Dylan walks along the soil, the rubber soles of his shoes breaking twigs. Douglas fir trees rise high above his head. A gray squirrel runs up one of the firs. The air is crisp and cool, and he wears a sweater. It is considerably less than what he would have worn a month ago, when snow covered this very ground. Now, the snow has retreated to the highest peaks of the Cascade Mountains, before the summer heat finally melts it into water.
"Wait up," says Troy. Troy is a boy of about eleven years of age- the same age Dylan is. He stands at about five feet tall, just like Dylan. Troy wears a cap, a sweater, jeans, and hiking boots. Big Brother Barry and the others have often referred to them as the twins, for their seeming inseparableness.
The two boys are on scout duty, scouting this section of the Cascades. They had been living in the area for ten months now, becoming familiar with the landscape. Every tree, every boulder, every mountain peak is like a street sign.
"Footprints," says Troy. Dylan walks over to where Troy is kneeling down. The footprint is recently made, with a pattern indicating it came from a shoe or a boot, far different from animal tracks.
"Not one of ours," says Dylan. The two boys know what kind of footprints their boots leave.
"Maybe someone from Medford?" asks Troy. Medford, Oregon is about thirty miles away- less than a day's ride on a mountain bike. People from Medford have recently started cutting down trees in the Cascade foothills.
"I see someone."
The two boys look down towards a natural ditch. A girl lies at the bottom. She has ruddy brown skin; black hair tied in braids, and is dressed in a denim jacket, cotton blouse, and jeans. On her head is a headband with a single feather.
"Are you all right?" asks Troy.
"I think my leg's broken," says the girl.
"I'll go get Big Brother Barry to help," says Troy.
"I'll stay here," says Dylan, climbing down a few feet to the bottom of the ditch. He approaches the girl.
"I'm Dylan," he says. "What is your name?"
"Tania," says the girl. "I'm from the Klamath tribe east of here."
"Did you travel here alone?"
"I went with some others from the tribe. We were going to the Rogue Valley to trade. Bandits ambushed us. I think they killed the others. I managed to escape."
Dylan looks around. "I could make a splint for your broken leg." He grabs a tree branch lying a few yards away. "Do you have a knife or something?"
"Yeah," replies Tania.
"I'll need to cut a strip of cloth."
Tania nods, and Dylan proceeds to cut strips of cloth from her blouse. He then ties the tree branch onto Tania's right leg, which she straightened out.
"Are you from Medford?" she asks.
"No," replies Dylan. "We live in a nearby shelter. Big Brother Barry and Big Sister Jennie take care of us. They're fifteen now."
"I'm thirteen," says Tania.
"What's it like over where you live?"
"Cow country, mostly," she says. "Most of us live in tents. We also grow vegetables in a garden around the chief's house. We recently opened up relations with the farmers and ranchers in the Rogue Valley around Medford."
"What were you trading?"
"Leather and beef jerky. We were hoping to get some fruits and vegetables; we know that the Rogue Valley farmers grow a lot of fruits and vegetables. What about you?"
"Hunters. I once shot a bear with a bow. We made a rug out of his skin."
"You sure know how to survive."
"We had to teach ourselves out of this old handbook. Believe me, it was difficult the first few times."
Dylan looks up. At the top of the embankment stands a boy of about fifteen years of age, wearing a down jacket and an alpine cap. Standing next to him is a girl of a similar height, with long brown hair extending from under her cap.
"Big Brother Barry," he says. "This girl needs our help."
"We have a stretcher," says Barry. "We'll get you out of there."
Barry and a few boys walk down to the ditch, carrying an old stretcher that they had retrieved from a fire station. The boys pick Tania up and carefully lift her onto the stretcher.
She can see the partly cloudy sky above her as the stretcher is carefully lifted. Her right leg still throbs in pain. She is swayed as the boys carry her.
She feels herself being carried down. The view of the sky is replaced with a view of a ceiling. Several lights shine down upon her.
She had seen few operational electric lights for the past year, mostly the headlights of motor vehicles during special occasions. The interior is warm, like the chief's ranch house back at the Klamath tribe's headquarters.
She is carried out of the stretcher and is placed on the bed. She looks up to see the teenage girl's face.
"What is this place?" she asks.
"It was a bomb shelter built by some rich dude," says the girl. "Our electricity is generated by windmills outside. He built this in case the end of the world came."
Which it did, thinks Tania. She briefly remembers the events of the early summer of last year. She remembers hearing about the government closing ports, airports, and highways due to fears of a pandemic, seeing reports on television that millions of people all over the world were dropping dead of some unknown case. Millions dead became billions dead.
And those billions included my mom and dad and big brother.
And then the TV reports stopped coming.
Every survivor she knew was no older than fourteen, and she suspected it was the same case in almost every part of the world, except isolated areas like central Africa or Greenland. Whatever happened spared the kids.
It spared the kids for a life of hardship.
She had heard what happened in Portland, as survivors fled the city in search of food. Explorers had recently found Portland to be nearly deserted except for a few dozen scavengers, raiders, and cannibals. And she suspects things got much, much worse in larger cities.
"My name is Jennie," says the girl. "I'm the Big Sister. Barry is the Big Brother. He led us, kept us from starving to death over the winter."
"I'm Tania from the Klamath tribe. We live in the east near the lake. We were ambushed by bandits."
The door opens, and two boys enter.
"I'm Barry Matthew Jameson," says Barry, "the senior Big Brother here. This boy here is Big Brother Norman."
Tania looks at Norman; the boy looks to be about fourteen or fifteen, with curly red hair and freckles.
"Thank you for your hospitality," she says.
"You should thank Dylan and Troy," says Norman.
The two boys enter. Dylan has straight brown hair and still has some of the baby fat on his face; Troy is leaner, with tightly curled black hair and black skin that contrasts with Dylan's white skin.
"So you're an Indian," says Troy.
"Yes," replies Tania.
"We never met an Indian before," says Dylan.
"I never met your people before either, so we're even," says the girl. "What do you like to do?"
"We like to play," says Troy.
"Yeah," replies Dylan. "Like jacks and jump rope and board games. We play this speed version of Monopoly; one where you pay two hundred for passing Go. It makes the game go faster."
"What will you do later?" Like when you grow up."
"Grow up?" asks Troy.
"Yeah," says Tania.
"We're not gonna grow up," says Dylan.
"Yeah, Big Brother Barry said grown-ups destroyed the world," says Troy.
"The world would be better if people didn't grow up," says Dylan.
An argument forms in Tania's mind, but she stops it before it reaches the muscles of her throat and mouth. "Why would you say that?"
"Barry told us the grown-ups all left us alone here," says Troy.
"They were supposed to take care of us," says Dylan. "They also did a lot of bad stuff like start wars and steal and kill and even hurt little kids."
There is truth to that. And yet…For the past year, Tania had lived without any grown-ups. And she also knows that was the first time she can remember worrying if she will have enough to eat just to live.
"Maybe you can be another Big Sister," says Troy.
"Jennie's a great Big Sister, but she can use the help," adds Dylan.
"I'm a Big Sister among my people," says Tania.
"I know," says Troy. "Could you be a Big Sister to us, at least for the day until you can get back to your people."
"Why not?" asks Tania. She touches her right leg, now immobilized in a splint. "I can't walk or bike home now."
"We need to do something," says Barry.
He meets with Norman and Jennie inside the conference room. The room is small, with only a wooden table. It is lit with a small overhead lamp. He meets with them regularly to discuss business.
A door opens. A bespectacled boy of about ten enters the room.
"We'll need to cut off electricity soon," says the boy.
"Okay, Phil," replies Norman. He knows how scarce electricity is, how every kilowatt-hour must be conserved. Watching electricity use wasn't a priority for me when Mom and Dad paid the bills.
"Bandits attacked travelers going through our forest," says Barry. "We are protectors here; we must hunt them down and kill them before they get away."
Norman and Jennie nod. It does not need to be said that if bandits are attacking travelers on the highway, they might attack their settlement here. Most of the people living here are little kids; only a handful of people would be able to wield weapons in defense.
"It sucks that kids would copy the evil that grown-ups did," says Norman. "Must we make the world as bad as it was?"
"And we have to clean up the mess," says Jennie.
Jennie walks out the front door, standing at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the surface. She sees Tania standing next to her, using crutches as support.
"Troy and Dylan gave these to me," says Tania. "They're such sweet kids."
"Yeah, they're the twins," Jennie replies.
"How did you come to live here?"
"We all came here looking to survive. This place had a lot of stuff- food, water, clothes, batteries, medical supplies. We managed to survive winter. More importantly, we had books that told us how to survive in the woods."
"I was talking about you."
"Oh," says Jennie. "I used to live in Corvallis, in the Willamette Valley. My mom was a professor at OSU- that's Oregon State University. After she and everyone older than me died, I moved to a nearby farm. I was there for a few weeks, until this gang attacked us and stole the food and burned the place down. I escaped on a bike. I ended up here, and Barry found me and I became a Big Sister to these boys."
"That was too common. We Klamath folk had to fight off raiding gangs, sometimes using weapons we found at old army bases. A few of the tribesmen were killed repelling those raids. And just today we were attacked. I knew those boys."
"I'm sorry. Some of the friends I grew up with were killed during that farm raid. We'll get you home, Tania. And we'll get those fuckers who robbed you."