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   Chapter 1 What We Found

After Grace By MatheusHMacedo Characters: 12739

Updated: 2018-01-05 17:11


Their world was crumbling. As the four of us made our way through the woods in the rusty pickup, I watched Joseph in the passenger's seat as he studied the passing skyline on the horizon. I knew what he was thinking. It was the same thing all the adults in our community thought when they saw what was once a great city falling to nothing in the distance; he was wishing he could be back there, back in a time when the buildings were full of people—longing for a life of modest luxury. All I saw when I looked to the distance was the concrete sketch of a life I would never know. I knew better than to cry about it. Unlike most others, I had a safe place to call home. Without it, I would be just another nameless skeleton in the dirt.

"If I'm gonna come on more supply runs with you guys, " I said, breaking the silence, "can I have a weapon?"

Damen let out a satisfied chuckle. Even though he was fourteen, only four years younger than me, we had almost never spoken. "Hunters get weapons, " he smiled. "You're not a hunter."

"I could be one, " I told him.

"No you can't."

"'Cause I'm a girl?"

"Lindsey's a girl and she's a hunter, " he said.

"Then why?" I asked, my voice teetering with urgency. It was a question that had been on my mind for a long time, but only now did I speak it aloud. Damen's mouth lingered open, an answer locked and loaded in his throat.

"That's enough, " said Harry as he made a sharp left into the hidden trail in the woods. He was Damen's father and only spoke when something was bothering him. We pulled into camp and stopped with a jolt. I spilled out of the truck as fast as I could, hoping I wouldn't have to deal with any more of Damen's smug looks.

As Joseph and I pulled our packs from the bed of the pickup, we were instantly mobbed. A young mother and her husband saw the cans of food and baby formula in my hand and hugged each other. People had very little expectations from these runs, it had been two full decades since the war, nearly every place carrying canned goods had been ransacked years prior. Joy isn't a strong enough word for the feeling I got when we found the hidden gas station behind a wall of Sugar Maples at the side of an old forgotten road. We found canned meals of almost every variety of almost flavor.

"We're gonna be okay this winter, " I told the weary young woman as she wiped a tear from her face. I was suddenly swallowed into a warm hug.

"Thank you, " she whispered. My life was made of such moments. When the women from the group would show me comfort and give me the kind of attention usually reserved for their children. Before she was even gone I already knew my night would consist of me lying in bed, replaying that moment in my head until I fell asleep. As she pulled back her eyes grew concerned.

"Are you alright?" she asked, looking at my swollen lip.

"I'm okay, " I said with a smile. I had almost forgotten it was there. I licked at the wound and tasted the sharp tang of iron, it was still bleeding. She returned my smile and rejoined her husband.

There had been a little girl in the gas station when we waked in. She lay on the floor as if she'd gone to sleep, three empty cans surrounding her. Her skin had been mummified. She had been dead for years.

"Ate herself to death, " Harry had said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Go too long without eating then gorge yourself... Stomach explodes, " he told me. Damen came running in and without hesitation he knelt down over the dead girl and began putting his hands in the pockets of her dress. The body rocked back and forth, blond hair spilling across her wrinkled face as he tore his way through her.

"What're you doing!" I yelled.

"Checking for supplies, what's it look like?" Before I knew it I was putting my hands around the back of his collar and pulling him away. He fell back to the floor, his shirt tearing at the neck. As fast as he could, Damen rushed up to his feet and threw a punch, hitting me square in the mouth.

His eyes burned into mine. I lowered my gaze. I could hear Damen laugh as Joseph led me outside.

The rain which had just minutes before been a drizzle, was now coming down as a steady silver stream. "Go back to the truck, wait for us there, " Joseph had told me. He was the only person who really talked to me. I wondered why. Why him and not the others? What did he see when he looked at me?

"It's not right the way he was—"

"I know, " he said. "Grace... why're you here?"

"I wanna help."

"You want to be a hunter, " he said.

"So?"

"So..." he began, but the next words seemed to get stuck just before they reached his lips. He looked at me as if he already knew the answer to a question he hadn't asked yet. "Go, please, " he said again. I went back to the truck and waited for them. Damen has been more useful on this trip than I, that thought alone was enough to knock all the life out of me until we returned to camp.

Some of the teenage girls who had come to see what the fuss was about stopped short when they saw me unpacking the truck. I pretended not to notice them. "Want to get ready?" Joseph asked. "We only have our first act, I know the narrative doesn't exactly have to be cohesive for it to be entertaining, but I like to bring a certain degree of professionalism—"

"Why do they always do that?" I asked.

"Who?"

"The girls, the boys, everyone."

He looked up and saw them, the girls met his eyes and quickly walked off. "Maybe they're jealous you get to come with us on these runs now."

"They treat Lindsey like a hero, " I said.

"Come on, we got work to do." Joseph and I walked across camp to the armory where we stored our supplies. Mike smiled and opened the gate when he saw us. The armory was wrapped in sharp spikes of wood to keep intruders from rushing inside."Big catch today?" Mike asked, taking our packs.

"Pretty big, " Joseph said.

"Substantial's the word I'd use, " I said. Mike held his hand out, I slapped it as I'd always done when we saw each other. He smiled and closed the gate. "Don't worry about those girls, " Joseph began as we moved to his tent. "The kids love you at the Story Circle, isn't that all that matters?"

"Some of those girls were in the Story Circle not too long ago. It's like as soon as they turn old enough to have cliques they outgrow me.

Is it because I don't have parents? 'Cause I'm not the only one."

"The sun will be going down soon." Joseph said, leading the way, "better hurry."

I followed, unsure of what to make of his non-answers.

#

A cool breeze filled the night, cooler than what was comfortable. The elders said it was probably the end of September, pretty soon the weather would turn frigid, dangerous. Over the summers, everyone worked the farm, though it's really more of a series of small gardens.

Autumn was time for the harvest, we would celebrate to keep morale up but everyone knew that the coming months would be the hardest to survive, and some of us wouldn't. We relied solely on the hunters and runners since we couldn't use the land.

The children gathered and sat in a semicircle in front of what we called a stage. It wasn't more than a few planks of wood laid neatly on the ground. I waited for my cue as Joseph began reading the story he'd just begun to write a few days earlier.

Finally, Joseph introduced the Evil Queen and I jumped out from behind the thin wall we'd erected to serve as a backstage. The children gasped when they saw me. I bared my teeth and hissed as they booed. I hid most of my face under a black veil I had cut from old cloth. I danced and spun as I crossed to the other end of the stage. Once there, I quickly ripped off the veil. Joseph introduced the Good Princess, who'd slept most of the afternoon away and was only now waking up. I rustled my hair and peeked my head out, this time to applause and laughter.

"Mommy, it's the princess!" I heard one of the girls call as I moved aimlessly across the stage and waited for my next cue. Something stirred to my right. I turned to see the other teenagers of the camp filing out into the woods. Some of them snickered when they saw me, hair a mess, waiting to entertain children. I ignored them as always, but when Oliver appeared behind the others, laughing, my throat closed. He had been the only boy to ever call me beautiful.

Looking back, I felt like an idiot for falling for his cheesy one liners. But it wasn't his compliments that made me want to kiss him, it was simply the fact that he was looking at me.

The illusion didn't last long. As soon as I told him I wouldn't do more than kiss he told me I couldn't join the others at the lake like he had promised.

"Erhm, good princess?" Joseph called. I turned and saw him waiting for me. Sorry I mouthed and stepped out. "Oh what a terrible mother I have!" I said and stomped my foot. The children laughed even though it wasn't funny. I began to say my next line but there a commotion coming from the crowd. One by one, the parents began to pick up their kids and hurry in the same direction. Joseph put down his script and we rushed off stage. The crowd had all gathered around the medic tent.

People whispered even though there was no real reason to. "Tom came back, " someone said. "He had a little boy with him. They were covered in blood."

"Tom's here?" Joseph asked, a tone of sharp surprise in his voice. I narrowed my eyes at him, struck by the fact that he was focusing on the wrong end of the sentence. "Excuse me, step aside please, " Mrs. Whitmore said as she rushed past me. She was the nurse. Whenever someone got hurt, she and Doctor Hamilton would be the ones called. She opened the flap to the tent and I saw the hand of a small boy lying on the table, blood covered him like a dark red blanket.

Tom stood at the corner with his arms at his hips. If there was any one person living in the group I still didn't know, it was Tom. I had never spoken to him, he had never even looked at me as far as I could remember. But then, we never really had a chance to meet. He was constantly coming in and out of camp and, when he stayed, it was only for a day or two. He usually only came back when we were about to move to a new location, something we did every year to avoid being found by the Vesp. I had never seen him come back with another person before.

After about half an hour, people began to disperse. One by one they went back to their tents, whispering about what they saw, scared by what it could mean. Joseph and I sat on the empty stage, waiting for the doctor's tent to open again.

"I've never seen so much blood before, " I said.

"We haven't seen any violence like that in a long time." I knew Joseph was talking about the attack which had killed my mother the day I was born.

"Where does he go?" I asked. Joseph shook his head slightly but didn't answer. "Why are you scared of him?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're afraid, " I said, noticing the way he had started picking at his nails, like he did before going out on stage.

"We're all afraid. If Tom found that boy nearby, it could mean we'll have to move soon, could mean we wandered into Vesp territory without even realizing it."

"We can't move in the winter, " I said, "we'll never make it."

"That's why I'm afraid."

"You were scared when you heard his name, " I said. He didn't say anything. Tom burst out of the tent, moving across camp and through the treeline toward the river. Doctor Hamilton stepped out behind him, his clothes ruined red. He didn't follow Tom, he only stood there, watching as people sauntered back toward him. I was the first to reach.

"Doctor Hamilton?" I began, "how's the—"

"He didn't make it, " he said and turned his attention to the other members of the community. "We'll have a service for him in the morning. The doctor went back inside, leaving the rest of us to wonder in frustration.

Joseph moved beside me. "Come on, I'll walk you."

"What about Tom?"

Joseph said nothing. I moved past him and crossed into the woods, toward the riverbank.

"Grace, don't, " Joseph called behind me. I kept going, my feet crunched dry leaves as I walked, winter was closer than I had realized.

Tom was kneeling over the river as he tried to wash the blood off his jacket. He hadn't heard me coming. I opened my mouth before realizing I wasn't really sure why I was there.

"I'm sorry, " were the only words I could think to say. He turned to me but couldn't see my face in the dark, and then, as if the sky itself was waiting for this moment, the clouds above us broke and the moon covered the bank in a white glow.

"Grace?" he asked. He recognized me.

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