Smoke curling through the pale orange sky over the distant hill indicated to Helena that morning was on the horizon. The fires provided warmth for the remnants of that small village whose people hunted for rats or squirrels, cooking them over crude stone pits and metal grates. Sand stretched in either direction, making supplies difficult to obtain. In the distance, Helena had become a scavenger as well, digging through the heaps of destruction that occurred when one world state clashed with the other years ago. The war yielded no winners, only broken people, pawns struggling to survive.
She had not joined the village over the hill in the Desert region; she did not trust them yet. The trinkets and usable items she found she used as barter for food; she had no reason to put her faith in any single person after Demetri disappeared months ago. Seeking shelter from an imminent storm, they had met under the sloping roof of a burnt out home, both unaware of what the future held.
Demetri, his ragged plaid shirt and faded pants, disheveled hair, and dirty face, was the first person her age she had seen since the Destruction – the memory made her breathing shallow with pain and anger. He didn’t appear dangerous to her, a small mouse of a girl in the last of her father’s clothes, and she cautiously approached him from out of the rain. He examined her with fear and curiosity.
“Where are you from?” he asked in a brittle voice.
Helena’s eyes darted from his face to the side of the wall. Something caught her attention, and she grabbed his arm, pulling him toward the back of the structure. “Run! Animal!” They scrambled atop the wooden posts to the roof and remained still as the dark sky opened and pelted them with stinging rain, rare as it was destructive.
Below them a hungry dog ran through the spot where the two had just been standing. The pouring rain covered the sound and scent of their presence as they watched the dog run off toward the hill. Demetri looked down at his arm, Helena’s hand still grabbing onto him. “Thank you. You can let go now.” She dropped her hand and brushed the wet dirt off her arms. The touch of another human was something she’d forgotten, something she didn’t think she ever needed again. She was wrong.
“You have to be careful out here. The dogs appear every day around this time, and they are always hungry,” she shouted over the rain. Readjusting her seat on the roof, she sat cross-legged across from him, wondering if he could help her scavenging. Runnels of water streaked down her face. “You’re the first person to get past them. Alive, at least.”
“There were more?” He trembled in the cold rain.
“Dogs? Yes. People, well, not many.” She looked away at the burned landscape made more dreary with the microburst. “My family had just crossed the Boundary before the Destruction started, but my father turned back to get something. She fished something out of her shirt pocket: a tiny silver locket on a silver chain. Holding it up in front of her, she continued her narrative. “It was the last thing I remember. My father was running back over the fence when he was hit by something, most likely a rock or piece of concrete. I couldn’t tell. It was fast, and before I could warn him, he hit the ground face first, and he didn’t move after that.” She closed her eyes, picturing his agony. “I ran over to him, but he had already…“ she paused, “…already died. He had this chain in his hand. It belonged to my mother. He probably thought I’d feel safer with it.” She carefully put the chain back in her pocket.
Demetri looked up at the storm beginning to lessen. “I’m sorry.” He gestured toward the hill; he didn’t know what to say to her. Perhaps, he thought, the Desert People were the aggressors.
“Yes. They were the ones who attacked us.” She let the last drops of rain fall on her face as she squeezed the water from hair. “They haven’t recognized me since then. They just want the junk I find. If they knew who I was, they’d…” Her voice trailed off. “My father was our leader.”
“Understood,” he replied. He climbed down from the roof and helped her down the wet slope. She took his hand and for the first time in a while, she smiled. He noticed and continued, “But I can’t stay. I’m also being hunted.” Helena’s face betrayed her confusion. “I had to kill someone. And now they want revenge.”
His admission frightened her. “What…why did you have to kill someone?” Her eyes widened in shock and held his for a moment. She was now afraid for her own safety. This stark confession had her thinking she might be better off alone.
“They were going to kill me. They had already killed my sister for her shoes. Her worn-out old shoes.” He walked up the slippery entrenchment where there once was a sidewalk. Helena followed. Since the Destruction, people killed for shoes, clothing, anything of perceived value; she knew because the rest of her family had been executed for the same reason. “I think they wanted this shirt.”
She surveyed him, trying not to get her hopes up. “What are you going to do now?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. You aren’t safe with me around.” Wearily he looked around and pointed in another direction. “I was headed toward that area in the woods when the storm came up. I need to find a group to join, and I think there’s one in there. For safety.”
Helena scratched at the dirt on her arm, a tell that she was nervous. She considered whether joining him would be a good idea. Not knowing if he was telling the truth or not, she concluded two were better off than being alone. “I want to join you.” The sound of her own determination scared her.
“No.” Demetri climbed further over the rocky terrain. “It’s not safe.”
She persisted. “And being alone is?”
He turned toward her. “Trust me. Trouble finds me.”
“Trouble finds me, too.” Helena reached into her pocket and retrieved the locket and chain. “Here, then, if you’re going to leave. For safety.” She reached out to his hand and placed the heart-shaped locket in his hand and closed it. “When you find your way back here, find me. Make sure I’m ok.” The clouds broke, the sun making the last of the rainfall unbearably humid.
He looked at his hand and the treasure it held. “I will. Thank you.” With that, he left her and headed toward the woods. Making his way toward the west, he turned around once more to see her. To remember her and her kindness. Her innocent smile. He nodded his head as he vanished into the woods.
That was months ago. Helena continued to scavenge, seek safety from the dogs, and barter with the tribe over the hill. Each day was the same as the next, a continual fight to find basic needs, to stay alive. Today she picked through the remains of a gutted car, retrieving a mirror, a piece of glass from the windshield, and wiring that was exposed, putting them in her canvas bag along with the buttons and shoelaces which she knew could be traded for a good meal. She continued over the familiar terrain and ventured toward the area near the forest. She thought about him from time to time, wondering where he ended up, if he was all right, if he found the place he was looking for. She viewed the edge of the forest where the oaks and pines began, where the sun barely reached, and darkness lived – the place he chose to travel through alone.
Beneath the first oak, she saw something that stood out from the colors of the forest. It was red, or maybe brown; she couldn’t tell this far away. Helena scrambled over the broken wood and pieces of stone toward the unusual color. When she reached it, she gasped and kneeled on the ground. It was a bunched-up piece of dirty plaid material, out of place among the scattered debris on the ground. A memory rebounded as tears streaked down her ashen face. She unwrapped the material, and within the bars of plaid lay her silver locket. “For safety,” she remembered telling him. She knew he would never return. She opened the clasp and put the chain around her neck. “For safety,” she whispered aloud, alone in her empty world. She turned toward the hill, toward the Desert People, and decided it might be safer with them. Taking this chance was her only way to survive.
Over the hill that separated them, Helena gazed at the vast emptiness of the city that had once held so much life but was now meaningless. The rain had little effect on the burning sand as people moved about in the distance, but she no longer cared. She uttered words of surrender into the dry land, knowing happiness was no longer an option. “I give up,” she murmured as curved out her last thoughts. “Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.”