The guards had the stranger cuffed and on the ground before he could even say “hello.”
“Check him!” barked Rosewell, the lead guard of Rockford, a town hidden deep in the mountains. Rosewell had dark hair that brushed the top of his shoulders and he always seemed to wear a frown.
Matthews, Rosewell’s second-in-command, patted down the stranger as another guard grabbed the stranger’s backpack and peered into it. The guard—Bennett—smiled and showed the contents to Rosewell.
“Huh,” said Rosewell, staring into the bag. “Get him up.”
Matthews grabbed the stranger roughly under the arm and pulled him to his feet, standing securely behind him and holding his arms in case he tried to run. The rest of the guards—four of them, including Bennett, who held tight to the backpack—surrounded Matthews and the stranger in a semicircle. Rosewell stepped toward the stranger, a gun held loosely at his side.
They were right outside the entrance to Rockford. Rosewell had been stationed at his usual post—hiding behind a large bush—when he’d spotted the stranger running toward them. He’d gasped in surprise; it had been years since they’d had a newcomer. Rockford was surrounded by a thick wall of trees and hedges, making it impossible to see. The town wasn’t on any maps.
There could only be two reasons someone would not only know about Rockford but run toward it: to join or destroy.
“Not the nicest greeting, lads,” said the stranger, smirking. He had messy hair and tattered clothes covered in dirt and grime.
“Can’t take any chances,” said Rosewell.
“What’s your name?”
“Brockett. Dean Brockett.”
“And why are you here, Brockett?”
Brockett raised an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“We don’t take kindly to slow answers,” snapped Rosewell.
Brockett sighed and shook his head. “Came from Stonewood. They’re run out.”
There was a beat of silence before Matthews laughed and tightened his grip on Brockett’s arms. “You’re lying. Stonewood was doing better than us.”
“Not anymore,” murmured Brockett. The guards shifted and exchanged worried glances.
“How’d you escape?” shot Rosewell. “Only one of you got out? You know as well as I do the math doesn’t add up.” He raised his gun a hair.
“Underground tunnel. Escape route, new project. I was down there late on the Alpha’s orders, doing the final touches, when they came. Heard the screams and booked it out.”
“You left everyone else there to die?” asked Rosewell. He stared at Brockett in disgust.
Brockett stood straighter and looked Rosewell square in the eye. “And? How could I have helped? You know damn well you would have done the same.”
Rosewell dropped his gaze.
“Why are you covered in dirt?” he said suddenly, looking the man properly up and down.
“You’d be too, if you were burrowing in the ground every day.”
Rosewell paced back in forth in the small semicircle. “And how many did you eat? We take care not to draw attention here.”
Brockett shrugged. “Ran into a loner. There's probably a few more around here. Old geezers living in the mountains, wanting to get out of society and all that. I doubt he had family—and even if he did, they’d probably think he fell into a ravine or something.”
“Hm.” Rosewood scratched his chin. He was a little annoyed; he thought they’d found everyone in the area.
“Only needed one to keep me going,” continued Brockett. “Found him only a couple nights after leaving Stonewood. Still got a few pieces in my backpack, as you probably saw.”
Rosewell licked his lips; he hadn’t had real meat in three days. A few of the other Rockford guards were on a supply run. It took weeks to get food—they had to go far away and hit several different towns.
This time, the guards were taking longer than usual. The Rockford residents had survived on plants and squirrels for the past couple days. The squirrels weren’t horrible, but Rosewell retched every time he had to eat a carrot or a piece of lettuce.
“I’m guessing it’s been a while since you’ve had the meat,” said Brockett as Rosewell’s stomach rumbled loudly.
“A few days, actually. Some guards are still on a supply run. Should be back soon,” said Rosewell.
“Ah,” said Brocket, nodding. “This was always the worst time at Stonewood, too. Finding the meat is getting harder and harder these days.”
“You're telling me,” muttered Rosewell.
“You’re welcome to look through my backpack. I’d ask that in return, you get me out of these cuffs.”
Rosewell considered the proposal and shrugged. He nodded to Matthews, who took a small key from his pocket and unlocked the handcuffs.
“Thanks,” said Brockett, rubbing his wrists.
Bennett was already digging through the backpack in his hands. He pulled out an ear. “That’s my favorite!”
Brockett laughed. “Mine, too. Was saving the best for last. All yours, if you let me stay here,” he said, shooting a glance at Rosewell.
Rosewell looked at Brockett and the hungry stares of his guards. “You said you were building an underground tunnel at Stonewood. Smart idea. Think you could rig one up for us, too?”
“Absolutely. Give me a week.”
Rosewell nodded in approval. A thought of Stonewood flashed through his mind. He’d never been there, but he’d heard the success stories. He pictured a larger version of Rockford. Stonewood was the biggest, after all; perhaps that’s why it was discovered and destroyed. Had to keep the towns small—that was always known.
But one extra person wouldn’t hurt. It wasn’t fair, what happened to Stonewood. It was never fair. People just didn’t understand people like Rosewell and Brockett and their way of life.
The guards shook hands with Brockett, welcoming him to the town. Bennett passed the backpack around until they each held a piece of meat. They turned to the entrance, expertly hidden within the hedges, and pushed open a secret door.
The cannibals walked into Rockford, happily snacking on the flesh.