Authors: Jennifer Martucci,Christopher Martucci
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Science Fiction, #Survival Stories, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Dystopian, #Children's eBooks, #Science Fiction; Fantasy & Scary Stories, #Fantasy & Magic, #Paranormal & Urban
I am suddenly lightheaded and realize I have forgotten to breathe. My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I am overwhelmed by thirst.
I reach a trembling hand to my canteen and remember it is empty.
A sweet female voice calls out, and the boy with the pale, radiant eyes looks toward the sound.
“Come on, guys. Let’s eat,” the voice says.
The children groan
, and I watch as the older boy shepherds them out of the water, and guides them to the shore of the lake. I follow him with my gaze. It is trained on him as if acting separate and apart from my will. He steps out of the water and, seeing him stand beside the others, I see that he is taller than I thought, and stronger looking.
He shakes his head and water cascades from his hair and sprinkles the children. They screech, their joy evident in their expressions, and I feel my own surge of glee rocket from a part of me I never knew existed.
I watch as a woman approaches and embraces the children. For a moment, I think she will embrace the older boy as well. In those seconds, a hot tendril sparks inside of me that is anger and fear fused. The sensation is completely irrational, but I am powerless to stop it. She says something to him that I cannot hear. He laughs, and the flame is replaced with an odd sense of loss. But when he speaks and says the word “Mom” loudly, I am heartened. The woman turns and faces the woods, where I am. Her face is creased, and she looks similar to the boy I have been watching.
She continues to focus on the spot where I stand. I think about going to them. My muscles twitch
as I debate. But something inside me keeps my feet rooted where they are. Just envisioning myself approaching them, speaking to them, to the older boy in particular, makes my breath short and shallow and my stomach free-fall. I try to slide a foot forward, but my muscles are tense, too tense. They begin walking toward an opening in the craggy shore and opportunity slips from my grasp like grains of sand. I am left standing, watching the lakeshore, and feeling a pang of remorse.
But my regret is quickly trumped by pure excitement. I have seen human being
s, others like me and June! I press my back against the tree trunk and close my eyes. I clinch my mouth with my hand and curb the elated yelp begging to be released. I have not killed a meal for us and the sun is dipping fast. I need to head back to the cave right away. The hike here was long. The hike back may be longer if I lose my way. A potentially risky situation is looming, yet I am almost giddy.
I spring to my feet and bound back, deep into the forest.
As I walk, I am lost in thought. The older boy’s face is imprinted on my brain, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to focus on anything else. I make a lame attempt at surveying the riot of tangled bramble all around me.
A tuft of glossy, russet fur ca
tches my eye. My concentration shifts from the boy at the lake and grinds to a razor-sharp point. I train my gaze on it, watching it, stalking it. The fur jerks then bounces, edging out of concealment. That’s when I see a puffy tail, downy and round, popping from a cluster of weeds. I unsheathe my spear as silently as possible, then creep toward it slowly, clutching my weapon, careful not to spook my dinner. I move in to kill the rabbit.
I am just
seven or eight paces from it, poised and prepared to skewer it, when it turns on me unexpectedly; whipping its small head so that I swear it is looking at me. Large eyes, more forward-facing and predatory than I have ever seen, watch me. A deep growl rumbles from its chest and its thin, black lips snarl back and reveal oversized, pointed teeth. It hops away from me, a small cautious move that is not in keeping with its threatening demeanor. I remain where I am, holding fast to my spear. Its nose tics then it is perfectly still for a moment. I prepare to strike, but am caught off-guard when it leaps into the air without warning, lunging at me with its jaw wide. I do not delay and launch my spear at it. The spike lodges right into its open mouth and pitches it backward until it sticks into the trunk of a tree.
The rabbit does not move, and it is no longer growling. A small flash of triumph flickers inside me. June and I will eat well tonight. I w
alk over and pull my spear, with the rabbit attached, from the tree. I slide the carcass from my weapon and place it into a satchel made of animal skin then toss it over my shoulder. I continue my journey to the cave, to June and the only home I’ve known, hiking at an energetic pace. Tonight, I will sleep well. My belly will be full, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I feel hope.
When I reach the woods near the cave, my cheeks ache from smiling. I cannot recall the last time a smile born of genuine joy made me feel as I do now. My insides hum and buzz with a trembling sensation, giving me a weird, jittery energy I have never felt before. I have forgotten how hungry and tired I am and do not feel as though I have hiked the entire day. I am practically bouncing, my stride is springy. I spot June just beyond the opening of the hollow. One arm crosses her waist while the other is raised. I see that she is chewing the skin around her thumbnail. She is pacing, lost in worry.
“June!” I call out to h
er, perhaps a bit too excitedly. She instantly spins toward my voice, her face a mask of fear.
“Avery!” her voice pitches up an octave. “Oh gosh, ar
e you oaky? You’re bleeding!” She rushes toward me.
I forget I have not washed since slipping the rabbit from my spear. Gore still coats my hands and likely my face as well. I am sure I have absently wiped sweat from my brow and
temples and have smeared blood there. Judging from June’s reaction, I look frightening.
June descends on me and is plucking at my arms. Her lips press together firmly
, and a crease marks the space between her eyebrows.
“I am okay, June. No worries,” I assure her. “I killed a rabbit and did not have time to stop and clean up.”
Her features smooth and she exhales noisily. One hand splays across her hairline while the other clutches her belly. “Thank goodness,” she breathes.
I rub a hand on her back
, then pull it back quickly, remembering the blood. I have been so distracted by what I saw at the lake, I cannot seem to concentrate. It is a wonder I was even able to catch the rabbit I am carrying in my satchel.
“You were gone so long. I’ve been worried
sick.” Emotion causes her voice to crack.
I am tempted to tell her about what I saw
, to tell her about the children and the woman, and the older boy. The words bubble inside of me before they are on my tongue, but I hold back. She will ask why I did not approach them. She will ask why I did not make my presence known. I do not have a legitimate reason for not, other than panic.
I panicked, and I am embarrassed.
I promised her that when I found others like us, I would embrace them, join them. Strength exists in numbers, at least that is what I heard when I lived in the village years ago. She would consider finding one human being a gift. Four would be too wonderful to be true. Yet it is true. Four humans live a quarter of a day’s walk from where we stand. And I froze. I did not go to them as I said I would. My cheeks burn with shame briefly, but I recover when the weight slung over my shoulder reminds me of an important aspect of my trip.
“I got this,” I
pull my satchel from my shoulder. “We’re having a fat rabbit for dinner,” I add with a smile.
June looks at me quizzically for a fleeting
moment then smiles. “Rabbit,” she says and nods. “That sounds
I roll down the opening of my bag and pull the plump rabbit from it, showing her what is in store for us. A grin lights up her entire face
, and for a moment, I do not feel so bad about not approaching the others back at the lake.
the fire ready?” I ask. “I want to cook this up right away.”
“Yes, I did just as you told me to,” she says proudly.
I tip my head to one side and my smile widens.
“Something is different abou
t you, Avery,” June eyes me suspiciously. “Something happened that you’re not telling me about.”
“What?” I say and stall. “That’s crazy. Nothing happened.” I sound so absurdly
dubious I don’t even trust me at this point.
murmurs. Her eyes bore into me.
I shift uncomfortably. My skin feels too hot, too tight for my body. “Come on!” I say and start to walk to
ward the fire. “I can’t take another minute of being as hungry as I am.”
“I know. I’m starving,” June says and reminds me of the direness of our food shortage.
My smile shrivels. I have been preoccupied with my outing. I have been selfish. While I was out, delighting in the realization that we are not alone, June was here, very much alone.
“Well, let’s rem
edy that,” I say brightly. I skin and prepare the rabbit then place it on a spit to cook over the open flame.
“My mouth is watering,” June says as the mild, almost sweet scent of roasting rabbit meat infuses the air.
“Mine too,” I admit.
Once the rabbit is cooked, I serve June first. She gobbles it quickly and I immediately hand her seconds. Her appetite seems insatiable as she wolfs dow
n the meat. She gulps water and it dribbles down her chin.
“Do you want more?” I ask.
“I do, but my stomach hurts already,” she reluctantly confesses. “It just tastes so wonderful, and I don’t know when I’ll eat something this good again.”
“Hey,” I say
, and place a hand on her forearm. “You don’t have to make excuses. Eat up. And there will be more like it tomorrow.”
“There will?” she questions and her brow rises.
“Yep,” I say confidently.
“How?” She leans in and her voice is just above a whisper.
I lean in too and lower my voice conspiratorially. “I am going back out tomorrow, going past our boundaries to hunt again. We will feast for a second time tomorrow.”
“What!” June shouts. Her features are screwed up, horror marking them. “No! You can’t! I can
’t handle it if you go again! I just can’t!” She shakes her head and waves her hands to punctuate her point.
I am not sure what prompted this outburst but am eager to end it, to calm June. “Whoa, whoa, hold on, June. Calm down,” I say in a s
oothing voice. I take one of her frantic hands in mine. “It’s okay. Everything is okay.” I whisper. “Talk to me. What is going on?”
down her cheeks, carving streaks through the dirt that has accumulated on her face. She sniffles and turns her head away from me, as if embarrassed. “It’s just that, well, it’s just that,” she stammers. “I was so worried about you, worried you would not come back, that you’d be killed.” Sobs beset her. Her shoulders shake.
“Oh June,” I say and wrap an arm around her shoulders.
“I don’t want to lose you,” she manages and is barely able to choke out the words. Her face is still angled away from me.
reach my index finger under her chin. “Hey, come on, June, look at me,” I say gently.
She turns toward me timidly.
“You are not going to lose me,” I try to comfort her.
Her eyes drop to her feet. “Humph,” she mutters and makes plain her doubt.
“Listen to me, June; I am not going to leave you. I am a warrior, just like Dad was. He trained me and I am even better than he was.” I do not feel as if I am bragging; I am stating a fact. “I only take risks that are necessary and make sense. We need to eat so I need to hunt, and if there aren’t any animals nearby, I have to move out farther to hunt. Do you understand?” I hold her gaze and wait to see if the gravity of my words sinks in.
June nods and bobs one shoulder halfheartedly.
“Good,” I say calmly.
I drop my finger from beneath her chin then stand. The sun
is about to be swallowed by the horizon line. We must hurry and clean up and get inside right away.
June, as if rea
ding my thoughts, begins poking the logs and embers with a long stick, breaking them apart. I race to the river with our bucket and fill it with water. Every branch that cracks makes my pulse rate spike. It is late, later than I have ever been out in the woods alone.
r sloshes from the container as I run with it, stopping only when I make it to the fire. I dump half of its contents first. The fire hisses and smoke billows as soon as the water touches it, then June rakes over the debris left behind. We repeat this a few more times until we are confident the fire is out, and any remnants of it ever being there are gone. We scurry inside and secure our boulder and brush.
I light our beeswax candle
, and June and I chat for a little while. I tell her more stories our father used to tell me about the world before the war. She listens carefully and laughs as she always does when I tell her of gas-operated vehicles humans used to get where they needed to go rather than walking. The absurdity of it all makes her howl with laughter. But soon, her eyelids droop and her yawns become more frequent. She dozes just as I begin telling her about handheld devices that people used to talk to each other from great distances apart.
blow out the candle then lie back with my arms folded over my head. I reflect on the day, and my thoughts center on the boy at the lake. I close my eyes and picture him, picture his sun-kissed skin, his dark hair and pale eyes. I find myself wishing I knew the true color of his eyes, whether they are blue or green, or a color in-between. I would like to see his face up close. I would like to see all of him up close, to stand beside him and see how much taller he is than I am, or what he smells like. I imagine he smells like grass and sunshine. The thought makes my heartbeat quicken and my stomach cartwheel. The boy at the lake was very pleasant to look at. I hope to watch him again soon and plan to return to the spot tomorrow. I will hunt, too. But watching him is what I look forward to most.
As I think about him,
I begin to wonder whether I am pretty. June tells me I am, but I have only seen my reflection in water, and even then, it mattered little. My appearance has never been something I concerned myself with; until now. At the moment, my looks, or more specifically pondering what the boy at the lake would think of my looks, is all I can think about. Would he like the sandy color of my hair? It tends to get streaks in it that are nearly white by midsummer. His hair is so dark. Maybe he would find mine unappealing. And my eyes, my dad told me they are hazel just like my mom’s eyes were. He used to say I look just like her.
I remember my mother’s
face. I remember her eyes, the way her irises looked, a light-brown palette speckled with green, gold, and blue flecks. In sunlight they would lighten in color, the green and blue eclipsing the soft brown and gold, always changing, always unique. They were so pretty. She was so pretty.
Reminiscing about her
nearly knocks the air from my lungs. I would love to see them again, just once. But she is gone forever. The best way to honor her memory is to look to the future, to live. And living requires survival. The cornerstone of survival is food. I will hunt again when I wake. I will return to the spot I went to today, far past the outer bank of the forest June and I have explored, where a river winds to a lake and four others just like us live. I will indulge in watching the oldest boy and silently envy that the woman I assume is his mother still lives. Perhaps I will work up the courage to make my presence known to them. I owe it to June, to all the people that we have lost, to do it. And meeting the boy with the tan skin and pale eyes would not be such a bad thing either.
His face is the last image my mind produces before my eyes close and a tide of darkness sweeps me away.