“How much longer do we need to walk?”
“Quiet! Do you want them to hear you?”
The two walked along a path that seemed never-ending, it snaked along the woods into the horizon. Warm sun peeked through rustling leaves, casting small pockets of warmth on the ground. The pleasant weather belied the miserable thoughts going through both of their heads: starvation, thirst, tired legs, weakened bodies, the constant threat of death, the ever-present smell of decay.
“It feels like we’ve been doing this forever,” the first, younger man continued his complaining.
“We’ve only been on this path for a day, boy. Once we get to the end we’ll be safe,” the second, older man continued his exasperation.
“And how do you know we’ll be safe, huh? Just a hunch? A bunch of old memories? I think you don’t have a clue!”
“I just know, alright? As I already said, now is not the time for argument. The beasts are out hunting in these woods, and your goddamn screeching voice will definitely draw them to us!”
“My voice is not screechy!” the younger man’s voice screeched.
The older man sighed. “Can’t believe I’m stuck with you.”
“You, stuck with me?! I feel like I’m stuck with you!”
The older man rubbed the hilt of his knife with the ball of his thumb as he eyed the nearby trees, ignoring the younger man. “There!” Up in the trees were some apples. “Dunno how long it’ll be until we get to the place, but until then we gotta eat. I’ll get us some apples. Wait here.” The younger man reluctantly did as he was told, as the older man hoisted himself up the tree with a grunt. The branches were sturdy enough to hold his weight, and the apples were relatively low to the ground. He couldn’t believe his luck.
“Do you think those are safe?” the younger man called as the older man cut a few apples off with his knife. “I mean, who eats random apples they find in the woods? Those aren’t people grown, I know that, and they probably taste terrible-“
The older man jumped down. “You want to be picky in a time like this? And for the last time, shut the hell up!” He bit into the apple. As expected, it tasted terrible. Still, it was food. To his relief, the younger man did shut up as he ate, though he made a show of cringing with every bite.
“I still think this is a bad idea.” He just couldn’t help himself.
“Ok.” The older man felt like he was at the end of his rope. “Why don’t you explain to me why this is a bad idea? And while you’re at it, think of a better one!”
“The place could be gone, for all we know. All we have to go on is your hopeless optimism and nostalgia. In my opinion, we should’ve looked for a government safe house.”
“Most of those are gone. Don’t you know anything, boy? This is all we have.”
“So, if I’m right and it’s gone, we should just let the beasts kill us?”
The older man shrugged. “Maybe.”
“I can’t believe this!” the younger man briskly walked away. The older man followed, dropping his apple core and fondling his knife.
Soon, it was dusk, and then night. They both leaned up against trees, trying to curl up into the shadows as much as possible. Maybe it would hide them from the beasts for a few seconds, they figured. It wasn’t long until the younger man spoke again.
“God, this never gets comfortable.”
The older man closed his eyes and tried his best to ignore the complaints.
“Do you hear me, old man? If I have to keep sleeping on trees then I’ll gladly kill myself with you.”
There was distant rustling in the brush.
The younger man gasped. “Is that-“ The older man shushed him, listening for more sounds. There was more rustling.
“It is,” the older man whispered.
The younger man looked genuinely concerned for once. “What are we going to do?!” The older man said nothing as the rustling became louder and louder, visibly pondering. Suddenly, he plunged his knife into the younger man’s throat. The younger man sputtered out blood as he locked eyes with the older man, a look that held no remorse, no emotion. Then he collapsed.
“That’s what I’m gonna do. Should distract them for a bit.” And with that, the older man ran off.
Soon enough, it was day once more. The older man panted, his lungs burning as he continued the path. Strangely enough, not a single beast followed him. Must’ve been a good meal for them. As he thought of what he did, it appeared in the distance. The old house, the one that he owned, as did his father before him, and his father’s father before that. Rarely used, but still standing, isolated from civilization. He thought the sight would fill him with nostalgic memories and a sense of safety, but instead he felt sick
He tried to think of his old memories of the place as he stumbled towards the door, feeling the wooden doorknob as it opened with a creak. There was a gasp.
“Daddy!” It was a little girl, no more 8 years old, rushing towards him. The sight should’ve filled him with surprise, with joy, with relief, with overwhelming emotion, but he felt nothing. Still, he did as a father should and picked her up, twirling her around as she giggled. “I knew you would come! Mommy said you wouldn’t, but I knew!”
“…Where is Mommy?”
“Rich!” There she was. “You’re alive, thank God!” She enveloped them both into a group hug, before Rich set his daughter on the ground.
“So, you had the same idea as me, eh?” His wife nodded so fast he thought her head would fall off, her countenance beaming.
“Yes! When our home in the city was destroyed, this was the first place I thought of. I remember all those stories you liked to tell.” She hugged him again. “It’s so good to see you again, honey.”
“You too,” he felt like he had to force the words out.
She broke the hug, face dropping as she desperately looked around. “Wait. Was our son with you? H-He’s with you, right?”
He put on fake tears. “He was. The beasts got him. Not far from here too.”
Hers were real. “O-Oh...” She hugged him again, bawling into his shoulder. He could hear his daughter beginning to wail out of his vision. “W-Why did it have to be this w-way…?”
Rich hugged her back. “Dunno. It’s a harsh world out there.”
It's a Harsh World Out There
“How much longer do we need to walk?”