Arena One: Slaverunners
“Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There’s nothing serious in mortality.”
— Shakespeare, Macbeth
Today is less forgiving than most. The wind whips relentlessly, brushing clumps of snow off the heavy pine and right into my face as I hike straight up the mountain face. My feet, crammed into hiking boots a size too small, disappear in the six inches of snow. I slip and slide, struggling to find my footing. The wind comes in gusts, so cold it takes my breath away. I feel as if I’m walking into a living snow globe.
Bree tells me it’s December. She likes to count down the days to Christmas, scratching off the numbers each day on an old calendar she found. She does it with such enthusiasm, I can’t bring myself to tell her we’re nowhere near December. I won’t tell her that her calendar is three years old, or that we’ll never get a new one, because they stopped making them the day the world ended. I won’t deny her her fantasy. That’s what big sisters are for.
Bree clings to her beliefs anyway, and she’s always believed that snow means December, and even if I told her, I doubt it would change her mind. That’s a ten-year-old for you.
What Bree refuses to see is that winter comes early up here. We’re high up in the Catskills, and here, there’s a different sense of time, a different turn to the seasons. Here, three hours north of what-was-once New York City, the leaves drop by the end of August, scattering across mountain ranges that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Our calendar was current once. When we first arrived, three years ago, I remember seeing the first snow and then checking it in disbelief. I couldn’t understand how the page read October. I assumed such early snow was a freak. But I soon learned it wasn’t. These mountains are just high enough, just cold enough, for winter to cannibalize Fall.
If Bree would just flip back the calendar, she’d see it right there, the old year, in big, tacky letters: 2117. Obviously, three years old. I tell myself she’s just too caught up in her excitement to check closely. This is what I hope. But lately, a part of me is beginning to suspect that she really knows, that she’s just chosen to lose herself in fantasy. I can’t blame her.
Of course, we haven’t had a working calendar for years. Or cell phone, or computer, or TV, or radio, or internet, or technology of any kind-not to mention electricity, or running water. Yet somehow, we’ve managed to make it, just the two of us, for three years like this. The summers have been tolerable, with fewer hungry days. We can at least fish then, and the mountain creeks always seemed to carry salmon. There are also berries, and even a few wild apple and pear orchards that still, after all this time, bear fruit. Once in a while, we even manage to catch a rabbit.
But the winters are intolerable. Everything is frozen, or dead, and each year I am certain that we will not make it. And this has been the worst winter of all. I keep telling myself that things will turn around; but it’s been days now without a decent meal, and Winter has just begun. We are both weak from hunger, and now, Bree is also sick. It doesn’t bode well.
As I trudge up the mountain face, retracing the same luckless steps I took yesterday, searching for our next meal, I am beginning to feel our luck has run out. It is only the thought of Bree lying there, waiting at home, that urges me forward. I stop pitying myself and instead hold her face in my mind. I know I can’t find her medicine, but I am hoping it’s just a passing fever, and that a good meal and some warmth is all she needs. What she really needs is a fire. I never light fires in our fireplace anymore, as it’s too dangerous: I can’t risk the smoke, the smell, tipping off a slaverunner to our location. But tonight I will surprise her, and just for a little while, take the chance. Bree lives for fires, and it will lift her spirits. And if I can just find a meal to complement it-even something as small as a rabbit-it will complete her recovery. Not just physically. I’ve noticed her starting to lose hope these last few days-I can see it in her eyes-and I need her to stay strong. I refuse to sit back and watch her slip away, like Mom did.
A new gust of wind slaps me in the face, and this one is so long and vicious I need to lower my head and wait until it passes. The wind roars in my ears, and I would do anything for a real winter coat. I wear only a worn hoodie, one I found years ago by the side of the road. I think it was a boy’s, but that’s good, because the sleeves are long enough to cover my hands and almost double as gloves. At five six I’m not exactly short, so whoever owned this must have been tall. Sometimes I wonder if he’d care that I’m wearing his clothing. But then I realize he’s probably dead. Just like everybody else.
My pants aren’t much better: I still wear the same pair of jeans, I’m embarrassed to mote, that I’ve had on since we escaped the city all those years ago. If there’s one thing I regret, it’s leaving so hastily. I guess I’d assumed I’d find some clothes up here, that maybe a clothing store would still be open somewhere, or even a salvation army. That was stupid of me: of course, all the clothing stores had long ago been looted. It was as if, overnight, the world went from a place of plenty to a place of scarcity. I’d managed to find a few pieces of clothing scattered in drawers in my Dad’s house. These I gave to Bree. I was happy that at least some of his clothes, like his thermals and socks, could keep her warm.
The wind finally stops, and I raise my head and hurry straight up before it can pick up again, forcing myself up at double speed, until I reach the plateau.
I reach the top, breathing hard, my legs on fire, and slowly look around. The trees are more sparse up here and in the distance is a small mountain lake. It’s frozen, like all the others, and the sun glares off of it with enough intensity to make me squint.
I immediately look over at my fishing rod, the one I’d left the day before, wedged between two boulders. It sticks out over the lake, a long piece of string dangling from it into a small hole in the ice. If the rod is bent, it means Bree and I will have dinner tonight. If not, I’ll know it didn’t work-again. I hurry between a cluster of trees, through the snow, and get a good look.
It’s straight. Of course.
My heart sinks. I debate walking out onto the ice, using my small axe to chop a hole elsewhere. But I already know it won’t make a difference. The problem is not its position-the problem is this lake. The ground is too frozen for me to dig up worms, and I don’t even know where to look for them. I’m not a natural hunter, or trapper. If I knew I’d end up where I am now, I would have devoted my entire childhood to outward bound, to survival techniques. But now I find myself useless in most everything. I don’t know how to set traps, and my fishing lines have rarely caught a thing.