The cool air pulls at his dry skin. He breathes slowly, his hot breath leaving his parted lips; in and out. The forest is quiet to the untrained ear, yet, he continues to lie, completely still. The untraceable itch on his right gut appearing underneath his almost-itchy cotton T-shirt. The slight crinkle of orange leaves at the toe of his right foot can be heard as he ever so slightly moves for comfort. The trees rise above him in hope for just a little more sunlight before their leaves fall away for Winter. The unsteady ticking of leaflets making their final descent to the forest floor and landing among their dead brethren. The sky a pale blue partly covered by greying clouds and a cool sun.
He lies still, ever still. The cool handguard around his barrel seeping heat from his left hand. The plastic standard-issue handgrip a comfortable rough in his right. His finger curled around the cold metal trigger. His eyes watching a calico cat as it cleans itself, its tail in a complex twirl behind it as it tries to reach its back. He remembers his own cat before the bombing. Poor thing.
He slowly squeezes his finger letting the cold metal push against more of his skin, waiting for recoil.
A crinkle and a snap. Clay stops squeezing and the cat looks up. The cat freezes, having stood up, tail held perfectly still. Its mix of colors a fair camouflage in the Autumn forest. Its green eyes not looking to him but instead to his right. Its right paw still off the ground as it, without looking away, lifts its head and sniffs the air. Its small brown nose moving imperceptibly as it searches through the aromas of its home wood. Without the slightest indication, it turns and disappears into the dead branches and fallen leaves.
Clay slowly rolls from his stomach onto his left side, pointing his weapon in the direction the cat was looking. He feels a knot from a dead tree branch push into his lower shoulder, right above the tricep. He ignores it and scans the woods, listening intently. Branches snap as something hits them, crisp leaves crack as they’re tread upon. He stops scanning the woods and lets his eyes take in the whole. Individual trees become a blur and everything is a mix of yellows, whites, and oranges. The blue sky pokes through from above, not to be forgotten.
He spots the parade. Six people. Two women, four men. All armed. The knot continues to push into his shoulder, he feels his left hand succumb to pins and needles. He imagines all of his nerves as exploding stars as their electricity touches his skin. He focuses again, going from person to person. The two older men are both in their mid-fifties. They have greying hair and untrimmed beards. The third man is also older, perhaps late forties. All of their weapons are held relaxed but ready, their bags a clear burden. Next, are the two women. The first is old enough to match the men; though she has aged substantially better than them, especially under the circumstances. After her is a much younger woman, only 19 years of age. Unlike the older woman, she does not hold a proper rifle but instead has a pistol on her hip. She carries more bags than her elders, likely on account of her age. Pulling up the rear is a younger man who is no more than twenty-six. He too carries a larger amount of gear on his back and his weapon held ready, head on a swivel.
Clay sees little of this as he focuses on the younger female. It’s more than that she’s close to his age, more than the fact that she’s pretty. He recognizes her.
His body goes cold, the pins and needles extending up to his shoulder into his neck and crawls down his left torso. He feels his gun beginning to waver and his heart beginning to race. His throat begins to hurt, ache, with every heartbeat. He suddenly can’t breathe or swallow, his tongue and lips as dry as the leaves beneath him. He lets the gun lower and sits up into a more comfortable position. Blood rushes everywhere and he gets light-headed. Three years, he thinks. Three years. “It’s been three years,” he whispers, trying the words out on his tongue. It comes out rough, his voice cracked and damaged. The words carry his soul with them, shattered and all. He hasn’t spoken in months and not to another human being in considerably longer. A year and a half perhaps.
He can’t help but watch, watch as they trek through the woods. His woods. Oblivious to his hungry eyes. An ache he hasn’t felt since he last spoke appears. In his chest, a weight grows. His body becomes like lead and his brain pounds in his skull. He needs somebody to talk to. He suddenly knows he can’t survive another day without a human there beside him. Someone to keep him sane. To talk to. About anything. His heart beats so fast it’s slow, a hammering in his chest against his ribs. His body shakes. His mind screams. His eyes cloud as memories assault him.
But he only breathes. The cold air on his skin. The cold air slightly stinging his inner nose. The slight breeze through his loose-fitting clothing giving a sense of openness that contrasts against his crowded mind. All while the group trudges on through his woods. Out of sight.