Jeanette stared at the sunrise as it melted its glow over the city’s smog. The smell of jet fuel and sweat mingled through the air and carried up her nasal passage, making it tickle and itch. It was amazing to her that as the population shrunk, the stench of labor grew.
“Going hunting today?” Abe asked.
Jeanette shrugged. The question seemed superfluous. She couldn’t remember the last day she hadn’t hunted. She also couldn’t remember the last day one of the feeders hadn’t hunted her. The hunt was all that existed anymore.
“Listen,” Abe continued, his tone suddenly stark. “We gotta head north. I know how you feel about it but -”
Jeanette snarled dismissively. It was the closest she’d come to a laugh in a long time. A week ago she would have shot words as sharp as darts at Abe. Head north for what? It’s a bullshit lie. The feeders are there too, you know. They’re everywhere. You know that. But today, today she didn’t have the fight in her. So she just snarled, and kept her eyes facing forward. From her peripherals, she could see Abe huffing, his heart aching at her coldness.
“What’s left for us here, Jeanette? Vicki and I have thought it through. Even Garret says -”
“I don’t care what Garret says.” There they were, the darts. Laced with poison at the mention of Garret; an amateur who couldn’t last a day on his own. They had taken him in for his eidetic memory thinking he’d be an asset – until a few days ago when he had almost gotten them all killed.
Abe stepped back as a show of faith. He knew he had taken the wrong approach and was surveying his mind eagerly for the right one. Jeanette faced him and let out a slow, frustrated, sigh. Her resistance to heading north was purely based on logic. Travelling ill-equipped and malnourished was a bad idea. It was best to stay put, where the grounds were familiar. But she had to admit, Abe’s logic was sound too.
The malnourishment would not be solved by staying put. They had depleted their food sources. The Hudson was their best bet now. As for Garret, he might be a coward and a poor shot, but he was a human map. He’d get them there. That was true.
“I agree, Jeanette. The theory that these things can’t survive the cold is just that, a theory. But how do we prove it if we sit here, rotting in the sun, shooting feeders from afar until we run out of squirrels and ammo?”
Abe smiled at Jeanette in that warm way that always settled her. By sundown the four of them were headed north, with Garret leading the way and Vicki by his side, gun-drawn at all times. She was one of the few soldiers who had stayed behind with the civilians when the military pulled out of their zone. Jeanette had prodded her for answers: Where was the military going? What was the plan? She never answered a single question. Within hours of the abandonment, the fences had been torn down and most of the population made a run for it – most right into the arms of feeders.
“It’s a good time for it,” Abe assured Jeanette who couldn’t help but look unsure of each step she took. He continued, “by the time we get there, we should still have a month or two before the snow.”
“And then, we acquire winter survival skills.”
“If we make it that long,” Jeanette mumbled.
On the third night, Jeanette scratched a seventh slash in her rock. She liked the idea of keeping track of how many feeders they encountered. It was a hangover from being a records keeper in a past life. She had to admit, the trek had not been quite as dangerous as she had expected, and it gave everyone a reason to keep going. Goals were healthy.
She sat by the fire, quietly thinking about how glad she was that they were all doing this together. Hell, she and Garrett were even being civil again. The fog was thick, a blanket that made everything seem a little unreal; a little magical, even. The air had a sweetness to it she couldn’t place, and even though they were still eating rodents, she was excited for the fish. The Hudson was known to have had over 200 species at one point.
As she lay under the heavy sky, Jeanette drifted off to all the best thoughts and let good dreams take her over. For once, things seemed to be falling into place.
And then the feeders came. A hoard of them greater than any other they had ever encountered. Jeanette was thrust awake by inarticulate screams. Vicki was probably giving orders to the others; Garret was probably babbling through tears; Abe was likely hollering for ammo. He was kicking wood from the fire towards the coming monsters. But they were still coming, and it was over before it began.
A small group leapt on Abe, taking him down in one swift motion. His screams became garbled as his wide eyes stared into Jeanette’s from across the way. She sat, frozen, only partially upright where she had been sleeping so peacefully just moments before. Simultaneously, a larger group descended upon Garret. He tried to run but fell, inviting the feeders down onto him. Vicki ran towards Jeanette, hand extended, wanting to pull her out of her shock. But Jeanette just stared at the hand, trying to process how her dream had so quickly turned into a nightmare. And how the world had so quickly become this Hell.
The feeders got Vicki from behind. The blood splattered across Jeanette’s face, bringing her back to life. She scrambled up and ran. She ran faster than humanly possible. She ran further than humanly possible. And not once did she look back.
Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©