And then I was up, swiftly.
I followed where the last of the convoy had just disappeared, through my forest.
I forced myself to go slowly; careful, measured steps. The leaves crunched softly beneath each booted step. I could suddenly hear the creaking of their leather, the soft swish of my shirt, my pant legs brushing together. My breathing is ragged and my pounding heartbeat is so fast I couldn’t discern singular beats.
I weave between greyed tree trunks, trampling over yellow fall leaves that had fallen away from their high flying brethren; separated in the dehydrated death of Winter and the only hope for reunification being the tactical suicide awaiting every expendable appendage of their larger structure.
Every crinkle is like lightning striking at my feet, I grimace and glare at the sun. Shadows and multicolored bodies are ahead, marching along toward my house. Through my forest.
Drop them. The thought comes so naturally, my body wants to obey as it brings my rifle to bear. But I stop myself and continue following them. Just far enough that they cannot see and my hammering heart does not alert them of my presence.
Yet even as I follow them I cannot help but fantasize at all the possibilities of something that vaguely resembles what I used to consider normal. Someone to talk to! I continue to watch them, was them as they traverse through the very yellowing and reddening trees I do. Underneath the very blue sky I do, the one with large, fast-moving, fluffy white clouds and swooping blackbirds. Through the temperatures that make your hair stand on end, accompanied by the slight breeze that makes the leaves rustle and birds tweet and goosebumps appear.
I feel a sweat appear, my internal body temperature rising as my skin is continually cooled. I can feel the feverish burn between my shoulders, my forehead, along my arms and in my cheeks. My brain runs a million miles an hour, wondering what could be and what is and what has to be and what can’t be. What used to be is never a thought, but rather a shadow in the dark corners of the mind that is only pulled on on the gloomiest days. But today, today might just not be one of those days. People to talk to!
Up ahead I spot a clearing, a clearing into the very neighborhood I live in. Dead empty and long looted. They pause at the edge and stand shoulder to shoulder, all except the younger male. He instead turns and looks behind him, scanning the forest. I duck and slide behind a tree, heart racing faster than before and trigger finger all the itchier.
Ages, ages pass. He stands there, a strong young man looking back and forth like a lighthouse scanning those dense, dying, colorful woods with a spotlight meant to discover a lost ship. But after several long, long, seconds of scanning, he is satisfied and looks out over the clearing.
Together, the group talks and points. About thirty seconds in, they all nod and begin walking toward the closest house, a faded yellow two-story with its Southern roof collapsed in by a fallen tree.
I get up and slowly, very slowly, move up to the edge of the forest myself and stop just as they reach the back door to the house. My house. Now or never.
I bring my rifle up and train it on the chest of the youngest male, my heart thumping in my throat. But suddenly I am in my element, I am hunting a creature unlikely to survive much longer and has a singular purpose of ensuring my own continued life. My heart is still in my throat, my body still cold, and my thirst for blood still strengthening. Yet, my mind comes to a peaceful calm and my hands stabilize. Now or never.
My voice is coarse, the ‘y’ only a deep guttural sound hardly recognizable as human. Calling it a word would be spitting upon all the years of human development leading to such beauty as language. It was spittle and grunts deteriorating me to little more than an animal, incapable of intelligent thought. Nonetheless, they all turn around with their scrabbled together weapons raised, the girl struggling for a moment to draw her sidearm before it is pointed in my general direction. They haven’t seen me yet. I can still turn away, go back. Pull the trigger.
“Hey,” I call again, stronger being too strong a word. But it’s almost comprehensible. Almost.
“Show yourself!” One of the older men yell. Jealousy burns through my body as my trigger finder tightens. His voice is so strong, so strong. Yet mine has been deteriorated to near nothing. Mine is like an oversized boulder tumbling down a mountainside, sharp and crumbling. And failing. All thanks to a lack of another human being, another thing at all, to accompany me. And so, my throat wishes for humanity, my arms for a jacket, my brain for a future, my heart for peace, and my finger for war.
“I-” I try, such a simple word causing much pain but is better than both last attempts at speech, “I mean you no harm!” It’s ragged, torn, beaten and bruised. But it is speech. And this is human contact.
Now all of their guns are pointed in my general direction, more in my direction than in general.
“I shot the last person who said that,” Comes his gruff reply, still not shooting.
“So did I,” I respond. Not exactly true.
“Don’t mind me if I shoot then,” He pauses. I look him in the eye as I lean hard against a tree. My left shoulder itching as tough bark scratches it up, riding my short sleeve up and rubbing my skin raw. My hands are steady and the gun is aimed squarely over the younger man’s chest, my hair unkempt and jeans ragged. Hands and face dirty.
Not unlike him. Same hair, if only grayer. Same aging pants. Same look of determination and familiarity with death.
There are two large differences between him and me. Other than age of course. First, he should be the one leaning for stability, not me. Second, while he is used to pulling the trigger, age and muscle are not on his side. I doubt he’d hit me.
There are also six of them.
Chance is not in my favor.
“I’ll mind,” I respond, cleverly. Throat clogged and raspy.
“What do you want?” His language is so articulate and beautiful. His tongue works so perfectly, throat exhaling the precise amount of air requested at the exact moment it’s requested.
“That’s my house there,” I say pointing with my chin. “I- I just want to talk.” The man doesn’t look at the house. His eyes don’t flicker. His party is getting nervous, twitching and shaking. All except the young man, one who is probably my better. Better in all except a gunfight. My finger still itches.
“About what?” He finally asks in his perfect speech.
“Abby,” I say, a moment before my heart stops. It is the moment of truth, everything on the line. With a tactical disadvantage, impaired speech, desperation, and hunger for blood, I speak the name of the young woman I can only hope will recognize me. My life probably counts on it. This time the man does make indication, but not in the way I would have preferred. Instead of looking at her in confirmation (or for confirmation) he instead stands straighter, taller, and his gun hands stop shaking. I’m afraid.
“What?” At his question I clear my throat, the fragility of the issue feeling like it’s in an imperfect balance leaning in their favor. If I don’t fix it quickly it is going to fall, in their favor. But also in my finger’s favor. It can already taste the blood.
“Abby,” I say again, my eyes shifting to the girl, “Please, please tell them” Suddenly I’m moving. Slow, deliberate (rather, seemingly deliberate, I do them without thought and even try to stop myself) steps out into the open. My gun still trained on the young man, but I’m fully exposed. One breath and my balancing act is over. “Abby,” I whisper,
A long, slow moment as time freezes.
The birds tweet their sweet songs. The leaves crinkle as they hit the forest floor. The clouds speed across the blue skies to nowhere. The sun sinks lower and lower down closer to the horizon. Yet, us seven humans stand rigid, unmoving and breathing even less.
“Better not shoot me” I finally say, wishing I were joking, and lower my weapon.