Ryan drives home from the grocery store in silence. They’d never managed to restore power, and after twenty minutes, he’d paid for what he could with the cash in his wallet, and left the non-essentials behind. When he reaches the house, he calls out to Meg and Cassie. The house is dark, silent.
He hears the sound of creaking floorboards upstairs, and Meg’s voice calls down to him: ‘Ryan, is that you?’
‘Yeah, it’s me, hon,’ he calls back.
Meg and Cassie come down the steps, holding candles. ‘Daddy!’ says Cassie. ‘We found some candles to light up while it’s dark in here. Mommy says we can build a pillow fort later.’
Ryan smiles. ‘Well, your mommy is the smartest person I know,’ he says. He glances at his wife, at the shadows on her face that can’t quite conceal the nervous look she gives him.
Something’s happened, he thinks to himself. But this will never change.
He woke cold, with Cassie in his arms. He’d never bothered to make a fire, and held her wrapped in his arms all night. He might have done the same, even if there had been a fire. The body lay close by, cold beyond warming. He looked at it and then looked at Cassie, stroking her hair, and waited for her to wake. The sun peeked above the treeline, offering little warmth. But at least it was brighter. At least there was light.
They walked slowly. Cassie set the pace, and alternated between standing close to Ryan and away from him. He kept his distance, letting her decide. He knew it would take time to process what she’d seen. He wished he could say he expected it to take long, but Cassie had learned to adjust to even the most appalling circumstances. He just needed to wait it out.
While they walked, he made a quick inventory of their supplies. Down to one bag technically meant down to one half of their food and supplies; the wolves had gotten that much from them, in the end. But this was Cassie’s bag, not his, and that meant it had always been lighter. The first priority was to find another town and resume the hunt, hoping to find a forgotten can of green beans or some overlooked box of crackers.
They’d had enough success in the past scrounging together meager meals. In the immediate aftermath, most people had fled their homes with only the bags on their backs, and not all of the survivors were as thorough in their ability to pillage. Many houses still had food. He just needed to find another town, one without any predators.
As they walked, a thought occurred to him and he paused and removed Cassie’s bag from his shoulders. He bent on his knees and unzipped the faded purple backpack, then thrust his hand inside and felt around the contents. When he found what he was looking for, he spared a quick glance to make sure it was real.
Somehow, small as it already was, it looked more forlorn clenched in his hand, as though his very desire to protect it somehow made it appear more sad and alone. It was a poor excuse for anything to be happy about, but looking down at one of the remaining Animal Crackers gave him a moment to be thankful for something other than the fact that they were still alive.
It would mean less to Cassie now than it had before; he had no delusions that the sight of a miniscule cracker and a birthday song would provide an uplifting elixir to the events of the night before, but it reminded him that the notion of happiness still somehow prevailed, even when survival had become the course of every single day.
He placed the cracker carefully back with the others, thankful that he’d moved them to Cassie’s bag after her last birthday. Then he threw the bag back over his shoulders and followed Cassie as she walked ahead of him towards a quickly fading splash of sun on the edge of the world.
That night, as their fire burned and Cassie slept, Ryan looked at the folded picture for what he knew would be the last time. He traced the contours of a woman with sunwashed hair whose smile would have marked her as Cassie’s twin if not for the lines around her eyes. He lifted the picture, brought the smile to his lips. “Meg, I swear,” he whispered.
Then he leaned forward and dropped the picture in the fire, watched it burn. He couldn’t afford to keep looking backwards.
Cassie woke before him, the first time he could recall that happening. She sat with her chin resting on her knees, watching the remains of the fire. “Good morning,” he said.
She glanced over at him and replied, “Good morning. What’s for breakfast?”
“Well,” said Ryan, scratching his head. “I have to check, I don’t really know what we have left to eat.”
“Because we don’t have anything left,” she said. No accusation, no guilt. Just a declaration of fact, stated by someone who was ten years older than the little girl in front of him.
“We’re running low,” he admitted. “They got my bag, and I had most of the heavy stuff.
You have a few things in your bag, but it won’t make much of a meal. We have to find another town today.”
“Is there anything in my bag?” she asked, turning to face him.
Ryan reached for the bag, unzipped it, rummaged through the contents. “Well,” he said, producing the small sleeve of Animal Crackers, “there are these.”
Cassie reached for them and started to empty the contents into her hand, one at a time.
She never protested the idea that these had once been reserved for special occasions. She just dumped the crackers into her hand and started to eat. After a moment she paused, looked at her father. “Do you want some of them?” she asked.
Ryan nodded and took one of them from her and they ate the rest of them in silence.
The sun was starting to set when they came to the outskirts of another small town. Ryan tried to gather rein over the emotions grappling to steer him - away from another dark place, or forward to shelter and possibly food. But Cassie was still leading this particular journey, and she had not stopped nor slowed as the town loomed closer.
As they entered the town, Ryan was struck not by the typical silence but by a sound in the distance that he couldn’t quite believe. He smelled the air, seeking confirmation. As they walked, the sound got closer, repeating every few seconds. He strained his ears for the accompanying sound of gulls, but finally settled for that softly insistent sound. Cassie kept walking, her pace quickening, registering the sound but not daring to meet her father’s eyes for affirmation.
It took them a few minutes of weaving through the empty town, following that noise, but eventually they found the beach. It was small as beaches went, circled on either end by impassable rocks, but it was empty and stretched as far as two people could ever want or need. Cassie looked at Ryan then, and smiled as she kicked the shoes off her feet. He watched her walk towards the water, knowing that the foot she’d stick into the current would retract instantly at the cold. He turned and noticed the building behind him, all glass windows facing the sea, with a bright green sign jutting out from the wood paneling that read, BEACHVIEW HOTEL.
He’d never heard of it before, but he liked the name. It wasn’t a city and it promised little in the way of any actual light, but could a hotel, once prepared to feed hundreds of people, still have enough in its picked-through stores to help them? He needed to check. He watched Cassie dance near the edge of the water, shrieking as her skin touched the ice-cold water. He walked up a pair of weather-beaten steps to the hotel’s entrance. The sun had finished sinking beyond the stretch of the water, and the moon took its place.
Cassie’s small shadow played on the beach, unchallenged. Ryan smiled as he watched her, and went inside to search for food.