Justin ran faster than he'd ever ran before, his legs ached and he could hardly breathe. He stopped for one second and doubled over, his body experiencing pain he hadn't even thought possible. He fought to take in oxygen, trying to let his muscles recover just a little. He felt a sharp tug on his arm.

"Argh." Justin shouted, the pain in his voice was clear. "Please... I need to stop... even if just for a minute." He managed to get some words out between taking deep breaths and crying.

Max just stared at him with a strict expression before going softening his facial expression and answering. "Justin I know this is hard, but we don't have time. We have to keep moving."

Justin stood up straight and turned back to look at the town he was fleeing from. It was a gruesome sight. The sky was a blazing red as fire engulfed the buildings and smoke bellowed up into the twilight sky. It was getting dark but the town illuminated by flames. Gunshots and screaming were all he could hear. He had no idea what was happening. Justin and his friends had been in his house, playing xbox and watching TV.

Then it happened. Everything seemed to shake, banging and shooting suddenly penetrated their ears. The screams were quick to follow. The ordinary residents of the normally quiet town had been ambushed by soldiers. Nobody knew were they came from. They just arrived out of the blue and started a massacre. Dead bodies already lined the streets and hell had broken loose.

In an instant Max had organized his best friend Justin and others who were with them amidst the pandemonium. Justin, Max, Chris, Sid, Judy, Rachel and Christine had fled through gardens and alleys and now the damned town was behind them. What lay ahead was a thick forest, when his instinct kicked in Max had realized it was the only place where they had a chance of hiding without being easily found.

Justin felt another tug on his arm and before he knew it he was being dragged forward, his feet taking a moment to adjust before they once again broke into a sprint. Tears rolled freely down Justin's face. He knew he had to run, but he was in shock. "What the hell was happening? Was his family alive?". Max wasn't giving him time to think of that right now.

The only important thing was putting some distance between themselves and their former hometown turned war zone. They didn't stop running for at least another thirty minutes. A stream ran through this part of the dark green forest, the sound of the running water blocked out some of the horrific sounds of slaughter coming from far behind them. Everyone had collapsed in exhaustion apart from Max who was leaning against a tree with this arms folded and his head bowed down.

"What the fuck is going on?" Rachel broke the silence. No-one could answer her. One minute everything was peaceful, the next chaos had erupted. Max lifted his head to look Rachel in the eye, he didn't seem at all frightened or worried, unlike the rest of his anxious friends. "We've been invaded." He said nonchalantly.

Christine now joined the conversation. "No shit Max, fuck I wish I'd realized sooner. I thought this was just a fucking drill!" Christine was obviously upset, leading to her quick temper. That being said, she is always a bitch in her everyday life. This situation just served to worsen that aspect of her personality. Max just shot her a dirty look to express his discontent with her rude remark.

Justin got to his feet and made his way towards Max. They'd literally been friends since birth. The two boy's families had always been close and by coincidence their mothers had fallen pregnant and the same time. Even when they were just babies Justin and Max would cry when were separated when it was time for the other to go home. Of course the boys were still close nowadays, but they could be apart without sobbing. Justin leant next to Max.

"What are we going to do? It's safer here but I doubt we're out of the frying pan yet." Max took a moment to think before replying to his best friend.

"It's getting dark, we'll stop here for tonight. Then get up early tomorrow and keep moving." It surprised Justin that Max had kept so level headed through this whole situation.

The seven escapees lay down, sleep was the only way they could temporarily escape the horrible reality which continued around them. Justin on the other hand, lay on the cold hard ground wide awake. How could he sleep at a time like this? Every time he closed his eyes he thought he heard footsteps, the fear of falling asleep kept him alert, preventing him from getting some rest.

He heard something move behind him, the sound of sticks crunching made his heart stop, he lay there motionless, petrified. He felt a comforting warmth behind him, then someone's body pressed up against his. Justin felt a little relief as he looked down to find an arm being wrapped around him pulling him even closer to his friend, it was Max. Justin didn't turn around, he didn't have to.

"I'm scared Max." Justin whispered quietly.

"I know. We're just going to have to hope for the best. We'll get through this, I promise." Max tightened his grip on his terrified friend as he said those last few words.

While neither boy paid any attention to their close contact, they weren't normally this close. Max gently rubbed Justin, his soft touch was enough to settle Justin and it didn't take long before he was calm and relaxed.

"If anything happens to us..." Max started before Justin cut him off.

"I don't want to think of that. It won't happen ok?" Justin said stubbornly.

"Just in case, I want to be prepared. If anything... happens and we get split up. Just whistle, and I'll find you."

"Fine." Stated Justin reluctantly. He suddenly realized how close their bodies where, he felt safe laying so close to his best friend, Max's chest to Justin's back, groin to ass, their legs entangled together. It helped to keep the two boys warm, and it wasn't long before they were fast asleep. Justin woke countless times during the night with his heart racing, it was like fear itself had shaken him violently until he woke. Each time he woke Max's arm was still wrapped around him, holding him tightly.

Max was the first to awake the following morning. The first things which greeted his senses were sun gently shining through the trees, the sounds of birds singing overhead, the calming sound of the nearby current in the water, and the feel of his friend, sleeping peacefully in his arms. For a few blissful moments life was perfect, until reality set in. Max slowly sat up, without waking Justin. He had a quick scan around their makeshift camp to see if anyone else was up. A sense of dread and panic spread through his entire body as he realised there were only six people in the area, including himself. Christine was gone.

"Everyone get up." Shouted Max as he vigorously shook Justin. "Christine's gone." Slowly everyone came to their senses as they took in their surroundings, it was clear to see the panic on their faces.

Rachel, Christine's best friend was the first to find the boulder with the message carved into it. "Over here, she's written something in stone." "Got up early, gone back to town to collect some supplies." Everyone started to feel relieved, letting out sighs of relief and wiping sweat from their foreheads, everyone except Max. "What a stupid bitch."

Everyone turned in shock to face Max. "They'll kill her." Max didn't seem worried, just shocked. His face was almost robotic it was so emotionless.

"What do you mean?" Questioned Sid.

Max let out a nervous laugh. "Soldiers don't just invade a town and leave. They stay there, take over their conquered land. You guys saw them, heard them, killing people. They probably doing the same to Christine right now. Agh why did she have to be so stupid?!" Max slammed his fists against a nearby tree trunk.

"STOP IT!" cried out Rachel. "She's not dead, we have to go back." She climbed to her feet and began walking. Max grabbed her, pulling her back which sent her to the ground with a heavy thud. "If you go back there you're going to end up dead as well. Is it worth it?"

Rachel just stayed sitting, she couldn't bear to look at Max. What he said was harsh, there's no question about it. But he was telling the truth. "We have to keep moving." Just as Max was trying to restore calm footsteps began to be heard. But not Christine's, these footsteps weren't from a small 18 year old girl in converse, they were the heavy steps of a group of men, they weren't too close but they were fast.

Everyone froze, it once again fell to Max to act as the leader. "Sid, Chris, Rachel and Judy, you guys go that way, just keep following the steam. Run close to it, on wet ground your footsteps will be quieter." Max now turned his attention to Justin. "Your're with me." Without any further costly hesitation Max set of, as did the other half of the group.

Justin took a deep breath before breaking into a steady run to catch up with Max, they just kept running until they couldn't hear any more voices or footsteps. Max was confident they would move faster and more quietly than a group of soldiers with uniforms, heavy rucksacks and more importantly, guns, in fact, he was counting on it.

Justin couldn't stop wondering why Max had chosen ONLY him to come with him, why hadn't the group split into two equal groups of three? He had to ask.

"Why me?" Justin simply said those words, no explanation was needed.

"Why not?" Max answered, equally short.

Max looked at Justin and instantly saw the hurt in his eyes. Justin thought he was important to Max, that Max wanted to make sure he was safe. Max approached Justin and put his hands on his arms, pulling him a little closer. Justin looked up into Max's deep brown eyes, Max was a little taller than Justin and so had always been the more dominant, masculine boy in their friendship.

Max was nine years old when he got into his first fight. A little boy named Paul had insulted Justin, it wasn't anything serious, but Justin was sensitive and was extremely hurt by the comments of that pathetic bully. Max was furious, he stormed up to Paul and punched him square in the nose. From the moment on Justin looked at Max differently, he had a slight fear of Max and his domineering personality, however he knew Max would never hurt him, only protect him. Justin had never understood his feelings towards Max.

He thought he just cared for him greatly, loved him like a brother, but that wasn't the case. Over the years Justin had fallen in love with his best friend. As boys they'd have sleepovers. When they slept in the same bed Justin would secretly steal glances of Max's developing body, when they went swimming he'd be amazed at how his muscles glistened due to the water. When they reached their teens they talked about girls, jacking off and even compared sizes once, Max had been bigger of course.

Now Justin stood still, held upright by the strong arms of Max, now a fully grown man. "Listen Justin, you're my best friend, I love you man, I'll never let anything happen to you." A small smile came across Max's face. The combination of those touching words and the dramatic situation was too much for Justin, all those years of hiding his true feelings were about to end.

He stood up on his toes and planted his lips on Max's. For a moments which felt like a lifetime, Justin had never been so happy, his entire body felt numb, only his lips could experience anything. Justin had entered into a state of euphoria, but only for a few moments. He felt Max's lips pull away, then Max's body slumped against Justin's before sliding down to the ground. Justin opened his eyes to see a masked man standing opposite him.

He tried to turn and run but wasn't given a chance, he felt a shooting pain to the side of his head as he was assaulted with the butt of a rifle. He fell to the ground and ended up next to Max. As his vision slowly faded all he could see was Max laying next to him, his face lifeless, his eyes closed. Was he alive?

 

Jason Smyth

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