“Man is the cruellest animal” - Nietzsche

I

Valerie heard screams. A girl. Probably a young one, maybe even younger than Valerie herself. The girl was coming towards Valerie, she could sense it from the changes in pitch and volume. The girl wasn’t the danger, but the danger would be there, following close behind.

Valerie ran across the road and into a nearby shop, her well-worn shoes kicking up a trail of dust and ash behind her. The particles lingered in the still air, painting a giant arrow pointing to the door that Valerie was now hiding behind. She hoped the danger wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t search her out. They would probably be too focused on the girl they were chasing. Valerie would probably be safe.

Valerie peeked through the window in the door to look outside. She knew she was increasing the likelihood she would be spotted, but she couldn’t help it; she had to look. She always had to look. She saw the girl run by, the danger close behind. There were three of them chasing, and the girl was even younger than Valerie had thought. Probably ten or eleven.

One of the men launched himself into the air, tackling the girl to the ground in an explosion of cloudy ash that momentarily obscured them both from view. Once the air had cleared a little, Valerie could see the man had the girl held down easily with one hand, and was extracting his knife from his belt with the other. Valerie knew what was coming next, and she wanted to turn away, but she didn’t. She always had to watch.

Valerie knew she couldn’t save the girl, but this was the one thing she could do. She could watch. She could affix some small significance to the girl’s death by bearing witness. She would mourn the girl, in a way, even if she never knew her. At least there would be someone who had seen her die, someone other than the danger.

Valerie watched the knife cut a jagged smile across the girl’s throat. She watched until the last drop of life had drained from the girl’s body. Watching her die was the least she could do, and, perhaps, the most.


II

Two of the men took up the girl’s arms and dragged her away, leaving a slick, bloody trail in their wake. The crimson painted a vibrant line in the colourless dirt and ash. The third man, the killer, followed behind, licking the blood from his knife. Valerie watched silently from behind the shop door. Her grumbling stomach betrayed the silence, but the danger was too far away to hear it.

Starving was a slow death. There were days when the tightening knots in Valerie’s stomach made her double over in pain, barely able to walk. Sometimes on those days, Valerie had dark thoughts about what it would be like to be the one the danger found. That would be a quick death, relatively painless. Like the girl. Less than a minute and she was liberated. Wouldn’t that be preferable to Valerie’s continued but tortured existence? Wouldn’t she eventually starve anyway, slowly and painfully? Why not let them have her?

Sometimes, on those dark days, she had another thought. She thought of setting herself free, emancipating herself from the suffering with the little red pocketknife she carried in the right back pocket of her faded jeans. She always pushed these thoughts out of her head with great swiftness, for she knew where such thoughts could lead. Valerie believed in her life, believed in the importance of her place on earth. She believed there was a reason she was alive. And so she was willing to fight to live, even if living was a crueller fate than death.

Other times, on only the very darkest of days, Valerie had a third thought, one she refused to fully acknowledge, even as it crept its way into her mind’s eye. A thought she could not admit, even to herself, that she was capable of having. On those days Valerie considered what it would be like to live a different kind of life. She considered how it might be to not be starving. She considered what it might be like to be the danger.

But that wasn’t life. That was something else, and Valerie wanted no part of it. And so she would continue to starve and continue to hide and continue to live.

The danger finally gone, Valerie crept from her hiding spot and stepped out into the street. She hadn’t taken more than a step before she detected movement down the road.


III

Out of the dust came a girl. At first, Valerie thought her mind was playing tricks on her. It looked like the same girl she had just seen murdered. The same face, the same blondish hair. The girl was coming from the same direction as the first girl had but, as she got closer to where Valerie was standing, Valerie could see that it wasn’t the same girl, though there was a strong resemblance. This new girl, who, upon closer examination, appeared to be a year or two younger than the first, must have been the other girl’s little sister.

The girl was moving at a brisk pace, but stopped as she reached the dark smear reddening the earth where her sister had bled out and died just minutes earlier. The girl put her hand to her mouth, but after a moment of shock and horror she determinedly started off again, following the bloody trail down the crumbling city street.

“Wait,” called Valerie, her voice hoarse and scratchy. It had been weeks since she had any call to speak to anyone. “Don’t go that way!”

The girl started at the sound of Valerie’s voice and came to a halt, but quickly determined her not to be a threat and started moving off again.

“I have to find my sister,” called the girl, louder than was probably safe. “They were chasing her!”

Valerie began running after the girl, quickly catching up to her. “No, you can’t go after her,” she grabbed the girl by the wrist to hold her still.

“No, I have to go. She led them away from me, but now they’re going to get her.”

Valerie pulled the girl to her, wrapping her arms around her tiny frame in an effort to both comfort her and keep her still.

“I’m sorry,” said Valerie. The girl was crying, struggling against her, but only half-heartedly. After a moment she stopped fighting and sank to the ground, pulling Valerie down with her, onto the ash-laden pavement. The girl began to bawl uncontrollably. Valerie didn’t know what to say, so she just held the girl tightly.

Minutes passed. Eventually the tears subsided and the young girl pulled herself together. She stood and brushed off her clothes as best she could. Valerie stood as well, the two of them staring down at the blood trail lying between them in the center of the road.

They stood in silence for a long while before the girl finally spoke. “I’m Alice,” she said.

“Hi Alice,” replied Valerie, offering what she could of a smile. “I’m Valerie.”

“My sister was named Anna,” added Alice, kicking some dirt and looking down at the ground.

“I’m sorry about your sister,” Valerie said, after a moment.

“The monsters got her, didn’t they?” asked Alice.

Valerie stuck her hands in her pockets. “Yeah,” she said. “The monsters got her.”


IV

Valerie and Alice sat around a small fire in a nearby deserted office building. The smoke funneled its way out through a hole in the ceiling. A fire, even a small one, was a risk, Valerie knew. The smoke could draw the danger, but caution wouldn’t do them any good if they ended up freezing to death in the night.

Alice stared despondently into the flames. She hadn’t said much all day. Valerie didn’t know how to comfort her. She thought back to when she had lost her father and knew that there were no words that could possibly alleviate the sweeping darkness that was gripping the young girl’s soul.

Alice was probably eight years old or so by Valerie’s approximation. She had definitely been the younger of the two sisters. Anna must have been taking care of her, or perhaps they were taking care of each other. The realization that you are completely alone was not easy to come to terms with, Valerie knew. It was a fact she sometimes still struggled to accept.

Valerie rummaged through her rucksack. There wasn’t much left. She had half a bottle of water and a single can of food. She had planned on waiting another day or two before eating the last of her food, but Alice looked like she hadn’t eaten in weeks.

Valerie wasn’t entirely certain why she was even helping the girl. She didn’t owe her anything, after all. No one owed anyone anything anymore. But she had watched Alice’s sister die and maybe Valerie regretted not being able to help. She had seen so many people taken by the danger, always while she scurried in the shadows, escaping notice. Maybe she owed something to all of the people who had died in her stead. Maybe she owed it to them to save one life.

Not that she was likely to be able to save Alice. Not with her half a bottle of water and one can of food.

Valerie peeled the metal back from the top of the metal can. It had a picture of a smiling dog on the front of it. She didn’t know if that meant it was food for a dog, or if it was the meat of a dog, but she was fine with either scenario. She’d seen dogs, here and there, but they always looked mangy and vicious, and she hadn’t wanted to try and catch one to eat. The dogs she had seen certainly bore no resemblance to the happy-looking animal staring back at her from the label on the can.

She slid the congealed mass out of the can an into her hand. She broke it into two pieces and gave the larger one to Alice. The girl’s eyes widened when she saw the food and she grabbed it eagerly as soon as Valerie offered it. Alice barely chewed as she shovelled the substance greedily into her mouth. Valerie thought the girl might make herself sick, but she seemed to be able to keep it down.

Valerie ate her portion more slowly, savouring every mouthful. She didn’t know when she would at again… if she would eat again.

A crash nearby jolted them both to maximum alertness. It might just have been some rubble shifting, or maybe one of those mangy dogs, but it also might have been the danger, following the smoke from the fire. She snuffed out the flames just to be safe. They two girls listened intently, but they didn’t hear anything else.

They huddled around the glowing embers to steal the last bit of warmth that they offered. When there was nothing left but cold, black ash, the girls moved in close together to try to stave off the cold. Eventually they fell asleep, lying in one another’s arms, without a word exchanged between them.

V

When she was very young, Valerie had seen a real mall, though she could not remember the experience. She imagined what it must have been like, all the shops selling their wares, shelves lined with goods, bright lights everywhere. There were even stairs, her father had once told her, that moved on their own. People must have been so lazy back then, she had thought, not wanting to climb their own stairs.

Valerie walked into the ruined building that had once been the Lake Sante Shopping Center with Alice following quietly behind her. Broken glass littered the floor and their shoes crunched the shards as they moved.

It had been three days since their last meagre meal. There had been solid rain, so they at least had water, but they needed to find food. The mall had probably been picked clean years ago, but Valerie was happy to get out of the rain for a while anyway.

Alice tugged at her hand and pointed to the large, dormant fountain in the center of the foyer. Inside, draped over the edge, were the remnants of a body. The meat had been cleaned off the arms and legs and the remainder had been cast aside. It was unusual for the danger to leave much more than scraps, but perhaps they’d had a bountiful feast at the time and didn’t need to bother with the less desirable parts.

Valerie took Alice by the hand and led her past the fountain and down a long hallway. They looked into the shops as they passed them. Most were sealed up with slatted metal gates, but a few of the gates had been pried open by looters in days of anarchy long past.

At the end of the hall, under a giant red sign that read “Percy’s,” they found what had once been a grocery store. Of course the shelves were empty, but maybe, just maybe, they could find something that had fallen through the cracks, something no one else had noticed.

The two girls split up, looking under furniture, between shelves, anywhere they might find an overlooked scrap of food. The store seemed vast and they scoured the area for hours, but came up with nothing. The closest thing to food that they found was a dead rat under an old, empty cash register. Valerie left it where was. Her father had taught her to stay away from dead rats, no matter how hungry she was.

As she made her way towards Alice to tell her it was time to move on, Valerie heard a metal rattling sound. She recognized it as the same sound the girls had made as they slipped under the opening in the gate to get into the store. Valerie spun, her eyes seeking what she already knew in her heart.

The danger had found them.

VI

Standing by the gate was a man. A young man, probably only a few years older than Valerie. But that was old enough.

Valerie grabbed Alice’s arm and ran. Alice briefly protested, but Valerie simply said “They’re here,” and the younger girl was silenced. The girls ran hand-in-hand through the aisles of the grocery store. They paused briefly when they reached the back wall and Valerie could immediately hear the thump-thump-thump of heavy footfalls on the linoleum floor.

“This way,” said Valerie as pulled Alice along behind her, dragging towards what she hoped was  a back exit. Unfortunately, in the rear corner of the store, where she had hoped to find some form of fire exit or emergency door, Valerie found only a steep metal staircase leading up.

Thump-thump-thump behind her. She ran up the stairs, careful not to let Alice fall behind.

At the top of the staircase was an entirely different world. There were desks, computers, cubicles… Valerie’s father had taught her what all these things were, though she had no memory of ever seeing them in practical use. While the bottom floor of the store was ransacked and utterly destroyed, the offices upstairs were pristine, almost untouched. There was a thick level of dust over everything, and spider webs clung stubbornly in the corners, weighed down by the dirt in the air, but otherwise everything looked as Valerie imagined it must have all those years ago. Before… well, just before.

Valerie heard the clang of heavy boots on the metal steps of the staircase and started running again. A red sign hanging in a nearby doorway read “Exit” and she turned towards it. Her father had taught her to read, even though there she always insisted there was no point to it. Nothing new was ever going to be printed, she had maintained, so why learn to read? But her father persisted. “There’s value in all the things that were written before,” he had told her. This had been true for her in many ways, Valerie had realized, in the years since his death.

The two girls barrelled through the door and out onto a fire escape. The metal rungs were rusted orange; they squealed and sagged under the weight of the two girls. There was a latch to release a ladder down to the ground and Valerie tried to unloosen it, but the rust had fused it onto a single jagged piece of pipe.

“We’re going to have to jump down,” said Valerie.

Alice’s eyes widened at the prospect, looking down at the ground from what seemed an impossible height.

“I can’t,” she whimpered.

“You have to,” replied Valerie. “I’m sorry, but you have to.”

“I CAN’T!”

Of course she couldn’t. She was a child. A scared child. To her the jump down must have seemed like suicide. Valerie realized she had two choices: she could throw Alice down to the ground, or they could take the ladder up onto the roof. The corroded metal continued to groan under their combined weight and she knew their time was limited.

“Up,” she said pushing Alice onto the ladder that spanned the short distance up to the roof. Alice complied, thankful she was no longer being asked to jump to what she believed was her certain death. As Alice clamoured to the roof, and Valerie grasped the closest rung, the fire escape gave one final, dissatisfied groan and completely collapsed in on itself.

VII

Valerie’s hands tightened around the rough metal of the ladder rung, still safely embedded in the side of the wall. Beneath her, however, her legs thrashed violently in the panic of suddenly being without foundation.

The pieces of the fire escape clattered into a pile of twisted metal on the ground below. A layer of ash rose up from the metal mound like a miniature mushroom cloud and everything seemed abnormally quiet after the exceptionally loud crash.

Valerie held tight to the rusted rung with both hands, but the tighter she held it, the more it bit painfully into her hands. Alice looked down over the side of the roof and immediately reached out a helping hand when she saw what had happened. but Valerie knew it was no use. Alice’s tiny frame couldn’t possibly pull her up, and even if she could, Valerie would have to let go of the rung in order to take Alice’s hand. A single hand wouldn’t be able to support her weight, even for a second.

The jagged edges of the metal cylinder began to cut her flesh, droplets of blood squeezing out under clenched fists, making the rung slick and even more difficult to grasp. Alice looked down pleadingly, but there was nothing Valerie could do. She didn’t want to leave Alice alone. She didn’t want to die.

All this time running, for what? All these years spent avoiding the danger, but what was the point? To fall to her death, impaled on the pieces of a broken fire escape below? She might survive the fall, but she’d almost certainly break something, which was tantamount to a death sentence, one way or another. With no medical help, a broken bone would probably kill her, and even if it didn’t, she’d be easy prey for the danger until it healed.

Her fingers uncurled, unable to hold on any longer, dropping her several feet before a hand reached out of the open door and grabbed her wrist. The weight of her dropping body wrenched her arm painfully, but the hand held fast. After a long second of confusion, Valerie realized she was no longer falling. She looked at her saviour and saw the man, or perhaps more accurately, the boy, that had been chasing them.

Valerie attacked, scratching at the boy with her free hand, painting him with bloody handprints, as he struggled to keep hold of her. Without even considering, he knew she would rather risk being impaled below than be saved by the danger. Whatever he would do to her would be much worse.

“Stop it,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you.” But Valerie refused to believe him. He was the enemy. He was the danger.

“Let me help you,” he continued to pull her up as best he could. Valerie thrashed with what little strength she had left, but ultimately found herself being pulled back into the building. The boy dragged her a few feet into the room and she heard the metal door clang shut behind her.

VIII

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

It was a lie. He was a man. He was the danger. He would kill her and mutilate her body and eat it, hopefully in that order. The danger didn’t care about anything but filling their stomachs. That was all that was left of them: a bunch of murderous stomachs to be filled.

“My name is Adam,” he said, holding his hands out in front of him in a gesture of submissiveness. “I just want to help.”

Valerie’s father had told her about the danger since she was old enough to listen. All men were the danger, he’d told her. Men were violent, cruel and dangerous. They were the enemy. This one said he didn’t want to hurt her, but it was a lie, a trick.

“Get away from me,” said Valerie, trying to stand herself up while pulling the small red pocketknife from her back pocket. Getting to her feet, she unfolded the knife and held it out in front of her. Adam, for his part, remained still, continuing to hold his hands out passively.

“Just stay away from us!” cried Valerie, remembering Alice, now stranded on top of the building. If Valerie were killed there would be no one to help Alice get down from the roof. She’d be stranded up there, though at least she would be relatively safe from the danger.

Adam very slowly slipped his rucksack off his back and slid it across the dusty floor towards Valerie. She jumped out of the way as though it might contain some sort of weapon or trap, but as the bag slid to a stop she saw through the opening at the top that it contained a number of small metal cylinders.

“I have food,” said Adam. “I can share it with you and your friend.”

Valerie’s resolve melted. The prospect of food, lots of food, was too much to resist. Even if it meant getting killed, it might be worth it to have one more good meal. As she looked sceptically at the bag, Valerie considered that if this boy had food, it was unlikely he would need to kill her. Her father had told her all men were the danger, but wasn’t he a man? Valerie had always tried not to think about this paradox, never being able to reconcile it in her mind. But if her father had been a good man, wasn’t it possible that this Adam was a good man too? Wasn’t it possible he didn’t want to hurt her? That he truly wanted to help?

“You can have that,” said Adam “All that. I’ve got lots more.”

All her life, Valerie had survived by not taking chances. She was careful, cautious. Always. And now she was considering trusting this boy, who might betray and kill her, and Alice too. But all the time she had spent living in perpetual fear, was that really living? Maybe trusting someone was worth the risk.

“All right,” said Valerie. “We need to help my friend get down from the roof.”

IX

Adam, Valerie and Alice sat on the floor. There was no fire, but the walls of the building protected them reasonably well from the cold. They were in an old gas station; Adam had found a working key to a security room, which made for a relatively safe place to seek shelter.

Adam hadn’t been lying about the food. Once they had gotten Alice down off the roof, he’d brought them to his secret home. On the wall were two long metal shelves sat, and they were both filled with cans of food. Enough to last weeks, maybe months.

Valerie still felt uncomfortable around Adam. She imagined if he was going to hurt them, he would have done it by now, having successfully lured them back to his lair and locked them in with him, but anything was possible with the danger. They were sometimes clever and sometimes random; all she could say about them for certain was that they should always be avoided if you wanted to stay breathing.

Alice slurped pears loudly from a can, the syrup dribbling down her face and onto her clothes. “Don’t eat so fast,” said Valerie. “You’ll make yourself sick.”

Alice nodded acknowledgment of the warning, and then proceeded to consume more of the canned fruit at no slower a pace. Valerie sipped tentatively at juice of her peaches, wanting to savour every bit of the taste she could. She often felt like the only taste she was capable of experiencing was ash, but the can of fruit was extricating that vile taste from her taste buds, dragging her back to the world before, where things had taste and people ate fruit.

“Aren’t you going to have anything?” she asked Adam. He shook his head.

“I ate earlier, before I went out to the mall,” he said. Valerie was instantly suspicious; perhaps there was something wrong with the food. But no, that would be impossible. The cans had been sealed shut, they’d had to use a can opener to get into them.

“Where did you get all this food?” asked Valerie.

“The group I was with… They had a lot.”

Valerie stared at him, waiting for more. They sat in silence for a while, but eventually Adam relented.

“A couple of years ago,” he continued, “we found some cargo containers near a shipyard. We figured they must have fallen off a ship or something, ‘cause they were just sitting there, washed up on the beach.”

“And they were full of food?” asked Alice.

Adam nodded. “Literally tons of it. We made a camp in the area and we’ve been living there ever since.”

“So why aren’t you with them now?” pursued Valerie.

“Can we go there?” interrupted Alice. “To your friends’ camp, where all the food is?”

“No,” replied Adam. “You can never go there. And I can never go back.”

X

Days passed peacefully in the metal office. They went out for a little while each day for fresh air. Adam had an old deck of cards and he taught Alice some games. Valerie read and re-read the same three books that she carried around in her backpack.

Adam never mentioned his former group and would not be persuaded by Valerie to elaborate on his story any further.

The days passed with a quiet, solitude. They spoke little to one another, even Alice. But there was a contentment in their new, mundane existence. It was as safe as any of them had ever felt, and that was enough to keep them going.

But the supply of cans on the wall dwindled. They all knew their sanctuary was only a temporary reprieve from the hardness and the cruelty outside. They ate sparingly, but they felt as though they dined like kings, especially Alice, who had literally been starving for almost her entire life.

They didn’t talk about their diminishing stores. Perhaps it was too painful to consider the fact that they would have to go back out on the road again, so they simply refused to let it occupy their thoughts. But when they reached their final three cans, the subject had to be broached.

“Why can’t we just go and get more from your friends?” begged Alice. “I don’t want to be hungry again.”

“They’ll kill me if they see me again,” said Adam. “They didn’t give me permission to leave, I just stole the food and ran because I couldn’t stand what  they were doing anymore.”

“What were they doing?” asked Valerie, happy that the time had finally come to get some answers.

“You know what they were doing. What everyone does.”

“Killing,” said Valerie. “And eating.”

“It was my uncle and two of his friends. They took me in after my parents were killed. My uncle took care of me, but he was a scary man. Ruthless and mean. One night, just before I met you two, they brought home a girl they’d killed. She was younger than Alice. I knew I couldn’t stay with them anymore, so I grabbed what I could and I ran.”

“I don’t understand,” said Alice. “If you had all that food, why would they kill and eat people?”

“Because they liked it.”

XI

“They liked killing people?” Valerie was confused. She had always seen the danger as monsters, murdering people for their own sake, just because they didn’t want to go hungry. But this took their monstrosity to a whole other level. How was something like this even possible?

Adam continued: “They like the killing. They like the taste of human meat. They’re animals and that’s why I had to run away from them.”

Valerie took that in for a moment.

“When you were with them…” she started.

“No!” cried Adam. “I only ate the canned food from the shipping containers. I refused to eat what they were eating. And I never helped them kill.”

“But you let it happen,” said Valerie. “You let them kill and you just stayed there and lived with them. Isn’t that just as bad?” She didn’t actually think it was, but she was still appalled by Adam’s apparent complacency.

Valerie had done the math, and she knew that in all likelihood the last girl they had killed, the one that finally drove Adam to run away from his uncle, had been Alice’s sister. She kept that fact to herself however, as she wasn’t sure how it would affect either Alice or Adam if they knew.

“I was afraid,” Adam tried to explain. “I was afraid of what they would do to me… and I was afraid of being alone.”

Valerie softened at that. After all, being left alone had always been her greatest fear when she was younger, and then it had been realized. Even after those few short weeks together with Alice and Adam, she couldn’t imagine going back to life on her own.

“Adam,” said Alice, very quietly. “When you were with those people… your uncle and the other men…”

“Yes?” Adam replied.

“Were you… I mean did you…” she paused, trying to form the words in her head. “Before you found the containers of food… did you do what they did… to survive?”

Adam’s silence was the only response they needed. He looked down and tears spilled out onto the dusty floor. He tried to say something, but it came out choked and garbled.

Valerie had been right: Adam had been the danger all along. But maybe he could still be trusted. Valerie decided she might be willing to forgive him for his past transgressions, as long as it meant she didn’t have to be alone again. They were stronger as a group, and she didn’t want to lose that strength. She didn’t want to be weak again. Suddenly it wasn’t so important that Adam was a man, that he was the danger. What mattered was that he was with them, on their side against the rest of the world.

“Well that was a long time ago,” said Alice, trying half-heartedly to smile. “What matters now is getting more food so we don’t starve. So why don’t we just take it from your uncle and the other bad men? If they have so much, we can just take what we need.”

“I wish we could,” Valerie scoffed. “We aren’t strong enough to take on three grown men.”

“Actually,” said Adam, sniffing and looking up from the floor, “We might be.”

“How?” asked Valerie.

Adam shuffled over to the pile of newspapers that served as his bed and grabbed his knapsack from the floor. He held it open to show both the girls what lay inside, tucked away in the bottom of the bag.

“When I ran away,” he explained, “the food wasn’t the only thing I took.”

XII

In the dark, Valerie, Adam and Alice approached the camp. The beach was quiet, lacking even the subtle sounds of the sea. The water sat completely still in the ocean; the waves no longer crashed against the shore. Valerie could almost remember when they still did, but the memory sat just out of reach in her mind.

They hadn’t wanted to bring Alice, but she had insisted, understandably reluctant to be left alone. Valerie had promised herself that if things went bad, then she would save one bullet for Alice. Valerie had enough of an idea of what might happen to her to know that a quick death would be a mercy for the young girl.

The gun that Adam had stolen from his uncle was somewhat familiar to Valerie. Her father had owned a gun, and had shown her the basics of how to use it. The danger had taken the gun when they took her father, though, so she’d never had an opportunity to actually use it. But Adam had no idea how it worked. His uncle had never wanted him to learn, though he never told Adam precisely why.

Adam knew where the three men slept. There were three of the large metal containers, but one was embedded deep in the sand, sticking out diagonally at an awkward angel. That one wasn’t used for sleeping. Adam’s uncle slept alone in one of the other two containers, and the other two man shared the third. Valerie had the gun, so she was to take the two men. Adam was tasked with killing his uncle.

The men had other guns. Adam’s uncle had a pistol and one of the other men always slept with a shotgun under his pillow. Adam had told Valerie which man had the shotgun, so she could go for him first. If she could get into the container without waking the men, she was reasonably certain she could kill them both before they even realized what was happening. She hadn’t thought much about the actual act of killing. She just knew it was something she had to do too survive. She hoped it came naturally to her.

  Adam and Valerie separated wordlessly, walking stealthily towards their intended targets, leaving Alice alone, standing at the shoreline. Adam reached his uncle’s container first. There was a large rocked jammed in the entryway to keep the door from closing completely. There was a space left open that was just wide enough for Adam to slip through. He was thankful he didn’t have to open the door open any further, as he knew the metal hinges creaked loudly.

Once inside, Adam could see almost nothing, but the sliver of light from outside just managed to illuminate the boots of a man lying on the floor of the container. Adam’s fingers wrapped tightly around the handle of the knife as he jabbed it once into the neck of his uncle. In and out, severing the ceratoid artery, just as the man himself had taught Adam, as soon as he’d been old enough to hold a knife. Adam felt a warm spray as the blood gushed from his uncle’s neck. It was so dark that he probably couldn’t see, but Adam hoped that somehow his uncle knew who it was that had ended his life. The older man flailed his arms mindlessly as the blood flowed from his body in time with the rapidly slowing beat of his heart.

The gushing had had almost stopped when Adam heard the gunshot.

XIII

The recoil was much stronger than Valerie had anticipated. The gun had nearly jumped out of her hands, but she’d managed to hold onto it. She’d expected a bigger mess. There wasn’t much light in the container, but from what she could see, there was hardly any blood at all.

The bullet had gone right where she had aimed, between the man’s yes. She’d been holding the gun about a foot away from him, so it would have been difficult to miss. Adam had told her that the one with the shotgun under his pillow had long blonde hair, and though she certainly couldn’t tell the colour in the dark, she believed she’d been able to make out which of the two men had longer hair. She hoped she had chosen correctly.

She spun in the dark to where she could make out the silhouette of a man rising from the floor. Her plan had been to shoot the second man immediately after the first, before he knew what was happening, but instead she froze there, the gun still trained on him.

The man put his hands in the air as he stood.

“Wait!” he cried. “Just wait…wait a minute.”

Though she hesitated to take action, in her mind Valerie was still convinced that the man had to die. “You’re a killer,” she said. “You’re the danger and you deserve to die.”

“Whatever you think about me,” the man said, inching towards where his comrade lay dead, “is wrong. I’m not a killer.”

“I’ve seen you,” said Valerie, even though in the dark she could not actually be certain this was the same man she’d seen before. “I watched you murder a little girl.”

“OK,” said the man, still inching sideways towards the pillow under which Valerie knew there lay a shotgun. “OK, I may have done some bad stuff,” he continued, “but we can work this out. I can give you food. I have lots of food.”

“I can kill you,” replied Valerie, “and take all of your food.”

“Yes,” said the man, “but if you kill me and take my food, doesn’t that make you the same as me?”

Valerie considered that. Maybe he was right. These men were evil, but wasn’t she doing what they did, in a way? Killing others to survive? Wasn’t that what the danger did? Momentarily lost in thought, Valerie let the gun lower slightly. That was all the invitation the man needed to lunge towards the shotgun. Valerie fired as soon as she realized the man was making a move, and she hit him before he made it anywhere near the shotgun. The bullet grazed his shoulder, then ricocheted off the walls a few times, disappearing deeper into the cargo container.

The man dropped to the ground, grabbing his shoulder in pain.

“All right,” he said, desperate. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry. Look, I’ll just go. You can have all the food. I’ll just disappear into the night and you’ll never see me ever again.”

“You didn’t show your victims any such mercy,” replied Valerie.

“I will,” he said. “From now on, I will. I’ll be a different person, just let me live.”

Valerie took a few steps forward, closing the distance between them to only a couple of feet. She held the gun up flush to his forehead.

“Please,” he begged. “You don’t have to be like us.”

“Don’t I?” she asked.


*


Valerie walked out of the container and into the moonlight. She could see Adam was safe and standing over by the shore with Alice. Valerie waved to them and motioned for them to come over.

“It’s OK” she said. “It’s safe now. The danger’s gone.”

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” - Nietzsche

What was left.
Travis West Writer