“Don’t touch that!”
My voice whips across the small kitchen and freezes Kiera’s hand mid-air, hovering over the handmade bow I left strung in the corner. A quiver of accompanying arrows rests alongside it, their feathers dull and ragged. I feel a small measure of pride in my monstrous creation. The bow isn’t much in the way of craftsmanship, forged from scavenged hardware-store PVC pipes and a roll of para-cord; it had taken quite a few attempts to find the correct shape, just to get the contraption to shoot.
Someday, I know I’ll have to teach Kiera to use it. I’m not ready for that yet, but if something happens to me, she’ll need some way of protection. Some method of survival. It’s all I can think to give her, and what else is there, really. I don’t have anything left to give.
Kiera looks over at me with glinting eyes, her lower lip sticking out. I sigh and wipe my hands on the sides of my cargo pants, moving around the kitchen island where I was laying out strips of leftover rabbit meat, drying into jerky. I grip Kiera’s shoulders and kneel so we’re on the same level, looking deep into each other’s eyes.
“I’m sorry to raise my voice. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
I sweep the stray curls across her forehead and touch my lips to the smooth skin there. She smells like wood smoke from the fires we build in the stove, and a tiny hint of pine. Her special scent. Our mother told tales of entire forests smelling like that, with soft green needles for leaves, back in the times before the wall. She used to bury her face in Kiera’s head and take a big, exaggerated sniff, sending Kiera into a fit of giggles. The memory makes me smile, and I loop a curl of Kiera’s dirty-blonde hair between my fingers. Kiera smiles back and twirls a strand of my own hair in her hands.
“Can I braid it, before you leave?” she asks.
I turn around and feel her fingers comb across my scalp. She separates the long raven-black strands into triplets and begins intertwining them. I relax into the rhythmic motion of her hands, the feeling of her touch against my head.
“Can’t I go with you?” Kiera asks.
“It’s safer for you here.”
“But I don’t like being by myself.”
“I won’t be long,” I say, “and you have to keep watch, remember?”
Kiera finishes braiding my hair. I turn to see her eyes wide in protest, but she nods. “I just wish I could go with you.”
I stroke a hand across the fishtail swooping down my back. “I don’t like leaving you, either, you know that. But it’s important that you’re safe.”
Kiera grows quiet, staring down at the floor. She bites her lip in the way she does when she’s holding back.
She doesn’t answer.
“Tell me what it is, sunflower.”
Kiera shuffles her feet and crosses her arms. “What if…” she trails off and looks up at me with tears threatening to overflow. “What if you don’t come back, this time?”
I pull her close. “That won’t happen.”
Her thin arms wrap tight around my neck and squeeze. She hasn’t hugged me so hard in years, since we lost our mother.
“Promise?” she whispers, her voice reaching my ears like water slipping over velvet.
My hands grip her slim body closer. Her ribs are prominent, like resting my fingers along an accordion. I hear her breath slipping in and out. There’s a slight wheeze developing, and I’m afraid she’s becoming sick or the smog is getting to her.
“I promise you. I’ll always come back.”
* * *
After dinner – a couple strips of rabbit-jerky each, canned beans, and two chunks of stale bread – I gather my supplies. Slipping my brass knuckles on, I holster my knife to my hip and throw a knapsack over my shoulder along with the bow and quiver. I tell Kiera to lock the door behind me and slip out. Our current hideout on the eighth floor of the Locust came with a set of keys, so I feel better leaving her inside at night.
It’s gotten quieter in our city and if you listen closely, you can hear it deteriorating. The screech of rusty metal beams in stripped-down department stores and apartments. The sigh of wood rotting on itself after years of standing strong. The entire city, surrendering. Even the old church has been consumed by mold and disuse, offering no sanctuary from this place. We’ve been doomed to starve in this broken town, or worse. But I have other plans. I adjust the bow and quiver slung on my back.
The sky begins to darken overhead, making the smog appear thicker. First thing is check the traps. I found them while scavenging for weapons at the old hunting lodge. Ugly traps with dark metal teeth along with a handy pair of night-vision goggles, which I wear on top of my head until it gets darker.
Crazy to think there used to be a whole world connected to this place before they built the wall. A forest with all kinds of animals bigger than rabbits. Meatier and juicier, tastier. That’s what our mother used to tell us. About that and the sky. All those twinkling lights. Nothing I’m ever likely to see, but something I hope Kiera does one day.
I move between the alleys like a slinking predator. Some are nearly impassable with the devastation. The traps are set behind rusted dumpsters, along the paths in dark corners and near the outskirts of the buildings where humans rarely venture but small creatures might if they still exist.
Most of the traps are empty as I expected. One holds a skeletal rat. I toss the trap aside, wary of disease. It’s a shame I can’t bury him. I murmur a little prayer for the rat’s useless sacrifice.
As I move to the final trap, I realize there’s a small glimmer of hope in me that it will have something worthy inside. My regular scavenging trips became more and more frequent since our failed escape. The city continued running bare, scraps of sustenance slipping through my fingers like water. The rabbit was the first sign of life in such a long time. I’d thought, maybe we can survive in this dilapidated city after all. If there was a way to eat, to live. And that’s when I had the other thought.
I don’t want it to come to that, but I’d had the idea in the back of my mind for a while. It’s something I hope we can avoid, something I don’t like to dwell on. If that ever happens, it means I’m fair game too – hunter and the hunted. But it might become a necessity with the food so scarce and the rabbit meat almost gone. It may be time that I consider it for real.
I look around, squinting at the broken buildings, chunks of brick and shards of broken glass littering the streets. I’ve gotten used to picking through the piles of rubbish to look for something useful without slicing my hand. I started wearing fingerless gloves along with the bandana wrapped tight around my nose.
As I bend to look at a pile of charred wood, I hear a sharp scream behind me. I stand and whirl in one movement then pause, listening. It sounded strangely like Kiera calling for me. I start racing back in the direction I’d come. I leap over a fallen barrel and keep running, my heart thundering in my ears. The sound comes again, muffled in my ears but I can tell I’m getting closer. Rounding a corner, I stop at an impasse – two dark buildings clawing against each other in their collapse. Their dirty brick chokes the alley, smog curling down like long fingers to clutch at the rubble. There’s no way past.
“Saige!” I hear my name called, beyond the alley.
“Kiera?” I yell. “Where are you?”
A better question would be why she’s outside, but I’ll save that for later. I scramble up the tumbled brick, scraping the skin off my fingers, and balance myself atop the pile. My footing is precarious, and the shock of my weight sends bits of the foundation rolling from the pile. I hurl myself across to the other side and land on the torn soles of my boots. The hard impact reverberates in my jaw. I shake off the feeling. “Kiera?” I call out, my voice cracking.
“Saige!” Her small voice carries to me behind a thicket of smoke.
Spinning curls of smog dance behind me as I push forward, through an ocean of fog. My heart races. The air clears enough for me to observe a large, hanging mass overtaking the alley, strung between two familiar buildings.
Squinting, I move closer to see Kiera dangling in a net above me with her limbs tangled. When she sees me, Kiera’s tiny body jolts and struggles, entangling herself more. Her fingers reach out between the web of ropes. Who would have set a trap here?
“Kiera, hold still,” I say, “I’m going to get you down.”
“Saige,” she whimpers, “I’m scared.”
“Hold on, it’ll be alright.”
I unsheathe the knife from my belt and hack at the ropes spidering around my sister. She scrambles to move away from the blade, which sends the net swinging out of my reach.
“Get me out,” she shrieks.
I grasp at her fingers through the ropes. “Kiera, you have to be still.”
She goes limp. I curse under my breath but get to work at the ropes with my small knife.
Hacking and sawing, the ropes fray enough to create a small hole for Kiera to slip through. My wrist aches with the effort. Kiera slides into my arms and buries her face in my chest. Her body trembles. I tug her behind a corner and look her over, then wrap her in my arms. We stay like that, silent and breathing heavily against each other.
“What are you doing out here?” I demand after the shock has worn off.
Kiera peeks up at me with a single blue eye. “I wanted to be with you.”
I grip her by the shoulders and shake her. “It’s too dangerous, haven’t I told you?”
“I don’t care.” A whine creeps into her voice. “You’re always saying you miss me when you’re out here, and you used to bring me with you all the time.”
“Well, see what happened?” I gesture above us.
We’re silent for a moment before Kiera voices both our minds. “What was that thing?” “I don’t know,” I say, “but it’s nothing good.”
“Is someone… hunting us?”
The thought sends a thrill of fear through me, but I don’t have an answer. Kiera moves from my arms to gaze intently at my face.
“I told you,” I say, “I have my reasons for leaving you behind.”
She blows a stray curl out of her eyes. “You can’t keep me locked up forever.”
“Kiera.” My voice is sharp. I take her face in my hands and look at her. “It’s a different world we live in now.”
“So, teach me.” Her eyes flare and she juts her chin.
She nods, the curls that frame her face bouncing like golden flames. “Show me how to hunt, how to trap. How to protect myself.”
I don’t know what to say. Kiera stares into my face, searching my eyes. She knows I don’t have an excuse, other than my own fear. “Okay,” I give in. “I’ll teach you.”
Her face brightens. “I won’t let you down,” she promises.
Before we head back to the Locust, I take another look at the net dangling above the alley. It appears from the smog as if from nowhere, but I trace the source of it back to a rusted beam, jutting from a building like a broken rib. The ropes loop around it and must have been triggered somehow when Kiera passed by, setting off the net to scoop her. The mechanism looks complex, but nothing I can’t duplicate. A flash of movement catches my eye, but when I look again, there’s nothing there. I turn and hurry Kiera home.
* * *
Kiera moves with the agility of a cat, edging her way through the alleys. We check the small traps first, taking the path that’s worn into the back of my mind. Empty, as usual. It’s more from habit that we check them anyway. We move together through the city, eyes peeled for anything of use. Scavenging the very last bits of refuse.
In the market, small clusters of people mill about in ragged clothes. Their faces are all dirty and none of them meet our eyes. Every so often, we’ll pass someone who murmurs a halfhearted plea for salvation. But we have nothing to give, nothing to share. Most of the people look sickly, their faces lackluster and bodies wracking with painful coughs. It makes me second-guess the thought of turning any of them into a meal.
When the smog above begins darkening, we turn around and take our meager findings back to the Locust. Tomorrow maybe we’ll search some of the rooms. Often the cabinets are full of gold mines. Our backpack contains two cans of beets, probably spoiled, and a stale box of crackers left behind on one of the shelves. The canned food is what we want and what has grown scarce in the months since The Surge. I’d lost count of how long we’d been abandoned in this city.
Picking our way through the alleys, we’re on the lookout for dangling ropes or other signals of a trap. After Kiera was caught, it became clear that others were thinking the same dreadful thought I’d been resisting so long.
We take the shortcut around the old pizzeria and end up in a maze of alleyways. I pause to check the large trap I’d set near the one which caught Kiera. I’d fashioned it together with a scavenged net and some ropes, mimicking their design.
Someone had set the trap off, but they’d used the same method of escape as I had. The net hung limp in the air, dangling bits of rope like a large bite had been taken from it. The hole is larger than the one I’d cut for Kiera. Someone large had been trapped here. I wonder if it might be the same someone who set the other trap. I hadn’t seen many people around the Locust, one reason I chose that part of town for our hideout, but there was always the possibility that someone else lurked close.
Kiera looks up at the destroyed net and then over at me. The expression on her face is unreadable. One thing is for sure, we’re far from alone in our dangerous game.
* * *
“It’s all about your aim.” I lean my head close to hers to show how my gaze never leaves the target. “Everything else becomes natural.”
“Doesn’t it hurt your arm?” she asks, training those big blues on me. “I can’t even pull the string back.”
I can tell she’s getting frustrated. “You’ll get used to it, I promise. Just keep practicing. Here, watch me.”
I take her small fingers in my own and hold the bow taut. Kiera relaxes her grip and steps back.
“Use your chin as an anchor.” I pull back the string and show how my fingers line up with my chin. Straining against the natural tug of the bow I adjust my position, aim at my target, breathe and release. The bowstring swipes back with a little zing and nicks the skin of my wrist. I wince and hiss my breath through clenched teeth.
Kiera’s too quick not to notice. “See, I knew it hurts.”. She pouts at the bow when I hand it back.
“Yeah, sometimes it does,” I admit. “Like all good things in life.” I nudge her on the shoulder then tilt my head and give her a smile. “It takes some practice, little sunflower, but you’ll get it.”
She squints one eye and positions the bow against her hip. “Like this?”
“Don’t lean it against yourself. Hold it as if it’s part of you.”
I watch as Kiera huffs a little but then she readjusts her stance. One hip forward, one foot positioned in front. She grips the bowstring and tugs back. Eyesight in line with her arm, fingers set with her chin. She breathes out, steady, and releases. My breath leaves my chest. The arrow lands a few inches from its target – a dark red, painted circle against a white cloth draped over a hay bale. Kiera jumps in the air and turns to me.
“Did you see that?” she asks.
“I sure did,” I say. I give her a smile. “That was perfect, just like I told you.”
Her eyes glint. “Should we keep practicing?”
“Show me what you can do.” I stand back and watch.
Kiera positions the bow in front of her and strings an arrow. She squints one eye at her target and pulls the string back. I watch the muscles in her arms grow taut. She holds her stance for a heartbeat then releases. The arrow arcs and lands in the white cloth, a little nearer the red circle.
We spend the better part of the day shooting at the hay bale. Her arrows come closer and closer to her target, some landing inches from the red mark.
“That’s enough for today,” I say, once the smog’s gone a deep, stormy grey.
We collect our arrows and put them back in the quiver.
“I didn’t hit it once,” Kiera says, eyeing the target.
“You’ll get better. It took me a while, too, and I’m far from perfect.” I wrap my arms around her and pull her close. “You really impressed me.” I feel the flutter of her heart against mine.
“You’re right, it’s not so hard once you get the hang of it.”
I squeeze her tight, then hold her at arm’s length and look her over. Her blond curls are disheveled and wild around her face, pulled back in a braid at the nape of her neck. Her sapphire eyes burn with a fire I haven’t seen before, and there’s a rosy flush to her face above the scarf, which is tied tight around her nose and mouth against the smog. She squints at me. I know she’s giving me a smile, even though I can’t see.
I grab her hand in my own. “Let’s go find something to eat.”
TIANNA GROSCH is writing a debut novel about women who survive trauma as well as a memoir. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Crack the Spine, Who Writes Short Shorts, New Pop Lit, and others. In her free time she gardens on her family farm and dreams up dark fiction. Follow her on Twitter @tianng92 or check out CreativeTianna.com.
Image: TheDigitalWay via Pixabay