"Don't apologize. Don't show weakness. The minute you do that, they'll be on you like leeches, waiting to such you dry and deposit the husk on the stoop... They can smell you a mile away, see you trembling through the back of their heads... keep strong, boy, and you might just make it out alive."
"Was things always this way?"
The old man shook his head slowly, sadly. "Nah, they weren't. But that's before living memory, cept for maybe Mama Tracy."
"Ol woman, lives down the holler. Liken her to a voodoo priest, some say."
"She a witch?" The boy asks.
"Mama ain't no witch. Just an ol woman who lived her whole live in the swamp. She learn what she gotta learn to survive."
"How old she?"
A shrug was most of the response the boy got, "Ain't nobody know." following the rhythmic roll of his shoulders that continued up into his face.
"Well, you coulda ask."
The old man got stern, "Doncha yo mama teach you it isn't polite to ask a woman her age?"
The boy jumped, startled by the sudden sternness, already retreating below inscrutable eyebrows. The old main waited a beat for the boy's sake, then smiled, watching the child relax. The boy wasn't used to being scolded. His mother was much too kind for that.
A quiet creak, and footsteps as the door opened. The boy's mother stood there, watching the two of them sleep--grandfather in his chair, the boy in a nest of blankets at the old man's feet. She smiled to herself and eased the door shut. Might as well let them sleep.
Outside, the world was threatening a descent into chaos. The monsters the old man spoke of, scavengers who preyed on fear and self doubt, were out in force, feeding on the fear the sight of them created as they filled the streets.
The old man woke with a start, hand dropping protectively to the head of the sleeping child below him. Outside, he could hear voices, saying things he never thought he'd hear again, not in this lifetime, not never. He'd lost friends to make sure of that.
But somehow, they were back.