The soft scratch of Vickie’s pencil broke the otherwise complete silence. She recorded Farley’s notes into the supply ledger; where the food was taken from, when, and how much remained.
She struck another now empty location from the list and set her short nub of pencil down with a sigh. Page after page of warehouses, shops and farms, all ruled through.
They had emptied the closer locations within the first year. Fresh food spoiled within weeks. Power outages turned full freezers to festering mush. Rats and mice ruined a lot of the dried goods. What remained didn’t last long; fifty-two teenagers went through a lot of food in a year, and they weren’t the only ones scavenging.
The number of other scavengers had decreased over time, as more and more people tried their luck travelling south. Now, if what Farley said was true, groups were moving back into the area.
She closed the book, leaned back in her chair and stared out the window. They needed to put more effort into the gardens; they weren’t producing nearly enough. In the spring they would make a conscious effort to find seeds or feral crops they could harvest and grow into their own.
She picked at a brittle nail. Protein was the bigger problem. Holly’s vomiting, some of the kids losing their hair, cuts and bruises taking longer to heal, it was getting serious.
Before the End she’d not eaten much meat. She wasn’t strictly vegetarian, but she ate a lot of meat free meals, with cheese, eggs and fish. It was all so easy when you could just buy things from the supermarket.
She stated out of her reverie and sat forward.
“Sorry,” the young man at the door added.
Vickie smiled and beckoned him in. “It’s okay Simon, you just made me jump. What can I help you with?”
“It’s Josh; he’s gone.”
“Do you know how long?”
“At least ten minutes. He wasn’t digging in the latrine pit, so I searched the camp. I didn’t want to bother you if he’d just gone for a pee break or something.”
“So you’re sure?”
“Positive. We found footprints by one of the outer gates.”
Vickie rubbed her forehead with one hand. “Find Farley, Paul and Ashton for me, plus two others. Meet me by the gun store.”
Simon nodded and left.
She should have guessed Josh would do something reckless. With Holly’s health failing he was constantly on the brink of panic.
She couldn’t blame him. If she had a solution to something and she wasn’t allowed to use it she’d go a bit stir crazy too. Hunting was dangerous, but Josh was going to be a father and he deserved the right to risk himself for the life of his unborn child. He was right, they weren’t children any more.
She pulled on her coat, locked her office and headed towards the gun store.
Josh ducked behind the tree as the bear swiped and gouged deep claw marks in the bark. He dropped the bow and scrambled forward on his hands and knees until he found his feet. Then he ran flat out along the bank of the stream, towards the clearing with the fallen tree, where the deer grazed just moments before.
The bear lumbered after him, through bushes and over branches. Josh vaulted over the thick, horizontal trunk of the tree and angled up the hill.
Adrenalin surged through him as his legs pumped and propelled him up the slope. His hands grasped at low branches and saplings, pulling and adding to his forward motion in any way they could.
It was nearly two miles back to the camp and the gate through the perimeter fence to safety.
The bear seemed content to keep pace with him and run him down slowly. Either that or he was genuinely outrunning it. But there was no way he could keep up his current pace the whole way. For one thing, every bit of undergrowth snagged on his clothes and skin, or caught his feet and slowed him down. The bear just ploughed through like a juggernaut.
Another fallen tree loomed up ahead. A sliver of darkness showed it covered a shallow pit.
This time Josh misjudged his vault and his feet caught on the trunk, pitching him forward. He landed heavily on his hands. It felt like he stripped all the skin from his palms and that probably wasn’t far wrong.
He rolled onto his back in time to watch the bear rear up above the log. Its front paws slammed into the wood and the whole, half rotten trunk quivered.
The opening into the gap below the tree was wider on this side and Josh scrambled underneath. The bear climbed up onto the enormous tree. It let out a puff of breath through its nose and dropped down on the far side as Josh pulled his feet into the tight space. One dinner plate sized paw swiped into the gap, close enough that Josh felt the bear’s fur brush his arm.
With powerful scoops of its paws, the bear pulled the soft, root filled soil away from the opening. Josh frantically scrabbled at the far side, widening the gap enough for his shoulders. He pushed handfuls of earth aside and kicked them back towards the bear.
The bear shoved its muzzle into the gap and Josh felt its hot breath on his ankle. Regardless of the size of the hole he’d created it had to be big enough. He dove through and grabbed a straggly bush to heave himself out. Thorns dug into his already raw palms but he ignored the pain and pulled.
Teeth clamped around his shoe and the bones in his foot rolled over each other as the bear closed its powerful jaws. Josh screamed and kicked out wildly with his other foot. He must have hit a sensitive spot, because the bear wined and the pressure on his foot disappeared.
Hands pulling, wriggling from side to side, he wormed his way out of the gap and scrambled away along the log before taking off up the hill again.
The bear bellowed into the silently watching forest
Josh gained the main path along the valley side. The wide, flat gravel road was a vestige from before The End turned Camp Pinewood, summer outdoor pursuits camp, from a place of fun to a place of survival.
Josh scrambled onto the path and ran like he’d never run before. Pain lanced up his leg each time his injured foot hit the ground and he wondered if something was broken. But he blocked it out along with the searing stitch in his side, the burning pain in his thighs and the swimming fog in his mind. None of that mattered to the bear behind him.
Up ahead a figure appeared on the path.
“Run!” Josh yelled, waving his arms.
His eyes streamed with tears and he couldn’t make out who it was or even if he’d just imagined them. The bear grunted, its paws thumping against the ground with each loping stride. Josh risked a quick glance over his shoulder and could practically feel its breath on his face.
He wasn’t going to make it. The camp probably wouldn’t even know what happened to him. Holly would have his baby alone, scared, without him to hold her hand. How many of them would die this winter without enough food?
He looked back up at the figure still standing in the road. “What are you doing? Run!”
His legs were turning to jelly. He gasped in air in ragged sobs. God he didn’t want to die.
The gap to the other figure closed rapidly. Thirty feet, twenty, ten. When he lifted his head he realised he was staring down a gun barrel.
He dropped and skidded to the side, throwing up a cloud of dust and gravel, then kept rolling.
The shotgun blast hit the bear point blank in the face. It slumped forward onto the ground with a spray of blood and a hiss of air as its last breath escaped.
Josh rolled onto his knees, panting, his heart just about bursting in his chest.
Vickie pumped the shotgun and the empty cartridge tumbled in slow motion to the floor. Josh watched it as it bounced and tumbled end over end.
She fired another shot into the back of the bear’s head. Josh jumped and clutched at his chest.
Her hand appeared in front of his face, the sleeves of her threadbare, crochet jumper coming down to her fingers. “I said it was too dangerous,” she said quietly.
He took her hand and she helped him to his feet.
Running footsteps crunched further along the path; the rest of the search party from the camp, come to look for him.
Josh kept his mouth shut. He couldn’t acknowledge Vickie was right, because they would all starve without what the forest could provide.
“You were right,” Vickie said.
Josh blinked. “What?”
She tucked an errant curl that had escaped her long braid behind her ear. “You were right. This isn’t summer camp any more. You’re not kids and we can’t live on hopes and dreams.”
He nodded. Behind Vickie, Farley and some other teens from the camp slowed to a halt.
“Get the quad bike and a trailer. We need to haul this back.” Vickie said. With a quick nod they jogged away to follow her orders.
“I’m sorry I went off on my own, it was stupid,” Josh said.
“In a way I’m glad you did. You made me realise I was being stubborn. We’ve all lost things, lives, back where we came from, but you kids have adapted and I haven’t.”
“So, we can hunt now?”
“You can hunt now. Although I think this—” She tapped the huge bear carcass with her boot. “—will keep us going for a while.”
She moved towards the crumbling edge of the path and sat with her legs facing down the slope, the shotgun resting across her knees.
Josh sat next to her. “You don’t have to take care of us all the time.”
Vickie turned and a ghost of a smile appeared on her lips. “I know.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Paul heaved on the rope in his hands as the quad bike slowed to a halt.
Even with a dozen ropes to lash it down, the huge carcass kept trying to slide off the small, flat trailer.
Farley hopped off the quad bike and between them they heaved the bear back into position.
“Next time,” Josh panted. “I suggest we butcher the kill before we try to take it back. Just a thought.”
Vickie nodded and wiped her blood stained hands on her skirt. “We’ll need to be careful how we dispose of the unwanted parts too, otherwise we’ll attract predators to the camp.”
It took the best part of an hour to get back to the camp. As soon as the latch slid home on the side gate, Josh let the tension dissipate. The throb in his crushed foot immediately doubled and tears moistened his eyes.
“You okay, man?” Farley asked, slipping a brotherly arm around his shoulder.
“I’ll be fine.”
He left the others to deal with the bear and hobbled towards to the cluster of cabins which formed the main accommodation for the camp. No one stopped him.
Even though Holly was carrying his baby, Vicky had refused to let them share a cabin. She’d promised that once the baby was born and Josh had turned sixteen then the arrangement could be reviewed.
Usually he was fine with it, but right now he needed her. He knocked on the door to her shared cabin.
Bethanne opened the door. “Hey Josh, she’s sle… what the hell happened to you?” Her eyes widened and he realised what a state he must look, with blood all over his clothes; his own and the bear’s. Ripped clothing. Dirt and mud everywhere.
“A bear,” he muttered. “Can I?” He indicated past her into the cabin.
Bethanne wordlessly stepped aside and Josh walked over to Holly’s bunk where she was sleeping.
She lay on her side and had one hand up on the pillow beside her face. Josh stroked it gently. Her eyes flickered open.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Everything’s going to be okay now.”
She smiled and closed her eyes.
Heedless of the blood and mud, Josh climbed over and curled himself around her, listening to the sound of her breathing.
They were all going to be okay now. Whatever challenges they had to face, they would be okay.