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
say. “I knew you were.”
June’s eyes widen at my words, gleaming with satisfaction, and my heart swell
m going to get us a couple of rabbits for dinner tonight,” she says with steely determination.
I admire her grit and wish grit alone were capable of snaring a pair of rabbits. But it is not. The sad fact is
that June rarely catches anything, and has never caught an animal substantial enough to feed us more than once. I feel confident today will be no different, but I respect her more than words can say for waking up every single morning and trying. She is undaunted by failure, unsullied by it.
“Good,” I tell her and wink. “I look forward to it.”
“Count on it,” she says. Her posture straightens, so full of optimism and hope.
I wish she would learn to hunt. I hope she reaches her goal
today. She needs to be able to kill and prepare her own food as a precaution. We live in a dangerous world. If something were to happen to me, I want to know that she will not starve.
“All right, let’s get going before the sun is overhead and the animals seek shelter from it,” I tell her.
She realizes it is time to separate and a strange look clouds her face. Without warning, she closes the distance between us and wraps her arms around my waist. “Be safe, Avery,” she says. “You are my sister and my best friend.”
y throat constricts around words that are jammed there. I swallow hard and try to talk, managing just a hoarse whisper. “I’ll be fine, sis. Don’t worry,” I tell her. I hold her briefly, then gently push her away. Our eyes lock, and I hold her gaze. “We’ll go to the edge of the woods together. Stay nearby.” Nearby means that she is not to wander more than a few hundred spear lengths from me. “I will signal when I get something. Okay?”
June nods in understanding and we move through the woods.
The forest is awake and humming with activity. Birds dart from tree to tree, rustling leaves and branches. Intermittently, a chipmunk scurries across the needle-covered ground and chirps loudly. June is silent as we walk. I watch her from the corner of my eye. Her expression is concerned. I reach out and take her hand.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I say.
She clutches my hand for a moment, then releases it. “I know,” she says and smiles. But I’m unconvinced. She is eight years old, a child by most standards, yet she must shoulder adult burdens. It’s necessary for her survival, a point that I regret with every fiber of my being.
When we reach the edge of our safety zone, the trees grows farther apart and the area is brighter. We are not as concealed.
“Don’t go too far,” I tell her.
June’s eyes plead for a moment, shining with emotion. “Love you,” she says.
“Love you, too,” I reply.
Her demeanor haunts me as I watch her crouch low and move cautiously between spiny ferns and brush. Why was she so worried? Did she sense something I’d missed? My min
d starts spinning questions, rolling around in my head like a ball of barbed wire. But I need to force them to the dark recesses of my brain. I cannot worry or speculate about intuition or what-ifs. Too much is at stake. Eating takes priority.
I walk for several minutes until I find fresh boart droppings.
My father once told me that long ago, before the war, boarts were called boars. But like every other animal on the planet, the boars changed. They mutated into a different species. I quickly look all around, scanning the low growth for the pot-bellied beast responsible for the droppings. I do not see one, but know it is near so I decide to seek higher ground. The massive oak beside me is the perfect lookout point.
With my knife sheathed at my
thigh and my spear and sword in a scabbard at my back, I grab hold of the lowest branch and hoist myself up. I climb from one to the next, scaling the tree cautiously, gently. I do not want to disturb anything or make a sound. I do not want to scare the beast and send it running. I continue, gingerly navigating the dovetailed branches and only stop when the limbs above me become thin and fragile-looking. I do not want to risk resting on one that cannot bear my weight and settle into a squatting position where I am. I crouch low, balancing. Unsheathing my spear, clutching it securely in sweat-slickened hands, I watch as nearby growth stirs and a boart comes into view.
Minutes tick by
and the boart does not move. The sun beats down through limbs and leaves. Sweat stipples my brow and trails between my shoulder blades, but I do not dare brush it away or shift. I must remain still, poised to strike when the moment presents itself. The snorts and chuffs of the beast grow closer. I do not move. I barely breathe. My muscles ache and tremble, and my knees protest holding the same position for so long. My pulse hammers against my temples. The beast continues to inch forward, creeping at a leisurely pace. Hunger gnaws ceaselessly. My belly rumbles, a sound so loud I worry it will frighten the boart and ruin any chance of eating for myself and June. But it does not. I have it in my sight, my gaze zeroed in on it. It disappears for a moment behind a dense thicket, so close to me I can smell its pungent stink.
It reappears after several painstaking seconds. Up close, it is enormous. It must
be nearly three hundred pounds. Not that I would know that for sure. The last scale I’d seen was when my father was alive and we’d stayed at a camp with other humans. Then, I’d been weighed and told I was one hundred five pounds and five foot one. Years have passed and I’ve grown since then. But the beast easily triples my girth. Massive shoulders and hindquarters are connected by a rotund belly, and small eyes sit atop a generous snout. Pointed tusks bulge from its lower jaw and saliva drips from its wide mouth as it sniffs a tuft of blossoms near the trunk of the tree I am perched in. It continues to snuffle and grunt. I grip the handle of my weapon so tightly my palm aches.
When it is just below me, I jump.
The ground hurtles toward me. All breath leaves my body and needle-sharp stabs of pain claw my legs as branches lash my thighs. Bruises and cuts will result, but I do not care. All I can think of is feeding my sister, and me.
My spear drives into the base of the beast’s neck before I land atop it
. I hold the spear steady with one hand while I unsheathe my blade and slice its throat. It squeals, a tortured, awful sound, and thrashes. Warmth gushes over my hand, covering my blade, but I do not let go. And I do not let go of my spear either. I hold fast and plunge it until the entire middle section of the spear is no longer visible.
My chest heaves and every part of me quivers
. The world around me has gone quiet. All I hear are my own ragged breaths and the fading shrieks of the stuck animal.
Before long, the boart
stops flailing. Blood is everywhere–on my hands, on my arms, my legs, and my face, even feels like it’s coating my tongue, but it’s not. It is just the heavy, coppery smell, so thick and overpowering, tricking my mind into believing blood has entered my mouth. The boart’s weight begins to shift as it topples to one side. I must keep my dagger from becoming trapped beneath its massive body.
must keep from getting trapped beneath its massive body.
I flick m
y knife to the side and hear it land with a soft
in the grass, then yank as hard and fast as I can to pull the spear from the boart’s body. I dive to the ground, reaching and stretching with every ounce of strength I have to throw myself clear of the beast’s fall. I land hard just in time to avoid being a squashed blob underneath it then whistle loudly for June.
The faint swish of wet grass and leaves sounds and before long, my sister appears. At first she sees the blood covering my hands and splattered across my face. She gasps and her hands f
ly to her mouth. She cries out words that are unintelligible.
“Oh no, no, no,” she sobs.
“June, no, I’m okay,” I assure her and point with a trembling hand to the boart carcass.
widen. “You got one!” she squeals excitedly. “Oh wow!” She bounces on the balls of her feet, clapping her hands, and I am reminded of her youth, of her innocence. I suddenly wish she did not have to see the boart’s carcass. But one day she will have to gut a boart on her own.
“Come on, let’s
prepare this boart quickly before the scavengers come out to play,” I say, referring to the buzzards and other winged predators that could announce our position.
June assists while I carve enough meat to stuff ourselves for the day, as well as the next morning. The boart is robust, its flesh plentiful, but we cannot take all of it. It would spoil by midday the next day
. Wastefulness of any kind pains me, particularly when it concerns food. If it were winter, every bit of its meat would be taken and packed in snow, then eaten for weeks. Today’s kill is just for the day.
We return to the cave with our haul and cook it immediately. Cooking after the sun
sets is off-limits. The smell of roasting flesh would frenzy the creatures of the night and all but guarantee our deaths. The thought makes me shudder.
As soon as the meat is fully cooked, I offer the first piece to June. She devours it immediately. I nibble a chunk and watch as she reaches for a second then third serving.
“Be careful not to stuff yourself,” I warn her. But it is hard not to. The salty taste and the tender texture of the meat are irresistible. Before long, I find myself ignoring my own advice and helping myself to more.
“I have to stop,” I moan, but a full belly is blissful. “We have to train still,” I say more for my own benefit than June’s
“Aw, do we have to?” she asks and frowns.
I level my gaze at her and do not say a word. I do not need to. She knows better, knows that it is imperative for us to train each and every day, to keep our senses sharp and our reflexes swift. I never allow a day to pass when we do not train. That is what our father taught us. And June needs to become as good with a sword and spear as I am. Her life depends on it, and so does mine. Room for improvement always exists.
“Can’t we just relax for a little while?” June begs.
I look to the sun, my mind warring with my heart, and realize there is plenty of daylight hours left. June deserves a reprieve. I owe her that, at least.
Her head whipsaws from me to her food
then back to me. “Are you kidding?” she asks suspiciously. “’Cause if you are, it’s not funny.”
“Nope, I’m serious,” I say. “Let’s go now.”
June does not need to hear me say it twice. She is on her feet before I am. We make our way to the meadow quickly. The clearing is overflowing with wildflowers that perfume the area. I would love to run through the field and pick as many as my arms could carry but I am not permitted such an indulgence. Instead, I settle for sitting on the outskirts of the meadow.
June plops down then flops back
ward. I sit for a while then lean back on my elbows.
, buttery sunlight heats us from overhead. A tangy, earthy scent infuses the air as we lay in the tall grass gazing at the sky, a vast blue canvas scrubbed clean by the early morning storms. A butterfly flits past June before landing on her nose. She giggles as the floppy-winged insect stops for a second then flaps and flies away. The sound is sweeter than anything I’ve heard in a long time. I turn to face her. Light washes across the top of her head, highlighting the natural gold of her hair. It makes her appear almost angelic. She closes her eyes and dozes while I fight the exhaustion that follows the adrenaline rush I had from killing the boart. A full belly assists my physical fatigue.
Before long, my eyes grow heavy and my body feels as if it is being rocked, cradled in warm arms, a sensation I barely remember but
yearn for nevertheless. I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
My eyes snap open
, and immediately my heart batters against my ribcage. I scramble to a sitting position, my eyes surveying the clearing. Tears burn and blur my vision as I squint at the blindingly bright light all around me. The sun is high in the sky, the heat blazing. I realize I have slept for hours not minutes, and a sense of deep regret fills me. A good portion of the day has been lost, wasted really. Time spent sleeping that should have been spent training. I exhale loudly, pinching the bridge of my nose as I do so. This day has been marked by squander; first the boart meat, and now this.
In my periphery, I see that June is still sleeping. I am grateful she is okay, that she is still by my side, despite bei
ng annoyed that time, a precious commodity, has been lost. I take a deep breath, calming myself before I wake June. I do not want her to see my frustration. After all, it is not her fault. None of it is her fault.
I twist my body and look at her. Her hair is fanned out all around her,
a riot of golden tendrils coiling around flower stems. I hesitate for a moment then tap her arm.
“June. June, wake up,” I say as I jiggle her shoulder. “June,” I try a bit l
June whips her head in my direction, her eyes wide and bloodshot. “What, what is it?” she asks concernedly. She looks dazed, still half-asleep.
“We both fell asleep,” I tell her, and she looks at me strangely, as if to say, “No kidding.” I shake my head then add, “We slept a
She sits up quickly and I follow her gaze as it sweeps the meadow. Little by little,
what I have said registers. A frown creases her face.
no, I’m so sorry,” she starts to say, but I interrupt her.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, June. This is my fault. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep.”
“No, it’s not your fault. Please don’t blame yourself,” she says, and touches my arm lightly. “It’s a beautiful summer day and you were tired.” She tries to excuse my negligence, but I have made a mistake and cost us valuable hours of daylight.
I ignore her at
tempt to let me off easy. “Half the day has been wasted. We never should have rested in the meadow in the first place.” I do not temper my aggravation. “And now, we need to hurry to our spot and train.” I raise my voice, allowing some of the irritation I am feeling to slip out.
Her face wilts
and her eyes glaze with tears.
“June,” I start. “I didn’t mean to sound so angry. I am not angry with you, just the s
ituation, okay?” She seems unconvinced. She tips her chin up and swallows hard, blinking feverishly. “Come on, please don’t be sad. I am a jerk,” I say, and know it is true. I have hurt the one person in this world I share my life with, the one person I love.
Regret and self-loathing
knot in my stomach. June is only eight. I should not have taken a sharp tone with her. It does not matter that my anger was not directed at her. I should know better. My father always did. He was calm. He would be disappointed in me if he knew I upset June.
A cool hand on my hot skin yanks me from my brooding. “I am sorry I’m such a baby, that I cry when I’m upset. I wish I were more like you,” June says.
I clamp my eyes shut. “No, you don’t,” I say. I want to tell her she is perfect, that she is better than I could ever be, but my voice chokes when I try to speak. I open my eyes then look away from her and chew my lower lip, gulping hard against the stinging pain in my throat. But thin arms encircle my shoulders.
“You’re not a jerk,” Ju
ne says into my neck as she squeezes tightly. “I love you.”
I hug her back and tell her I love her too. I do not let go until her grip relaxes
. I don’t know why she forgives me, but I am grateful for it. She is the only thing that keeps me going. I stand and offer my hand to help her up; the time to leave is upon us. She follows me wordlessly, away from the field and back into the denser part of the forest. We walk for several minutes, passing our cave, and continue until we reach an area my father constructed years ago, where trees have been stripped of their branches and trimmed, their bark removed so that the hard, inner wood is exposed. Targets have been fashioned out of stretched animal hides and stained with berry extract for spear-throwing practice, and wooden swords have been designed so that June and I can spar without hurting each other. This is our training area, where we prepare to fight for our food, to fight animals; to fight for our lives.
A quick look at the sky reveals the sun is sinking fast. Little time is left to spar. I move toward our weapons.
The swords are hidden. A large boulder sits in front of a thicket of thorny bushes. Under the thorny bushes, our swords wait, wrapped in an animal pelt. They are left in the woods, concealed by the bushes. To any creature roaming about, the pelt and swords would go unseen. But June and I know better. I drop to my knees and reach for the skin, scraping my forearm as I hurriedly drag it. I unroll it and toss one sword to June and keep the other for myself. June catches hers clumsily, and then clutches it in her hands.
Though the weapon is light in my h
ands, such is not the case for my sister. The small muscles in June’s upper body bulge as she wields the wooden sword and takes several practice swings. I know she is straining, but I must see beyond what is in front of me. I must look into the future, a future that requires her to be able to defend herself.
I advance several steps and
June and I begin. June uses a small sword I practiced with when I was little. I now use the one my father did when he was alive. It feels different in my hands than the one I keep on me at all times, perhaps because it lacks the heft of its metal counterpart, or because it lacks the finely honed tip. Either way, these swords suit our purpose, which is to exercise.
The wood of our weapons makes loud clacking sounds as they collide with each other
. When sparring with my sister, I exercise a degree of restraint. Our sessions are for her benefit only. After we finish, she rests, and I must sharpen my skills with the poles my father made.
designed all that we see before he died. I practiced with him throughout the years for more hours than I could count. I loved sparring with him. He trained me, fostering what he called my ‘gift’ until I could best him in a match. Of course, the gift he referred to was my ability to swing a sword. He said I was born with it. I think it is a result of hard training. Perhaps it is a combination of the two. Whatever it is does not matter. All I am certain of is that I must continue practicing, keep my muscles strong and my reflexes quick. The poles are helpful, but lack where instinct is concerned. Subtleties are missing. A being must be read when fighting; at least that’s what my father always told me. I was able to beat my father by the time I was fifteen, always anticipating his next move, sidestepping it before acting faster. He was a great warrior and was proud that I would win. He never held back and he was never embarrassed. I miss having an adult to spar with, someone stronger than me. I miss sparring with my father. I wish he were still alive. But he is gone, and I am responsible for June’s survival, as well as my own.
I keep that important point in mind every time I train with her. My goal is to build her endurance and strength, her speed and instinct. I need to build her confidence. The wa
y she hefts and swings her sword screams that she is not comfortable doing so. I worry about her. We have been working for months and her improvement has been minimal.
In my heart I believe she should have existed centuries ago, back when children her age played with dolls and went to places called
to learn about all kinds of subjects. Sometimes I think a cosmic joke of some sort has misplaced her here instead of an era when she could have been safe and healthy and happy.
The tension in my chest pulls, tightening painfully, when I look at her
and imagine her wearing dresses the color of wildflowers.
My insides feel as if they are coiling like a snake readied to strike. I focus the pain, focus the anger, and take it out on the poles. Extending my arms, I swing the wooden blade, slicing through the air with a
before it strikes wood, scoring it. I continue, repeating the motion, but alternating between my left and right arm, swinging high and low, until my skin is slick with sweat and my throat burns. My entire body throbs to a single rhythm and I feel alive, truly alive.
Blood rushes through by body, drilling against my skin so hard I feel I could burst, but I d
o not stop. I swerve and twist as I cleave the air. I must be prepared in case they find us. Other beings live beyond the woods we call home. They rule the world and will kill us if they find us. If they knew humans were living deep in the forest, that June and I exist, they would come for us.
used to be human, but have evolved into something far different. They now call themselves Urthmen, and they hate us in a way I do not understand. They want nothing more than to drive humanity to extinction. They may have already been successful for all I know, except for me and my sister. I watched them kill hundreds when I was younger, my neighbors, my friends, my mother. Back then, we lived in a village with others like us. My father, sister, and I were the only survivors. My father fled to the forest with us, knowing that the Urthmen do not venture deep into the woods, for they are not the most dangerous species roaming the planet. Lurkers are. They live in the forest. They only come out at night. And Lurkers would feast on the flesh of Urthmen as quickly as they would humans.
The Urthmen live in the cities that used to be inhabited by humans, before our kind fell at their hands. They rarely enter the woods by day. Doing so at nighttime would mean certain death. Even Urthmen fear the forest. The only reason they would ever leave the comfort of their communities would be to hunt humans.
I used to ask my father why the Urthmen hate us so much. He said they fear our intelligence and they resent that we are unchanged by the War of 2062. Recalling tales of the War of 2062 sends a shiver down my spine. My father explained to me what happened to our kind, that we had brought this misery on ourselves. Humans from different countries had warred with one another. A powerful chemical virus had been created by a Middle Eastern country, and released on the people of North America. The attack caused the leaders in America to launch nuclear weapons in retaliation, destroying much of the world.
North America, where I live, is the only place where
life is thought to still exist. It has been ravaged by chemical warfare, but life has continued. I do not know for certain whether the rest of the world is inhospitable, but judging from the stories I’ve heard, I do not see how it would be possible. The only reason many humans survived the war in the first place resulted from the mass underground shelters that had been created when the threat of war seemed imminent.
Bomb shelters, as they were aptly named, were created for important people and rich people to take refuge in. Hundreds of thousands of the rich and important people lived there for decades until their supplies ra
n out and forced them to come aboveground. By then, they figured the diseases had cleared and that they were safe. The diseases were gone, but something much worse awaited them.
When they surfaced, they were met by grotesque, distorted versions of human beings, abominations, who had gone mad from the chemicals and diseases. Those abominations butchered
any humans they came across, who had hidden and were unaffected by illness. Some humans managed to get away, and they hid.
Two hundred years later, the offspring of those affected, the abominations, have evolved. They look much
as they had then. They are grotesquely distorted versions of humans, and their intelligence is far lesser than a human. They call themselves the Urthmen. They now rule the world. And even after all these years have passed, after watching the fall of humanity and the rise of their kind, the Urthmen’s hatred of humans remains.
I haven’t seen
Urthmen since the massacre at the village I used to live in. Thinking of them makes me pause and look at June.
“Come, let’s go again,” I say between pants.
“But we just finished a little while ago,” she protests.
I beg her with my eyes to stop and she does. She reluctantly stands and picks u
p her wooden sword. We spar again, only this time I push her harder, challenging her, demanding with my weapon that she defend herself more intensely. Her posture becomes more rigid, her strikes more purposeful. Her lip curls over her teeth, and in her eyes there’s a steely resolve I’ve never seen before. She is suddenly focused, pushing herself to her limits. She is using her speed and agility to her advantage, darting all around me as she attacks unrelentingly. Pride mushrooms inside of me.
I smile broadly when she lowers her weapon to catch her breath. “I am proud of you, June,” I say
, and her spine lengthens. She is barely able to stifle the grin creeping across her cheeks. “Oh, go ahead and smile,” I tell her. “You should be happy. You have made tremendous progress.”