I gritted my teeth. Pinch twisted my shirt and lifted me to my toes, giving me a hard shake. “Where’ve you been, you little piss ant?”
“Looking for bait. Like you told me.”
“Didn’t see you with the others.”
And he never would. I wasn’t like the others. Plus, I had my own mission which didn’t include finding the few living people to use as bait for the Draghoul, to bring them close enough to allow hunters to lop off their heads in the light of the moon. Not my priority, but I couldn’t let Pinch know that. The plan was to play it cool right now. “Don’t get along with them.”
“Of course you don’t, Snap. This ain’t no summer camp. It’s business.” No one here knew my real name was Gabriel, and that’s how I liked it. I earned the name Snap because of a knack for finding things people wanted and needed, like in a snap of the fingers. But that wasn’t really my job.
He sneered at the unoccupied trail behind me. “Looks like you came up empty-handed again, boy. Losing your touch.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head. “Better start producing again or that little brother of yours might have to be used instead.”
Anger crawled over me like a giant spider, gnashing its fangs, ready to strike. What I wouldn’t give to be able to put Pinch on the ground, in the dirt where he belonged. But he was older, twice as big, and had Doc on his side. They knew I’d do anything for my brother. After all, I’d made promises to my mother that had to be kept, and though I was only twelve, I was the only protector my brother had left.
Pinch loosened his hold on my shirtfront and with a look up at the fading light of the sun, took a step backward. “Still time. Get back out there and bring a piece of bait to us for tomorrow night’s hunt.”
“Go back out? Now?”
Pinch rested his hands on his hips and shifted his feet before smirking in my face. “Or we could send your brother out in your place.”
His breath smelled like rotting remains, and I wanted so badly just to lay my hands on him and push him out of my personal space. Soon…very soon.
Instead, I shrugged as if his words didn’t affect me in the least. “I’ll go, but then by the time I get back, you’ll be too busy to enjoy what I found when I was out earlier.” I turned to walk away, back into The Dead Forest.
“Wait. What do you have?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. You’ve made a lot of threats.” He swiped at me, but I ducked and shifted out of his reach.
“Tell me what you found.”
With a slow nod, I pulled off my backpack and lowered it to the ground. Just as I knew he would, Pinch grabbed at the pack, lifting it, yanking it open, and gazing inside. I knew what he’d find. A couple comic books, a can of beans, an old handheld game system that no longer worked, and the thing I knew he couldn’t resist. I’d found a large amount of cash, which I’d grabbed with Pinch in mind. Pretty much meaningless here, but he didn’t plan to be here forever. Bragged all the time that he knew someone that would take him to Mercy for the right price. Wouldn’t hurt my feelings to see him go. And I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist the sight in the bottom of my bag.
By his humorless laugh, I knew he’d discovered it in the deep side pocket. It wasn’t until I heard the pop of the metal trap closing over his hand that I grabbed the bag, the keys from his belt, and shoved him into the bushes behind him. He held up his right hand in disbelief. A mousetrap held his fingers in a vice-grip. As he stumbled backward, he dropped completely out of sight, falling with a high-pitched scream.
Carefully, I picked my way through the overgrown brush of the forest and looked down into the deep hole usually reserved for the humans we used as bait. Charlie Little, the girl who looked like a boy and helped me achieve one of my goals, had shown me that treating people like that was wrong. She was long gone now, but against her own need for protection, she’d pulled my Draghoul mother from the depths of a pond and helped me put her out of her misery. Her courage had given me my own courage to find a way to get my brother and escape the Factory and all its horrible acts against the last living humans.
“You little…I’ll feed your brother to the monsters myself!” He cursed me a few more times, and even though he deserved what was sure to happen to him, I hated to leave anyone in such a vulnerable position. He wouldn’t last the night and would soon leave this place. Just not in the way he’d planned.
“As I see it, you’ll never have power over my brother or me again.” He quieted.
An evil grin slid onto his face. “Don’t worry about me. I know how to take care of myself.” He pulled a knife from one of his boots and another from his belt. They would help him survive the first few Draghoul, but he’d never overcome a whole hoard, even with weapons.
Then he surprised me completely by shoving one of the knives deep in the side of the hole, high above his head. When he slammed the other knife in and used his feet to brace himself as he climbed up the hole, I scrambled backward. It was time to go. Now!
Without another look behind me, I ran toward the Factory. I knew exactly where they kept my brother, and I had a hiding place prepared for us, but I had to reach him before Pinch got free. A look at the sky reminded me the sun wouldn’t stay above the horizon much longer either, and then things were going to be all teeth and claws and no guarantees.
C. C. Marks