Releasing a breath of air I leant comfortably back in my seat and turned my face towards Mal. His poise looked relaxed but his eyes were firmly fixated on the road.
'So,' I began, curling a loose strand of ginger hair behind my ear, 'what exactly happened back there?'
'I saw a searcher.'
'This early? But it's not even noon!'
'They aren't some sort of nocturnal animals, Kace,' Mal said sternly. 'They just find the nighttime more convenient but they work at any time of the day. We needed to hide before they found us. Did you find any food?'
Shaking my head I pointedly tapped my empty pockets and backpack. 'The place was bone dry.'
A loud sigh came from Mal and he breathed deeply through his nose. 'We only have enough for another day or so,' he said, giving the steering wheel a light hit with his palm. 'When we are in the next town, grab anything. Even if it's rotten. We need the food.'
'You aren't the only one with an empty stomach, Mal,' I sighed. Receiving no response I leant closer to the window, cupping my chin in my hand and gazing out.
We were driving past an almost empty piece of land. A handful of trees grew in the unkept grass which began seeping into the road too. There were no birds or animals and uneven patches of land held deep puddles of rainwater which was on the same level of cleanness as mud. A couple of insects skittered around but except for the steady hum of our wagon's engine, it was silent.
'Where to now?' I asked, not moving my gaze.
'I saw a farm on the way here. The door was smashed apart so the searchers had already went through it. At least for a single night it might be reasonably safe.'
'How far away is it?'
Mal gave a thoughtful sigh before answering. 'About half an hour,' he decided.
In reality we drove far longer than for half an hour and by the time we reached the cottage, the midday sun burned heavily on our wagon's roof. Driving around the back of the wooden house, Mal parked the car and we got out.
'Why is summer so long?' I whined as I shaded my eyes from the bright sunlight. 'Why can't it always be winter?'
'You're the one who complains snow gets into your boots all the time,' Mal replied as he threw his bag over his back. I saw him also slide his axe into an easier grabbing position and brushed my fingers over the two short knives strapped to each thigh.
'But we can dry ourselves in winter,' I continued as we began walking to a large window, its glass scattered all over the grass. 'In summer we just sweat and stink and never get showers and-'
'You just never stop complaining do you?' Mal said with a chuckle as he nimbly jumped over the windowsill. 'Even as a child you always showed your dissatisfaction to any of the food I brought you or clothes. Where do you get all this from?'
'Probably from the man who taught me how to read and write,' I said as I followed him into the house. We were in a living room from the looks of it. A large table with a dent in it stood in the middle with large leather sofas surrounding it. A couple of stained cushions lay rejected on the floor and two high cabinets stood with their doors half open. The room's wooden door was still upright by only a single hinge.
'Now what?' I asked as Mal began opening the tall cabinets. 'Want me to check the kitchen again?'
'Yes and remember, Kacey,' he turned his face my way, 'take anything, alright?'
Sending him a mock salute I gave him a wink before walking out of the room and into a wide but short corridor. Crimson wallpaper lay in ripped shreds across the wooden planked floor but was barely dirty. Examining the slashes on the wall, I could see that they were reasonably fresh, unlike the obviously ancient ones in the our previous building.
Gently pushing back a door to my left, I found myself in a kitchen. Like the rest of the house, its cabinets had been riffled through already but the room still looked in good condition, as if the searchers hurried and quickly left before rummaging through everything. There were no weeds yet growing inside the house and I happily found out that clean water was still running through the sink's pipes. I then focused my attention on the greasy but untouched looking fridge.
'Lets see what the last residents had, shall we?' I said eagerly as I pulled back the dirty door of the fridge and stuck my head inside. 'Hmm, I see...eggs, some ham, a slice of, urgh, green cheese, some mouldy bread, eggs, a stale bread bun and more eggs.'
Shaking my head I pulled away and closed the fridge after myself just as Mal walked into the room. He was holding some clothes and empty bottles in his hands, probably to use as a handcrafted Molotov bomb later.
'Why are there so many eggs here, Mal?' I groaned.
He raised a single eyebrow.
'We are on an egg farm,' he told me. 'What do you expect? Chocolate?'
'That wouldn't be too bad actually.'
Allowing a small smile to pass his lips, Mal rolled his eyes and placed the bottles and cloth on a sturdy table near me. Wiping his hands quickly on his shirt he pulled back the fridge door himself and peered in.
'Well,' he said rubbing his beard, 'we are at least having a good lunch tonight. Hope you enjoy scrambled eggs, Kace.'
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I felt real solid food between my teeth. Blissfully biting into the stale but still edible bread I shoved more and more pieces of fried egg into my mouth. A bit of warm oil trickled from the corner of my mouth but I just wiped it away with my sleeve and continued to indulge myself.
In front of me, Mal was no different. Neither of us cared for any table manners as we tried to devour as much food as we could so that we stayed full for longer. In our life, daily food was some dried fruits, muesli bars or some long lasting biscuits, each having the same tasteless flavour after eating them for years on end. Even clean water was practically a treat for us.
With a small burp I contently patted my stomach and leant back in my chair, placing my fork down over my empty plate. 'Well, that was very satisfying. Since when were you such a good cook, Mal?'
'Since before your time, Kace,' he replied, mirroring me and leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head. 'By the time I was your age I could cook practically anything. My family was never home so I had to learn by myself. I guess those skills still haven't left me.'
I sent him a wink. 'I never knew such a rough and tough scarred fighting machine could do housework.'
'I never knew such a lazy loud mouthed girl could eat so much,' he shot back.
Nonchalantly I shrugged, knowing that the man in front of me was just teasing. If Mal really wanted to offend me, I could already think of a dozen ways he could. He wasn't the sort to keep thoughts about others private.
In silence I bent over and picked up my backpack from the ground. Opening its clips, I riffled through its contents, muttering to myself as I heard Mal stand up and leave the room, plate now forgotten. I didn't worry over where he had left to, he was the adult here after all, and instead began checking off our supplies.
'Water bottle, water bottle,' I muttered under my breath, pushing my fingers deeper into the leather, 'knife, sharpening stone, muesli bars, another water bottle, bomb kit, even more muesli bars...'
I stopped when Mal re-entered the room and firmly pulled the bag from my grasp. Knocking my head to the side I knotted my eyebrows in confusion as I watched him sit in front of me once more. Pushing away the plate, Mal clasped both hands together on the wooden table and leant to me, blue eyes serious.
'What is it?' I asked uncertainly. I knew Mal wasn't the cheerful type yet seeing him this solemn was rare.
He sighed before beginning. 'Kace, haven't you noticed that all of this is pointless. Running from town to town is helping us survive, yes, but gives us nothing for the future. Where do you think either of us will be in ten years time?'
'Probably still on the run,' I admitted.
'Exactly. Look, Kacey, I've had a thought for almost a year now but I wasn't sure if it is the right one but now we have no choice. The searchers have all the equipment, transport and provisions that we lack. You and I are nothing against them.'
I nodded. 'What do you say we do, then?'
'Leave the country.'
For a second I stared blankly at him, wondering whether he was joking. When I saw he wasn't, I gave a snort. 'Sorry to burst your bubble,' I began, leaning on the table, 'but there is no way in hell we will be able to do that.'
'Why this lack of confidence?' Mal shot back, crossing his arms and frowning.
'Because searchers will kill us on sight if we do. You told me yourself, Mal. You told me that searchers outnumber survivors by a huge number. With their power, they by now would have control over all exits to the country. We have been in four states in the past two years and all four had searchers. The coast will probably be even more infested.'
A bird rested on the windowsill of the kitchen, throwing a shadow onto the opposite wall.
Mal gave a sigh and ran his fingers through his beard. 'It's either that or this-' he gave a disgusted flourish of his hands '-and right how I know which I prefer. Kacey, we have to try this. If we don't then we will just disintegrate until the searchers find and kill us too.'
With a chuckle I stood up and gave him a soft punch on the shoulder. 'Whatever you're planning to do, Mal,' I said with a wink, 'I'm up for it.'
Author's Note: Don't worry, next chapter is when the action will begin! I would really love some reviews on how you think the story is going and what I can do to make it better *puppy dog eyes* pwease?