When I first came to, all I really could remember was that it was hard to breathe. My head was throbbing and I couldn’t see anything. I opened my eyes but all I could make out was black. I called out, “Hello? Is anyone there?” but all that replied was silence.
Ok, where was I? I tried to move but I couldn’t get up. I was stuck in some kind of rickety wooden chair with my hands tied behind me. I could feel the rope burn on my wrists as I struggled to move. The more I struggled, the more my body hurt. My back was killing me from sitting in a weird position for so long. How long had I been here? I could taste blood in my mouth but there was some kind of bag or something on my head so I couldn’t really see where I was. Everything was quiet. When I spoke out there was a little bit of an echo, but that was it. I could smell dirt and stone and machine oil. Just where was I? Someone had gotten the drop on me.
The last thing I could remember was making my first scouting run for the colony. I had been chomping at the bit to go on a run for months and the commander of the watch finally decided I could go. He had been training me and a couple of other guys to add to the ranks of the scavengers but he were really big on not letting anyone go before he felt they were ready. I knew I was ready. Our supplies had started to get low and we needed more boots on the ground to make up what we had lost. I was given a map of the area he wanted me to search through, a bag, and a canteen of water. I hadn’t been out but a few hours when I came across a few abandoned cars under an overpass. They didn’t look like anyone had messed with them for a long time so maybe I had lucked out. There must be something inside those things. I made my way halfway through them before I caught some movement in the corner of my eye. I wasn’t fast enough though because the next moment something came up behind me and then it was lights out for me.
I really screwed up. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t careful. We hadn’t heard from colony six in almost three weeks and the council back at home feared that something had happened to them. What if the same people that got me were the ones who got rid of colony six? It made sense. Something must have happened.
I tried to muscle my way out of the chair but it wasn’t any use. I couldn’t budge. Suddenly I heard a whisper behind me, “Okay, it’s time.”
“Huh? Who’s there?” I asked. I listened intently as several sets of heavy footsteps came up behind me and then moved throughout the room.
“Where you from, kid?” asked a deep, gravelly voice from in front of me. “You didn’t have much on ya so you must be close. You from that settlement on the hill?”
These must be the guys who got colony six. Now they must be looking for the next place to raze. I messed up by getting caught but I couldn’t mess things up again. I couldn’t tell them anything about home.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Kid, I’m the one asking the questions. I asked you where you were from.”
I tried to listen through the bag on my head. I couldn’t see much, there was almost no light in here; wherever here was. There was the guy who was asking questions and then three…maybe four others? I didn’t know for sure.
“Give the kid some motivation.”
Suddenly I felt a giant fist hit my face. One! Two! I tried to brace myself but I couldn’t see them coming.
“What settlement are you from?!”
I spit blood from my mouth but it just hit the bag. My head was killing me. I couldn’t fail again, not now. “It’s just me. I’m on my own,” I said.
“Do you think I’m stupid? You only had a small supply of water on you and nothing else. You want me to think that’s all you have? You have to come from somewhere? Where?!”
Slam! Another hit to my face. I’m pretty sure that my nose was broken now. I couldn’t say anything. My parents were still back at home. Over sixty people depended on me getting supplies, but I failed them. I couldn’t mess up again. They were depending on me. They were all depending on me.
What would the commander do? I tried to imagine myself being him. I was a tough guy who wasn’t scared of anything. I wasn’t a rookie scavenger who had no business outside of the wall, I was a hardened warrior who commanded men. I was a hero. “I’m from three miles east? Wait, or was it five miles north? I can never tell, I’m lousy with a compass.” No one claimed I was a genius and that was proof positive. What did sarcasm plus being tied to a chair get me? A couple of hits to the gut, that’s what. I struggled to catch my breath and slumped over to my side and hit the floor. Then I heard the click of a gun loading a bullet.
“Look, kid, I’m kinda pressed for time here and I don’t have any patience for people being a smart ass. Last chance: where are you from?” The guy who was speaking put the end of his pistol against my temple.
My heart quickened. This guy was going to kill me! I was about to die. I wasn’t going to get back home. I would never see my family again. The commander said I wasn’t ready to be a scavenger and he was right. What happened when I went outside of the colony walls? I got captured, tortured, and shot. What good was I? At least I could make my death count for something. These guys would get nothing from me. I’d at least protect my home.
“Screw you, loser! Just do it already!” I said pressing my head into the muzzle of the gun. “If you’re going to ask me the same thing over and over again just do it already, I’ve got other things to do today!” I tried to sound tough. I only knew one real tough guy and that was the commander. What would he do if he were me? If I pretended to be tough like him then maybe they wouldn’t see me shaking in the chair.
I felt hands grab my shoulders and set me up right quickly. My head spun as I felt blood rush to my head making me feel sick. The bag was pulled off my head and a bright light shone in my face from some flashlight a guy in the back was holding. I could barely see, but there were a few guys in front of me and a pistol was still stuck in my face. “You mean to tell me you’d rather die right here where no one knows where you are rather than just give up where you live?”
“Just pull it trigger you pansy. I’m getting bored.” I thought I sounded tough. I tried to think of the commander watching me. I wanted to make him proud. The room was spinning and I was trying not to throw up or cry. I was about to die and I was scared out of my mind, but the commander taught me better than that. Even if I died just like this, he would be proud of me.
The pistol lowered and the guys in front of me stepped back. I heard the sound of a light switch and the room I was in lit up a little from a single light bulb in the corner. I knew the guys in front of me.
The watch commander said, “Kid, you passed your final test. Congratulations. You are now part of the colony scavengers. Rick, cut the kid loose.” One of the other guys, who I could now make out as one of the scavenger trainers who worked under the commander, moved around and cut the ropes at my hands.
“What? What was all this?” I managed to ask.
“Well, kid,” the commander said as he helped me to my feet, “one of the very real dangers out there is other groups that want to take what we have worked so hard to build. I have to make sure that every member of my team is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people behind these walls. That sometimes will mean dying for them. I’m sorry for the deception, but we have to make sure. You made us all proud today, kid.”
I looked around to find smiling faces of the people I had been working with these past few weeks. My training partner, Robert, stepped forward and handed me the scavenger tunic they all wore. Each one was unique to the scavenger but they all had our colony number, number 4, patched on to the front; it was the embroidered symbol of our colony. “You earned this, kid,” Robert said with a big smile.
The commander slapped me on the shoulder. “Alright, you earned yourself about a week of R&R. After that, we’re putting you to work. Go see the doc about your nose and then take it easy for a while. I’ll check on you in the morning.” We all left and walked on back to the colony. When I came back inside the walls I was cheered by the rest of the scavengers and the watch at the city walls. Everyone knew I had succeeded. They knew they could depend on me. My body didn’t hurt anymore. I smiled and waved back to the rest of my family, my brothers in arms. Last night I went to sleep just a regular member of the colony, but at long last I was a full-fledged scavenger.