The fire axe swung down in a wobbly arc and embedded itself into the log on the chopping block. Josh rolled his shoulders and moved his grip further down the red painted handle to lift axe head and log together for a second swing.
The axe dropped to the floor, with the log still wedged on the blade and he rushed to Holly’s side. “What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to be resting.”
He put his hand on the soft, swelling roundness of her belly, hidden by her baggy clothes but definitely there.
“I couldn’t sleep. I threw up again.”
“Vicky says it’s normal. Morning sickness.”
She nodded and he helped her sit on the edge of the chopping block. The scared child inside him threatened to overwhelm, but things were different now, he had to be a man.
He crouched in front of Holly and held her chilly hands. For a moment he wondered what he would have been doing at that moment, if things had been different. Playing computer games, going to school, the kinds of things fifteen year old boys did before the world ended.
Now, instead, he was chopping firewood for a third harsh winter at camp GenX. They’d thought that was funny, back in the beginning, when they’d given themselves the name. Generation X, now the last generation.
“I’m scared, Josh.” Holly said. “There was blood again.”
He pulled her head down onto his shoulder and stroked her hair. Once dyed blond, the light colour now clung only to the tips of the darker strands.
“It’s going to be fine. People have been having babies for millions of years. Vickie says your body has to adjust, and it’s no surprise it feels strange.” God, he wished he could believe his own words.
She let out a shaky breath and he kissed the side of her head. “You just need to eat well and rest, that’s all.”
“There’s barely any food left. I can’t let the younger ones go hungry.”
Josh pulled back and held her head in both hands. “Holly, damn it, you’re pregnant. You have to think of the baby first.”
She closed her eyes and nodded.
From the direction of the camp’s main building drifted the sounds of a truck engine.
“That’s Farley and Cat, come on.”
He helped Holly to her feet and kicked the half split log off the end of the axe.
They walked slowly back across the main yard of Camp GenX, formerly Camp Pinewood. What used to be a summer camp; a place of fun and escape, now formed a small island of humanity in an inhospitable world. Buried deep in the Canadian wilderness, they’d been isolated enough to avoid the events that left whole cities in ruins, the streets choked with the bodies of the dead.
They approached the compound where the long, potholed driveway ended in a square surrounded by utility buildings. A small crowd had already formed.
In the middle of the gathering stood a large box van. Farley, jumped down from the truck cab and a couple of the older boys moved forward to greet him with slaps on the back.
Josh left Holly with a couple of her friends and pushed through to the front.
“Farley,” he called.
The older lad raised his hand to acknowledge him.
From the far side of the truck, Farley’s little sister, Cat, climbed out and moved round to her brother’s side. Farley put his arm round her shoulder and Josh suddenly noticed how tired and drawn he looked.
“We tried. We searched every town for nearly forty miles. It’s all cleaned out. We went as far south as Prince George, but, there were people.”
The crowd of youngsters erupted into chatter.
“Will they help us?”
“Whoa, whoa. Shut up!” Farley held both hands up to quiet them down. “This was no happy families, for the greater good group. They had guns, and they weren’t looking for recruits. They took the few things we’d found. We’re on our own.”
Josh stepped forward from the ranks of the crowd. “Wait, are you saying there’s nothing?”
A ripple expanded out through the packed youths and then anarchy descended, with everyone trying to be heard. Farley backed up against the side of the truck.
“We found a few things at some farmhouses on the way back,” he mumbled. Some of the others opened up the back of the truck and rifled through the few cases of dried and canned goods; there was enough to last the camp a few weeks at the most.
“Well we have to send out more search parties,” someone said. “If you found things in houses then that’s where we should look; search every house.”
Another voice spoke up. “There’s no time. Winter’s coming. They should have tried harder.”
“What’s the use? We can’t live off pasta and beans alone, we’ll get sick,” added a third.
“Look, quiet down,” Farley said, trying to restore order.
Josh stood by his side fighting the urge to join the blame throwing.
“Quiet!” Farley shouted, but it was no use.
The crowd of teens, ranging in age from eleven to a couple who were nearly twenty kept jostling and arguing. Farley hugged his sister close to his side. Josh could tell he was waiting for the moment the group turned on him.
“Enough!” cried a voice from the rear of the compound.
Everyone fell silent.
“What are you, animals?”
A few muttered, “no.”
The group made space for Vickie as she approached. The few hints of faint lines around her eyes seemed to have deepened in the last few weeks as the resource crisis worsened. She swept her long braid over her shoulder and took a deep breath.
“I assume the situation is not good, but we must all keep level heads.”
She walked up to Farley and drew close enough for him to explain what was going on in hushed tones.
Josh watched the way she nodded every few seconds. After he finished she stepped back and turned to face the others.
“We must have food. Without it we will die. We all know this. We have no choice but to send out more search parties, but we will keep the area small, search those places we know we haven’t tried because they weren’t worth our attention before.”
“What if the snow comes early?”
“That is a chance we have to take, we have no choice. If we can find enough from houses and barns in the area then, with the few supplies from the gardens we may have enough.”
Josh stepped forward. “We have food on our doorstep,” he said in a low tone. “Plenty of food, it’s just you won’t see it.”
“Not now, Josh.”
“No, now is exactly the right time,” he snapped. “Paul, Farley, Ashton, you all know what I’m talking about, you’ve hunted before.”
“Josh stop, we’ve talked about this before. No hunting.”
“Why not? Huh? Tell me why. You’ve never really explained it before.”
“Josh it’s not—”
“Is it because you can’t see us as anything but children? Even though it’s been three years?”
Vickie’s eyes narrowed and she drew her shoulders back. “It’s too dangerous and we will not be doing it. My decision is final.”
Josh looked around for support, but so many of the assembled youngsters remembered being just ten or twelve and no matter how rebellious they’d been they were scared. Some deep part of them believed; Vickie was an adult and she would take care of them.
He turned back to her. “Even if we find enough supplies this winter, what about next winter?”
“We’re not kids any more. We need this, and you know it.” He shouldered his way through the crowd towards Holly. The weak autumn sun highlighted her pale skin. He hadn’t realised just how much weight she’d lost.
He took her clammy hands in his own. “I’m going to take care of you, I promise.”
Leaving her with her friends he marched across the camp towards one of the storage buildings, still clutching the fire axe.
Only Vickie had a key to the chunky padlock on the door of the gun store, but a few swings with the axe cleaved the plate from the door frame. He pulled it out of the way and opened the door.
A thick layer of dust coated the room inside; it hadn’t been disturbed since before the end.
Firearms hung from racks on each wall and shelving in the middle of the room held ammunition. Most of the guns were just air rifles; utterly useless except maybe if they needed to trick someone into thinking they were more heavily armed than they were. Three locked cupboards at one end held shotguns and hunting rifles.
Another few swings with the axe buckled the metal around one of the cupboard locks. He wrenched it open and lifted down one of the rifles.
“Put it down, Josh,” Vickie said behind him.
“Goddamn it Vickie, can’t you just let me do this? I need to do something.” His voice cracked and he thumped his fist against the dented metal cupboard.
She stepped forward, eased the gun from his hand and put it back into its space on the rack.
“You can do something, but not this. It’s too dangerous, I’m sorry. Now, do I need to lock you in your room until you’ve calmed down?”
He shook his head and she folded her arms across her chest as he walked out past her.
Most of the camp had followed Vickie over. She pointed and picked out two. “Louise, Jack?”
Two kids around thirteen stepped forward.
“I want you to stay here and make sure no one goes in there. If anyone tries, you come and get me, okay?”
They both nodded and Vickie lead the crowd, and Josh, back to the main buildings of the camp.
Josh played along for the time being. There was no chance of him getting to the rifles without being dumped in it by one of the other kids anyway.
They had to get the new latrines up before the ground became too hard to dig from the winter freeze, but no one chose to do more than their allotted shift. Josh offered to spend an hour or so digging and Vickie seemed to take it that he was working off the stress or imposing some self administered punishment.
Everyone left him to it and, after twenty minutes, he felt confident he was alone.
If he could just show Vickie what he could do, she would have to agree he was right.
He hoisted himself out of the hole and scurried across to the sports equipment store. The only lock on this building was a key code which everyone knew. A few strikes with his shovel broke the small padlock off the metal chest cabinet which held the archery equipment.
He lifted the recurve training bows off the top and found one of the compound bows at the bottom. It was hard not to be accurate with a compound.
Archery had always been one of his favourite camp activities but since things changed fun had mostly been packed away for better times.
He tried a couple of different length arrows against his arms looking for a good fit and then strapped a quiver belt around his waist. He stashed twenty arrows in it from the tubes stacked against one wall. Then, with the bow still in its case, tucked under his arm, he peered cautiously out.
The open ground between the buildings and the six foot perimeter fence remained silent and empty and he quickly stole out through one of the side gates.
Josh jogged through the woodland surrounding the camp for a few minutes and then slowed to a walk. The noise from the camp probably drove a lot of the large wildlife away so he knew it would be a while before he could hope to find tracks.
As soon as he was old enough to keep up, his father had taken him hunting every summer. He taught him to look for the tell tale signs of game and to be patient and stealthy.
After fifteen minutes of walking his eyes began to find spore, subtle tracks and tufts of hair caught in the bark of trees. Only a light breeze stirred the air in the treetops but down below the canopy the air was still. He stayed high on the side of the small valley, looking down towards the stream.
A little later he picked up a fresher trail leading down from the ridge towards the water. He took a moment to remove the bow from the case and set it up.
Holding the short bow by his side he followed the trail slowly down hill. The forest ahead grew lighter where the gap in the trees directly above the stream allowed more light through. Josh crouched beside the bole of a large oak tree and scanned between the trees for his prey.
A flash of movement drew his eye downstream. A young buck browsed new vegetation which had sprung up since the last winter in the space created by a fallen giant of a tree.
He watched silently for a moment, studying the lay of the land. To have any chance of a clean shot he needed to get a lot closer. Closing his eyes, he took a couple of deep breaths. If he got this right the camp would be filling up on venison stew tonight, including Holly, who needed it so badly.
The tracks followed a clear path through the brush; a regular game trail. He could move more silently down the path than through the undergrowth and if he could get to the water’s edge without alerting the deer to his presence, he might just be able to get the shot he needed.
After each painfully slow, deliberate step, he checked the deer still browsed peacefully before focusing on where to place his foot next. He wiped his palms on his jeans and readjusted his grip on the bow.
His heartbeat thundered in his ears and his thighs burned from the tension of maintaining perfect control of his body. Damn Vickie for not letting him take one of the rifles; he could have taken the buck out from his hiding spot up the hill.
Josh practically held his breath as he approached the last tree bordering the path and pressed his back to the rough bark. A quick glance around the huge trunk confirmed the deer was still oblivious to his presence.
He pulled a light, steel tipped aluminium arrow, with purple and yellow fletching, from the quiver on his belt, and nocked it to the string. He stretched his shoulders and felt the weight of the draw with a gentle pull. He’d only get one chance at this.
Stepping slowly back onto the path, he paused to wait for any reaction from the deer. Its head stayed down. He gripped the bow gently in his left hand, the fingers of his right resting lightly on the string, and silently raised his arm to take aim.
The deer’s head snapped up, nostrils flaring. It stared straight at him, frozen to the spot but with muscles bunched to spring into flight.
Josh drew the string back.
Something cracked behind him and he heard a low huff. The hair rose on the back of his neck. A louder snap as a heavy weight crushed a brittle fallen branch. The deer bolted and Josh spun round. The string slipped from his fingers and the arrow thudded at least four inches into the soft ground at his feet.
The enormous grizzly bear rose up on its hind legs, clawed arms outstretched. Its lips dripped with saliva as it opened its jaws and bellowed.