Left To Burn
A Short Story by Karina Sanchez
Written using the suggestion "Empire"
Originally featured on 10-18-2007
As part of our series "A Funny Thing Happened To Me on the Way to the Fall"

“What’s that light?” Jacob asked, pointing north into the newly minted night. There was a smear of orange glow across the horizon.

“Oil refinery must be on fire again,” Vance mumbled, not bothering to look.

“Looks like another sun setting.”

Vance removed his fedora from where it lay across his face. He had been lying on his back, blocking out the dying sun. Pushing himself up onto his elbows, he sneered at Jacob, who was sprawled along the edge of the roof. “My, aren’t we poetic tonight.”

“Nights like this were meant for poetry.”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t just say that.”

“Pretend all you want, I’ll not be takin’ it back.”

Vance stood quietly and skulked across the roof’s flat plane to where Jacob lay. The younger boy had his back to Vance, studying the night geography. He was always surprised by how small Jacob still was. At 17, he had yet to put on any mass and still lacked in height. Vance reached out, grabbed Jacob, and shoved him forward. Leg, arm, and upper torso hung in air for a moment before Vance pulled him back.

“What the fuck! What the hell are you doin’?”

Vance regarded him coolly, his eyes narrowing. “Just a reminder, brother. There’s nothin’ to dream about anymore.”

Jacob moved back from the ledge, “You wait ‘til Tony—“

“Tony’s not comin’ back.”

“You don’t think he made it?”

“He made it or he di’n’t. He won’t be comin’ back either way.”

“You’re wrong. He’ll be back for us. I’m goin’ back down.”

Jacob shimmied his way through the access hatch and down the ladder. After a moment Vance followed him. The roof wasn’t the kind that was meant to have anyone on it. There were no rails, no buttresses to keep one from wondering up to the very edge. Inside, the building was completely dark. Jacob searched around for, and found, the oil lamp that he had left at the bottom of the ladder. Taking a box of matches from his pocket, he lit it.

“You wanta eat?” Jacob asked.

“Nah, even the canned food is starting to go bad. We should set out some traps, all them wild dogs out there.”

The boys walked down the corridor and were in an office. They settled into the big conference room, whose floor was covered with pillows and sleeping bags. They had created a fire pit in one corner, using empty food cans.

“I don’t wanna eat dogs, Vance. It’s gross.”

“Rather starve to death would’ja? That’s gross, too.”

“Can’t we hunt the woods? We got them rifles.”

“S’pose we could do that. Catchin’ dogs’d be easier though.”

They lay in silence for a while, listening to the far off sounds of dogs fighting. An entire city, and they were the only two in it. Four years ago the boys had been out camping with their friend Tony. It was Jacob’s first trip to the woods without a parent. He had been proud to be allowed to go along with the older boys. The second day out, Vance was teaching him how to tie a rabbit snare when there had been a flash of light to the west, where home lay. Minutes later the sound hit them. It was a boom that could be felt reverberating through bone. The concussive force of it had rendered them deaf for hours, their ears ringing like a drill.

They had driven the two hours back to town only to find it empty. There were signs that people had been there—cars on the roads, food sitting on counters, showers on, TVs blaring—but there were no people, not even bodies. The brothers had dropped Tony off by his house and headed for their own. It was similarly empty, not only were their parents gone, but their pets were gone as well. Jacob’s hamster was missing from its cage and the family dog was nowhere to be seen. Not knowing what else to do, they had spent days in their own home, trying to go about their normal routine.

Jacob turned to his older brother, “You think Tony’ll find anything?”

“I di’n’t know, Jake. No way of knowin’ what else is out there.”

“I bet he found somethin’. People.”

“We shoulda gone with him. There isn’t any reason for us to keep here. Mum and Da aren’t comin’ back. No one’s comin’ back.”

“Shudup, will you? I don’t want to talk about that.”

Jacob stood and paced in front of the floor to ceiling windows. The orange glow had grown, lightening the sky.

“Whatever’s burnin’ over there is really at it,” Jacob observed.

“Tellin’ ya, it’s the oil refinery.”

“Don’tcha think we should check it out?”

“Right now?”

“I’m sorry, did you have other plans? Hot date tonight, is it?”

Vance hated it when Jacob tried to be sarcastic. “Fine, we’ll go now. Get them rifles, we might run into dogs.”

Jacob grinned and grabbed the two hunting rifles that were propped up by the door. He handed one to Vance and looped the other over his shoulder. They clamored down the 12 flights of stairs, Jacob in front with the gas lamp. The oil refinery was at least ten miles down the road, but the boys were used to walking. It wouldn’t take them more than a couple of hours to get there.

The glow from the refineries fire grew as the got closer. When they were within a mile of it, there was no more use for their lamp. It was almost bright as day. As they rounded the last bend in the road before the refinery, they paused to rub dazzled eyes. The burn was steady, a wall of constant flame.

“How long you think it’ll do this?” Jacob asked.

“How am I s’pose to know? Until the fuel runs out.”

The stood in silence for a moment, watching the blaze. Then Jacob asked, “What d’ you think caused it?”

“Same thing as last time. Those fuckin’ mountain men.” Vance hefted his rifle. They had gotten close enough that the heat rolling out of the fire was making them sweat, his forehead glistened with it.

The mountain men. The reason that they had moved into the office building 6 months ago, right before Tony left. It had never occurred to any of the boys that there might be other people left. They had seen many animals—dogs, horses, deer, even a bear or two—but they assumed that they were the only humans left. They had been sunning in the middle of the courthouse square when two men came running towards them. The men were sickly thin and had scraggly beards that were full of dirt. They had made guttural, animal growls. The boys had easily been able to defend themselves and scared the men off, but it had badly shaken them. The 12 story office building that they had moved into was the tallest in town and gave them a sense of protection. A few days later, the boys had been on the roof and noticed the glow from where the oil refinery stood.

“Really think it was them?” Jacob asked skeptically. “They haven’t been here in months an’ they was pretty sick lookin’ back then.”

Vance turned his back to the oil refinery; he studied the path back home. “They been livin’ for a long time. It was them alright. Come on, Jake. We’d better head home.”

They started back at a quicker pace then they had previously taken. The glow from town was already visible.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Vance exclaimed, breaking into a run. “Hurry up! Our fuckin’ town’s burnin’.”

It seemed to take forever to get back into town. When they finally came into view it seemed like the whole world was on fire. Most of the buildings were ablaze. Many more buildings than two men could have lit. The boys’ shoes stuck to the road in the heat. They gaped at the buildings around them.

“Got to leave, Jake,” Vance said, gripping his brother’s shoulder. “There’ll be nothing left. The men’ll be back. Lots of them.”

Jacob was crying. “No, no I’m not goin’. We can’t leave. This is our home. Our town. Everything.”

Vance gripped Jacob’s shoulders tighter, half hugging him. They stood surrounded by their burning empire. The only world that they had ever known. “I know, Jakey. It’s over. We have to go. I can’t be losin’ you the way we lost everyone else. We’ll follow Tony, go towards the coast. Good people might still be out there.”

They didn’t hear the footsteps that approached them. The multiple fires crackling were too loud. It was the animal growl coming from behind them that caused Jacob to turn his head. The six men standing behind him were only barely so. They wore pants or shorts and a few wore shirts, but they were shoeless and their hair and beards were grown out and caked with grease. None of them held what could be construed as weapons, but they did have burning torches in their hands. The fire seemed out of place with their feral appearance.

“Oh fuck, Vance,” Jacob breathed, pulling his rifle forward to point at the group.

Vance was about to ask his brother what was wrong but he turned and saw the mountain men. He mirrored Jacob’s stance.

“What you doin’ here?” Vance called over the roar of the fire. “What do you want?”

The men didn’t answer. It was as if they had lost language. Bared teeth were their only response. There were more crouched figures coming down burning alleys toward them. The brothers moved closer together with their rifle points bouncing. They didn’t know where to point.

“What’d we do?”

“We got to get goin’. Forward is our best bet.”

“There’s 6 of ‘em in front of us. How we gonna get out?”

“We might have’ta fight, brother. They’re not burnin’ down our town to make friends.”

The began slowly advancing on the mountain men, rifles leaping between targets. The group of men regarded them coolly, without moving. When the brothers were within ten feet of the men, Jacob was hit with a rock from the left. It slammed into his shoulder and he almost dropped his rifle.

“They’re not gonna just let us go.”

“What’re we gonna do then, heh? There’re too many of ‘em.”

“Nah, look, they don’t have any weapons. These were normal men once. I’m bettin’ they remember what guns are.”

Both of the boys’ rifles were shaking. More rocks were flying threw the air at him. Vance was breathing hard, eyes flicking between his brother and the men blocking their way out. He had never pointed a gun at a man before, let alone shot one. His finger sliped on the trigger and he fired. This was followed a second later with a retort from Jacob’s weapon. Vance’s shot went wide, missing any target. Jacob’s was true though, it caught one of the intruders in the shoulder causing him to spin around. Jacob immediately dropped his rifle but Vance held his tighter, training it on the remaining men.

“Pick yer fuckin’ gun up!” he yelled at his brother. “We’re makin’ a run for it.”

Vance pushed through the men with Jacob close behind him. The younger boy was fumbling with his rifle and trying to get it up on his shoulder. They ran, the heat on their backs propelling them forward.

Eventually, their legs could no longer maintain the speed and they slowed to a walk, muscles popping. There was no need to use the oil lamp; the sky was still light behind them. It took almost three hours for the light to fade from the sky, shortly after that the sun started to rise.

“I’m hungry,” Vance said. It was the first time either of them had spoke since they had fled their town.

“Me too. We can check the woods. Should be berries or somethin’.”

“Good thinkin’ little brother.”

The two boys turned off the road at the first path they saw. It led them to a small clearing that had a tent set up in it. It was clearly deserted. There was a layer of leaves covering the dome of the tent and the ground around it was clear of any kind of tracks.

“Thinkin’ sleep?” Jacob muttered, stumbling towards the shelter.

Vance stuck out an arm, holding him back. “Wait, don’t that look familiar?”

“What? Nah, all tents look the same.”

“No, this tent was Tony’s. Look there at the bottom, our initials.”

Jacob rubbed his face vigorously. “What the fuck? This as far as he got? What happened?”

Vance walked up to the tent and pulled back the flap. A sleeping bag and pillow still lay inside but there was no pack or other sign of life. “Looks like he mighta just left it here. Maybe he had to run and couldn’t pack it up.” Seeing the look of despair and hopelessness on Jacob’s face he added, “He might still be out there. We’ll look for him. We’re needin’ sleep. It’ll be nice to have a tent and we’ll have a least one sleepin’ bag then. I bet we can find another in the next town.”

They crawled into the tent and settled down. They lay quietly for a minute. Complete exhaustion made their limbs heavy and their eyes droop.

“I shot that guy,” Jacob said, his voice small and wounded.

“You had’ta. Try not to think about it too much. You saved us Jake. I missed but you didn’t. It was a good job, brother.”

“I wish Mum and Da were here. I don’t want’ta do this anymore.”

“Me neither. It’s a shit lot we’ve got. We’ve no choice but to deal with it. Try to get some sleep now. It’s gonna be a long walk to the coast.”

The two brothers settled down to try to sleep in the tent. Vance breathing deeply, trying to calm himself, and Jacob, with eyes wide, trying to banish last nights images. Both boys eventually found sleep.

Read More By Karina Sanchez

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