Change

2

The snow sparkled brilliantly, like billions of miniature carefully polished diamonds, unblemished, perfect, save for three crimson drops staining its otherwise untouched beauty.

A soft wind blew, gently touching the sparkling snow, caressing over the three stains blemishing its pristine whiteness, and was gone, carrying its despicable news.

Downwind a dog sniffed the air, his nose twitching wetly at the faint aroma carried on the gentle wind.  He raised his muzzle and began to bay.  Soon the other dogs, bloodhounds, coonhounds, various hunting dogs, were all sniffing and baying to the sky above.

#

Two men tramped through the low brush, their pants legs drawn tight and tucked into the high tops of their boots to keep out the wood ticks.  They wore the typical hunter’s jackets and hats, old and worn, salvaged from a cottage, and carried rifles carefully rested in the crook of their arms.  They wouldn’t use the rifles unless it was an emergency, there were few shells to be found these days.

There wasn’t much to these woods, mostly young twig-like saplings, long grass that grew in after most of the trees were gone, and a great deal of low brush and poison ivy and poison oak.  Scattered fallen trees still lay about, rotting and moss covered, soft enough to sink a boot into, little havens for squirming insects.  A few trees still stood tall and proud, testaments to the forest that will take years to grow back, old charred scars still visible on many of these tough survivors.  Years of drought had brought the great fires, fires that raged through forest and grasslands, devouring the land with an unstoppable greed.

The first man, Joe, stopped in his tracks, holding up a cautionary hand.  Joe wasn’t really his name, but that’s what these people knew him as.  Who he really was would have to remain a well kept secret, at least for now.

The second man stopped, his head cocked and listening carefully.  He called himself Jacob.  Joe knew that wasn’t his real name either.  He didn’t know Jacob’s real name.  Nobody used real names these days.  It was best to keep one’s real identity and origin to oneself.  You never knew if the people you encountered would have some long standing grudge against your people.  And if things went sour, it kept your people and your family safe when killing you wasn’t revenge enough for what you yourself have done.

The only sound the two men could hear was the droning of insects.  Joe could swear he’d heard the telltale snap of a branch cracking beneath the foot of something, something silently following them, stalking them.  Something, or someone.

Without comment the men continued on, tracking through the new growth woods, spreading apart to cover more land.

“Over here,” Jacob called, beckoning to Joe with a waving hand.

Joe crashed noisily through the saplings, hurrying over; hopeful.

“What is it?” Joe asked before he arrived on the scene.

“Bear,” Jacob said, “grizzly or brown by the looks of it, and a big one too.”

Joe stopped beside Jacob, studying the remains carefully.

There wasn’t much left of the bear, a scattering of bones, part of a broken skull, dry and bleached by the sun, mostly chewed and cracked, the delicious marrow long ago sucked out of them.  This was an old skeleton, possibly from winter.

Jacob nudged the skull with his toe.  Little black beetles scurried from beneath it, disappearing into the tangled grass.

Joe nodded agreement before Jacob even spoke.

“Old kill,” Jacob said, “probably from over winter.  This must be what riled up the dogs.”

The dogs didn’t react to much these days.  They were getting on in years, and losing interest with the lack of much of anything to hunt.  They hadn’t had a successful breeding since the fires.  It didn’t seem like much of anything had been breeding since.  If the dogs howled, it was necessary to investigate, even if it took months to find evidence.

“Wonder what happened to it,” Jacob said, mostly to himself.

Joe shrugged.  It didn’t matter.

“There’s nothing here,” Joe said, “let’s get back.”

#

Joe and Jacob returned to camp to a flurry of activity.  Willien sat on the ground, arms wrapped about herself in desperation, rocking and wailing, oblivious to everything but her sorrow.  Women scurried about, packing essentials.  Men tore down shelters, careful not to damage the irreplaceable lengths of tree used to frame them.  The few children who had survived the fires stood around, staring mutely and afraid.

An older man approached the two men, meeting them as they entered the camp.

“Find anything?” he asked.  This was George, the leader of the group.

“Just old bear remains,” Jacob said, “probably what got the dogs riled a few months back.”

“Think she might have killed her child herself?” George asked.

Joe shrugged.  It didn’t really matter.

“Possibly,” Joe said.

It didn’t really matter.  The camp had to move regardless, just in case.

#

The camp was ready to move.  They all stood, carrying what they could, dragging what they could, and leaving behind what they couldn’t.  They all watched Willien, sitting on the ground, arms wrapped about herself in desperation, rocking and wailing, oblivious to everything but her sorrow.

“What should we do?” asked Jacob, watching Willien.

“Leave her,” Joe said with a shrug.  It didn’t really matter.

“Maybe we should,” George said.

Willien’s husband Warren stood there, angry.  He stepped forward quickly, his steps angry and purposeful, stopping to stare down at her, his nostrils flaring and breathing heavily with his anger.  Without warning he lashed out, slapping her across the face, hard.  Her head snapped around with the force of the blow, a red hand print staining her tear streaked face, blood oozing from her freshly split lip.  He grabbed her by the arm, dragging her roughly to her feet, holding her ear close to his mouth.

“Snap out of it woman, before they leave you behind,” he hissed at her through bared yellowed teeth.  He gave her a vicious shake and released her arm, watching her sink back to the ground, now blissfully silent.  He turned his back on her coldly, joining the group waiting to move out.

George shrugged, turned, and walked to his place in the lead.  He shouldered his pack and started to walk.  The group followed.  The dogs whimpered eagerly at the end of their ropes.

Jacob and Joe stared at the woman sitting motionlessly on the ground.

“Should we help her?” Jacob asked.

“No,” Joe said.  He shook his head.  It was too bad; she could have been pretty in another time, another world.

They turned and followed the group.

Warren, Willien’s husband, walked stone faced and angry, his teeth grinding quietly, not once glancing back.  Inside, unseen, his heart broke.  He couldn’t show these people weakness, he needed them.  ‘They’ needed them.

The group moved on, the sound of their movement growing dimmer with distance, slowly vanishing in the distance.

At last Willien staggered up to her feet, hollow eyes staring bruised and blindly.  With a whimper she stumbled forward, following the path of the now unseen group.

#

The three hunters returned to the makeshift camp looking distressed.  George, Joe, and Jacob moved to join them outside the camp where they could talk without being overheard.

“Find anything?” George asked the men.

They shook their heads, a little too long for simply coming back empty.

“What is it?” George asked.

“She followed us,” one of the hunters said.

“Where is she?” George asked, looking around as if expecting to see Willien suddenly appear.

“Wasn’t much left of her,” was all the man replied.

“No food?” George asked.

The man shook his head, ‘no’.

“Guess we’ll have to eat one of the dogs tonight,” George said.

“Yes,” Joe said.

“You know what this means,” Jacob said, knowing that everyone knew the answer and it needn’t be said.

“Yes.”

The group would continue moving, leaving them more vulnerable.  They didn’t feel safe enough yet to set up a permanent camp.

Joe and Jacob watched George approach the dogs where they eagerly greeted him with wagging tails.

#

Warren kept mostly to himself after that, going through the motions of living but not talking to anyone.  He had lost both his wife and child now, but did not dare visibly mourn them.  He had seen groups turn on a man for less weakness than that.  He needed these people.

#

“How long have we been together?” Joe asked Jacob as they sat at the low quietly crackling fire, each sucking marrow from a bone.

“Since that town in the valley,” Jacob answered noncommittally, pausing to think.  “Jains-something I think they called it.”  He didn’t look up, concentrating on sucking the marrow from his bone.

“It’s a ghost town now,” Joe said.

“I know.”

It didn’t matter.  They were all turning into ghost towns now, those that hadn’t burned in the fires.

#

“Let’s go,” George said, motioning to Joe and Jacob.

“What’s up?” Jacob asked.

“Another child disappeared,” George said.

“We’re going to run out,” Jacob said.  The children were the lifeblood of the group.  If they couldn’t breed when they came of age the group would be lost.  None of the adults have been able to reproduce since the fires.

“Yes,” Joe said.

Nobody thought the child could have simply wandered off.

#

The people huddled together, hiding, clinging desperately to their few remaining children as the raiders ransacked their camp.  There would be little of use left when the raiders left.  If they found the people they would probably kill everyone, everyone except the children.  Children were valuable; they were the lifeblood of their people.

There must be another camp nearby.  They would have to continue on.  Perhaps they could steal some children from the other camp before they did.

#

The people picked half-heartedly through the remains of their camp.  They left empty handed.  The children cried.

#

They slipped into the camp at dawn, shushing their stolen dogs.  Their dogs had dropped by one.  The raiders must have eaten it.

They moved quietly, searching the sleeping camp, taking back what they could.  It wasn’t much of a camp.  It turned out to be just the raiders they had seen and one woman and child.  They had to kill the woman to keep her quiet.  They stole the child.

“Wonder why they had no lookout,” George later said.

Joe shrugged.  It didn’t really matter.

#

The group moved on, exhausted, forever moving on.

“I saw a strange bug,” George said.

Joe nodded.

“Never seen anything like it,” George said, shaking his head.  “Don’t see much of the usual insects anymore.  Do you think it migrated in?”

“No,” Joe said.

They walked on.

“Plants‘r changing too,” George said.  “Have you noticed?”

“Yes,” Joe said.

A noise to the left brought the group to a halt.  They froze in their steps, looking about cautiously.  A Child whimpered fearfully.  The dogs whined eagerly.

George nodded at the three hunters with the dogs.  One of them slowly leaned in and loosed one dog from its leash.

Tail high, the dog snuffled about, scenting the air and ground.

Movement again.  A grizzled old buck, motionless as a statue, broke from his stance and bolted, flying in graceful leaps over rotting fallen trees.  The dog ran in pursuit, baying loudly.  The men released the rest of the dogs to follow, running in pursuit of the baying hounds.

“Looks pretty scrawny,” Jacob said of the buck bounding away in the distance.

“Yes,” Joe said.

“Think he’s starving?” Jacob asked.

“Can’t stomach the new trees,” Joe said.

“Leaves are tougher,” George said, “more acidic.”

“Yes,” Joe said.

#

The buck tired easily.  When the hunters caught up, the animal lay on the ground, its sides heaving as it gasped for air, mouth open, legs tucked under.  He looked pathetic.  Scrawny and worn, bones protruding in big knobby deformed looking lumps, the buck’s coat was dull and dry, bald patches showing through.  His antlers seemed brittle.  His red rimmed eyes had a dull and dry glazed look, as if he were already dead.  He mostly ignored the dogs as they harried at him, nipping his fleshless flanks.  The buck seemed almost grateful when they took his life.

“Not much meat,” said one of the hunters, looking at the animal that seemed to deflate before their very eyes as he exhaled his last breath with a big sigh.

“Nope,” said the second hunter, already butchering the animal before its life fully ebbed away.

“Hey, over here,” the third hunter called from some distance away.  The men looked up curiously.

One of the hounds had broken from the pack, apparently following another trail.  There, on her side on the ground, her sides heaving desperately, lay a doe even more emaciated than the buck.  She was little more than a skeleton wearing a loose fitting skin, eyes bulging grossly from the lack of flesh on her face.  She gasped, her eyes rolling in her head, staring at the dog and man as they stared at her in wonder.  The dog moved around, snuffling at the fresh gore wetting the ground.  A tiny fawn, still wet with the gore of birth, lay curled up and shivering in the gore of afterbirth.

Excited, he scooped up the fawn, holding it high for the other hunters to see.

“A baby!” he shouted, “a baby!  It’s alive!”

Amazed, the other two hunters sprinted over.

“Smaller than usual,” one hunter said, studying the newborn in awe.

“Don’t think the mom will live,” said another as he studied the doe gasping and panting on the ground as though she were the most valuable thing in the world.

“If she dies, so does the baby,” said the third hunter.

#

The hunting party tied up the dogs.  Two stayed behind, one butchering the buck, the other doe, who had breathed her last as they watched with baited breath.  The third jogged back to the group to give them the news.

#

They stood about, staring at the tiny fawn weakly trying to stand, stumbling to its mother being butchered on the ground, searching for its mother’s teat to suckle.

“Doesn’t look like any fawn I’ve ever seen,” George said.

“No,” Joe said.

“It won’t survive,” Jacob said.

“Should we eat it?” George asked.

“No,” Joe said.

Somehow, it felt like eating the infant would be committing some terrible crime.  It was the first baby born since the fires, at least as far as they knew.

#

A woman and child disappeared that night.  The woman was found, mutilated, almost nothing of her remaining.  The child was never found.  The group moved on, now laden down with the meager meat, hide, and bones of the two emaciated deer.  They brought the fawn with them, nursing it as best they could with anything edible they could find chewed and boiled into mush.  Surprisingly, it lasted a week before succumbing to its unsuitable diet.

#

The men looked down at the small dilapidated town in the valley at the bottom of the hill.  It looked abandoned.  That didn’t mean it was.

“Should we go?” Jacob asked.

“Maybe,” Joe said.

“They could be hiding,” George said.

“We should go,” Jacob said.

“Maybe,” Joe said.

“They might have children,” George said.  They had three children left, including the one they stole, two boys and a girl.  They needed more if their group were to survive, assuming the children could be bred.

Joe shrugged.  It really didn’t matter.

They waited for dusk before entering the town.  It was empty.

#

“Where were you?” George asked.

“Down there,” Joe said, nodding toward the ghost town below.

“Didn’t see you,” George said.

“I was there,” Joe replied.

“We lost a man today,” George said.

“Can’t find the body,” Jacob said.

Joe shrugged.

George turned and stared down at the empty town.

“It’s a ghost town,” George said.

“They all are,” Joe responded, “they just don’t always know it yet.”

“It would make a good camp,” Jacob said.

“No,” George said.

The group moved on.

#

The group didn’t talk much as they travelled.  They were visibly nervous.  Their numbers have noticeably dwindled since Joe and Jacob had joined them.

“George is getting suspicious,” Jacob said, walking alone with Joe.

“And so he should,” Joe replied, “I would be.”

“They only started losing people since we joined them,” Jacob said.

“Yes,” Joe agreed.

Jacob looked at him thoughtfully.

“Seems to happen to every group we’ve joined,” Jacob said.

“Coincidence,” Joe said, not turning to return Jacob’s gaze.

“I still haven’t figured how you decide which groups to join,” Jacob said.

“I just decide,” Joe said.

“Seems like you’re looking for something,” Jacob said.

“I am.”

#

“I saw a face today,” George said as they sat at the fire chewing on a piece of deer meat.

Joe nodded, chewing on his own chunk of meat.  Even charred on the fire he could still taste the off-flavored sweetness of the meat turning.  If they didn’t make camp long enough to properly smoke and dry it, the meat would soon be inedible.

“It was a woman,” George said.  “I think she is following us.”

“Possible,” Joe said.

“Probably hungry,” Jacob said.

“How does she know we won’t eat her,” one of the hunters said, chuckling at his own joke.

“She doesn’t,” Jacob said in all seriousness, glancing at Joe.

“We just might yet,” Joe said, gnawing on his rank venison.

“She looked very young,” George continued.

“Wonder if she could be a breeder,” Jacob said.

“Then we’ll eat her for sure,” Joe said.

George and the hunters laughed, Jacob and Joe did not.

#

“It has always been the way of the world,” George said as they trudged on for yet another day.

“Survival of the fittest,” Joe agreed.

“New species,” George went on, “they’ve adapted, and they’re always stronger.  They evolve, they move in, take over the territory, take over the food supply, maybe kill the old species off.  The old species have a way of becoming extinct.”

“Survival,” Jacob agreed.

Joe nodded.

“It’s happening to us, you know,” George said.

Jacob turned and looked at him, wondering what he knows.

“The deer,” George continued, “you saw them.  Mom is smaller, needs less feed, but was starved worse than the buck.  It was the baby that killed her, took all she had to grow that baby.  It didn’t look right either.  It was too small, colorings and markings were off, even the shape of its head was all wrong.”

“It sure did like the meat we fed it,” Jacob said.

“It was evolved,” George said.

“Baby didn’t kill her,” Jacob said, “starvation did.”

“Exactly,” George countered, “the plants are changing.  The deer can’t stomach them, they try to eat them but the plants make them sick, can’t get the nutrients from them.  They’re starving.  They have to adapt or become extinct.”

“Bugs and plants,” Jacob said thoughtfully, “that’s all that’s reproduced since the fires.  Rodents too.”

“And they’ve all changed,” George said.

#

A shout roused the makeshift camp from sleep.  The dogs barked and whined.  A woman screamed.  The men scrambled in the dark, looking for raiders.  Somebody was struggling.

Joe and Jacob ran up with torches lit to see a young woman struggling in the grip of one of the hunters.  A second hunter was tying her hands with strips of deer skin.  She looked dirty and scared and completely pissed off.

“What’s this,” George asked, arriving on the scene.

“A woman,” the hunter tying her hands said.

“Hold the torch to her,” George said, “let’s have a look at her.”

Joe approached, holding his torch inches from her face.  She glared at him, her eyes rolling like a wild and frightened animal.

“Young,” Jacob said.

“That’s the one,” George said, “the one I saw hiding.”

“Pretty,” the third hunter said, approaching her and reaching out to touch her tangled dirty hair.

“She’s mine,” the hunter holding her hissed through his teeth, pulling her away from the other hunter, “I caught her, she’s mine!”

Joe just stared back at the young woman.

Jacob looked at Joe, then at the woman, and back at Joe, wondering.

George looked at the woman, stepped forward and studied her carefully.

She spun towards him, teeth bared.  He stepped back calmly.

“You can’t have her,” George said.

The hunter holding her spun towards him, ready to fight for what he thought was his property.

“She’s mine,” he said again, angrily, “I caught her, she’s mine!”

“Yes, she is beautiful,” George agreed calmly.  “You can’t have her.”

The man looked ready to attack George.

“You want her don’t you,” he snapped, glaring at George.

“No,” Joe said.

The man turned to glare at him then back at his leader.

“Why,” the hunter demanded, almost an angry whine.

“She’s not right,” Jacob said, understanding dawning.

Most of the group gathered around looked at him in confusion.

“He’s right,” George said.  “We have to kill her.”

The hunter drew the young woman closer, protectively.  He wasn’t about to give her up.  Women were becoming scarce, young ones more so, pretty ones virtually nonexistent.  Even if she couldn’t breed, he wanted a wife.

She looked quickly up at the hunter holding her, fear in her eyes.  She understood their words.  She leaned into him, seeking his protection, a wordless promise.

The hunter glanced down at her quickly, noticing the change in her posture, becoming more determined to keep her.

“She’s mine,” the hunter said again, a warning.

“No,” George said.

“No,” Joe said.

The hunter took a step back, holding tightly to his prize.

George followed, looking into his eyes, trying to hold the man’s gaze with his own.

“You can’t keep her,” George said calmly.

Jacob took a step closer.

“She won’t stay,” George said soothingly, taking a step closer, “she’ll run away first chance.”

“No,” the hunter said, gripping the woman closer.

Joe took a step closer.

“She’s not one of us,” George said.

“That’s never mattered before,” the hunter growled.

Jacob took a step closer.

“It’s different this time,” George said, taking a step closer.

“No,” the hunter said, “not different.”

Joe took a step closer.

“She’s different,” George said calmly.

The three men pounced.  They wrestled with the hunter trying to hold on to his prize.  The hunter wrestled with the woman, struggling to escape.  The woman wrestled with the three men, struggling to pull her away from the hunter.

The hunter fought.  The three men fought.  The woman struggled and escaped, darting off into the scant cover of the new growth woods.  The other two hunters ran after her, capturing her and dragging the woman kicking and screaming back to their camp.

The hunter, defeated, stood glaring at them, breathing heavily.  Joe and Jacob picked up their dropped torches and approached the men holding the still struggling young woman.  They brought the torches close, studying her.

George walked up, stopping before her.

“See what I mean,” George said.

Jacob nodded.

“Like the deer,” Jacob said.

“Like the deer,” George agreed.  “Her color is just a little … off.  The shape of her face, something just isn’t quite … right.  Something you just can’t quite put your finger on.”

The hunter who first captured her now stared at her with a different expression, one of wonder.

“She’s not one of us, is she,” the hunter whispered.  “I mean, she is, but she isn’t, not really.”

“No,” George said, “she isn’t.”

“But she’s too old,” Jacob said.  “She’d have to be a toddler to be born after the fires.”

“Not too old,” George said.  “Things have been changing for years.  The plants, the bugs, weather and temperatures; they’ve been changing for decades.  Species began dying off, having to adapt or die, long before the drought brought the fires.

“She’s a new breed,” Jacob whispered, amazed, not believing it, and not wanting to believe it.

“Yes,” Joe said.

“She’s not that different,” the hunter said, still trying to claim his prize.

“Different enough,” George said.

“She’s not alone,” Jacob said, suddenly studying the darkness shrouding the surrounding brush.  “Is she?”

“I don’t think so,” George said.

“No,” Joe said.

“She wasn’t just following us to steal food was she,” Jacob said.

“No,” Joe said, meeting the young woman’s stare.

“She was hunting us,” George said simply.

“She’s mine,” the hunter tried half-heartedly; “I caught her.”

“No, she isn’t,” George said, bringing up a knife to kill the woman with.

The woman looked into his eyes, her eyes widening, she struggled, screeched, fighting for her life.

The hunter looked on, unsure, wanting to have her, wanting to possess her beauty, yet not wanting to so openly defy his leader, unsure about her.

George stopped, stepped back.

The woman stopped struggling.

They all stepped back except the two men holding her.  They relaxed their grips, turning to stare in awe at the young woman.

“She’s …” George gasped.

“A breeder,” Joe finished for him.  He shrugged.  It didn’t really matter, not to him.

They all stared in amazement, the rest of their group joining, reaching out to touch the young woman, eyes full of wonder and awe.  Their fingers gently brushed the small rounded swell of her stomach.

George lowered his knife.  She was not one of them.  She was dangerous, hunting his people, feeding off them.  She needed to be killed.  She was a breeder.  You didn’t kill a breeder, not when no species were reproducing anymore, none except the plants, insects, and rodents.

She stepped away, looked back at the people staring at her, turned, and jogged off into the darkness.

“You knew, didn’t you?” George asked.

“Yes,” Joe said.

“This is why you joined us,” George said, more a question than a statement.

“Yes,” Joe said.

“Are you one of us or one of them?”  Jacob asked.

“Both.”

“You’re a hunter,” George said.

“Yes.”

“Them or us?” George asked.

“Both,” Jacob said, staring at Joe, finally understanding completely.

George turned and stared at him, an unspoken question on his face.

“He hunts us because they hunt us,” Jacob said.

“You hunt us too,” George said, turning to Jacob.  “You are with him.  Are you one of him too?”

“I’m the same as you,” Jacob said.

“Why?”  George asked Jacob.

“Where we find you, we find them,” Jacob said.

“So, you’re really hunting them,” George said.

“Yes,” Joe said.

“Why?” George asked, “They’re your own kind, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Joe said, “And no.”

“They’re hunting us to extinction,” Jacob said.

“Survival of the fittest,” George said.

“Survival of the fittest,” Jacob agreed.

“You can’t stay with us,” George said.

“No,” Joe agreed.

#

Joe and Jacob watched George’s group move off into the darkness.  Shadows darted within the shadows, tagging along behind, silently stalking them.

#

“The world is changing,” Joe said.

“Yes,” Jacob replied, “they couldn’t stop the global warming.”

“They didn’t cause it you know.”

“Yes, but they were arrogant enough to think that only mankind could create something so powerful.”

“Vain.”

“Yes.”

“New species of everything are beginning to evolve.”

“Plants, animals, insects.  It was inevitable.”

“Inevitable.”

“The weather, seasons, environment … nothing is what it was.”

Joe shook his head.  The changes have changed more than could have been forecasted, causing droughts and floods where they never existed before.  Great earthquakes leveled cities and mountains alike, molten rock thrust new mountains reaching into the sky above.  It was a brave new world for those that adapted and survived.

“Only the new people will survive,” Jacob said.

“Yes,” Joe said.  He shrugged.  It really didn’t matter.

“Yes we will.”

2 Comments
  1. Jack Eason says

    “Joe knew that hasn’t his real name either”? Should be wasn’t there LV.

    A great post apocalypse tale by the way 🙂

    1. LV Gaudet says

      Thanks Jack!

      Between spellcheck and my eyes, I missed that typo. Thanks for pointing it out, and thanks for enjoying the story!

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