Eric Notaro: The Web of the System
Travis awoke at first light and paced from one side of the trailer to the other. As the sky turned from blue-gray to eggshell, the daylight illuminated the labels on his boxes of supplies. Jars of pickled vegetables, canisters of dried milk, and sealed packages of meat jerky he had hunted and preserved himself. He didn’t trust food in tin cans, even though he knew that a supply of those would last him longer. One of his magazines had an exposé on mind-altering hormonal chemical agents in can liners. It was too big of a risk.
He stepped outside and curled his feet on the cool dry leaves around the trailer. Travis shivered. It was a cold autumn. Even cooler here in the hills. He watched the light in the eastern sky for its sailors-take-warning glow. It seemed to him like every sunrise was red these days. Always a reason to worry. As he walked down the hill to the outhouse, he listened as birds began to call out. The sun touched the treetops. On his way back up, yellow light pooled in gaps in the branches. Travis hadn’t used a clock in a long time, but if he had guessed the time he would think it was a little past eight.
Back up the hill, he took stock of his supplies. Food and water were plentiful, medical supplies were in full stock, but he had used some of his gas on the chainsaw when gathering wood. It was an antique that ate through twice the gas for half the work and still seemed to break down when he needed it most. He had the urge to drive down to the hardware store and replace it, but he worried about his presence in town. Besides, Rudy’s Hardware had gone under months ago, replaced by one of those corporate chains. Travis was sure that just a short trip might get him noticed. Hidden security cameras or a DNA sample from a cash transaction might mark him. No, he would have to make do. As a boy, his grandfather told him stories about his ancestors who cut through the land when it was wild. They didn’t need gasoline or chainsaws. These were just modern conveniences, illusions of ease that would disappear. Reliance on technology was like a drug addiction. An articles in one of his magazines explained this:
What better name for a network that traps its victims than a web? A world wide one no less. No one thinks that this web could have a spider ready to devour their will, but an insect that is ignorant to the spider is the easiest to snatch. The brain becomes reliant on computers and machines. There’s a high that comes with it. Soon its convenience becomes necessity and the person is caught in the web of the system.
While there was a chance to still resupply, Travis figured it was better to keep his stocks full than to let them dwindle. He took count of the empty canisters and went into the trailer to check his cash box. Travis had turned most of his money in for supplies. Whatever goods he needed to barter for when the time came would be with the gold coins and remnants of jewelry he had bought or collected. As much as he loathed the printed bills—their serial numbers and government-imposed value—he knew that some would still be needed for the time being. He only handled them with latex gloves and carefully cleaned each bill before using it in a transaction. His father taught him that some smudge from his hand or a hair follicle could be used to match him up in a database. Other days, his caution was geared more to the substances used in government ink. These bills were mostly safe due to repeated sanitation and only required the gloves as a precaution. He counted out what he needed and returned the rest to his lock box.
At the truck, he loaded and holstered one of his pistols. Always a last resort but only a fool doesn’t come prepared and those who don’t deserve everything they get. One of his father’s lessons, his wisdom before he was taken away. His father’s advice was the last thing Travis thought of before climbing into his truck and starting the engine.
At the gas station, the attendant stared at Travis’ latex-covered hand as he counted the bills. The reflection off the attendant’s thick bifocals made Travis feel like an ant under a magnifying glass. The man breathed heavily. His large round abdomen expanded and contracted against his tight belt. Travis recognized him from the last time he had come into town. He remembered the name, Warren, pinned to the man’s shirt beneath the gas station chain logo. Travis preferred this attendant over the others since he was one of the few people that didn’t try to make small talk. Several months ago, an older woman, Carol, tried to start a brief conversation about the weather—a downpour that day. Travis only nodded, tapped his foot and rushed back outside with his purchase. Warren seemed uninterested in him. A good thing.
At the pump, Travis heard the sound of radio news, whether it was projected from another car or from hidden speakers near the pump he couldn’t tell. While he didn’t trust mainstream news, he liked to listen once in a while, to see what lies the public were being fed and to read if any signs could be given of the inevitable future. There were always signs. The report was the usual: acts of congress that were just a show for the cameras, fluff pieces to distract, and a discussion of wars and unrest that were just a precursor to the true world conflict in the works. He tuned it out by the time he’d filled the first canister.
Halfway through, another truck pulled into the pump next to him. A young man in a baseball cap, loose tank top stepped out. He paid at the pump with a credit card and watched Travis with his hands in his pockets.
“Boy, that’s a lot of gas,” the man said.
Travis nodded and looked away.
“Is there a storm coming? You don’t see people stocking up like that every day.”
Travis looked up at the man as he moved the nozzle from one canister to the other. The man dressed as though it were still summer though there was a chill to the air. Travis was nervous about his questions and he knew that small things out of place were never good. The man was out of place—enough for anyone to notice but not so distinct to draw suspicion. He was the perfect spy.
The man watched him for another minute but, when he saw that Travis wouldn’t answer, he didn’t pursue it any further. The man’s truck had filled at about the same time Travis had finished securing his canisters. Travis watched the man pull out onto the road behind him, not letting him into his blind-spots. As Travis drove, he checked the rear-view mirror. The man’s car behind him. He glanced back for signs of pursuit, or for observing faces in the driver’s seat, but couldn’t get a good look beyond the windshield. Soon after, his pursuer turned onto another road. The cars on the road diminished as he drove up country roads into the hills. In the last several minutes of the drive, Travis sat alone on the road for as far as he could see.
The next morning, waking with the sun, Travis made his way out into the yard. The morning had less of a chill than the day before but it still felt unseasonably cold. As he had neglected his patrols the last few days, and since the incident in town had shaken him, he started the morning with a walk. He kept his pistol and one of his hunting rifles with him. For the time being, he used the smaller guns, resorting to his assault rifles and larger caliber guns only during target practice for fear he might attract unwanted attention or waste good ammunition. The time would come for him to need it, but not yet. His grandfather used to say that there are only one or two right tools for the right job.
In the woods, about a mile from the trailer, Travis heard voices. He readied his rifle and crept closely up a nearby hill. As he came closer to the sound, he could tell that they were boys—ten, maybe thirteen years old at most. Each boy had a .22. One shouldered his gun as soldier would. The other, a chubby boy, had it propped against a tree. He sat beside it slumped over. The third boy was taking aim in the nearby woods.
“C’mon you faggot,” said the aiming boy. “We didn’t come here for a nature hike.”
The boy sitting by the tree was shaking. “Ned, I don’t know-”
The boy with the gun on his shoulder swayed. “Feeling sick, Bill?”
“He’s just being a pussy, Roger.”
The crack of the boy’s gun and a flutter of birds out of the surrounding tree made Travis’ blood run. A gun fired in his domain without his permission. He breathed slowly. No need to reveal himself yet.
The boy punched the air. “Got one!”
The boy named Roger laughed. “Good shot, Ned!”
The confident boy looked over at the chubby one. “Your turn, princess.”
The child quaked harder. From a distance, Travis thought the boy was seizing.
Ned groaned. “You said you wanted to come shooting with us.”
Roger knelt down. “Come on Bill, it’s easy. They’re just dumb birds. If we don’t kill them something else will.”
Bill’s face was hot red. It was a beacon for Travis, even at his distance. He remembered learning how to shoot with his father. The feel of the gun in his small hands, the anticipation of the kickback—the sound. He was much younger than this boy. He was taught that a boy ought to learn how to shoot before he even learns to read.
Bill shook his head and buried his face in his hands. Roger looked up at Ned and shrugged.
“If you don’t stop crying we’ll leave you here.”
“Ned, come on, that’s harsh.”
“Well I’m not going to put up with his crying if he can’t control himself.” The boy shouldered his gun and began to walk away.
Roger looked at his departing friend and back at Bill. “Are you coming?”
Bill shook his head.
The other boy’s voice called out through the trees. “Come on. I’m not waiting for him. I won’t wait for you either.”
Roger leaned in close. Travis could hear him mutter to his friend. “I’ll slow him down. Don’t take too long though.” With that, the boy got up, shouldered his gun and followed after the first boy.
Travis wanted to drive away these trespassers, to scare them as he did with others that wandered into his woods but, as he saw the boy alone, paralyzed with fear, he felt he didn’t need to. The boy wasn’t just helpless, he was helpless without any way of knowing that he could change. Pathetic and weak. Was this what the human race had come to?
The boy sat huddled against the tree, sobbing to himself for some time. Travis watched, waiting for him to run back to his friends until it became clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. He contemplated what he should do. He was too close to the trailer. He didn’t want people—children or not—to invade his perimeter. Let one person slip in and he would be inviting eyes and mouths to give away his position.
Maybe he could help this child, he thought. He could teach him not to fear his weapon but to trust it as one of the few things in this world worthy of such. Travis could teach him what was necessary in this world. He felt a lump in his stomach as he watched the boy. It grew so large that he couldn’t stay where he was without feeling sick. He got up from his observation point and slowly walked down the hill. He walked carefully, trying not to startle the child but making himself open to see. The boy didn’t even notice until he was a few feet away.
The boy raised his red face to see Travis. Somehow it became even redder. He made a horrified breathless gasp and scrambled to get up. Instinct kicked in Travis. He saw the boy scrambling to his feet with a rifle leaning against the tree beside him. Travis grasped the gun at his side, ready to raise it, but the boy was panicked. The intruder scrambled away, forgetting his own gun, making hoarse cries as he fled. Travis tried to call out but a lightheaded sensation washed over him. He braced himself.
As the sound of the boy’s rustling faded through the trees, Travis stood at the sight of the abandoned gun. For a while, he wondered what to do with it. The extra ammunition couldn’t hurt. More supplies before the end begins. Travis leaned in—careful not to touch or get too close for fear of leaving some microscopic trace. He figured that the boy or someone else might come back for it. It was better to leave no sign. Better to be thought of as a ghost in the woods than to reveal himself. Worse was the thought that this was some kind of setup. Boys sometimes wandered into his woods and usually just the sight of him was enough to scare them away. He never before had the urge to talk to one of them, even help them. Travis thought of all the subtle means of control he had read about. Chemical and electromagnetic means to manipulate the brain. Had that been what he had experienced? He was relieved that the boy ran away before he could say anything.
Another day, another trespasser chased off. None of it was new to him but he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to this encounter. He had been taught to read signs and trust his gut suspicions. They had not failed him before. Yet, as his heart slowed and the situation became clearer, Travis could only think about the sudden and cold wind. The wind chill, he thought, had made today feel colder than the day before. His father used to say that every day of autumn is a little colder than the last.
For the next few days, Travis remained confined in his trailer. The chill of the previous few days had penetrated under his skin. He burned some of his winter wood to help combat the shivering. He knew he would have to replenish it later. There were moments where he did not even have the power to make it to his outhouse, and was forced to rely on his emergency bucket. He also worried about his ability to defend himself outside of the trailer in his current state.
The illness had given him time to reflect and connect the dots. He was convinced that the boys were the cause—either the three of them together or just the boy who saw him. The man at the gas station had something to do with it as well. He tried to recall signs—the logo on the man’s hat, the clothes the boys wore, and other connections that he could piece together. Marks of the Beast, Illuminati, Freemasons. There were different names but it all amounted to the same, regardless of what the puppeteers called themselves. When he couldn’t find the energy to contemplate this puzzle, he took stock of his food and supplies again. He cycled through contingency plans in the event of attacks or disasters.
He did not speculate on the end—or rather, the beginning. For all of his planning and preparation, he knew that the collapse and destruction of the outside world would be impossible to predict. Some of his radio programs said that this was because those in charge wanted to keep it a secret until the final moment. Magazine articles that guessed the endgame always cautioned that their prediction might be based on deliberately false signs or changed to compensate because the secret was revealed. It seemed a fool’s errand to Travis. Collapse was coming soon but no one would kindly inform him. Better to be at the door early, his grandfather used to say, than to try to stumble down the staircase on time.
The more he stayed in his trailer, the more Travis thought about the end. The radio would be his first clue. It would pick up only static or the frantic propaganda’s last cries before the net came down. Travis had always imagined some grand apocalyptic sign for himself. Some days he thought he would see a great mushroom cloud in the distance, like the first sign of a sunrise on a day that would never end. Other times he imagined he would make a supply run in town only to learn from the wreckage or from the New World Order rounding up everyone too naive to know the truth. Last year, Travis thought the end had come when he saw FEMA trucks in town. He learned instead that a flood had washed out a town to the south and that shelters had been set up—at least that was the official reason given.
He remembered how his father and grandfather used to argue about it in their cramped and crowded trailer. His grandfather quoted scripture about how no one knows when the end will come. Travis could not remember the exact words, and he did not own a Bible. His father was adamant that the time was near and all the signs were apparent. He saw the end as the act of man alone. Sometimes their arguments became fierce.
“Just look at how everything is massing together,” his father had said. “You’d have to be blind not to see it.”
“The world is full of strife,” his grandfather had said. “That is why we wait for salvation.”
“You’d wait until we were in chains!”
In his early memories, they used to sit together and drink beers when talking about these things. That was before his father learned that alcohol was used to keep the masses dull witted and slow and banned it from the trailer. They would all need to be sharp for the future.
It struck Travis how much easier it would be if they were both still with him. Even in the last few months with just his father, the extra person was great comfort. He had never known any other family. His father said that he had saved Travis from a life of slavery. Travis’ grandfather told more, but was just as vague. He was told that he was born and raised in sin. It was his grandfather that taught him to read and taught him numbers. What he knew of other subjects mostly came from the books and magazines his father and grandfather read.
One morning, while his father was on patrol, his grandfather asked to drive him to town for supplies. Travis only remembered later how worn his grandfather looked that morning, afraid even. On the drive down from the hills, his grandfather asked what he knew about the outside world. Not knowing where to start, Travis recalled government plots and secret control methods. His grandfather seemed disappointed. He asked if he ever wanted to see these things with his own eyes. Travis told him no.
His grandfather sighed. “Sometimes I wish you had.”
At the market in town, his grandfather asked to be left in the car. By the time Travis returned, he was dead. Without knowing how, the gears of the system turned. An ambulance was called, his grandfather was taken away in an official vehicle by men in uniforms. Travis’ father refused to talk to him for days for abandoning his grandfather’s body to some unknown evil. He still felt responsible for it.
Travis regained some of his strength the next morning. His fever was breaking but he was still too ill to wander far from the trailer. Taking his pistol as a precaution, he used the time to check the weatherproofing he had done. Travis could only think of winter. Today was warmer than the last few days, but he knew it would not last. When the snow became thick, he only left the trailer on patrols, and even those were shorter than in summer. He feared leaving tracks. He had improved the cabin insulation and covered the worst drafts but there would still be more. Every winter brought new problems. Travis didn’t mind the discomfort. Comfort, after all, was an illusion used to gain power and control. His father would remind him that a lamb is made most comfortable leading right up to the slaughter.
As Travis inspected a crack on the outer wall, he felt lightheaded again. He needed to sit down, but he knew that if he fell outside—exposed to elements and other forces—he might not be able to get back up for some time. It might be the perfect opportunity for anyone watching him. Propping himself against the wall of the trailer, he made his way back inside. When the door was safely locked, he snatched the waste bucket with his shivering arms and vomited. He crawled to his bed and curled up into it.
Travis didn’t sleep. He had thought that he would once off his feet. Instead, he lay awake, listening to the sound of the wind outside. He imagined agents and observers moving between the rustle of dead leaves around the trailer. He was alone and vulnerable. If attacked now, he would offer pitiful resistance. Whether through feverish doubt or simply the time to second guess, he thought how hopeless it seemed even when able-bodied. He thought of the last time he had seen his father, taking his truck out to town for a repair part. A police cruiser arrived later. Police were the lowest peons of the system. Maybe not all of them knew the tyranny they enforced, but enough of them did to be a threat. Their presence in the yard felt like a manifested nightmare. When he saw them, he thought that he should ready the defenses, that their resistance had been discovered. All of their weapons were loaded and ready for just such an attack. There were only two. Quick action, the element of surprise, were all that he needed. But as he saw them approach in a casual stride, their weapons holstered, he felt reluctant. What if they were the innocent ones? He knew that his father would punish his reluctance if he ever found out, but every time he thought of their arsenal he shook. He had never killed another human being before. He knew one day that he would have to. It was something he had secretly feared about the future—something he had never told his father.
The officers explained that his father had been arrested after pulling a gun on an officer at a routine traffic stop. They asked how well he got along living out in the hills and whether his father had ever sought psychiatric treatment. He didn’t know the answers to all their questions, but cooperated out of fear more than anything. He watched the uniformed men the whole time, Officer Lewis and Officer Montgomery, expecting them to draw their handcuffs and guns. They spoke to him in calm, sympathetic voices as they advised him on what he could do. They mentioned bail money and told him about public defenders.
Travis thought he too would be dragged away to some prison or mental ward—subdued and crushed between the gears of an enormous machine. Some days he imagined torture chambers where the masters of the system inflicted every pain imaginable. Other nights, in his dreams, he found himself trapped in a windowless cell neighbored by infinite windowless cells—left to decay alone and in the dark.
He was shocked when the officers left without trying to take him away. The officers had offered to get him in touch with people from county for local assistance. They told him that they could help, but he turned them down. He knew how to survive on his own. Travis spent days afterward searching the trailer and the property for anything suspicious. He anticipated probes and bugs left to monitor him. He worried that soon they would come back for him.
Maybe his father was still alive in some cage—possibly sedated by drugs and mind control. He spent weeks imagining how he would find and rescue his father, but his plans always fell apart. There were always too many variables, too many ways to draw attention back to themselves. Any rescue would require finding a new place to hide. He didn’t know if there were any other safe places left in the world. His father had taught him that survival was paramount, that if he were ever taken or killed that he should continue the cause on his own. Even when he thought he had concocted a strategy, he couldn’t imagine avoiding having to kill someone in the process. He gave up, fearing that any more thought on the matter would erode his resolve completely.
Travis’ heavy arm reached for a wind-up radio. Were he to be taken or killed today, he didn’t want it to be in silence. In the early days, his father and grandfather’s voice used to comfort him. His father warned him of lurking dangers beyond their perimeter while his grandfather told him stories of better days gone by. He missed them both, but he knew the day his father was taken away was the day he’d truly learned to fend for himself. In his weakest moments, Travis thought most about his grandfather and his stories. These moments scared him when he regained his senses. He knew dwelling on the dead would only make him weak.
The AM radio host outlined evidence of secret government death camps out west. He even had an escapee on the phone, detailing the horrors of his experience. The voices comforted Travis, not for their content, but for their sound. The more he listened, the less he could hear of the moving leaves. Shielded from their movements, he soon fell asleep.
Travis recovered completely over the next few days and set out to replenish the supplies he had consumed during the illness. He hadn’t been that sick in years. He was convinced that his illness was part of something sinister—a new biological or viral weapon perhaps or the side effects of some other attempt to control or silence him. Once back to full strength, he stepped up patrols and monitored the area for signs of disturbances. The boy’s gun was gone from the place he’d left it. Travis was unsure what to make of this.
While out one morning to replenish his firewood, the chain on his saw broke. He had no replacement. There were axes and handsaws amongst his tools but he kept them in reserve for the latter days. One day, when the end truly began, he would run out of gas with no means to replenish it. That would be the time to resort to the old ways. It would be a rebirth into the old manner of doing things, the ways his ancestors worked. No, those tools couldn’t be worn or blunted yet.
He thought about the big corporate box in town that had become the hardware store. Entering it would expose him to a host of threats. There were security cameras, climate controls, and the audio system. These alone were enough to terrify him without thinking about the other customers. Hundreds of herd-like people would see him in just a ten-minute trip. He thought about driving through neighboring towns, maybe finding some small shop not yet homogenized but he knew that they called the box stores “chains” because they shackle a whole region to their control. Finding one would require leaving the trailer for hours.
Travis started his truck. As he pulled out onto the country road he thought about his approach to the box-store. It was a long drive down to the town. The drive would clear his head. Maybe he would imagine some other solution along the way. Dozens of different plans for countless different scenarios and yet Travis found that this was not one he had considered. When Rudy’s Hardware went under, he was convinced that he had everything he needed. The mistake amplified in his mind as he pulled onto the main roads. If he had made this one small miscalculation, what else could he have forgotten? Rather than considering his options, Travis could only think of what lurked in his blind spots.
It was mid-afternoon when Travis pulled into the parking lot. The store stretched out across the asphalt. He examined the surrounding rows of cars. He heard the squeak of shopping carts. Travis took a deep breath, shut the engine, and stepped out of his truck. If he kept his head low, acted casual, and didn’t linger he could slip in and out unnoticed. Only the cashier would get a good look at him and even that would be just one in the line of mindless customers.
At the entrance, the slide of the automatic doors made him shudder. He eyed anti-theft scanners as he moved quickly past them. On the steel beams of the warehouse-style ceiling, he watched the black-domed cameras. Just to enter such a place is to be noticed. He would have stepped back out the door and retreated back to his trailer if he didn’t believe it was too late. Travis walked the numbered aisles, thinking about his level of exposure, trying to drown out the music echoing across the vast building.
When he found the replacement chains, he made his way quickly back to the cash registers, but was stopped at the end of the line. There were three people ahead of him, each with a full cart. The beep of the scanner timed the slow pace of the cashier at the front. Travis counted seconds between each scan. He couldn’t imagine a more intentional way to wear him down—to make him wait for others. Worse, it was a wait just to service the machinery of the corporation. He felt like a mouse at the mercy of a cat—toyed with before being eaten. Then he wondered if he had been sent here on purpose. A small part of Travis still believed that God, not darker forces, had control over the world. It was his chance to view the future without resistance. His grandfather wished for him to see the world he was escaping—to know the real dangers rather than to live sheltered from them. This thought still didn’t make the wait any easier.
The cashier was a broad middle-aged woman with dyed brown hair, “Candice” according to her corporate name tag. She scanned the code on the chains and brought up the total. Travis reached into his pocket and pulled out the wad of bills.
The woman smirked when she saw him counting out the bills. “Whoa, big spender huh?”
Travis looked up at her, not understanding, but unwilling to ask. He looked back down and continued to count. When he had the full amount, he laid it on the counter in front of her, like a card hand, and picked up the chains. He was careful not to touch the surface of the counter. Candice took the money, counted it and placed it in the register. Travis watched her robotic sorting of the bills into the right drawers. As he turned to leave, she called back out to him.
“Sir, your change?” She held out a few coins between her thumb and fingers. An instinct took him—one that would have gladly stepped back, extended his hand and taken what he had forgotten. It lasted less than a second. He didn’t even notice, aside from another bought of lightheadedness. Some instincts can be disciplined away. Not all instincts are for survival, he was taught, some even contradict it. Travis waved his hand, shook his head, and walked out the door.
Before he reached the parking lot, he made certain to tear off the tags, bar-codes and remove any other numbers or identification. On the walk back to the car, the shrill electric whine of a siren rose and fell in the distance. He shuddered. Official vehicles on the move, striking out against someone or something.
On the road, he passed the source of the disturbance: a terrible car accident at a major intersection. Broken glass and shards of plastic and metal carpeted the asphalt. As an officer waved Travis’ truck around the disturbance, he saw a covered body being loaded into a blinking ambulance. It reminded Travis of the day his grandfather was taken. The memory nearly caused him to veer into a taped off area. The officer’s urgent cries returned him to his present situation and current danger. He corrected the truck’s course and made his way back to the hills.
On the third day of restarting his usual patrols in the woods, Travis was jolted to attention by the crack of a gunshot. He dropped down and scanned his surroundings, expecting enemies to encircle him. His trailer and patrol path were too close to the road to encounter hunters. Their shots were an echo at best. After a minute of lying on a bed of leaves, he heard gunfire again and saw a few birds scatter away. Not far from the hill where he had spotted the boys over a week ago, he found Bill, the crying boy, shooting into the bare trees. The barrel of his gun quaked as he fired a third time, causing another small group of birds to flee. He shouted a curse as they rose into the distance.
Travis crept nearby, hiding in thin underbrush by a tree. Watching the boy search the trees, he thought about his earlier suspicions. They had made so much sense before. As his father used to tell him, coincidence is just a word to excuse people who refused to open their eyes. But as he began to question just what this coincidence actually was, Bill’s face burned red and wet with tears. Travis couldn’t tell if it was from crying or if it was simply a reaction to the cold air. When his third shot failed to make its mark, the boy shouted and threw the gun down in a tantrum. Travis had assumed some trick or lie was at work but as he watched the boy failing to hit his target he wondered about the other kinds of coincidence, the ones his grandfather had insisted were meant by God.
As Bill sat on the ground, defeated again, Travis crept closer. Something about the boy reminded him of himself. Not for nostalgia of his childhood—he was far more competent and confident in his abilities even at half this boy’s age. No. The isolation was what interested Travis. He had returned on his own for this. Maybe, Travis thought, he had crept back alone into the woods, knowing the full danger, to retrieve his gun in the first place.
Without warning, Travis emerged from his hiding place. He held up his free hand, and extended his rifle arm, holding the barrel up and perpendicular to the ground to show he had no plan to use it. Bill was still terrified at the sight of him. This time the boy was not so blinded by fear to forget his gun. He went for it as a ringing in Travis’ ears urged him to raise his own weapon.
“Wait.” Travis called out.
Bill froze, his rifle grasped but not ready. He stared at the strange man in front of him. The boy’s voice was a whisper and a pubescent squeak.
“Who are you?” the boy asked.
“Travis,” he said, not knowing what other identity he could give. Travis had never given his name to anyone before. Even first names could be traced.
Bill tried to speak but, of all the questions racing to escape into the air, only one surfaced.
“What are you doing?” Bill asked.
Travis struggled with this question. It was even harder to answer. His good sense screamed into his skull that to reveal anymore, to let his defenses down would damn him in ways that would only be clear when the traps were sprung.
“This is my property,” he said.
“I didn’t see a sign,” the boy whispered. The last time Travis revealed himself, the boy shook. This time he was frozen like a startled rabbit.
As the trespasser remained, a thought came to Travis—one that was extreme even to him. He realized how easy it would be to kill this boy. Travis needed only to clasp his rifle, aim, and fire. It would be possible to burn or bury him in some remote place in the hills. He could think of several places right away. Or maybe he could use the boy’s own gun—make it look self inflicted. Accidental or intentional—it didn’t matter. It might avoid all the unwanted visitors, hundreds of unwanted eyes in his woods. It was only a possibility, he convinced himself—just one of his countless contingency plans for when all his preparation was thwarted.
Bill’s breathing went from silence to gasps. Whatever force had suspended him in fear had given way to a convulsion. He struggled to breathe and collapsed to the ground. Travis lunged toward him, trying to diagnose the problem. He saw the boy reaching in his pocket. Travis recoiled, fearing some trick, only to see the boy pull a small inhaler from his pocket. Bill placed the device into his mouth and clamped the button. After a moment, his body and breathing relaxed though the boy remained on the ground. He stared at Travis with a terrified, but did not move.
Travis remained still. The boy’s medicine had changed everything. Before, he was a lone scared child who could be molded. Now Travis could see that there was nothing he could do. The boy was dependent on their drugs, addicted to their treatments and order. He literally could not live without the system, which made his position all the more pitiable. But Travis could only feel rage. Now the man shook. He had imagined when the end came that civilization, with all its foolish and naïve sheep, would tumble into ruin. He hadn’t dwelt on the undeserving—the ones too young to have a choice or made too dependent by the system to know any better. He knew these things would weaken his resolve, which is why they had been so far from his thoughts. In front of the helpless boy, he could not escape them.
Bill slowly regained his energy. He was shocked to find the man standing beside him, helping him to his feet. The stranger even handed him back his rifle. Only when the man was sure that he could stand on his own did he truly let go. Bill watched him, uncertain what he would do next. The man’s face changed from that of a concerned parent to a man holding back tears. Then, his face hardened.
“If you come back here again,” the stranger said. “I will kill you.”
The boy didn’t stop to think about the man’s strange shift. He could only think to run away. It would be an hour later, when he recalled the care the man took to help him to his feet, that he decided not to tell anyone what he saw and to heed the man’s threats.
Travis had said those words many times before to the children and teenagers who wandered into his patrols, but this time his heart raced. This was the first time he truly meant it.
Back in the woods, Travis made his way to the trailer. Unlike his previous patrols, he returned straight to the trailer, heedless of throwing potential trackers off his path. The sounds of the woods formed an audience in his mind that whispered and commented as he stumbled his way back. At home, Travis ate a meager dinner from his rations. Less than usual that evening on account of a poor appetite. To distract himself from the encounter on his patrol, he took count of his remaining food supplies. When he finished, he reviewed some of his pamphlets and newsletters to remind himself of threats. Before bed, he wondered whether magazines or radio programs ever mentioned how to wean others from the system—if the countless epidemics they proclaimed ever came with a cure. He fell asleep before he could think of any that satisfied him.
The next morning, a later dawn than the day before, he stirred early and turned over in the dark of his trailer. In these hours, the forest was quiet. All but a few hardy birds had left for winter, and even those few woke with the sun. In these moments between sleep and waking, dark and morning, he imagined himself as the only living thing on Earth. In his mind, the forests of the hills around his trailer, the towns in the valley below, and all the lands beyond were silent and empty.
Eric Notaro’s works have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pleiades, and Fiddleblack. I have lived in interior Alaska and southwest Colorado for the past few years and currently reside in Merrimack, NH.