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
June’s eyes cr
inkle with her smile. “Really? You mean it?” she says, and cannot keep the excitement from her tone.
nod. “Maybe we should goof off more often,” I add, and arc an eyebrow at her.
Her lips part briefly before snapping shut, as if she is not sure of the correct response. I was being sarcastic, making fun of myself, really. But she is uncertain.
“Come on, give me your sword. We are done for the day,” I tell her.
She hands over her weapon and I wrap both in the animal pelt and return them to the space beneath the bush.
As we walk back to our cave, June comments on the sky. “Wow,” she marvels. “It’s so pretty.”
The sun has just about set and ban
ds of pink and lavender streak the sky. June has only seen a handful of twilight skies. We seldom stay out this late. Danger prowls when the sun goes down.
With that threat in min
d, I link my arm through June’s and pull her close, quickening my pace. She rushes to keep up with me, and we make it to the cave just as darkness falls.
As soon as we are inside, we roll the boulder in place and secure it with brush and logs. We eat some of our cooked boart meat
, then I light a small candle made from beeswax. June settles into her sleep sack for the night.
“Avery?” she calls as I roll
out my bedding.
“Will you tell me some stories Dad used to tell us at bedtime?”
“Of course,” I answer as my mind’s eye produces an image of my father sitting right where I am, tucking us in for the night and sharing stories of years long-passed, stories his father told him that his grandfather had shared.
I lie beside her and place the candle between us. “Once, long ago, people like us, human beings, lived in big, sprawling structures made of wood and brick. They were called
. Usually, only one family lived there, parents and children.” I pause and look at June. Her sack is pulled up to her chin, her fingers curled around the edge. Her eyes are fixed on mine as she waits for me to continue. “Inside the houses, they had little rectangles on the walls with knobs at their center. When they moved the knob, lights would turn on.”
at what I’ve just said; the idea so far-fetched it is funny.
“The rectangles were called
and they were pretty much what their name stated: switches that made light shine.”
June covers her eyes with her hands and shakes her head.
“And the light switches were not alone. There were other rectangular things called
. People would plug tools into these outlets and they would work by themselves.”
“Like the picture boxes?” June asks
, and drops her hands, her eyes lighting up with interest.
“Yes, people plugged their picture boxes into the outlets. Picture boxes were like magic. They would show miniature people inside of them that could speak loud enough for everyone to hear. The people inside would perform and tell stories.”
June claps her hands over her face again and laughs. “That can’t be true,” she says through giggles. “There wasn’t any such thing!”
“No, there was,” I say. “Dad’s father told him, and his father before him. It is all true.”
She lowers her hands and rolls her eyes. “Wow,” she breathes.
“Oh, but there’s more,” I continue. “There also used to be friendly
animals that lived in people’s houses and they were treated like family.”
“No way! Now I know you’re making that up!” she snorts and is overcome with silliness again.
“I am not making it up,” I say and can’t help but chuckle softly, mostly at her delight. “They were called
and they would lick people’s faces and let people pet them. They would even sleep with the people they lived with in a big, cozy bed. Great-grandpa told Dad that some people had clothes for their dogs.” I watch as June doubles over clutching her belly in hysterics.
The notion of an animal living with a person is preposterous. Mammals are ferocious creatures to be avoide
d. Most only come out at night, as their eyes are no longer able to handle daylight. The thought of one licking anyone’s face is inconceivable.
When June’s laughter calms, I continue telling stories until her eyes struggle to stay open. After her eyes close, I blow out th
e candle. The cave is plunged in darkness, but I am not afraid. The dark of our cave is familiar, it is safe. Beyond our stone walls is another story entirely though, one that does not include friendly animals, magic picture boxes, houses, or families. It is a world of violence and chaos; a world of danger.
I fight to push the never-ending risk surrounding us to the back of my mind. I know it will be waiting for me when I wake. But right now I need rest. I close my eyes and feel sore muscles relax before all the terror stills and sleep takes hold.
The constant rumble of my stomach wakes me. Four days have passed since I caught the boart. In those four days, food has been scarcer than usual. Yesterday was the worst so far. Typically, eating rats indicates a
severe shortage of available food, but yesterday, I couldn’t even find any of them. June and I were forced to eat insects, mostly crickets and grasshoppers. I roasted them over an open fire and wrapped them in leaves to mask them. But the distinct crunch when I bit down, along with the irreversible knowledge of what I was actually eating, surpassed what a thin green leaf could do. I gagged on them, and so did June, barely able to keep them down once I swallowed.
My body is demanding heartier nourishment, something more than crickets and grasshoppers.
Physically, I am exhausted. Emotionally, I am in agony. June looks thinner than usual, gaunt. The few days of meager food have taken their toll on her. I roll onto my back to avoid looking at her. I am failing her. Today I will venture past our safety zone to hunt. It is a risky endeavor, but it is one I must take for June’s sake.
I twist onto my
side. All energy has deserted me, even though I slept through the night. I am barely able to push myself up to a sitting position. When I finally do, my limbs tremble, and a dull ache at the base of my skull persists. I rub my eyes with the heels of my hands, then force the corners of my mouth to lift. I must keep a brave face for June. I must smile even though I would like nothing more than to scream and cry.
I give June a gentle shake. Her eyes open
, and I immediately notice that the silvery sparkle in her blue irises has clouded to gray. Her expression is bleary, and her cheeks have hollowed further.
, sleepy girl,” I say. My voice is chipper and I smile.
t morning already?” June asks.
“Yep, time to rise and shine,” I maintain my put-on cheerfulness.
June tries to sit. She hesitates. Her hand goes to her forehead.
“June, are you okay,” I ask
, and cannot hide the panic in my tone.
“Whoa, my head is spinning,” she says and closes her eyes. Her thumb is rubbing one temple while her fingers work the other. “I must not have slept well. Did I
toss and turn a lot?”
She did not toss and turn. Movement of any kind wakes me. June was still all night. Hunger is what is exhausting her.
“Hmm, maybe,” I lie. “I slept like a rock, so I can’t be sure.”
“That must be it,” June bobs her head slowly.
“Listen, why don’t you stay here and skip going to the river. I’ll bring back extra water and you can just stay here while I hunt.”
June’s sunken eyes search the stone floor as if considering my suggestion.
“Besides, I am going out beyond our perimeter today. Staying in the cave, or close by at least, would be the best thing for you to do.”
Her head whips in my direction as soon as the words have left my lips.
“What?” she asks, shocked. “You’re going to go out where Dad told us never to go?”
I sigh and feel tremendous weight bear down on my shoulders. “I have to, June. We need to eat.
need to eat. We cannot live on grasshoppers and crickets.” Just the thought causes a wave of nausea to quiver through my stomach.
“Those things are disgusting,” June shivers and wraps her arms around her body.
“I know. And they are not enough,” I say somberly. “So I have to go out there and get us something more, a turkey or squirrel.”
“I see,” June says
thoughtfully then adds, “I will come too. We will go together.”
reply snippily. June’s face withers and I immediately regret my tone. “June, I’m sorry, but you cannot come with me. It is too dangerous.”
“If it is too dangerous for me, how come it isn’t too dangerous or you?” she asks as tears well in her eyes.
I bite my lower lip, measuring my words carefully. “June, I love you. You are my family, my only family. I will not bring you to an unsafe area and risk anything happening to you.”
“The same goes for me!” she protests. “You are my only family, the one person I have in this world. What will I do if something happens to you?”
Her question catches me off-guard. I am unprepared for how adult she sounds. She has a valid point. “June, you are staying here and that’s final,” I hate myself just a bit for treating her as I am. “I am in charge and I say you must stay, okay?”
“Okay,” she says feebly.
Crimson ribbons streak her cheeks. She is sad. I have hurt her feelings yet again. I cannot tell her that I value her safety over my own. She wouldn’t understand. Also, in her weakened condition, she would slow me down. I have a long hike ahead of me and limited hours of daylight. I do not have time to spare. Hunting and cooking must be finished before the sun sets. I try to appeal to her sense of duty.
I have to hunt. The animals in this area have scattered for some strange reason. I need you here, ready with a fire going when I return so that we can cook and feast before sundown.”
June’s stomach growls as if on cue. “I am so hungry
,” she says softly.
“Me too,” I whisper.
“Have the animals around here learned to stay clear of us?” she asks.
My muddled brain entertains the notion for a brief moment before dismissing it as ridiculous. “No, some have probably just moved on to other areas to eat. Maybe some have found a lush meadow filled with sweet clovers.”
“Rabbits like clovers,” June says and licks her lips.
I swallow hard. My mouth is watering f
or tender, juicy rabbit. My empty stomach rolls under and over itself like a wave, snarling anxiously.
, they do,” I say. “Hopefully I will get us a nice fat rabbit.”
“I am still worried about you going out there alone,” June says and her voice falters.
“I will be fine,” I promise. “I will come back, and with dinner.” I smile broadly until I notice a thin rivulet running down June’s cheek. My smile capsizes immediately. “June, what is it?” I grip her shoulders.
Her eyes lock on mine. “I don’t know. I’m just so scared, all the time I am so scared.”
I want to tell her I am too, that she is not alone in feeling as she does. I live in perpetual terror right alongside her. But I can’t. I need to be strong for her. I need to hold us together. “Everything is going to be okay,” I tell her as I draw her close. “I will take care of you, I swear. And I will come back. I will never leave you. I am coming back, always coming back.” I blink back tears that brim and threaten to spill. My throat is too tight to say another word, so I stay where I am and just hold her.
Before long, June pulls away. She wipes her face with her hands and tells me to go. I race to the river with a small bucket my father left us and return with it filled. June is grateful. After a little more reassuring, I set off and begin my journey
past our area of safety.
The sun has just risen and it is not hot yet, but it will be soon. The air is balmy and the grass is coated in dew. My skin feels
clammy, but I am oddly cold. I grip my spear tightly and use it as a walking stick as I navigate creepers and vines that slink along the forest floor. My weapons and canteen are heavy, and I hope I do not have to go too far to find an edible animal.
Hunger has heightened my sense of smell.
The forest is thick with the scent of evergreens and musty earth. My eyes alternate between scanning the low-growing brush and the ground below. I look for pinecones stripped of their seeds, for torn bark or bite marks of any kind. I do not see anything but thickening vegetation. I am also looking for impressions in the earth or droppings. Either would indicate that I am on the trail of a mammal. But I see neither. Most would be active when the sun is positioned as it is. Boarts eat all day long. I hope I will be lucky enough to cross paths with another boart, but I do not see any signs of wildlife whatsoever. I continue to press on despite feeling discouraged.
The sun is beating down from overhead
, penetrating the treetop canopy with blazing shafts of light, when the terrain becomes so crowded with growth it is difficult to continue at my brisk pace. Earlier, I began pulling large flat leaves and twisting them before tying them to trees as markers to follow back to the cave. My dad always told me I was a good tracker with an excellent sense of direction, but I do not want to risk breaking the promise I made to June. I will not take any chances that involve a return to her after sunset. I do not want her to worry.
I still have not come
across so much as a trace of a creature other than the occasional chirping of small birds perched in treetops. I am about to turn and head back, to give up, when I hear the distinct sound of moving water, the gentle hiss and rustle of it rolling over land and rock. Winding vines and undergrowth are giving way to more stony terrain underfoot. The heavy brush thins considerably, and sudden thirst grips me.
My body feels overheated and the back of my throat burns. I want nothing more than to spear an animal and wade out into cool water. But neither seems possible at the moment. I continue for a bit longer and do not see rushing water. I decide to sit, depression crushing my chest like lead.
Hunger gnaws in my gut, and I am forced to scoop a beetle from the dank soil and eat it. I close my eyes and slip it between my lips. All the while I suppress the urge to retch. I chew fast and try my best not to think about what I have just eaten. I chug the last of my water from my canteen, but still feel as if I may vomit. I breathe deeply several times, willing myself to hold it down, until the feeling passes.
After a brief rest, I stand
again and hope to find food. All of a sudden a high-pitched laugh slices through the silence. I freeze in my tracks and my stomach plummets to my feet. I hold my breath, listening intently, waiting, hoping my hearing is playing tricks on me. The laugh sounded as if it came from June. Who else could it be? She must have followed me, putting us both at greater risk. My heart thunders in my chest.
I whirl around, half-expecting to see her, but find that I am still alone. The laughter sounds again, persisting this time. I follow it, wondering why she would draw attention to herself. She knows better.
I sheathe my spear on my back and I plow through bushes dotted with prickly balls, feeling them scratch and scrape my skin, but do not stop. I must get to June before she gets us killed.
the laughter is interrupted by another, slightly deeper laugh; a boy’s laugh. I move faster. Blood rushes behind my eardrums and my heart has lodged in my throat. I shove forward, the ground beneath my feet pebbly, until I reach a gentle slope that leads to a narrow river. The river snakes and winds until it ends finally at a lake. And what I see in the lake makes every hair on my body rise.
A girl about June’s age, flops and flounders
about. She is laughing, delighted. Next to her is a boy. He looks older than the girl. He, too, is laughing happily.
I stand, hidden by more hostile bushes loaded with burrs. My mouth is agape as my mind whirls in lopsided circle
s, struggling to make sense of what my eyes are seeing. Human beings, children, are swimming in a lake just hours from where June and I live in our cave. Other humans are alive! My entire body trembles.
The children continue to caper about and I find myself smiling naturally. I hear a splash but do not see where it came
from. Are there more? The idea is almost too much for my brain to handle.
The water beside the boy stirs before a large form becomes visible. And then
I see him. He breaks from the surface of the water and surprises the smaller boy, grinning wide and greeting him with a growly “Argh!” The boy flinches then squeals in delight, but I cannot even look in his direction. My eyes are fixed on the one who emerged from the depths and is standing now, his waist covered by water, while droplets trickle between the swells of his chest to the hollows of his stomach. He appears to be my age. His skin is tanner than mine, bronze almost, and his eyes are so light they stand out and seem to glow.
I know I should look away, scan the area and see if there are more, but
I cannot. My gaze is pinned and I realize I have not yet blinked. Part of me is afraid that if I look away, he will be gone; that all of them will be gone, and I will wake from whatever dream or hallucination I am having.
I take a tentative step forward,
toward a thin tree. My heart drills against my ribs and my belly feels as if it is filled with butterflies fluttering and flapping at once. I rest my shoulder against its trunk and inch closer still, wanting to lean all of my weight against it. But a branch snaps beneath my foot unexpectedly. My sprinting heart stumbles, and the boy in the water with the glowing eyes looks in my direction.
Though I am concealed by
tall plants, bushes, and the puny tree, my breathing hitches and heat burns up my neck until it reaches my cheeks. I know he does not see me, cannot possibly see me, but I see him, and not just his profile either. I see his entire face. A strange tremor vibrates through my belly that has nothing to do with hunger. He rubs his hand through his thick, dark hair and I am riveted by the cords of rippling muscles that intertwine and gallop down his arms.