Clutching my locket in my hand, I looked down on the idyllic scene. “I made it, Mom,” I said. One of the few things I’d taken from home was my mother’s silver heart-shaped locket. Inside was a wedding photo of her and Dad on one side, and a photo of me and my siblings on the other. Having them with me comforted me, and I talked to them all the time. It’s not like I had anyone else to talk to. Everyone I ever cared about had died.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and grinned at the beautiful green valley with a small lake at the bottom. Several cabins around the lake, but I doubted they had any inhabitants. Over the last year, a pandemic had wiped out ninety percent of the world’s population. Most cities had become ghost towns. My hometown had emptied except for gangs of thugs who roamed around looting and plundering all the empty homes and stores. I had to find a safer place to live—and I hoped, to grow up. At sixteen, I had a powerful desire to live.
Over the next few hours, as I explored the valley, I found that some of the cabins had been designed to operate without electricity, and all were unlocked. I discovered many oil lamps, and gas-powered fridges and freezers still full of food. I had to assume the stuff in the fridges had gone bad, but the freezer stuff should be okay.
I had hiked several strenuous miles on this warm summer day, and as I inspected an overgrown vegetable garden, the lake caught my eye. I strode down to the dock and sat down to take my shoes off. Lowering my sweaty feet into the cool water, I savored the peaceful feeling that washed over me. I had never felt more safe.
Then something grabbed my ankles. Grabbed and pulled. I wrapped my arms around the mooring pole to my right and held on tight, kicking my legs frantically. I tried to see what had me but with all the splashing I couldn’t tell. I braced myself for losing one or both of my feet.
Then, the grip loosened and my feet flew free. I pulled them onto the dock. A laughing face appeared in the water in front of me.
“Okay, you win,” she said. She appeared to be about my own age, bare chested, with wavy black hair. Then I saw the tail, shimmering like a rainbow trout. My mouth fell open in shock. A mermaid? In a lake in the Smoky Mountains? I struggled with words.
“Uh, I’m Emma. Why did you try to pull me under?”
She tossed her wet hair. “Well, Emma, it’s a game I play to protect my valley. You’re the first person who’s beaten me.”
I stared at her in horror. “You’ve killed people?”
“They had no right to swim in my lake like it belonged to them. The people that really own it are all dead. Why aren’t you dead?”
“I have a genetic anomaly that makes me immune to the plague. The rest of my family didn’t make it. I hope this valley can be my new home.”
Her expression softened. “So you’re an orphan, like me.”
“To be honest,” she said, “I’m pretty lonesome. I might let you stay if we can be friends. But it won’t work as long as he’s here.”
I had to ask. “Who’s he?”
“I don’t know his name. He never comes to the lake. He’s got a gun and he hunts a lot. He shoots anyone he finds in this valley and he’ll shoot you if he sees you, so the first thing you’ve gotta do is get out of sight.”
Panicking, I looked for cover. A couple hundred yards down, huge bushes hung over the edge of the lake. I sprinted for them and wormed my way in. My murderous new friend swam to my hidden location.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She laughed. “You couldn’t pronounce it. But the people who used to live here called me Meredith.”
“Okay then, Meredith, how am I gonna be able to stay here if there’s some guy out there wanting to shoot me?”
She sighed. “If you could lure him into the lake I could totally take him. But I don’t think he likes the water.”
I shuddered. “No, I’ve got to figure out a way to get him on land. Do you think I could negotiate with him? Maybe agree on territories or something?”
She shook her head. “You’d be dead before you could even suggest it. I’m telling you he shoots everything that moves. It must be pretty bad out there in your world.”
“There’s not much of my world left,” I admitted. “But I sure would like to stay in this little part of it.”
“Well, he lives on that side somewhere,” she said, pointing to my left. “Not in one of the cabins you can see from here. It must be farther up.”
I waited in my uncomfortable refuge until late in the afternoon, when I saw a man walking on the far side of the lake. I watched as he rounded the end of the lake and turned uphill. My whole body relaxed—at least a little. Now I knew where my opponent was and that made it easier to keep him from finding me. He appeared to be a man in his forties, maybe, with a pronounced limp. He carried a gun under one arm, and a dead dog hung from his other hand. Did he plan to eat the dog? I tried not to retch in disgust.
I pulled out my locket and opened it. “Dad, I need your help right now,” I said, staring at the tiny photo of my parents. “I don’t want to kill anyone but if I don’t, he’ll kill me. I wish you could be here to help me.”
As I crawled out of the bushes into the twilight, I remembered how Dad always said, “When you’re not sure what to do, don’t rush into anything. Observe for a while and see if you can figure out what action you should take.”
Meredith swam beside me as I walked. “What are you gonna do, Emma?”
“I’m going to observe him for a while,” I said.
“Okay, but watch out for the bears.”
Bears? There were bears? Of course there were. No doubt their numbers had increased with the disappearance of most of humanity.
The tiniest kernel of an idea popped into my mind. “Hey, Meredith—are there any fish in that lake?”
Just enough light remained for me to see her roll her eyes. “What do you think I eat, dummy? There are thousands of them in here. That jerk up there never goes fishing.”
“So you’re pretty good at catching them?”
I grinned. “I might need your help before long.”
As I tiptoed up the path I’d seen the man use, my mind filled with doubt. What if that man and Meredith were in cahoots? What if she helped him by sending victims his way? What if I was walking into a trap?
A couple hundred yards along the path, I stopped. I hadn’t explored this far earlier, and if I had, I never would have felt safe. Next to the path an area had been leveled, possibly for a garden of some kind. Now it served as a graveyard. Instead of stones there were just boards with crude writing on them. “White woman April 3. Cherokee man May 12. Teenage white boy May 23.” I counted nine graves. Maybe Meredith had told me the truth about this guy. In my head, I started calling him “Killer.”
I began to step very carefully, grateful the moon had already risen and provided enough light for me to see the trail ahead of me. After tiptoeing through some trees, I emerged in a clearing with a modest log cabin. Light gleamed from the bare windows. I inched closer, until I could look into the kitchen where Killer was skinning the dog carcase.
I turned as I heard a snuffling sound on the other side of the cabin, then held my breath as an enormous black bear waddled out of the forest, its head raised as it sniffed the air. I didn’t dare move, but the bear seemed focused on the tempting smells coming from the cabin and never even glanced in my direction.
The bear pawed at the door. “Leave me alone, you stupid bear,” yelled Killer. “I don’t want to waste a bullet on you. I’ve got plenty of meat right now.”
The bear nosed around on the porch before shambling back into the forest. I waited until it had time to get well away before hightailing it back down to the dock. Meredith appeared almost instantly.
“I see you’re still alive,” she said.
“Alive and inspired,” I replied, “and I’m going to need your help.”
After telling her my plan, I hiked over to a cabin where I’d seen some burlap sacks, then hauled them to the lake. All night Meredith brought me fish to put in the sacks, a few at a time. It took hours to stuff four sacks with fish. I couldn’t fill them to the top because then they’d be too heavy to carry.
In the dim light before dawn, I hauled my sacks up the trail one by one, so thankful Killer didn’t keep a dog as a pet. I suppose he was too mean to feed it.
As quietly as I could, I spilled one sack out on and in front of Killer’s porch. The others I doled out a few fish at a time in straight lines leading from the clearing. By the time I finished, dawn was approaching and I smelled like fish. Did I go rinse off in the lake? Heck no. Several of the cabins had outdoor water pumps and I used one to douse myself thoroughly, shivering in the cold air.
I let myself into a cabin near the lake, where some of the windows looked out over the trail leading to Killer’s cabin. I sat down in a corner where I hoped Killer wouldn’t see me if he happened to look in my direction. I smiled to see a bear with two cubs discover the fish on the trail. That was one happy bear.
I bet you can guess what happened next. I fell asleep watching the bears.
Screaming woke me. I jumped up and stared out the window. Something large and dark moved in the forested section of the trail. Had a bear been injured? Do bears scream? I didn’t know. I clutched my locket. “Daddy, please keep me safe,” I whispered.
As I watched, the scene began to make more sense. Not one, but several bears milled about there on the trail. Were they fighting over the fish? Had Killer come out of his cabin?
I had to wait until afternoon for my answer. I refused to leave the safety of the cabin until all the bears had lumbered back into the woods. With extreme caution, I began moving up the mountain, not on the trail but near it. When I reached the wooded section, I saw what I had both feared and hoped to see—a human leg, some smaller body parts, and a gun. My stomach heaved. “Thanks, Dad,” I said to my locket.
I now live in my favorite cabin and have a pretty good vegetable garden going. Every day I go down to the dock and visit with Meredith. Every day she invites me to go swimming with her. Do you think I ever so much as dip a toe in that lake water? Ha! I’m not stupid. That is never gonna happen. Some friends you have to keep at arm’s length.