Max Frazier hit the bottom of his boot, knocking off mud. The rains of the previous night had tamed a month’s worth of dust. The daily trip to the tree line was much more pleasant without a dust mask, and he made the most of the morning walk by breathing deeply.
In his right hand hung a machete with a wide blade. The wooden handle was duct taped together and wide enough to be wielded with both hands. His younger brother Gordon followed on his flank, eyes poised towards the tightly packed old-growth trees. They formed a frontline on the edge of the property.
“Let’s cut ten from that patch,” Max said, pointing towards a crop of hybrid poplars.
They were indeed a crop. The cultivated trees could grow up to eight feet annually, if they got enough sun. This summer they’d enjoyed plenty. The boys planted many of them each year, replenishing the previously harvested patches of poplars. Wood was a renewable resource they could not survive without. Not easily. Max and Gordon’s father first planted with the intention of harvesting them for firewood each winter. The boys needed them for other reasons.
Gordon unsheathed his own blade, pulling it over his shoulder from a sling on his back. It was shorter than Max’s machete with a smaller handle easily gripped with one hand. It was tactical black from the tip of the blade down to the hilt. Only the sharp edge revealed gleaming metal, and even there, just a sliver peeked through. From a loop on his belt, he freed a splitting maul. It was a tool that featured a sledge-hammered head on one side. It tapered down into a wedge sharp enough to split a bull’s skull. A fat axe. He remembered calling it that as a child.
“These should be hard enough,” Matt said. “Like those others on the north side.”
Gordon nodded. He was the younger of the two.
The brothers assumed their now familiar roles. Gordon hooked his maul high around the young trunk of a poplar and pulled it down, wrapping a leather-gloved hand around it. Max squared off with his machete and chopped at the base of the tree. Chips of white and green wood flew, landing quietly on the forest floor as Max made his way around the base. His steel ate straight through the young tree.
With one poplar felled, the brothers moved on to trees two, three, seven, ten. That was their number for the morning and they reached it within an hour. Another twenty minutes was spent blading the baby branches from the thin trunks. Trunks that were too thin for firewood, or mending fences, or much of anything.
Each brother bundled five poplar trunks with leather straps, sheathed their weapons, and shouldered their half of the wooden load. The walk back to the house was two clicks down the mountain.
Max and Gordon sat on the roof of their two-story house. The rake was steep. To sit safely, they had built a long, roomy platform out of two-by-fours. It stretched across both sides of the roof, providing a high hideaway from the forest floor. The vantage point also gave them a clear line of sight down the mountain. From their perch, they could see all who approached, friend or foe. The last three years, only foes approached.
Each boy laid a poplar trunk across his lap and made quick work of chopping each end down to an angular point. It didn’t have to be perfect. Just functional. Sharp enough to stab.
“Is summer over?” Gordon asked.
“Yes, I think,” Max answered. “The heavy rains will come soon.”
The boys kept working.
They weren’t sure of the days, exactly. In the beginning, they hadn’t thought to count them. When Gordon was nine and Max thirteen, their parents withdrew from the world. It was something they had planned for a decade. In what their dad called the Second Atomic Age, fascist nation states across the globe became nuclear powers. North Korea, the Islamic State and the New Cossack Hetmanate were beating the drums of war, promising to annihilate any country that “violated sovereignty,” as one mutually issued statement declared. Although the language was vague, the threats seemed real, rising above the decades of posturing and bluster from North Korea. All three had the capability to deliver a nuclear payload halfway around the world. It was enough to convince the family to execute the plan.
The plan was to create a safe haven in the mountains of North California outside of Crescent City. After Gordon’s birth, they had worked to build a place of escape. It became the two-story house upon which the boys currently sat. Methodically, they built, adding amenities that could be maintained independently in the event of war. They chose a location near a subterranean creek, and in a muggy climate hospitable to farming. They stockpiled food rations, medicine, weapons and ammunition that would sustain and protect them in the event of a societal collapse.
They sold their house in the city. Their neighbors thought they were crazy. No war had reached American shores for almost a century. The United States took the fight to the enemy, not the other way around. The Axis Powers hadn’t toppled the U.S. and neither had the Soviet Union. And the world was more peaceful because of it. Global military hegemony had resulted in the greatest period of international peacetime in history, and the United States was a relatively benevolent hegemon. The time of total war had passed into history. The world economy was far too interconnected for another World War, and short of that, nothing could challenge the safety of Americans in the continental United States.
Max’s dad was labeled a kook. Everyone pitied his young boys, envisioning their bleak future at the hands of such an irrational man. A father who chose to spend their college fund on military surplus, heirloom seeds, diesel fuel and solar technology. Who created detailed plans to train his boys to fire small arms and light weapons and to fight with knives. To hunt and fish and live uncivilized. They would certainly die in a shootout with the federal government. If they didn’t shoot each other first.
Max blew on the sharpened end of a poplar, wiping it clean. He stood up and looked down, holding the spear in two hands. Arching back, he volleyed the timber javelin off the roof. It flew in a wide, flat arc before landing tip first and plunging into the softened earth. The tip pointed back towards him. It needed to point away.
“I’ll fix it later,” he said.
The neighbors had been wrong. After a year in their mountain home, the Fraziers had gathered for a family meeting. In a measured tone, Dad told them news that was spreading like wildfire. An intercontinental ballistic missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, had struck Washington, D.C. The Capitol was decimated and the President was dead.
Anarchy is coming, he said.
Their planning had not been in vain, and the boys’ training continued. Though the future was uncertain, they would know how to defend themselves, be trained to hunt, farm and fish, and by the time they were eighteen, their father would have them fully trained to survive in any scenario in which humans could live. He would pass all of his knowledge to his sons. All of it by the time they were men.
But both parents had died before Max was even sixteen.
It happened quickly. Their mother took ill. Antibiotics helped in the beginning, and antivirals didn’t seem to help at all. The life their dad had envisioned on the mountain began to crumble. As his beloved hovered near death, their dad made a radical decision. He had to seek help outside of the compound, down the mountain and deep into the unknown.
He left and never returned.
Max and Gordon cared for their mother as best they could. A week after their dad left, she died in her sleep. The boys buried their mother. Six months later, with no signs of their father’s return, they buried him, too. The brothers, then fifteen and eleven years old, were left to survive on their own. And they had managed to do just that for almost a year.
After transforming the rest of the trunks, Max led the way down in front of the house. In the oncoming path, ten javelins sprouted from the earth. The air stank.
“Closer than last time,” Max said.
Each boy grabbed a poplar pole and rocked it back and forth until freeing it from the ground. They re-staked each pole, slanting them in the opposite direction, away from the house, towards a legion of trees that towered down the side of the mountain. Their mountain. The new stakes were added to hundreds of other stakes. A wide garden of dead wood jutting out of the North California rock and dirt. An army wielding polearms to protect the young heirs of a forest fortress.
The stakes functioned like chevaux de frise, protective spikes used by medieval armies to defend against cavalry assaults. They surrounded the property on all sides in concentric ovals. The house was at the center, surrounded by a ten-foot high concrete wall. Then, inner ovals were comprised of the newest stakes, and each larger oval contained increasingly older wood, all pointing outward. The outermost stakes were proof of the scheme’s success. From them, dead bodies hung, their torsos run through. Some looked like they were still standing.
Scarecrows, Gordon called them.
Sometimes they still moved.
The brothers pulled back on ropes connected to a section of spikes that was ten feet wide. It was one of only a few sections that remained mobile, allowing access out of their parent’s property. They slipped through the opening with their weapons drawn.
They readied for an attack.
The outing was a routine. Each day, they walked along the south perimeter, looking for bodies. At night, all charged up from a day of sunlight, an enemy onslaught would run up the mountain towards the moon. They would meet the spikes at full speed, impaling themselves in the process. Sometimes a spike would catch them right in the face. Or the gut. They tried to position the spikes at a good height, knowing they were dumb enough to run right into them. If they ran past the first row, more spikes awaited, each whittled point eager to skewer them in the dark.
Max and Gordon walked along the perimeter, watching for movement.
One enemy showed signs of life. Run through at the shoulder, he hung down sideways, peddling his feet against the ground in a futile attempt to stand. His hair was red and matted with half-dried dirt, like roots dangling from a freshly pulled weed.
Gordon readied his splitting maul.
He walked over and looked in the hanged man’s face. The eyeballs were still intact. The jaw had been torn off long before, leaving only a rotten, leathery tongue to dangle from his throat. Gordon though he looked unique and, yet, he was simply the same as all the others. Same as all the dead who walked.
Gordon brought the maul sideways across the red-haired skull, shattering it.
They pulled the rest off the spikes and shoved them rolling down the hill.