you need our food for?"
"We have canned food stores in case of attack. If the Horrors torch our fields before we're able to turn them away. We're always looking to replenish our reserves."
"And the no adults rule? Because kids eat less?"
"Children are more willing to adapt to our way of life," she says. "The structure. The rules. Children flourish within stiff boundaries. Old men like you would find it difficult to live with certain...constraints."
He nods. "Fair enough." He motions with the nozzle. "Go on now. Back inside your boundaries. I'll have a talk with the kid, let you know what we decide."
She watches him. None of them move. If they plan to fill him with holes, they better get to it. Sooner they start, sooner he can fry them. If that's the way they want things to go. He'd prefer the opposite.
"The boy had no idea, did he?" she says. "That you were abandoning him."
"He ain't mine, but that doesn't mean I don't want what's best for him."
"And sticking with you isn't best?"
"Folks around me die." He shrugs. "I don't."
Can't see her face. None of her pals, either. Can't tell if they want to test his claim, see for themselves what their high-powered guns might do to him.
"You know the terms." She climbs onto her ride and motions for the other three with guns to do the same. They mount up without hesitation, like a well-oiled machine. "We'll be back."
The quads rev their engines and the tires squeal against the asphalt as they make an abrupt U-turn, heading back the way they came. Joe he watches them go, half out of curiosity. Not sure what to make of them.
A buzz from out west, from the opposite direction, catches his ear. Makes his insides seize up. He whirls around to squint up at the sky as an aircar makes its approach. Heading on a beeline straight for what's left of that egghead he torched, if he has to guess the exact location. Not that he's ever seen them give a crap about his handiwork before. It's never summoned them.
Routine spawn inspection, maybe?
Barry he peeks out from behind that roasted school bus, and Joe motions for the boy to stay down. Holding tight onto his pack to keep it from clunking, Joe jogs straight to Barry's hiding spot and crouches down beside him. Mute as statues, they watch the aircar hover in the distance, buzzing like a giant beetle, sitting in the air a hundred feet above the ruined freeway.
"What're they doing, Joe?" the boy whispers. "Where they been?" Not that he's missed them or anything. Just curious is all. And scared almost enough to wet himself.
"Don't know." Joe sets down his pack and gestures for the kid to do the same. If they have to run, best to do it unencumbered. "They come this way, you keep hidden."
Barry nods.
"If I can't take 'em out, you run straight for the Q." Joe meets the kid's gaze. "You run like you never run before."
Barry nods. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Joe focuses on the aircar. No way to tell how many of them Horrors are inside, but based on the size of the vehicle and prior engagements with these awful creatures, it's a safe bet to guess a couple. Bulky, thick-muscled bodies. Slimy mottled skin. Tentacles swinging from their misshapen heads like Rastafarian dreadlocks. Harpoon guns with retractable lines, perfect for reeling in the latest catch. Not to be eaten. Implanted. Hole in the top of the head, eggs laid, body left for gestation. Simple as that.
"Wasn't sure," Joe says.
"About what?"
"If the place was good enough." Joe adjusts his grip on the flamethrower as the aircar drops like a rock onto the street, landing without making a sound. The buzzing has stopped. The hatch pops open. Nothing climbs out.
"Good enough?" Barry chews on that for a moment. "For what?"
"You." Joe nudges him. Their sign language for time to shut up.
Two Horrors emerge, the morning sun glistening on their skin. Their heads twitch, tentacles swinging, as they look this way and that like they think somebody might be watching. Go figure. They don't focus their attention on the school bus a mile away. So far, so good.
Wait a minute. How can Joe see them from that far out? Well now. He's got himself what you might call super-sight, don't you know? And super-hearing, to boot. All thanks to whatever alien made him the way he is. Comes in real handy in situations like this one, wouldn't you say?
"They heading this way, Joe?" Barry whispers.
Joe nudges the boy again. Then he curses, barely audible under his breath. Because he hears the quads returning, revving their damn motors like bursts of adrenaline and testosterone all mixed up, tires screeching as the four vehicles surround the bus.
"Time to give us your answer, Roadkill Joe," says their leader, not making any effort to keep it quiet. She jerks her head toward the aircar sitting in the distance. "We're not sticking around to see those things tear into this kid. You want him safe? You know what to do." She jabs a gloved hand at their bags. "Both your packs, and the flamethrower."
"Wasn't the deal," Joe says.
"Is now."
"You can't leave him with nothing!" Barry pipes up. "General Jack Murphy can go to hell for all I care! Joe will take out them horrors just fine. You all just get the hell out of here and let him do what he does best."
Joe glances real quicklike at them Horrors. No surprise. They're back in their aircar, and it's buzzing to life. Pivoting in midair to aim itself straight at the school bus. Won't be more than a few seconds, and those alien freaks will be on the ground right here where they're standing. Arguing over a few cans of cat food, a boy, and a flamethrower will seem pretty stupid then.
"Not for you to decide," the woman says, and with a jerk of her head, she signals her armed people to grab the kid and the packs. "No time."
She's right about that much. As one fellow reaches for the kid's arm, Barry he pulls away and runs faster than you've ever seen, right behind Joe. Smart boy. Out of the line of fire.
Literal fire.
"Shoulda left when you had the chance," Joe says, sending a stream of flames at their boots.
All four of them with the heavy rifles. Which go off, of course, but the aim's none too good what with all the dancing and hollering and cursing. Oh, and the burning shoe leather and feet on the inside. The quads they rev up and reverse course, the drivers thinking it best to keep out of range. Smart move. Except for one of them who goes for a pistol tucked at the small of his back, fast as a gunslinger, and he's got two rounds into Joe with bursts of blood before anybody knows what the hell is happening.
That the aircar is now overhead, for starters. That harpoons are sailing down and puncturing these masked fools and reeling them up into the sky, screaming hoarsely all the way. The leader of the pack she turns her rifle skyward, forgetting about her flaming feet, and she empties her clip. Not into the aircar. That wouldn't do any good. She shoots her own men. Kills them in midair.
Because the Horrors never lay their eggs in dead meat.
The bodies drop back to the pavement with sick wet crunches and blood and brains splattered everywhere. But the Horrors they don't give up as quick as that. Down shoot the harpoon lines again, puncturing another pair of masked victims, and they get hauled up into the air just like the others. And just like the others, the woman in charge she guns them down. Watches them fall.
"I can do this all day!" she grates out, loud and clear.
Only three of her people remain. Nope. Make that only one, as the harpoons return and their leader ends them before they have a chance to spawn more Horrors. That last masked man on a quad, he may be the smartest one of the bunch. He guns the engine and spins a donut, heads straight for the Q as fast as his vehicle can take him.
The leader she crumples to the ground. The flames have mostly gone out of her boots, but her feet are no good. Can't stand, but she keeps her rifle trained on the aircar hovering above, maybe fifty feet away now. Close enough to see the electromagnetic coils that power the thing, undulating in whorls of blue and white. Those are the only colors she has names for. The others are too alien to try and describe.
The harpoons have yet to make a reappearance.
"What the hell are you waiting for?" she screams up at them. Wind thrown off by the coils whipping at her hair.
The aircar just sits there. Like its studying her—or maybe the situation. The fact that Joe now stands behind her with his flamethrower at the ready. But not pointed in her direction. Aimed up at them Horrors.
The kid stands beside him. "Come and get us, you mother—"
"Language," Joe says.
With a deafening buzz, the aircar takes off, one second there, the next second a blur across the sky, heading west. Out of sight, out of sound. Just like that. Like it was never hanging from the air. Except for the broken bodies and mess lying around, there's no sign the Horrors were ever there.
The woman's rifle clicks as she whirls around to face Joe. He's bleeding from the gunshot wounds, staining his shirt. But he doesn't even look winded.
"This is your fault," she says real low. "Their deaths are on you."
"So's your life," Barry shoots back, not the least bit intimidated by her big gun. The little fool. "You really think they would've let you be if Joe wasn't standing right here? Protecting you? Lady, you should be thanking—"
Joe gives him a nudge. "We'll be on our way now."
He keeps the flamethrower pointed at her, and she keeps her gun pointed at him. A silent standoff. He motions for Barry to pick up his pack, and Joe does the same. Then they back away slow. Away from the carnage and the woman with the mean rifle. Away from the Q.
"You could've lived the good life, boy," she says.
"I'm doin' just fine," Barry says. "Don't need no corn or potatoes."
She laughs at that. Bitter sounding. Maybe wistful, too. Wishing the rumors were true.
"Those kids in there." Joe he jerks his head toward the stadium. "They gonna be alright?"
She stares back at him. "They're the future. We'll go without to keep them fed."
Joe nods to himself. Keeps on moving.
"Are you really Roadkill Joe, old man?" she calls after them.
Too far now for the flamethrower to reach. Not too far for her rifle to hit its target.
"What do you think?" the kid calls back.
They keep on moving. 🔺


  1. "kicking at a self-important milkweed"
    Of all the lines to stand out in a story full of good lines, why that one?? I cannot explain. Just - I love it!
    Good to see you back, Milo, and good to see Perihelion back!!

  2. Thanks, Carol -- and congratulations on the promotion to assistant editor. Long live Sam & Perihelion!