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 pushed myself harder, faster, until my lungs burned and my muscles ached as I rushed headlong into the blackened abyss. I peeked over my shoulder to see
my mother’s dark form behind me and saw something that made my breath catch in my chest.
mother, the tunnel was lit. Four torch-wielding Urthmen made their way toward us, gaining ground fast. In the firelight, I could see their faces clearly. The closer they progressed, the more horrific they became. Nearly transparent skin did little to cover the expansive, vivid entanglement of veins that webbed their malformed heads. Lidless eyes shrouded in a thick, milky film darted wildly, bloodthirsty. They did not have noses but two asymmetrical holes that appeared to serve the purpose of nasal openings. Lips were also missing from their faces, though lines gave the impression that mouths may reside beyond them. They were monstrous, my worst fear realized at the time.
With my heart threatening to beat out of my chest, I
pressed on, testing my muscles as they’d never been tested before. But I was small and weak, and carrying June was hard.
mother caught up to me. “Keep going and don’t look back!”
She slowed down and I did not see he
r beside me anymore. Then I heard her footfalls stop altogether. I looked back. She stood there with her arms out in surrender.
“Run, Avery!” she yelled, but I stopped moving. I could not believe what I was seeing.
Panic seized every cell in my body. “Mom!” I cried out. “Mom, what’re you doing?”
She did not answer me.
She spoke to the four Urthmen that approached.
“Please don’t kill me,” she begged. “I am pregnant.”
But her pleas fell on uncaring ears. The Urthmen did not care that she was pregnant. In fact, in hindsight, they probably saw the unborn child she carried as a bonus kill.
While my mother raised her hands and submitted, one of the Urthmen hoisted his club high in the air and whipped it forward until it crashed against her skull.
My world went completely still. My beautiful, kind mother, pregnant with my next sibling, had been hit.
sunk to her knees, a thin rivulet of blood streaming down her temple. Another strike followed, and she collapsed to the tunnel floor. And then the Urthmen swarmed, beating her feverishly.
I tried to scream, to shout at the beasts to stop, but I could not breathe. My lungs refused to fill and remained frozen, like blocks of ice so cold their chill burned.
“No,” I tried, but the word came out as a raspy whisper.
Pain radiated from the center of my chest and branched out, throbbing and aching as my heart shattered into a million jagged pieces. My knees threatened to collapse beneath me.
The woman who gave me life, the one who protected me and taught me, fed me, and cared for me, was dead, murdered by monsters.
I wanted them dead; all of them. I wanted them to suffer for what they’d done to my mother.
When finally I was able to draw a breath, I heard a female scream tear through the chaotic grunts of the Urthmen and soon realized the scream was mine. And I wasn’t the only one to realize this.
The Urthmen spun to face me. “Get th
e humans.” One pointed a blunt, stubby finger at us, as his voice scraped like metal against metal.
But before he could say another word or make a move toward us, his head was lopped from his body. It tumbled from his neck and landed against the ground with a thud. Two of the others with him turned and were carved at their waists. They dropped to the earth below, eviscerated like the animals they
When they fell, I saw my father square off with the last
of the Urthmen in the tunnel, and for the first time in my life I saw him as the fierce warrior he was. He looked deadly.
n swung his club recklessly several times. My father dodged his attack with the calm and poise of a predator. The next swing the beast took was met with my father’s blade. His sword glinted in the glow of the fallen torches right before it cleaved the Urthman’s arm. The arm fell to the ground, and my father immediately veered and decapitated the monster.
For a moment, my father just watched the fallen Urthmen, his chest heaving.
Then he fell to his knees, to where my mother’s body lay still, and released a guttural cry of agony so profound, I felt as if my bones shook.
I wanted to go to him, to crumple into his arms and cry until my body was emptied of tears. But the sound of footsteps approaching kept me in place, still holding June. My father
stood and ran toward me. He ripped June from my arms, then flung both of us over his shoulders. He took off, away from the looming Urthnmen, and sprinted faster than I thought was humanly possible.
Each step he took punished my ribs and back as I jerked and flopped against
him. But none of the physical pain I felt compared to the heartache of witnessing my mother being murdered.
When we reached the end of the seemingly endless tunnel, my father stopped and began kicking a thick log.
“Come on,” he spat as he continued to kick a support beam.
“Dad, put me down. I’ll help!” I shouted above the ferocious cries of the Urthmen echoing down the passageway.
He placed me on my feet and I helped him. We kicked until the rafter gave way and he gripped my wrist. We ran several yards then stopped again. We climbed out of the tunnel. We were in the forest. It was dark and damp and there was a nip in the air. Bare tree limbs gashed the night sky, black and skeletal against the navy heavens. The musky, moldy scent of fallen leaves that I would’ve usually found pleasant terrified me. I knew that Lurkers waited, their movement muffled by the hoots and calls of nocturnal hunters. My father placed June in my arms, and then dug with his hands through leaves and brush until he pulled a length of thick rope from it. He leaned back, pulling it with every ounce of his weight, until the sound of wood splintering snapped through the night. Another beam toppled, only this time it was followed by a low growl, deep in the bowels of the dirt. The growl rolled and shook, and I understood in that instant that the tunnel had been booby-trapped. The passageway was collapsing on itself.
Chunks of soil sprayed
as it caved in. Pebbles flew in every direction and pelted us. Confused shouts turned to wails of agony as the Urthmen were buried alive. But we did not stay to hear them go silent. We ran.
That was six years ago.
Six years have not dulled the pain I feel each time I dream of that night.
I swipe beneath my eyes with the tips of my fingers to clear the tears there. I do not want to risk June waking and seeing me like this. She does not remember what happened. She is lucky.
Each day since my mother was killed, I regret that her body was left behind, that she will rest for eternity alongside Urthmen, monsters. She deserved better than that. I also regret that I spoke harshly to her and disobeyed her when I left the hut. I never got to ask for her forgiveness. Now it is too late.
A silent sob shakes my body and I hug my knees to my chest as tight as I can. I breathe deeply, trying to calm myself until it passes, until the knot of pain inside me loosens enough for me to breathe. I must hold myself together. I must be strong. I concentrate on relaxing every muscle in my body and breathe through my nose, sucking
in air until my belly puffs out. I blow it out in a thin stream through my lips, repeating the process until I feel more in control of myself.
I glance at June and see that she is still asleep. She is unbothered by my crying seconds ago. I am thankful for that.
I force myself to lie back down. My eyes burn and I am thirsty, but I close my eyes and push both discomforts to the back of my mind. Neither is of any consequence. I remain still and rest until threads of light slip through the cracks of the boulder and another day of hunting begins.
on and off until light begins to spill through the openings around the boulder. I am still shaken by the recurrent nightmare I had, by the past. Time has not dulled the pain, and it has not ended the dreams. They continue.
My mother is still on my mind. Her death weighs on me with
untold heaviness. My throat constricts around the sadness that has collected there. I sit upright, not wanting to be still a moment longer and risk crying. I kick the covering from my legs and stretch. My movements cause June to stir. Her eyelids flutter then open groggily.
“Is it morning?” she asks, her voice thick and tired.
“It is morning,” I say and my own voice surprises me. It breaks.
June scrunches her features. “Avery, what is
it? Are you okay?”
I hate that I have alarmed her. “I’m fine,” I lie and clear my throat. “Must be the way I slept or something. I sound
like a frog, you know, a little croaky I guess.”
“Are you sure?” June
looks at me with eyes so wide and vulnerable, I almost feel guilty for lying.
“I’m fine,” I say and smile. “But if it keeps up, I might be forced to leave the cave and find myself a sweet, deluxe lily pad,” I narrow my eyes and tease her.
She laughs. The sound is just what I need. Her laughter is delightful. “Hmm, that might work. But I am sorry to say you wouldn’t cut it as a frog.”
“I wouldn’t?” I ask with pretend surprise. “And why not?”
June’s eyes sparkle mischievously. “Well, for starters, you hate the smell of pond scum,” she begins counting on her fingers.
ve got me there,” I confess. “I do find it extra stinky.”
ou hate eating bugs.” She marks her comment with her middle finger, tallying the second reason, then grins, proud of her clever remark.
“That is a fair comment.
I find bugs as meals revolting.” I nod somberly as if she has clobbered me with her points.
“Sheesh! There’s more!” I throw my hands in the ai
r then clutch my head and bow with feigned defeat.
y,” she says again with a stern look. “You don’t even like frogs. You can’t be something you don’t even like. You have to like yourself.” She nods her head. She looks satisfied with all that she has said. “So, no lily pad for you,” she concludes.
I clasp my hands together and interlace my fingers. “Well
, that settles it,” I say gloomily. “I guess you’re stuck with me. Lily pads are not in my future.”
June throws her head back and giggles. Her laughter is contagious and I find myself smiling just before a small laugh slips past my lips.
“Come on, silly girl. It’s time to get up and start our day,” I tell her.
I stand and stretch and feel
as if every muscle in my body is complaining at once. June copies me and even adds a groan for good measure. Together, we move the boulder blocking our cave and head to the river to wash.
dab ourselves with water, I inform June of a decision I’ve made.
I am going out again today, past the perimeter. I need you to do something while I’m gone.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to hunt on your own today.”
June freezes where she wades and looks at me, her eyes round with surprise. “Really? You want me to
hunt by myself?” she asks. “I thought you said it is too dangerous when you are not close by, that I am not ready,”
maybe you should stay put and hang around the cave,” I toy with her.
“No!” she exclaims quickly.
“Uh-uh! There’s no way you’re making me stay inside the cave by myself!”
“Oh, so you
do want to hunt on your own?” I ask as if I don’t already know the answer to my question.
“Of course I want to, and don’t you dare think about
changing your mind, Avery!”
“Okay, fine,” I say as if she’s somehow convinced me. “You win. You can
hunt. But you need to be careful. Be aware of your surroundings.”
Yes!” She claps her hands and bounces up and down.
“Calm down there,
Miss Springy,” I tell her teasingly. “I am not sending you out there so you can bounce and play. You have to try to kill something for dinner, and you have to stay close to the cave.”
I meant to sound playful, but June stops bouncing and frowns. She straightens her posture.
“I know I am not going today so I can play,” she says quietly. “I am going so I can help. I am going to hunt for us near the cave while you hunt farther out in the woods.”
Her cheeks are pink. I have embarrassed her.
“June, there’s nothing wrong with playing and bouncing around. I love that about you,” I tell her. “I was trying to joke around with you. I guess I didn’t do a very good job of it because you are hurt.” I reach out and place a hand on her shoulder. “I never want to hurt your feelings.”
I am surprised when she shrugs
off my hand. “I’m fine,” she says. “You don’t have to keep treating me like a baby ‘cause I’m not a baby anymore. I’m eight, remember?”
She is eight. How could I forget? I
was just a little older than she is when I held her minutes after she was born. I remember twirling and bouncing when I first met her. I remember what the magic of littleness feels like. I do not want her to lose it. I do not want her to feel pressure to grow up faster than she has to. I am the adult, not her. I am here so she can enjoy as much of her youth as possible while learning to survive in the hostile world we live in.
On a whim, I decide to do something I have not
done in a long time. I bounce and splash, scooping handfuls of water and slapping my palms up before the water returns to the river. When my hands collide with the water and smack it, droplets spray in every direction.
June watches me from the c
orner of her eye.
I use both hands to ladle a generous amount then toss it up and whack it as hard as I can. Water cascades over June’s h
air. She whips her head around and looks at me, rolling her eyes. She is being stubborn.
I ignore her stubbornness and continue to caper about, splashing and jumping
and laughing. At first, I fake my enthusiasm for June’s benefit. But after a few minutes, my silliness becomes genuine.
Before long, I am not alone in my frolicking. June joins in. She is splashing, stomping
, and flopping in the water, splattering me with as much as she possibly can. My hair is dripping and my clothes are soaked, and I laugh so hard my belly hurts. June is laughing too. She laughs so hard her eyes tear. I guess she needs to see me let loose once in a while.
“Ah, Avery,” she gasps
, but does not say anything more. She does not need to. I can see the relief on her face. She is not mad at me anymore. “I am going to catch a boart today,” she says.
I am shocked and proud at the same time. The odds of June actually finding and killing a boart are slim at best. I do not wish to sell her short or undermine her intention, but tracking and killing a boart is no
t an easy feat. Regardless, trying will be good for her, even if it means we will eat a rabbit or squirrel I catch for dinner.
“I would love to have boart for dinner tonight,” I encourage her and rub my empty stomach.
“And breakfast and lunch tomorrow too. I am going to get a big one,” she says and sets her jaw. Determination radiates from her. June looks at me then unexpectedly says, “I can do it, you know. I am ready.”
“I know you are, June. I believe in you,” I say with certainty. “Go
for it,” I smile.
She does not smile
, but her eyes shine with satisfaction.
We play a little longer then I am forced to remind her that
my trip will be a long one, and that I must leave now if I want to make it back before the sun sets. We return to the cave and I collect my gear. I reinforce the fact that she must be extremely careful, and then I set off toward the lake.
walk through the forest hurriedly. The rustle and stir of leaves keeps me alert. I continually scan trees and brush for any sign of movement, or danger.
e sun has just risen and the air is already warm and sticky. The woods are rich with the smell of decomposing leaves and logs. I walk for hours. The air quickly becomes stifling. I stop to drink for a moment, and when I do, I look down and notice large, tubular droppings, boart droppings.
notice a section of weeds that has been overturned. A small hole has been dug.
I narrow my
eyes, press my lips into a hard line, and stalk past the uprooted earth. I follow and watch the low-growing brush as I clutch my spear. I lower my body when I move, my head moving from side to side. I see more droppings ahead. I continue until I find another patch of ripped-up growth.
he faint swish of water in the distance distracts me from my trail. My heart pounds. I realize I am fast approaching the edge of the forest where the trees begin to thin.
I look to the trail then toward the direction of the sound. The rush of water calls to me as if singing my name. I know who lives near it. I know I should stick with following the boart. But I don’t. I follow the strange flutter in my belly, the extra beats of my heart. I move away from the trail and toward the lake.
I pursue a different animal entirely. I find myself moving toward the rim of the woods. Thin trees are spaced farther from one another and lower-growing shrubs offer little shelter. But I cannot stop myself from shuffling closer. I want to see the other humans again, especially the older boy.
I inch forward
, creeping slowly, until I see the younger children. They are dunking clothes in the water and swirling them around. The woman comes out and wrings what they’ve washed and lays them on flat rocks to dry. The children watch and listen as she explains what she is doing.
I see the silhouette of another person at the mouth of their cave. It is taller and broader. My pulse
picks up speed. He steps from the shadows, out into the bright, golden sunlight, and I have to remind myself to breathe. He is even more beautiful than I remembered. His bronze skin glows in the sunshine, and his short, almost-black hair sticks up on end and looks shorter than it did yesterday. He must have just gotten it trimmed. I am suddenly envious of whoever was lucky enough to run his or her hands through it, close enough to stare into his pale eyes.
Mesmerized, I move closer. I stand behind a sickly looking bush and poke my head out from beside it. I am sure I look like an idiot but cannot imagine leaving. I want nothing more than to march right over to the family and introduce myself.
I want to be close to the older boy for reasons I cannot explain. But the idea of it seems much easier than actually doing it. In fact, when I picture myself going there and speaking to him, when I try to build my courage, my stomach clenches and I feel nauseated. I feel shaky and cold despite the sweltering heat. Still, I know I must go there and overcome the intense nerves.
I take another step closer, away from the bush. As I do, a man comes up behind the boy
. My legs feel spongy. He is about the same height and has identical coloring. He claps the boy on the back, then rubs his hand on top of his head playfully, messing it further. If it is possible, his mussed hair looks better still. He turns toward the older man and gives a lopsided smile. I find myself smiling along with them. I cannot hear what they are saying to each other, but the exchange seems playful, loving even. I assume the man is his father, and I am struck with a pang of jealousy so sharp I clutch my chest. The boy, the man and woman and the children are a family; an entire family intact. I did not know such a thing was possible. June and I were not as lucky.
I shift my weight from one
leg to the next and a branch snaps loudly beneath my foot. Everyone near the lake looks up. Blood rushes to my cheeks and burns there. Then it gets worse. The boy takes off and runs toward me. He is charging for the bush I am standing behind.
For a moment, I cannot move. I am utterly frozen.
But his fast-approaching footfalls force me to act, to move. I stumble backward, then scramble behind a young spruce tree. The boy stops at the bush I was just hiding behind. My heart is hammering so hard I worry he can hear it. I can see him clearly now. He is close, too close, a fact that steals the air from my lungs. I watch him, my body trembling with unfamiliar nervousness.
His eyes are a brilliant blue-green, pale, like tropical water I once saw in
a picture, and his hair is as dark as a raven’s feathers. He is near enough for me to make my presence known to him, and him alone. I know I should step out, yet all I can think is that I am dirty. My clothes are filthy from the hike and sweat coats my skin. But he is sparkling like a gem and I am a grubby stone.