Deciding on Cover Art


I just got two concepts from the publisher for the cover of Loose Ends, a zombie novel. I can’t show anything until they make a final decision and produce the release flyer, but I am excited. I think one of them really reaches out and grabs you like a … like, uh … I need something to complete this simile …  gosh, what is something that reaches out and grabs you?

Playtime


Playtime

by Jay Wilburn

He went out to play and to battle the forces of evil wherever they might lurk.

He tried to stick his light saber into his pocket, but it kept falling out.  He had a pack of Oreos he had found and he didn’t want to crush them.  He stuck the light saber down into the waistband of his shorts, but that was not working after just a couple steps.  He finally just carried it down by his side and pretended that he had it in a holster.

He had never seen the Star Wars movies.  His dead parents had thought he was too young for the cartoons or the old movies.  He had watched his friend, Alex, play the video games when he was over to his house back when everyone was alive.  Alex’s dad had told Alex and his little brother to let David play.  David wasn’t any good at it, so he just liked to let them play while he watched.

Alex made fun of David for getting the names all wrong when they played Star Wars on the playground.  Alex also flicked David’s ear when they were in line until David got in trouble.  David got in trouble for telling too, so he just stood away from Alex on days when he was being mean.  David missed his dead friends.

Now, he played by himself.

Alex had told David that in the movies all the Jedi knights were killed and so the good guy had to fight all by himself.  David was the good guy now.  He wished his dead parents had let him watch the movies so he would know what happened next.

David lifted the handle of his saber slowly.  He pushed the release button and flung out the plastic sections of the sword until they locked.  His was blue because he was the good guy.  David fought off the bad guys inside the ship.  Spit came out of his mouth as he made the fighting noises.  He stopped for a second to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and then went back to buzzing for each swing of his light saber.  Some more jumped out at him and he cut them apart.  The one with the red face and two light things on his saber was tough, but David chopped him in half and watched him die.

He looked around at the imaginary bodies on the sidewalk between the wrecked cars and the vine-covered mailbox lying on its side in the yard.  David used to know who lived in the house with the boards over the windows, but he couldn’t remember their names now.  They used to buy him ice cream from the truck without his dead parents knowing back when everyone was alive.  The policeman with the bleeding neck had shot them at the side of their boarded up house.  Their bodies were real skeletons now in the tall grass over there.  David sometimes went to look at them and throw shards of brick at the bones, but he didn’t feel like it today.  It was hot and the grass made his legs feel itchy.

David closed his light saber back.  The last segment got stuck sometimes, but he pushed the button a couple times and twisted to make it collapse back into the handle.  His dead parents had bought him the cheap ones.

David found a white, discolored circle in the sidewalk near the bashed up stroller.  He jumped on the circle to pretend to save his game and then walked on in search of more adventure.

David saw its back as it emerged at an angle from the tall privet that blocked the view where the park used to be.

David called it theChooChooParkbecause it had a train theme for the jungle gym that was now overgrown with weeds and small trees like a real jungle.  His dead parents had taken him there for his sixth birthday.  He had a September birthday so he was in kindergarten still.  They had invited all his dead friends.  It was cold that day even though it was September.  They had pretended the train was running away and they had to save it before it crashed.  Strangers walked through the park now and David couldn’t go in there alone.

He would have to have his seventh birthday somewhere else.  No one was going to come.

This one walking out of the park into the street in front David was one of the Sith strangers.  His shirt was sliced down the back over wide slices in the blue skin of his body.  The cuts went from purple to black inside the cuts where he could see the stranger’s bones move by the openings as the man rocked from side to side with each step.  His hair was caked with gunk that made it look like part of his dirty skin.  David couldn’t tell if the stranger had sideburns or if his face was torn open on the sides.  It looked like both at the same time.  The skin on top of his head was faded completely white by the sun and was bubbling away much like his melting face.  The stranger’s hands and fingers were very long with yellow nails that extended out like broken claws.  David couldn’t tell what planet this one was from, but he imagined a cold planet because of the blue skin and the head damaged and melting in the hot sun here on Earth.

The Sith stranger sensed David’s presence and started to turn his head around on his ropey neck to look back up the street at the last Jedi.  David dropped down quietly behind the giant, rolling trashcan that was never taken back up the driveway after the last trash day.  The plastic was hot on David’s side and still stunk a little.  David held his nose with one hand and his light saber with the other.

He peeked around the side by one of the wheels on the asphalt.

The stranger was facing forward again and walking down the center of the street.  He was far away now, but David waited because he was the last Jedi and he knew what was coming.  Two more walked out of the privet.  One was naked and David could see her butt.  He stuck out his tongue and looked away.  Three more came after them.  Then, a little kid stranger.  David looked closely at that one, but couldn’t tell who he was.  He had a ball cap, but all the writing was messed off of it.  Another man in a dirty tee shirt and dirty pants followed after the boy stranger.  His old blood was dark and thick on his stained skin.  A big blob of strangers followed the man.  He couldn’t count them because they kept wobbling around.  The street was filling up and they were starting to spread out.

David duck walked to the other side of the trashcan and peeked again.

“Okay, here I go,” he whispered.

He used to say the same thing before he read a hard passage from the beginner’s reader in class for his dead teacher.

David ran to the next mailbox.  He pressed his back to the brick and rested his feet on the decorative cobble so that the grass wouldn’t itch him.  He peeked around again.  One of the fat strangers had stopped in the middle of the street and was staring at him.  He froze.  He didn’t pull his head back suddenly like he wanted to do.  David knew that strangers saw when he moved his head fast.  She would come, if she had seen him run from the trashcan to the mailbox and he would know when to run away as long as he kept watching her.

“Don’t move,” he told himself, “I’m not the boy she is looking for.”

She looked up at the branches above her head and then turned back to walk with the other strangers leaving the playground.  It must have been a big, birthday party today.  Another fat stranger followed her.  He was missing his arm at the elbow.  David stuck out his tongue and made a face.  That one must have been the husband of the woman David had tricked.

He counted to three and then ran from the mailbox to a tree in the yard.  He lifted his legs as he ran to keep them out of the grass when he stepped.  He still got itched.  He peeked again and no one was looking.  From the tree he went to the front of a car in a driveway on the next street.  From the car, he went to the dresser turned on its side in the yard.  David looked over the top of it.  He still didn’t understand why it was in the yard.

From there he ran to a mailbox that was too thin to hide him, but he was around the houses and out of sight of the strangers.  David pretended they could still see him and he snuck up the street for a couple more mailboxes before he got tired of it and started walking normal again.  He jumped on a manhole cover and pretended to save his game again.  He made a beep noise and headed down the road for more adventure.

David stopped and knelt in front of the fire hydrant.  He looked around to make sure the coast was clear.

He whispered, “Don’t worry, yellow robot.  I’m here to save you.  Stay with me and I’ll get you and your friends out of here.  Have you seen Luke Starwars or In-A-Can, robot?  What is it?  Behind me?!”

David whipped open the light saber and whirled around with his feet planted wide apart.

He sneered, “Nice try, Dark Invader.  Hold on to your underwear!”

He buzzed his saber through the bodies of more bad guys being careful to keep the little robot behind him.  He placed his hands on his hips with pride.  He struggled to get the plastic pieces closed back into the handle.

He laughed, “Underwear . . . Okay, let’s go.”

David peered down the side street.  It was narrow between the hedges on one side and the chain link fences of the backyards on the other.

He whispered, “You need to stay close behind me and be quiet.  I think this may be trouble.”

David stayed close to the hedges as he walked slowly down the side street.  There were toys and trash piled in the tall grass behind each house and against the fences.  No one cleaned up anymore.

David looked away as he passed the house where he knew the dog’s body was in the yard under the lawn chair.  It was all black and yucky.  David didn’t understand why it wouldn’t just turn into a skeleton like the people who used to buy him ice cream that the bleeding policeman shot.  There was no one David could ask.  He missed his dead teacher and his dead parents when he had questions like that, but he would probably get in trouble for asking a yucky question.  It was like saying butt or shut up.

David heard the stranger on the other side of the hedges.  He didn’t pretend to tell the robot to be quiet.  He knelt down small as a bug at the bottom of one of the plants with the bushy branches over his head.

He saw the stranger’s boots walking around the hedge two spaces in front of him.  The top of one shoe was torn off showing two missing toes and some dry bones inside the foot.  This was another Sith stranger.

The stranger’s feet took two more steps out into the street and started turning towards David.  David backed up and moved to the grass side of the hedges.  The stranger took two more steps down the road in David’s direction and stopped again.  David crab walked back to the next hedge and waited.

The stranger hit one of the bushes.  He waited and then pushed his hand down deep into the branches.  One of them snapped and bent down under the pressure of the stranger’s hands.  David could smell sap from the broken branch and another smell like cinnamon only more dirty and rotten.  He made a face and stuck out his tongue.

David could see several cuts on the stranger’s hand and arm.  His skin was very dry and tight.  The yellowish skin matched his tan, work pants.  The stranger ran his fingers across the ground under the bush before standing back up with green needles and sap stuck to his shirt sleeve.

David imagined this Sith stranger was from a desert planet with sharp rocks that cut their dry, sandy skin.  He was used to the hot summer on Earth, but he was confused by all the green plants.

He took two more steps toward David’s hedge and stopped.

David crawled backwards at an angle keeping the bushes between him and the Sith stranger from the desert world.  Then, he slithered up under the next hedge with his belly to the ground like a snake and waited.  He bent his legs and stuck his feet with his little, Velcro sneakers in the air without realizing he was doing it.

The stranger bent down and felt under the hedge where David had been.  His hand touched the light saber lying on the ground.

David’s mouth dropped open as he felt around his side and pockets. Then his face screwed up with sorrow.  He closed his hand over his mouth and started to cry.

The stranger closed his ruined hand around it and picked it up.  David could see the stranger’s face through the tears as he looked dumbly down at the object.  The stranger had thick black hair and a mustache that looked too dark and fake on the speckled, sand-colored head.  The stranger sniffed the light saber.  He opened his mouth to bite it, but stopped.  He turned his head towards David’s hedge.

David realized he had let a whimper escape behind his hand.

The stranger advanced on David’s hedge still holding the light saber.  David scooted backwards again, but he wasn’t going to be fast enough or quiet enough on his belly.

There was a crack sound from down the street that reverberated up making the stranger stop and wobble.  He wavered as he cranked around towards the noise.  There were two more cracks and voices.  He turned and walked up the road along the hedges towards the noises.

“No,” David hissed.

He stepped out of the hedges and looked back the way he had come.  There was no little, yellow robot and there were no other strangers coming.  He turned forward again and paced up behind the mustached stranger.  The stranger’s legs were longer, so it was hard for David to reach him even with his laboring, Sith walk.  They were almost to the end of the street.

There was another crack and a whistle.  David could see other strangers coming out of houses and open cars down the next street and across the parking lot of the community center across the main road.

David was right behind the stranger as they reached the end of the street.  He could see the stranger’s belt had missed one of the loops in the back.  He must have done that while he was still alive because Sith strangers did not put on belts.  David was close enough that he could also see an empty cell phone clip with New York Yankees “NY” on the top edge.  The stranger knew what it was like to lose something important to him.

The stranger was crossing the street without looking.

A shirtless stranger that had stood up out of the grass in the median when the noises started glanced over and tilted his head as he watched the little boy following another zombie like a duckling.  He turned awkwardly and started walking towards them instead of the noise.

A woman stranger in a sundress was crawling out from under a delivery truck on the curb.  She looked like she was really surprised with her bottom jaw broken open when she heard the shirtless stranger begin to moan.  At first she continued forward, but then she saw the boy and paused.  She started an opened-mouth groan and angled towards them.  A few others that were closer to the original noises started looking around confused by the calls of the others behind them.

There were two more cracks and the noise of tires.  The strangers were confused and scattered.  David saw the two that were after him on both sides.  His stranger was starting to look from side to side on his tight neck.

He counted to three using one number for each time the light saber swung back in the stranger’s hand as the mustache stranger lurched forward.

“Okay, here I go,” David whispered.

The stranger changed his gate and started to turn.  David kept behind him as the stranger curiously watched his shirtless friend walking and reaching for him.

David dove with both hands and snatched down on his light saber.  He was afraid it wouldn’t come, but he pulled hard against the stranger’s thumb and it came right loose.  The light saber popped out of his crusty hand and the stranger’s thumb broke off and bounced on the street.

The mustache stranger roared and whirled around with his strangely white teeth showing.  David didn’t wait.  He turned and ran back towards the hedges down the side street with the mustached stranger snatching at him with his four-fingered hand.  Other strangers turned and started coming back as David led mustache and shirtless back after him.  The sundress stranger was struggling to get to her feet, but kept stepping on her hem and pulled herself back down again.  She looked down at her feet in surprise.

David stayed on the street until he saw two strangers come out of the back of one of the sheds behind a house ahead of him.  If he had thought about it, he might have tried to keep going by as they struggled to get over their backyard fence, but he was scared.

He ran through the hedges and across the open grass.  The others plowed through the bushes and continued after him.

As he came up on the next road, David saw the cold planet stranger and the fat woman stranger walking towards him in his path.  He realized they were at the front of the birthday party coming up from the park.

He turned quickly and ran up the hill and through the side yard of one of the houses.  When he got to the back, he saw another stranger standing near the back porch with his back to David.  It was a man, but he had long hair in the back and short hair at the front and sides of his head.  David pressed his back against the side of the house before he was spotted.  David couldn’t really think of a planet where someone would need that kind of haircut.

He looked back down the side yard and saw the mustached stranger from the dry, sandy planet and the cold planet stranger were walking up the hill of the front yard after him together.

David lifted the latch on the gate to the next door neighbor’s privacy fence around their backyard.  The gate squeaked as he opened it and he slammed it closed behind him.  The stranger by the back porch turned and started walking towards his neighbor’s fence.  David ran across the yard that was thankfully empty.

He climbed up a woodpile on a concrete slab in the back corner.  One of the logs rolled out from under him and he nearly dropped his light saber again.  He started climbing slower.  The strangers hit the gate and broke through the latch bending the gate back the wrong way.  David started climbing faster again and another log rolled nearly dumping him off the side.  The strangers bounced against the cockeyed gate a couple times before it snapped off under their weight.  Two of the boards broke apart in the middle of the gate, but were held in place by the cross slats.

The stranger with the strange hair from next door fell over the broken gate and caught his foot.  His hair flopped forward around his ears and cheeks.  The others trampled over him and past him.  His ankle cracked twice and he folded completely sideways over the gate with his leg broken.  The strangers kept stepping on him and held him down as they poured into the backyard groaning and advancing on David.  More bones fractured loudly as they stepped on the stranger’s body again and again.

A stranger in a bikini over the privacy fence in the next neighbor’s yard looked up at David over the corner of the fences.  David stared for a second.  He had seen bikini swimsuits before, but he had never seen a man wearing one.  He had a thick beard, hairy arms, and greenish tattoos over his pale skin.  He was missing teeth as he open his grey lips and growled at David.  He reached up and clawed at the wood of his fence pulling up weather-treated splinters.

He didn’t want to know what planet this Sith stranger was from.

David finally reached the top and tossed his light saber over the back of the privacy fence.  It clattered on the hard surface on the other side.  He threw his leg over and then hung down on the other side by both hands.  It was a bigger drop than he thought.  He was afraid to let go.  He heard the strangers crashing into the woodpile on the other side.  Logs were rolling and scattered in every direction.  The fence began to shake and his body bounced against the wood.

“Okay, here I go,” he whimpered through gritted teeth.

He couldn’t let go.  Something touched his fingers.  He dropped hard on to the packed dirt skinning the heel of one hand and the elbow of the other arm.

“Ohhhh,” he moaned.

He looked at his fingers before he checked his palm or elbow.  There were no bites or scratches.  He wasn’t going to get sick and die like his parents had just yet.  He brushed his fingers a couple times to be sure.  They were dry.  There was no stronger juice on them.  He saw a layer of pulled up skin that burned on his palm.  He blew on it, but that made it worse.  His elbow had several deep, white lines that crossed each other over the tougher skin with a few dots of red.  He tried to kiss it, but couldn’t reach.

The fence rocked hard and cracked in a couple places.  There was loud banging and then it began to bend down towards him slowly.  There was scratching and growling.  A couple sections started to separate from each other at the posts.

David scrambled to his feet.  He looked around desperately.

“No, no, oh, no,” he cried covering his mouth with his skinned palm.

Then, he saw the light saber.  He grabbed it up and brushed it off as he ran up the trail behind the houses and down the next street before the fence had a chance to give way behind him.  He ran away and on to new adventures.

“You have advanced to the next level, Jedi warrior,” he told himself proudly, “That was a real close call, yellow robot.  They nearly got my light saber that time.”

David got back to a street he recognized and walked carefully up the sidewalk beside the parked cars that he knew were empty.

He heard the noise of the engine and stopped.  He was confused by it at first.  That noise shouldn’t have been there and he had trouble locating it.  Voices came from a couple different directions and echoed off the houses on both sides.

A car window was struck twice before it shattered in behind him.  He whipped around and saw a man reaching in the car a few spaces down standing on the street side of the cars diagonally from where David was standing.

The man called back, “I got one.”

The truck making the engine sound rolled up the center of the street beside the man.  He pulled out a backpack from the car and tossed it in the back of the truck.

There were two gunshots from inside a house across the street.  David dropped down beside the car next to him and knelt on the curb leaning against the driver’s door.

These were living strangers and they were more dangerous than the Sith sometimes.  They did things to people that weren’t right.  There were no police left to protect little boys from bad people.  They had all bled to death from their necks and they ran out of bullets shooting the Sith strangers.  David’s dead parents had told him these kinds of strangers did very bad, hurtful things to people that were too awful to talk about.  They even did it to little boys and girls.  They were evil strangers and they were stronger than mommies and daddies.

They were not stronger than God, but sometimes God wouldn’t help if parents let themselves get caught by Sith strangers or if little boys got caught by evil, living strangers.  David knew that sometimes God only helped after people were dead, but David needed help now.

Even if they didn’t do stuff to little boys, they might shoot him in the head thinking he was a zombie or just because that’s what they do to people that are strangers to them.

David was the last Jedi and he had to be smart to get away not dead.

Someone in the truck yelled out, “You got trouble?”

The men coming out of the house across the street were laughing, “No.”

“We put them down,” one yelled.

Another said, “She had nice titties.  If she weren’t a zombie, I would have held her down and rubbed one out right between them.”

The men laughed again.  David knew these were bad strangers.  He didn’t understand what they were saying, but he knew they were talking about doing things to a woman after holding her down.  They had shot her too.

The one in the truck called back, “Yeah, if you were in there by yourself, you would have done it anyway.”

There was more laughing.

A man right on the other side of David’s car yelled, “Hurry the hell up.  The biters will be limping along anytime now.”

David flinched at the sound of the voice so close.  He flinched again when the window shattered on the passenger’s side.  The car rocked several times and then was still again.

The truck rolled on by as men from the houses dropped more stuff in the back.  The window breaker walked past three cars looking down inside.  He stopped at the fourth and smashed it in with a metal pipe that looked like David’s light saber handle.

“His has a red light,” David whispered.

The men from the home across the street walked up the driveway of the next house down.  David stayed still waiting from them to leave.

“Wait up,” a voice yelled from behind David.

He turned and saw three men walking out of the garage of a house two doors down from him moving in the direction of David’s hiding spot.  They were carrying several bags and a big, black trunk.

The window breaking stranger yelled back, “Hurry up.  This ain’t leisurely shopping, ladies.  Smash and grab!”

The truck revved its engine twice, but kept rolling forward at the same, slow pace.  They were halfway down the driveway and walking towards the sidewalk where David was sitting right where they could see him if they looked.

A man leaned out the truck’s passenger window and yelled, “We’ll leave you behind and you can find a stinker to chew on your junk instead of the teenies and twinks in the cathouse trailer back at camp.”

David whispered, “He’s not wearing his seatbelt.”

“We’re coming,” one of the men yelled behind David.

“I bet you are,” the truck stranger yelled and then whistled loudly.

One of the leather handles broke and they dropped the trunk on the driveway. It popped open and several cans rolled out.  All three strangers dropped their bags on the driveway and started filling the trunk back up.

“It was nice knowing you guys,” the truck stranger laughed as he climbed back in the side, passenger window.

“We’re coming,” the stranger from the driveway yelled again with his back to David.

He reached under a car for a can of corn as the others scrambled to finish grabbing the other cans.

The stranger by the broken car window snapped, “Stop talking and hurry up.  This is turning into amateur hour.”

He leaned the entire top of his body into the window he had smashed trying to grab something in the floor of the car.

David looked at the back of the truck and the man bent inside the car.  He looked at the men on the ground picking up cans.  He ran away from the cars and across the yard.  He slid around a large tree near the front porch and dropped down to his knees.

He peeked around the tree.  He didn’t know what the man had reached for in the car because he had dropped it into the back of the truck and was walking on.  He saw nothing he wanted in the next several cars.  The men came out of the house across the street with more guns and tools.

David peeked around the other side of the tree.  The three men were in the street now and were running with their bags and awkwardly held trunk.

He looked around the truck side of the tree again and saw the men dropping the guns and tools into the growing heap in the back of the truck.  The trunk-dropping strangers finally caught up with their load of cans as the other group of men were walking up to another house.  The window smashing stranger crossed the street once he ran out of cars on David’s side of the road.

“Cans are heavy as sin,” someone said in the garage of the house beside David’s tree.

David got ready to run around the side of the house.  He peeked out and saw that window smashing stranger was looking right at him.  He froze even though he wanted to pull his head back quickly.

Two men walked out of the open garage just ten feet away from David.  They did not look his way as they totted the plastic bins that were full and bending with cans.

“Hurry it up, please,” the window smashing stranger ordered as he stood still staring up at the house where David was trying to hide.

Another man came out carrying a rifle over one shoulder and a tote bag hanging heavy and low from his other side.  He looked to the left away from David as he came out.

“We’re coming, Grandma,” he called.

He looked back the other way and stopped as he looked directly at David behind the tree.

“What the hell?!” he said tilting the rifle away from his shoulder, “You guys need to do a better job of clearing out the . . .”

He stopped talking as he dropped the bag with a clunk and raised up the rifle aiming it at David’s head.

“I’m the last Jedi,” David whispered, “I’m not the boy you are looking for.”

“What is it?” the smash stranger from the street called, “You got a creeper, Chuck?  Either put it down or kiss it.”

The rifle stranger looked back towards the street and then back at David.  David heard the other two stop walking near the foot of the driveway.

One of them huffed back, “This stuff is heavy, Chuck.  Do you need help?  What is it?  You got a live one?”

The other stranger laughed, “Hell, I’m so horny and hungry I’ll screw her and eat her whether she’s alive or not.”

The stranger that they called Chuck slowly put his rifle back on his shoulder.  He picked up the tote bag still staring at David the whole time.

“It’s nothing,” he said as he walked on down the driveway out of David’s view around the tree.

“That was a lot of something for just nothing,” one of the strangers down the driveway said.

“I’m just seeing things,” Chuck lied.

“Mermaid zombies with big cans?” the other asked.

“Why did you have to say cans?” the horny and hungry stranger moaned as they walked off the driveway and up the street after the truck.

David peeked out from the tree again.  The stranger called Chuck was the only one looking back up at David.  David froze again.  Stranger Chuck put his finger over his lips in the shushing signal and then quickly turned back away.  David slid back behind the tree and put his back against the bark as he waited for the sound of the strangers to retreat away.

He heard the moaning next from up the street approaching from the opposite direction.  There were only a couple Sith strangers in sight wavering on their feet like distant shadows following after the noise of the living strangers.  David could only see a couple, but he was the last Jedi and he knew what that meant.

He left the tree and ran off around the garage behind the house before the Sith strangers got too close.  He was off to find more adventures.

He found the path through the woods and was careful to watch both sides in case something came out between the trees.  He held his light saber closed, but ready.  He did end up having to use it, once he got to the big rock in the clearing.  He sliced up the droids that attacked him and then closed the blue plastic back up again.

He jumped off the rock on to the dirty mattress surrounded by crushed, beer cans and old underwear.  David laughed each time he saw the underwear.  He imagined kids walking out of the woods forgetting their underwear.  That was crazy.  Today, he made a face because the mattress was soggy with old rainwater.

He walked out of the woods and up the trail through the tall, yellow grass.  He couldn’t see over it, but he couldn’t be seen either.  He was careful to look for things crawling towards him in the grass like snakes, wolves, or strangers with no arms.  He had seen all of that before except for the wolves.

He came out of the tall, yellow grass into the tall, green grass of the white house’s backyard.  David went around the left side to the detached garage.  He stood on the low box of the well’s pump cover below the window.  He peered in through the dirty glass.  He saw nothing, so he went around to the door.

The garage door was stuck half open like it had been ever since the power went out back when some people were still alive.  He walked in without having to duck.  He looked around carefully for strangers or bees.  He had seen both sneak into open doors before.  There were a couple lizards running around under the work tables, but nothing that would sting or bite him.

He grabbed the bicycle and rolled it out on the driveway.  It had “Clone Wars” printed on the side with cartoon Jedi’s on the seat.  There was a tiny license plate hanging diagonally by one drawstring strap from the front bar with “Alex” printed on it.

David climbed on the seat as the bike rocked a little on the training wheels.  He shook his body forward a couple times as he tried to move the pedals to get it started.  It wouldn’t budge.  He whimpered with frustration, but stayed quiet like a smart Jedi.

David closed his eyes and thought about what his dead father had told him.

“Calm down and think,” David lectured himself, “Bend your ankle a little.  Forward and down.  Forward and down.  Top foot first.  Forward and down.”

The bike began to roll forward and then he began to move around the circle of the driveway in front of the house.  He turned awkwardly as he held on to his light saber while he steered.  He circled back around the driveway between the house and garage.  Then, he started the path again heading back towards the roundabout in the front.

“Thank you, daddy,” David whispered.

He rode in silence for several minutes.  The pedals, chain, and wheels clinked and swished rhythmically as he repeated the figure eight around and around the drive.  Each time he circled the front, he looked carefully around the other houses and yards to be sure no one was coming, living or Sith.

He finally stopped the bike and climbed off next to the half open garage.  Alex had a better bike than David.  David’s dead parents had bought him a cheaper one that was plain orange.  It was back at David’s old house from when everyone was still alive.  His dead parents were inside in their big bed upstairs turning into skeletons.  David never went back there.

He sat down on the brick steps that led to the side door to Alex’s family’s kitchen.  He pulled the packet of Oreos out of his pocket and tore open the cellophane.  He set his light saber next to him as he ate.  He missed milk.  There was no more milk in the world.  There might be cows, but all the farmers were dead.  All the grocery stores were torn up by strangers, living and Sith.

David was going to have to find water later.  He set the half pack of cookies down on the stoop and picked back up his light saber.  He wiped black crumbs away from his puffy, full mouth, but left most of them pasted around his lips.

As he finished chewing, he walked past the bike back into the garage.  He picked up a big bat.  It was fat and blue.  He picked up a white ball.  It was hollow and plastic.  He went to the back yard.  He tried for a while to throw it into the air and then swung the big bat to hit it.  He put his light saber down on the steps next to his cookies and tried again, but failed.  Alex used to do it back when he was alive, but David wasn’t good at that trick.  He put the ball down on the tangled grass and hit it like a golf ball a few times.  He took the bat and ball back into the garage and dropped them back in the wagon.

“Keep your eye on the ball, Jedi,” David said to the empty garage.

He looked around.  He took out a bubble wand next.  It was getting low.  He got a few bubbles to pop out, but not many.  They floated along the still air and landed on the top of the yellow grass out in the field before bursting.  He got some of the old soap on his hands as he tilted the wand up and spilled some of the solution on the driveway.  He stepped on the dark splotch.  David beeped to save his game.  He took the wand back in the garage and wiped his hands off on his shirt and shorts.

He picked up the bucket of sidewalk chalk and came back out.  He took out a fat piece of purple chalk and began drawing awkward squares.  When he finished, he started writing bent and twisted numbers inside each one.  Each time he had to start over and count again to remember which number came next.  Finally, the game board was complete.

He dropped the chalk back in the bucket and started looking around.  He found a dry leaf, but it wouldn’t work.  He crumbled it up without trying it.

He found a sliver watch in the grass.  It was Alex’s dad’s watch.  David turned it over and looked at it for several seconds.  The glass was cracked on the front and the hands weren’t moving.  David could tell time a little.  The watch didn’t have all the numbers marked and he had to look around the white cracks.  David knew the little hand went back to the last number.  It was a seven.  He counted by fives for the big hand.  It was 25:7 o’clock when time stopped for Alex’s dad.  It might have worked for the game, but it wasn’t his.  He dropped it back in the grass.

David went to the stoop and fished one of his Oreo’s out of the battered package next to his light saber.  He came back to the driveway and threw it on the ground.  Black crumbs came off on his chalky five.  He hopped out to it, picked it up, and hoped back.  He kept missing the squares and had to rethrow.  He tossed it carefully, hopped out, picked it up, and hopped back.

There was a gunshot in the distance.  David paused with one leg up in the air behind him.  He wobbled with his arms out, but kept his balance.  The sound rolled over the roofs of the houses and out across the field behind David.  He waited, but nothing happened.  He looked back out at the tall, yellow grass behind him.  He was the last Jedi and he knew what might be coming.

He picked up his Oreo marker and hopped back.  He played two more lonely rounds.

There were two more cracks of gun fire a little farther away.  It did not echo as much, but died in the air out in the distance.  David looked back out in the field again anyway.

He picked up his Oreo and looked at it.  It was rough and pitted around the edges and on both flat sides.  He shrugged.  David blew on both sides before popping it into his mouth and chewing it up.

He carried the bucket of chalk back into the garage.  He came back out with a big, blue ball with a Superman “S” on it.  David, Alex, and Alex’s brother used to play “kick away” with it until one of them would get angry and tell Alex’s dead parents on the others.

Before David could try to play it by himself, he heard the truck engine and the wheels rolling slowly up the street.  He threw the big ball under the door and ran out to the edge of the house.  He squatted down by the gutter pipe next to the dead bush.  He recognized the truck as it rounded the corner at the end of Alex’s street and started rolling up towards and past Alex’s house.  The back was full of supplies and covered in a tarp now.  He knew what that meant.  He couldn’t make out the driver or passenger through the windshield, but he knew they were looking around carefully for strangers.

David ran back towards the garage even though he knew moving fast or suddenly could get him spotted.  He didn’t have much time.  He grabbed the bike and rolled it back into the garage.  He almost tipped over, but made it in without falling.  He peeked back out of the garage.  The truck was still rolling by without stopping.  He sprinted out of the garage and into the backyard behind the white house.

David stopped and ran back.  He grabbed the remaining cookies and stuffed them into his pocket.  He grabbed his light saber and then ran back across the tall, green grass.

As he passed the torn screen around the brackish pool, David looked away towards the yellow grass of the field.  The water in the pool was dark and full of trash, but he could still see the bodies of Alex and his family if he looked inside.  They weren’t strangers because their heads were destroyed, but David still didn’t want to look.

He got past them and continued running through the yards and across the streets looking both ways to be sure a truck wasn’t coming.

He was out of breath when he got to the backyard of the brick house.  He wanted to rest, but he didn’t have time.

He climbed up the four rungs of the wood ladder against the back of the house and scurried into the open window.  He tossed the light saber in ahead of him.  He almost rubbed his skinned elbow again as he fell in on to the carpet.  He reached back out the window and struggled to get the wood ladder up.  He had done it before, but he was tired now.

He gritted his teeth and said, “Okay, here I go.”

David pulled until his face changed color and his arms shook.  The ladder tilted and slid through the window into the room with him.  He breathed out hard.  He reached back out the window and pulled each of the shutters to.  He latched them down locked and pulled the window back down tight.  He reached up on his tip toes and slid the lock around closed too.

He heaved the ladder up with a grunt and ran out into the living room.  He left the light saber on the carpet behind him for now.  He stopped and listened.  He didn’t hear any bees or strangers.  He did hear the truck engine getting closer.

He ran through the house and back into one of the bedrooms.  He heaved the ladder up against the bunk beds.  It took three tries, but he finally got the broad hooks locked over the wooden edge of the top bunk.  He leaned against it breathing hard.

David looked around at his clothes.  He saw a couple bits of dry, crumbled leaf.  He picked them off carefully and flicked them under the bottom bunk.

He heard the truck stop outside the house.  The engine revved twice, but did not keep going.  He heard voices and laughing.

“Okay, here I go,” David whispered as he walked quietly out through the house staying away from the windows.

Someone was pulling on the side door.  He slipped by the door and back into the carpeted room off of the living room.  The door came open with a crack just as David stepped out of sight.

The sound of boots clopped on the hard floor in the same house with David.  David knelt down on the carpet and picked up his light saber.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are?” the hoarse voice sang.

A second set of boots walked in and closed the door behind the men.  David closed his eyes and made an effort to breathe slowly and quietly.  His heart was pounding hard in his chest.  He didn’t want to give himself away.

“We’re talking to you, boy,” the other man barked as he locked the door, “This isn’t a game now.  Don’t make us come find you.”

David stood up slowly with his light saber down at his side.  He saw a small stain in the carpet to the side of him.  He stepped on the little spot carefully with both feet and made a beep as quietly as he could.  If something bad was about to happen, it was important to save the game, so the Jedi could try again later.  He walked out of the room and stood in front of the men without trying to hide.  They stared at him without speaking.

David said, “I’m the last Jedi.  I’m the boy you are looking for.”

They stared at him a moment longer and started laughing.  David smiled and ran at them.  The bigger man picked him up and hugged him tightly.

He asked, “What is all over your face, boy?”

David was afraid again.  Then, he remembered.

“Well,” he explained, “I found some Oreos on the top shelf of the pantry, Uncle Martin.”

“How did you get on the top shelf?” the other man asked.

Uncle Martin put David back down.

David turned and answered, “Well, Mr. Bailey, I used the ladder from my bunk beds.”

Mr. Bailey groaned and put his hand over his face as he walked away.  Uncle Martin put his meaty hand on top of David’s head and turned him back around to face him.

“David,” Uncle Martin began, “That is way too dangerous.  If you had fell and hurt yourself, there would have been no one here to help you.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” David answered.

He held his light saber behind his back.  He didn’t want his uncle to spot his skinned hand or elbow.  His uncle brushed the crumbs off the boy’s face roughly with his thick fingers.  David screwed up his face with discomfort.

“And what are these stains on your clothes?” Uncle Martin asked.

David looked down in despair.

He answered, “Soap.”

“Soap?” Uncle Martin barked.

“Yes, sir,” David answered.

“How did you get soap on you?” the big man asked, “Did you use your drinking water?”

“No, sir,” David answered, “I got some by accident before I remembered the water doesn’t work anymore and I wiped it off on my clothes.  I’m really sorry, Uncle Martin.”

“No, it’s okay, David,” Uncle Martin said while rubbing the boy’s back gently, “We’ll leave out some hand sanitizer for you so you don’t have to use your water with the soap.  It’s fine, kiddo.  Go on and play in your room for a while.  Mr. Bailey and I have to unload the truck, check the perimeter, and lock down for the night.  We’ll fix dinner in a little while.”

David did as he was told eventually.

He went in his room and fell on top of his plain, blue bed spread.  He was exhausted.  Alex had a Clone Wars bedspread and sheets, but no one was using them now that everyone was dead.  David had gone in once to lay on it and to play with Alex’s inside toys.  It had just made David feel lonely and sad.  David had snuck back a few of Alex’s action figures and hid them in the bottom of the toy box Uncle Martin and Mr. Bailey had gotten for David after Aunt Annie had died.  He didn’t play with figures very much.

David took the package with the last couple cookies out of his pocket and hid them inside his pillowcase near the top of the pillow where he wouldn’t crush them when he laid his head on it.

David got off his bed as the men did their evening work and he played with his cars for a while.  He had a rug that looked like a town with streets, buildings, and parking lots printed on it.  David rolled a toy truck slowly down the carpet street.  He pretended the men were shooting Sith strangers in the houses and were bringing out their cans in bags.  Some of the men were holding down women and doing bad things to them that were too awful to talk about.  A pretend man was breaking windows in the other cars and stole the backpacks inside.  One of the men spotted a boy behind a tree.  Half the times David had the man shoot the boy; the other half of the times he would let the boy go.

After a while, David left the cars and pretended he was sneaking up behind a Sith stranger that had stolen the Jedi’s light saber.  He would count to three and grab it out of the stranger’s hand.  He then turned and ran around the bed twice.  Once, he bumped his good elbow on the side table at the corner of the bed, but its didn’t hurt bad.  He climbed up the ladder on to the top bunk.  He tossed his light saber down to the bottom bunk carefully.  He hung from the wood edge of the bunk before dropping down to the floor landing on his feet.  He grabbed the light saber, ran around the bed again, and then jumped on the bottom bunk where he was safe, but breathing hard.

Each time he would huff, “Hold on to your underwear.  That was a close one.”

Then, he would repeat the game.  He was counting to three again behind the imaginary stranger, when his Uncle Martin called him for dinner.  David startled and dropped the light saber on his rug next to his cars.  He held his chest over his beating heart and took several deep breaths.  His uncle called again.  David started running.

“I’m coming,” David called.

He whispered to himself, “I bet you are.”

He had never been very good at whistling, so he didn’t try.

Uncle Martin had grilled quail and vegetables for dinner.  David didn’t like everything grilled.  He didn’t like the taste of quail as much as he liked chicken and especially chicken nuggets out of the bag from the freezer like his dead mom used to make.  There were no more chicken nuggets or freezers left in the world and all the moms had shot themselves in the head after they got bitten.  David also knew that he was not allowed to complain about eating or allowed to leave anything on his plate.  There was no wasting food in a world without grocery stores.  David just ate his dinner one gamey bite at a time.

He said, “Mmmmm, quail . . . mmmmm, grilled squash.”

“That’s the spirit, kiddo,” Mr. Bailey smiled as he poured them all glasses of room temperature water.

After a few minutes, Uncle Martin asked, “Did you see any strangers around while we were gone today, David?”

David confessed, “I wasn’t near the windows all day since you left this morning and until you got back.”

“That’s good,” Mr. Bailey praised him again over a bite of onion.

Uncle Martin added, “Following the rules keeps us all safe, boy.  Did you hear anyone?  Gun shots or cars maybe?”

David answered, “I heard gun shots and a truck. I heard voices too.”

“Voices?” Mr. Bailey snapped.

Uncle Martin held up his hand to silence Mr. Bailey.  Mr. Bailey went back to eating without saying anything else, but he looked back and forth between the boy and Martin.

Uncle Martin asked, “How close were the voices?  What did they say?”

David lied, “Not close to me.  I couldn’t understand them.  I stayed away from the windows all day.”

“That’s fine.  Everything is fine,” Uncle Martin said.

The rest of dinner was particularly quiet.  They cleaned up and snuffed out the lanterns before it got dark outside.  They moved one lantern to the hallway with no windows.  They read David’s bedtime story there.  It was from Winnie the Pooh.  It was the old stories, not the cartoon ones.  David didn’t understand all the words, but he liked listening to Uncle Martin’s voice.  After he brushed his teeth, he went to bed in his play clothes from the day’s secret adventures.

Uncle Martin tucked him in in the dark bedroom.  He sat on David’s bed and had to scrunch and lean out to fit under the top bunk and around the ladder.  He held on to one of the wood rungs.  David was nervous.  He was afraid Uncle Martin might feel a disturbance in the Force that would let him know that David had used the ladder to leave the house without permission.

Uncle Martin shifted and moved the light saber out from under him and set it on the side table at the corner of David’s bunk.

“Did you do okay today, David?” Uncle Martin asked.

“Yes, sir,” David said, “I took care of myself fine.  Are you and Mr. Bailey going out gathering again tomorrow?”

Uncle Martin answered, “I don’t know yet.  We’ll decide before morning.  Don’t be scared.  Everything is fine and we will come back safe.”

“I know,” David said.

Uncle Martin rubbed the top of David’s head with one large hand.  David was afraid he would discover the hidden Oreos.

Uncle Martin said, “I know you’ve been cooped up inside for the last several days.  Things have been busy.  Either tomorrow or the day after we will stay home and find some time to play outside a little.”

“It’s fine,” David said, “We can do it some other time.”

Uncle Martin added, “Even if we have to leave again, we can play inside when we get back.  We’ll play a board game, all three of us.  You can pick it.  Or we can play light sabers.”

“You’ll have to be the red one,” David warned.

“That’s fine,” Uncle Martin said, “I can be Darth Martin or Uncle Vader.”

David laughed.

Uncle Martin added, “I’ll be one of those gnarly, ‘dark side’ Sith lords.”

David stopped laughing.

He said, “Uncle Martin, I want us to fight on the same side against the bad guys.  None of us will become the Sith.”

Uncle Martin leaned down and kissed him on top of his head.  The bed creaked and groaned as he did it.  He stood up making it creak and pop some more.

“That sounds good to me,” Uncle Martin agreed, “Goodnight, buddy.”

“Goodnight, Uncle Martin,” David answered.

Uncle Martin walked out and closed the door.  Light from the lantern down the hall came under the wide space under David’s door.  David reached in and slipped the last two Oreos out of his pillow.  He tip toed across the floor and laid down on his belly by the gap under his door.

He knew from practice that they would plan just up the hall where they could use the lantern without risking the light showing out the windows through the slats in the shutters.  David crunched his cookie as he waited for them to start.  He stopped eating when he heard the maps crinkling as they were folded open on the carpet in the hall.

Mr. Bailey spoke first, “I don’t like that the gangs are getting close enough to the house to be heard.”

“I don’t either,” Uncle Martin answered.

“Maybe we should rethink David staying here alone,” Mr. Bailey said.

Uncle Martin answered, “Nothing has changed.”

Mr. Bailey said, “The gangs are swinging out wider during the day.  It’s only a matter of time.  They will spot us and follow us back or they will hit the house while we are gone and discover David.”

There was a long silence.

“I don’t see a better solution,” Uncle Martin said, “I don’t like leaving him here, but do you want him with us with some of the close calls we’ve had?  It won’t be easy to get in and out defending him too.  It will put us all at greater risk, if we take him.  We’ll have to leave him in the truck while we go in.  Is that better than leaving him in the secure house?  Leaving one of us here or even in the truck is still as bad as it was the first time we decided this.  We have made it this far because we have a system and we can watch each other’s backs.  Going out there alone would be suicidal.  Then, what happens when the one that goes out doesn’t come back?  Do you leave David to go search or do you take him with you to go search?  What if the one that goes out is caught by the gangs and they are waiting for the other with a trap?  What if they torture the one to have him give up the house?”

There was another long pause.  They both started to speak at once, but Uncle Martin stopped and Mr. Bailey was the one that was able to finish.

Mr. Bailey said, “I’m saying we may need to consider getting further away from the neighborhoods.  If the gangs are hitting every house, they will eventually come through this neighborhood and discover we are here.  They probably already suspect there are survivors around from the noises they have heard from time to time from our guns or truck.”

“And go where?” Uncle Martin asked quietly.

Mr. Bailey answered, “We’d have to go out away from the suburban sprawl.  There would have to be enough miles of empty country to keep them from hunting out to wherever we land.”

They were rustling the map.

Uncle Martin said, “Uh, where you’re pointing, that would be about twenty miles out.  Is that what you mean by ‘enough miles of open country,’ Bailey?”

“There abouts,” Mr. Bailey agreed.

“We can’t just hop in the truck and drive,” Uncle Martin said, “We go out twenty miles hunting around with no plan, we probably don’t come back.  We’d have to scout it out well.”

“Probably so,” Mr. Bailey agreed.

“There’s a chance we have to go out farther than we could travel round trip in a day,” Uncle Martin said, “We’d have to take David with us and possibly stay out overnight or leave him here overnight with one of us while the other makes a suicide run out there all alone.”

“There’s the rub, as Shakespeare might say it,” Mr. Bailey answered.

There was another pause.  The map was moved again and blocked the light from the lantern briefly.  David lay next to the gap listening carefully to all the talk he didn’t understand.  He waited.

Uncle Martin said, “I’m not denying we have to at least consider a fallback position, if we ever do have to leave the house in an emergency.  We would need to stock it in advance.  Scout out something at least as secure as what we have now.”

Mr. Bailey noted, “It will take multiple trips.  We’d end up leaving stuff behind no matter how we planned it.”

“We don’t even know what’s out that way,” Uncle Martin said.

Someone poked the map hard three times.  David imagined it was Uncle Martin’s big fingers.

Mr. Bailey said, “All the gang camps we know about are in the other direction.”

There was more map poking.  David imagined Mr. Bailey’s skinny fingers this time.

Uncle Martin said, “The devils we know and then Pandora’s box out in the country.”

“We just take a right at the rock and keep going until we reach the hard place,” Mr. Bailey agreed.

David pictured rocks and mountains on their map.  He used to go on trips to the mountains with his dead parents.  Sometimes Uncle Martin and dead Aunt Annie had gone with them.  That wouldn’t be a terrible place to live and find adventures, David thought.  He would miss Alex’s bike and his old house even though he never went back.

If they were going to move, he would have to go back in and collect some of his old toys.  He wanted some pictures too.  He would have to go into his parents’ room for those.  He was a brave Jedi, but he knew what that meant.  He wanted his father’s watch too.  It would still be on his dead dad’s wrist under the bloody sheets unless one of the gangs of living strangers had taken it.  If they had gone in the house, it would be open for him and maybe they missed it under the bloody sheets.  If they tried to do awful things to his dead mother, they might have moved the sheets though.  He would have to check to find out.  If the living strangers hadn’t opened the house for him yet, there was a house key under the heavy plant on the porch.  He didn’t see them bring out any toys or pictures at any of the houses today, so maybe they would all be there for him to find the next time Uncle Martin and Mr. Bailey left him alone.

David pictured himself pulling down the bloody sheet and touching his dead father’s arm to unlatch the watch.  He told himself that his father wasn’t a Sith and he would not move except where David pulled him.  He hoped his parents weren’t black and yucky like the dog.  He hoped they weren’t hot, smelly, and covered in flies or crawly fly babies like the trash that got left out back when everyone was still alive.  He hoped his dad’s thumb didn’t break off like happened with the Sith stranger’s hand today.

David stuck out his tongue and made a face in the light under the door.

He waited and listened some more.

Uncle Martin breathed a long sigh in the short moments that these thoughts passed through David’s young mind.

He said, “Well, Bailey, we are definitely going for another drive tomorrow.”

“What about David this time?” Mr. Bailey asked.

Uncle Martin said, “He’ll be okay at the house again.  We won’t go far this first time.”

David smiled on his belly looking under the door with his knees bent and his bare feet up in the air.  Uncle Martin and Mr. Bailey continued to talk about their grown-up plans.  David took another bite off his last Oreo and began to plan tomorrow’s adventures for himself.

He whispered over a mouth full of crumbs, “Okay, here I go.”