Bryan leaned against the front of hid dark truck. A haze caused a red casting in the sun above, the haze coming from an old fire that continued to burn miles away.
Bryan looked down at his watch and noted the time late in the evening. Jerry was expected back. Bryan and his 13 year old son Jerry used the surrounding hillside for dirt biking. Despite the large trees of the Washington hillside, it has enough trails to satisfy Bryan's adventure, and enough dips and turns to get Jerry's thrills out.
Bryan swiped ash off his truck as he made his way around to his parked dirt bike. Bryan only got to see Jerry one a month after the divorce. Jerry loved dirt biking, and Bryan wasn't a huge fan but enjoyed being outside and liked seeing his son happy. Usually they took the same trail while dirt biking, both because it was familiar and because Bryan wasn't nearly as good on the roads as Jerry was. Of course, things changed.
Today was different, earlier in the afternoon Jerry wanted to take a separate trail, Bryan didn't like the jumps and twists, but allowed Jerry to have fun exploring, being a kid, being a boy. But it was getting too late, and Bryan hated feeling like the over worried father, but he had his limits.
Cellphone reception was spotty to say the least on the hillside. Bryan and Jerry used short range Motorola radios which worked better, but were also very limited. Bryan attempted one more call over the radio before he started the bike.
"Jerry you there? Jerry if you hear me you gotta' start heading back." There was no response. There was a possibility that Jerry could hear him but wasn't able to get a signal out. More likely, Jerry was still riding and couldn't hear the radio over the sound of the engine and his helmet.
More ash fell from the sky. The hillside Bryan and Jerry used was located a few miles away from an abandoned town called Shepard's Heights. The town suffered from an accident where a coal mine caught fire in the late sixties. After a decade, the smoke got worse and parts of the town began to collapsed causing a few deaths. The governor stepped in with assistance from the Federal Government and forced the citizens to relocated. The properties were all condemned and taken by the government with eminent domain. There were a few elderly couples that fought the move and were allowed to stay under the provision that upon their deaths, the property would become government land, but the numbers were in the single digits now. The lack of meaningful oversight and enforcement allowed hikers, historians, and dirt bikers to use the lands around the town as long as they stayed out of the town itself. The town was fenced, and government vehicles periodically went there, but Bryan never paid any attention to them as they seldom crossed paths.
Bryan's stomach twisted, the idea that Jerry may have had an accident, but he pushed the knot aside. He hated to assume situations and find that he was simply causing himself more stress. But to think that maybe Jerry went to the town and had been caught was another all too realistic concern, especially knowing Jerry had a few problems in school following the divorce. Bryan wouldn't blame Jerry, but he hated that he saw his son act out at times. A shame that would burn in his cheeks. He wanted to teach Jerry to be humble, but at 13 it was like moving mountains.
Bryan kick started the Suzuki 125. It roared, and felt powerful in Bryan's hands. He had purchased twin bikes for himself and Jerry. He had thought the 125 may have been too big for Jerry, but Jerry proved to be more than capable.
Bryan pulled on his helmet and started off down the trail.
The fork in the road was about 3 miles Bryan guessed. It was rough which Bryan thought messed with is perception of how far he had gone. To the left was the route he had taken earlier, and the route he and Jerry usually took. It lead around and came out near the truck. A glimmer of relief came to Bryan, Jerry may have come back and then taken that route to the truck. It would add time to his ride and he may be at the truck waiting for him now. But parental instinct said otherwise, and he turned to the right route, the route Jerry had taken.
Bryan slowed, he couldn't handle the bumps and jumps like Jerry could. He even pulled up closer to the trees at times.
Every twist and turn and every large root or small log he thought he'd be sent flying over his handlebars. He was looking for his son, not a broken wrist.
The trees began to clear out as the ground leveled. There was a clearing, with overgrown grass. Bryan came to a stop in the center. The grass came up to his knees as the sun beat down on his helmet. He saw the tree line across the field and the red warning signs indicating the condemned town ahead. The area was prone to random collapses from the underground fire.
Bryan knew that's where Jerry had to have gone, it's where he would have gone. He could see a perfect trail that Jerry would have taken on his dirt bike. The adventure of going to the town was too much for a 13 year old to resist.
Goddamn it, stupid kid, trying to get himself arrested or worse.
Bryan started off again down the trail, pulling back harder on the throttle moving faster with less care for his own safety and a growing concern for his son's. Bryan flew down the trail. Unlike the previous this trail was level and smooth with only weeds and minor branches on the ground. A single dip into the ground led him to the first obstruction in his path.
Ahead he could see a sign, as he approached he realized the sign was mounted on a chain-link fence. He would never had seen the fence in time to stop had it not been for the blaring white and red sign. Bryan slowed to the point he was walking his bike with an idle as he came within reading distance of the sign.
"WARNING: KEEP OUT, OPEN SHAFTS"
Not far off to the right of the sign where a post of the fence stood, was an area where the fence had been cut and lifted up. The opening was large and had probably been there for sometime. At least that meant that Jerry wasn't a vandal too. It was large enough for a man to walk under.
Bryan had to get off his bike and walk it under the hole in the fence, but he could see tire tracks in the soft dirt where Jerry had gone.
He was now within the city limits of Shepard's Heights. The dirt trail cleared out more and started heading uphill. Bryan followed his only option and started forward riding his bike once again.
The smoke grew thicker and ash fell like a heavy snow storm. The ground was soft and smashed easily under his tires. The trees began to look skinny and sickly, reaching up desperately for light like a man drying of thirst in a desert.
It wasn't long before his wheels felt the firm hold of concrete under him, and the first neighborhood came into view. The houses were spaced out, and had thin coats of ash across the top. Bryan saw a person moving one of the yards of the third house down. He sped up thinking it may be Jerry, but quickly realized it was an adult.
Bryan slowed his bike down knowing he had made a lot of noise. If it was a cop or some park ranger he was already in trouble, but maybe he could find his son faster. He realized the man ahead was wearing a plaid shirt, and jeans with suspenders. Certainly not any sort of official Bryan had ever seen before.
Bryan recalled that some people were allowed to stay, generally elderly, but he thought by now there wouldn't be any left, and he certainly did not think they were within the town itself. He was under the impression that the people who stayed were on the outskirts, or the rural areas where the ash wasn't as bad and sudden collapses weren't as common. The idea that an older man would trespass seemed taboo too, but Bryan had encountered senile and borderline crazy older men so it too was possible.
The man had gone inside just as Bryan reached the short fence that surrounded the front yard. The grass was brown and ash collected around in patches of dirt. The house was yellowed and in disrepair. The front door was missing and the windows were either smashed in or boarded up with graying two-by-fours.
Bryan shut off his bike and removed his helmet. The man had gone inside without even paying the sound of the approaching motorcycle a second glance. Although he had glanced at Bryan coming. And that was the source of a chill in Bryan's back, not that Bryan had saw him, but that he had saw him looking.
Setting his helmet aside on his bike Bryan moved forward, over the little fence towards the front door. The dark shadows casting out barely reluctant to creep out of their inner sanctum. Bryan slowed as he neared the doorway. His chest was tight, his stomach suddenly rotten. He couldn't explain the sudden desire to turn back, or why the man seemed so, surreal. His heart pounded and instinct screamed to leave. Had it not been for love, he had left long ago.
But he knocked, meekly on the door frame.
There was a rustling somewhere in the darkness of the house. He waited, his throat growing tight. His eyes unable to pierce the darkness within the house.
"Anyone?" He pleaded.
The rustling noise never stopped. Dry, like metal on rock.
Bryan swallowed hard, but a newly emerged lump would not go down.
Bryan took a step crossing the threshold into the unknown.
Squinting his eyes hard his eyes slowly began to focus, making only shapes out of the darkness. There was old furniture, a banister to a flight of stairs, and old wooden floor, and a glow from the next room. Not a white glow like from an electronic but a low yellow. The sound was louder, the metal on stone and wood.
Bryan crept closer to the next room. He could here a paddle of soft steps in-between the sound now. He swallowed hard once more, but to no avail. He turned the corner.
A dim flickering light made it difficult to see again. He could tell to the right of the room was a pile of refuge, large jagged objects protruded every which way. To the left he noticed a dark spot in the wall, another room where small slights of light were coming in from a boarded up window. Then the left wall of the room hand a small pile of what he assumed was coal. The man in his plaid shirt shoveled the coal into a fire place, but his actions only further suffocating the fire that was dying. The man had not turned to Bryan's presence, he continued shoveling small bits of coal into the dying fire.
"Um, excuse me sir, I am sorry to barge in on you, but I'm looking for my son."
The man stopped. Bryan swallowed hard, but the fear clogged his throat the again. The man turned and regarded Bryan for a moment over his shoulder and turned back to the fire place, uninterested in Bryan.
"He's a small boy, 13 years old..." he was lost as the man said nothing. "...sort of fragile shoulders." He said aloud more in memory of his son than in description.
"Sometimes fragile things are harder to break than they seem." A croak came from the man. Bryan had gotten lost staring down at the floor. He looked up in confusion to meet a blur.
Bryan flung his arms up in a defense. A hard clang met his elbow and sent him stepping back from the pain. He stumbled, tripped, and landed on his butt.
The man swung the shovel again hitting the walls above Bryan. Bryan flinched down and kicked up. His heel striking the man's thighs. The man reared up with the shovel directly over his head, preparing to swing down. Bryan flailed in a panic, throwing his arms up to shield his face in a last attempt and kicking out once more.
His heels connected with the belly of the man and toppled him back. The added weight and position caused him too to trip and fall into the pile with a sickening splat and crack. There followed a silence.
Bryan hadn't even realized he was clenching his eyes shut. He opened them to a silence in the room, with his heart beating in his ears. He could see better than before now, and the room was filthy, something crusty and brown was on the floor , and dirt with rocks littered the corners.
He searched frantically for the man. He searched so hard he overlooked him twice. And there, before hi he stood slightly erect, slouching and not moving. Through the man's back, and out his stomach stood a broken pipe that had been protruding from the refuse.
Bryan swallowed hard again. A gummy feeling over took his mouth and throat. He waited. He waited longer for the man to move. He had never killed anyone before. It was then that Bryan became acutely aware of a noise from outside. A running motor.
He stood and went to the adjoining room where he peeped out of the slots created by the blocked window. Outside was an old truck still running, it had crashed into his dirt bike. There were three men outside as well. They were throwing parts of his bike around in the air scattering them, one stood off to the side with a torch.
"What the fuck." Bryan whispered. His heart raced again. He had to get out. He headed back into the room and stopped.
Bryan's blood ran cold. The room was as he had left it. But the man was missing.
There was no one in the room with Bryan, dead or alive.
He took several steps out and saw no one around the corner. He moved further, and no one in the hall. He edged around the corner, and saw the man in plaid. His back was to Bryan, he was walking away, outside towards the other men, as if the wound inflict caused him no pain.
Bryan's eyes widened, his lips trembled which he stop by biting them and holding them in place. He looked around for another viable exit. The next door was boarded up, he couldn't go outside, so he had to go upstairs.
At the top there were several doors that lined the narrow hallways. Bryan took the right and nearest door. Throwing the door open he saw a small double bed against the wall which he passed. Atop it was a small, curled up, wet mass. He didn't stop to look at it, to acknowledge what it really was or wasn't. There was a single window, it too had the glass smashed in. The glass lay in bit on the carpet which was hard and crunchy under Bryan's steps.
Bryan climbed out of the window onto the slick and loose shingles of the roof. He could hear the men inside the house now. An inarticulate scream of rage came from downstairs. Bryan hurried his short steps. He came to the edge. He squatted down and began to lower himself down. His hands gripping the gutter tightly. As his legs dangled, he dropped, with a thud.
Bryan pushed off the ground, tall weeds grew where grass had long died. Bryan ran to the fence, passing a small child's swing. The fence was low enough he could easily toss his body up and over the fence.
Bryan found himself in a single one way road with fences on both sides and left over metal trash cans lining the once occupied area.
Bryan ran. He ran as fast as he could, pumping his legs, pumping until his veins pumped glass.
Bryan stopped, his heart burned. He realized he did not know where he was, or where to go from here. He looked back behind him, and no one followed.
In the thin air, the falling ash almost concealed a crackling pop. Bryan's ears perked up. In rapid succession, but controlled and spaced, the pops continued in the distance. In a daze Bryan squinted his eyes in the direction he believed the noise to be coming from. The loud snaps in the air familiar yet so foreign suddenly. Fireworks? Why where there fireworks?
And then, Bryan realized his own stupidity.
They were gunshots.