By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

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Shelter in the woods

We find the stranger in our ark near East Fence. Me and Ada. Not a real ark, just some old rotted logs and pine branches for a roof. We set up inside after morning prayers. Pretend to off the infected. Patrol doesn’t come by in winter – too much mud – no one crazy enough to go over the mountains, not with all that snow and ice.

No one except the stranger.   

Ada’s snuffling behind me, got the ear of her rag bunny stuffed inside her mouth. Sucking. Always sucking. I jam my long braid down the back of my jacket and squat near the front of the ark to get a better look. I’ve got a pointy stick in one hand, grab a thick ceiling branch with the other. Water’s still dripping through, but the ground’s a little drier. Smells like Christmas – or at least what I remember Christmas smelling like.

The stranger’s asleep in the back corner, hard to see. Dressed like us, heavy boots for mud, pants all colorless from use, waterproof jacket that soaks in more rain than it keeps out. Got a pack, though, some kind of patchy green and brown like what Patrol wears. Using it like a pillow.

My heart’s flapping like a bird now. Sede always said I had more curiosity than sense. She’d be jawing about infection. Tell me to find Patrol, report the stranger. But Sede’s twelve now, gone to the Wives’ Quarters. Funny how loud her voice still sounds. Ada’s crowding at the back of my legs. I can feel the slobber from her rag bunny soaking into my pants. Eyes can see better now.

I poke the stranger with my stick.

The stranger groans and opens an eye, bright green in a red-chapped face. Ada whimpers, and I hear pine cones crunching as she runs out of the ark. My hand’s popped a sap bubble on the ceiling branch. Sweet smell covers fear. I hold my ground.  

“You infected?” I demand, hoping the stranger doesn’t hear the crack in my voice. No answer, so I poke again.

The stranger grunts. Opens the other eye. Pushes up into a sitting position. Green eyes

and dark red hair curling out from under her green stocking cap.  

My heart stops. Takes a long time to start again. Ada’s back, her wet sucking loud. Too scared to walk back to the kitchen alone. She’s next to me, then a little in front. I have to grab her and pull her back. We haven’t seen eyes or hair like that since we lost Mother. 

The woman looks at us. “Not infected,” she says. “Just got separated from my people in the mountains. Saw your fence and decided it was worth the risk. Nice fort you’ve built here.”

I narrow my eyes.

“I’m Maria,” she says and holds out a gloved hand. Puts it down when I don’t go forward to take it. The name sounds familiar, like the names some of us used to have. “What’s yours?”

The question surprises me, have to think for a moment. “Emzara,” I finally tell her. The name still feels strange even though I’ve had years to get used to it.  

“Interesting,” Maria says. She pushes away a layer of worm-wet pine needles and leaves until she finds the ground. “Here,” she tries to hand me a short stick, “write it for me.”

Now I do step back.

Maria cocks her head. “Like this.” She uses the stick to scratch lines into the dirt.


My heart stops again. Breathing too. I drop my pointy stick. Tumble to my knees and crawl forward into the ark. Forget that I’m supposed to be afraid. Forget that I should get Patrol. Trace the lines with my finger. Cold, wet dirt. Magical markings. Like the lines from Father Noah’s book. Like something from The Before, a snuggly bed and Mother’s voice as she shows me pictures. Not sure I’ve started breathing again.

“You don’t know how to read, do you?”

I jump at Maria’s question. Her voice like Mother’s. So warm. It opens a hole inside me, something beautiful, something terrible reaching out. I shove it back. Shake my head. Not sure what I feel. Maria’s eyes though, her hair, her voice. Ada feels it, too. She’s stopped sucking.

We make an agreement then. Me and the stranger. Maria will teach me to read if I bring her food and promise not to report her to Patrol. I can still hear Sede’s voice in my head. She’s yelling now. But I can’t report Maria. Not yet. Not when she knows how to make those magical markings. Not when she sounds like Mother.  

“Don’t worry about Ada,” I tell Maria. “She’s five, but she won’t give you away. Hasn’t spoken since Mother got infected.”

(continued on page 2)

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Stephanie A. Hunter currently teaches English at Skagit Valley College, which sits at the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not working or writing, she can be found traveling the world or taking her mother camping. This is her second published story. Her first, "Expecting" appeared in Eclectica Magazine.