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In those days, I woke up before the sun did. Whenever I opened my eyes I would automatically reach out for the pack of matches I kept on the stand beside my bed. Still half-awake, I would light a match and then light a short, stubby candle. I'd use its light to get dressed and gather my supplies for the day. My outfits usually consisted of hunting boots, a pair of half destroyed black jeans, and a dark green shirt. If it was cold out, I wore a camo jacket over the shirt. I kept my dark brown hair short. Whenever I noticed my hair getting long, I'd take my dagger and cut it just above my ears. It never looked good; but only Kaleb saw me anyways. Sometimes after I cut it, he would take his own dagger and snip it so that it looked half-way decent. I would complain, of course.
“Don't complain.” Kaleb would say. “I'm the one who has to look at you!” Then he would laugh. I might have laughed, cracked a smile, or frowned. It depended on my mood.
I would grab my dagger shortly after getting dressed. I never went outside without a weapon. My dagger was my weapon of choice. I'd had it since I was a little girl, and had taken care of it through the years. It was a high quality knife; Kaleb had traded our first hunting dog for it. To be honest I think we got the better end of the deal. Dogs often died after a short while, or could die during the hunt. Dogs could fail. But my dagger never had.
Walking out of my bedroom, I would wake up Oliver. And Kaleb, if he was home. If he was, I'd smack his door with my fist as I walked by it. If he wasn’t, I went straight to the kitchen. Oliver would be woken up either way. He would sleep on a bed of rags in the hall. When I walked past he would be awakened.
The day it all started, Kaleb wasn't home. He hadn't been for two months.
Oliver opened his eyes as I walked past. Like most dogs, he was probably part coyote. I would have said part wolf, but we were too far south for that. His fur was rust colored and short, but he was muscular, strong, and healthy. I think part of him knew how strong he was mattered greatly. If he was crippled, fell ill, or seemed to be getting too old, he would get a bullet in between the eyes. I didn't need another mouth to feed.
He yawned and got up, following me as I walked into the kitchen. He lay back down on the yellow linoleum floor as I scavenged the cabinets for food. I was beginning to run low. If Kaleb didn't come back soon, I was going to end up living off kills. Which I could do. But I didn't like to. It felt unsafe. If I got hurt, it was all over. I would be able to survive off the meat from the chickens, the cow, and Oliver if it came to that. But then when Kaleb came back, we'd have to start from scratch. Assuming I didn't die of infection from whatever sort of injury I got.
If Kaleb came back.
I always tried to shake those thoughts away. Kaleb knew that my livelihood relied on him. I could only survive so long without proper supplies without having to go out on my own. Which was something I hadn’t ever done before.
I had a hard time trying to find something to eat. I'd carefully rationed off the bread, but it was gone. Most of the fruit was gone. There was only a single potato and an apple left. I frowned and took a bite out of the apple. It was far from fresh; but it wasn't rotten either. Beggars couldn't be choosers.
“Looks like we’re going out, Oliver.” I said.
At the word ‘out’, he raised his head. Suddenly the light was in his eyes. I think if there was anyone that enjoyed hunting as much as Kaleb and I did, it was Oliver. It was part of the reason why he was the favorite dog I’d had. He'd been a present to me from Kaleb. Kaleb had traded a man his bow for him. Oliver had been the biggest and healthiest of the litter, and the best pup in the trading town. The breeder had gladly taken Kaleb's bow; it was hand-made and had cost a whole cow to get. But Kaleb had more bows. And I needed a hunting partner for when he was gone. Kaleb's words, not mine.
Before I could head out on the hunt, I had to feed the animals. At that time we had ten full-grown chickens. I tossed a fistful of grain into their pen. It was lined with barbed wire, to ward off predators. But it wouldn't ward off thieves.
Next was Hope, our cow. She was a fat, lazy animal. But she provided milk. And on occasion, Kaleb took her with him on his trips to find a bull to breed her with. Usually when he came back she was pregnant. Then when the calf was born and grown, we would sell it. Or, if times were hard, eat it.
Times had been hard for a while.
She stayed in what had been a storage shed. But Kaleb had emptied it out once we'd found the house, lined it with hay, and put in a bucket for food and water. Her water didn't look too dirty, so I left it. I filled her food bucket and left again. I only let Hope graze when I was around to watch her.
After that was taken care of, I walked back towards the house.
Kaleb and I had stumbled upon our house not long after our parents died. It was part of a small town that was completely abandoned. The road had already begun to crack and weeds were sprouting. Most of the houses were being swiftly reclaimed by the forest. The one we now lived in had been the one in best condition. There were still family photos on the walls, books in the shelves, clothes in the drawers. The family had taken what they could carry and left. But to be sure, Kaleb washed everything down with bleach. I'd sat outside with our rapidly dying dog, Sandy. She was a poodle, and wasn't bred for the things we'd been through since we'd left the safe haven I was born in. Her pads were bleeding, her fur was matted and dirty, she had this glassy look in her eyes, and wouldn't stop panting.
While the bleach dried, Kaleb and I slept out on the porch. When we woke up the next morning, Sandy was dead. A coyote was eating her. Kaleb ushered me inside into a too-clean smelling house. When the coyote left around midday, Kaleb wrapped what was left in one of the black trash bags in the house and carried it far into the woods. We couldn't have any more scavengers coming near the house. One of them could have had the virus. And Kaleb didn't want to take any risks.
Over the years, we'd used up the initial supplies left in the house. We'd burned most of the books for warmth in the winter. The china traded away for better, more useful supplies. Everything was either traded, sold, or used so much it was depleted into nothingness. The only thing which we rationed extremely carefully was the medicine in the medicine cabinets. This family had it all; Pepto and Tylenol. Motrin. Ibuprofen. Neosporin had saved our lives repeatedly. We used it carefully and sparingly. And the expiration dates on them were still far off. We still had a lot of it left, even on that day. The only things that remained were the family photos on the wall. They made me feel comfortable and lonely all at once. Even if they weren't my family, it was the closest I could ever get to pictures of mine.
All of the rooms in the house were put to use, too. I walked over to the garage, unlocked the padlock on the garage door, undid the chains, and pulled the door open. Standing there was Tesla. He was my horse. Kaleb had another, a mare named Penny, that he took with him on his trips. She was faster and younger than Tesla. But Tesla was experienced, determined, and knew what to do when hunting.
I saddled him up, then hurried back into the house to get my hunting rifle and machete. Oliver followed me out the door. His ears were pricked forward and his eyes were gleaming. I climbed on to Tesla's back and kicked him into a walk. Oliver walked along beside us, head low and tail wagging. We walked out of the driveway and on to the crumbling road. I kicked Tesla into a trot, then a lope. He was able to lope for longer than most horses. Another reason why I preferred him to Penny. Oliver ran just behind us with his pink tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
After five minutes we turned off the road and on to a well-beaten forest path. It was a path that had been made by animals. It backtracked and went in circles, and was very rough at points. But this was my favorite hunting trail. I slowed Tesla into a walk. Oliver was panting. He trotted ahead, already getting to work. He sniffed the ground and the areas closest to the trail. Suddenly his ears and tail went up; he'd caught something's scent. I followed, pulling Tesla off the path. Oliver ran ahead a few yards and crouched down in front of some brush. Almost completely oblivious, a large wild turkey strutted out.
I shot it with my rifle. But I purposefully didn't make the kill a clean one. Instead I shot it near the leg, so it couldn't run. It flapped its wings wildly and sort of hobbled around on one leg before falling. Oliver was barking at it eagerly, but he knew better to bite before a command was given. Instead we just watched it.
It bled a lot. But after a few minutes, the blood began to coagulate. Which meant it wasn't infected. With Ebola, at least.
“Kill!” I ordered Oliver.
Eagerly, he dove forwards. The turkey squawked and flapped his wings in vain. Oliver sank his fangs into his neck, finally killing the thing. I always carried a burlap bag especially for carrying game. I shoved the turkey into it and tied it to the saddle. Tesla was used to the burden. The rest of the morning was very slow; the forest was just too quiet. Something wasn't right. But I kept hunting. I refused to return home with nothing more than a turkey. As Tesla and I rode along through the forest, Oliver's ears went up. His nose tilted towards the sky as a breeze drifted past. I tightened my grip on the reins and prepared myself to kick Tesla into a lope. Tesla's nostrils flared.
I knew how to identify when something was wrong from how my animals reacted to it. Tesla stamped his feet and tossed his head slightly. Oliver was growling.
I saw it soon enough. A person. Or what was left of one, to be honest. It was a young man, maybe around Kaleb's age. But his hair was brown, dirty, and long. A beard was growing on his face. His clothes were dirty, bloody, and torn. Blood was coming out of his mouth, out of his eyes. He was disgustingly thin. To be quite honest, he looked like a walking skeleton.
A walking infected skeleton.
Ebola, once it got into the last stages, was easy to spot. And this guy was lucky to be walking. Suddenly he doubled over and vomited. Most of it was blood, and mixed in were tiny black flecks that I could see from where I stood. Tesla could smell the sickness, smell the blood. He was stamping and trying to back up. But I couldn't let this guy get any closer to me, my animals, or my home.
I took my rifle, loaded it, and aimed it.
For his own good. I thought. There was no surviving Ebola.
The man crumbled, bleeding everywhere. But I knew he was dead. The shot had hit his heart, or somewhere close to it. If he wasn't dead, he'd bleed to death in a minute at the most. Suddenly feeling disgusted with...everything, really, I turned Tesla around and rode in the opposite direction. I made a mental note not to come back to this part of the forest for a long, long time.
I couldn't waste the day. I turned off on to another trail and kept hunting. I managed to bag another turkey, three rabbits, and a squirrel. No deer. When I returned home the sun was starting to get low in the sky. I sat on the porch while the sun set and pulled the feathers off the turkeys I’d shot. The feathers I tossed aside into a pile. My plan was to use them to make a new pillow for Kaleb when he returned home. For some reason it was a long-standing tradition between the two of us that a new pillow was always his ‘welcome home’ gift. After stripping the feathers off the turkeys, I skinned the rabbits and the squirrel. The sky grew dark and I retreated into the house.
After I lit the candles and stored away the meat, I decided I needed to wash off. The encounter with the infected man had spooked me. It had been on my mind all day. Despite the fact I didn’t get close to him, I felt unclean. While I was hunting all I could think about was if the animal I was aiming at had been in the same area as that man. Whenever I had a moment to stop and think, my mind flashed back to that terrible night when the virus broke out in our shelter. All of that blood…so much blood. I remember it coated the floor as Kaleb and I ran out. It splashed around our feet like puddles of rain water.
You’re being stupid. I thought. If you didn’t get sick then, you won’t get sick now.
I ended up bathing anyway. I hated wasting precious water on things like bathing. But in this case I felt it was necessary. After filling the tub in the old bathroom with as little water as possible, I washed myself off and changed into an old nightgown. Afterwards I decided to indulge in one of my guilty pleasures: watching the stars. I went out and sat on the front lawn. As always, Oliver followed me and sat down beside me.
The night sky had always fascinated me. My education was limited. I knew how to do basic math, and I could read and write well enough. But I knew only a small bit of history, and practically none of science. So I had no idea what the stars were or how they got there. They fascinated me in that way. What were they? How did they get there? How did they stay up in the sky? Why were they there? I liked to find pictures in the stars and make up my own constellations. The one thing I didn’t look at was the moon. Doing that just made me angry.
When Kaleb and I were wandering and looking for a home, we stopped one night just off an old beaten road. I can still remember the smoke from the fire he managed to start wafting around us. Sandy was lying on the ground and panting. Her paws were bleeding again. Kaleb poked the fire a bit. Then he looked up at the sky. The moon was full that night.
“You know what, Zaire?” he said. “There are people. Up there. On that moon.”
This startled me. “Really? Why?”
“They left. Years ago. All the wealthy important people got to retreat up to the moon. Where there was no virus.” The venom in Kaleb’s words steadily grew. “While everyone else got to stay here and watch their families die.” Suddenly he picked up a rock and stood. “Well you know what?! FORGET YOU! FORGET ALL OF YOU!” My brother threw that rock with so much force, for a moment I thought it would fly up and up through the atmosphere, into space, and right through someone’s window. But gravity did its work. Ever since then I’d tried not to look at the moon. Because then I would think about the people living in the moon colonies. The rich and well-to-do.
None of them had to worry about the virus. Or making sure they stay warm in the winter.
None of them had to sit at home and wonder if their brothers will come home this time.
“Forget you.” I murmured, glancing at the moon. “Forget you all.” Then something streaked across the sky. It didn’t make a sound, but it was alarming low and close to the ground. Fire was trailing out behind it. It passed directly over my head and disappeared into the tree line. A few moments later, I heard a crash.
Oliver stood up and started barking.
I ran straight into the house. Oliver followed me on instinct. I locked the front door after he came in, then rushed and locked the back one. I wasn’t sure what that thing was. All I knew was that it had crashed too close to my home for my liking. Whatever had crashed over there, I didn’t want to know what it was.
Sadly, I found out.