I can’t breathe. How much longer. Do it. Heart slams so hard against my insides surely it hears me. At the dim end of the rotting structure it stands dead still. One leg suspended. Ears twitch, looking right at me. Long eyelashes. Big, animal eye. I’m in it. Mal’s not, and she has the gun. Do it. Shootititdoesn’tknowgodIhavetobrea–
The silence explodes.
A streak in the dimness. Blink.
It’s gone. Just like that.
Head ringing with the report. Behind the shattered glass the rifle barrel angles down and there is her ghost face framed in the window.
Dart forward eagerly. Maybe she hit it. Little knot of hope. Hunched over where the animal was. Maybe there’s blood. Back and forth in a grid. End where its horns tore through the tumbled slats. Maybe there’s a drop.
Mal’s behind me. Stiff. Gun barrel across her hips.
“What if you wounded it.” Squinting into the shadows and the clutter on the floor.
A drop. That’s all. Anything. Nothing.
“Stop it. Stop.”
I straighten up and stare into the treeline. Dense. It's gone. A funny thought. I don’t say it. Saying it won’t help. Won’t bring back the animal, won’t refill the empty shell casing in the dirt outside the bare wood frame.
Mal’s skin is pale and tight. Makes the sores stand out. Hands shaking on the gunmetal. The bones of her hands.
All that meat right there and then gone makes my insides pull tight. Such a fat one. I swallow my saliva. Food for weeks. I don’t say it.
What I say is: “We had to try.”
“I didn't wait for a killshot. I should’ve waited.”
“You had to. There was only one chance. It was a bad chance but it was the only one. You had to.”
“The way the light bounced on the window in the glass of the scope.”
What’s in my head I don’t say.
She holds the two bronze bullets, grinds them against each other. One lip quivers.
What’s in my head I don’t say. I say: “We still have two.”
For a moment there’s a glimmer in her eyes. A vision, a memory, what we’ve both seen so many others do. It passes. But not entirely. It can’t. The possibility is always there, the possibility of those two bullets. Maybe it brings comfort.
“Stupid,” she says. “Stupid.”
She’s in her head and it's dangerous to be in there now.
I share the funny thought I had. I cock my one eyebrow and I say: "You know what's funny is all this green stuff, this whole forest, it’s food. Food for everything but you and me. For days we've been walking through food but we don’t know what to take or how to eat it. Nobody ever taught us. All we know is packets and tins and meat. So who’s smarter, then? Us, with our tin openers, starving in a field of food, or the birds and the bugs and the buck, who can see the food that’s just growing out of everywhere?”
She snorts. “But we’ve got guns to shoot them. We can make them food. It’s not our fault we can’t eat plants and roots and seeds and stuff.”
Mal clutches the gun to her side and she picks at the rotting woodwork.
“It’s not,” she says, “it’s not our fault!”
She picks and she picks at the rotting woodwork and says she didn’t ask for this.
“No one did.”
She says she didn't ask to be born into this world and I say no one did.
Nobody asked for this, it’s not our fault. Doesn't matter though. Still our problem.
Mal shakes her head slowly and her face is all scrunched up and she sits down there in the hole in the wall, half in and half out of the structure. The gun across her lap.
“It’s not fair. Nothing is fair. One day, we just wake up into it. Wake up into something terrible and the whole wide world around you is already set in place and nobody ever asks you is that okay with you. It doesn’t matter what you want. What I want. I don’t want this. And then every time you dream you go someplace else but then you always come back to this same place you don’t want to be, give me the dream any dream, but no you come back here over and over and over again forever till you die.”
“Yes. If you look at it like that.”
Her head is in her hands.
“David why can’t I be a bird. I want to fly away far far away from everything. Everything I didn’t ask for. The sickness. I’d rather be a bird. David. Why. David I want it to stop. Why are we here.”
“It doesn’t matter. We are here. That’s how it is.”
“No I mean why are we here.”
I say we are here because it is on the way to the City and that is where we are going. But she doesn’t hear because right now she is in her head and her head will not accept this. It’s like there’s a filter where the words go in, like she is deaf to any voice not mimicking her own.
“A bird David I want to be a bird. David what do you want to be?”
I don’t answer. This is not useful. I give the floor one more look. No trace of the animal. She missed. The bullet is in a tree or in the ground not in the animal. Reality. The numbness settles in again.
“David.” She’s staring at me. “David.”
“Oh. I thought you were joking.”
“David I am not joking does-it-look-like-I-am-joking.”
Her fingers pressing white into the killing tips of the last two bullets. She’s deep in her head.
I think about being a bird.
“No,” I say. “I wouldn’t.”
“What?” she pulls a face.
“I wouldn’t be a bird or whatever. There are facts and I can’t make like the facts aren’t there. Yes we are born into this world and it is like a big cage with no way out. So what. This is our life. I won’t pretend. Inside the big cage is the little cage of bone and brain and we are all in that little cage in the big cage and yes it’s hard almost all the time. How is a bird any different. A bird is just another cage.”
She opens her mouth but I cut her off.
“When a bird has no food then it also feels bad. It also gets thin and weak and wastes away. Then it dies. The forest eats it. So what?”
Her face is all bundled up.
“Mal I am not looking for escape. The Before has come and gone. So be it. This is now. It is not good. It could be worse. It’s always been this way. I will not run from it! That’s not helping. We have to make it better. It's just us and we only have what is already here and we can make it better than it is. We have something, not a lot, but we can use it. This is practical. What else is there? It is something to do. That we can do. Nothing else is helping. Escape does not help.”
“No. I’m sorry. You asked what would I do and I told you. I’m sorry but it is what it is. If you don’t like it I’m sorry but I feel very strong about it because this is the point of everything. What they tried to teach us was all their ways to escape and not face things how they are. But then some people started to get smart and saw into what was really going on in the Before. Then everyone got sick. Cowards. They got sick and they quit and they left us with all their problems. A whole world about to collapse. They thought nobody can blame you for getting sick and weak and dying and not doing what you should’ve done. Well, I’ll say it. Fuck them. Cowards. Fuck them for pretending to be everything under the sun except what they actually are. For bringing us into their broken pretend. For forcing us to live in the ruins they ran from but didn't escape. I’m sorry but that’s how it is that’s how I see it and I don’t care if it makes you mad.”
“You always say that.”
“Because it’s true.”
Her face is lots of things and she stands up and says nothing and turns away and slings the rifle over her shoulder and folds her arms and walks away past me. That’s fine. Let her. She’ll sulk until she just looks at everything the way it is. Let her go. She’s gone.
I must focus.
I listen for a while.
The gunshot. If there were stalkers nearby they might come looking. I listen.
Nothing. Good. Maybe it scared some of them away. It’s getting dark. I do not think about the meat eaters.
I walk away from the rotting structures and the shadows lengthen. When there is light again we’ll scavenge what we can which isn’t much.
I walk to where we hid our packs in the dense bushes and I dig them out.
She’s still sulking somewhere but she’ll keep an eye on her pack, on what I do with it. Maybe through the rifle scope.
I shoulder both my pack and hers. They’re nearly empty so it’s easy. The shadows are all sunk into each other. I find a good spot that’s hard to find and harder to see and I start making camp.
The darkness is here so she’ll be back soon. She’ll help pitch the tents, cut branches for the hides, collect and stack cover. The busyness will make her forget. Emotions. The emotions will have passed, settled. I busy myself.
Why on top of all the other stuff must we still feel bad, scared, sad. Why - no. Stop. Don’t go there.
Don’t go there.
I scrounge some stuff to rub on our skin to blend into the night but I do not think about the meat eaters. Focus. Listen. Clear the ground of anything sharp why. Focus. Don’t go there focus lay the ground sheets, weight the corners, unpack the tents. Listen. Don’t go there. Focus. Don’t ask why not now it’s getting very dark.
Snap the poles. Thread them through. Peg the rain flies.
Stow the packs. Gather loose brush for cover. Focus.
Where is she she’s taking very long it’s very, very dark.