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Survivor

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The walk home drags in the way 13-year-old Reese Shepard’s body does, shoulders hunched down, arms dangling without restraint at his side, swinging with each heavy step forward he takes. It more resembles a shuffle, his feet barely lifting off the ground in their uneven march forward. Breathing burns his lungs, a cry for oxygen from his wavering sobs and weary ache in his muscles. If the batarians linger to monitor their survivor, Reese gives them a show in his bare feet and goose-pimpled unclothed chest. Shivers come with the breeze, fighting with his cries for control of the trembling in his limbs.

A night ages a man, and indeed, Reese no longer feels like the teenager his age defines him to be.

Murderer .

They aren’t dead, not for sure.

But the guilt casts waves of nausea through him once more; he pauses a moment to close his eyes, regain his sense of grounding. The voice in his head doesn’t subside, and Reese reaches out to grasp a nearby tree to steady himself.

You’re a monster. Murderer. They’ll be slaves, or worse. And you just let those aliens take them.

He trudges on, not knowing what destruction lies back at the homestead. He should attempt to find Billy, the family German Shepard, but he and his sisters heard that yelp when they ran, the  gun shot, the squishy sound that punctuated in silence. Reese threw up no less than five times that morning, and whatever happened to his beloved friend, it would have to be tomorrow’s problem.

He sacrificed himself for us, and what did I do? What the fuck did I do with that chance?

Reese’s feet bleeds from the sticks and rocks in the forest, the spiky seed pods from the trees that lodged themselves into the bottom of his foot until he paused to dig them out, the thorns from vines that wound themselves along the underbrush. His upper arm burns and oozes a clear liquid from the round the batarian sunk into him, it feels like it’s on fire, but it’s not bleeding anymore so he’ll count his blessings where they land.

Even though his existence feels like a curse.

Mindoir, a ghost town, and he, the specter left to wander for eternity. His colony. He knew nothing good came from heading home, but where else is he supposed to go? The truck, his parents, shelter, clothes, first aid; everything resides back at Franche-Comt é . The nearest settlement from his small hometown (population 14 and decreasing fast) was a four hour drive in the pick-up. Why the batarians even singled them out baffles him. They were only farmers-

-the fields next door on fire, the smell of burnt peaches in the air, Joshua’s house, screams from that house, Joshua’s smile like the sun, the fields burn as Reese runs, holding Cal in his arms, squirming, crying, they’re all crying, Trix wiping the tears from her cheeks while she stumbles beside him, Billy leading them into the woods, safety inside-

He breaks free of the woods.

The house stands, one of the few in the town. The sight lends him a hope he knows he shouldn’t have, he should expect the worst, he should-

He gathers what remaining strength he has to push forward, through the soot of his family’s wheat crops, through what once was the best sweet corn in Mindoir. He runs, a cry on his lips. “Mom! Dad!” He falls a few times, ash coating the knees of his pajama pants and hands, but he keeps going. There’s a chance, the house still stands, there’s a-

The kitchen door hangs open.

A kiss in his hair, the cold metal of a gun pressed in his hand. “Protect your sisters,” she says. “I love you.”

A scream leaves his throat, and if any batarians search for any survivors, they can go ahead and find him, he’ll fucking tear them apart, he’ll fight them this time, he won’t just let them, he won’t-

He collapses in the door to the kitchen, the blood and grey matter -brains- soaking into his pants as he tugs his mother’s body forward, into his arms as tears he thought he lost pour down his face with the force of a broken dam. He curls over her protectively, hyperventilating, careful of the shotgun still in her hands, set between her lips.

“Don’t let them catch you or your sisters.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, his throat raw, his voice hollow as it breaks through his cries. “I’m so sorry. I failed you, Mom. I-”

He knows his father lies dead somewhere nearby. The hope he felt at the sight of the house leaves in the careening waterfalls onto his mother’s pale cheeks.

If he worked harder to get to safety, if he didn’t trade his sisters for his own safety. That promise feels so cheap now.

He fall asleep, curled against his mother. It’s all he can bring himself to do.