Photo by Mitch Walker.
Looking out over the fields of ash and snow, it was hard to find any sense of hope in the life that people had learned to call home in the last thirty years.
She exhaled. Her breath clouded in front of her. Itâ€™s been nothing but freezing for as long as she could remember. A gust of wind struck her, blowing her still lingering breath away. The cold struck right down to her core. She double checked she had all of her gear on her, turning around to close the door to her shelter. The rest of her family was in there, her brother, her mother, and the two other families that lived with them. She pulled tight the straps of her respirator and put on her sunglasses. Even though it was cloudy, what little slipped through the clouds reflected off the shiny mix of snow and ash and was painful to look at.
Pulling her hunting jacketâ€™s collar as close to her skin as possible, she shivered. The thermometer on the post outside said it was -3 Fahrenheit. She rubbed her gloved hands together for any semblance of warmth that she could generate, then started to walk.
The field in front of her used to be part of what was known as a farm, her parents told her. She had never seen a farm, but supposedly they were filled with almost unending rows of food, but since the collapse, the soil has been next to unusable, yielding only small weeds and shrubs. Luckily, her family had been maintaining a small garden in their bunker, sustained with UV lamps and purified water from their well.
Today, it was her turn to go out to hunt. It was rare to find animals out anymore, even out in the countryside, and in the cities, you couldnâ€™t even find a mouse, but, today, however, she was feeling lucky. She had woken up in a good mood, and she knew she would find something today.
The northern lights shone overhead. Thatâ€™s what everyone called them, as a joke, but this was wholly inaccurate. In actuality, it was lingering radiation that had been all too present for as long as she could remember. Unique to her part of the country, it was caused by the massive bomb testing that had happened during the majority of the war, the radiation still potent enough to survive even 30 years later. It shone in the sky a deep red, shimmering orange and yellows. The soft crunch of her boots against the packed snow was juxtaposed with the relative ease she found herself moving that day.
Sure is pretty out today.
She reached the tree line at the edge of the field, about ten miles from where she had started, her bunker. Judging by the position of the sun, it had been about two hours. It was snowing now, but it wasnâ€™t snow.
It was ash.
Fuck, she thought, I donâ€™t have a proper helmet for this. The ashfall, which was fairly common, as ash from fields or nearby mountains would be swept up by harsh winds or by other means, would ruin her hat, homemade by her late grandmother.
It would also get in her long, blonde hair.
She walked further into the wooded area, the canopy providing minor protection from the ash. She stopped to take a look at her surroundings. Lost in her thoughts, she was unable to find any of the landmarks that she had memorized.
Where the hell am I?
She considered climbing a tree to get her bearings, but she couldnâ€™t leave her bag in the snow, and she wasnâ€™t strong enough to carry it up the tree with her. Her only option was to backtrack, following her footprints in the snow, which would set her much farther back than she would like to admit.
She stopped and pulled her bag around to her front, rummaging around for something to eat.
It wasnâ€™t a loud noise, but it was a noise nonetheless. She froze, slowly scanning her surroundings. She reached on the side of her bag and unstrapped her rifle, readying it. There wasnâ€™t an animal in sight, not even the stark white of a small rabbit.
A breath, and it wasnâ€™t hers.
Behind her, the man leveled his sights on the girl, just like he had countless people before him.
In the end, it was either him, or her, and he wasnâ€™t ready to take that chance. The time it took to talk to her gave her time to take him out. It just wasnâ€™t worth it to him.
A gunshot. Snapping as the girlâ€™s body smashed against multiple branches as she fell. The choking, gasping, that meant his shot wasnâ€™t exactly on target. As he walked up to her, the snow gradually turned darker and darker until there was no more snow, just a puddle and a body. This is what he liked the least, when he was off. It meant he would have to waste another bullet. It wasnâ€™t common, but it happened from time to time. He moved her head so that she was facing him with his boot.
Her eyes were dull, luckily. He neednâ€™t waste a second round, after all.
He reached into her bag, the bullet hadnâ€™t penetrated her and gone into the bag. Rations, some ammo, 5.56 (I could use this), and a key.
He stashed the rations and put the ammunition in his bag. He picked up the key and examined it. It was for some sort of house lock, probably, which meant more supplies.
He put it in his pocket and looked to see where her footprints came from. He could follow them back to her origin point. He wondered if there was anyone else where she came from. It didnâ€™t matter, it wouldnâ€™t be a problem to him. He removed the girlâ€™s hat and dusted it off, examining it. It was nice, handmade.
I think Iâ€™ll keep it, he thought, placing it on his head as he started to follow the footprints.