Three Days Prior
The light of the full moon casts a dim streak across the battered and dented hood of the old city bus. Its windows shattered and wheels long since deflated.
Adam cautiously crawls along the center isle toward the back of the bus. His jacket pocket snags on the twisted metal of an armrest, folded, snapped in half. Instinctively he halts then inches backward until the fabric is released. Quietly he pulls his jacket tight around his waist then proceeds forward once again.
Reaching the back of the bus he stops, holds his breath and listens. Wind whistles through the rusty window frame making it difficult to determine the safety of the darkness beyond. Without a sound he stands to peek out the back window. The two-lane street is littered with neglect and rusty discarded possessions of that mysterious pre-war society. Sensing no danger, he scans the long-abandoned buildings lining both sides of the street.
So far so good.
He turns slowly looking out the windows of the right side of the bus. Scanning the storefronts. Faded signs on busted windows hint at the commerce, the bustling economy of those ancient days. Spinning he verifies all is safe along the left side of the street.
He drops to his knees then crawls toward the front of the bus. After glancing once again out the busted front windshield he turns to the bench located directly behind the driver’s seat. Reaching under the bench his index finger releases the latch and he gently lifts. The bench flips silently backwards exposing a rectangular-shaped hole. Leaning into the hole he whispers, “All clear. Come on up Ryan.”
Seeing only darkness, Adam leans further into the hole. He hears the steady drip of water raining off the pipes that adorn the ceiling of the subways below. He hears the occasional rodent scurry along the pipes or rummaging in one of the countless mounds of rotting debris, but he doesn’t hear his brother. Suddenly a shape emerges from the darkness. As it moves closer his brother’s face comes into focus. Adam takes in a deep breath, does his best to hide his relief then says, “Ryan. You are the stealthiest twelve-year-old I have ever met. That skill will save your life someday.”
He steps back as Ryan’s hand reaches for the top rung. With the uniquely cat-like grace common among these children of the subways, Ryan rolls forward into the isle next to the bench, spins then without a sound returns the bench to its upright position. His finger catching the latch just before it snaps into place. He slowly releases the latch and verifies that the bench is locked down and the entrance to the subways is again secure.
Rising just enough to glance out the windows, he patiently turns, scanning for danger beyond the bus. Completing a full 360-degree rotation his eyes rest on his sixteen-year-old brother, Adam.
Adam smiles. “You are doing great. You are better than I was at your age.” Adam reaches into his jacket retrieving a small rectangular plank of wood. Positioning the weathered and fragile plank in the moon light, he turns to look Ryan in the eyes. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? There is no shame in backing out. Everyone would understand. I would understand.” To his surprise, Ryan doesn’t respond immediately. He appears to be considering this, to be calculating the odds of success. His golden eyes are vacant, but only for a moment. “I am certain. Yes, I am ready.”
Adam nods and extends his free hand gripping Ryan’s shoulder. Adam glances at the words etched into the fragile old plank of wood. He knows the words. They are etched in his mind as sure as they are etched in this wood. He has been preparing for this moment for nearly a year. This is the Rite of Passage, also referred to as The Branding. The rules are clear. Adam is here to observe. From now until sunrise, Ryan is on his own. He is on a quest to locate two specific items.
Before they left the commune this morning they participated in the first of two Branding rituals. He recalls standing next to Ryan, surrounded by most of the community as they stood reverently before The Professor.
Holding up an envelope, The Professor asked Ryan, “Are you ready to begin?” Ryan responded, “Yes Professor.”
With that The Professor turned to the surrounding crowd. Waving the envelope above his head he announced, “Ryan is twelve-years old today. From this day forward, regardless of the outcome of this quest, Ryan will give to this community more than he takes. This is our way. This is how we survive. At the age of twelve we transition from taker to provider.
But… this is a special day, a very special day indeed because Ryan has courageously decided to earn the brand. This envelope contains several images. Images of items essential to our survival. Ryan must retrieve no less than two of these items before he returns to the safety of our community. By completing this quest, Ryan will prove that he is able to traverse the dangerous streets above. He will prove that he knows how to locate items essential to our survival and deliver them to us without the enemy in his wake. This will prove to us all that he is a man and we will treat him as such.”
Cheers of the surrounding community reverberated through the tunnels. Handing the sealed envelope to Ryan, the Professor announced, “He will be branded as such.”
Adam is crouched to the floor of the old city bus, conflicting emotions of pride and fear sparring in his mind. This quest will be as difficult for him as it will be for his brother. At this moment he understands how his father must have felt nearly five years ago, when they sat on the floor of this very bus just before Adam embarked on his own Branding quest.
Adam knows the rules. He may track Ryan’s progress, and he may fight if Ryan is attacked, but he cannot assist in the location of these items, nor is he permitted to provide any guidance or warn him of any danger. With a hand on his brother’s shoulder, he begins to recite the words he had etched on that old wooden plank.
“Mom and Dad would be so proud of you right now. I feel that in my bones. I also feel that they would want me to say to you what Dad said to me, when I went for the brand. I can’t remember the exact words he said but it was something like this…
These streets are littered with the bones of men who underestimated or miscalculated their danger. Be wise, be cautious, and be brave. Keep your guard up and stay focused. Every movement, every step must be thought out and precise. Because if you are spotted, if they see you. You are dead. You cannot outrun them. If you try, you will die. If they follow you into the tunnels, they will slaughter everyone you know. Therefore, if you are spotted you must face them, you must fight. Retreat is not an option. I cannot help you during this quest. I cannot provide guidance nor am I permitted to alert you to any threat. But know this… if you are attacked, I will fight and probably die by your side. Because you are my brother, and I love you.”
Ryan punches Adam’s arm. “Same here brother… but we will not be dying tonight.”
With a sly smile he says, “Now have a seat and relax. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
A few moments later Ryan is darting along the sidewalk from shadow to shadow. His brother Adam watches nervously from within the relative safety of the old city bus. After a quick glance through a busted storefront window Ryan slips through the door then quietly steps into the closest shadow. He waits patiently listening for movement as his eyes adjust to the darkness.
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