“Warning: martial law now in effect.”

That’s what the sign said. It dangled to the ground from the single post that still held it, while the other post bent westward toward the eastern front of the Rocky Mountain range beyond. When he placed his large hand on my shoulder, pinching and pushing me to my knees, I felt the tip of his knife poke the back of my neck, unevenly tracing the bumps of my spine. His hands were large–bigger than my face.

“It’s nothing personal,” he said in a voice that scraped like one pack a day for forty years. I recognized it, though. It was really him.

“It’s just a matter of honor,” I responded. The knife moved away from my neck. His hand loosened. He held his breath. I held mine, too, for a little while. But he remained still, until I asked, “That’s what you used to say, right?”

His hand left my shoulder and I heard footsteps. The danger had passed. I fell forward and placed my hands on the asphalt, before scrambling ahead and turning back toward him. He was just as I’d glimpsed.

The years had sanded him down. He had a thick, gray beard and black hair fell from his Tigers baseball cap to his shoulders. Even his intense, obsidian eyes were softened by fatigue. But he looked exactly the same, otherwise. The same tall, muscular build and taut, Cleopatran facial bone structure.

According to his bio, at 6’4” and weighing in at 240 lbs, from the motor city, Detroit, Michigan, Barbarian was one of the fiercest heels in professional wrestling.

When his beard was black and his hair was cut spartan short, Barbarian came out to the ring in furs and black tights, with a string of clay skulls dangling from around his neck. Sliding beneath the bottom rope to a Sitar-remixed Welcome to the Jungle, he would cast off his furs and flex to display his bronzed front biceps.

His persona was like his name. Barbarian made his reputation by a specific kind of brutality that cemented him as a heel, like setting mannequins dressed as his opponents ablaze or decapitating them with an Egyptian sickle sword. And then he would say the same catchphrase while peering directly into the camera: “It’s nothing personal. It’s just a matter of honor,” followed by the kind of ululation that Muslim extremists did in movies.

I could kill him, probably. He was still fit, but he looked worn down like the rocks in the desert that stretched out before us from the parking lot of yet another abandoned grocery store. Nonetheless, my gun was still in my backpack, sitting in the rusted skeleton of a van that I stopped to rest and take shade in. He sat at the edge of where the backdoor once slid in, where I had left said bag in the shadow that he had found me in.

“What did you say, lady?” he asked.

I didn’t respond.

“No one said that to me for a long time,” he said. He fished a canteen out from his duster and took a pull from it, before passing it over to me. I unscrewed the cap hastily. It had been six hours since I last tasted water, and I wasn’t counting on the grocery store having any, but maybe something was still left in some of the old pipes. And if they still had coffee filters and scrubbing pads, I might be able to filter out any particulate. A good scavenger uses everything. A good scavenger isn’t supposed to run out of water, though–they’re not supposed to get caught off guard, either. But here we are.

“So, you’re not going to rape or kill me?” I asked. In my experience, you don’t leave these sorts of questions in the air. You don’t trust their answers, either.

“A fan? No, I don’t think I could,” he said. I took another yank from the canteen and passed it back to Barbarian. Then I joined him in the shadow of the car’s carcass, facing him but sitting. I could grab the knife in my boot a hell of a lot quicker that way if he turned on me.

“Who said I was a fan? I liked the Roman Reigns,” I said. He smiled. A molar had fallen out, and the rest of his teeth were brown. He used to have a perfect smile.

“It’s been twelve years since I wrestled and you still remember my catchphrase,” he said. That’s how we all spoke. “It’s been twelve years since…” is how every conversation with a stranger starts. Next year, it will be thirteen, and then fourteen, and so on. It seems like everyone that wants to forget it just won’t mention what actually happened–the climate event or the Omnivirus that took the lives of seven out of ten Americans–not until we’ve forgotten it, anyway. He glanced me over and said, “You must have been a teenager.”

Was he flirting? Either way, I had to laugh, and I answered, “Twelve years ago? I was in my twenties. But the last time I watched you wrestle, I was a teenager. I stopped following you a year after your big league debut.”

We let the conversation fizzle and made our way into the grocery store, together. He kept his knife out, I kept my gun in my bag. The less he knew about my inventory, the better. But it made more sense for us to go together. The automatic sliding doors had been shattered through ages ago, the glass from the frames either swept away by the winds or ground back down to sand. We entered silently. Immediately by the door, by a large chest used for holding ice, there was a pile of blankets browned by age or blood. They crunched when I kicked them and dust rose around my feet. It had been years since anyone had used them, but whoever had had left an open backpack with its contents spread about nearby in the enclosure for one of the front end cashiers.

“Looks like no one has been here in a while,” I said as I glanced around. There were broken skylights dotting the ceiling, where the sunlight could reach through and allow for vegetation to take. On the opposite side of the entrance, the produce section had become a garden, probably started from the leftover vegetable seeds from old fruit and the cool, humid environment that persisted in the architecture. It took every ounce of willpower to keep from showing Barbarian how excited I was. He knelt down to inspect the contents of the backpack.

“Yeah. This place was ransacked and abandoned pretty quick after,” he said. He picked up a small black cylinder with a gold stripe in the middle, holding it up so that I could see it, and asked, “You wear lipstick?”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said, making my way to produce. A small, skinny orange tree grew in the middle of the patch of fading sunlight, with squash and tomatoes growing around its base. The tiles and concrete had been broken, like the land reached through to cultivate the refuse leftover and nourish what life they contained. As soon as I stepped into the sunlight, I became momentously enraptured in the verdancy that surrounded me, and the smell of wet earth cleared the Colorado dust caked to my lungs. I coughed at first, but as I caught my breath, I shouted, “Come over here, Barbarian.”

“Don’t call me that,” he said and groaned when he stood.

“Oranges don’t even grow in Colorado. Can you believe it?” I said. He brought the backpack with him to collect oranges that he reached up to pluck from the tree’s branches. I asked, “So, what do you want me to call you? The Iron Sheik?”

“My name is Darius.”

“Your real name is Darius?” I asked. Darius was also the stage name of his persona before he made it to national television.

I first saw Darius when he made frequent appearances on a public access wrestling program in my hometown of Aurora, just outside of Chicago. The budget was smaller, with less lighting and practically no pyro or holograms, and he only performed for a live audience of about a hundred people, but he truly embodied the historical magnificence of his namesake. In gold tights and a long robe with a golden lion on the back, Darius the Great was a modern Adonis.

He was chiseled, handsome with a shaved face and his hair trimmed short. In spite of his height, acrobatics were no issue–he often did complete back flips off turnbuckles to catch his challengers off guard. In fact, his signature move started as a backflip from a turnbuckle, followed by clothes-lining his opponent into the turnbuckle itself before they could turn back toward him. In his independent wrestling organization days, he called the attack the “March on Babylon.” After he got big, he still did the March on Babylon, but it became the “Spilling the Blood of the Infidels.” His catch phrase started in his early wrestling days too, but when he used to be Darius the Great, honor meant something–like he were a samurai or something noble. I really used to like him, back then.

He grunted and asked, “You’re really not a fan? What’s your name, anyway?”

“Azi,” I said, and checked a green tomato for bugs before biting into it. As I chewed, I said, “Just Azi.”

“Farsi baladi?”

The flesh of the unripe tomato was firm but giving and its contents were savory tart. I slurped out its juice guts and asked with a full mouth, “What?”

“Never mind,” he said and zipped the bag as he glanced upward, peering toward the purple sky through the roof. “It’s getting dark. Whaddya say we make camp?”

“Together? I’m good,” I responded.

“It’ll be safer if we keep watch in shifts,” he said. Carrying the backpack, he made his way for the store’s entrance.

“Are you fucking kidding me? We’re in the middle of nowhere. Denver isn’t for another thirty miles and this isn’t a main road,” I said. We were a long way from anyone, although he wasn’t wrong—but I hadn’t made camp with anyone in a couple of years for good reason. Other people get sloppy.

“How did you get here?” he asked as he turned toward me. The way the shadow caught him, he really still gave off the savage presence of a raider or a barbarian. If I didn’t know him already, the sight of them would have scared the shit out of me.

“I’m a smart scavenger. We’re hours from a trading settlement on an unfrequented route. It took me all day to get here. I know what I’m doing,” I countered.

“Yeah, and you left a hell of a trail. If I didn’t get to you, some other raider would while you slept in here by yourself,” he said.

“So that’s why you are here,” I gleaned.

“I’m a survivor. And tonight, I stand a better chance of doing that with your help,” he insisted. He could have robbed or killed me if he wanted to by then. And he wasn’t wrong, he did find me. I followed him, and we stepped back out through the door frames as he said, “We can scavenge this place tomorrow, together. Then you can go back to camping, alone. That sound like a plan to you?”

“Don’t think I haven’t killed bigger, younger men than you, before you consider touching my shit,” I said. He didn’t laugh or smile or say anything. He just nodded at me and then kept toward the street. I followed him to the parking lot’s edge and across the road to a vacant gas station. The door had been pulled off the hinges and the shelves had been cleared of food and cigarettes ages ago. Some unused phone chargers and window scrapers still hung from a rack next to the register, over a row of empty candy bar boxes. The copper from the chargers might fetch trade, so I took them. Outside, we built a small fire in the shade of a gas pump, to disperse smoke as it rose. It was shielded from the street by abandoned cars and a good place to stay warm for the cold Rocky night.

As we broke the skin of oranges, we sat close without touching on sleeping bags that cornered the fire, leaving our backs to the gas station as we faced out to the road. I mostly just gazed up at the stars though.

“When was the last time you had an orange?” he asked.

“I don’t know. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize you’ve missed until you do. Climates must be starting to shift, dramatically,” I said, slipping my worn boots off, then my socks. It was a luxury I was wary of permitting myself while camping. Although exploring barefoot had its advantages, you never know when you’d need to run and post-apocalypse hazards include tetanus.

The air was ripe with spoiled gasoline and the thick smoke of burning thrush repelling crisp from the night air. He asked, “What do you miss?”

It was a stupid question, but if you sat with anyone long enough, they were going to ask it. Everyone was nostalgic. I said the first thing that I could think of: “Pomegranates.”

He laughed and said, “Of course. We had a pomegranate tree on our farm outside of Tehran.”

“You’re not from Detroit?” I asked. He paused.

“No. We migrated before I started kindergarten. My mother and sister wanted a secular life, away from what our home had become. Isn’t that how you’re here?”

I thought about my parents. Sitting with my dad, who probably was then the same age that Darius was now, but Dad had already grown bald and round with pre-catostrophe middle age. His fingers were stained red from pulling pomegranate seeds from their fuchsia and white husk. The aromatic humidity of tahdig cooking on the stove came from the kitchen where my mother, draped in gold costume jewelry, walked in from. Kam, my brother seven years my junior, was sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, watching his wrestling and playing with action figures of all his favorite stars. But that was ages before anything had happened to the world. Something that, at the time, I had intentionally left behind.

I didn’t say anything for a long, long while.

“I was never going to kill you,” he said.

“Just stop it,” I said and swallowed an orange slice.

“Despite my TV character, I’m really not a barbarian,” he said. He used his knife to pull back the skin of an orange. I used my teeth. Like I said, the less he knew about my inventory, the better.

“Obviously. You’re a phony,” I said. He stopped and looked up at me and I bit the skin off another orange, before I said, “Do you even know what a barbarian is?”

“Of course, I do. It was my name. It’s a brutal warrior from ancient times,” he replied and set the knife down, finishing the orange peel with his thick, callused fingers.

“It’s a slur that ancient Greeks, and later Romans, would use for foreigners. Specifically, Persians. They thought our language was so funny, like it was baby talk. Ba-ba-ba. So they called us barbarians,” I said. I didn’t realize it, but I was pointing at myself with my thumb. I was speaking too loud.

“Yeah? And Darius’s real name was Darayavaus. Darius was just a Greek simplification for a great leader that united the Persian tribes. How is that any better?” he asked. He tossed an orange peel into the fire.

“You know, orange peels are pretty nutritious,” I said, putting one in my mouth. It was more waxy and gummy than I had remembered it from the last time I’d eaten fresh fruit.

He gawked at me, disgusted, and responded, “We have plenty of oranges. Anyway, you don’t speak Farsi, but you’re going to teach me all about Persian history?”

“I’m pretty sure we’re living in the American apocalypse, not the Iranian one. Who the hell do you know that speaks Farsi, anyway?” I asked. The oranges themselves were tart and sweet and I couldn’t remember when I last felt so full. He shared his canteen with me and finished another orange.

“I was in Cali after,” he said and picked up another orange. “Anaheim, when the state remained above sea level. I took shelter with a Persian community in a mosque there for a while, before the virus broke our peace. Last time I had oranges and pomegranates, now that I think about it.”

“How do you think they’re doing?” I asked. My knees were pointed up and I laid back, staring into the shadow of our canopy. I squeezed my eyes shut but I wasn’t ready to sleep, yet.

“Where did you come from?” he asked and I was a little annoyed at how he changed the subject whenever posed with a difficult question.

“Aurora,” I said.

“So, you grew up around here?” he said, and I heard the fibers of another orange peel breaking in his hands.

“Aurora, Illinois,” I said and opened my eyes, glancing at him.

He stared at me and said, “Oh, yeah? I used to wrestle down there.”

“I know.”

He actually smiled, and said, “You really were a fan.”

“Yeah, until you sold out,” I said. He tossed another orange peel into the fire. It sizzled and cooked quickly and citronella-scented black smoke fell off the hissing flames.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

I groaned. “What were you supposed to be? A savage? A terrorist? When you were in the independent leagues, you were Darius the Great, Prince Darius. You were the shah of the ring, the king of kings. And then you do a couple of months in the pros, and you’re supposed to be–what? Cannibal Al Queda? The caveman terrorist? Did you have a jihad against bears? What was that?”

“It wasn’t up to me. Darius didn’t test well with national audiences. I was barely doing matches on the weekend shows, let alone the prime-time programs and pay-per-views. But Barbarian–he was formidable. Frightening but handsome, y’know? But then they just kept turning it up, and before I knew it, I guess I was losing fans that I didn’t know I had. But y’know, I was getting title matches, selling hella merch, making really good money,” he said. He seemed unfazed by my accusations, like he had used all his post-apocalypse leisure to make peace with it.

“Oh, yeah. Those are great reasons to perpetuate a stereotype. I’m sure every little twelve or thirteen year old boy needed just that to believe in themselves,” I responded. I was angry. Was this what it meant to be a survivor? Devoid of empathy, even to your own kin?

“Listen, my kids were probably the same age as you. Hell, twelve years back, they had started having their own kids. I needed to support my family and they didn’t want another ethnic babyface that wouldn’t appeal to half their audience. That’s just business,” he said, like he was just proud to have found the work.

I turned away and pulled the flap of my sleeping bag over me. I said, “You’re full of shit. The fuck do you know about honor?”

“What’s your problem?” he asked. I could feel him staring at me now. I finally sat up, though I kept the blanket over me. It was getting cold. I felt unguarded and unhinged.

“You found your tribe after everything fell, but what do you think happened to the rest of us? I had no one. A lot of us had no one, because people like you didn’t give a fuck whether the rest of us would be considered human or not. You mocked all of us, and they rejected us then, just like they did in 1979 and in 2016. I spent my entire life in condemnation because your character became our cringe cultural identity then, and even now in this shitty apocalypse,” I said. He looked stunned. There were orange peel fibers in his beard.

“Wow, so according to you I’m either as bad as the Ayatollah or fucking Trump? Was I responsible for 9/11, too? I just wrestled, lady,” he said, brushing his beard out on his shoulder. I wasn’t even going to bother to try burning whatever straw man he had just foisted on me.

I stuffed my backpack under the head of my sleeping bag to be a makeshift pillow when his face and voice finally softened as he said, “Y’know, they felt the same way that you do at the mosque I took refuge in during the onset of the virus. They said I was a bad example, letting Americans think that this was what we really were. And then after the climate event, anyone who recognized me thought I might be looking for a fight or trying to make trouble. Like I really was just a barbarian. I was alone for a long time, too.”

“Boo-fuckin’-hoo,” I said and settled in for rest.

“What happened to you? Didn’t you have any family?” he asked. I thought about holding back the truth just then, because I wasn’t sure he would even care. But if I wanted blood, I would get it.

“My little brother, Kamran. He was a fan of you. I had him for a while,” I said. I paused to reach for his canteen, took a long swallow, and exhaled my frustration. “He got into you because I got into you, but I couldn’t stand watching you after you went big. Still, he never missed a match. When I quit watching wrestling all together and started college, he would call me to update me on your title matches. It was so stupid, because you had become so stupid, but he was my little brother. I was the only one he had had, for a long time before we had no one.”

“What happened to him?” It was another stupid question.

“What happened to your family? Your wife? Your kids? Your grandchildren?” I asked.

I thought that was the end of it. But he answered anyway, “We were quarantined in separate states because of the disease when the climate event hit. All communications were lost. The truth is, I never found out what happened to them, and now there is no Detroit.”

“Maybe they lived,” I blurted out, instinctively. I think it was the most dishonest thing I’d said to him up to that point. He was gazing off somewhere. I don’t think he believed it anymore, either.

Now, I felt like the stupid one. I didn’t know what else to say and he didn’t say anything else, and already feeling exposed, I started speaking to fill the void that I hadn’t meant to leave. “A few years ago, we were passing through Nebraska on our way to higher ground. We survived by scavenging. Hunting together. We hadn’t gotten that far out of Omaha before one of those tribes of white nationalist raiders caught up with us. The Turnerites. You must have seen them around some of the settlements, talking about starting a new confederation of American states.”

“Yeah. Head-to-toe camo or red, white, and blue. They’re still around. Not in the settlements as much as they used to be, since they’re shit stirrers, but there’s a hell of a lot more of them on the road, lately,” he said. Then he paused, and without any inflection in his voice, he asked, “So, did they get him?”

“Did they get him?” I asked. I think he saw the incredulity in my grimace, because he turned away from me and faced the ground, but I responded, “Yeah, they got him. We didn’t have anything to trade, or any of whatever currency was popular there at the time, so we could only scrounge up enough for a couple of shells. About ten miles out of town, we stopped to make camp. But Kamran was just eager and hungry, and we survived by hunting. Even after the country went to hell, he would still collect furs to dress like you used to in the pros, no matter how impractical it was.”

Darius put his knife away in the sheathe on his belt, and said, “What happened next, Azi?”

I didn’t really want to tell him anymore. But he was sitting up, leaning forward on his knees, captivated. And even though it had been so long, my anger had not subsided enough to be merciful. Not toward him. I finished, “He woke up early and took his rifle into the woods and the gunshot that caught a doe, the one that woke me, was the same one that woke them, too. I made it back in time to watch them call him a barbarian as they beat him to death.”

“They called him Barbarian?” Darius asked. He made eye contact with me, and I nodded. For a moment, he hesitated to say anything, but then asked, “How did you get away?”

“Do you think revenge is honorable?” I asked back.

He didn’t answer. I turned away from him and spent the rest of the night listening to the crackle of the fire.

I dreamed that I was there again.

Every branch and bush caught me and then I was standing before seven men in the trappings of Dixie flag patches, scarves, and capes, and standing over my dead brother. I grabbed Kam’s rifle, with one shot left loaded, and began my berserker rage. The rifle demolished the first Turnerite, and then I dreamed of emptying my pistol into three more Caucasian militia hicks, before stabbing the remaining three to death in the darkness of the wooded dawn. I pulled everything I had, and then I held Kamran one last time, before I followed the sun alone. I dreamed that I killed them, instead of just running away.

I always dream that I killed them instead of just running.

When I woke, the sun had not yet crested but its halo was visible. Darius hadn’t woken me for my shift, and he wasn’t around either. He’d left his sleeping bag, but there was nothing to indicate he would come back for it. I started rolling up mine and changed into fresh socks. Whether he returned or not didn’t matter to me. I had no stake in him, anymore.

The fruit backpack remained, though nearly empty. I had the last orange and used a small spade to bury the fire embers. Even if I wasn’t going to find anything else to scavenge, I knew that the oranges would make good trade.

As I made my way to the grocery store, I heard an unfamiliar sound. A clicking or a clapping, I couldn’t be sure, but when I peered through the busted out window of what was once a hatchback, I could see them–horses. I hadn’t seen one since I was a kid, but there, in flesh and blood, were three stallions. Two black and a calico guarded the grocery store entrance, and with them stood a raider. He wore an American flag cape, with the confederate flag cropped over the stars. More and more of the Turnerites had traded in Old Dixie for Old Glory. It meant that they were organizing, but at least there were only three horses here.

Which meant that there weren’t many of them standing between me and my loot. Like I said, I was a scavenger. And I was a hunter.

I stuffed my gun in the back of my jeans and left the packs, before I flanked the building through a nearby field of rotted, dry corn stalks and skirted the store’s edge in a crouched position. The sun was rising but I still had the element of darkness as it sat red on the edge of the horizon. As I peered around the building, I could see him–a face mostly beard, but slick as oil above the ears. He carried an assault rifle, one of those really loud numbers. If he fired even one shot, I was screwed. I retrieved the knife from my boot as I took them off. I stretched and curled my toes into fists, before leaning forward on them to peer around the corner again. He was turned away, so I moved quick.

My footsteps were softened by my bare feet as I moved past the horses. They neighed in my presence, but the racist thought nothing of it. He just kept his eyes on the entrance, like he was waiting for his friends to come out. They must have followed me and Darius here–it seemed like he suspected we were still inside.

He was much bigger than me, so I took a running jump on to him, getting an arm under his chin and pulling back. With my other hand, I jabbed my knife into his neck repetitively. I didn’t need to hold tight, because he fell to his knees quickly, bleeding on to me a little before planting forward. He seemed too big to roll out of sight, so rather than wait for his companions to leave the store, I took his rifle and made my way through the empty windows and into the supermarket again.

From the foyer, where they used to stack rows of carts, I could hear two voices from within.

“Oh my God, is this lipstick? My mom used to use this!”

It was a woman’s voice, soft and pleasant to the ears, but that of a raider concubine, nonetheless. I didn’t know a lot about Turnerite culture, but I knew that the concubines didn’t get a vote, and if she was present, her master wouldn’t be far off.

“No way! Use it to touch up my war mask. I sweat through it all day yesterday,” another woman said. As I peered around the corner, toward the registers, I saw them. They wore dirt-smeared, polka-dot printed dresses, like something out of the 1950s. And their face paint were skulls made of smudges of red, white, and blue. Their hair had been twisted into stick-up braids that stood out in every direction, like branches of an oak. Was this a costume or did they always dress this way?

“I wish Alicia could have come with. But she’s so blessed to be pregnant again,” one with blonde hair said to the other with brown hair. Their domesticity was horrifying. I tuned them out and peered around, looking for anyone else. It’s possible they had come only with the man I had already killed.

When one had finished the skull outline on the other, they both knelt down to rummage around the other stuff we’d found beneath the empty backpack. I stepped out into the open with the rifle raised toward them.

“Hey, Karens!” I hissed. They turned and stopped. They didn’t speak, though. I asked, “Is there any more of you in here?”

They said nothing. They raised their hands and whimpered.

“Do you have any weapons?” I asked, and this time, they shook their heads and the blonde let out a fearful squeal. When I was certain they had nothing to reach for, I nodded toward the exit, and said, “Get the hell out of here. Don’t let me see you again.”

They hurried through the doors and I heard a stunted scream as they passed the man I had already killed. They were no threat to me and I have a sore spot for the defenseless, I guess. But if I could say I made one mistake, it was watching as they left. While I waited to see how many of the horses they planned to take with them, I felt a sharp pain impact with the back of my skull.

I was temporarily blind and I could only hear a sharp ringing in my ears that accompanied the concussive pain. The rifle fell out of my hands and slid across the floor. My hand instinctively went to the back of my head and I felt wet there, before my senses started fading in and I lurched forward to try to grab the rifle again. I felt something metal and I wasn’t sure what it was, but I grabbed where I thought I needed to and I turned around toward my assailant.

As my vision corrected again, I saw him. Another beard in a camo shirt with a US flag pinned to the netting on his combat helmet. He held a pistol, which he had used to bludgeon me. But I was the one who held the rifle.


Nothing happened when I pulled the trigger and I still lay there prone. He pointed the gun at me and said, “You dumb bitch.”

He laughed then at me. I tried to throw the empty rifle at him, but leaning on one shoulder the way I was, it barely made it past my feet. He said then, “Well, look at this brown little scavenger rat. This white snake ain’t goin’ to let you scurry off, though. Not until he’s done with you.”

He cocked the pistol and leveled it toward me. Though slick with my own blood, I clasped my hands together and willed myself to speak to someone, anyone. The first person that came to my mind then was Kamran. I just didn’t know what to say to him, except that I was sorry.

And then, quite suddenly, the Turnerite jerked sideward and I heard a clang. A knife had flown through the air and clipped him, before hitting the ground next to him. It was Darius’s.

“Nothing personal,” he said, standing with the light to his back at the store’s entrance.

“You got to be fucking kidding me,” I said, kicking the gun under a machine used for vending lottery tickets. The Turnerite winced and grabbed Darius’s knife.

“It’s just a matter of honor,” Darius finished. He kinda looked, well, glorious, I guess.

Suddenly, from where I lay, it’s like I’m looking up to the ring at a wrestling match. The racist lunges toward him with the knife thrust out, but with a fluid snap of his wrist, Darius’s hand clamps tight around the Turnerite’s neck. The Turnerite is caught off guard and he drops the knife to clasp at the hand tightening around his throat, but Darius lifts him into the air. Though he tries scrambling, his face grows purple and swollen for lack of breath in Darius’s grip, until Darius shoves the Turnerite by the neck into the linoleum floor. It’s a choke slam!

The Turnerite quickly takes to his feet again, this time coming at Darius’s midsection. He wraps himself around Darius’s waist and attempts to push him back, but he isn’t making much headway. Darius then reaches down and grabs the Turnerite by his hips, before flipping him into the air and slamming him, back first, into the ground. Unbelievable, a power bomb!

For a moment, it looks as if Darius is about to flex into his signature front bicep pose, but then he realizes just where he is. As the Turnerite staggers to his feet yet again, I hear the trample of footsteps coming from one of the nearby grocery aisles. I had been waiting for a third one to show up. Darius makes eye contact with me, and reaching back, I withdraw my pistol. I take cover at an end cap where I know he’ll intersect, and wait as the steps grow closer.

Meanwhile, the other Turnerite goes for Darius again, and as Darius turns away, he makes a dash for the corner where the wall meets the foyer. He’s just out of reach of the Turnerite when he plants his foot into the wall, and it almost looks like he’s about to do what I think he’s going to do, but it can’t be possible.

Just then, the third Turnerite starts to come around the corner. I turn my body and jut out my leg, and he comes flying out from the aisle after tripping over my swept kick. I catch a glimpse of Darius still fighting at the front end, jetting from the wall’s corner into a backflip. I’m standing over the Turnerite when Darius lands, the dust rising around him like in a Kung Fu cinema. Before I drop my eyes and the bullet exits the chamber of my pistol, Darius sprints into the Turnerite in front of him like a Persian cheetah, and brain matter splatters onto my bare feet with the resounding dissonance of a pistol shot.

I look up just in time to see the other racist’s head get crushed with an audible crunch between the wall’s corner and Darius’s outstretched arm. With the way his body sags into the wall, it looks certain his neck is broken.

“Holy shit,” I say through heavy breaths. Darius smiles as he picks up his knife, before leaning down to check the vitals of his foe. Finally, I ask, “Did you do a fucking backflip?”


Darius wrapped up my head with some supplies we took off the Turnerites. The remaining horse had a saddle, and I’d filled the saddle bags with all the oranges that I could. There wasn’t much else left there, but I still left fully packed.

“Where will you go, now?” Darius asked when we finished loading up the horse.

“Back to one of the Denver settlements, I suppose. This will feed me for a little while and the rest will fetch a pretty good trade,” I responded. We stood peering at each other for a while, before I started out of the parking lot, practically dragging the horse behind me. When I turned to the store again, Darius still stood there, watching me.

“You know how to ride a horse, Grandpa?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. He smiled, and for a second, he really didn’t look so pathetic after all.

“Well, come on anyway. It’ll be safer if we camp together.”

He helped me on to the horse and took the reins. He walked beside us as we strayed down the diasporic road and into the setting sun.

Behnam Riahi, formally of RUI and CCLaP, is a writer living in Seattle, WA with his cat, Valentine. He currently is working on a selection of genre fiction stories for future publication.