Lee was walking through the fields when he spotted the stranger.
The sun, close to setting, silhouetted the dark figure, which walked steadily toward the house on the sand path. The sky was awash with soft colors, and normally Lee would've admired it. Now, he wished it were lighter; then, he would've seen the figure better.
Fortunately, whoever it was wasn't making any noise. Maybe he needed a place to spend a night? Bizarre, though. Most people stayed in their own houses, unless it was to trade or barter. And they didn't go far from home, either, but Lee didn't recognize this person. An outsider.
Almost without realizing it, he'd begun to make his way closer, intending to stop them before they could make it to the house. As he came up silently behind them, he saw that it was a boy. Short-ish, dark hair, pale skin. Lee took note of his pack, which was padded but not full. It rustled as he moved, suggesting harder items wrapped or padded. Worn, used a lot. A thin, square something hung off the back. It, too, was bundled securely in a blanket.
He was limping slightly, but his pants covered any wounds he might've had. His feet were swathed in fabric—comfort, perhaps. Was he some kind of traveller? Lee had never seen anyone like him, anyone who would risk going from place to place. So much unknown, so much potential for noise.
He crept up behind the boy, softly, slowly. He looked small and thin; Lee would be able to alert him and keep him from crying out all at once. Couldn't risk tapping him only for him to cry out. Couldn't risk him going into the house in case he was malicious.
One step, two. Then, faster than the buzzing of a fly's wings, Lee bear-hugged the boy, one hand coming up to gag his mouth. He could feel him stiffen underneath him, tensing in preparation to fight or flee. After Lee simply stood there, holding him, the boy brought his hands up—I come in peace. Lee spun him around, keeping a firm grip on his shoulders.
He was scruffy, up close. His clothing was layered—the nights could get cool—but holes dotted the fabric. The boy had blue eyes, pleading up at Lee, and a sad sort of face. Looking down, Lee could see his pants fared little better, and a dark, growing stain on his thigh really attracted his attention. He couldn't be older than sixteen.
Who are you? Lee signed, movements jagged. Why are you here?
The boy kept his hands high and shook his head. He didn't know ASL. Lee frowned in frustration; he didn't want to just turn the injured stranger away, but he needed to protect his family. The urge welled in him, throbbing with the beating of his heart. They came first.
The boy held up a finger: Wait. He slowly and deliberately unclipped the square shape from his bag, bringing in in front of him. Uncovering it, it revealed itself to be a whiteboard. From his pocket he withdrew a marker. All padded with fabric. He began to write something on it.
Hello. I'm Danny. He showed it to Lee, giving a little wave. Like the old days, when they could shout at each other from far away and wave wildly. His handwriting was messy but efficient. He held out the marker, an invitation.
Under the greeting, Lee wrote: I'm Lee. Why are you here?
Danny read the words with a serious expression—brow furrowed, eyes squinty, lips pursed. Considering. He erased the words with an already stained sleeve before answering.
I'm hurt. Need a place to spend the night. Yours looked nice. I like the paths. A compliment and a plea. Something in his expression told Lee that maybe that wasn't entirely the truth. Spend the night with him? Let him in with Lee's family? The only thing in the world he cared about? With a baby on the way? He was shaking his head before he consciously acknowledged it. If he was a robber, or a murderer...
Danny's face fell, but he looked determined. Erasing the lines he scribbled something new: Please. I don't have anything with me to trade, but I can make it worth your while.
Lee cocked his head. Sounded interesting, but maybe not good. He didn't want anything that might endanger anyone. Didn't want anything, really. Except for everyone to be safe, for his wife's birth to go well, for Regan's implant to work.
So maybe he wanted a lot of things, but nothing Danny could give. The boy was gazing downward, intent on what he was writing. It was slow, this time, as if he'd needed to think about it. He turned it around, the words still visible in the dying light.
I have a way to kill them. The words seemed carved into the whiteboard. Lee read the words almost gradually, drinking them in. He looked up at those piercing blue eyes—ones that shone with honesty. Danny's hand didn't shake, his gaze didn't waver. What reason would he have to lie, anyway?
The boy erased this bold sentence, this claim that simultaneously shattered Lee's world and stitched it back together. If it was true, anyway. But how? The army hadn't figured out. Not America's or anyone else's. Neither had the governments. The scientists, the experts. How had this… this teenager done it? Luck? Genius?
Danny flipped the whiteboard, showing what he'd written. It's safe where I live. He wrote quickly—he was practiced. It seemed a poor way to communicate compared to sign language. Lee supposed one didn't really have the time to learn it in an apocalypse. And safe? What did that mean? No danger at all seemed unrealistic, unthinkable. Was it because he could kill them? The boy wiped the words away and held the board out with the marker—expectant. Anticipating. He knew Lee had questions.
Lee took it almost frantically, almost frenzied. But still somehow slow, controlled. Made sure the whole thing was in his hands, couldn't drop it. Couldn't make a noise. Never a noise. He wrote slowly, carefully—couldn't drop it, couldn't let the marker so much as squeak. Too much risk. In the end, he decided on asking the most important question first. The rest could come later. If he let the stranger stay.
How to kill them, how had he figured it out, how could he do it, how, how, how. Lee looked up at the boy, taking in his gaze. The boy's smile was grim, almost a slash across his face, like it'd been made by a knife. He gently removed the marker from Lee's hands and began to write just underneath the singular question.
A certain type of noise hurts them. Makes them open their armor, makes them vulnerable. Then… He trailed off. The writing got smaller at the end, cramped, running out of room. No way, Lee thought. No way it was that simple, that easy. And still the question remained:
Lee pointed to it again, hoping he got the message. More information. But—perhaps inside. Safer, for the sun was going down. Couldn't see, couldn't avoid things as well as in the daylight, more noise. Danger.
Danny began writing again, but Lee took the marker from his hand. The boy looked up in surprise, and the man beckoned him forward. He followed the man through the corn all the way to the door of a barn, where Lee held up his hands and pointed to the ground.
Lee slipped inside, silent as a mouse. His two kids were sitting at the makeshift table, Evelyn preparing their meal in the kitchen. He walked up behind her, placed a hand on her shoulder. She relaxed into it, turning and giving him a soft smile.
You're here early, she signed. Dinner wouldn't be for a while. Lee couldn't smile back, not when his head was spinning and his heart was pumping from the news he'd seen (I have a way to kill them).
There's a boy outside. Lee cut to the chase. He wants to spend the night, and he's hurt. Then, after a pause: He says he can kill them. No need to say who them was. There was only one "them" that mattered. Evelyn's mouth went wide, soundless. She glanced down at her stomach, then to their kids, who had tired of waiting patiently and begun to play a game of Monopoly—a game that surely wouldn't be finished in the small amount of time they had before dinner.
Her eyes said it all.
The boy didn't quite sit cross-legged, Regan observed. One leg was straightened off to the side, the one with the injury. His pack was in the corner, resting gently against the wall. He'd shaken their hands, some half-forgotten, polite instinct from before the world had been destroyed.
Their serving of fish had been smaller, because of him, but no one complained. They rarely went hungry, and this outsider was too interesting to pass up. They'd never done this before—had someone over.
They ate in silence, as always, but this time exchanging furtive glances. Marcus seemed more nervous than curious, but Regan wanted to know more. Why was he here? Why had her parents let him in? Her stomach burned with curiosity.
The stranger ate with his hands, same as any of them. He seemed to savor the taste of the food—maybe it had been a while. Or maybe he wasn't a good cook.
His board sat off to the side with its marker. He hadn't written anything on it, except to introduce himself as Danny. It was strange, him not knowing ASL; they had all used it as their way to communicate for years.
Why is he here? Regan signed. She couldn't wait any longer. Because they ate with their hands, they generally refrained from signing at the table. But, well, she was willing to make an exception this time. Even if her hands were greasy.
His leg is hurt. He needs a place to stay, her father replied.
We've never let anyone stay before, regan insisted. She'd seen her father turn a traveller or two away—or maybe traders. Regardless, this was unprecedented. There had to be a reason. Marcus watched the exchange with wide eyes. He didn't like to question things, unless they were things he didn't want to do. Danny paid them no mind, still focused on the fish.
Eat your dinner, Lee signed. It'll get cold. regan twitched, but did as he bade. Evelyn kept shooting her husband looks, like explain it to them. But she didn't sign anything, and Lee didn't explain.
After dinner, regan asked Marcus if he wanted to finish their game of Monopoly. He agreed, and the two of them laid belly-down on the floor, rolling the die and moving the modified pieces gently. Danny came and sat down next to them, careful of the lantern they were using to see everything with. His hurt leg was stretched out, still. regan wondered what he'd gotten the wound from.
Can I play? He wrote on his board. The two siblings looked at each other, then their parents, who smiled in encouragement. Regan shrugged, uncaring; Marcus nodded hesitantly. They had to start from the beginning, though. Regan handed him his piece decisively—no way was he taking one of theirs. His lips quirked.
She took her hotel off the board (she'd worked so hard on it, too) and placed her and Marcus's pieces back on "go." She gave the die to Danny. Guests rights, after all, or maybe she was still mad Marcus had gone first last time.
He rolled a four, moved the piece. Landed on a railway and bought it, though the money was felt and not paper. As Regan rolled next, Danny scribbled something on his board. What are your names?
She landed on a chance space, drawing a get out of jail free card. Great. She handed the die to Marcus and saw what Danny had written. Taking the board, she wrote carefully: I'm Regan. He's Marcus.
Underneath, the teenager asked another question, Who's older? When she pointed to herself, he gave that small smile again. Almost fond. They went a couple more rounds, Danny's smile transforming into an all-out grin as they bartered over Kentucky Avenue, even though he clearly didn't know ASL.
As they finally settled on Marcus giving Regan his Tennessee Avenue and fifty Monopoly felt dollars, Marcus reached for his money, his elbow knocking against the lantern. The two siblings' eyes went wide, pale and shining in the gloom, and all Regan could think was not again before a pale hand lurched out, fast as lightning, and caught it. The hand carefully set it upright again, and Regan looked up at Danny, whose forehead gleamed with sweat.
But his intense, worried expression slipped off, and he offered them both a soft look of reassurance. Across the room, Lee, who had stood up as soon as he'd heard the noise, slowly sat back down. Regan wondered what important matters they were discussing, but with her father's back turned, blocking her from seeing both his and her mother's signing, she could only guess. She imagined it was about Danny and the reason they'd let him in, though. What else could it be about?
Danny evidently knew this as well, for he kept glancing at them, even as Lee faced Evelyn again, the tension draining from his back once he'd seen that his kids were alright. Marcus shakily signed he didn't want to play anymore, and Danny seemed to get the message. Regan's sibling walked off, leaving her with this strange teenager who wandered alone in this dangerous, fear-filled world. She thought maybe his family had died, but she wasn't about to ask. She knew how painful a question it might be.
But she did want to ask him other, less painful things. So she took the board off his lap—and the marker. He made no protest, simply looking at her with a raised eyebrow, like go on.
Though she had lessons with her parents and could read fairly well, Regan didn't always practice her writing as much as she maybe should. Or as much as she told them she did. So her words were a little sloppy and she wrote a little slow, but he would understand well enough.
Why did you come here?
She was expecting an answer like to trade, or maybe a simple I needed shelter. What she got was a near-feverish glint in his eye and the fast motion of his hand as he replied: To offer your family a safe place to go—a place where the creatures can't get you.
And Regan's snatched the marker from him, her movements nearly as quick as his as she demanded: Tell me more.
And Danny was only too happy to oblige.
AN: The response I get will ensure whether this is abandoned or continued. If my portrayal of Regan is ableist or offensive in any way, please let me know. I really just wanted some post-apocalyptic, survival Danny, though we don't really get anything but a taste here. Anyway, let me know: Too boring for a first chapter? Curious as to what Danny's talking about? Good setup, bad setup?