Submitted Date 09/04/2020


She didn't know it would make her family a target. She had been watching the happenings 'before' and felt that if she didn't take a stand she would be called a 'sheep.' She'd heard it at school. She'd seen it online. She knew it was more complicated than her 12-year old mind could completely understand, but she also knew the rumors she'd been hearing, if true, were horrifying.

So on an adjacent property, linked to her via family, she had built her own billboard to proudly display where she stood. Her brothers and cousins helped, of course. They dug up old, dusty cans of spray paint from one of the sheds and some particle board from the old pig pen over the hill. The "blue," paint was a little chunky so it looked gray in some places and closer to black in others. Even though it was nowhere close to evenly colored, the black paint they'd also found painted on nicely with the three-inch brush she had from art class. She was proud of her beliefs and stood for something because as she was always told--if she didn't, she'd fall for anything. For Margo, a strawberry blonde from North-Central Idaho, this didn't always mean choosing sides. Firm in her beliefs, but cut from a different cloth. That's what her father always told her.

She always felt a bit awkward. She had a spate of freckles across her cheeks and forehead that she felt made her face look lop-sided. She had altogether more freckles on the left side of her face and one raised mound above and between her eyes, right in the center. She didn't know what exactly it was--only that it had always been there. Despite this, she was always told she was pretty. "Your beauty is unconventional," people would say a lot. It was meant to be a compliment, but felt it was back-handed anyways.

That day, she had been digging a sort of perimeter with her family. The week prior there had been a breach of infrastructure at the dam just outside of town. It was just another attack by another country, weaker than her own in manpower, but more powerful in cyber-attacks and with their allies as of late.

When the power went out, several of the neighbors on Margo's out-of-town mountain pulled out their generators and got the dust blown through them. The wind brought news from her small town and the words on the wind weren't good. Worse than the news of deaths via misuse of the small gas engines and mishaps with electrical fires was the steady shower of falling ash from nearby homes, trees, and brush going up in smoke.

Margo also overheard her father, talking to her mother, aunt, and uncle, say that folks had been running around town setting fires.

"They're lightin' shit up everywhere. Red signs, blue. Best to mind your own and not stir the pot," Margo considered the adults in her life to be a link to the outside world. The very wind, as it were, as they were the only ones who would leave the property--the compound, as Aunt Maria called it--to carry word back like embers on a breeze.

This startled Margo, who instantly thought of the billboard the seven kids had painted together. When he hissed it to the other adults, they thought all the kids were busy tending to the garden. The boys were on the hill behind the house collecting blackberries, but Alice and Margo exchanged wide-eyed glances. They'd both overheard. Silently, they agreed to do away with it, but a sea of steady chores kept them from slinking away to hide their work. Those were different times, of course. Things were still weird, but they hadn't quite been penned up on the compound yet. There was a freedom they had taken for granted then. They'd not returned to the billboard in, she'd truthfully lost track of the time, but at least several weeks and possibly even over a month.

After plucking the plump, red tomatoes from their vines and pulling the newly-grown weeds from the garden beds, Margo's dad rounded up the kids. He wanted to dig a trench and push the dirt into a sort of wall. He said it would help with fire if it spread across the woods. Their land was covered in mature trees, pine trees, leaf trees, apple trees, and even a little peach tree Margo's mom had planted before "sugar turned to shit," as her Uncle Corkie would say. It was a cute tree, Margo thought. The first thing her mom had ever planted and truly taken pride in, even though it was a little lopsided like Margo herself, and only produced golfball-sized peaches. Her mom said it was still a baby, but judging by the looks Uncle Corkie gave her, Margo and Alice chuckled that she just really sucked at plants.

A throaty, diesel-engine, and then another, echoed up the canyon as they dug. Before, this wouldn't have been particularly alarming in these parts. They kept digging.

Another vehicle was with them, a slightly whinier engine. Alice looked up, like a pooch sensing trouble. Her big blue eyes turned dark, brows furrowed.

"Uncle Larry," Alice called out. Margo's head stayed down and she kept digging, but her own eyes snapped in her father's direction. He held up a hand, about waist high, just behind his back.

"Are they slowing down?" Alice continued.

Alice's little sister, Rozie, piped up, "Is who slowing down? Those cars?"

"SSHHhhhh," spat Larry, who was listening intently to engines who were most definitely idling twenty feet below. One would creep, stop. Another would inch forward. They were trying to see through the thick trees to assess the situation just above them

Margo's father never went anywhere without a pistol, which he always lovingly referred to as "The Governor," strapped to his waistband. It didn't just give Larry comfort, though. Margo always felt more at ease when there were firearms around--as long as it was the good guys who had 'em. In this day and age, she felt that the only good guys she could trust were the folks who lived on that hill, on that compound, with her. She'd been trained since she was five to handle and to fire any and all kinds of weapons, but her mom didn't like her just carrying one around like her dad did.

If Margo needed a weapon, she'd have to go get it. She waited for the signal. All of them had stopped digging now. Alice and Margo, the oldest of the kids, were the closest to Larry but farthest from the weapons store. Runner, Dax, Jester, and River stood nearer the top of the hill, to safety. Rozie huddled close to Margo, her favorite cousin.

Margo, in-tune with her father, held her breath as she listened to the voices below.

"There's a driveway here. I'm thinkin' I heard sumthin up here, too," said a male voice. The voices wouldn't have carried so far if the earth and trees around them wasn't covered in the ever-falling ash, like a thick blanket of snow.

"Yeah. I'm thinkin' you're right, boss." Another voice.

A diesel engine cut and the whinier vehicle sounded like it hit reverse, moving farther away.

Larry turned around, signaling instructions to separate groups of kids, all of whom knew which group they were in. We'd practiced. This was not a drill.

Alice came with her family from inner-city Spokane, and wasn't keen on guns so much, so she was in charge of sweet, innocent, little Rozie, along with River and Jester, River being a tad too young and Jester being a tad too impulsive. They were to go in the house, and according to Margo's dad's hand signals, to alert the other adults to the situation. Then shelter in place.

Margo, Runner, and Dax were to head up to the cache and very cautiously return, armed and ready for whatever might come.

"Shoot first, ask questions later," Larry always told the kids. Margo was eager to prove herself to her dad. She was also the oldest of four, and the only girl, and wasn't ever willing to be counted out on account of anything--least of which her gender.

She was shocked at the fact that each of the kids were so quick and so quiet. The oldest of them, Alice, herded Rozie and the boys with hunter-like stealth. This was something Margo knew full-well she'd never mastered, considering all the butt-chewing she'd withstood while in the woods with her dad.

Margo, the next-oldest, pointed Dex and Runner toward the cache. It wasn't far. She was surprised, actually--she'd figured her dad would send her to the store-house, but he sent her to the store of weapons...which really meant sugar was going to turn to shit.

The boys, each with their crystal-blue eyes, wore different expressions. Runner more concerned, Dax ready for blood. Margo tried to calm her frantic heart. As they hiked to the yard, beyond the sheds, past the house, and up another hill toward their weapons, she'd peeked over her shoulder more than once. The first time, her father was creeping side-hill, Governer out.

The second time she'd lost sight of him, but could see movement in the windows of the house. Lots of bodies. Quick movements. This didn't help her nerve.

The cache was near a unique tree about forty feet above the house. When she found the tree, she knew it was twelve paces to the east to the tool she'd need to then open the trap door another seven paces south. She couldn't afford to mess this up. She found the tool, first stop. In disentangling it from its anchor, she became frustrated. That took her an extra thirty seconds she couldn't afford. Red-faced and near-to-tears, Runner whispered, "Margo, let me help. I can open it,"

She knew from drills that he was, in fact, quicker with the clasp. After hesitation, she said, "okay, go. Quick."

He took the short piece of metal in his hand and the worry melted from his face, met with steely resolve. He seemed so grown up, save the shock of hair at the top of his head that never quite laid down. Margo watched intently and the moment the door flopped open, she jumped in. She kept the largest for herself, in case the boys became scared. She passed the two .22 rifles to Runner, one at a time. He gave one to Dax, who was better on the AR, but much younger. She also looped an extra shotgun over Runner's shoulder and one over her own. A pistol in the back of her pants and Aunt Maria's bow was on the way back down the hill.

In her haste, as the boys took off at trots, she slammed the metal trapdoor. The boys didn't slow down, but she froze. Time slowed down, which offered a chance to listen, the way her dad always told her when they hunted together. Listen. Smell. Look.

Somehow, she compartmentalized the boys' sounds--breathing, moving through tall grass and weeds--from the sounds at the house below. Just next door, about 100 yards, she could makeout the white car roof of the SUV belonging to the neighbor. There was the crunch of gravel underfoot down there. The bark of dogs.

In the other direction, Runner was passing a shotgun to Uncle Corkie, though there was an exchange. She knew he'd want the AR, so she began to quickly move down the hill. Aunt Maria was peering around the side of the house. Margo couldn't see her father and assumed he'd moved to the top of the driveway, beyond the house, ready for a battle. She didn't know his exact location, but she needed to get to him. His pistol would be a deterrent, but he was the most experienced with weapons--the majority of their store was either built by him or his father or handed down from his grandad. He'd been a gun-slinger all his life.

Loaded with weapons, high on adrenaline, she heard every blade of grass snap beneath her weathered, checkered Vans. She felt every ultra-light touch-down of gray-white ash on her messy strawberry-blonde hair.

When she reached the bottom of the hill, to the flat upon which their compound was built, everyone was in a state of confusion.

"Where's Lar--your dad," Margo's aunt whispered. "My bow?"

She knew she'd forgotten something. Maria seemed relieved, "Go check in with your mom in the house, then circle around, out the back door," she put a hand on each of Margo's arms, "you're doing great, Marge. Let's get these assholes out of here." She took off toward the weapons store to equip her bow while Margo crept onto the porch and into the house.

As the door creaked shut, she heard the powerful crack of a gun. It sounded like a shotgun, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her uncle wouldn't have fired the first round. The other door, right off the living room, flew open, at the same moment that Margo's mom exploded from the hallway, wide-eyed.

"What the fuck," her mom asked, bewildered. River was clasped around her hip, holding tight like he was a toddler, though he was four years old, just small for his age. Margo and her mother looked then at Corkie, who had come straight for the AR, which she'd instinctively held out for him before he'd even muttered a word. He took it, but kept the shotgun.

Margo expected to be handed the shotgun, but he swung it to her mother. Over his shoulder, her Uncle Corkie said, in his most intense voice she'd ever heard him manage, "Back of the house, get there and back us up. One is down, we know there is another on each side of the property," he turned as he went through the door, "Stay covered."

"What in the actual fuck?" Annie said--a little too loudly, weapon held like a dead animal.

"Mom," Margo breathed, "chill." She pulled the pistol from her pants and moved to the bar. She, and only she, knew that beneath that bar was an arsenal of ammo for each of the weapons on the property. She knew from when her littlest brother had gone into a seizure some time before, that her mother was stronger than anyone she'd ever met--but she was also absolutely terribly under pressure. It was always a joke between her parents, but in times like these, when the pressure was on, it was a pain in the ass.

"Mom, move!"

"Okay, what do I do?"

More shots. Several, and distinctly sounded like her dad's AR.

"Grab one of your grocery totes and come here, Mom."

They loaded the bag with ammunition, Margo reciting in her mind which gun was out there and who would likely need ammo.

"Dad's backpack, the coat rack. Bring it," Annie flew. She brought an extra tote bag--one of her favorite luxuries from before--which Margo found useful. She didn't want to have to run around dispersing rounds and clips like a flower girl at a wedding before she could actually be useful in a firefight. She knew the groupings outside. Pistol ammo in her pocket, pistol ammo for The Governor. A tote with AR clips. A backpack full of .22 bullets. And right on the bar was her mom's purse, which Margo promptly dumped and filled full of shotgun rounds before heading for the back door.

"River, go get Rozie and Alice. Mommy will be right back, okay?" He nodded. "Do not come out until I come get you, you got that?" He nodded.

More shots, from the other side of the house this time. Shouting Margo couldn't quite make out. She made an executive decision.

"Mom, listen, you go that way. Sounds like they need a little help over there. I'm going out there," Annie thought she was going to argue, and opened her mouth to do so, but Margo widened her eyes in that same look Annie gave to her when she meant what she fucking said. Annie nodded. They split up.

When Margo slid back through the porch door, the whole world had changed. The smell of gunpowder was thick in the air and a dark plume of smoke rose from the trees. She blinked a few times. She'd never seen flames that big and that close in real life before. She tried to choke down the panic in her throat as she faced off with a man probably five-times her age. She wasn't sure. He was old, though.

He wore baggy jeans, though it didn't seem that they were meant to be baggy since he had one hand holding up the backside. The other, she couldn't help but notice, held another assault rifle, pointed down and off to the side. He couldn't handle the weight with just one hand. As if in slow motion, he pulled the other back around toward his weapon and squared his feet.

Margo drew, but she knew it was too slow. She didnt even hear the shot, just the window burst behind her. Her eyes had squeezed tight and she'd dropped to the porch, hoping beyond hope that the slats of the rails would catch any bullets before they met with her flesh. "Shoot first, ask questions later," he'd always said.

The world stopped. There was so much noise. Her ears were ringing.

"Am I dead," she wondered to herself, "I've been shot, I'm dead, and now he's going to kill my family,"

She heard a voice cut through the fog just then, a voice that wasn't familiar.

"We'll be back, you fuckin' libtards. We gotcha now, and the whole damned town is gonna take your asses out,"

She managed to peel her eyelids apart to see the old man walk away down the trail toward the neighbor, a slight wobble in his gait. Her hands were balled, trembling. She took the opportunity to scramble back inside the house.




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