By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

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Shelter in the woods

The next day, I bring her food, but she’s gone. All she’s left is the book and pencil inside the plastic bag and one last letter scratched in the dirt by her bed.

Z is for zoo. I never knew if the cages protected us from the animals or the animals from us.

I don’t go back to Aunt Rake’el until I’ve written the whole sentence in the book and hid the bag under Maria’s bed.

I don’t know what it means.  


A night with no moon when I wake up cold and sweaty. It’s quiet, and my breathing’s loud compared to the other girls in the sleeping quarters. I don’t know why I’m awake. A week since Maria left, and life’s normal. One of the wives is pregnant. That’s always exciting. I tried to see Sede, but she can only leave the Wives’ Quarters to visit her husband. No girls allowed. Ada still won’t talk. Whenever I can, I go to the ark and practice my letters. I don’t know what I’ll do when the pages are full.

I roll over and try to go back to sleep, but then I hear it. Shouts. Strange vibrations outside. Like when Patrol shoots at infected outside the fence, but quieter. An Aunt screams from downstairs.

I’m out of the bed now. Running to the window while the other girls start to wake. Shadows below like scared chickens. Patrol, but only the half-dressed ones. Don’t know where the rest are. Bright green lights stab the dark – hurt my eyes. Wherever they go, a pop follows, like a gun but quieter, and another chicken-shadow drops to the ground.

Now Aunt Rake’el is in the room, shouting for us to get dressed. The infected are in the compound. We have to run.

I stub my toe going back to my bed. Yelp. Pull on my boots. The hole’s opening inside me. No time for clothes. Still in my heavy winter nightgown, I pick up Ada from the bed next to mine. She kicks and screams in the dark until she realizes it’s me. She’s heavy, but I don’t put her down. Aunt Rake’el’s still shouting. I ignore her, run past, down the stairs and out the back door.

Cold. Cold. Cold. The nightgown does nothing, and Ada’s screaming in my arms. I duck low and run for East Fence. If we can get to the ark, we’ll be safe. Something terrible’s in the air, like fire and pepper, makes me cry. Not as bad as the terrible inside me. Ada’s heavy, won’t stay still, but I hold tight, keep running. Wait for whatever that green light is, wait for the pop that will drop me.

The pop never comes. Instead, we reach East Fence just as another shadow does.

“Child, is that you?”

Air’s clearer here. I squint through my tears and see a long white beard. “Father Noah?” He’s panting and holding his arm. Dark liquid drips from his shoulder. Blood?

“Traitor,” he pants. He’s crying, too. Leans forward to grip my arm with his good hand, pulls me toward him. It hurts. Ada whimpers. She’s dropped her rag bunny somewhere.

I try to say something, try to deny it, but everything’s frozen in the cold air. The terrible squirms inside me just like Ada. She squirms out of my arms and falls into the mud screaming.

Something warm falls from Father Noah, drips down my chest and through my nightgown. “Only way past the mines.” He pants, keeps talking but not to me. He’s looking over my head. Looking at nothing. “Traitor. Infected. Must find. Root out evil.”

The terrible inside of me screams even though my mouth can’t. Ada’s running into the woods. I try to run after her, but Father Noah has me tight.

“Get down!” a voice yells from the darkness. “Step back from the girl!”

Father Noah pulls me to his chest, warm wet soaking into the back of my nightgown. Now I do scream.

Another green line.


Father Noah goes limp and falls away from me into the fence. The chain rattles down the line. I can’t see anything in the dark.

“Got him, ma’am!” The voice becomes a man dressed in black. He’s got a gun. Stands right in front of me. “Scene secure.” Then more men in black as a bright light floods the fence line.

I hold my hand up against the light and collapse onto the cold, wet ground. Smells like dirt, tastes like ashes. Father Noah’s eyes are still open. Staring at me. The hole inside me’s torn open. The terrible. I remember now.

The night Mother came for us. The night she told us to put on all our clothes and take the quilt. She gave Ada something to drink, something that made her sleep. Ada didn’t cry out. Couldn’t have.

I did.

I thought Mother was taking us away from home. Taking us away from kind Father Noah. So I cried. I made the dogs bark, made Patrol come.

I made Mother disappear.

The hole closes over me, presses me flat. I see Ada now. She’s running back to me, but a man in a dark jacket picks her up. I hold my arm out, can’t reach her. She’s kicking and screaming. Man’s stronger. Turns to take her away. I can read the letters on the back of his jacket now. Bright yellow.

ATF Agent

They mean nothing as the hole inside me becomes me.

A woman walks toward the hole that used to be me. She’s wearing the same jacket as the man, a hat on her head. “Baseball cap,” I whisper into the dirt that tastes like ashes. Words from The Before.

“Emzara,” the woman says as she squats next to me and holds out her hands. “I told you we’d see each other again. Are you hurt?”

Even with the bright light in my face, I can see her flashing green eyes and dark red hair. I look over at Father Noah’s body still not moving against the East Fence. Then I look back and see only Mother’s face.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper into the cold, dead earth.

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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.