The wind of the cool, brisk, morning air was bitter and cut through him like a knife, bringing an involuntary shiver with it that ran the full length of his spine. The sun was just peaking over the edge of the horizon when Ash got up and stretched, raising his head just slightly above the tall grass that he had been nestled in for the evening. He went to bed hungry again but this wasn’t unusual anymore. Not since he lost Mom.
Slowly and deliberately he stretched every limb, listening intently to the sounds in the air, smelling for the scent of any predator that could be near. He wasn’t too far from the stream which meant that at least he could have some water before moving on but it also meant that something else could have the same thought.
He could feel the weight of the heart-shaped locket on his chest, the picture of him, Mom, and Ayanna inside. She had given it to him right before she died, succumbing to the injuries from the blast that killed so many in their apartment building. She had told him to find Ayanna, to find his sister. Her last words were, “I love you, Ash.”
Every day since then, for the last 102 days, he had been traveling south. He didn’t always know where he was. He was just hoping that memory would serve him well enough to get to the town where he knew she lived, where he had visited her so many times before. He knew it wasn’t more than two days drive but he couldn’t go the way he knew. The cities that he and Mom had passed through before were no longer safe. Like scenes from one of his late father’s war movies, they were full of explosions, noise, and fire. He had been forced to go around. Gangs of marauders were scattered throughout the suburbs of the cities, looting whatever was left, leaving no one alive. He had to give them a wide berth.
The air was fine, no wolves or coyotes to be found. That was a relief. Slowly he went down to the creek and after a last check he washed his face and took a long drink. This would have to hold him over until he could find something to eat but he knew that was unlikely.
His plan today was to find the interstate again. He needed to find Interstate 40 so he could make his way over to Tennessee. He had been on it a while ago but was run off by a large group of men that were ripping into cars and killing anything they came across. He knew better than to tempt fate and went off into the forest as soon as he saw them. He had gotten turned around and lost a lot of time. It had ended up leading to one good meal though.
Hours later and he had to stop, his feet throbbing with exhaustion. He stopped and looked at them and realized that they would start to bleed soon. Then he would be in worse shape. He looked around for a place to stay and saw a small clearing up a hill to his right. There appeared to be some large rocks bordering it and some trees. It would be a good place to settle down. The hunger ate away at him again but this time he didn’t even have water.
Every muscle in his body ached as he trudged to the top, his feet going almost numb from the pain. Over the crest, he was met with a set of eyes. He stiffened immediately, freezing in place, but it was too late. He locked eyes with the coyote and could see its nostrils flair as the wind carried his scent directly toward the dog. As he watched, three more came out of the woods behind the first and they began to chatter.
Once they began to advance Ash took off, all pain in his limbs forgotten as he pounded back down the side of the hill with reckless abandon. This was the worst thing he could have done but with hunger clouding his judgement he hadn’t thought clearly and now it was too late. The chase had begun. When he got to the bottom he turned right, swerving in between the evergreens that were covering the hollow. His recent weight loss was making him even more nimble than he already was and he could use it to his advantage. The coyotes were close though, he could smell the stink of hot breathe behind him.
If he could get far enough ahead he would be able to climb a tree. The problem would be getting back down once he had. He would have to wait til the pack slept and sneak away which would not be an easy task.
His heart raced as he continued to speed down the path, his feet barely making a sound, as if he was floating. The dogs weren’t far behind, but he could tell he had gained a little on them. He turned sharply and went toward a grove of hard woods that had some low lying branches to help his climb. He dug in and sped up making it to a large oak only seconds before the coyotes were on him. Luckily he was about 20 feet up by then and all they could do was wait at the bottom and yelp helplessly. He could tell they were not going to give up easily as they paced around the base of the tree looking for a way up and coordinating their efforts. Finally the leader sat down and curled up, settling in, determined to wait him out, just as Ash had suspected he would. Ash would have to sneak off while they were asleep. It was going to be a very long night.
He found a crook in between a couple of branches that made a v-shape and he was able to find a nice spot to rest while he waited for them to fall asleep. It was still several hours before nightfall though and since he had nothing to do until then, he decided to nap.
The explosion was so close, the noise so loud that the soft blankets on the bed around him shook and the pictures fell off the wall. He heard Mom scream and immediately hopped off the bed and ran to her. There was fire everywhere, engulfing the living room, the couch, and the chairs where they had been sitting the night before. Mom was on the floor, her limbs at odd angles. Ash ran to her, looking into her eyes to see the pain and the fear. Despite all of it, she put a hand on him.
“There was another bomb, Ash,” she said quietly, “I’m so glad you weren’t hurt.”
He could see the blood pooling around her, coming out onto the ground where she was laying. He could see the pain in her eyes and he began to cry.
“Oh my sweet boy, don’t cry,” she said, blood beginning to drip out of her mouth, “you will be okay.”
She reached up and took the locket off, the locket that held the picture of her, Ayanna, and himself. She reached over and put it on him, clipping it onto the necklace he already wore.
“You find Ayanna,” she said, “You know the way. She will need you and you will need her. I love you, Ash.”
And then she was gone. He laid beside her for as long as he could before the flames engulfed the apartment and he had to flee. Out the door and down the stairwell, dodging the other people that were fleeing the building. It was a mad rush, people pushing each other, falling, others on fire, but he just kept running fueled by grief and determination to find his sister. They had known that it could come to this. More and more bombs kept coming, more and more cities targeted. Even their small town wasn’t safe. He jerked as he heard a sharp scream come from beside him as a child ran from an apartment, enveloped in flames, the bodies of her parents behind her as the gas oven in the apartment exploded and threw her.
Ash awoke in a pool of sweat. The dream came to him often. He lay still on the tree limb and cried some more. He missed her so much. She had been his whole world. He had to find Ayanna, she was the only person he had left. Hours had gone by and the sun was starting to fall. Ash wiped off his eyes and looked down at the pack of coyotes. They seemed to be asleep. Slowly he begin to make his way down the tree, looking down at them periodically. When he was about ten feet away he stopped and looked at the surrounding landscape. He hadn’t expected to be able to get away this quickly but the coyotes seemed to be sound asleep, the chest of each moving slowly and rhythmically. He saw a spot about four feet from the base of the tree that he thought would be a good place to land so he made it to five feet and leapt for it.
The alpha sprung to action when Ash was in mid-leap and knocked him to the ground. Before he could react, the coyote had his leg in his mouth. At that moment, Ash got the luckiest break of his life as he watched a bear jump from the brush and tackle the coyote. He jumped up immediately, the pain in his leg killing him. He knew he had only seconds to run before that bear stole the coyotes meal.
He darted off through the woods. He had come down too soon. Twisting and turning, not bothering to look back, he kept running. He knew he could outrun a coyote but he wasn’t sure he could outrun a bear, especially with this leg. He could hear it behind him, gaining quickly. He kept pushing, his heart pounding out of his chest, his leg throbbing. He could feel the blood gushing, leaving a nice scent trail behind him.
Panic was starting to set in, the fear that he would never see Ayanna again making his heart hurt more than it already was. The pungent odor of the bear’s sweat was on him in an instance and he closed his eyes, continuing to run but knowing it was over, when a loud shot rang out through the air and he heard the bear hit the ground behind him, sliding to a halt. He couldn’t believe it.
Then fear set in again. Something had killed the bear, which meant that something could kill him too. He looked up, panicked, and locked eyes with a young woman, light olive toned skin and dirty blonde hair. Her bright green eyes were filled with the tears that were streaming down her face and her rifle was still poised in her hand, smoke billowing from the barrel as she looked at him.
As badly as it hurt, he ran to her. Ran the 30 yards to reach her. How on earth had she seen him and made the shot in time to help him, he would never know. But here she was.
“Ash,” she whispered, picking up the gray tabby cat and swinging him into her arms, burying her head in his fur, “How on earth did you make it here?”
He purred gently, rubbing her with his face. She reached down and picked up the locket on his neck, opening it and crying. She knew. Mom was gone.
“Thank heavens you found me,” she said.
“You’re safe now,” she whispered, as she gently cradled him and began to walk back to her camp. Back home.