The Only Family
This story is a combination of the first two chapters of my post-apocalyptic novel “Out of a Clear Blue Sky”. The first serves as its prologue. The second chapter, and the rest of the novel is set forty years after “The Blast”, and involves the efforts of Michael’s son Frank (and his friend Kevin) to reach the Capital, and the heartbreak, troubles and intricate web of political intrigue and violence that they find there. Read a separate prequel short story here: Into the Cold Dark Night
They lived together in their small farmhouse in the countryside, far from the cities and far from the world. Esther and her two teenage sons were in the kitchen and their father Peter was outside in the shed working when it happened. They felt and saw nothing except darkness for a moment and fell and when they woke up they didn’t know what happened. David had bruised his arm on the edge of the kitchen table as he fell. His brother Michael helped their mother up, all three groggy but otherwise unhurt, wondering what happened. After a moment the boys went out to see if their father had felt anything and he met them halfway in the yard.
“Something happened to me, lads. I thought I was having a heart attack or something.”
“We felt it too,” said Michael.
“All of you?”
The three men went inside and the four of them talked in the kitchen.
“What was it?” said Peter. He noticed the bruise on David’s arm. “Ah God. Are you alright?” David said he was.
“And all of you conked out as well? Essie?” He looked to his wife.
“We all did, Peter. What was it?”
They shook their heads and shrugged.
“We didn’t see anything,” said Michael. “Did you Da?”
“No. Well, I was working on the Beetle. The filter’s all clogged up with shite and the bastard drained the oil out of it. No wonder it was selling so cheap. I thought it was fumes from it first that knocked me out.”
“I still feel dizzy,” said David.
“Me too,” said Michael.
“Turn on the radio, see if there’s anything on the news about it.”
Michael plugged the radio in but it didn’t come on.
“The electricity?” said Peter. He flicked the light-switch and turned on the tap which only spluttered for a moment. “Must’ve been lightning. Sky looks clear, I thought. Must’ve been a freak thing.”
“Maybe we should go and get checked out,” said Esther.
“Don’t be stupid now, Essie. Them doctors are waiting on something like that. Four of us, no medical card. Easy hundred and fifty for them. That’s where they get their big Alfa Romeos.”
“We’ll be okay,” said Michael to his mother. “Whatever it was it’s gone now.”
Peter went back to his shed and Michael and David went to their room to read and Esther went back to making the dinner for them all and they didn’t think much of it.
A little later, the boys checked their own phones and found them dead too, but they knew they were both almost fully charged. At dinner, they told their parents and Esther picked up the landline at the end of the table and the line was dead too. But it would all be okay, they told themselves, once someone fixed the phones and electricity, as they always had. Remember the storm in ‘97? This isn’t even a storm, just a freak thing. It’ll be back tomorrow. It’ll be grand.
Peter worked on the old car in his shed until evening and the boys read and went outside to play football and they didn’t see anything or anyone. When it got dark, they all went inside and lit candles and talked.
“Not missing much with that phone,” said Peter. “Gobshites from Wexford ringing to ask a million questions about engines, buy nothin’.”
“But why doesn’t me battery radio work?” said Esther. She was the most worried about everything. “That’s not electric.”
“Essie, I told you I don’t know. I don’t know why you keep asking.”
Esther tutted and said nothing more.
“At least it’s not winter,” said Peter. “In ’47, the drifts were ten feet high. You couldn’t get around in weather like that. A lot of the old people, they found them frozen sitting in front of their fireplaces. The ground was too hard to bury them until May. At least it’s a bit better these days.”
The others listened to his long story and then got tired. There was no point staying up late, doing nothing, unable to read by the dim light of the candle. As they went to bed, the boys looked out through the darkness from their front window and saw the full moon, bright and brilliant over the land, lighting up the nearby mountain. But that night where there should have been blinking red lights marking the position of the tall transmitter at the summit, there was only darkness. And there were no white, red or green lights that always showed where the jets flying high through the night were. In fact, there were no lights anywhere at all outside except for the moon and the stars.
The boys woke early. Their mother was in the kitchen, still worried.
“Where’s Da?” said Michael.
“He’s gone into town in the Beetle,” said his mother.
“The Toyota wouldn’t start.”
The Toyota was their “real” car, a big black beast that they could see still sitting in the back yard. They all knew the reason why it wouldn’t start was what happened the day before but they tried not to think about it.
After breakfast, Michael and David went up their narrow road for a walk as they always did now that they were on their summer holidays from secondary school. It was a pleasant day like the previous one, a little cold but with a clear blue sky. As they walked up the narrow twisting road with grass growing in the middle, the first things they noticed were the dead birds. There were dozens of them scattered all over the road. All their neighbours’ houses were in from the road, or at the end of long laneways and hidden by trees but still the boys knew something was wrong with those too. Everything was deathly silent. Everything was quiet here normally, far from the traffic and hustle and bustle of modern life, but this was different. There were no sounds of the traffic on the main road that intersected their little lane half a mile up the hill. There were no tractors in the fields, no birds singing, no dogs barking, nothing at all. Then they heard something. A clattering engine, coming their way. The green and bulbous shape of their father’s old Volkswagen Beetle appeared at the crest of the hill. As he got close they waved at him and then they saw their father’s face, pale and serious and awful. He stopped alongside them and told them to get in and took them the couple of hundred yards back home, the disgusting bumps as the wheels ran over the dead birds.
Their father didn’t speak until they were all back in the kitchen.
“What is it Peter?” said Esther.
“He wouldn’t tell us, said David. “Da, what is it?”
He looked at them all, white and gloomy, then leaned on the edge of the sink and looked out the window into the far fields.
“I’ve never seen any fucking thing like it,” he said.
“Like what, Da?”
“Is it all over the country, all over the world?” He was talking to himself, still in shock. Then he realised and looked at them again and for the first time in their lives the boys saw their father cry. All three gathered around him and comforted him and after a while he spoke again.
“They’re dead. They’re all dead.”
Now, the others went pale and quiet too.
“What do you mean?” said Esther, on the verge of tears.
“The streets in town, they’re… there’s bodies… all over everywhere.”
Now Esther started to cry.
“Dead from what, Da?” said Michael. “Is it something to do with what happened to us yesterday?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything, son.”
He never called either of them “son” before. That was when Michael started to cry and went to sit beside his mother on the sofa in the corner. After a couple of minutes, they all calmed and Esther spoke.
“Maybe it’s not everyone, Peter. You’re acting like everyone in the world is gone. Nothing would do that, not even one of those big bombs they have.”
“I only know what I saw, sure.” His voice was stern. He was not prepared to give any of them false hope. “All I know is I saw cars crashed and stopped in the road and bodies all over the footpaths. All over the place, everywhere.”
“We can’t stay here, Da,” said David. “We have to go somewhere and get help.”
“We’ll go and see Mammy, that’s what we’ll do,” said Essie hopefully. The boys’ grandmother lived an hour’s drive to the north.
“I don’t know.” said Peter. “It’d be a long drive for the Beetle. Might break down.”
“Daddy, we have to go and see if she’s okay,” said David. And then for the first time they asked themselves, silently, why they had been spared.
At eleven the family set out in the green Beetle. Peter drove along the narrow country roads toward the mountain. They saw only a couple of cars stalled or crashed, the intact bodies slumped over and they saw that Peter was right. But they didn’t cry or even react much, they all just looked. And when they got to the mountain and looked down at all the land they could see huge plumes of smoke in the distance where jets had crashed and apart from that it was all quiet and dead down there too. Still they didn’t cry because they knew it couldn’t be like that everywhere. And when they got past the mountain and to the main road and the dual carriageway and they found it clogged with lorries and cars and had to go around, back to the countryside, that was when they started to realise it would not be okay.
What destroyed everything was when they drove through a quaint little town, medieval walls still standing in the centre, marked proudly with signs. That was filled with bodies like everywhere, but then they passed the primary school and saw a hundred little bodies all in the same dark blue uniform and all of them except Peter began to scream and cry and he just drove on until they calmed down.
“I told you what it was like. There’s no-one left.”
They saw three living people on the journey. As they left the town, Peter swerved to avoid an old woman walking in the street, confused and spectral. He didn’t stop. Then they saw a little girl in a field but she ran from the car and Peter stopped but she had disappeared. Then, a teenage boy stood in his house’s yard and Peter stopped and asked the boy if he needed help but the boy said no and they drove on.
By the time they’d gone the rest of the way and seen the bodies, all the young and old and mothers with children and babies, they’d forgotten why they’d even bothered to go on the journey and they knew that Esther’s mother was dead. But still the green car stopped in front of her little house, almost as deep out in the countryside as theirs. After he turned off the engine they sat in silence until Peter spoke.
“Will I go in?”
Esther cheered up for a moment.
“Go on, Peter. Knock at the front door and see. There’s still a chance.”
They watched him walk up the path in the middle of the lawn and knock on the door. Nothing. But still, Granny was old and a bit deaf. Peter opened the tall iron gate to the left side of the house and disappeared into the backyard. Then he came back and didn’t say but they knew.
“Michael, come on and help me. Good lad.”
Michael just opened the door and followed his father while David and his mother cried together.
As they put the last shovel of earth in her grave in the yard, Peter spoke to his son as Michael was crying, blubbering loudly, unable to contain himself in any way.
“I know this was hard, Michael. Michael, listen. David and your mother, it’ll take them a long time to get used to this. You and me, we’re going to have to look after them for a while. You understand what I mean?”
Michael wiped his tears and listened to his father.
“Look, there’s no food being delivered to the shops now, nothing like that anymore. We’re going to have to go back to being self-sufficient. You know what I mean? We can live off the food we find for a while, but we’re going to have to go back to farming, like I used to do before I met your mother. I’ll teach you and David everything but you need you to look out for them whenever I can’t.”
“I don’t know if I can, Daddy. There’s too much…”
“Yeah, but sure that’s the way it always is. It’s what World War Two and the Holocaust and all that was like, but sure everyone got past that, with the EU and everything, bastards as they were. We’ll have to look after Michael and your mother, there’s no two ways about it. On the way home, we’ll pick up all the food and things and after that we can start planning other things, alright David?”
“It’s everyone, isn’t it Da?”
“It’s not everyone but don’t think about the rest. Listen to me. Don’t think about them. If anyone wants help we’ll do what we can but we’ll have to think about only ourselves now, for a good long time. Just think of us. Good man.”
When they went back to the car, Esther had calmed a little and asked them to get her mother’s prayer book from beside her bed and Peter went around the back again and came back with the book and then they left.
On the way back, still only in the afternoon, they stopped their noisy little car outside shops and Peter and Michael took cans of beans and bottles of water and lemonade and took only a few things that would go off quickly - meat and milk and cakes. Anything that would stay for a long time, they made sure to get a lot of - honey, sealed fruitcakes, anything in a tin. They raided a pharmacy and took vitamin tablets that they hoped would make up for any shortcomings in their new diets. Bandages and disinfectant. Cold medicines. Whenever they took anything, they always left some packets for any other survivor that wanted them, sometimes reluctantly, but they couldn’t even take everything they wanted in the little car so it didn’t matter much. They stopped and found a couple of rifles in old farmhouses, though Peter already had a shotgun at home so he left them. Anything that could be of use they took. They looted far from home so that they could rely on the town close to them still being stocked when they ran low. And all the way along, David and his mother just stared out the window and didn’t speak. Sometimes Peter had to pull the car over to cry but he soon composed himself. When they got home they unloaded everything and afterward sat in their kitchen for a long time, thinking.
Things got easier as the weeks passed, for David and his mother at least. Peter and Michael’s first job was to rip up their electric water pump and build an old-fashioned well over it. They looked far and wide for living farm animals and were surprised when it seemed that only about one out of every twenty animals survived, far more than the proportion of people, and soon they had a nice herd of cattle and a couple of horses to help with the farmwork. They let them all graze in the nearest grassy field then went to work trying to grow crops in the bigger fields. They looked for old farm equipment, tractors that could still start, for seeds and fertiliser and manure but they knew their first crop would probably not turn out well. They planted long rows of carrots and potatoes and built a greenhouse for tomatoes in their garden. Esther and David looked after the vegetables and they enjoyed their work. It was a hot summer and Peter and one of the boys would go and raid whatever they could find from local shops and stores and keep it all for the winter, but they had to avoid the towns while the bodies rotted and fouled the Earth with their stench.
It was a bad winter, but they survived still with their wood-burning stove to keep them warm. In spring Peter taught the boys how to shoot and they found a cache of shotgun cartridges in a neighbour’s house and could go hunting. They never saw anyone near the house but when they went into town sometimes they would see a survivor and help them out with food or company for a while. Peter even made an effort to toughen up Esther by having her keep a knife handy in case any bandits or criminals showed up. She laughed at it and Peter got mad so she promised to try her best.
Then, as the months turned to years, they knew there was no help coming from anywhere or anyone and they still lived as they always had, still together, still away from the world. Sometimes, a vicious dog would appear in their fields and the boys would have to scare it away. The bird population quickly rebounded and they built a scarecrow, a disgusting facsimile of a man that always reminded them of a corpse.
They ran out of places to find fuel for their tractor and their car, but still they built a cart and went on. The survivors in the big towns started to talk of a great city being built, far to the north, but Peter was convinced that the survivors were raving and insane, like people in the concentration camps thinking God would save them.
There were fat times and lean times and the boys wanted to leave and strike out on their own and find the city the people were talking about but they knew they never could.
The ordeal was hardest on Esther. After a long time, she saw the boys grow into men and the fields of crops and saw how different it all still was in the towns and elsewhere. She realised and saw the truth. After years of asking God why it had happened, cursing Him for His cruelty, she started to thank Him for saving her family, maybe the only family left on all of His Earth.
It was like this in few places. For the rest, the grief subsided but the desolation and hunger remained. No electricity. No phones. No computers. No communication. No outside world. No security. And for the majority, no hope. Scavenging. The cars wouldn’t work. Back to walking. Back to bicycles. Avoiding the bodies and the diseases and the flies. Avoiding the fires. Avoiding where planes crashed. Avoiding old factories that exploded and leaked out chemicals. Avoiding the others until there was no choice. Shivering. Crying. Sleeping. Starving. Dying. Rotting. Stepped over by the others.
Soil blew across roads. Weeds and grass sprouted. The bodies of people and animals slowly became skeletons, slowly becoming back what they once were. The winters killed more. Ice expanded in every gap it could find. Paint peeled. Iron rusted. Rubber disintegrated. Food rotted. Walls collapsed. Roofs caved in. Windows fell from their frames and shattered into a million pieces. Paper and cloth slowly eaten by rats or weather. Ivy and moss and grass and trees grew everywhere. Foundations subsided. The wind whipped and the rain lashed. Each gust destroyed more pieces of the world, pieces that would never be rebuilt.
And the things people couldn’t see. The ideas, the dreams, the relationships, the love, all of it lost in minds decomposing in the sun. The memories, the opinions, the thoughts, the books and movies and music and TV shows, the way they spoke, the way they dressed, the way they walked, the way they saw the world, the things that made them human. They rotted and their families rotted and their houses rotted and they were no more.
The living coped as best they could. Scavenging and hunting. Singing songs around campfires from Before, about Before. They called what had happened, whatever it was, the Blast. They debated why it had happened, but there was no reason. It just had, and they couldn’t accept it, so they all made up their own reasons, whatever suited them. Terrorists, the Americans, Mother Earth, God, Satan. They turned back to religion, praying again. Back to superstition. It made them feel better. It let them lie to themselves that there was still justice in the world, that death was foreseeable, measurable, always “over there”, always the other fella. It let them live. It was how they coped. And when the first babies were born, some of their parents taught them about Before, and some didn’t. The world was different once. The world was good. All was right.
There was always one sight they remembered over everything else, one horror that glided over all and burned into their living brains. An old car someone had gotten to work, somehow. Seeing him being dragged from it. Seeing it disappear down the street through the city. Hearing a crash and a scream and the flames. Finding an old woman grasping a pen, writing a half-finished letter to her son in America, her head down on her kitchen table as if she had dozen off. A cannibal eating a child and begging for his life, still chewing as he spoke, still chewing as they sunk their blades into the bastard’s neck. Seeing your mother shot for the few blackberries she held in her dainty, stained hand.
Then, finally, as they thought their hearts could harden no more, they found a leader to look up to. Farms. Rounding up surviving animals. Finding seeds and tools and equipment. Hard labour. Clearing out buildings to live in. Burning bodies. “We can do this if we work together! Help each other out!” It worked on some of them. For the rest, cynicism. “We’d do better on our own.” Peeling away from their groups to make their own. The sound of tutting. The shaking of heads. Winter came again. Almost the same as before. Almost. But a little better. Better enough for them to try again the next year. And the year after. Then, the inevitable. Attacks. Packs of dogs. They called them “Blastwolves” now. And the bandits. Dozens of hungry bandits, attacking, stealing, threatening, and recruiting. Always recruiting from among the cynical and the hopeless and the hungry.
The fight back. The good people protected by guards with scavenged guns. The bad people now scared, threatened, giving up hope of criminal lives, returning to the fold. The fight back went too far. Then, laws. Basic laws. Later, complex ones. A return to democracy. A return to freedom. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear. “We’ll do our best.”
The yields got better. The work less laborious. Horses pulled carts and ploughs. The hungry were fed. The sick were treated as well as they could be. The elderly were looked after. Trade caravans began to operate, helping people outside of the group. A safe place for children now. Safe for everyone. It wasn’t perfect, but it was getting better all the time. “Isn’t it marvellous what we’ve done? It’s almost as good as it was before!”
They did their best.
“I hate killing deer. They’re so quiet,” said Kevin in his low voice.
“Yeah well, do it quickly,” said Frank.
Frank turned away as his friend took his bow from his shoulder and readied an arrow, aiming it down into the pit where the doe lay, crying at the broken leg she lay on. She squealed as the arrow hit her square in the neck and went limp, falling on the sticks and leaves that had acted as camouflage for the pit before she fell in. Kevin shot another arrow into her back to make sure, then tossed the bow aside and jumped into the deep hole.
“How do you get out?” asked Frank.
In one corner of the pit were several large sections of an ash tree. Kevin piled the logs up into a crude staircase. Frank stood looking down at him. Kevin took hold of the shaft of the arrow in its neck, and pulled. The arrow snapped. He got the other arrow out easily it up out of the pit.
“It’s trading day, isn’t it?” said Kevin.
“Yeah. This should get us something from the caravans.”
“Will you be with me all day today?”
“Yeah, don’t think I’ll go into town today. All the others will be around the streets. Might go to the caravans, see what they have.”
Frank helped his friend haul the heavy carcass up the logs, almost slipping on the wet wood. On the flat ground above, Kevin began to cut the deer’s head off with a knife. Frank had to look away.
“Jesus Christ, Kevin. I think I’ll become a vegetarian.”
Kevin didn’t answer and tossed the deer’s head away and began to cut the legs.
“Why don’t you check the other set of pits, Frank? They’re over there.”
He pointed in the general direction of a nearby clearing. Frank walked away, embarrassed that he wasn’t able to handle the blood and guts like Kevin was.
It was coming into the fortieth summer since the Blast and not much had changed in the forest. The pine trees still had their branches far above the forest floor that was coated in their needles and cones. The dew still fell in the evenings, wetting the grass and the weeds in the undergrowth. The rabbits nibbling everywhere, wary of foxes or eagle eyed, hungry young men. The smell of the soft moist earth and the sap and the wild garlic and the sweet coconut aroma of the yellow furze. A walk through the forest meant the sounds of dozens of paws and shrieks of alarm and flappings of fearful wings. Frank and Kevin lived in a tent they had found and they loved the forest. They lived near a shallow stream. Frank liked to look into the clear water and think. He could hear it now as he walked toward the clearing filled with pits that Kevin had dug to trap little animals.
Four of the five pits were still covered over with their leaves and sticks. Frank approached the one that had collapsed expecting to find a rabbit, their usual meat source. Instead, at the bottom of the hole was a fox. Its red fur glowed in the sunlight. The fox tried to run but found itself in another corner of the pit and began to dig.
“Kevin, there’s something here,” shouted Frank. “A fox. What’ll I do?”
When he heard no response, he pushed back a little through the trees and was about to shout again when he felt the most intense pain he’d ever felt, cutting through the back and sides of his leg like a bear trap. He screamed and fell forward. The pain kept coming. Growling and snarling from behind. At first he thought it was the fox, but he knew foxes were not that vicious. He tried to turn himself over, but his leg wouldn’t let him. The pain abated for a second and he caught a glimpse of the large golden paw and yellow furry side of the creature they called a Blastwolf, a descendant of what was once a golden Labrador.
“Kevin!” he cried.
The dog’s grip loosened for a moment. Frank flipped himself over and pushed the dog away with his other foot. He felt blood pouring down the inside of his trouser leg and looked the Blastwolf in its blue eyes as it came closer.
“Wolf bastard!” was all Frank could muster and took up a log just within arm’s reach. He smacked the wolf bastard in his left eye, pulverising it to a red goo. The beast fell backwards, stunned and whining. It got up again, blood trailing down its golden face, baring its pointed teeth. Frank saw Kevin’s ragged shoes through the undergrowth, running. An arrow pierced the dog’s back. The paws still advanced, slow and stumbling. Frank looked into the blue eyes again, now fighting to stay open, took the log up and hit the beast again on the top of its head. The dog collapsed beside him, breathing its last warm breath in his face as Kevin ran up and plunged his knife into its neck. Frank barely managed a nod of thanks to Kevin before everything went dark.
The words were muffled and echoed and bounced around in Frank’s skull. He knew his eyes were open but everything was still dark. Suddenly, he realised could see, just not very well. He was back in their tent, lying on his side on the rags that were his blanket. Three shapes were looking in his direction. One must’ve been Kevin, but there were two unfamiliar vague forms.
“Is he awake?” said someone.
The scene came into focus. Kevin sat just outside the tent’s entrance looking in. Kneeling on the ground beside Frank was a man with greying brown hair and a bushy beard. He looked into Frank’s eyes.
“Looks like it,” said the man with a Scottish accent. “Shock. He just fainted. The body does that in times of danger, to protect itself. Wouldn’t’ve been much good if that Blastwolf had still been around to drag you off to its lair though. Aye, it’s a stupid thing in ways, the human body.”
‘What the hell is he talking about?’ thought Frank. Then he felt a stinging twinge as disinfectant hit the wound.
Frank thought he was still delirious when he looked down and saw her kneeling behind him, dressing the bite wound on his left leg that was now the most elevated part of his body. Her hair was as black as a burned tree trunk, yet her skin was porcelain, cleaner and whiter than he’d ever seen. She had a little nose and small green eyes and wore glasses with thin black frames. She was dressed in a white t-shirt under a brown leather jacket and tight-fitting blue trousers that looked pre-Blast, and extremely well kept. She had the healthy look and build of girls from the Capital. Kevin approached Frank’s side. The Scottish man moved out of the way to let him in. The girl continued tending his wound.
“You’re back in the tent,” said Kevin.
“I know. Who…”
The older man chimed in.
“You’re lucky it’s trading day, lad. Any other and I wouldn’t’ve been within twenty miles of here. I’m Ken, and this is my daughter Lauren, or Laur as I call her.”
“Hi,” said the girl, applying some cotton wool and wrapping a roll of bandage around his leg. It didn’t even hurt that much anymore.
“Hello. Are you…”
“We’re with the trading caravan,” said Ken. “We were down at the junction. Your friend ran to us after you were bitten. We carried you back.”
Frank looked at Kevin and smiled as thanks.
“Laur’ll be staying with you for a day or two to make sure your wound doesn’t get infected. And don’t worry, there aren’t any more of those Blastwolves around. The guards with us killed a den full of them after your friend told us. Little pups they were. Bit cruel, but it’s for the best.”
“Don’t mention it, lad.”
Ken left, taking his doctor’s bag with him. Lauren sat back and sighed, as did Kevin. She moved up to Frank’s left side, opposite Kevin, and Frank lay on his back and winced as the bandage moved a little. Frank saw her father had left her a small bag of supplies.
“Thank you, both. That wolf… just came out of nowhere.”
“They tend to,” said Lauren.
Frank trembled a little still and tried to relax. He looked out through the tent’s open flap and noticed a second, smaller tent had been pitched a little away from theirs. It looked much newer and cleaner than theirs.
“That your tent… Laur?” asked Frank.
“Dad got it for me in the Capital,” said Lauren. “That’s where we came from, of course. I won’t be going back with him for a couple of days now.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” said Frank. “It’s my fault.”
“No it isn’t. You didn’t get bitten on purpose, silly.”
She smiled and looked down, letting her raven hair fall on his hand. It was soft and tickled him and that was when he realised he was in love. He said nothing more. Neither did Kevin. After an awkward moment of silence, she gathered her things.
“Well, if you’re in any more pain, I’ll be just over there,” she said and went back to her own tent.
When it was dark, Kevin made a fire with the crude iron firesteel Frank had given him ownership of when they’d met. He hit the metal with a small sharp stone as he held the implement near a small bundle of twigs and dry grass. After a few minutes, it caught fire and as usual Frank helped by throwing on the logs, limping and walking slowly and dismissing Kevin’s offers of assistance. They cooked a meal of wolfmeat and Kevin went to ask Lauren if he would like some but she was already asleep. It was a warm evening so they let the fire die out.
Later, Frank and Kevin lay in their beds made from ragged blankets in their tent, as they always did.
“Thanks for earlier, Kevin.”
“That Blastwolf wasn’t that big anyway.”
“He got the jump on me though. I owe you.”
Their conversations were often punctuated by silences. Kevin talked very little, which was one of the many things that Frank admired about him.
“What do you think of Laur?” said Frank.
“Yeah. Did you go back and check on the fox?”
“When we were carrying you back, the guards saw it. They said there’s someone in the Capital who breeds animals or something. They gave me a reward for finding it.”
“What?” said Frank bolting upright, though it had little effect in the dark tent.
“A thousand trading units.”
“But…I didn’t think they could pay out that much,” said Frank. “The most I ever got was fifty, and that was for a dozen rabbits.”
“Did you buy us supplies?”
“Enough for a fortnight. Still have a lot of the money left over.”
Frank lay back down and smiled and thought of Lauren and their new fortune. Maybe it was time. Maybe he could leave the past behind now. Maybe it would all be okay.