“I’m ready,” I informed Nine, leaning against the door frame. “I was practicing in the arena again today, with the targets. I’m definitely ready.”
“I disagree,” she replied without looking up from the laundry that she was folding.
“You haven’t even seen me!” I protested. “Ven agrees with me! He says that I’m ready for anything.”
Nine slammed a shirt down on top of the pile before looking up at me. “Ven would say anything just to be with you. You know that that man adores you.”
I shook my head. “I have no idea what you mean.”
She laughed, “Thirteen, he has a ridiculous crush on you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Think what you want. But we’re just friends.”
“Okay,” she nodded, obviously not meaning it. She sank back so that she was sitting next to the clothes instead of kneeling. “So, tell me about your target shooting today. Stationary?”
I shook my head. “No. Well, I mean, I did those too. But I can hit dead center in the middle of the moving targets. I could kill any animal. You just have to give me the chance to try. If I’m going to change things, if I’m going to go out and help and make things better, then I have to just do it. You have let me. There are no fairy tale godmothers in this world who are going to come and save us. We have to provide for ourselves.”
“You have a very mature outlook for someone your age.”
“You aren’t that much older than me,” I reminded her, as I did on a regular basis.
“Point taken,” she responded. “I could watch you,” she murmured. “I guess. See what you can do. Once I recommend you…” Her voice trailed off.
“Then I’d be a provider.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Can we go now?” I could barely stop myself from bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet like a little kid in the candy store.
“How about tomorrow morning instead? I’m really tired.”
“Come on,” I whined. “Please?”
With a smile she reached under the bed and dragged her shoes out. “I suppose,” she replied.
“Okay, lets go!” I exclaimed a bit to excitedly. I yanked Nine to her feet the instant that she had gotten her shoes on. Before she could change her mind, I hauled her out into the corridor and dragged her towards the arena.
When we arrived, I grabbed my chosen bow and arrows while she messed around with some of the targets. “There,” she pointed, indicating a stationary target about two hundred feet away. “Try that one first.”
“Easy,” I replied, loading the arrow and sending it flying without much thought. It landed a hair off center, but still extremely close. I had been a little too cocky.
“Not bad,” Nine acknowledged.
“I could do better,” I said, loading another arrow. I let this one fly, and it landed dead on in the center.
Nine nodded her approval. “Very nicely done. How about a moving target? A rabbit’s pace?”
I loaded another arrow, holding the bow at the ready. “There,” she pointed to a target out in the shooting field. “Remember to shoot where the animal will be, not where the animal is. Anticipate it’s movements. Sense it, and–“
“I know,” I interrupted. “I can do it.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful.”
I raised the bow, tracking the target back and forth and counting down in my head. I aimed for where I expected it to end up, let the arrow go….and missed.
Nine patted me gently on the back. “That’s okay,” she said. “Maybe next time. We can try again in a few months.”
“No!” I insisted, pushing her away. “I can do it.” I loaded yet another arrow and aimed again at the still moving target. This time when I fire, I hit it close to where the hindquarters would have been on a live animal.
“That’s not going to kill anything,” Nine said in an extremely non helpful manner. “That’s only going to wound it and make it more accessible for some other predator to eat. And waste an arrow. You aren’t ready.”
“You didn’t see me earlier,” I muttered, lowering the bow but still clutching it tightly in my hands. “I’m really good. I know I am.”
“Let’s just see, okay? Practice for a few months more and then maybe we can try again. How does that sound?”
“I hate you!” I screamed. “Why can’t you just believe in me?” I stormed out of the arena, the bow still wrapped up in my tightly wound fingers. I could do it. I would show her. I would show everyone. Flying down the corridor and around the corner, I clutched the bow tightly to my chest and slipped into a maintenance closet as Nine’s footsteps followed after me.
“Thirteen,” she called after me. “Wait! Let’s talk about this. Don’t run away!”
I held my breathe. Her footsteps paused for a second outside the door, but then she kept going. I waited a few minutes and then quietly pushed the door opened and tiptoed towards the main door. Ten steps. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
I pushed open the door, and I was outside. As it shut behind me, I became acutely aware of how quiet it was outside the walls. Quiet, and dark. I moved to the side, keeping one hand pressed lightly against the Enclave wall. But after a moment, as my eyes began to adjust to the lack of light, I realized that it wasn’t really quiet at all. The noise was just a different type than I was used to. And the darkness was a different type too. There was no sun, it was late at night. No candles, no gas lanterns. Only the moon and the stars. It was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen.
My eyes had adjusted enough that I was able to move forward, and I felt the leaves of the trees and brush sweeping against my face as the forest absorbed me into its clutches. Rushing water was ahead of me, alerting me to my location. The water came from the river we used to route water into the Enclave. If I stayed along it, I could find my way both in and out of the forest without getting lost. And if I stood in the water, I would be harder for the animals to smell. At least, I was fairly certain of that last point.
A squirrel darted across my path, and I jumped into the air and almost dropped the bow. Exasperated with myself, I rolled my eyes and shook it off. I was never going to catch anything if I was afraid of a tiny squirrel that was more terrified of me than I was of it. I was also never going to catch anything in the dark. I stumbled forward for a long time, until I could no longer feel my feet because they were so sore. I felt my way along through the trees until I found a large outcropping of rocks, and I slipped in between them and waited for the sunrise.
It seemed like I waited forever, but in reality, it couldn’t have really been too long. The sun gradually rose above the horizon, and beams of light crept through the trees and illuminated the carpet of the forest floor surrounding the rocks. I crept to the edge of the river and bent down to splash some water on my face before going back to pick up the bow. No one had come looking for me yet. Apart from Nine, no one had probably even noticed my absence. And that was fine with me. I would show them all when I came back with game to feed them for a week. Maybe even more.
I licked my finger to make it wet and then held it out, testing for the direction of the wind. I turned so that the wind wouldn’t carry my scent and started to walk forwardly stealthily. It didn’t take long before I saw a doe leaning forward to fetch a drink from the river. I stepped backward carefully until I was pressed up against a tree, and the doe remained unaware of my presence. Slowly, carefully, I drew an arrow from the satchel on my back and loaded it onto the bow. Quietly, so as not to frighten the doe, I drew back on the string and then let the arrow fly. It struck the doe right in the side of the neck, and from the amount of blood it seemed to have perfectly struck the artery.
I took a single step forward and watched as the deer fell to its knees, struggling to keep the grin off of my face. Coming out of the shadows, I watched as its eyes closed. I was overcome in a moment of sadness for the life that was lost, but only for a moment. It was a beautiful thing, the cycle that kept the entire world moving forward. It wasn’t a kill just to kill. It was a kill to save other lives. That made it okay.
I was faced with the conundrum of how to return my kill to the Enclave. She was quite large for a doe. I didn’t have any rope, just the bow and arrows. I grabbed her by the hooves and dragged away from the river bank, but I only made it so far as the outcropping of rocks before I had to stop moving. She was too heavy for me to take home alone, but if I went back to the Enclave and found Ven, I could get him to come back with me and tie the deer up properly so that we could return with it.
Pushing the deer back as closely to the rocks as I could manage on my own, hoping no other predators would get at her before I made it back, I made my way to the river’s edge and followed it back in the direction I had come. I smelled smoke in the distance, carried to me on the very wind that I had been trying to avoid. Someone had lit a fire. I couldn’t see the smoke from under the cover of the trees, but it had to be a pretty large fire if I could smell it all the way out in the forest. My pace quickened, my steps covering double the length they had previously.
When I came around the last bend in the river, the truth became blatantly apparent. The Enclave was on fire.