My little brother used to pull the tails off lizards growing up.
Those bloody ends would twitch and dance in his little fingers with nothing to attach to.
The world was like that now.
It had died, and nobody was left to break the news.
Mallory pressed her face into my side.
She was too little for this. Too small to grow up in ash and death.
If she ever grew up.
I brushed her short hair aside and that dark thought along with it.
She looked so much like her mom.
Elle was gone, and there was no bringing her back. Mal's mom lived in our heads now, as long as we could remember her.
I might never forget, but Mallory’s memory wasn’t the same, and maybe that was for the best.
The sun peeked over the distant horizon, bringing with it a bloody smear of orange and red. They were still far away, but there would be more fires today.
There were always more fires, and when they came we did what we could.
We stayed alive.
Quiet as a church mouse and careful not to wake her up, I gently pulled back the edge of Mal’s borrowed jacket.
It looks bad.
Black and red like the welt it was, the distorted patch of skin was getting bigger. It had to hurt, but she never mentioned it.
She was like her mom.
How many things had Elle kept from me?
Mal shifted against my chest and I let her jacket go. She'd have to get up soon. We only had so much daylight to work with and moving by night was too dangerous.
She'll be hungry.
I was hungry.
We were always hungry.
I paused. My brain seemed to be doing that a lot more as of late, the slow moving repeat. If I were a computer, I’d have rebooted myself weeks ago.
It’s what I used to do.
"Hi, my name is John. Thank you for calling tech support..."
It seemed strange to use my name anymore. I was Dad now, just Dad.
But I wouldn't be much of one if I didn't get her something to eat.
I slowly pulled myself away from the sleeping five-year-old and stretched out a pair of tired arms. The flannel had been a welcome find not far from the river. It hadn't taken long to wash the blood out of it.
Thankfully Mal hadn't seemed to notice, or if she had, she'd been too mature to say anything about it.
Or too afraid...
I hated the thought of my daughter curled up in a ball covered in salvaged clothes and afraid, but that was the world we lived in now.
I stretched my legs out, frowning at the pins and needles in my foot. The doctors had a name for it back when there were doctors. It wasn't good, but it wouldn't kill me as long as I took the meds.
Elle always used to say medicine is not an exact science, and now I was inclined to agree with her. I couldn't remember the last time I'd taken a pill, and I didn’t appear to be dead yet.
Or I was dead, and this was hell.
I ran a hand over my thick beard and tugged at the leaves that had settled in it.
Living on borrowed time...
That had been something my old man used to say. Back then it meant something special, now it was just life. We were all living on borrowed time.
We had been for a while now.
Soon we were going to have to give it back, all of us, with interest, but only if there were any of us left.
Mal and I hadn't seen another person for months, or at least what felt like months. The air was getting colder, and soon we'd have to find somewhere to stay.
All of that was a bridge we'd cross later. Today she needed to eat.
I was no doctor, but even I knew a little girl needs food.
I'd tried boiling down acorns, but they were too bitter.
We needed meat.
Mal needed meat.
I'd set them up before dark, just like I'd run the alarm line around the camp. It wasn’t much, just old fishing line salvaged from the river and a bell she'd plucked off her bear's bowtie.
I tried to stop her, but she had insisted.
“I’m too old for bears, Dad.”
"Keep it," I'd said, knowing that it had been Elle's before Mal inherited it.
The bear was just as much for me as it was for her.
I took a long look back and my little woman, sleeping curled in a ball against the rapidly cooling ground, then slipped out of camp and over the all but invisible fishing line.
The bell stayed quiet in the smoky light of dawn.
There had to be something in the snares. Rabbits were still around, not many, but we'd seen a few, or squirrels. They weren't the chittering things we'd had in the tree over our house, but they were still out there, and just like everything else, they were hungry.
We were all hungry.
I pulled up my collar to cover my nose. The smoke was heavy this morning. The red horizon a reminder of what was coming, of what was always coming.
Focus, John. Focus on the food.
I shook off the tired in my legs and tried to navigate the knot-covered forest floor. The trees had long ago stretched out to cover this part of the country, and their roots had plowed through the dry earth like a living mountain range.
They wouldn't be living long.
The fires would see to that.
My numb foot made slow progress, but eventually we reached the first snare. It was a hasty setup, but essentially sound, and completely empty.
If an animal had come by, it had been smart enough to avoid the loop of filament altogether.
I pushed back the leaves that had settled around it, hoping for tracks, but finding nothing.
I'd set two more, but they were farther away.
I hesitated. Mal was still asleep. I should wake her and bring her with me to check.
It looked so bad. She needed her sleep, and we hadn't seen anyone since the air had been warmer.
I'll be fast. She'll be fine.
I repeated those words in my head as I made my way quietly down the steep incline of roots, dirt, and decaying leaves.
This snare was arguably worse than the first. It appeared to have been tripped, but there was nothing tangled up in that loop of fishing line. It merely dangled limp in the hazy air.
You're too far away.
I was too far away. I should have gone back to get her, but hunger has a way of making good men make bad choices, and I wasn't even a good man.
I rubbed at my still numb foot and pushed ahead. The last trap wasn't far, and I had a feeling, a good feeling, that this one was going to be the magic number.
“Three’s the magic number.”
That's what Elle always used to say. Three was the magic number. We'd been married on a Wednesday, after three years of living in sin. We'd even wanted three kids.
Mal was our lucky number.
My heart beat faster with each turn through the dense trees. I wasn't far now, and somehow I knew, I just knew there'd be something good in that trap. My brain teased me with images of fat rabbits and chubby squirrels. It showed me possums and weasels. Any of which would have been more than enough to feed a hungry five-year-old.
We didn't need much, but we needed to survive.
I didn't know why anymore, but I just knew we needed to survive---for Elle.
A low and throaty growl stopped me in my tracks.
I pressed my back against the dry bark of a slender pine and pulled out my knife, practically giddy with anticipation.
It wasn’t much, and it was dull, but it would work.
We were hungry.
I took a deep breath and choked back the smoke. The fires would be here today, and we needed to be gone before they arrived.
We'll move much faster with food in our bellies.
I clung to the thought and crept around the tree, knife in hand.
It took me a second to remember the word.
Cut-up, muddy, and barely recognizable, caught up in the thin fishing line was a dog.
I didn’t know why, but my first thought was Elle.
Mal had wanted a dog, but my wife had been allergic.
She would have certainly been allergic to this dog. Its thick fur lay matted in grunge and pine sap. The animal didn't want to be in my snare, and I didn't want it there.
I hesitated, the blade heavy in my hand.
We were hungry, so hungry.