Surviving the aftermath of War-torn Earth.
"When last did you hear a bird call?" Aura asked, turning back to stare at Rex.
The big man shrugged, and the fifteen-year-old resumed trying to mind her own business.
They had walked through the Dead Woods for days. Aura stared at the rotten logs that seemed to be everywhere. The other trees that had survived the Omega war did not produce anything anymore. In a way, they were all dead. Aura couldn't wait to get out of there, and she doubled her speed.
It was almost dark when they finally left the woods. Rex walked close to her, but she ignored him. They took the next route into a neighborhood that looked like it used to be filled with different kinds of people. Aura stood in a spot and dragged her eyes through the dust, then debris, the remnant of destroyed houses and properties, and the effect of the war.
"We should move on," Rex stated, placing a huge hand on her shoulder, "it will be dark soon."
Aura nodded stiffly and then followed Rex. They found a house with part of it still standing in place. Rex did a ground sweep of the place before letting Aura inside the dilapidated house.
Twelve years after the Omega war and the Earth had still not recovered. Out of seven billion people, only a crippling forty million survived the war. Over the years, the remaining humans on Earth had become vile and ignorant. So, they ended up destroying the majority of what was left, reducing their numbers to a stifling twenty-five million. The Earth had gone from prosperous to nothing; Rex called it retrogression, a word Aura didn't quite know or understand.
Rex built a fire from pieces of woods he found around the house. "Warm yourself up; I'll scout the house and see what could be useful, okay?"
"Yeah, okay. I'll see you later." Aura replied.
It was cold outside. Aura wrapped herself with the small blanket she always carried in her backpack. She played with the heart-shaped locket around her neck, and her father's voice echoed in her ears.
There's a safe house. A bunker so huge, it can contain millions of people. Her father wore a smile as he talked about the bunker.
How do you know?
I know because I was part of the team that designed and built it. And I want you to go there. It'll be safer there; you'll be safer there.
I don't know; I'm not sure I want to leave you here, Papa. You're all the family I've got left.
You'll have to, honey. Rex will take you; he will make sure you're safe. He'll make sure you both get to the safe house.
A drop of tear plopped down on Aura's palm. She wiped what was left of them off her face. There was no need to cry now. Her father had died months ago anyway. There was no use crying anymore. He would not have wanted her to. She just had to find the safehouse, get her and Rex to safety.
"I hope you don't mind having canned peaches for dinner. Or do you?" Rex asked as he came to view.
"Oh no, I don't. Where did you find them?" Aura asked, excitement coursing through her.
She hadn't had anything good to eat in months. Whatever they had left, her father had saved it up for her journey to the safe house. They left on the night her father was killed. It was in the dead of night; a small mob had stormed the house; they wanted the map to the safehouse. Somehow, one of them had gotten hold of papers revealing her father had worked with and for the government. He sent them off through the hidden back door and then limped back to the angry mob. It was minutes later when they had finally crossed the small bridge not too far from the community, that Aura heard the sound of an explosion.
That night, all she wanted to do was run back home to her father; she'd been hysteric for hours, scratching and pulling at Rex's arms as he wrapped himself around her, quietly willing her to stay calm. The world might have turned into something gloomy, but her Papa was the only reason why she found and felt the light.
Rex passed the opened can to her. She took it; it was warm against her cold fingers. She smiled as the steam escaped when she opened the can.
"You heated it?" Aura asked.
"I did. Whoever lived here had a good plan. I think the explosion that destroyed this place must have caught him unaware, or he might have left. He has a great storage unit in his basement. And guess what? The storage is filled with canned food. And there's a hot plate that still works. Not an electrical one, though."
Rex sounded fascinated. Aura had only ever seen him like that a few times. Rex had been a Navy SEAL officer for four years before the war. He'd returned home after a traumatizing event took place, but he never talked about it. He didn't leave when the war started, and he didn't leave when it ended too. And he was the cousin Aura never really knew.
Aura scooped a spoonful of peaches after draining the liquid inside it. She chewed slowly, tasting and testing the fruit in her mouth. It still tasted a little like peaches. She hadn't had one in years. The majority of the food that had been sent to surviving communities mainly was stale and tasteless food. Part of Earth's clean water had turned bitter too, which meant many of the war survivors had little or nothing. Aura shuddered at the cold feeling in the pit of her stomach before scooping more food into her mouth. They needed to find the safe house as soon as they could. Aura shoved spoonful after spoonful of warm peaches into her mouth; she didn't want to think about what the Earth had become anymore.
Rex got up first. He sat in a corner, making notes in his black paperback diary. It was warm outside, and the fire had died out when Aura finally woke up.
They resumed walking half an hour after Aura had woken up. For breakfast, they had canned beans. Aura didn't quite like it, and she was certain Rex didn't either. But the big man didn't complain, and so she didn't either.
Before noon, they'd left the small neighborhood behind. Walking through dead fields instead of main roads. Rex didn't want them to be noticed; The last thing he wanted was for people to see them; They only stopped to rest when it was noon. Aura took a sip of water from her bottle, resting her back against a tree trunk.
"How long do we have until we get there?" She asked Rex.
He shrugged as usual, "I don't know yet. Say maybe four to five days." He answered.
The tree trunk she was resting on was hollowed out. Inside it was a stuffed animal, blackened with soot. Aura pulled it out before Rex could stop her, grinning at the look of irritation on his face.
"You should put that back, though. It isn't yours." He said.
Aura chuckled, "I don't think the owner will be coming back for it now, Rexie. It looks like it's been here since the beginning of time."
She waved it in front of him, shaking off some of the soot. Rex chose to ignore her instead, staring elsewhere instead.
Aura would have dropped the stuffed teddy, but something caught her eyes. It started to fall off the teddy. Aura caught it halfway. She dangled it in front of her; it was a Heart-shaped gold locket similar to hers. Aura wiped the dust and soot off it; It was beautiful, intricately designed, and detailed. A small heart-shaped gem sat on it. Aura fingered it for a few seconds before placing it around her neck. She wiped the dirty teddy, and using a small string; she tied it to her backpack. Satisfied with her work, she rested against the trunk, playing with the locket and moving it between her fingers. Whoever its previous owner was, they must have loved the locket. From the corner of her eye, she could see Rex watching her quietly. He reminded her of her Papa so much it annoyed her most times.
They continued walking again. But this time, Aura felt like someone was watching. A cold shiver ran down her spine, and she gripped Rex's arm. He felt it too. Rex changed their direction immediately, leading them to the open road instead.
They walked faster than they usually would. Rex wanted them as far away from there as possible. The feeling that someone was watching them tugged at his senses. Rex tried to stay calm, but he heard something, a little swish. Someone was watching them after all, and the feeling hadn't been false.
Rex stopped completely and pulled Aura close to him. He heard the sound of a twig snapping and turned in that direction. Two men stepped out of hiding, one holding a pistol and the other swinging a machete. They wore dirty black clothing. More trooped out of hiding, circling Rex and Aura.
"What do you want?" Rex asked.
"Your food and your water. That's all." A man almost as tall as Rex said, walking towards them. He had a false smile on his face.
"And if we don't give them to you, what then?" Rex asked.
The man shrugged, "hmm, we'll just bury you and the little thing here then. How's that?"
Aura counted the number of men; they were eight in number and the man talking to Rex was probably the leader. Aura pulled herself away from Rex's grip. She stood in front of a surprised Rex.
"You...you can't do that. If you ask for something politely, then you might get it. But threatening to kill a person for something that belongs to them? Isn't that why the world plunged into darkness in the first place?"
The man in front of her locked eyes with her, then he looked at her up and down, his eyes stopping at the gold heart-shaped locket around her neck. He stared at it for a minute while his gang patiently waited.
Aura followed his eyes down to the locket. Out of fear, she gripped it, holding it tight in her fingers.
The man took a step forward, his gun now sitting in his holster. "Where did you get that locket?" He asked.
Aura noticed something different. The man's eyes were moist now, but not in a wrong way. When he got closer, he picked the locket and studied it.
"Hannah had one like this…" he whispered; he opened the locket swiftly and almost immediately started to sob.
Rex pulled Aura away from him, and the man with the machete lunged for him. Rex stepped back to dodge the attack, but the tip of the machete cut through the back of his hand. Rex winced, shielding Aura and at the same time holding onto his bleeding hand. Aura closed her eyes in fear.
"Stop!" Their leader yelled. "No harm must come to the man or the child."
An hour later, Aura held onto Rex's hand as his cut was cleaned and stitched. The heart-shaped locket had belonged to Hannah. She was the daughter of the group leader, Bob.
As they got ready to leave, Bob pulled Aura into a hug. "Be safe," he whispered. Aura nodded in reply.
He turned to Rex, "I apologize. You're good people, and Aura reminds me of my late Hannah. Thank you for the food, and I hope you find whatever you're looking for."
It would take days, but they would find the safehouse her father had helped in building. Maybe years later, the world would heal itself.