My complete (four part) writing group snippet. Updated in chunks–divided by asterisks, so skip to whichever section you’re up to, if you’ve already read some. 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 stick 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 stick-thin children could be spotted prowling around, hunting for some morsel to appease their hunger. The west tower faced the forest, blighted from some attack by 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 roots.
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 at the wall.
Shutters and doors slammed as non-combatants barricaded themselves inside their homes, hastily abandoning morning chores. The hollow thuds of fear were 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, red 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 wall with ease, and dropped to the other side.
** ** **
The scrawny child, around eight years old and of indeterminate sex, straightened from their crouch. They raced down one road, turning right, right again, and then left. The skin exposed by the rags bore the faint scars of the illness that, almost a year ago, had attacked those 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 found the lesser still of sleep. Those parents 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 healed 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. As the days passed, the town fortified, building by building, and the thefts grew less successful. Then, three children, confronted 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, into the backyard of the house the wall should have protected.
The board, settling 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 shed tucked into the back corner. They jiggled the shed’s door, eyes intent, tongue poking out from cracked lips. After a few shifts, the latch, set higher than the child could reach, clicked open, and they 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 lookout had seen the child breech the barricade, 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–with 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 doors 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, weakly 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 diminutive casualty in the graveyard outside of town. One woman, weeping, carved a name into the horizontal broken piece of board forming a cross on the mound, as the rest piled 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, as 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 against the threats outside.
Silence, finally. A candle flickered where a woman toiled to finish repairs on ripped trousers, a man lay awake in bed, and 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.
**** **** ****
The dark-haired invader oozed out of the shed, latching the door behind them. Ghosting across the yard, back out the hidden opening in the fence, the child retraced their steps to the barricade.
Up in the towers, the lookouts dozed.
No one saw the child unbar and open the main gate a sliver, peer out, then rejoin four others standing in the shadows of the wall. All of the children were older survivors as well, emaciated and splattered with fresh blood.
They exchanged nods, and two of the children hefted a litter constructed of sticks and patched together clothing, a tattered rag draped over the top. It clung, wetly, to the contents it concealed, dark spots blooming in the uncertain moonlight.
The five crept through the gate, closing and barring it behind them, then walked to the church at the center or town. This time, the west lookout spotted them, but not before they’d gained the church. The litter was abandoned outside as they scurried in to the sound of the warning horn blowing, loudly, but without the pattern to indicate which wall the attack came from.
The adults, woken from sleep, rushed out, half dressed and clutching weapons. Disoriented, they milled around.
“The church!” The lookout cried. “They’re in the chapel!”
Suddenly, the church’s bell intoned, gonging loudly as someone slammed it over and over. The percussion drowned out speech, and nearly thought. When the last peal faded into silence, most of the town had gathered in front of the small building–carefully tended, whitewashed, with flowers blooming in slender beds framing the wide doors.
Their colors washed out by the moonlight, they still lifted cheerful blooms to any wandering moths or bats, eternally hopeful. The rag-covered litter between them held no such hope, only fear.
Finally, one of the townspeople, a burly man with a bald patch almost as wide as his mustache, gathered the courage to flip back the covering with his pitchfork.
Neatly stacked in a pyramid three high, children’s heads filled the litter. Recently severed from their owners, still seeping darkly, though efforts had been made to clean them up and close their eyes. Each face remained gray with ground in filth, and gaunt from malnutrition, so those efforts achieved little.
The group stared. A man fainted. A woman screamed, cut off abruptly.
The bell chimed, quieter, as if gently tapped.
A high, think voice floated from the bell-tower. “We’re sorry. We want to come home.”