Authors: Joe Beernink
In the cold light of morning, Izzy Chamberlain began to tremble. Three strangers blocked the bottom step of the ransacked house. From behind her sister, Izzy eyed the knives in their hands, their sallow cheeks, and their long, uncombed hair. Broken pieces of wooden furniture fell from her arms and clattered onto the concrete porch.
One of the men lurched toward them. Angie tossed her load of firewood at his chest. She pulled at the strap of the shotgun looped over her shoulder with one hand, while shoving Izzy back into the house with the other.
“Run, Izzy!” Angie yelled.
Izzy ranâthrough the house, and away from those men. Away from Angie.
The screen door slammed behind Izzy as she vaulted down the three steps and into the backyard. She leaped through the neighbor's stripped-down fence. Her malnourished legs could still run fast when necessary. Less than a year ago, shortly after her thirteenth birthday, she had run 10K races with her mother for fun. Now fear drove her legs.
She paused only to see if Angie had followed. The door to the house she had just escaped opened with a squeal, and, for an instant, a mat of tangled hair appeared to be Angie's long auburn locks. But
from within the house, the voice of her older sister screamed again, before abruptly falling silent. Izzy's illusion vanished, replaced by a weasel-faced man in a camouflage parka. The blade of a long hunting knife glinted in his right hand.
Izzy bolted. She hopped a split-rail fence, turned north, and looped around the next block. Her legs found their own way to the two-story apartment building within sight of their home base, where Angie and Rick had told her to wait if they were separated or threatened.
She wriggled through the broken front door of a town house, then tiptoed up carpeted stairs to the back windows from which she could watch the house she had fled moments before. Shapes moved by darkened windows. Cackles of terrifying laughter broke the silence of the neighborhood. Izzy could do nothing but wait. Warm vapors from her lungs fogged the frigid air as the relentless cold seeped into her muscles.
She, Angie, and Rick had swept this apartment block two days before for food and supplies. There was nothing to eat hereâthere was never anything to eat. There had, however, been clothes in the closets that would fit her, and at that moment, she needed a new jacket. She had removed her old one when they began breaking the furniture for kindling. It remained on the counter of the house where Angie was trapped. Izzy raided a pile of clothes, grabbing a coat two sizes too big and a mismatched pair of mittens. She zipped up the coat, pulled on the gloves, and flexed her fingers. No frostbite. Not this time anyway. An hour without protection from this cold and this wind, and she wouldn't just have frostbite; she'd be dead.
She crept from one bedroom to another, then raised her eyes above the windowsill. The rear entrance to the house they had been looting loomed tantalizingly close. She waited and she watched and
she listened. The numbing realization that Angie might not make it out rose like the northern-winter sun: cold and distant.
Not even a glimmer of heat came from the hot-air register in front of her feet. She wiped her nose on her new sleeve. The smell of musty fabric made her cough. She'd find a better coat later. There were lots of clothes her size available. Few teenagers had survived long enough to see the winter. She had seen others in the early days, but eventually they had either succumbed to starvation or had vanished to the roads and the bush like everyone else.
Clothes were easy to find now.
People were not.
Izzy searched the room for something, anything, she could use as a weapon. The men had knives, and there were three of them. Nothing here would help her overcome those odds. Angie had a gun, but she hadn't fired itâoh, why hadn't she fired it? The men's faces wore that desperate look that Izzy had seen before on others they had met on the road: the look of men who had lost touch with what made them human. Not quite animals. Animals had fear, and for the most part, animals did reasonable, rational things. These men had abandoned rationality.
To her right, across the parking lot behind the apartment complex and four houses down from where Angie wasâ
captive? fighting for her life?
âthe door on a different house opened and a figure emerged. He was taller than the three men who had attacked Izzy and Angie. Izzy recognized his ice-studded beard instantly. Rick had returned early from his hunt. He looked up and down the narrow stretch of open yards, apparently unaware of the threat just a few doors over, then disappeared back inside.
Izzy flew out of the apartment and sprinted around the block to the house they had called home for the past week.
“Rick!” Izzy's voice cracked with fear as she careened through
the back door. “Rick! They got Angie!” The warmer air from the kitchen, liquid and luxurious after her time in the freezing-cold apartment, weighed heavy in her throat.
“What?” Rick's gruff voice practically rattled the plates in the cabinets. “Goddamn it!” He slammed a mug down on the counter. Four months of near starvation had changed his weight, but not the way he carried himself. He still towered over her like he always had. He pulled the Glock from the pocket of his coat. Izzy took an involuntary step back.
“Where?” His boots fell like pile drivers onto the hardwood floor as he paced the room.
“Four houses down. Three of them. We were getting firewood, andâ”
“Stay here.” Rick pushed her aside and stepped out the door.
Izzy choked down a sob as she watched him leave. Three against oneâthree against two if she helped him.
I should help him
. Her feet refused to move. The tears began then, hot and burning against her frozen cheeks, like cinders from a campfire falling into fresh snow, sizzling all the way down to her chest. The first weeks after this had all started had seen her cry often. When Angie had been there, she would help stem the flow. Now the tears ran freely, and alone, Izzy could not stop them.
It was only then that Izzy noticed the dead deer lying on the kitchen table: a young doe, skinny, most likely born too late the previous spring to have put on enough fat to survive the winter. Izzy could count its ribs. In the old days, no hunter of any repute would have wasted a bullet on it.
She rested her hand on the side of the animal. Food. Real food. The creature was cold but not quite frozenâthe kind of cold that creeps into something that was alive and moving just a few hours
before. The house grew quiet, save for the rumbling of her empty stomach. The floor floated away. The tiny kitchen spun as if the walls had flown outward, filling the air with swirling snow. The deer began to feel warmerâalmost alive. The faintest beat of a pulse nudged her fingertips. Izzy tried to pull her hand back, but it stuck firm.
The deer's nostrils flared.
Run, Izzy. Run now.
Izzy sprang back from the deer. It lay there as before, still cold and still dead.
The crack of Rick's handgun made her jump again. Then three more shots. She pulled a knife out of the butcher blockâa chef's knife with a short, sharp blade. A tang of cold steel ran through the wooden grip, sucking heat from her hand like a vein of ice. She adjusted her grip to prevent her fingers from touching the metal.
A fifth shot.
The window over the kitchen sink provided a partial view of their backyard and the neighbor's. Her eyes darted back and forth across the snow to the drifts clustered around trees and shrubs. The ground had been scalloped by the same gusts that had driven them out of the bush and back into town. Crisp brown grass showed through the thin white crust. The frozen blades rustled in the breeze.
Another shot and Izzy ducked, the grip on her knife tighter still. The deer's hollow voice echoed in her mind.
Run, Izzy. Run now.
Hunched low, she moved toward the back door, ready to flee, but as she reached for the door handle, an unseen force ripped it from her grasp. She tumbled onto the patio, dropping the knife to the concrete. A rough hand grabbed the back of her coat and lifted her up.
“Get your stuff, Iz. We have to go.” Rick set Angie's shotgun on the table, patted the stock once, then turned his eyes toward the
sink. Izzy caught a glimmer of a tear sliding down his cheek. She gazed at the gun. Her eyes flicked to the door, then back to the gun.
“She's dead, honey. She's . . . dead.” He left the room before she could ask anything else.
Izzy grabbed the counter to steady herself. The blood in her veins stopped moving, packed hard by a single word, like the wind had packed the snow outside.
Rick returned a minute later, his backpack in hand. The pack was always ready to go with essentials, but he searched the kitchen for more things to stuff into it. A box of table salt. A pepper grinder. A dishcloth. He pulled the Glock from his pocket and began feeding fresh cartridges into the magazine.
“I need you to get your stuff, Iz. Now.”
“I need to see my sister,” she said after a moment.
A glimmer of pity crossed Rick's face. “No, darling. You don't want to see her like that.”
He grabbed Izzy before she collapsed and brushed his hand over her blond hair as he hugged her close.
“We're going back into the bush. It's not safe here.”
Rick lifted the deer from the table and threw it over his shoulder. He gave Izzy a gentle push toward the room where she kept her pack.
Izzy did as ordered, in a daze, her thoughts swirling around the horrible, impossible idea of never seeing Angie again. As her mind spun, the deer's wordsâimagined, surely, but imprinted in her brain nonethelessâreturned:
Run, Izzy. Run now
. But she had nowhere to run, nowhere safe to go. Angie was gone. Everyone she loved was gone.
She looked back at Rick as she shouldered her pack. He bent low outside the door, picked up the knife she had dropped, studied it for a moment, and then held it out to her. It looked ridiculously small in his huge hands.
Rick was all she had left now. He would protect her. She took the knife from him, pocketed it, and followed him out the door.