Ember has had to learn to survive Portland's post-apocalyptic streets since she was twelve—she's one of the lucky few, one of the last survivors in a world full of savage monsters. She should be happy she's alive, but lucky as she is, the memory of her dead family haunts her every day.
When she first meets Holden, a boy running from his own past, Ember has no idea of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Holden's friend.
She never expects to set out on a journey to seek answers to the questions that have plagued her, and what really prowls the streets of her ruined world.
The stupid pigeon is back. I don't know why he comes. It's not like I give him any food or a reason to keep coming—he just does. He's here every morning when I come to watch the sunrise and stays unless I force him to leave. Louie always watches him silently, ears perked and head tilted. I decide to let the pigeon stay this morning because he's actually good company. He doesn't coo or make any sound, just like the city below.
The sun is beginning its ascent above the horizon. Soon the pink and pale gold rays will slice through the fog that suffocates the streets and burn it away. Thick frost glitters on the surfaces not covered with snow and icicles in the sun's path glisten as they hang from gutters and roofs. It's so quiet. Not even the wind rustles the tree branches. I dread the silence, because silence means death and death means everyone is gone.
I can still hear the screams and cries for help. The memories echo through the streets that use to bustle with life five years ago. While the people are gone the destruction still remains. The whispering screams grow louder, frantic, and I have to cover my ears. The fact that it's all in my head makes it worse. I can't escape them.
I want to scream and cry, but I must stay silent. If I make too much noise then the monsters will find me.
"Go away," I whisper. I remove my hands and let them fall in my lap. They usually leave when I tell them too.
A small gust of wind forms goosebumps on my skin and stirs up a flurry of snowflakes. They swirl through the air in the shape of a cyclone, coming to a rest by my feet. I wrap my jacket tighter around my torso to keep the shivers at bay and lean back in my chair. Louie whines and shoves his head in my lap. We should get moving. The others are counting on us.
I prop my rifle on the building's edge and peer through the scope. My pigeon stays put despite the gun. My fingers and toes hurt from the cold and I let out a frustrated sigh. They'll only hurt more when I thaw them over the fire pit back at camp.
The fog is still thick and makes it difficult to see. It's hard to make out the rusted cars and overgrown weeds weighed down by the snow along the sides of streets. Somewhere close by the rest of my patrol group roams the streets in search of food for our camp. I opted for hunting alone because today is not one I wish to remember. The hunt is a welcome distraction, almost like a reprieve, distracting me from the thoughts I wish to ignore.
Sitting up here is useless until the fog clears away, but that won't be for a few more hours. I shoulder my gun and stretch, satisfied with the cracks and pops my back and knees produce. My pigeon flies away and disappears and even though he always comes back, I still wonder if I'll come here tomorrow and he'll be gone.
Inside the building is just as cold as outside and much darker. Broken class and trash clutter the hallways along with dirt and weeds that have found their way inside. The terra-cotta details are cracked and broken, some spots stained with grime and blood. The railing of the cast-iron stairway is cold beneath my touch and the steps squeak underneath my weight. The walls of the first floor use to be a beautiful brick masonry and granite, but are anything but now. The courtyard outside is covered with a blanket of snow. My footsteps are the only blemish in the otherwise pristine covering, An iron fence encloses the area and keeps out unwanted visitors.
Nobody has occupied the building in years. I adopted it as my safe spot, a place I could come and get away when I wish to be alone. It's not hard to call it my own. After all, there's nobody around to fight me for it.
The sun rises higher in the sky and cuts through the fog between the buildings as I make my way into the park across the street. Chunks of snow fall from weighted down tree branches and pile on the ground underneath. Plants have grown over the playground structures centered in the park. I've found animals who've made the dwelling their home in the past, but today it's empty. It usually is. I'm not sure why I bother to check anymore.
I'm debating about heading toward Glisan Street when Louie whines. He paws at the snow and huffs, his stumpy tail wagging. I crouch and rub his head, squinting my eyes to see what's got his attention. A smile tugs on the corner of my mouth when I make out the deer tracks imprinted in the snow. Louie suddenly jerks his attention to the South, his ears pricked and body taut. My hand drifts to the machete strapped to my belt as I lift my head.
At first I'm not sure what's got Louie's attention but then I see movement through the fog. I gaze through the scope of my gun, heart rate accelerating in my chest. Apprehension melts into relief as I spot the buck and doe in the clearing fog three blocks away. The deer weave around cars scattered across the streets, their noses trailing along the ground in search of food.
I watch them for a moment. They're a rare beauty to see. They possess an innocence I wish I still had but also dawn the marks of hardships they've had to endure, much like myself. They struggle to survive just like the rest of us.
Guilt builds inside of me but I push it away.
It has to be done, I tell myself.
The deer halt in the road near the end of the park. I lower my gun and shift my attention to Louie. He watches me with his brown eyes, his pupils growing larger in excitement. "Wait," I whisper to him, surveying the surrounding area. I want to get closer before I go in for the kill. There's abandoned cars on each side of the park with benches along the pathways and…there, the bronze elephant statue at the park's end.
I'm silent as I maneuver my way through weeds and overgrown grass peeking through the snow. Louie follows close behind, his quiet pants drifting through the air. A rabbit dashes out of its hiding spot but I let it go, the deer my only focus. I find a tall patch of grass and crouch to obscure myself from the deers' vision and begin forming my strategy.
The deer occupy the intersection of Burnside and 8th. Cars jam the road and create a sort of barrier that encloses the deer. I'l have to try trapping them.
They're facing my direction when I approach the elephant and lean against one of the statue's legs. The statue is smooth and the cold seeps through my clothes and enters my body unwelcome. I observe the deer as they pick through the snow, unaware of what fate has in store for them.
The buck is large and thin, the doe small, each of her ribs visible underneath her copper pelt. My mouth waters at the thought of eating decent meet again. It's something I haven't enjoyed in a long time.
I turn to Louie when the deer find their way into the park and halt fifteen feet from the statue.
"Psst." Louie trots up to me. I give him the signal to cross over to the clearing's other side as we've practiced before. Snow falls from atop the tall grass as he takes off, gone from view within seconds. I get down on my stomach and crawl underneath the elephant, ignoring how the snow soaks into my clothes.
There's an audible snap to my left. The deer lift their heads and scurry out of the park. I lose sight of them when they pass behind a suburban.
I crawl out from underneath the elephant and whistle for Louie. He comes bounding out of the grass a second later. The snow goes up to his stomach and dots the top of his black and white fur. He stays by my side as I stalk after the deer, cringing as the snow crunches beneath my feet.
The buck's antlers poke above the suburban's hood. There's nothing around to trap them with now and I debate on whether I should somehow try herding them back toward the park. It's too risky, though. I'd rather eat than try out a new hunting method.
The deer are still oblivious to my presence. I'm careful as I stand to full height, gun propped and finger hovering over the trigger. I'm reluctant to use my gun, but it's my best bet of bringing home both deer. The winter is harsh and the group needs all the food they can get. I can sacrifice a single shot, that's it. Too much noise will attract unwanted attention.
The buck raises his head. I take aim and inhale through my nose, taking the shot as I exhale half a breath through my mouth. The bullet pierces the buck. He collapses to the ground as the doe take off. Louie cuts off her escape and keeps her pinned against the suburban. He might not be able to outrun her but he's a damn good herding dog.
She makes an escape for an opening but slips in the snow. She crashes into a truck and gets entangled in the frame of the truck's broken window. Her right front legs gets stuck and she freezes, body taut like a coiled wire.
Louie pins his ears against his head and growls. I swing my gun around my back and unsheathe my machete. My lungs burn with each intake of breath, legs carrying me as fast as they can. I'm ten feet away when I stop.
Lying on the ground in front of me, perfectly hidden in the grass, is a spotted fawn. It looks at me with round, petrified eyes. Louie keeps what I assume is the mother trapped against the car. I whistle and he instantly redirects his attention toward me. The doe takes advantage of the distraction and works herself free, escaping down another street. Louie starts to give chase but I call him off. As much as we need food, I can't bring myself to kill this baby and its mother.
The buck stares at the sky with sightless eyes. His blood stains the snow as I examine the kill shot that penetrated his shoulder. I take a moment to search for fleshers. No doubt the commotion has drawn a few out of hiding. The very idea sets my nerves on end.
Louie sits beside me and buries his head in my arm. I scratch his head and tell him "Good boy." The thrill of the hunt has brought warmth into my chilled body, temporarily loosening my stiff muscles. I get to my feet and shrug off my back, digging around for the rope I packed.
There's a moan to my left and I freeze.
There's many ways one can die. It can come in the form of a blade, slicing the throats of those unfortunate enough to cross its path. It can come in the structure of a virus, wiping out most of the earth's population, just like it did five years ago. Or maybe death comes from the whistle of a bullet as it sails through the air, penetrating its target with accurate brutality.
A blade, a virus, a bullet, I use to find it terrifying that I may die in that fashion. But I don't anymore. Because the new form of death, the terror that plagues my dreams, comes from those who are already dead.
I watch with controlled breaths as a flesher stumbles out of a building and wanders across a sidewalk opposite me. It stops, eyes roaming over the area. My muscles lock as I wait, my hand gripping the handle of my machete. Maybe it's the dead deer or sheer luck, but the flesher moves on.
It drags a leg behind it, a trail of black left in the snow. Moans and growls leave its throat and its head falls forward and backward with each step. It rounds a corner and vanishes from sight. My posture slumps and I sigh, rubbing a hand through my long, wavy hair.
I start and spin around, watching as the rest of my patrol group pick their way through the snow and grass. They return my shaky wave and smile at the dead buck. Adam shows off a couple of measly rabbits he carries over his shoulder as they get closer. The blood stains on their fur match the color of his hair.
"Whoa, nice kill!" exclaims Daniel.
"You know how much I've missed the taste of venison?" Adam chips in, joining his brother.
Tessa appears beside me and gives the deer a once-over. "You know," she says in her matter-of-fact tone, "I use to deer hunt almost every summer with my father. You know, before the Turn."
I immediately know she's lying since the deer season in Oregon doesn't begin until late September, but instead I say, "That's nice." It's hard to ignore the irritated feeling I get whenever she's around. It's not that Tessa isn't a pleasant person; she's just the type who creates false stories to gain attention. I don't think she can help it, though. It's who she is.
"There was just one?" Daniel says, pushing himself up from his crouched position beside the buck.
"Well, there was a fawn but—"
"You can't kill Bambi!" says Adam, his eyes wide.
Daniel punches his twin in the shoulder and says, "No, you idiot! The mom dies. Haven't you seen the movie? Bambi was like…a prince or something." He turns to me. "Right?"
I shrug and say, "I haven't watched the movie since I was a kid." Watching old Disney films was always something I would do with my sister. She loved to sing along and always wished she was a princes. While Cinderella and Ariel were my favorites, hers were Snow White and Belle. Would she love them is she were still here? I'll never know.
Adam joins his brother, flicking him in the ear and says, "Eh, this buck is huge. Should be enough food for now, yeah?"
I nod as they pull rope out of their bags and begin bounding the buck's feet. Louie trots over and sits, shaking bits of snow from his fur.
"Oh hello, Louie!" Tess says. She bends down to pet him but draws her hand back when he growls at her. He's not much of a fan of her either. "Something's wrong with your dog." She swirls some of her dark blonde hair around her finger and walks away, not even bothering to help haul the buck back to camp.
I sigh and shift the gun on my shoulder. Adam and Daniel start dragging the deer behind them as we begin the trudge back to camp. I fall into stride next to them and say, "Did you guys spot any fleshers?"
"Nope," says Adam between breaths. "You?"
"Just one." The cold weather has always reduced their activity. The flesher I saw today was the first I've seen in over two weeks. I spare a glance over my shoulder as we make our way down Burnside. The doe tentatively walks back into view, her eyes trained on us as we walk away. A tiny head pokes out of the grass and meets noses with its mother. I turn back around, my lips turned up in a small smile.
Good luck, Bambi.
Chapter's Soundtrack: I Had To Do That by James Newton Howard