The blood is warm, and pools quickly next to the body. He’s amazed at how much there is, although in the darkness it’s impossible to guess how many bullets struck the body. He fired at least four times he thinks, although the memory is already quickly evaporating as panic takes over. He needs to protect Meg and Cassie, and this is what that means. He dips his fingers in the blood, unsure why. Then he stands and flees to follow his family as they escape the home they’d made for the last eight years.
Ryan waited in the dark house, trying not to think of Cassie. She was hiding in an area of the house that seemed to have escaped even the barest touch of moonlight. She was as safe as she could be. The gun was nestled in his hands, the barrel pointed out, and he fought to control the savagery of his breathing. His body was starting to betray him; he felt the handle of the gun wobble in his hands. He bit down on his tongue and fought to hold steady.
He counted the footsteps again, one-two, one-two. He could tell they were trying to step lightly, but the house was old enough to creak in protest despite their good intentions. He counted, listening to the approach of the wolves, the scavengers, the men and women that would do anything to survive. A floorboard creaked directly ahead of him and this time it sounded so close that Ryan risked it all and squeezed the trigger.
The world exploded, the barrel of the gun licked flame and sent destruction spitting through the living room, the sound in the emptiness of the lonely house like the sudden cry of some ancient banshee, as though the house was suddenly awakening from a long slumber with righteous fury to find that its original masters had been deposed and replaced by these sad, warped strangers.
Ryan didn’t know if he hit anything, but a voice cried out - in surprise or pain, he couldn’t tell - and suddenly the careful footfalls were replaced by the thumps of men and women running, scrabbling for cover. Ryan fired once more and then turned and retreated into the shadows of the living room, praying the darkness provided some cover or shield that he knew, rationally, could not exist.
He braced himself for the sound of return fire, but none came. Either they weren’t carrying guns, or were afraid they’d hit one of their own in the darkness. Whatever the reason, it gave Ryan the advantage. He counted down from five, and then fired again. He knew he wouldn’t hit anything, but he wanted to keep them hidden, or scared, or at bay. He didn’t have a plan, but scaring them seemed like the best option he had. They were scared already, even with their numbers, and he wanted to press whatever advantage he had.
He counted down from five, and when he heard no movement, he called out, “I can do this all night! Leave us alone or don’t leave at all. Your choice.” Brave words, braver than he felt, but he’d learned how to be brave, or how to pretend to be.
Silence responded for so long that Ryan thought that maybe they’d left without him hearing it. Then one of them called back, “We just want your stuff. No need for this shit, we’ve got you outnumbered twelve to one.” The voice was calm, measured, even reasonable. It was the voice of an older man, probably the leader of the group or at least the one who did the talking for them.
“You’ve got me outnumbered, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got you outgunned,” replied Ryan, taking the gamble. He didn’t have a lot of options at this point, anyway.
“That may be true,” admitted the spokesman. “But you’ve got to run out of bullets eventually, and we can wait it out longer than you and your little girl.”
The last statement struck a chord, and Ryan fired off a shot into the darkness, hoping the spokesman had decided to stand out in the open as he delivered his message.
“Awfully hard to shoot things in the dark.” The tone was relief creamed by confidence.
Shit, swore Ryan. He looked around, futile as he knew the gesture was. He pictured Cassie in the corner where he’d left her, and prayed she was still there.
He turned to the one spot of brightness. The moonlight was slim, submissive. But still it shone, a light in the darkness. Ryan aimed his gun at it and fired three times. The window cracked with spiderwebs. He fired once more into the darkness to deter his attackers, and sprinted to the corner where he’d left Cassie. “Come on!” he called to her, hoping she had remained alert, hoping she’d somehow managed to bury her fear and wait for a sign like this from her father.
One hand reached in the darkness, the other held his gun out, waiting for someone to pounce. He felt the warmth on his palm, Cassie’s small hand fitting into his, and he turned to the window and kicked one of the cracks he’d made. In the movies, men used to jump through solid panes of glass without breaking a sweat or cutting their skin. More ‘pragmatic’ action movies showed a hero firing a few bullets into the glass before bursting through, largely unaffected. Ryan believed the latter had a better shot of working.
He couldn’t jump through the splintered glass like a shirtless action hero, but a few bullets and some well-placed kicks removed most of the window. He gathered Cassie in his arms and jumped through the open space into the moonlit street of the nameless town. He could hear the sound of the wolves calling to one another, but no gunshots trailed him, confirming what he’d suspected: they didn’t have guns. But they outnumbered him, and the spokesman had been right: his bullets wouldn’t last forever.
Cassie clung to Ryan, and he spared one look behind him to see a figure, vague in the darkness, follow his escape out of the shattered window. He told Cassie to cover her ears, turned and fired twice. The figure, wounded or dying, dropped to the street. Then Ryan turned his back on the house and ran, Cassie clutched to him, her breaths labored by fear and exhaustion and, he thought, the unfairness of it all, life on the run, survival in steps. She held him and he heard her breathing in his ear and he tightened his grip on the gun and ran. The moon on his shoulders. The wolves at his back.