The wind twisted smoke from the chimney of the cabin into swirls against the pale blue sky. He split a log with ease, then placed another on the stump and stared at it, his mind elsewhere. He wiped his forehead with his shirttail. Then scanned the valley and horizon for, for anything. It was as still as an oil painting, save for a single bird in the distance trading one high perch for a more precarious one. One home for a new one, he thought.
The cabin door creaked open. “Lunch?” she said.
“In a minute.” He laid the ax against the cabin and stacked the last few pieces of wood into the growing pile.
The door creaked closed.
Tired and hungry. Always tired and hungry, he thought.
The table was set with plates of beans for the both of them. The smell of fresh bread filled the air as she placed a new loaf between them.
“Well now, bread. Ain’t that a site for sore eyes. It smells amazing.”
She nodded and sat down while he sliced off pieces for the both of them. Then he got up and flipped the switch for the solar water purification system. When it lit green, he filled two glasses, turned it off and sat back down.
“Thinkin of checkin them traps after dinner. It’s been a bit, could be somethin out there.”
She looked at him, her eyes glassy, and squeezed his hand.
“Alright then love. Alright then.” He put a hand on her forehead. “You’re a bit warm. From the baking? Feeling okay?”
“I’ll clean up before I head out. You might want to turn in early?”
They ate in silence for a while.
After dinner, he saw to the dishes and covered the remains of the loaf. Then he went to check on her but she’d already gone to bed. She lay on her side, facing away from him, eyes open. He closed the door with a soft click.
Outside the sky had turned crimson. He zipped up his heavy overcoat against the chill in the air, and set off behind the cabin and up into the hills.
After twenty minutes he came to where he’d set the first trap. It was gone. The whole trap was gone. Maybe a critter got it stuck on an appendage and ran off, he thought. Examining the ground on bended knee he tended to doubt that though. There didn’t appear to be any sign of a struggle in the dirt and leaves. “Maybe someone took it?” he said out loud. He patted his inside pocket and the old Colt revolver. He took it out and pulled the hammer back a half cock, then spun the cylinder, checking to see the brass that he knew was still in there. He returned it to the pocket, then stood as still as the trees. For a long while he listened, hearing nothing but the breeze and crackle of branches as they stirred against each other, the song of the forest.
After a time he continued on up the trail, the sky growing a deeper red, the color of long-forgotten dreams. His footfalls echoed in the tall wood, and breath cast out tiny clouds as he climbed higher, finally reaching the second trap. It too was missing. It too showed no signs of a struggle. He tipped up his hat, chuckled and, threw his hands up to the sky. “So it’s beans then I guess.”
Squinting up into the darkening heavens, he jammed his hands into his pockets, hunched his shoulders and started back down.
The last part of the trail home he followed from memory, from habit. It was dusk, but his feet knew where to go. When he got back home, the low light from one battery powered candle on the kitchen table was enough for him to kick off his boots and hang up his jacket. He took the colt out and set it on the little bench by the door, as usual.
He carried the candle down the hallway towards the bedroom, but then stopped. His pulse quickened. The boy’s door was ajar. He inched it open, peering in with the candle. She was curled up on the made bed, clutching a toy rocket. A glass of water on the nightstand. He unfolded a comforter from the foot of the bed and covered her. Her breathes remained slow and undisturbed.
He closed the door and went to their bedroom. Her pillow was on the floor, the sheets twisted in a pile. He laid down without fixing them, without undressing, and sleep took him in an instant.
They swung him in between them, the boy’s toes grazing the ground. When they finally sat down in the sand he took off like a shot with the little bucket and shovel to find the water’s edge. Laying there on their stomachs, they watched him dig, shape, and build a little world. They made plans, some lifelong, and a short-term one for ice cream.
He waved, “Come on Papa!”
He scooped him up onto his shoulders and they walked out into the gentle waves. The boy shrieked with delight when he let the water get close to him.
“Mama look, look!”
She waved back, “Hi baby!” then looked up.
Buzzing engines swooped overhead, lights flashing against the cabin. He sat up in bed. “Fuckers.”
At the window he watched the lights recede in the distance. It wasn’t quite daybreak yet, but once awake, he stayed awake. He headed down the hallway to the kitchen, and coffee, pausing for a moment by the boy’s door to listen.
The water purifier went green and he filled his cup. Then tossed a hot-brew coffee packet into the mug, it started to boil in an instant. As usual, he let it steep for a few minutes and paced about the room. He ran a hand along the main vertical support beam that was at the center of the cabin. Etched into the beam were the height markings of each of them, an initial, and the year, 2211. The boy was so excited about marking his height. They had promised to do it every year, “until I catch you, Papa!” The wood from the boys mark cut into his thumb, and he bled into the groove as he kept rubbing it back and forth. The only groove there ever would be.
He sucked the blood from his thumb, grabbed the coffee cup and the book-sized digital tablet. Then he sat at the kitchen table. He raised the tablet to his face and breathed on it. It unlocked and displayed ‘15 PERCENT POWER REMAINING, RECHARGE SOON.’
“Connect,” he said.
UNABLE TO CONNECT. CHECK PRIVILEGES.
His eyes narrowed.
UNABLE TO CONNECT. CHECK PRIVILEGES.
“Come the fuck on.”
I DON’T UNDERSTAND.
UNABLE TO CONNECT. CHECK PRIVILEGES.
He checked the settings, it looked like he had a solid satellite connection.
“Privileges…” he whispered and sipped the hot coffee.
The first rays of light began to warm the window. He got up and went to the steel supply crate that had stayed in the same spot in the kitchen since they’d dragged it in. It unlocked with a hiss, and he began to fish amongst the items inside. Cans of beans, evaporated milk, many vacuum-packed meals, and the box he was looking for.
He removed the letter sized wooden box and placed it on the table. Inside of the box, he found the faded and torn map that he hadn’t opened in many years, maybe since he was a boy. He unfolded it on the table with care. It crumbled and separated from itself along the fold lines here and there, and he pressed it together with his fingertips. It was a crude representation of the land but would have to due for the moment. How did people navigate with these things?
For the next half an hour he traced routes in the air above the map. He’d avoided planning a run across the Outlands to the city for as long as possible. Better get a jump on it, he thought, worrying about the missing traps and remaining supplies. Should’ve already been done, he chastised himself but knew that he had put it off because of her. Leaving her wasn’t an option then, might not even be now. She was holding it together the best that she could. He felt weak for not being able to make it better. Resentful for not feeling able to grieve.
He refolded the map and slid it back into the box, placing the box back into the crate. The room began to brighten, the light clearing out dark thoughts and making room for new ones. He took a last sip of the coffee and put the cup into the sink. Then walked back down the hallway to the boy’s room.
He pushed the door open slowly until he could see her. She was in the same position that he’d left her in. He started to back away but knew something was wrong. He walked slowly into the room, wanting to run away at the same time. She was still clutching the rocket. He sat on the bed next to her, touched her forehead. It was cold. She wasn’t breathing. He grabbed at her to free the rocket from her hands, to bang on her chest, but her arms had stiffened.
“No, no, no, no no… not like this, god no! Please don’t leave me, don’t leave me, alone…!” He sobbed and cradled her to his chest.
He dreamt that they were having breakfast, all of them. They made plans for the design of the garden. Where each vegetable would go, what flowers they’d plant. The boy had wanted to attract frogs. He thought they would like it, as they did in a picture book that he’d brought with him. He traced a path that the frogs would walk along to get to the garden. Then drew a square where he’d build a little house for them to live.
When he woke she was cold, very cold. He stroked her hair, wet her shoulder with his tears. He sat up on the bed and faced the wall for a long time, watching the light trace patterns on the wood. Then he kissed her forehead and covered her with a heavy blanket. He walked out into the hallway, closed the door, and collapsed on the floor.
A spider crawled over his hand. He watched it closely without moving a muscle as the creature considered what to make of the warm beast on the ground. It decided it was best to move along.
He thought about the shovel, assumed it was right where he’d left it. It might even break apart when he started to crack into the hard ground again, close to where he’d left the boy.
Thunder overhead made him sit up with a start. How many were there?
“So it’s gonna be like that?” he said and got to his feet.
He looked out the window, both of the suns were high, the house had warmed considerably. He walked to the front door and grabbed his hat, then took the colt from his jacket and checked it again to make sure it was loaded. He thrust the weapon into his pants.
He was about to leave, then stopped, turned around and went to the kitchen table. He swept everything off of it, then opened the knife he had clipped to his belt. After a few minutes of carving into the table he stepped back and admired his work, it said:
A FAMILY LIVED HERE.
A FAMILY DIED HERE.
He ran his hand over the height markings on the post one last time before going outside and closing the door.
Shading his eyes and looking down into the valley he saw at least three dropships. There were twenty or thirty creatures scrambling out of each and bounding uphill towards him.
He took out the colt and headed down.