I stare at my watch.
I don’t know why. Habit, I guess. Every time my eyes drop to the round face, I expect to see the second hand ticking the time away and the hands to be in a different position than the one they were in the last time I looked. It’s been 1:31 for three days.
In the World Before, I would have thrown away a broken watch. Anything broken goes in the garbage. Went in the garbage. Maybe I’m foolish for keeping it. I know better; in a time of crisis, keep only the essentials. But I can justify my rationale. One, my wrist feels naked without it. Two, it’s familiar, and I’m clinging to anything familiar right now. And three, I still have hope that someday it will start working again.
I let out a long, slow breath through my teeth. Evi clutches my arm, her wide hazel eyes taking in the smoky scene. She’s just behind my shoulder, her fingers so tight around Bear’s leash that her knuckles are white. Bear is being a good boy, though. His ears are pricked forward, and his pink tongue lolls out of one side of his mouth while he pants. He’s part Labrador retriever, part something else that endowed him with a big head and a thick coat of wavy black fur. His tail was already bobbed when we found him three years ago.
Black dogs are bad omens. I never believed that, but a lot of people do, even if it’s a subconscious cultural apprehension. No matter what, I told Evi, do not let go of that leash.
Crouched beside a parked car at the top of a hill, Evi and I are surveying the gas station below us. We’re lucky we aren’t in a big city. I can’t imagine the madness that we’ve seen in this Midwest town magnified to the size of Chicago. The death count must be astronomical.
Evi’s soft voice whispers in my ear, “I wish they were zombies. Then this would make more sense.”
My lips press tightly together into a grim line. Frowns lead to wrinkles, Dad would have joked, tapping one finger against the middle of my forehead. Wrinkles are the least of my worries right now. Evi can’t fathom the selfish and self-destructive nature of humankind. I wish I was surprised by it. No, the people below us in the streets aren’t zombies, but they are animals. Deep down, despite thousands of years of evolution and steadfast denial, we are animals, and our true nature is emerging.
Unfortunately, we are stupid animals. When the world as we know it comes to an end, we should be helping each other to ensure the survival of our species. Instead, it’s every man for himself. No direction and no communication has ushered in an era of absolute, mind-numbing panic and chaos. The truth is, we are soft creatures. Naked, pink, fleshy beings with no claws, flat teeth, and feet that are too tender to walk unshod on the earth like our ancient ancestors used to. If the world were like high school, the other animals would be the jocks and we’d be the wimpiest of the nerds inventing gadgets to compensate for our pathetic physical skills. Take away our tools, and we’re screwed. We finally have to play by the rules of every other organism on this planet—survival of the fittest.
I want to survive, of course—it’s an animal’s nature—and yet, in the back of my mind, I wonder if our extinction is overdue. Maybe the Earth is finally purging us like our antibodies attack viruses, and once we’re gone, it can finally heal the deep scars we’ve carved into its face. We did not learn to live in harmony with other creatures. We destroyed everything in our way, overhunted without remorse, polluted without considering the consequences it would have on ourselves. For all our intelligence, we failed as a species.
Still, even though part of me thinks the Earth would fare better without humans, I intend to fight like hell to stay alive for as long as possible. There’s that selfish human nature again.
The dead litter the streets below. The gas station’s big windows have been shattered, leaving jagged edges to frame the gaping maws into the dark building. The light of the setting sun reflects on the sharp fragments strewn across the sidewalk like a glistening sea of fire and blood.
I lean on the hood and raise Evi’s bird-watching binoculars for a better view. The interior of the gas station is too dark to discern much more than forms moving inside, but the glimpses I do catch turn my stomach. I see a body fall. It twitches on the floor, and a person backs in front of the window into my line of sight just for a moment, his eyes darting beneath the brim of his cap. His baseball bat, darkened and wet, settles in his open hand like a batter surveying the field. He whirls suddenly and returns to the shadows, swinging.
A woman ducks and scrambles out the window behind him. Cans fall out of her unzipped backpack. She pauses and glances at them, then at the chaos inside the gas station, debating, and then she stoops to snatch one can, two, then runs away just before a man is tossed out the same window from which she escaped.
I lower the binoculars. If Evi and I had been smarter, maybe just a little more perceptive, we would have stocked supplies before the looting began. But in our defense, there was no reason to suspect anything was out of the ordinary.
Five days ago, Dad dropped us off at Ga and GaPop’s house. He sifted through their junk mail and happy anniversary cards while Bear bounded in circles around us as we walked up the driveway. “You’re sure you’ll be okay?”
“Yes,” Evi and I chorused in that robotic synchronicity sisters sometimes possess. I had a duffle bag slung over one shoulder, recurve bow and quiver in my other hand, my mind already on the plowed cornfield at the end of the street where I could set up a target for shooting practice.
Evi’s head was tilted back so she could survey the ancient oak looming overhead. “I hear a downy woodpecker,” she muttered, pausing to swing her backpack down and rifle through in search of her binoculars.
Dad put a calloused hand on her shoulder and steered her forward. “You’ll have plenty of time to look later. Ga and GaPop will be back next Tuesday. They left you money for the grocery store, right?”
Evi and I exchanged looks. “Yep,” I answer, although we had already used our sister-telepathy to agree on a pizza and fast food diet for the week.
“Okay,” said Dad. He awkwardly looped his thumbs in his belt loops, like he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. “Are you sure—?”
“Yes, Dad,” Evi interrupted in exasperation. “We’ll be fine. We have a guard dog, we’ll lock the doors, and we’ll call you if we’re starving. Okay?”
He nodded with an uneasy smile, then pulled us both into a strong embrace despite our half-hearted protests. “Alivia is in charge,” he told Evi, silencing her immediate complaint with a kiss on her forehead.
I rest my chin on the binoculars, sickened enough watching the madness in and around the gas station without magnifying the finer details. Evi and I spent two days enjoying our summer vacation while earning an easy ten dollars a day house-sitting for our grandparents. I tacked a target on the crooked wooden fencepost on the far end of the field and lost myself in the meditative trance of archery, awoken several times by Evi chastising Bear before she finally lost her composure and squealed, “Bear! I think that was a white-breasted nuthatch! Quit scaring all the birds away!”
I laughed when she threw The Birding Manual – Complete Field Guide To North American Birds at him, but he thought it was a game. He leapt to the side, then galloped full-speed in circles and figure eights around us until both Evi and I were on our knees in wild laughter.
It happened on the third night.
I woke to sunlight streaming through my window. The birds—Evi no doubt already identified all of them—were chirping and chittering. I rolled over to look at the red numbers on the digital alarm clock by the bed, only to find it blank. The power was out.
I lifted my wrist to my face. Without my contacts, I had to squint to read the watch. 1:31. I tapped my fingernail on the plastic face, as if that might coax the second hand to start moving again. I sighed and blindly fumbled for my glasses on the nightstand, then stretched, yawned, and rolled out of bed. I unplugged my phone from the charging cable and padded barefoot across the carpet. Evi was perched cross-legged on the flower print chair in the sitting room, Bear lying on the floor next to her. He lifted his big head and wagged his stump of a tail in greeting.
“TV’s not working,” Evi said absently as she turned the page of her bird manual.
“Power’s out,” I replied, touching the screen on my phone to see how much charge I had left. Nothing happened. I pressed the home button, but the screen remained dark. “That’s weird.”
“What?” she asked, although she moved the book closer to her face to study a drawing.
“My phone’s dead.”
“Did you charge it?”
Evi finally glanced up at me. “Maybe whatever knocked the power out shorted your phone.”
“Is yours working?”
She nodded at the table next to her where the smartphone was bound to the wall with a cable. “I forgot to plug it in before bed.” She pushed the power button without enthusiasm, unsurprised when her screen remained black. “Guess it isn’t charging with the power out.”
There was no need to panic. It wasn’t all that unusual for the power to go out, although I didn’t remember hearing a storm last night. A drunk driver might have knocked down a power line, or a generator shut down at the plant. We ate cold pizza for breakfast, and after I changed out of my pajamas and exchanged my glasses for contacts, we spent the day exploring the woods with Bear. “Chinese tonight?” I asked.
“Sounds good to me,” Evi concurred. With our phones still dead, we walked ten blocks to downtown Earbenet, a modest-sized town with a population of seventeen thousand, not too big, not too small. “Everything’s closed,” Evi noted in bewildered disappointment.
She was right. But something else was off. The people on the sidewalks were confused and irritable. Something else, though. Something was nettling me. The streetlights, maybe. At dusk, they should have been flickering to life, but they were dead, too, just like the stoplights.
It hit me suddenly, like ice down my shirt. The cars. Even if the stoplights were dark with the power outage, there should have been police officers standing at the intersections directing traffic. But no vehicles were moving. The only cars and trucks were a handful parked on the side streets. A man was riding a bike down the middle of Lincolnway, but otherwise, every single person was on foot.
Evi was too busy staring mournfully through the window of Yen Ching to notice the oddities. “Let’s go,” I said, pulling on Bear’s leash.
“But what are we going to eat?”
“There’s a packet of hot dogs in the fridge. They’ll go bad if we don’t eat them, anyway.”
“Cold hot dogs?” Evi crinkled her nose in disgust.
I couldn’t say why, but my stomach was churning with unease. Just a block over, a group of men were raising their voices and waving their arms emphatically. I sensed a fight. “Cold hot dogs are better than nothing,” I replied, striding away. Evi had to jog to catch up with Bear and me, although she plodded with heavy, reluctant footsteps the whole way back to Ga and GaPop’s house.
Our meal that night consisted of hot dogs on stale honey wheat bread washed down with orange juice. We drank melted ice cream for dessert. “I’m sure the power will be back on by morning,” I reassured Evi in the hallway before we parted for the night.
I laid in bed on top of the covers, staring up at the blurred shadows of the still ceiling fan. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw those angry men again on the street. I waited until I was sure Evi was asleep before I tiptoed downstairs in the dark and jammed a chair under the doorknob, just in case.
The next day, the neighbors were gathered in the road. Evi and I watched from the window, studying them, and although they looked hot and confused, I decided they didn’t seem to be walking that line to an outbreak of violence like I’d sensed in town yesterday, so we joined them, hoping to learn some news. Vehicles wouldn’t start. Engines wouldn’t even turn over. Phones wouldn’t power on. Radios weren’t picking up stations, or even static. It was a total blackout. No electricity. No batteries. No phones, computers, laptops, or tablets. Nothing mechanical, “not even the watch on my wrist,” I added.
The looting started that day. Evi told me she was scared to stay at Ga and GaPop’s alone, and I was glad that she was the one to admit it aloud because I’m the oldest and the one in charge, and I was supposed to be the brave one. With no way to contact Dad, Evi and I decided to walk the twenty-one miles home.
We’re at the halfway point in the small town of Apagon. We took what we could from the cupboards, but Ga and GaPop had a sparse supply; they didn’t want to go shopping and have food spoil while they were celebrating their anniversary in Hawaii.
In the back of my thoughts, I wonder if I’ll ever see them again. If the Blackout affected everything, they’re likely stranded. At least they weren’t in the air when the Blackout threw us back into the dark ages. That’s a tiny comfort. Oh, god, I shouldn’t have thought about that. Now I’m envisioning jets falling out of the sky.
I wonder if families in their homes would be able to hear the victims in the plane screaming just before the aircraft obliterated the house and the people inside. My damned imagination even puts Ga and GaPop in the vision. I shake my head to clear it. No, they’re on Waikiki Beach wearing leis and watching the waves grasp at the shore. They’re safe.
When I close my eyes, I can see them. Ga likes to stand ankle-deep in the water while GaPop watches from a beach chair on the sand. They’ll think about us a lot, I bet. Something will bump against Ga’s ankle. She’ll stoop to examine it, then dip her hand in the warm water and lift it for a better look. A pair of headphones. More aircraft debris and bits of luggage will wash onto the beach as the currents bring in lost items from lost people.
If you listen to the conspiracy theorists, aliens are responsible for the Blackout. The aliens who then never revealed themselves or issued any ultimatums. I don’t believe in aliens. Well, I take that back. I do believe aliens exist, but I don’t think they’d have any reason to invade us.
Then you’ve got your religious end-of-all-creation nutcases. By the end of the second day after all hell broke loose, agnostics were praying to Yahweh and the devout were either begging Him for salvation or making sacrifices to Lucifer in the hopes that he might show mercy. We’ve seen people standing on street corners shouting, “A clamor has come to the end of the earth because the Lord has a controversy with the nations! He is entering into judgment with all flesh!”
Some people flock to the speaker like sheep desperate for the guidance of a shepherd, weeping openly, throwing their hands up to the skies and crying, “Amen! God, show us mercy!”
Others converge in a storm of rage, throwing objects and punches, yelling, “God has forsaken us!” People keep looking over their shoulders for the Four Horsemen. I don’t know why. As far as I can tell, we’re already in Hell on Earth.
The cults that sprang up scare me the most. It’s hard enough watching people kill each other over a bag of potato chips; it’s downright chilling to watch a group of freshly-shaved cult members slitting a woman’s throat while chanting to God or Satan, I couldn’t tell which.
What’s truly terrifying—as if losing every form of technology and communication and watching the madness of pure panic turn normally gentle people into wild animals in survival mode isn’t scary enough—is there’s no way of knowing how far the Blackout spread. Maybe a foreign power found a way to cripple America. Or maybe it’s worldwide, and every country is in the dark. I think the whole planet was affected, but that’s just a gut feeling. It’s not like I can turn on CNN to find out for sure.
I rise. “Let’s go.”
Evi straightens, slower with uncertainty. “I thought we were going to get supplies.”
“I’m not risking it,” I answer, handing her the binoculars. She tucks them in the outside pocket of the backpack with our food. Two boxes of crackers, an apple, a handful of oatmeal packets, and four bottles of water isn’t going to last long, but I have no intention of risking my life in that mob for a can of soup when the shelves have no doubt been picked over by now. Those people down there are slaughtering each other for the last few bits of nonperishable food. The eerie part is, I’m adjusting to the sounds of people screaming.
Bear jumps up, his stump of a tail wagging and his mouth parted in a goofy doggy-grin, like he thinks we’re going for a leisurely walk. Evi casts an uneasy look down on the gas station again. The wind has shifted, blowing smoke from the fires downtown to create a hazy veil that curls and winds like the fingers of a giant ghost beckoning us to the underworld.
I turn and walk down the street, away from downtown. Evi and Bear follow at my heels. Even though Bear is quiet and unalarmed, I still count the arrows in the quiver clipped to my belt before I draw one and nock it in the bowstring.
I had joined the archery club as a freshman, a year before The Hunger Games hit the big screen. After the debut, the practice field was packed with wannabe archers caught up in the craze of the fad until their fascination and resolve dwindled away over the weeks. Me, I liked archery for the mediation. Not for hunting, not because of a movie, but for the simple contentment of taking a deep breath, pulling the string back to my lips, and holding that power back with my fingertips until my sight and my arm were aligned and I let go. Nothing sounds better than that satisfying thud on the target. I’m no Katniss, and I’m not going to be shooting any birds out of the sky, but at least I can hit a stationary target, and that’s something.
Evi walks alongside me, but I lengthen my stride so I’m slightly ahead where I can easily step in front of her for protection if need be. Bear is on her other side, and she’s safe between us. “How much farther, do you think?” she inquires.
Bear halts, head turned to the side, ears up, nose quivering. A low growl vibrates deep in his throat. I whirl, fingers tightening over the string, ready to pull back and fire at…a squirrel watching us from the lowest limb of an old maple.
“Damn it, Bear,” I grumble under my breath, slackening the bowstring. Evi tugs at his leash, regaining his attention. His stub rises and twitches with an apologetic wag.
Evi rolls her head back to look skyward. “Think we’ll make it home before dark?”
“Doubt it. We’ll find a safe place to sleep tonight.”
“In the woods?” she asks, her voice dropping with dread. I eye the trees around us, trying to mask my equal disdain at the idea.
“We’ll see.” I’m hoping we can find a barn, a shed, someplace with a roof and a door we can barricade to keep out any unwanted visitors. I push my fingers up under the frames to rub my eyes. God, I hate my glasses. The prescription is weaker than my contacts, but the glasses are more practical to wear in these circumstances.
The dark houses in the seemingly forsaken neighborhood give a false aura of abandonment. My eyes skip in every direction, paranoid of the eyes I can feel watching us. I don’t like wandering the streets at night, and the day’s death is falling upon us fast. We pass by a pickup truck parked on the street, and on a whim, I reach out as I pass to pull on the handle. It’s locked.
“Check the cars,” I tell Evi. She and Bear cross the street—that’s as far apart as we dare to go—and test the vehicles on that side while I continue along my row. Buick, locked. Ford SUV, locked. Toyota camry, locked. White van with a logo for Jeremiah’s Paint Services, locked. But…the driver’s window is cracked open.
“Over here,” I call. As Evi and Bear return to me, I stand on my tiptoes and bend my arm beyond the point of comfort to contort my reach. Just barely, my fingertips graze the lock…a little more…I grunt when I hook my finger under the lock and feel it give with a satisfying click.
I retract my arm and pull on the handle, and this time it pops so I can open the door. I crawl inside first. Evi coaxes Bear in after me, and then she follows before closing and locking the driver’s door. If we had to drive in a pinch, I would have cursed our bad luck. It’s an old van, stick shift with manual windows. But, in our current circumstance, our luck couldn’t have been better.
I crank the driver’s window up to keep out the dusk and muffle the sounds of the birds—killdeers, Evi corrects—crying as they swoop over the open fields beyond the houses. We open the rear doors and dump out paint cans, brushes, trays, tarps, and a heavy paint spray gun into the road, then lock ourselves in for the night.
Bear doesn’t like our temporary lodging; he whines and scratches at the door. Evi sinks into the passenger’s seat with an exhausted sigh. I settle into the driver’s seat and pull the backpack into my lap for an inventory check. We’ll split a bottle of water and munch on the crackers to placate our complaining stomachs. I had enough foresight to salvage other items from Ga and GaPop’s house. We have three kitchen knives, a box of matches, a flashlight (which I might as well toss because it doesn’t work), and the afghan from Ga’s chair. This I withdraw and drape around Evi’s and my shoulders. She intertwines her fingers in the fringed edge and presses it to her nose to inhale the smell of Ga.
“It’s so dark,” she complains softly, her words muffled behind the afghan.
It is. True darkness did not exist in the World Before, not with the constant glow of city lights that never powered down. “Yeah,” I murmur. “But look at those stars.”
Bear’s claws click on the metal floor as he returns to us. He rests his heavy head in Evi’s lap. She strokes his face, drawing a deep, contented sigh from his core. “It’s weird, isn’t it? That the end of the world can be so beautiful.”
I don’t answer. My gaze wanders across the constellations I can’t even recognize anymore, like I’ve been transported to a distant planet with a different field of stars. The lower part of the sky is shrouded in smoke, but above that, the night is clear. This tapestry is so much brighter and more intricate than the one I knew just a few days ago. It all seems more connected, like how frost spreads crystalline tendrils to close the gaps on icy windows. I swear I can see new universes, and I suddenly feel miniscule, no bigger than an atom.
Evi is whispering to herself. I’m lost in the stars until slowly, I focus on her words. “…Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven….” I frown, listening, anger slowly boiling away the serenity as she finishes the Lord’s prayer and continues, “Please, watch over us, guide us, and protect us in our time of need. We—”
“Why are you asking God for help?” I snap. Evi blinks and turns to look at me in stupefied puzzlement. “Do you think we’re special? Do you think He’s going to spare us just because you ask nicely?” I point out the window at the pillar of smoke choking out the lower stars. “People are dying, Evangeline. Indiscriminately. You think those people suffering right now didn’t do exactly like you and pray to God? What, He didn’t hear them? Or does He just not care?”
Evi stares out the windshield, her gaze distant. “We don’t know His master plan.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“There is no answer,” she says coolly. “Only faith in something greater. This is just another test to determine our worthiness.” She turns her doleful eyes on me again. “When did you stop believing?”
My head bows with the weight of remembered pain. “When Mom died.”
She fires back, “Where do you think Mom went? If you don’t believe in God, then you don’t believe in Heaven, so what happens when we die? We just rot in the ground?”
“Enough,” I snarl.
Evi locks her eyes with mine. “You don’t know,” she accuses, her voice somehow gentle despite the sting of her words.
“Neither do you,” I retort. “But unlike you, I don’t fabricate answers to help me sleep better at night. I trust facts, not blind faith.” She opens her mouth to argue with me, but I reach across the span between us to wrap my arms around her and pull her into a tight embrace. “Please, let’s not find out what happens when we die. Not for a long time, anyway.”
She’s rigid, leaning away from me in silent resistance, but then the tension melts out of her muscles and she sags into my chest, letting me hold her. “I miss Mom. I have to believe we’ll see her again.”
“I know,” I murmur into her tangled chestnut hair. Evi smells of dried sweat and smoke. I pull back and offer, “Let me braid your hair before all your birds start nesting in it.”
She gives me a weak half-smile. “Okay.”
She twists around so her back is to me. She tries to hold still, but I notice how she jerks and grimaces when my fingers catch on a knot. Neither of us speaks. Neither reminisces how many times Mom sat where I am now doing a much better job at braiding than my clumsy fingers can manage. Muted through the windows are the distant sounds of people fighting. I still expect to hear sirens any minute, just like I expect to hear the watch ticking on my wrist.
Bear is whimpering again, and Evi rises to lie down on the metal floor in the back of the van where Bear can snuggle with her. I hesitate—the seat would be much more comfortable—but in the end I decide to choose company over comfort, and I join them. I sit cross-legged and draw the bow into my lap. With a carving knife, I scratch out a single notch in the wood beside the other two to mark the end of the third day.
Our goodnights are constrained to a simple “I love you.” Evi curls her body into a vulnerable, child-like ball with her back pressed against the sliding door. I lie facing her, watching her mouth move after her eyes close. She’s praying. I’m pretty sure her lips form the words: “Livi is lost. Please bring her back into the light. Keep us safe. Keep us together.”
Bear snuggles in between us, heaving his biggest sigh yet as he settles in. When Mom died, I was angry at God and the injustice of life. That anger faded as I began to challenge truths I’d accepted before because I’d been told I must be faithful and never question why. Now, not even the residual fear of Hell instilled in me as a child can incite me to ask God for help. If He does exist, He’s damned us all, or at the very least turned His back on His own creations while violence, terror, and panic ravage all purity and innocence. That is not a god who deserves my worship.
I suppose I shouldn’t deteriorate Evi’s faith, especially not now when she needs it the most. It would be like taking away a child’s favorite blanket and leaving him alone in the dark to face the monsters under his bed. If Evi feels safe hiding under her blanket of religion, who am I to take that away from her? Regardless of my religious stance, I’m honored that she included me in her prayers because that means I’m in her thoughts and her heart. I reach across Bear to hold her hand, and I fall asleep with my cheek pressed into Bear’s ribs so I drift away to the beat of his heart.
I don’t know what wakes me first—the sharp impact on glass that doesn’t break, Bear’s sudden eruption of aggressive barks amidst a backdrop of snarls, or Evi’s hand latching onto my shoulder. “Livi,” she breathes in terror.
I bolt up. Where are we? The rude awakening only amplifies the disorientation. I can’t see. Bear’s black, blurry form lunges past me. A van. I think I remember we’re in a van. I frantically pat the metal floor in search of my glasses.
Evi crawls backward, away from the front seats. “He’s got a gun,” she whimpers.
My roving hand knocks into the quiver of arrows, scattering them. Bear is in the driver’s seat, all snapping teeth and saliva as he attacks the window. I curse under my breath, my fingers drifting over fletchings, shafts…there, finally! I unfold my glasses and jam them over my eyes.
When I see the man, I almost scream. He’s a big man, broad-chested with a beard that was probably unruly before the Blackout. In both hands, poised back to strike, is a rifle. He smashes the butt of the weapon down on the window again. The tempered glass holds, but for how much longer?
Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, do something, think of something a little more intelligent than sitting on your ass saying oh my god….
“Get the leash,” I choke out, the gears in my brain finally starting to turn. I seize the bow and an arrow. Evi doesn’t move. “Get the leash!” I scream at her. “Before he shoots Bear!”
She lurches forward on her hands and knees. We’re out of sight still in the back of the van. All the intruder can see is Bear acting like a rabid wolf in the front seat. I fumble with the lock behind me as Evi seizes Bear’s leash and twists it around her wrist. The lock pops, and I shove the sliding door on the passenger side, stumbling into the early light with unsteady steps that send tingling pinpricks up my legs as the circulation of blood floods through my still-half-asleep body. I hit my hip on the rear bumper as I circle the van, barely registering the pain as I step over the mound of painting equipment, round the corner, and brace myself, arrow already nocked, bow raised, the point aimed at the stranger.
The sound of the door opening had caused him to pause in his assault and set the rifle on his shoulder with his finger over the trigger, and the second I step out from behind the van, he swings to face me. We square off, each in the other’s line of sight, my arrow aimed at his chest, his rifle aimed at mine. Neither moves. Neither breathes.
Bear’s paws hit the ground, followed by a thud and the muffled “Oomph!” of air rushing out of a girl’s lungs. Bear is still barking and snarling, but he does so in ragged increments, like he’s being choked. I see him in my peripheral, but I don’t take my eyes off my target, not even when I feel a paint can roll to a stop against my leg. Bear is dragging Evi, who is on her stomach with both hands gripping the leash with all her might.
Don’t let go, I think at her. Don’t you dare. If Bear lunges at our assailant, the man will pull the trigger. Nothing terrifies me more right now than hearing that report. One little twitch, that’s all it will take, and someone will die.
Evi hooks her foot around the tire, stopping Bear in his tracks before he can fully round the van. He barks like a maniac, saliva dripping in foamy globs from his jowls, white teeth and pink gums standing out in stark contrast against his obsidian fur. He’s half a step behind me, and Evi’s body is shielded behind the van. She’s safe, for now. I’m the one in the crosshairs.
I stand my ground. My whole body is cold, even though creeping beads of sweat tickle my cleavage and cause my shirt to stick to my back. I want to lick the saltiness from my upper lip, but I keep my lips firmly pressed together with concentration. My right fingers are cramping over the bowstring. Soon, my arm will start to shake under the strain of holding this power back. Despite my terror and the way adrenaline is making my brain process every micro-detail of this moment at hyper speed, I am a perfect statue frozen in time, just like my watch.
The man tries to keep his eyes on me, but he can’t stop himself from glancing nervously at Bear, who is still straining against his leash to rip the gunman’s throat out. I’m the threat, though. All I have to do is let go.
Our standoff lasts one, two, three more heartbeats. Then he stirs. “You any good with that?” he rasps with the air of a taunting joke, like he’s trying to break the ice to see if I’ll cease and desist.
I narrow my eyes. “Good enough to not miss,” I growl. “And you don’t really want to waste your bullets on us. I have a feeling those are going to be a commodity that’ll be hard to come by pretty soon.”
Is that my voice? It sounds so cold, so calculating, so…not me. Maybe survival mode is turning me into an animal, too, just like the looters. The man’s muddy eyes assess me beneath his thick eyebrows. Slowly, he lowers the rifle just a little, watching me. He glances sidelong into the van. “I, uh…I saw the dog. Thought it was trapped. I was trying to help.”
I don’t move, don’t add any slack to the bowstring even though my whole arm is cramping. I don’t believe him. Bear was in the back with us. “Was it the dog, or the backpack you saw in the front seat?”
His eyes dart between me and the unzipped pack inside the van, where I bet he can glimpse at least one bottle of water. He lowers the rifle, although I wait until the barrel is safely pointed at the ground before I slacken the bowstring. I keep the arrow nocked and aimed loosely at the asphalt in the neutral zone between us. “Bear, sit,” I command. Immediately, the ruckus stops. Bear maintains a steady stream of quiet growls, but he obeys, giving Evi a chance to scramble to her feet.
The man says, “I haven’t had a thing to drink in almost two days. I’m so thirsty. Please, help? Just a drink.”
“I’m sorry,” I answer. Really, I am. I do want to help him, but if we give away the few supplies we salvaged, we’re going to die. It’s nothing personal; it’s just survival. We have to think of ourselves.
The man’s brows knit together. He looks down at his rifle, like he’s weighing the consequence of losing a few bullets for three and a half bottles of water. My fingers curl over the bowstring again. I’m going to have to be faster. I don’t want to take a life—I’ve never killed anything (except spiders) before—but I’m not going to die right here, and I’m not going to let this man hurt Evi or Bear.
He raises his head. His eyes are hard, his mouth drawn in a grim line.
Evi walks past me from behind. If both hands weren’t occupied with the bow and arrow, I would have reached out to snag her and pull her back, but she strides toward the man without fear. The power of speech eludes me when she wordlessly offers him the half-empty bottle of water we were drinking before we went to sleep.
“Evangeline, don’t,” I snap.
She ignores me. “Here,” she says. “You can have this. But please leave us alone.”
He hesitantly reaches out and accepts her gift, but his eyes wander to the pack now on her back, then over her shoulder to me. I don’t have a clean shot now, and I’m not a skilled enough archer to hit the small target over Evi’s shoulder without likely shooting her in the back instead.
I melt with relief when he backs away. “Thank you,” he says, inclining his head. He glares at me while he makes a show of shouldering his rifle. I glower back, my arrow still nocked but my bowstring loose.
He turns away from us, already twisting the cap off and gulping down the warm water. I don’t move. Neither does Evi, nor Bear, not until the man is halfway down the street. “You shouldn’t have done that,” I chastise. “We need every drop of clean water we can get.”
“He needed help,” she says absently, still watching him even though he hasn’t looked back at us once. “What if we were in his position and a drink could save our lives?”
I don’t answer. She turns to look me in the eye. “What would Mom have done?”
As innocent as Evi seems, she can be devious if the need arises. The low blow knocks me dumb for a few seconds. I stare at my little sister long and hard. She looks like Mom, more so than I do. The shape of her nose, the roundness of her face, and especially those hazel eyes of hers. I quietly answer, “Mom would want us to survive.”
“At the cost of our humanity?”
“At any cost.”
Evi kneels to give Bear a kiss on the nose. She ignores my last answer and instead coos, “Good boy, Bear. You’re such a good guard doggie, aren’t you?” He returns the kiss, although his is much more slobbery and covers a wide berth from her chin to her forehead.
I finally part the arrow from the bowstring and lean heavily against the side of the van before my shaking knees have the chance to give out on me. Evi wearily tucks a carving knife in the backpack; she’d kept her fist hidden beneath the pack during the exchange. She may have a heart of gold, but she’s no fool.
“Hungry?” I gently inquire. She nods. I peel away from the van and glance at the houses on either side. “Let’s get out of here first, ‘kay? We’ll find a good spot for a picnic.”
Evi puffs out a hard little scoff with a forced grin that breaks in less than a second. A picnic. What a joke. That word makes me think of the itchy wool blanket Mom always kept in the back of her car, and the woven picnic basket with a hinged lid, and warm summer days on the grassy knoll in the park where Evi and I chased butterflies while Mom systematically emptied the basket and occasionally swatted Dad’s drifting hand away from the carton of strawberries. That was a picnic.
Evi adorns the backpack and gathers up Bear’s leash while I circle back to the open van door to collect the afghan, quiver, and the rest of the arrows. I have fifteen—I count them one by one as I sheath each in the quiver. That’s not a lot, and they aren’t the sharp hunting kind of arrows, either. But at least they’re reusable once they’ve been fired, unlike bullets.
Evi and Bear are waiting by the taillight when I hop out of the van. I glance at my watch—habit still—and say, “I bet we’ll be home before dinner.” She nods, still looking rather sick after our unpleasant wakeup call. I circle behind her and unzip the backpack to shove the afghan inside, then zip the pack shut and put my arm over Evi’s shoulders. “It’ll be okay. Dad will know what to do.”
I repeat that to myself over and over as we walk. The sun is unforgiving, and by midday it’s roasting us. Poor Bear is panting hard, his long pink tongue unfurled, but we have to ration our water. Three bottles left, one for each of us. Bear just looks at me with his pitiful brown eyes after he slurps up the water I poured into the empty tin can we found alongside the road, silently asking for more. I wish I could make him understand why I can’t give him enough to fully quench his thirst.
“Think Dad stocked up supplies?” Evi asks.
I lick my cracked lips. “Yeah, I bet he did. He’ll probably have a whole case of water waiting for us when we get home.”
She tries to smile, but it’s more of a grimace. She rolls her head back to gaze up at the gray-tinged clouds overhead. “Red-tailed hawk,” she identifies. “It’s an immature. You can tell by its tail feathers.”
I cast my gaze skyward to watch the bird gliding high above on the updrafts. I wonder what we look like from up there. Probably no different than ants seem to us. I bet we look like a chaotic swarm, like our little anthill has been disturbed.
The sun moves in front of us. It slants rays of light at strange angles through the smudged lenses of my glasses, making me squint. I push the frames up my sweaty nose. I know I have spare contacts and solution in the bathroom cupboard at home. It’s disheartening to consider that once those run out, I’ll likely be constrained to my glasses. In the World Before, poor eyesight was easily managed, but now, it’s a handicap. Natural selection doesn’t favor handicaps.
The reduced speed limit sign tells us when we’ve entered the city limits. I rest my hand on the arrows at my hip, fingers loosely stroking the fletching, ready to draw and nock. Bear’s ears perk up, and he starts prancing at a quicker pace; he knows he’s almost home.
Home. How strange, that a place can look like your home but feel so alien. No lawnmower motors breaking the quiet. No cars passing us as we walk down the middle of the street. Mr. Elroy’s golden retriever barks at us behind the chain-link fence, making Bear halt in his tracks. The hackles rise along his shoulder blades and down his back, and his stub tail rises stiffly. Evi pulls him with us.
I draw an arrow. Where are the people? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. What are they going to do, prune their hedges while they wait for the Blackout to end? They’re probably either holed up in their homes or out scavenging, or they took to the road like we did.
Our house is on the right at the end of the block—a simple, two-story craftsman. The bench swing on the porch is gently rocking back and forth in the breeze, creaking, like a ghost is swinging. Mom’s flower garden has become a garden of weeds and thorns, although one brave daylily blooms amongst the thistles.
Seeing our destination finally lets me exhale in relief. We made it. I sheath the arrow, and Evi hands me Bear’s leash before she vaults up the porch steps and tries the front door. It’s locked. She rings the doorbell, then remembers that technology doesn’t work and resorts to pounding on the door. “Dad!” she cries. “Dad, it’s us! Let us in!”
I ascend the steps much slower, my critical gaze roaming. Each window has two-by-fours nailed across it. The window to our right is broken, although I can’t tell if it happened before or after it was boarded shut. I pull the key out of my pocket and gently nudge Evi to the side so I can fit the key into the lock. The moment it clicks, Evi pushes past me, throws the door open, and dashes inside.
“Dad?” she calls. She drops her backpack and sprints up the staircase. I let go of Bear’s leash, and he bounds after her, whining with excitement. Slowly, I close the door behind me. “Dad!” Evi opens the bedroom doors, then pounds down the hallway to check the bathroom before she takes the steps two at a time and whips around the corner to search the main floor, Bear on her heels.
I lean my full weight against the front door. I hear the basement door slam open, and quick footsteps descend. After a few moments, they return, though much slower and heavier. Evi’s mournful face appears around the doorframe. She shuffles back to me, her shoulders hunched. “Dad’s not here.”
I nod. Somehow, I’m not surprised. “He must be out looking for us.”
Evi blinks, her eyes shining, about to overflow. “What do we do now?”
I reach behind to twist the deadbolt on the door. “We survive until he comes back.”
Written March 2017
~ This short story advanced to the quarterfinalists in the 2017 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story competition ~