No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts always drifted beyond The Fence. It frustrated him that nobody else in his Association seemed to have the same curiosity about the area outside the large enclosure. There was bound to be more Associations, more people, different animals, and more adventure outside the rusty, yet solid, chain-links that kept him pent up in the few square miles he called home. Like always, his mind drifted to the history of his Association, Grayson's Association as the inhabitants called it, and the story of how it came to be. He had always been interested in the events leading up to the establishment of this small community, but even more so in the past few weeks. He had poured over every book Instructor Jode had been able to find, and had pestered him for more. He tried bringing up the topic to some of the older adults, but they always deflected his questions, almost as if it was a painful subject to discuss. He had been politely asked to leave a neighbor's dinner table quite a few times in the last week, yet he kept pushing for more information, even just a tiny scrap that could give him a hint for his next conversation with another citizen.
Some of the older books mentioned "countries" and "cities," giving them names like America, Russia, Cuba, Uzbekistan, China, DC, Moscow, and more that he couldn't pronounce. He imagined these places were other Associations, or something similar, but everybody just gave him a flat, warning look when he mentioned those names, cutting off further conversation. As small as Grayson's was, word of disrespect and insubordination traveled fast, and Gunnery Sergeant Nell tolerated neither. He shuddered at the thought of his last session with Gunnery Sergeant Nell after Farmer McMagnus accused him of being "an arrogant, undisciplined, disrespectful punk." He had thought an afternoon of working in the crop fields would warrant just a few answers to the questions he had asked, but Farmer McMagnus didn't seem to agree. What he wouldn't give for…
“Lawrence! Quit day-dreaming over there! Focus on your sector, kid!”
Those crisp, staccato orders, barked from Gunnery Sergeant Nell, brought him back to the real-world and his current occupation. Perched atop a guard tower, fifty feet in the air, located just inside The Fence, Ryker Lawrence snapped his attention back to the tree line approximately four hundred meters away. The April sun still sat well above the tops of the tall, straight trees, laden with their green leaves. A slight breeze bent the trees in his direction, and he caught the faint, yet sharp, smell of pine needles. The wind did little to dissipate the heat and humidity, but the shade of the guard tower made the temperature bearable.
He had already been on duty for seven and a half hours, and his replacement was to show up in less than fifteen minutes. No type of significant activity had occurred over the past two weeks, but Gunnery Sergeant Nell was a stickler for proper military protocol. Gunnery Sergeant Nell also knew Ryker's tendency to let his focus waver, especially when he wasn't actively training or interested in something.
“Roger that, Gunnery Sergeant. Won’t happen again,” Ryker replied, probably a little more relaxed than he should have. Nell fixed him with a frosty glare from the opposite end of the guard tower, but let the snide comment slip. Gunnery Sergeant Nell was a member of the real military before Grayson’s was established, but Ryker knew nothing of his duties or even what rank “Gunnery Sergeant” was. But Gunnery Sergeant Nell demanded respect, as he claimed to have seen combat action, and Ryker knew he was bound to know about life before The Collapse. However, Nell talked to very few people outside of the young men under his command, and he never talked about his past. Ryker had only tried once, a seemingly innocent question after a particularly long, exhausting training session, but Nell gave him that same flat look that Ryker was all too familiar with before walking away. Ryker hadn't quite mustered the courage to engage Gunnery Sergeant Nell in another conversation regarding that touchy subject since.
Ryker let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding in, and shifted the rifle in his arms to release some of the tension in his shoulders and biceps. Re-adjusting his rifle sling and camouflage cap, he attempted to re-focus on the task at hand, at least until Callaghan showed up to replace him. However, his mind kept shifting back to those unanswered questions, as he tried to formulate a new plan to acquire those pieces of history. He was careful to make deliberate sweeps of his assigned sector so he wouldn't draw Nell's attention again, but his mind was far from the cleared area and tree line in front of him.
The sound of heavy boots climbing up the ladder slowly brought him back into the present. Knowing he was already on Gunnery Sergeant Nell’s bad side, he kept his eyes on the tree line and rifle at the ready until he was told to stand down. He heard the distinct snap of boot heels coming together on the worn wooden planks as Callaghan came to attention to report in to Nell.
“Gunnery Sergeant Nell, Callaghan Orito reporting for duty as required.” There was a distinct pause before Gunnery Sergeant Nell acknowledged Callaghan's presence. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryker saw Nell slowly turn around, run his eyes up and down the tall, broad-shouldered youth dressed similarly to him. Nell slowly walked around the back of Callaghan before coming back around to the front, pushing his own weapon behind his back, and holding out his hands to inspect Callaghan's rifle. Callaghan smartly removed the clip from the rifle before pulling the action back and letting it fly forward, the action sliding smoothly. Gunnery Sergeant Nell carefully inspected the rifle for any dust, ensured the barrel was clear of debris and gunpowder residue, and raised the rifle to his cheek to look through the ACOG sight. Finding the rifle up to his specifications, he handed the rifle back to Callaghan, who promptly seated the magazine, pulled the action back, and let it fly.
Locked, loaded, and deadly. Glad to have all this protection against the extremely dangerous enemies they dealt with on a daily basis, Ryker thought. Heaven help us if we're overrun by squirrels…
“Lookin' good, Orito. Go ahead and relieve your day-dreaming friend over there. Hopefully you’ll be more alert than he was for your shift.”
Ryker mentally rolled his eyes, but maintained a straight face as Callaghan walked over to his left side.
“How’s it going, kiddo? What’d ya do to get on Nell’s bad side again?” Callaghan asked as he took his stance next to Ryker. They both kept their voices low, stealing quick glances out of the corner of their eyes to make sure Gunnery Sergeant Nell didn't catch onto their conversation.
“You know, same old stuff. No sign of movement or activity whatsoever for the past eight hours. I started letting my mind wander over the past thirty minutes or so, and Nell got pissed that I was ‘day-dreaming.’ It just gets so boring when you don’t see anything except the same trees and grass every damn day.”
“I feel ya, man. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see some action today. It’s been dead recently, and I feel like that has Nell, and a lot of other people, on edge for some reason. That’s probably why he snapped at you. Probably nothing personal.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Ryker confirmed. “Well, I’m gonna take off, Cal. You wanna hang out later?”
“Your definition of ‘hanging out’ is reading old books, talking about life before The Collapse, or running, none of which are particularly 'fun' in my book,” Callaghan laughed. “But sure, I’ll swing by your shack later and talk a bit. Got nothin’ better to do.”
“Alright, sounds good, Cal. See ya then,” Ryker replied. Why doesn't anybody seem to care about how we got here? They can't be content about staying here forever, he thought.
He unloaded his rifle, placed the unfired round back into the clip, placed the clip in the cargo pocket of his pants, and slung the rifle over his back. Giving Gunnery Sergeant Nell a quick glance and head nod, Ryker walked over to the ladder and hurried down. There were a few things he needed to do before Cal got off shift and came over to talk.
Walking quickly back to his shack, he murmured greetings to the few people he passed. His mind was racing through his tasks to do, and stopping to talk for any extended period of time would ruin his carefully put-together schedule. Ryker finally made it to his shack, bursting through the thin sheet that served as a door, and walked straight to his bedroom. He swung the rifle off his shoulder, put the magazine back into its place, and leaned the rifle carefully against the wall next to his mattress. He sat down on the edge of his bed and hastily unlaced his boots before tossing them into another corner of the room. He tugged off his shirt and cargo pants, then walked across the room to grab a pair of shorts, a clean t-shirt, and his running shoes. He put his shorts on as he walked back to his bed, and turned around to take his seat on the edge of the bed.
As he turned around, his reflection in the mirror caught his eye. He was rather muscular despite being only eighteen years old, but he still wasn’t as big as some of the other guys his age. The various scars across his arms and chest told stories of those bigger guys picking on him, and how his fiery temper and pride had gotten the best of him in those moments. His brown hair, messy from being underneath a baseball cap all day, was starting to get a little long. He would need to cut it soon before Gunnery Sergeant Nell got upset. He made eye contact with himself, looking deeply his blue-steel irises. They tended to change colors based on his mood, and right now, they seemed to have a lighter blue tint.
“If you look at yourself any longer in that broken mirror, I’m going to start thinking you’re full of yourself. But then again, it’s not a terrible view; I’ve seen worse.”
At the sound of a female’s voice, Ryker hurriedly jerked his shirt over his head and turned to face the source of the pointed comment. After his head popped through the top of the shirt and he made eye contact with her, his face immediately turned bright red. Tess was leaning against the doorframe, her face rather blank, but her eyes were laughing as they ran over him. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a messy bun, her jeans and t-shirt riddled with small holes and tears, and her tan arms were spotted with dirt.
Despite being shorter than him, she was still older than Ryker by at least three years, maybe four. She was also quite the athlete and shooter, and even though she wasn't allowed to work out or train with Ryker, Cal, and the handful of other young men assigned to keep Grayson's safe and secure, Tess could outrun and outshoot quite a few of them. She was very aware of how good she was, and that tended to intimidate most of the single guys in Grayson's, Ryker included, another fact she was acutely aware of.
“Damn it, Tess. You know I hate surprises! How did you know I was home?” Ryker asked as he tried regain his composure. Frustrated that she had caught him staring in the mirror at himself, his voice came out a bit gruffer than he hoped for, but Tess seemed to find it amusing. A small smile spread across her face before she shook her head and replied to Ryker's demand.
“Ryker, you’re easily one of the most predictable people in Grayson’s. As soon as you get off your guard duty shift, you walk home as quickly as possible, hardly even giving the time of day to anybody you pass. I called your name from across the street, but apparently you didn’t hear me. So I decided to come over and see what you were up to. Can’t a girl just come over to talk?”
“Sorry,” Ryker mumbled. “I got in a little trouble with Gunnery Sergeant Nell right before I got off duty. And Cal said he was going to stop by after his shift, so I was thinking about all I had to do before he came over later this evening.” He hoped his face had returned to its normal color. He was well aware that Tess knew of his feelings for her, and that just gave her all the more reason to mess with him.
“Yeah, I figured as much. You seemed to be pretty lost in thought…Nothing new there. So whatcha got planned?”
Ignoring the small insult, Ryker replied with a slight shrug. “Well, I, uh, was going to work out real quick, and then see if Instructor Jode had any new books he found. I haven't talked to him in about two weeks, so he's had plenty of time to do some more searching around Grayson's for something, anything. I was hoping to read a little bit before Cal came over.”
Tess rolled her eyes. “You’re always wanting more information about life before The Collapse. Why? What do you wanna know so bad?”
Ryker shrugged again. “I dunno. I’m just curious about the way things used to be. Don’t you ever wonder what life is like outside The Fence? What those things called ‘cities’ and ‘countries’ were like? If there’s life, other people, other Associations, beyond Grayson’s?”
“Grayson’s isn’t so bad,” Tess replied slowly. "We’ve got everything we need, it’s not too small where we’re at each other’s throats, and I’ve got a good circle of friends. I don’t know why The Collapse happened, but I imagine it has to do something with what’s outside The Fence. Unless something drastic happens, I don’t necessarily see a reason to investigate or go outside…. Anyways, what kind of workout do you have planned? Mind if I tag along?”
Ryker gave a sly grin to Tess. "Only if you can keep up. Gotta work hard to keep up my lean, muscular figure."
Tess rolled her eyes before answering. "I'll go change real quick and meet you by the sand pits. We'll see how good that figure looks after I beat you at your own workout."
Two hours later, Ryker was flat on his back, gasping for air. The workout session quickly evolved into a competition with Tess. Instead of just doing one hundred push-ups, she insisted on doing two-hundred to “challenge him.” Followed by a few rounds of abs, pull-ups, and lunges, and Ryker’s muscles were pretty smoked. However, she challenged him to a race around Grayson’s, just inside the fence. The fence was more or less a large rectangle, with the longer sides extending to just under three miles, and the shorter sides only reaching a mile or so. Eight miles of hard running, with Tess matching him step-for-step, had reduced him to his current state. He had sprinted the last two hundred meters or so, and his longer legs had enabled him to edge Tess by a few strides, but his lungs, hamstrings, and side were on fire.
He closed his eyes for a few seconds, focusing on slowing his breathing and heart rate. He knew he needed to get up and stretch his muscles, else run the risk of having tight and sore muscles all day tomorrow. He started to sit up before opening his eyes, and his head collided with something pretty solid, making him fall back to the ground, throwing a hand to his forehead. He rolled over onto his stomach, and opened his eyes as he turned his head to search for the source of the collision. Tess was sitting on the ground, also cradling her head in her hands. He managed to stifle a laugh before she glared at him.
“Don’t normal people look where they’re going? I personally make it a point to keep my eyes open when moving around,” Tess grumbled.
Ryker pushed himself to his feet, and walked over to Tess. He offered an apology as he extended his hand to help her up. Tess looked at his face before accepting his offer, but stood up with Ryker’s help. Her hand was more calloused than he had anticipated; tough, strong, yet gentle. It took him a little longer to let go of her hand, and he just managed to stop his face from turning beet red when Tess’s eyebrow shot up in a questioning gesture.
“You wanna go to Instructor Jode with me? His place isn’t too far from here. It’ll give us a chance to stretch out a bit after I beat you on that run,” Ryker said with a smile.
“You may have beat me on the run, but I smoked you in just about everything else. But sure, I’ll go with you. Maybe Jode found something interesting,” Tess shot back.
Internally, Ryker grimaced. He always tried to treat everybody in Grayson’s with the utmost respect, even when he toed the line while asking about life before The Collapse. He always made sure to call each individual by the honorific they had earned. In his opinion, the rules were in place for a reason, probably to avoid another collapse. Unfortunately, Tess didn’t always feel that way. Sure, she would address the individual properly when in their presence, but not when around her friends or peers.
They walked slowly to Instructor Jode’s house, making sure to stretch out their hamstrings and quads. Gunnery Sergeant Nell wouldn’t be happy if Ryker showed up to his shift tomorrow with a tight muscles or hesitant to work as hard as normal.
Because of his status as an instructor, Instructor Jode’s house was one of the nicest in Grayson’s, falling only behind the Chief’s and Governor’s living arrangements. The wood used to build his house was cut precisely, held together with metal nails, as opposed to Ryker’s shack, which was made with discarded, old wood, and held together with a type of caulking and wooden pegs. Instructor Jode also had a nice wooden door with hinges that allowed it to swing open and shut, which was extremely valuable in the winter when the cold, northern winds swept across Grayson’s. There was a small fence around the garden around back, and small goats wandered amongst the various vegetables and shrubs. A small boy kept watch to ensure the goats didn’t eat any of the precious vegetables or too many of the leaves off the shrubs. He nodded to Ryker and Tess before returning his vigilant stare to the animals and garden.
Ryker walked to the door, and knocked on the door frame, careful not to knock too hard or excessively loud in case Instructor Jode was deep in thought or decided to go to bed earlier than usual. A muffled voice from the back of the house, accompanied by the sound of Instructor Jode’s boots clomping against the floor, prefaced the opening of the door.
“Ah, young Ryker…Oh, you brought a friend! Is that Tess? What a pleasure for you to join us! Come on in, my home is yours,” Instructor Jode said with a warm, welcoming smile. Tess and Ryker followed him into the house, talking as he walked.
“Thank you, Instructor Jode,” Ryker replied, inclining his head to show his appreciation and respect. “Tess and I just finished up a quick run and were in the vicinity, so we decided to stop by and see if you had uncovered anything new in the past few weeks. You mentioned that you would attempt to talk with some of Grayson’s older individuals that might remember something from The Collapse or events leading up to it, since I've seemed to run into a wall with just about everybody that will still talk to me."
“Yes, yes…” mused Instructor Jode. “I did talk with Chief Andersen to see if he had anything to offer. He was rather reluctant to talk, and I sensed that he didn’t give me the full story. I could tell that he was only entertaining me because he felt like my position within Grayson’s warranted his time and respect. Once it became rather obvious that I was not going to gain any information from him, I steered the conversation away from the past, and he appeared to be more relieved. Chief Andersen is exceptional at hiding his emotions and keeping himself in line, but I could tell the topic of The Collapse and events leading up to it struck close to home.”
Ryker paced slowly around the small room, trying to analyze what Instructor Jode had just said. One of Ryker’s weaknesses, as Instructor Jode often reminded him, was that he was quick to speak his mind and not fully analyze the situation or information. That didn’t stop Tess from jumping into the conversation.
“Instructor Jode, I don’t understand why Chief Andersen would be so reluctant to offer information. He’s the leader of Grayson’s for a reason…”
Ryker let the conversation go on without offering any input. Trying to put a timeframe on The Collapse had been bugging him for quite some time. According to his father, Ryker was only two years old when The Collapse occurred. His father never talked about anything regarding The Collapse, as he claimed they brought up too many bad memories. Although his father taught him just about everything he knew, Ryker was never able to crack through that barrier in his father’s mind before he passed away from a disease two years ago.
If Ryker was only two years old when everything went wrong, The Collapse must have occurred sixteen years ago, give or take a few months. It was considered rude to inquire an individual’s age, especially someone in a leadership role such as Chief Andersen, but if he had to guess, Chief Andersen was near forty years old. Gunnery Sergeant Nell was older, but not by much, so Ryker guessed him to be about forty-five years old. Governor Thurman appeared to be a similar age, but Instructor Jode was much younger, probably only seven or eight years older than Ryker, putting him around twenty-five. Instructor Jode was bound to remember something about The Collapse, but he also tended to dance around the questions Ryker posed.
If all these well-respected members and leaders of Grayson’s didn’t want to talk about The Collapse, there had to be some legitimate reason. Ryker had a hard time imagining why, but his respect for authority had always kept him from probing too deeply into somebody’s past who had clearly shut the door on those memories.
“Ryker? Have you been listening? Or does pacing back and forth while staring at your shoes exhaust most of your mental capacity?” Tess said with a smug grin.
Ryker let the slight jab slip. “Instructor Jode, I somewhat understand why Chief Andersen, Governor Thurman, and even Gunnery Sergeant Nell don’t necessarily want to divulge that information. I know my father was always reluctant to talk about that time, saying it brought up rather painful memories of my mother and his friends. I imagine some sort of large-scale destruction, fighting, and chaos was present…but not knowing exactly what occurred, or even what lies beyond The Fence is really starting to get to me. I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re older than both Tess and me. Do you have any recollection of The Collapse?”
Instructor Jode fixed Ryker and with a level stare, while Tess eyed him with an air of…respect? Admiration? Approval? That was new.
“I don’t remember much…like Chief Andersen, Governor Thurman, Gunnery Sergeant Nell, and other older members of Grayson’s, we’ve tried to put that behind us. Erase those painful, stressful times. Focus on making do with what we have here. I remember long days and short nights, constantly being rushed by men armed with rifles and other weapons. Every day, fewer and fewer of them would return from their scavenging and scouting, leaving us with fewer guards. I remember crying myself to sleep every night, wondering when and if we would get our next meal, our next drink of water, our next stop to ease our aching feet. After reaching this fenced in area, we all settled in to a somewhat normal routine and tried to forget about the past. All of us lost friends, family…all of us had to leave behind something or someone we loved…some of us with emotional scars don’t care to reopen those wounds…” Instructor Jode finished softly.
Ryker knew he should be sympathetic, say something along the lines of “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “Thank you for sharing. I didn’t know it was such a sensitive topic.” But he hungered for more information.
“Nell, Andersen, and Thurman are probably just hiding something. They like being in charge, having control over us, with nobody to challenge their authority. They want to live comfortably the rest of their lives, instead of going beyond The Fence and seeing what other resources are available, what knowledge could be discovered. They’re just thinking of themselves, not of Tess’s and my generation, or our kids. I don’t understand how they could be so--”
“Stop speaking before you embarrass yourself and disrespect your elders even further,” Instructor Jode said softly, yet forcefully. Ryker met Instructor Jode’s challenging stare with a rather frosty one of his own. “No matter what you think of them, Chief Andersen, Governor Thurman, and Gunnery Sergeant Nell have earned our respect and will be spoken of as such. You were too young to understand what was going on at the time of The Collapse, and don’t have those physical and emotional scars that so many of us acquired. As much as I admire your thirst for knowledge, Ryker, you need to realize when you’ve overstepped your bounds. I’ve done what I could to meet your request, but I knew when I was not invited to pursue the conversation any further. I ask that you have the maturity and wisdom to do the same.”
As much as Ryker wanted to storm out of Instructor Jode’s house and back to his shack, he knew that his relationship with Instructor Jode hinged upon his next words and actions. Trying to appear regretful, he apologized to Jode.
“My apologies, Instructor Jode. I spoke rashly and without consideration for your past. I did not mean to offend you by implying that you had not attempted to gain the information I asked for, or were holding back information yourself,” Ryker said meekly. He hoped it sounded genuine. Inside, his head was buzzing with new plans and thoughts.
Instructor Jode nodded his head, accepting Ryker's apology. “No worries, young Ryker. I, too, was headstrong in my younger days. There was a time when I entertained the thought of venturing outside The Fence. After careful consideration, I saw that I would gain little or no benefits from exploring the world outside. I imagine there will be a time when our resources run low or The Fence begins to deteriorate, but that will not be in our lifetime. As selfish as it may seem, I’m content to live a carefree, stress-free life, and to leave the tougher decisions to those in higher positions. My job is to simply teach the younger children the basics of our association, and to guide them into a proper place and role within Grayson’s, not to go gallivanting off into the unknown.”
Ryker nodded, hoping that it would cover his darkening emotion. “If that will be all, Instructor Jode, Tess and I will be on our way. We still have a few things to do before meeting up with Cal later this evening. Again, thank you for your assistance.”
“Not a problem, Ryker. Please stop by again sometime. I’ll be more than willing to discuss any other topic with you. It seems like intelligent conversation is one of the resources that is growing scarcer within Grayson’s,” Instructor Jode stated, as he walked Ryker and Tess to the door.
Ryker and Tess walked in silence for a few minutes, which was perfectly fine with Ryker. His mind was still spinning with the small pieces of new information, and how to use that information to get what he really wanted. He didn’t know Governor Thurman or Chief Andersen very well, as they only interacted with other leaders of Grayson’s. But he could use his relationship, albeit a shaky one at best, with Gunnery Sergeant Nell to get more information. He would have to commit to being a better listener and subordinate to gain more of Nell’s respect, but once he did…
A small shove from Tess brought him back to reality. “You alright there, Ryker? You definitely weren’t your normal self in there with Jode. Dropping honorifics, challenging him, questioning some of the more respected leaders and members of Grayson’s….you’re pretty serious about this, aren’t you?”
Ryker shrugged, trying to act like he wasn’t that serious about the situation. “Yeah, I guess I lost my cool a little bit. I dunno…I guess having these longer shifts on the guard towers and not seeing anything at all gives me more time to think. It just seems like there’s more than just Grayson’s to be discovered. If everything Instructor Jode was saying is true, there’s bound to be more associations out there, all of them in better or worse conditions than us. We could learn from them, they could learn from us, we could meet new people, share resources…you don’t ever think about that?”
“Ryker, you have no clue what’s beyond The Fence. Yeah, there could be people out there, but who knows what they're like? There’s bound to be wild animals that would attack you, and there’s no guarantee that you would find food or water or shelter. As much as I hate to admit it, Jode is right – there’s no tangible benefits to be gained by venturing beyond The Fence,” Tess confessed.
Ryker quickly looked the other way, and tried to blink away sudden tears of anger and disappointment. Part of him had been hoping that Tess would see things the way he did, that somebody would understand his way of thinking, yet his practical way of thinking had all but told him that Tess’s reaction would be shared among all other members of Grayson’s. Turning back to Tess, he looked down and into her eyes. “Maybe so…but that doesn’t stop me from wondering.”
When they reached Ryker’s shack, the sun had just dipped below the horizon. Consequently, the temperature had dropped just enough to make Ryker happy to duck into his shack and get a small fire started. To his surprise, Tess followed him inside. Another surprise greeted him in his small dining room. Both Cal and Gunnery Sergeant Nell were seated at his table. Remembering his plan, Ryker snapped to attention.
“Good evening, Gunnery Sergeant Nell,” Ryker said crisply, just as his heels came together. His gaze went right over Nell’s head as he assumed the “one thousand yard stare” that Gunnery Sergeant Nell had taught all of his recruits on their first day of training. A few seconds ticked by, as Ryker wondered if he had done something wrong.
“At ease, Lawrence. After your day-dreaming incident this afternoon, I wanted to see if there was still some semblance of a soldier in you. Seems like you’ve cleaned out the cobwebs in your mind and remembered at least some of your training,” Gunnery Sergeant said with a grimace that may have been his attempt at a smile.
“I was thinking about unimportant things, Gunnery Sergeant. As I said earlier, won’t happen again while I’m on duty,” Ryker said after assuming the position of parade rest.
“What kinda “unimportant things,’ Lawrence? Whether or not you’re finally gonna kiss that girl, or maybe who you’re going to pick a fight with next?” Nell said smoothly. Before Ryker could deny both, Nell continued. “Chill out, kid. Sit down, relax a bit. This is your shack, for God’s sake. Orito said he was going to stop by after his shift, and I had nothing better to do, so I figured I would tag along and see what you kiddos were up to.”
Ryker took advantage of pulling up a wooden chair to let the color drain from his face. He made it a point not to make eye contact with Tess, but he could feel her eyes on him. He imagined she would want to talk after Nell and Cal left.
“Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant. I know my shack isn’t much, but I appreciate you stopping by. Cal and I usually discuss the shift and the next training session and/or workout that you’re going to be putting us through. We like to talk about our impending doom on a regular basis,” Ryker tried to say jokingly.
“You didn’t miss anything,” Cal stated. “Didn’t see a damn thing all shift. Same old trees and grass…One of the other guards thought he saw movement, so we were all on high alert for the last hour, and those saps that have the night shift will be on high alert all night. Sergeant Bourdeaux will keep ‘em locked on.”
Gunnery Sergeant Nell leaned over and spat on the dirt floor. “Yeah, I didn’t think there was any movement, but ya can’t be too careful nowadays. Never know when something crazy might come around and screw everything up. I hate to be reactive instead of proactive, but that’s the nature of the beast.”
For a moment, Nell looked off into the distance, his eyes glazed over as if he was remembering events from years ago. Ryker wondered if he was recalling his time before or during The Collapse. This might be his one chance to get information out of Nell without the influence of other Grayson leaders.
Tess must have read Ryker’s mind, as she shot him a warning look and a swift kick under the table. Gunnery Sergeant Nell raised an eyebrow at both of them, but Ryker ignored it, as well as the bad feeling in his gut, and took advantage of the opportunity.
“Gunnery Sergeant Nell, what do you mean by being proactive? Are you suggesting we go outside The Fence? Leave Grayson’s and explore? There’s bound to be new places to explore, resources to acquire, maybe even more associations! We could get a small group of soldiers, you could lead us, and--” Gunnery Sergeant Nell's frown and sharp look cut Ryker off.
“You don’t know anything, do you, kid? You have no idea what it’s like out there. Hell, I don’t even know what it’s like beyond ‘The Fence’ anymore. It’s been more than sixteen years since everything hit the fan…I’m not too eager to go back out into that mess. I’ve lost enough already, I’m not as young as I once was, and I see no point in risking our necks to have an adventure,” Gunnery Sergeant Nell said sharply.
Ryker looked to Tess and Cal for support, but both of them had none to offer. Tess gave him a “I told you so” look, and Cal just slowly shook his head before turning his attention to the rough wooden table. Although Ryker was disappointed, he tried not to let it show. Despite the tension in the air, he decided to try one more approach.
“You mean to tell me you’re afraid of what’s out there beyond The Fence? You? You’re the one who always volunteers for the tough jobs, pushes us younger ‘kids’ to near death in your workouts and training sessions, is always telling us to be ready and ever-vigilant, to oil our rifles and sleep with them at the ready, to be willing and ready to protect and defend what we’ve come to love. Don’t you realize that we’ll eventually run out of ammunition, our rifles will break, our water and food will be gone, The Fence rusted and broken, and every person in Grayson’s vulnerable to the outside world? Don’t we owe it to the other members of this association to find solutions to those problems before they arise? Before it’s too late?” Ryker challenged.
Gunnery Sergeant met Ryker’s challenging stare with a level gaze before dropping his eyes to the table and slowly shaking his head. “I admire your spirit, kid, but you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Yeah, our water and food and ammunition will probably run out eventually, but that’s not in the near future. We haven’t fired a shot in over three weeks, and those shots were only target practice. We’ve got plenty of animals and our water is enough to support our crops and ourselves unless we enter an extended, serious drought. Nothing is going to run out in my lifetime, in your lifetime, and probably not even in your kid’s lifetime. It’s better to stay here…you don’t really want to go out there. You’re just chomping at the bit, probably fed up with sitting guard for six or eight hours at a time and getting chewed out and smoked by me every day. You’ll get used to it, or you’ll find something else to do. But going outside The Fence won’t satisfy your wanderlust. You’ll just get yourself killed by some wild animal or by some crazy person, and we’ll never see you again. Then your girlfriend over here will have to find somebody else to tease,” Nell said flatly.
Throughout Nell's speech, Ryker's anger rose. “You’re just scared! You don’t want to admit it, but you’re terrified of what you think is out there, when in reality, you have no damn clue! You’re content to sit inside Grayson’s, ‘training’ and ‘developing’ us until we’re exhausted, using us for free labor so you don’t have to do it yourself. You’re selfish, lazy, and worthless!” Ryker shouted through tears of rage.
Tess and Cal stared at him with wide eyes. Ryker’s eyes flashed with anger and he blinked quickly to rid himself of the tears, but he kept his gaze fixed on Nell.
Nell nodded slowly. “You’ve got alotta nerve to say that, kiddo. If I didn’t know you better, I would say that you’re just being immature. I can tell you’re passionate about this, but you aren’t going to change my mind. Nothing short of a miracle will alter my stance on the issue. I won’t stop you from going out and getting yourself killed, but you won’t be taking any of my rifles, ammunition, or men with you.” Gunnery Sergeant Nell slowly stood up from the table, raising himself to his full height. Coolly regarding Tess, Cal, and finally Ryker, he said without emotion, “I’ll see you two kids tomorrow morning, bright and early. I suggest you eat a good dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and stretch quite a bit. You’ll be doing a little extra training tomorrow, Lawrence.”
After Nell left, Ryker released his white-knuckled grip on the table. He took a deep breath and tried to re-collect himself. He just ruined his one chance by being impatient and demanding. He didn’t analyze the situation, just as Instructor Jode had often criticized him for. Ryker slammed his palm on the table in anger, resulting in a large crack that echoed throughout the small room.
“Ryker…” Tess began.
“Shut up! You’ve been of no help this evening. First with Jode and now with Nell, you didn’t say a damn thing to help me out.” He caught Cal’s eyes, and saw a sense of compassion from his friend. “I don’t need your sympathy, Cal. I know I screwed up and will have to pay for it. I don’t need you to feel sorry for me.”
Ryker stood up from the table and grabbed his jacket from one of the pegs next to the door. “I’m going out to clear my head. Help yourself to any food you want,” he said, his boots emphasizing his words as he stomped out the door.
The cool night air hit his face, and he was surprised to feel the air even colder on his cheeks. He quickly scrubbed his cheeks with the scruff of his jacket to rid them of his tears. Using the moonlight to illuminate his path, he walked down to the lake and small creek located in the southeastern corner of Grayson’s.
His thoughts were random; everything from tomorrow’s training and the hell that would ensue, to what Gunnery Sergeant Nell could possibly be afraid of. What could be beyond The Fence and Grayson’s that had everybody so scared to venture outside? Sure, wild animals and violent people were concerns, but nothing that a well-placed bullet couldn’t take care of. He had killed animals on multiple occasions, and although he had never pulled the trigger on a human, it couldn’t be that different, especially if the other person was trying to kill him.
Ryker took a seat on the small pier that jutted out over a small portion of the lake. His feet dangled over the edge, and the soles of his boots occasionally brushed the surface of the water, sending ripples flowing across the dark surface. Staring up at the moon, Ryker tried to come up with a new plan. The approach with Nell wouldn’t work anymore – Ryker had pissed him off and convinced Gunnery Sergeant Nell that he was immature. Instructor Jode was a stickler for respect and the current hierarchy within Grayson’s. Ryker respected that, but knew that Jode wouldn’t be willing to help him out any further after Jode had been dismissed by Chief Andersen. There was the monthly Grayson’s Association meeting at which he could speak up. Reports were always given on the state of the fence, livestock, crops, water, housing, troops, and more, but there was always a portion where association members could voice their concerns. More often than not, nobody had a concern to bring up, and if they did, it was normally an older member of the association that brought it up. Ryker wasn’t sure how well he would be received at the meeting, especially presenting something of this nature. It would easily polarize Grayson’s, or at least convince everybody in Grayson’s that he was insane. However, short of marching up to Chief Andersen’s or Governor Thurman’s front door and asking to speak with them, the association meeting was his last hope.
A soft, yet strong, hand on his shoulder quickly brought him out of his thoughts. His hand slid beneath his jacket to his knife before a familiar voice stopped him from drawing it.
“Easy there, Ryker. It’s just me. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me following you or coming up the pier. You’re that upset, huh?”
Ryker looked up, over his shoulder, and into Tess’s face. Despite the shadows that obscured part of her face, he could tell that her face was softer than normal, her eyes full of concern and compassion. Ryker took a deep breath, and turned his attention back to the lake. He tried to analyze the situation, but his thoughts were still scrambled, and Tess’s presence wasn’t helping his emotions become any less untangled.
“I know I probably should have stepped in and said something tonight, but…well, I have a family to go home to. I have two parents and a younger brother that I love, that love me, and that would be hurt if something happened to me. I know you don’t have the same family to go home to everyday, but there are people who would miss you if you did something rash and got yourself killed. Maybe I’m scared, just like Nell is, but we’ve got everything we need here, Ryker. There may come a time when this water runs out or all of our animals die, but until then, I don’t see a need to expose ourselves to danger. You understand that, right?” Tess asked softly.
Ryker patted the wooden planks next to him. Somewhat to his surprise, Tess immediately took a seat next to him, her arm and leg just touching his. Ryker slowly turned his head towards Tess, carefully aligning his thoughts before speaking.
“I understand that, and I respect that. I’m not necessarily asking you to go with me, as I know you have responsibilities and duties to your family. But part of me wants to know what drove all these people to Grayson’s, what happened to my dad and why it affected him to the point that he never talked about it, what happened to the other people outside our association. I find it hard to believe that we’re the only people that survived whatever happened during and after The Collapse.”
“So just what are you going to do if you find a better place, another association, more people, more resources? Just settle down and live there the rest of your life? Forget about Grayson’s and everybody here? I know you’ve always been a loner, but I can’t imagine you enjoying it that much…” Tess asked.
Ryker shrugged. “I haven’t really thought about that. I was hoping to get people to come with me, and we could possibly establish another association if we find another fence or enclosure. Eventually, Grayson’s will become overpopulated, unless future Chiefs and Governors place restriction on the number of children each family has. Eventually, Grayson’s will run out of ammunition. Sure, we still have thousands of rounds now, but who’s to say something catastrophic won’t happen in the next few years and we have to expend that ammo? Then what? Do we stab future intruders with spears? I just feel like we ought to be doing something to plan for the future. Maybe going out beyond The Fence permanently isn’t the solution, but I don’t see why we can’t venture out to explore a bit.”
Tess smiled a bit, then shook her head. “Doesn’t it concern you that both Jode and Nell said they were scared of what’s out there? They were old enough to remember what happened, and they’re content with staying inside Grayson’s. And here you are, questioning their judgment, calling them worthless cowards, just because you’re curious about what’s out there?”
Ryker turned his head back towards the lake. He was hoping Tess had come out here to apologize, as well as confess that she felt the same way. Well, one out of two wasn’t too terrible.
Taking a deep breath, Ryker said calmly, “Regardless of their opinions, I still think I’m going to give it a shot. I’ll voice my opinion and plan during the Grayson’s meeting in a few days, and maybe I’ll be able to convince a few other association members to come with me. It will just be a quick journey, no more than two weeks. One week spent going out in one direction, one week spent coming back, unless we find something sooner. Even if nobody comes with me, the worst thing that could happen is I end up never coming back. I doubt anybody will miss me. Maybe Cal, maybe Gunnery Sergeant Nell. At least I’d die with my curiosity satisfied.”
Ryker closed his eyes and let his head hang down to his chest. Resigning himself to possible death was easier than he had thought, but he still felt as if he’d run another eight miles. Two calloused hands enveloped his left hand, and he felt hair brush his cheek. He opened his eyes, turned his head to the left, saw Tess’s hands covering his, slowly tracing the various scars and veins on his wrists and fingers, while her head rested on his shoulder. Her attention was on his hands, but she slowly shifted her head so she could see his face around his coat jacket. Their faces were only inches apart, and he could see her lips trembling and eyes watering.
“Ryker…” she started, her voice slightly cracking. She stopped to clear her throat before continuing. “Ryker, you know that’s not true. Sure, Cal will miss talking with you and Nell will miss working you to exhaustion, but I guarantee you there’s more people that would miss you so much more. Jode would miss you always pestering him with questions. Emma Lou would miss you helping her with her household chores, and Oran would miss your help with the crop planting later this year. You do quite a bit for a lot of people…not to mention me. I know I haven’t been the nicest to you in the past, but I…admire…quite a few things about you. The fact that you’re thinking about future generations and their ability to survive while all of us are content to pass those problems on speaks volumes about your selfless character. Your passion for serving others, for constantly seeking self-improvement, and for learning more about this small association we live in is incredible. I know you try to keep your emotions bottled up and to yourself, but your actions, and the occasional outburst,” Tess said with a small smile, “undermine your valiant attempts to be stoic.”
Ryker nodded slowly and returned his stare to his cargo pants, unsure of what to say. Tess’s hands were still moving slowly over his left hand, running over a small scar he received from a training accident during one of his first days with Gunnery Sergeant Nell. Even practice knives had a sharp enough edge to leave a permanent mark.
A few more moments passed, and just when Ryker thought he had the courage to speak up and say something pertinent to the situation, Tess spoke up. “I know you’re ‘analyzing’ the situation like Jode always tells you to, so I don’t necessarily expect a response. But promise me to keep in mind that you mean quite a bit to us, regardless of what you think. Promise me to think longer on this before rushing off into only God-knows-what out there…Please?”
Ryker met her gaze, looking deep into her eyes. Her hands hand stopped caressing his hand, and now held it firmly in her strong grip. He could feel every callous on her palms.
Ryker moved his right hand over to theirs, and squeezed her hands with both of his. Closing his eyes, he nodded. “I promise, Tess. I will keep everything you said in mind, and I will think about it more before rushing off. The association meeting isn’t for another four days, and I’ve got plenty of training and guard duty during those times. I’ll have plenty of time to think further on this before making a final decision. You’ll be the first person to know. I promise.”
Tess nodded to herself, satisfied with his answer. To his dismay, she took her head off his shoulder, and slowly slid her hands from between his. She moved into a crouch position before standing. “I’ll hold you to that, Ryker. And I reserve the right to kick your ass if you make some stupid or rash decision, kid,” she said with a mischievous grin. “See you tomorrow, Ryker. That is, if you survive Nell’s training. Speaking of which, you should probably get to bed soon. Otherwise, you won’t be going beyond The Fence anytime soon. Have a good night.”
She rose, turned on her heels, and slowly walked off the pier, never looking back. Ryker watched her, stunned, as she walked over a small rise and out of sight. He was somewhat surprised to discover that his heartrate was normal and his hands weren’t shaking. In fact, they hadn’t shaken one bit during their conversation.
But her statements resonated with Ryker. He was being selfish by not thinking of the impact his loss would have on Cal, Emma Lou, Oran, Tess, Gunnery Sergeant Nell, Instructor Jode, and quite a few others. A good number of the smaller children, boys and girls alike, enjoyed playing small games with Ryker, and liked seeing their faces light up as they figured out new ways to beat Ryker in those games. Could he really leave all of this behind to go chasing a wild notion?
The croaks of bullfrogs brought him out of his reverie. He slowly rose to his feet, feeling the strain on his hamstrings and quads. His muscles felt tight, a result of not stretching thoroughly after the workout with Tess. Grimacing slightly, he knew those sore muscles wouldn’t help tomorrow morning when Nell got ahold of him. He turned from the lake, and walked briskly off the pier, back to his shack. Now that he had a plan in mind, he just had to figure out a way to phrase it correctly in order to motivate and inspire his fellow association members to join him, assuming he survived Gunnery Sergeant Nell’s training tomorrow morning.
Ryker finally made it back to his shack. To his relief, a small fire was going in his room, filling it with just enough heat and the sweet smell of smoke. He quickly stripped off his cargo pants and t-shirt, crawling beneath the covers of his bed before goosebumps could break out on his skin. He checked his rifle to ensure the magazine was seated properly, and rolled back over to stare into the dancing flames of the small fire. He fingered the scar on his left hand, which reminded him of his early wake-up call the next morning. Ryker focused on relaxing each muscle in his body, starting at his feet and going up towards his shoulders and neck. As he drifted off to sleep, he was still thinking of his speech at the association meeting, and what he could possibly encounter if he ventured outside The Fence.