My back aching with the strain of the extra weight, I pulled the child along in the sled as we traversed the field. It had been days since we had seen any signs of human life and I was grateful that the child slept now.
She never really complained – I expected tears, screams of terror for what she must have been through, for what she must have seen – but all she did was stare at my eyes when I spoke to her. Approximately 7 or 8 years old, I knew she had to understand me and sometimes she would acknowledge what I had said or asked with a quick, singular nod or shake of her head, her filthy hair flying about her face, sending dirt and dead leaves falling to her tatted t-shirt.
Her stare haunted me, her silence scared me even more. It had been some considerable time since I had had any human companionship and when I had finally encountered another person, a person who understood where they were, that person was essentially mute. Just my luck.
As we approached an abandoned house along our path, I gently shook the sled as I walked, never taking my eyes off of the house. I felt the sled move slightly behind me and the child let go a small grunt to indicate that she was awake and saw the house. As we neared the house, she jumped from the sled while it was still moving and ran to scoot under one of the back windows, hidden, while I headed to the front door.
The house was empty, thankfully, and there were a few treats left in the cupboards as well as some not-long-expired sun screen that it certainly wouldn’t hurt to carry. It was a small mercy that what happened was so sudden that there wasn’t really a chance for society to melt-down, no riots, minimal looting… A small grace, really.
As I came back outside, I handed the girl a protein bar and she waited until we had repacked the sled with our new loot before hungrily peeling back the wrapping with dirty fingers.
Now that I knew the house was empty, I spoke to the child. “No water, I’m afraid. The people who lived there clearly hadn’t any time to prepare. I did get some boxed juice, though, and some more matches.”
I handed her the juice and she kept her eyes on me as she drank slowly, carefully, and handed me back the carton. I nodded as I placed the lid back on the carton and set it thoughtfully among the contents of the pack in the sled.
We had been travelling with each other since I had come across her in a similarly-abandoned house just three days before. I had tried everything I could think of to get her to communicate verbally with me but she simply wouldn’t. It was a little frustrating to not know her name but walking with someone for the first time in months was a sort of relief…. At least I wouldn’t be talking to just myself anymore.
Once the pack was settled and we had each availed ourselves of the outhouse on the property, we set off once more.
Along the way, as before, I quietly told the child stories about my life before we had met and what I had hoped to find when I finally made it home. I told her stories of my own childhood, things I remembered from when I was her age – it wasn’t difficult, it had only been five or six years but I felt I had grown so much in that time – I suppose I had.
We travelled this way for six more days – I told stories to a child who wouldn’t opine, a form of therapy, I suppose – and we found places of shelter, scarce foodstuffs, a couple of farmsteads that had pump wells from which we could fill our water bags. A few of the homes we were able to find shelter in for short times during the day but I was eager to get home and the places were unsecured from attack, so we moved on quite quickly. We never stayed the night in any of the homes, it was too risky.
And still we had not encountered any further human life.
By the time the seventh day with the girl came, I was desperate for her to talk. I had been asking questions all week in the hopes of drawing out a response but the child remained resolutely quiet. I was grateful, however, that she had at least deemed I posed no threat. That night we still slept as lightly as before, but we slept snuggled beside each other. The warmth between us was welcome and, I felt, added an extra measure of security as, when one of us stirred in the night, the other woke instantly ready for any danger.
We were about fifteen miles from home and I had been singing the girl a low, sweet song I remembered from when I was younger. I was startled when she grunted, just loudly enough that she grabbed my attention but not so loudly as to alert others. I looked to her, not slowing my stride, and turned to look where she was pointing.
We suddenly both stopped. Ahead, was a house, but that wasn’t what worried the girl. As soon as I saw exactly why she’d wanted my attention, we began moving silently, slightly sideways to the house, keeping it in sight but hiding ourselves from being seen.
Peering into the windows of the house was a human. As cautious as I had been when I first encountered the girl, we watched the human from a safe distance. I don’t know what the girl was thinking but I was hoping against hope. I’m not ashamed to say that I fought back tears when the human walked three times around the house, peering into the windows and sniffing the air before moving on. It didn’t try to enter the house. It didn’t remember how – it was no longer a part of this world.
That night I dreamt fitful dreams, several times waking to the sound of my own whimpering, the girl hovering over me, the look of concern and fear evident on her face. Each time, I apologised and tried to soothe her. Each time, I promised I’d be quieter. Each time, I woke with my heart pounding harder than the last.
For the remainder of the journey, I was too afraid to sing, too afraid to hope and too tired to try to keep up appearances for the girl. As we neared my home, my eyes weeping with relief, I turned back to look at the child who was suddenly no longer there.