Three helicopters flew overhead, seemingly pulling the clouds across the sky as they went. Jake knew the sound very well and didn't bother looking up. Instead, he looked at the road ahead of him. The tall pine trees on either side created a corridor which covered the dirt road he was on. The forest fanned out in every direction. It wasn't old, though. The consistent intervals between the trees gave away the dull reality that this was an unnatural forest, constructed, or at least planted, with a design. The low growl of a faraway thunderclap rippled through the air, as it gently announced the coming rain. Jake stopped walking and searched his backpack for a rain cover before strapping the heavy load on his back again. He had left the house behind, his old world. His new boots and strong legs would take him a long way yet, and he wanted to keep his new world moving.
Jake noticed some movement farther up the road. He walked closer and could see a green vehicle parked by another road leading right into the forest. Closer still, he could tell it was an army jeep with two soldiers standing beside it. They were busy pouring over a map on the hood of the jeep, and Jake could see this when he walked within speaking distance. He kept his eyes ahead, kept his stride quiet and his breathing light. The first drops of rain began falling, and he wished he could bypass these soldiers and simply disappear into the coming storm. But one of the soldiers noticed him. ‘You, sir. We need your assistance.’
The pleading in the soldier's voice made Jake slow his stride a bit, just long enough for his world to stop moving. He turned and looked at the young man in uniform, but he didn’t answer.
‘Good, sir, thank you. Come look at this map.’
The soldier spoke with a metallic rasp. Jake didn't want to look at a map. He didn't want to know where he was, or to have other people know where he was. He reluctantly walked closer to the jeep while the young soldier kept talking.
‘As you can see, the village is spread out in this hand-like formation with each of the fingers lined with houses. Now, we've got five more towns to reach as quickly as possible. You know what is coming, and we can't get the word out fast enough. The online messages don't seem to be working. So, we need your help. Take these’—the soldier handed him a bunch of maps with an area to the south circled with a red marker—'and pass them out to whoever you find in there. Tell them they need to get where this map tells them to, as fast as they can. A car will take them to here, and then it's only a short walk to the evacuation site. They can only bring what they can carry. We really appreciate this.’
The soldiers jumped into the jeep and started the engine. Then, almost as an afterthought, the other soldier paused and looked at Jake. ‘Remember. Twelve hours, that's the time we have left, so make sure you're at that site by then. Take care.’
They were off down the road before he could answer. Not that he wanted to, but still. He looked at the smaller road leading to the right, and then at the pieces of paper in his hand. There would be nothing to prevent him from simply letting them slide out of his hand and onto the ground. The coming rain would fall and turn the maps into mush and then finally dissolve them into nothing. It did not feel right to do so, however, and instead he put his backpack down and began walking to the village.
A few minutes later he reached the first houses and found a modest gathering. They looked to be small families, all anxious and yet looking prepared. They were talking amongst themselves, and at first they didn't notice him walking closer. A boy of maybe ten interrupted the chatter and pointed to Jake approaching. A man, the father perhaps, broke from the group and rushed to meet him.
‘Sir, do you know anything about where to go? Everyone knows it's only a matter of time before…’
His voice trailed off as Jake extended a copy of the map. The man eagerly took the piece of paper and studied it. The immediate confusion was expelled and replaced with a smile. He pointed to the circled area on the map. ‘So, we just have to get to there. Thank you so very much. We'll leave right now but there are others still in the village. I just hope you'll have better luck than we had convincing them.’
The man turned and walked back to the group. They gathered around him for a few moments, then they loaded into the cars and headed out towards the main road. As each of the four cars passed him, they nodded and saluted him in genuine appreciation. He felt like he was part of a performance where he was being thanked for telling people to leave their homes. The rain began falling in earnest and the darkened clouds now covered the entire sky. Jake looked at the row of houses the people had abandoned. They were as plain as could be, and set alongside the gentle patter of the rain, they briefly reminded him of a previously lived life. The lights were still on inside the houses, looking brighter against the still darkening rain clouds.
The absurdity of it all strangely piqued his interest and instead of leaving, he pulled up his hood and walked to the next street. There were four houses, each propped up next to the forest, as if they were trying to hide. The first one had a neatly tended garden, the lawn had recently been mowed, and the patio had been squared away. The driveway had two cars. Jake crossed the lawn and knocked on the front door. Looking in through the window, he saw several candles burning. He noticed a handprint on the blue wall, in what looked to be chalk. He heard slow footsteps come closer and an elderly man with a tear-wrecked face opened the door.
His voice was quivering, and his expression sung helplessness. Jake felt an urge to reach out and touch the man, to comfort him, but he restrained himself, not wanting to involve himself any further. ‘Some soldiers wanted me to give you this‘—Jake said as he presented the map to the elderly man—‘and tell you that it won't be much longer. It's coming.’
The old man took the map. He held it gently in his hands, as if he were holding some precious thing. He looked over his shoulder into the empty hallway behind him, and then hurriedly handed the map back to Jake. ‘I know. I know it is. I want to thank you for this, I— ‘
A sharp noise somewhere in the house made the old man heave a sigh, and he glanced at the sky the way someone might look at the prospect of starvation. Jake looked down the dark hall and spotted a young man standing in a doorframe. The old man noticed this and quickly added, ‘Well, like I said, thank you.’
He closed the door and Jake began walking away from the house. Suddenly, the lawn and the patio looked different to him. It looked squared away and settled, maybe never meant to be used again.
Once back on the road he walked to the next house, feeling the tapping of the rain. It felt heavier and without end. The house looked like a home, with enough possessions out of place to make it seem like it was living and breathing. The toys littered the lawn, and the patio was a disorganized attempt at a cozy space. He didn’t make it to the door before it opened and a young woman took a step out of it, flanked by a child. ‘Hold it right there. Who are you?’
Jake stopped, fearing for a moment she might be armed, wanting to protect her child. ‘I met a couple of soldiers out by the main road. They asked me to tell everyone here to leave. It's coming.’
Her face instantly lost some of its hardness. A moment passed before she could speak. ‘Already? I was told that—‘
He cut her off, eager to move forward. ‘I know. I know…but it's time.’
The woman looked intensely at this stranger in the unpleasant rain, as if he had brought it with him. ‘I guess it's time then. It's always sooner than you think, isn't it.’ There was utter defeat in her voice.
‘I'm just the messenger here. The decision is yours.’ Jake offered up this simple truth, not knowing what good it would do. The woman closed the door and he quickly moved on.
The next house was completely dark and there were cars in the driveway. Two bikes had been casually left on the steps leading to the front door. Jake moved quickly to get out of the rain. He pulled at his jacket and watched the water leap from him, all the while thinking it made about as much sense as telling a stranger that he was just the messenger. He knocked on the door. Nothing. He tried the doorbell, but the house remained quiet. It spooked him. The sound of an empty house clothed in cold water. It rattled him, even. Enough for him to go back to the first house and see. He needed to make sure he didn't leave someone in a bind.
He walked back to the first house and knocked on the door. The wind had carried drops of water onto the handprint and now small streaks ran down the wall. The door opened and a young man presented himself with an overly congenial smile. ‘Hello, sir. How can I help you?’
The young man's blue suit, leather shoes and slightly oiled hair made him look like he belonged at a wedding or at some other celebration. Jake studied the man and took his time, too.
Apparently, it was more time than he could bear, because the man spoke again. ‘It sure is coming out there. What made you knock on my door?’
Jake tried to hide his disbelief. ‘I was here not long ago, and someone else answered the door. Maybe you saw me from down the hall.’
The young man gave away nothing when he answered. ‘Really? No, I don't believe I did. Mr. Charlie has just gone to sleep. Taking his early nap.’
Jake took a moment, weighing the lie he was just told. Then he said, ‘I warned him it was time to leave. It's coming.’
‘He did mention something about that, yes. It agitated him a bit, but I calmed him down. I reminded him that there are more important things to take care of first.’
Jake looked down the hallway. He shifted his weight as he stood and wrestled with the idea of becoming involved with whatever was happening here. He knew what was coming, what was closing in from beyond the trees. It is what made him start walking in the first place, despite however much he enjoyed the life he had made for himself. He left it all in a single breath because there are only certain things in this world one flees from. There was no time for this. He had seen that same knowledge in the old man's face, which was how he knew the story about a nap was a lie. Still, he tried, and said, ‘Maybe we should wake him up and get you both out of here.’
The smiling man looked visibly strained in his suit, but his answer was evenly given. ‘That won't be necessary. I mean, there’s plenty of time. Besides, Mr…?’
‘Well, Mr. Jake, there are other things of consideration at the moment.’
‘I kindly doubt that, boy. Call him, and let's go.’
The young man narrowed his eyes. He looked at the man in front of him as well as the street behind him. His face then became lax. ‘If you insist. Please come in, get out of the rain.’
The two walked down the hall and into the living room. It had all the usual things and except for a large chest in the far corner, Jake committed none of it to memory. He rounded the corner, heard the young man behind him open a drawer. Then he saw the old man on the floor near the backdoor, chained and gagged.
The young man behind him said, ‘I didn't want this but here we are.’
Jake turned slowly, his instincts having already informed him of the weapon pointed at him.
‘Did you want this, Jake? Did you seek it out or were you guided?’
Sheer exasperation drained Jake as he looked at the smiling man. The same instincts that told him about the weapon told him this stranger had killed before and not recoiled from it, but also, that he was not comfortable with it. Still, Jake couldn't see himself fighting his way out of this house. Instead, he said, ‘You don't get to ask that question. The answers don't concern you. Why would you stay here? Whatever you can do, or have done, there's nothing you can do about what is coming.’
The young man tensed. ‘You people! What do you know about anything?! There is such a thing as responsibility, and duty, and some of us have to take that seriously. You old people lose that edge, the commitment, like my father over there. Now look at him. ‘Maybe’—the young man paused, taking a moment to translate his epiphany before continuing—'maybe you should hear this, too.’
The young man smiled again and took a step closer, though still out of range for Jake to act.
‘Go on. Take that rag out of his mouth and sit down next to him.’
Jake did as he was instructed. The young man pulled up a chair and sat down. Jake carefully removed the rag, used it to wipe the sweat from the man's forehead, and then he sat down next to him. The old man was sweating, and he groaned uncomfortably as he sat up and leaned again the radiator.
The young man let his armed hand rest on his thigh, and calmly said, ‘Good, that's better. Now, Father, why don't you tell Jake why we are here?’
The old man, with both hands chained behind his back, studied the room for a moment, weighing his options. Then, staring at the smiling man he said, ‘Have you ever been to Argentina?’
The young man looked off into nothing and kept silent until Jake realized that he had been asked a question.
‘Yes, I have. A long time ago.’
‘Well, a very, very long time ago, there was a fight, a bloodshed. In the badlands around Buenos Aires stood this majestic house amidst horse thieves and endless night skies. It was owned by a collector of no fame or renown. One evening he was hosting a small gathering for eating and drinking. It was a group of rough men from various places and a boy. While the men dined, the boy wandered the house. He soon got lost in the corridors and when he finally returned, he found a very different gathering. Offence had been taken and the insult demanded blood as penance. Years later, the boy as a man, our prophet, spoke of this moment. It was as if a current was rising out of the air, spurred on by someone in the gathering. There are no descriptions of this man, this faceless man who did his best to bring the darkness forward. May he be forgiven for it. Insults were traded, harsher and louder they grew. Insults no man could have suffered unanswered. The two men went outside, out of respect for the host, to sort things out.’
‘And may he be forgiven for it.” The young man muttered this just under his breath. He frowned and spat on the ground. The old man groaned from the shackles and tried to shift his weight. Jake wondered if he could outrun the aim of the young man sitting in the chair.
The old man cleared his throat and continued. ‘Like I told you, the man hosting the gathering we know only that he was a collector. Of knives, among other things. Old blades, blades with history. Pieces of steel made somewhere for someone and then they made a journey to get to where they were found. The two men were given their choice of blades. One picked a weapon with a U-shaped crosspiece in the handle and the other man chose a blade with a wooden handle. They fought. They fought, and they both died.
‘Now You see, those blades. They have met before. They had fought before. And that night they fought well. Who knows how many times, really? Who knows how many lives they've taken and, the crutch of it all, how many lives they will take? Again and again. This is where we enter the story. You see, after the police came but somehow before everything was catalogued, the boy stole those knives and kept them safe. He was the first of us. What he wrote and passed down, we abide by. He wrote that the knives should be locked away, together. Things last longer than people in this world, and this was the truth that revealed itself on that night.’
The old man motioned to the chest in the corner, and Jake was beginning to doubt whether he would make it out of this town alive. He felt as if he was watching a performance of some kind, a dramatic performance. Looking at the old man and those same instincts told Jake to join the circus and see if he could influence the performance. Jake looked at the young man and said, ‘So, you won't leave here because of that chest over there in the corner. And being tied up like this, that's part of the gig?’
The young man sprung to life. The smile on his face was wide yet shallow. ‘And, may he be forgiven for it. The founder never mentioned the idea of succession, at least not until his successor arrived. His daughter understood its importance and when she succeeded her father and began the line, she took it upon herself to write down the rules. The rules that we now follow.”
Jake leered at the son, and then the father. Feeling the moment deserved some common sense, he said, ‘So, the first-born murders the father and becomes the keeper of that chest over there.’
The son smiled, as if hoping it would take the venom out of his words. ‘It's the only way to ensure that hints of it do not spread. Hints breed curiosity.’
The young man rose and walked to the window, watching the rain beat down as the leaves from the trees fell across the backyard. He seemed absorbed and transported by what he saw.
Jake considered his options. The old man was chained with a padlock and Jake would need a key, or a lot of time and he had neither. The young man had moved closer since leaving the chair, but he was still well beyond reach, and still armed. He was a big boy, much younger than Jake, so a wrestling match seemed a waste of opportunity. No, a distraction followed by quick movement would be the way forward. The front lawn and the street offered no cover at all for at least seventy meters. The backyard, however, was small; the first bushes were maybe twenty meters away and the big trees were thirty meters away. That was close enough, and the forest was dense enough to disappear in. Jake reached into his pocket, looking for something solid to throw but he only felt paper, a copy of the map given to him. Jake moved closer to the old man and whispered.
‘When did all of this take place?’
‘The exact date is lost but it was ages ago. Yes, ages ago. It was somewhere in the very early years of the last century.’
The old man noticed that the young man wasn't paying attention. In a lowered voice he said, ‘This is my fault. I apologize, I taught without thinking what I was teaching, and now I have to take responsibility. Get out of here.’
Jake looked at the old man in chains, and though he thought little of his admission, he did respect its honesty. He felt a kinship with this chained man and remembered his own loathing of being tethered to a place, much like he was to the other house he had finally walked out of.
‘Run, I'll trip him when he tries to chase you.’
Jake, feeling an exhilarating instinct taking over, nodded and then took a deep breath. Clawing at the floorboards for traction, he exploded into movement. He bypassed the old man, pushed the backdoor open and sprinted across the lawn. He heard the first shot but he didn't feel anything. He heard someone yelling as he ran across the lawn. He heard the second shot and Jake felt an ugly gratitude deep inside himself. He made it to the dense tree line. He stopped and hid behind a tree, breathing heavily. He looked back at the house. He suddenly felt certain that the handprint he had seen earlier was not made with chalk, but with ash. Jake felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder and he heard the third shot. Instinctively, he ran at full speed deeper into the forest.
He finally had to stop when the burning in his body became too much. He took cover behind a big tree trunk and looked for his pursuer. The vast amounts of adrenalin in his system protected him from the worst pains and thoughts. There was no movement, and when he could hear over the sound of his pounding heart, there was nothing but the chatter of the falling rain. Reaching for his wounded shoulder, he saw how much blood he had lost, but he was relieved to learn it was still intact. His right hand applied pressure as he began thinking of a way forward. If he walked right, meaning east, he would probably reach the road shortly. After a few minutes, he felt certain no one was following him, and he began walking east.
With the adrenalin gone, Jake lost its chemical protection and he could think properly again. The shoulder injury wasn't very serious, despite the bleeding, but he couldn’t waste any more time.
The heavy rain stopped half an hour later, just as Jake was reaching the main road. He approached it cautiously, and there were no signs of recent passage. He didn’t recognize that particular stretch of road, but he turned right and kept going, relying on his instincts.
It wasn't long before he spotted the point where he had left his backpack, just a bit up the road, and he smiled. He let go of his wounded shoulder, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a copy of the map.
He then thought about the young man in the empty house guarding the chest. Had he tasted truth, or was he being weighed down by what he had been fed? The old man's story had been siphoned from some obscure story. Siphoned, then shredded and then put back together. Did it ever happen, or maybe that wasn't the point? Jake had never learned who knew these things.
He looked at the map in his hands. There was a section of nondescriptive forest, with several villages and towns spread throughout. He then found the village he had just escaped from. The edge of the forest was lined with a wide road. The arrows suggested that he could follow it before he would reach a small field and be safe. He paused and looked about him, hoping his instincts would convey something. Almost by chance he looked at the paper again and then noticed what he had added to it. Looking at the whole page instead of just a corner, he could see the bloody handprint he had left on the page.
He crumbled up the paper and threw it in among the trees. He bent down and reached for his backpack. He tried putting it on, but he was not able to because of his injury. It hadn't grown heavier, but he was weaker now. Weaker even for having heard stories he couldn't believe. There was nothing moving in the forest. Jake looked down the long road and knew that it was close. He took a quick mental inventory of what he carried. He then opened the backpack, took what he needed and what made sense, and then he carried on. Whatever he left behind, he left to the village in the forest.
The main road would lie just where he would clear the forest, exactly as the map showed. The old man chained to the radiator would never leave this place, neither would the young man who shot him. They had spoken about the importance of lineage, just before the young man murdered his father. Jake checked his wound and was happy to see that pain and a little blood would be the only price he would have to pay for entering, and finally leaving, the house with the ashen handprint.