I can see how losing his other half has settled onto Michael’s body. His brown hair is wild and sticking up in all directions over his head while his shoulders slump under the weight of loss and he takes quick glances at John. As if John can feel his father’s insecurity, he turns and heads into his arms. He snuggles down cross-legged between his father’s legs with his back pressed against his chest and looks up at me.
“Have you guys had anything to eat today, John?” I ask, the mother in me only wanting to make this little boy smile. Both men look at each other, then at their backpacks.
“We planned to stop at the stream back there and fish.” Michael points to his pack and I see a pole folded and strapped to the front. I look over at John and see the hollow skin around his cheeks and the look of hunger in his eyes at the mention of food.
“Stay here and I’ll be right back.” I take off before they answer and move in the complete opposite direction of the Nest towards the outhouse and loop back around the very edge of the woods towards home. My heart aches for this little family, but I am not sure I want us to join forces. I really just want to give them some supplies and send them on their way. I grab a jumbo box of beef jerky, a large bag of trail mix, some bottled water and loop the way back around. The entire group’s mood instantly lifts as I enter the clearing and I feel better knowing I can help them in some way.
We sit around the campfire in silence as they stuff themselves; Michael asks questions about my life before this. I give him a basic story, nothing really before the age of eighteen, and how I joined the Air Force, had kids, got married, and was still trying to find my place in the world. At twenty-five years old I still feel like a child myself trying to navigate this crazy world. They both nod their heads and it feels good to speak to another human being.
Rowan tells his own story and it’s shorter than mine. He is thirty-one, no kids, no wife, and just lost a girlfriend who was a nurse: one of the first to be struck down on the front lines against the virus. His relationship with his parents long ago lost to some childhood feud. Then, his sister went to the hospital and survival has consumed his life since.
I look at Michael fiddling with a stick and some fishing line. He mummers about his wife and how they used to work together at the observatory, looking down at his son in his lap. I glance at John as he leans against his father, his eyes starting to drift. I look back at Rowan staring at the sky and realize this whole family has been torn apart by loss and our common ground binds us together. I decide to let them join me and my heart blossoms at the prospect of the help these two could provide me. Always an optimist, I could get Peter and my kids out while providing shelter and supplies in return. I stand up to invite them into the Nest when John moves and gets up as well.
“Dad, I have to use the bathroom,” John says.
Michael glances at me. “Do you have a certain spot you use?”
I nod giving him directions to the outhouse they passed on the way in back up the path. I want to offer to take John when Michael slings his rifle and begins limping along, but I bite my tongue in silence. We are all still strangers. I have a sudden urge to call out to them and my voice breaks the peaceful silence.
“When you guys get back, I’ll take you to my home okay? A warm place to stay with food, water, and I’m pretty sure there are a few action figures lying around you can play with, John,” I yell.
The little boy’s face breaks into a smile and his long hair bounces as he jumps up and down in excitement. Michael gives me a grateful smile and he limps away with John bouncing around him in circles. I turn to look at Rowan and see him already glaring down at me. His eyes are hard and where I thought the beard at first was a hipster look, I realize my mistake now and I can finally see it. The way he holds his body and how the entire time I told my story he watched every little movement I made. He must be Special Forces, and I wonder who sent him out and for what. The veteran bond doesn’t trump trust in the apocalypse, apparently.
I motion for him to grab his stuff and reach for John’s and Michael’s packs. Rowan’s voice appears right behind my left ear as he speaks in a low voice, “Drop it. I’ll grab them.” Steel. That’s what his voice sounds like as cold fear shoots through me and I foolishly realize my rifle is still strung on my back.
My hand moves to my thigh where my handgun rests and I turn around to look at Rowan. His eyes are different shades of dark green; they wrap around a slightly large pupil and hazel splashes with golden freckles sprinkle his irises. Most would see beauty and strength, but all I can see is a cold, dangerous forest hidden as some beast stalks in the shadows looking out. Neither of us says another word and I open my eyes wide with fear as I hear the distinct chirping begin. Rowan reacts quickly to my face, knowing it’s not him who scares me, and spins around immediately grabbing the rifle and asking me what’s wrong.
I can only picture John’s face as he showed his dad the little chocolate chips he found in his trail mix, so happy and innocent, like only a child can be. Rowan yells at me to answer him.
“We have to go now,” I blurt out. There are a few times the Cyclits have come through here, but I was always on my guard. Now, I am taken by surprise and not paying attention to the forest around me realizing the dire mistake I have made.
Rowan yells for Michael and John while I quickly grab their packs and brush leaves over where we sat. Rowan pulls on his shoes and follows my lead, spreading leaves around where they slept last night helping me only until I start moving towards the Nest. I know I’ll have to do it before he even makes a move; I can feel his force. I could see it from the look in his eye when I was telling my story that he was going to be a fighter, a man who makes the decisions and is followed. I swing around at the crunch of his steps just as he reaches for my elbow to stop me. He is taken by surprise at my sudden pivot and his eyebrows rise quickly before lowering down as I swing the butt of my rifle into the side of his head and he blacks out.