He hasn't seen us. But he knows he's being hunted. His eyes flicker from shadow to shadow, and even without looking through the scope I can see his breathing begin to quicken.
The window's closing.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Anna's gloved finger tighten on the trigger. She knows it too.
"Come on, Nana." I murmur. "Bring it home."
I ignore the laughs from the other team's bench as Anna steps up to the plate for the first time. It's the qualifying round for 2028 Little League, and we need a home run to stay in the game.
"Cute name for your girlfriend," I hear one them snigger. He gets hi-fived.
I feel my cheeks burning, but don't reply or look their way. It's not my fault that I can't get her name right. Anyway, Dad promised me that once I'm older, I'll be able to say it properly every time. And Dad always keeps his promises.
I look over at Anna again as the pitcher gets ready. Her knees are shaking. We're the two smallest players on the team, but we're only seven. We'll get bigger.
The pitcher throws the ball, and Anna squeals as it zooms past her.
The pitcher throws again, and I watch helplessly as Anna takes a half-hearted swing.
Anna looks back at me desperately. Her eyes are filling with tears. I feel my throat clench up.
"Come on, Nana!" I say again loudly for her to hear. "Bring it home!"
She stares at me for a second before turning back around. I don't see her face, but whatever she looks like makes the pitcher stop smirking.
Anna hits another three home runs that day.
A sharp crack echoes through the street, and through the swirling cloud of dust kicked up around the barrel, I see the buck collapse in the middle of the road. It's a clean kill.
We remain motionless as the dust settles around us. This far inside the city, any number of unfriendly ears could have heard the shot, and any eyes would instantly be trying to locate its source. The suppressor that Anna had found tucked inside a bandit's jacket a few months ago would have helped reduce our signature, but not by much. It's been too quiet around these parts recently.
I carefully scan the shattered windows of an office complex up to our right. It's the tallest building in the area, and offers a panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles. Sniper nests are beginning to make a reappearance again in city centres, and any bandits willing to brave the chilling winds would mostly likely set up camp there. Numbers in Wanderer groups have dropped even further as the sub-zero temperatures stretch into their third week, and now we're seen as easy pickings.
A sudden movement to my left catches my eye, and Anna instantly whips her rifle around to meet it. It takes me a split-second to recognise what it is, and I re-holster my handgun with relief.
The yellowed scrap of paper floats across the ledge that we're lying on, and Anna reaches out to catch it as it passes by.
I look at her with furrowed brows. There's a time and place to be curious, and this is neither of them.
"What are you doing? We're sitting ducks out here!"
She ignores me. "Look," she says softly, the tattered edges of the paper fluttering in the breeze as she holds it up to me. I take another glance around before whisking it from her hand. When she's like this, it's easier to just do what she wants.
"RUSSIA UNVEILS NEW NEUTRON TECHNOLOGY," the decaying headline blares. "PRESIDENT STEPANOV DISMISSES U.S. CLAIMS OF HOSTILITY." It's dated May 31st, 2032.
Dad sighs as he drops the newspaper onto the kitchen table. Uncle Miki leans forward in his chair.
"Not good?" His accent has become thick. Anna told me once that it means that he's sad.
"No." Dad runs a massive hand over his face. "Not good."
Anna and I look across at each other worriedly. Ever since Russia and the U.S. had joined forces to defeat North Korea in 2024, we thought that we had finally found peace.
Mikihail Petrova was one of the first Russian soldiers to take up America's offer to start a new life here. Having fought and lived together on the frontline for months, Dad had set about making the two guest rooms spotless the second he'd heard about his decision. Uncle Miki had talked about his three-year-old daughter so much during the war that there was no doubt in Dad's mind that she'd be coming too.
Anna turns and rests her hand on Dad's arm. "What's wrong, Uncle Damien?"
Dad tries to smile at her, but ends up patting her hand instead. "Nothing too major, sweetheart. The big guys at the top aren't seeing eye to eye right now, that's all."
"Yeah," I add brightly. I have no idea what Dad's talking about, but I hate to see Anna looking like this. "It'll all be over soon."
We regard the piece of newspaper silently, our night's dinner and the fear of being spotted being momentarily forgotten.
I find myself shivering in spite of the thick wool lining my jacket. "Come on, Anna. It's time to go."
Her voice is distant, and I twist around on my stomach to look at her. Anna is staring unseeingly at the faded words on the paper, and she doesn't notice when a lock of dirty blonde hair falls across her face.
She holds it up for me while I check for any other bruises. "You okay?"
Anna sniffles but nods her head. "I'm fine."
Holding the icepack against her cheek, I resist the urge to go back out into the cafeteria and shove the rest of their sneering faces into the soup pot—show them what a real pig is. Uncle Miki had said that it was going to get bad, but even he wouldn't have expected this. I mean, if you can't trust the school that your teenage daughter has been happily skipping off to for the past three years of her life, then where else can you turn to this godforsaken country you call home?
As I sit there and stew silently, a sudden warmth surrounds my free hand as Anna captures it between both of her own.
"Do you remember the day I hit my first home run?" Her voice is soft as she looks down at our clasped hands.
I narrow my eyes in confusion. "Yeah, 'course I do."
Anna looks up at me, and I find myself trapped in pools of brilliant sapphire. "Ever since then, this has been home for me. A place where I live and laugh with the three people I love more than they could ever know. And I won't let anything change that."
The raw emotion in her eyes forces me to look away. "But they shouldn't have said that." My voice cracks, and I swallow down the lump forming in my throat. "They shouldn't have hit you."
Anna squeezes my hand comfortingly. "You're right. But they're scared, just like we are. And no-one wants to live in fear."
She looks so small sitting there in my lap—so fragile. And yet she has the strength that none of us has.
I take the stray lock between my fingers and tuck it back behind her ear. "Ready?"
She blinks. "Yeah. Ready."
Anna slings the weathered rifle back onto her shoulder, and the paper continues its journey into the grey sky as I join her on the ground.
Navigating your way through metropolitan areas has never been an easy task, and I'm reminded of this fact yet again as we cautiously cross another intersection. Too many angles and not enough cover. But it's the price we have to pay for a decent meal, and the remaining can of corned beef in the bottom my rucksack is a testimony to our desperation. Over the years, most of the larger game has filtered into the hearts of cities, preferring the airier spaces of broken-in shopfronts and abandoned apartments to the dense forests looming outside.
We reach the fallen buck, and Anna melts into the shadow of a rusted bus to keep watch. Tugging off my gloves and ignoring the prickling as my hands are exposed to the elements, I unsheathe the knife strapped to my leg and set about the grisly task. The wet noises of flesh separating from bone are painfully loud, and my fingers are already becoming slow.
The smell of fresh blood soon fills my nostrils, and I do my best to work quickly. Blood attracts things worse than Raiders, and Anna can only do so much while she's down here with me. I find myself glancing repeatedly at the gaping maw of a subway entrance across the street, half-expecting the glint of wolves' eyes in the shadows.
But finally the job is done, and I wipe the blade clean on the buck's dappled coat. Enveloped in the numbing cold and the little saran wrap we have left, the meat will stay fresh long enough for our first proper meal in weeks.
Anna offers me a tired smile as I step back around the bus. She's looking forward to it as much as I am.