I’ve expanded this writing group snippet. Updating in chunks–divided by asterisks, so skip to the last section if you’re up to date. This got post-apocalyptic and a bit grim, fair warning!

Image in the public domain. From WikiMedia, by Sarang.

*  *  *

The children attacked at dawn. The town expected—dreaded—an early assault, as the children were often awake before the sun rose completely, shrieking and sharpening their spears for blood. So two lookouts protected the populace.

The east tower faced the caves where the children lived, surrounded by piles of broken toys and the gnawed-clean bones of their victims. Often the children could be spotted prowling around, wrapped in rags to protect their skin, hair filthy and hacked short. The west tower faced the forest, blighted from some attack from the Before People. The trees grew gnarled and twisted, half dead, branches clawing toward the sunlight. Coyotes lurked in the meager shade, and denned in the tangled branches.

The lookout in the east tower spotted the mob first, pouring out of their caves, screaming and brandishing spears and bludgeons. Quickly, the lookout blew the warning horn, two long, deep blasts, to warn of the coming danger.

Shutters and doors slammed as the non-combatants barricaded themselves inside their homes, hastily abandoning morning chores. The sound of fear, hollow thuds, was punctuated with the lighter drum of running feet as every able body rushed to the defenses. Each person had their part. No gaps could be left, without dire consequences.

And then the lookout to the west blew their horn—a brighter tenor, in two long notes. The children had learned misdirection.

Everyone defended the far side, facing down invaders—looking death in its small, chubby cheeked face, with snarls of hair haloing angry eyes and sharp teeth. So the lone child met no resistance when they tossed a knotted rope over the barricade, a hook of rusted metal biting deep into the wood. They swarmed over the barricade with ease, and landed on the other side.

***     ***     ***

The child, scrawny and dirty, around eight years old, straightened from their crouch, and raced down one road, turning right, right again, and then left. They bore the faint scars of the illness that had attacked most people under the age of twelve. The ill had raved and thrashed and bit in their fever, desperate to escape the fire consuming their bodies. Some had gone still forever, and others the lesser still of sleep. Those with surviving offspring felt a toxic mix of triumph and relief–which, some whispered, had earned the punishment that followed.

Because some children had woken weak, and taken months to recover. Others had seemed to slip back into that violent fever, but their bodies recovered quickly, the purple tinged rash evaporating as their tempers worsened. Many fled–and a few, it must be said, were let go. The changed children hovered around the town, stealing toys and food. Then, three of them, confronted in a theft by an elderly man, attacked him and dragged his body into a cave a short distance from town.

By the time anyone realized he was missing, they’d already consumed his tenderest parts.

What the children recalled served as a contentious, oft-repeated source of argument among the adults, which flared up like a peat fire, always smoldering beneath the surface. If the diminutive cannibals remembered little, however, it would be impossible that this eight-year-old invader walked a few houses after that final left turn, and peeled back a piece of board half-concealed by a small vegetable garden. The dark, greasy-haired head ducked as the child crouched and slid through the opening in the wall, into the backyard of the house the barrier should have protected.

The board, settled back in place, made a muffled noise too quiet to be heard above the martial music of attack and defense.

***     ***     ***

Once in the yard, the child made a beeline for the small shed tucked into the back corner. They jiggled the shed’s latch, eye intent, tongue poking out from cracked lips. After a few shifts with prodding fingers, the latch clicked open, and the child vanished inside. The latch rattled for a moment more as the door flexed, then dropped into place, leaving no sign of the terror lurking inside.

The look out had seen the child breech the wall, of course, but lost track of their fast movements between the buildings. People searched, at first just a few who could be spared from the defenses. But after the children had been repulsed–one casualty for the attackers, a small body left lying on the ground, eyes staring accusingly at the sky–they performed a grid search, checking door and latches, hunting for any place a child might hide.

A searcher even shook the door of one particular shed, but finding it latched properly from the outside, moved on. In the darkness of the shed, barely pierced by light filtering through hairline gaps, the child waited, head cocked, breathing shallowly through their mouth. When the noise outside moved away, the child curled up and napped fitfully.

Eventually the searchers gave up. Repairs were made, and life in its bustle of daily tasks and work to be done, settled in. As dusk crept over the town, a well-armed group of adults ventured out with shovels, and interred the small casualty in the graveyard outside of town. One woman, weeping, cut a name into the horizontal broken piece of board forming a cross on the mound, as the rest covered the mound with rocks as large as they could carry, or stood watch.

Task complete, they hustled back inside. Lights flickered in windows as the day darkened further, people gathered around small tasks in the firelight, and tucked their rare, safe offspring into their beds. Parents checked foreheads for a hint of fever, and shutter latches despite any protests of a stuffy, warm night.

Silence, finally. A candle flickered where a woman toiled to finish repairs on ripped trousers, a man lay awake in bed, a child whimpered in a warm, close room. But no one heard the shed door tapping against the frame as it flexed, or the latch rattle and click open. The well-oiled hinges made no sound at all.

 

About Caitlin Stern

I have a MA in English, and have so many fantasy/urban fantasy WIPs it's not even funny. I'm an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, fiction, and anything else that catches my interest. I collect books, and bookmarks I find that are visually appealing and useful.

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